Written By January 2013 : Page 34
Promises, Promises How JoHn KrasInsKI & Matt DaMon searcHeD for a new lanD. Written by aMy Dawes Portraits by Ilona lIeberMan I t is assumed by those who haven’t seen it to be a liberal soapbox against fracking, this new movie written by and starring John Krasinski and Matt Damon. The most sur-prising thing you discover in talking to them about Promised Land, then, is that for the longest time it wasn’t about frack-ing at all. “I wanted to write a movie about what’s happening in this country and what we have to gain and lose,” says Krasinski, the jug-eared, wide-eyed heir apparent to the Jimmy Stewart boy-next-door persona. Krasinski, the like-able prankster Jim on The Office, is a playwriting gradu-ate of Brown University and an engaged, politically active citizen. His father grew up in a steel-mill town in western Pennsylvania; although Krasinski never lived there, he vis-ited often, and the plight of its rural citizens captured his imagination. For guidance, he initially turned to no less a literary figure than Dave Eggers, the politically adventurous, prize-winning novelist. (Damon would come in later.) Eggers co-script-ed Away We Go, a movie Krasinski appeared in. Krasinski brought the idea to Eggers and asked, “‘Would you ever want to help me write this?’ We got together a bunch of times and hammered out characters and story.” Krasinski’s wife, the British-born actress Emily Blunt, was working in The Adjustment Bureau, opposite Matt Damon. Blunt mentioned her husband’s screenplay, and Damon took an interest. They formed a production plan: Damon would direct the movie, Krasinski would star. The two actors be-gan collaborating on the evolving script, based on the Eg-gers story. Damon admits the script was the first he had com-mitted himself to writing since Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Academy Award with Ben Af-fleck in 1998. (He also shared writing credit on Gus Van Sant’s Gerry in 2002 but says that movie was mostly improvised.) “It wasn’t until I sat down with John and did this 34 • WG A W Written By J an U ar y 20 13
How John Krasinski & Matt Damon searched for a new land.
It is assumed by those who haven’t seen it to be a liberal soapbox against fracking, this new movie written by and starring John Krasinski and Matt Damon. The most surprising thing you discover in talking to them about Promised Land, then, is that for the longest time it wasn’t about fracking at all.
“I wanted to write a movie about what’s happening in this country and what we have to gain and lose,” says Krasinski, the jug-eared, wide-eyed heir apparent to the Jimmy Stewart boy-next-door persona. Krasinski, the likeable prankster Jim on The Office, is a play writing graduate of Brown University and an engaged, politically active citizen. His father grew up in a steel-mill town in western Pennsylvania; although Krasinski never lived there, he visited often, and the plight of its rural citizens captured his imagination.
For guidance, he initially turned to no less a literary figure than Dave Eggers, the politically adventurous, prize-winning novelist. (Damon would come in later.) Eggers co-scripted Away We Go, a movie Krasinski appeared in. Krasinski brought the idea to Eggers and asked, “‘Would you ever want to help me write this?’ We got together a bunch of times and hammered out characters and story.”
Krasinski’s wife, the British-born actress Emily Blunt, was working in The Adjustment Bureau, opposite Matt Damon.Blunt mentioned her husband’s screenplay, and Damon took an interest. They formed a production plan: Damon would direct the movie, Krasinski would star. The two actors began collaborating on the evolving script, based on the Eggers story.
Damon admits the script was the first he had committed himself to writing since Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Academy Award with Ben Affleck in 1998. (He also shared writing credit on Gus Van Sant’s Gerry in 2002 but says that movie was mostly improvised.)
“It wasn’t until I sat down with John and did this that I realized how much I’ve missed it,” he says. “What I missed was the camaraderie. John and I laughed while we wrote this thing. It reminded me of how Ben and I laughed while we wrote Good Will Hunting. It’s a fun, electrifying process to start with an idea and build something together.” Damon says he can’t imagine writing alone. “The fun of it for me is bouncing ideas off somebody else.”
