OSCARS: An “Uphill Climb” For 'Promised Land'

Ari Karpel is an AwardsLine contributor.

Matt Damon and John Krasinski are well aware that Promised Land is facing what Damon deems “an uphill climb.” The film, about a community confronting the rock-and-hard-place decision of whether to frack or not to frack—that is, whether to allow a major corporation to come in and drill for natural gas in exchange for millions of dollars and, potentially, the townspeople’s physical health—faces a marketing challenge that teeters on the same fine line Damon and Krasinski walked while writing its screenplay.

“It’s a minefield,” says Damon, mindful of the taint that can adhere to a movie thought of as “an issue movie.” “You can’t get too heavy-handed, and it can’t feel like it’s some polemic.”

And yet that hardly compares to the ups and downs he and Krasinski faced in getting the movie off the ground.

It all started with Krasinski, who wanted to write a screenplay about “some sort of abuse of power in…the green energy movement.” The actor, best known as Jim Halpert on The Office, had previously written and directed 2009’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and starred in Away We Go, written by Dave Eggers, who also consulted on the film. “I brought it to Dave because these are issues close to his heart, too,” Krasinski says. They hashed out characters and a story, set against the backdrop of the wind-farming industry. (Eggers has a “story by” credit.)

Krasinski then took the idea to Damon, who had just finished working with Krasinski’s wife, Emily Blunt, on The Adjustment Bureau, and was looking for a movie that would be his directorial debut. They decided to write it together. Damon, who hadn’t written a script since he collaborated with Ben Affleck on Good Will Hunting (he is also credited with writing 2002’s Gerry, a movie Damon says is mostly improvised), says he can never find the time. “It takes a lot of time to write. I’m so busy, and I do need a partner to write,” Damon confesses.

Related: OSCARS: The Directors

They hired a news reporter to find a story they could fictionalize. The reporter produced “mountains of research,” says Damon, which they used as the basis for the script. When they were done writing, he and Krasinski traveled to upstate New York to scout locations. There they met people who thoroughly debunked the narrative. “It was one of those situations where the reporter came back with the story we wanted to hear,” says Damon, who thought they had reached an impasse. “But after a few horrible days, I read it again, and I called John and said, ‘I love these characters!’ ”

So the co-writers transplanted the characters to a mountain in Alaska, and they set their story amidst salmon fisheries being poisoned by run-off from nearby copper mines.

But that just didn’t work. “To John’s credit, he wouldn’t give up,” says Damon. “I was thinking, ‘This is dead, he just doesn’t know it.’ ”

Krasinski saw a 60 Minutes segment called “The Shaleionaires” and was inspired to do a pass of the script on his own, this time about a community dealing with fracking. He brought the draft to Damon in Vancouver, where the actor was shooting Elysium, a visual-effects-heavy movie set to come out next summer. “I realized we had something much better than wind farming,” says Damon. “Because the stakes are so high. It’s not really a choice—between losing your family farm or not.”

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping The Screenwriters

When Damon and his family moved to Malibu to shoot We’ve Got A Zoo, Krasinski went to their house every weekend where they would hammer away at the script, empowered by their new subject matter.

At the end of 2011, Damon was doing press for Zoo and planning to direct Promised Land in the new year—until he had a change of heart. “I was done with all my work for the year and I looked at the reality: I just could not do it,” says Damon, who couldn’t imagine spending so much time away from his family again, this time to direct, which would mean longer hours and weeks in prep and post.

“It was like someone telling you Christmas is not happening this year,” recalls Krasinski.

And then a Christmas miracle occurred. Damon was heading to Florida for a much-needed vacation with his family. “It was that moment on the plane when they’ve told you to turn off your phone, and you’re surreptitiously sending emails,” says Damon, who got one out, with the script attached, to Gus Van Sant, who had directed Damon’s first script, Good Will Hunting.

Related: OSCARS: Handicapping Lead Actor Race

By the time Damon landed, Van Sant had agreed to direct the film. “I like to joke that as a producer I clearly know what I’m doing: I fired myself and replaced myself with Gus,” Damon says.

