When Gus Van Sant last directed a Matt Damon script, the tandem produced nine Academy Award nominations, two wins and the birth of two new stars.
If "Promised Land," their new collaboration, is unlikely to replicate the success of "Good Will Hunting," which turned little-known Damon and co-writer/co-star Ben Affleck into Oscar-winning A-listers, the movie stands out for other reasons.
The film, which Damon wrote with "The Office's" John Krasinski, is the first prominent narrative feature to delve into the contentious issue of fracking, the practice of extracting natural gas by fracturing rock formations that's been blamed for all sorts of health hazards.
Its story follows the debate that arises when natural gas salespeople (Damon and Frances McDormand) come to a small Pennsylvania town to sell its residents on permitting fracking on their properties, but it's hardly the judgmental agenda-driven flick one might expect.
amNewYork spoke with Damon about the movie, which opens on Dec. 28.
What inspired you to write this screenplay with John? [The story] had everything that I was looking for. It was the right size, because I'd always been told not to do something too big the first time out. It was really performance driven, or looked like it would be performance driven, and about something I was interested in.
Did you give any thought to the potential for controversy in dealing with a loaded subject like fracking? No, I didn't really think about that too much. The characters felt so real and so honest that I didn't worry about any of that stuff.
What were the keys to making your character sympathetic? It's a complex thing. He's just a guy who's a realist, who believes in industry, who saw his own town fall apart when the industry went away. I've seen towns like that. Standing in Decatur [Ill.] when I shot "The Informant," and the Firestone plant had left, they were still reeling from that. So he's not wrong to say, "Look, I'm giving them the only way they have to get back." ... So it's complex and I love characters like that.
In its snapshot of struggling small-town life, the film feels like a feature-length Bruce Springsteen song. Was he an influence during the writing process? What's really funny is we went and saw Springsteen before we shot and I went back after and saw him, and was like, "We're about to go make a movie that's basically the film version of 'Wrecking Ball' [Springsteen's newest album]." I listened to "Wrecking Ball" throughout the production.
You've come a long way since "Good Will Hunting." In what ways have you improved as an actor? I think you improve for a few reasons: one, if you're working with really good people, which I have been really luck to do. ... And then the other big part of it is, you've just lived more life - you have more experience. I'm 42 now, I've got kids. If somebody asks me to play sorrow, you don't have to look to find it because life has happened.