Their method involved immersing themselves on weekends.Damon has four children and tries to stay close to home when not away on a film set, so Krasinski, who’s tied up taping The Office during the week, commuted to Malibu.
“John was just tenacious,” remembers Damon. “He would drive all the way out to Malibu by 8 a.m. on Saturdays. We’d have breakfast and spend the weekend working.”
Krasinski agrees: “We worked almost bizarrely well together.We picked up very quickly on each other’s intentions and ideals. We have a very similar outlook on the world. At End of the day, it was honesty that we relied on. We were cutthroat about what we believed worked and what didn’t. We tried not to let ideas we weren’t sure about go down the road too long. The ones we were excited about, we’d track down until they didn’t work or until they worked perfectly.” Krasinski says he probably spent more time at the computer keyboard because of Damon’s shooting schedule. “As far as the ideas, the world, the characters and dialogue, it was totally a team effort. By the end, it felt like one voice.”
Gone with the wind Machine
If not fracking, what was the project about in the first draft? Wind energy. The spread of wind farms throughout the land.The working title? Windmills.
Their dark night of the soul descended once they realized that wind towers, and the alternative energy companies promoting them, did not set up a conflict compelling enough to power a dramatic feature film. “We had read about various abuses and how some people were erecting wind towers and not even plugging them in—just selling the energy credits to coal companies,” says Krasinski. “But it just wasn’t as dramatic as we needed it to be.”
After going so far as to scout locations, they arrived at the conclusion that there was not enough conflict. Damon remembers: “That was an unbelievably depressing night. We had built this house that we loved, and that we thought was beautiful, on a clay foundation. The characters were alive, but the backdrop wasn’t working. The stakes weren’t high enough.”
Enter a series of 2011 New York Times articles about the natural gas industry and its widespread practice of buying up drilling rights from struggling rural landowners.Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is then used to extract natural gas deposits trapped in shale by blasting water and chemicals into the underground rock. Proponents envision fracking as a vast, lucrative industry that could free America from dependence on foreign oil supplies. But as the wells have marched across states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, and California in recent years, serious environmental and health concerns have come to light.
Recession-battered residents who grasped at drilling rights payouts as an economic lifeline are now discovering that energy companies downplayed or hid risks like groundwater contamination, methane migration, and—of particular concern in California—increased seismic activity. To its opponents, fracking is an environmental disaster in the making. In the cross hairs of the debate are everyday people faced with an agonizing decision: grab the cash payouts that temporarily erase financial pressures or somehow commit to the tougher, longer-term role of being good stewards of a Land they love and want to pass on to their children.
The filmmakers had the set of conflicts they needed.
While Damon jetted off to shoot another movie, Krasinski set to work engineering the switch. “I ran the script through the mill with natural gas, and it started to work really well.”
All this backstory is not to suggest that the writers’ intentions were insincere or that fracking is any less urgent a concern than it appears to be in the movie. The lesson, rather, is that the theme, characters, and plot twists the writers had already created remained hardy enough to survive the transition and to resonate more powerfully in a significantly improved setting.
Their windmill script morphed into the tale of an ace salesman for a natural gas company, Steve Butler (Damon), who arrives in a hard-hit rural area with his field partner, Sue (Frances McDormand). Both expect the residents will fall into line like dominoes for their strategy: to buy low and implant their company’s wells throughout the region. But when they meet resistance from an influential schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) who incites the residents to put the issue to a vote, the job gets considerably more challenging. Soon after, they’re confronted by a strangely cocky and aggressive environmental activist, Dustin (Krasinski), who’s come to town to swing things in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, Butler becomes smitten with an elementary school teacher (Rosemarie De- Witt) with deep local roots who teaches her students, via a gardening project, “how to take care of something.”
The script goes along ably and engagingly enough until late in the third act, when a very significant twist ratchets everything up to a whole new level.
It’s tempting to think that this revelation, which involves the Dustin character, was invented late in the process, similar to the way M. Night Shyamalan transformed The Sixth Sense when, after many drafts, he hit upon a brilliant and fundamental twist.
