Promised Land almost didn’t happen.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted a Film Independent special screening of Promised Land. Matt Damon recalled before a packed house that it was around this time last year that the film—which was set to be his directorial debut—was nearly derailed. He had decided that the extensive amount of time he was planning to set aside to go behind the camera would be better spent with his family. With the holidays approaching, he and cowriter John Krasinski didn’t think anyone would even return their call seeking a possible replacement director.
At that point, Damon decided to e-mail his Good Will Hunting director, Gus Van Sant, expecting to hear back when the Damon family returned from vacation in Florida.
“Right as they were telling us to turn our phone off, he wrote back, ‘I'd love to read it,’ and it was literally what they call now ‘the Alec Baldwin moment on airplanes,’ ” Damon said. “But I was looking at [the flight attendant] like, ‘This isn’t Words with Friends. This is serious. This is Gus Van Sant. I really have to forward a screenplay right now.’ By the time we landed in Florida, Gus had read it and there was an e-mail on my phone telling me he was going to be the director.”
“We believe in one another. We have faith in our community, and we have a belief that tomorrow’s going to be a better day.”
The helping hand from Van Sant was a sign of a community pulling together—not unlike the story that unfolds onscreen in Promised Land. Damon and Krasinski play rivals—a natural gas company pitchman and an environmental activist, respectively—who battle over the fate of a small farming town where a healthy payday is promised if the town decides the fate of future generations by allowing the gas company to drill there.
Krasinski, who was also at the L.A. County Museum of Art event, spoke of the film’s two-year development process. The story was born out of a desire to make a film that gave voice to those who were marginalized during a presidential cycle in which Krasinski felt, “We made a lot of noise about people being elected and sort of forgot about the people affected by all this stuff.”
“I wanted to make a movie about American identity,” said Krasinski. “My dad’s from a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh, and just like any industry town, it hit hard times. My grandfather worked multiple jobs, and they didn’t have a lot of money. I remember as a kid, saying, ‘So your childhood was awful?’ And he said, ‘No, it was actually pretty great. We believe in one another. We have faith in our community, and we have a belief that tomorrow’s going to be a better day.’ That pure ideal is something that stuck with me my whole life.”
Still, neither he nor Damon wanted to make any of the film’s characters idealistically pure, preferring to reflect a nation caught between a tough economy and changing values that will have to make increasingly hard choices about the future.
“The movie couldn’t judge anybody,” says Damon. “It’s too complicated. These issues are too complicated. Life is too complicated. We wanted all the characters to operate in areas of gray and to be believable. That was the most important thing. A movie like this can only work if all of the characters are searching for something and struggling for something, if you can identify with that.”
Sadly, identifying with difficult, complicated choices is a reality for far too many Americans. Ultimately, though, audiences can experience Promised Land both as a jumping off point to discuss the specific issues the film raises, and view the movie as a uniquely American fable with a light Capraesque touch that allows them to pause their troubles.
Damon enthused, “We’re really proud of it.”
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