The night before he’d been at Cipriani to receive a tribute at the Gotham Independent Film Awards. “It was one of those career achievements that makes me feel like it’s over for me,” he said, not entirely seriously. John Krasinski, a star of NBC’s The Office, presented the award. Now he sat grinning in the next chair. The two men wore suspiciously similar sweaters.
“How did you like your time here, Matt?” Krasinski asked, affecting a stern tone.
“And shiv you,” Krasinski finished, with evident relish.
The banter was spontaneous, the rapport hard-earned. Damon, 42, and Krasinski, 33, are friends. They’re also now collaborators and co-stars in a new movie, Promised Land, opening Jan. 4. Their ease at improvising a scene is the result of practice. In addition to acting in Promised Land they wrote and produced the film, running lines and hammering out drafts in between day jobs, working weekends alongside Damon’s four rambunctious children in his Los Angeles home.
The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, concerns what happens when a natural gas company comes to a small town somewhere in the Marcellus Shale in the rural Northeast, intent on persuading the town’s working-class residents to allow the company to drill on their land. Damon plays Steve Butler, a blithely confident representative of the drilling company; Krasinski plays Dustin Noble, an earnest environmental activist with a nasty edge. At issue is the technique of fracking, the controversial method that the company in the film uses to extract gas, and the corrosive influence of the vast wealth that Damon’s character can promise and that Krasinski’s character is intent on resisting.
In an interview Van Sant described Promised Land as a “simple learning film,” an earnest, Capraesque meditation on the conflicting dictates of stewardship, hardship economics and fraying community values. By Damon’s standards, it’s a small movie, made for a modest budget of about $ 15 million. But it’s also a turning point — and something of a departure — for both Damon, who was scheduled to direct Promised Land before bowing out at the last moment, and Krasinski, whose show The Office is ending after an eight-year run.
For Damon the stakes are equally real, if more elusive. He does not exactly lack for work. Last year he starred in Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion and George Nolfi’s Adjustment Bureau, among other high-profile films, and next year he’ll be in Elysium, a science-fiction blockbuster from the director Neill Blomkamp. When shooting went long on that film, Damon was forced to give up the director’s chair on Promised Land for lack of time to prepare.
Uncharacteristically Promised Land will be the only film that Damon appears in this year.
His longtime friend Ben Affleck noted that it was neither easy nor politically simple for an actor of Damon’s stature to take a year off to work on his own project. “His career is full of the most extraordinary opportunities that an actor could ever dream of. So naturally the instinct isn’t to just turn away from that and say, ‘Let me sit at home staring at a blank page for six months.”’
On Promised Land Damon and Krasinski did everything from recruiting the cast, which also includes Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook and Frances McDormand, to scouting locations. That involvement provided “a much richer and deeper feeling of ownership,” Damon said.
And Van Sant and Damon have some history together. While Damon didn’t get a role in he auditioned for at the beginning of his career in Van Sant’s mordant comedy To Die For, he and Affleck eventually sold the film their screenplay for
Good Will Hunting to him. That led Damon and Affleck to an Oscar.
This month is the 15th anniversary of Good Will Hunting. Writing Promised Land, Damon said, “we’d basically just be in a room with a laptop open and kind of hashing out the scenes, pacing around the room. It’s really exactly the way Ben Affleck and I wrote Good Will Hunting.”
“And it’s true. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to start from scratch.”