But Krasinski says this essential reveal was part of the story from the outset. “It was one of the first things Dave (Eggers) and I came up with in beating out the story. We knew we would have these two very competitive characters, and one would dupe the other one in a way that, at the end of the movie, would transform the entire argument.”
Another strong craft element occurs much earlier in the script, when Butler faces a county supervisor, Richardson (Richard Guesman), for a classic escalating conflict scene.
In a town hall meeting, Butler wants the local politician to sell the fracking idea to the residents. Richardson surprises him by knowing much more about both the downside of fracking and the value of such support. Each man ups his game and plays hardball, with less than pleasant results.One function of the scene is that it reveals Butler’s willingness to get down and dirty and lowball the residents he claims he wants to help.
“It’s professional pride,” says Damon of the apparent contradiction in Butler’s tightfisted dealings. “He sees himself as a realist who’s helping them, but with limits.”
Throughout, the tricky business of holding audience sympathy for Butler was a concern. This led to the demise of an early scene that was arguably one of the script’s slyest and strongest examples of the screenwriter’s art. It’s a subtextheavy exchange that comes at the end of the job interview in a fancy restaurant that opens the movie, and it became known as the frog-dissection scene. One of Butler’s promotion- dangling bosses describes his 11-year-old daughter’s distress at being required to perform the grisly procedure of frog dissection in her science class. The men wonder aloud whether such a thing was necessary. And then the employer turns to Butler, waiting for an explanation. Maybe there’s a daughter with a frog, maybe not, but suddenly it’s an Employment test: pass, you get the promotion; fail…?
Realizing the stakes, Butler declares, in so many words, that the experiment must be valued as an experience if his daughter is ever to have the stomach to confront and triumph over the challenges of life and career. The executives are duly impressed. Butler gets his promotion.
The scene, which was shot and included in the assembly all the way up to the final cut, became the project’s single biggest point of contention.
“We wanted people to realize that our character had a strong backbone and a killer instinct but not that early in the movie,” says Krasinski, who advocated taking it out. “It might spoil people’s ability to go along with him and be on his side. We needed viewers to perceive him as not just some manipulative guy but as someone who actually felt a strong connection to these people.”
Damon disagreed. “I didn’t quite share those concerns,” he says. “I was the last guy fighting to keep it in.” Director Gus Van Sant and the writers put the question to an enviable array of consultants who included Steven Soderbergh, Cameron Crowe, Todd Haynes, Ben Affleck, and Brian Koppelman.“We literally took a poll, and it was divided,” says Damon, adding, “If we ever put out a Blu-Ray, I’m sure it will be on there.”
Craft aside, tackling any content that is perceived as political brings challenges of its own. Well ahead of its opening, the movie has been targeted by conservative bloggers. One blogger correctly pointed out in September that Promised Land was funded partly by Image Media Abu Dhabi. “Anti- Fracking Film Financed by Oil-Rich Arab Nation,” read the headline on a post by Lachlan Markay, writing on the Foundry blog of the Heritage Foundation.Isn’t this proof, he posited, that Promised Land is clever propaganda, funded by a foreign oil industry with a stake in suppressing America’s efforts to switch to natural gas?
Damon laughs a little at the question.“Image Media Abu Dhabi is in for 10 percent of the entire slate of movies funded by Participant, Jeff Skoll’s company,” he explains. “We didn’t even know they were on the movie until the first cut when I saw their logo.”
“The script was done before we went to anyone for financing,” says Krasinski. Conversely, as many writers can attest, political content of any kind often impedes a script’s progress in risk-averse Hollywood. He concedes that the duo’s star power and connections helped overcome that.“Focus Features came on board because of the package, which included Gus Van Sant directing [Damon had bowed out] and me, Matt, Frances, and Rosemarie in the movie. It was very clear what we were trying to do in the script, and you had to be okay with that to be in business with us.”
Clearly, the movie tackles a hotbutton issue that is very much before the public, but neither writer sees it as strongly partisan. “People who haven’t seen this movie will make a lot of assumptions, but I’m more interested in hearing what they say after they see it,” says Damon.
“The biggest compliment to Matt and me would be that it starts a discussion,” says Krasinski. “It doesn’t matter to us which side you fall on.We’re not trying to convert anybody— we’re just saying, ‘This would be a great time to get involved.’”
Even so, the movie’s strongest impact may lie in its illumination of how sophisticated and daunting the machinery that influences public policy has become. Isn’t it inevitable that Promised Land itself will be suspect?
“It’s easy to see conspiracies where there are none,” says Damon. “We’re telling this one story; it’s not part of a greater agenda. Ultimately, we see this as a pro-community message. We’re saying you have to get engaged with these decisions because they have a very real impact on your life. These decisions will be made for you if you don’t engage. But when you do engage, you are unbelievably powerful.Millions of little voices outweigh a few big ones.”
In the people-have-the-power atmosphere following the 2012 election results, that message might have unexpected resonance, but only if people come to see it. “I hope it reaches an audience,” Damon says, his voice a touch world-weary. “But I’m proud of it either way.”
Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking script of staggering sequence
It’s a dirty trick common to political campaigns, says novelist Dave Eggers. A guy puts loudspeakers on a van and drives through neighborhoods in the middle of the night, urging everyone to vote for, say, Paul smith. The residents are so annoyed at being awakened that they shift their support to Paul smith’s opponent. It’s a con: Paul smith’s opponent hired the guy in the first place.
“It happens all the time, and it surely happens when there’s a lot at stake,” explains Eggers, via phone from McSweeney’s, his bay area publishing concern.
His awareness of this practice informed the third-act twist that reframes the stakes in Promised Land [screenplay by John Krasinski & Matt Damon; story by Eggers].
“If a company had to win this town over, at all costs,” Eggers speculates, “what better way to do it than to preempt any legitimate opposition by presenting the opposition yourself?”
Eggers’ latest novel, A Hologram for the King, required extensive research into the decline of American manufacturing and its effect on the national psyche. So “it seemed like a great fit” when Krasinski proposed that they collaborate on the story that became Promised Land. At the time, it was “a germ of an idea about a town grappling with whether or not to exploit the resources beneath them.” initially, they framed the story in terms of wind energy, rather than fracking, but its core concerns were the same: How do people make these difficult choices, and how are they divided by them? “that resonated a lot with me, since i was taking notes for Hologram at the time,” says Eggers. That Krasinski was developing the project on his own, without studio involvement, made the project even more attractive.“This was a small, personal, and straightforward collaboration.I’m not as good when there are lots of meetings and a hundred people involved early on. I give John vast credit for getting this whole thing done. He was the engine behind it from the start and really acted like the producer.”
The two bonded when Krasinski starred in Away We Go (2009), from a screenplay Eggers penned with his wife, Vendela Vida. That movie echoed thematic concerns found in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genuis, Eggers’ breakout novel, a bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Eggers’ previous screenplay, Where the Wild Things Are, was a collaboration with director spike Jonze, but he still considers himself a novice in the medium. “I’ve been trying to train myself and study the form to get better, and i think i have gotten better.” His roots in journalism, which he studied before fate required him to leave school (both his parents died of cancer when he was 21, leaving him to raise his 8-yearold brother) inform his approach to any project.In this case, he engaged a former student to interview rural residents of upstate new york who were facing the conundrum described in the story.Her findings led to the series of scenes in the first act—one-on-one, kitchen-table sales pitches given by Steve butler (Damon) and his field partner (McDormand) to people in the fictional town of McKinley.
“It is a family-by-family, parcel-by-parcel process,” notes Eggers. “but then the decisions that are made [ultimately] affect everybody.”
From the start, his involvement with Promised Land was limited. “i told John going in that i probably couldn’t follow it for years. I write books first. That’s always got to be my priority.” after Damon came in, he relates, “i was able to become a consultant and cheerleader. And the changes Damon and Krasinski made to deal with fracking made more sense.And they were right.” —AD
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