The movie went ahead, but not without some measure of caution. In speaking about Promised Land, everyone involved had long stuck to talking points that portrayed the movie as being about a community that comes together in a crisis. “Once it came out that it was anti-fracking,” Krasinski says, “it’s hard to shake that until people see it.”

  1. I’d love to vote for these movies! I’m an Academy Member: I’ve already been given two voter numbers and two passwords, twenty minutes on the phone to the “voting hotline” and STILL no success. Now I have to wait until after 5.30am tomorrow to try voting again. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve actually done anything wrong! If I can’t succeed tomorrow, I really think I might have to leave it until the next round. But how sad/wrong is that? I’m not alone in this. Jeez, they’ve made it so difficult this year. Is this really necessary?

  2. Oh, please. Why are you wasting ink on this turkey? The reviews have been terrible. When was the last good movie Matt Damon was in? And John Krasinski will never make it as a movie star; he’s doomed to follow in the steps of Zach Braff. I’m trying to figure out how Damon?Affleck scored that screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting.” You think they would have learned something about story from that experience. Oscar nominations for “Promised Land”? : 0.

    1. I love how both of these guys essentially admit they don’t know how to write a screenplay — Damon says there just so much darned work and Krasinksi had to take his half-baked idea to his writer friend.

      Yeah guys, screenwriting is hard.

      1. HW, you’re right: Good Will Hunting magically happened, and the writers had nothing to do with that film. When you’ve achieved nothing, I guess it’s easy to criticise those who have done something with their lives.

  3. It’s bad karma to release a propaganda hit film. I generally like Matt Damon, but I hope this thing tanks and he learns a valuable lesson. Fracking is not perfect, but any bad that comes from it is far, far outweighed by the good

    1. Glen, have you actually seen the film? Or are you just another in a long, long line of people who insist it’s “propaganda” and “anti-fracking” simply because it doesn’t end with a Busby Berkeley style number singing the praises of fracking?

      I haven’t seen it yet, but I intend to, and I will do so knowing that this is an incredibly important issue for many people I know. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, and the film was, in fact, shot in and near my hometown.

      I know fracking can be a positive, but there are a number of concerns about it as well. And many of us are still living with the repercussions of acid mine drainage from the LAST hundred years of mining, so you’ll forgive us if we want due diligence and a voice before fracking happens on local land.

    2. If it’s “bad karma” to release a movie sympathetically detailing the agonizing choices facing depressed rural communities, then “Grapes of Wrath” was bad karma, too.

  4. Overtly liberal political propaganda movies generally don’t succeed. They are putting on a stance of cautious moderatism, but it’s just a front.

  5. I saw this movie at a screening and it was slight at best. It felt like a cable movie with a message from the 1980’s. No one (except those living in the affected areas care about fracking especially with everything else going on in this fucked up country of ours. In the end, it adds up to nothing. Plus, the commercials for it sell this thing as many things it is not. 1) A romantic comedy (see the commercials with Damon flirting w/ R. Hall. 2) some sort of low-rent cat and mouse game which it is not. Everytime a big actor or a big director makes a vanity project about a cause, people yawn. Maybe next year we’ll see a film about the epidemic of Halitosis starring and directed by George Clooney.

  6. I agree with Aaron Sorkin. It’s an almost perfect film, and Matt Damon is fracking fantastic in it.

  7. THe “Uphill battle” this movie faces on the road to Oscar has nothing to do with its subject, and everything to do with the fact that it’s just not very good. None of it on any level. Doesn’t even feel like a hit piece because there’s just a couple of speechy scenes regarding the “bad effects” of frakking that are surrounded by cheesy goofball stuff like Krasinski doing Karaoke. “Hey everybody, your whole town is gonna die if you vote for this. Like seriously dead. All the animals all the crops. Everything completely destroyed. Cool? Okay, let’s sing some Springsteen up here. Everybody sing along.” I mean WTF?

  8. I love the movie promos that quote a critic describing the film as “FANTASTICALLY ENTERTAINING!” An anti-fracking movie? Fantastically entertaining? Maybe a couple moments of “Avatar” are fantastically entertaining, not big ears Krasinkski. Hyperbole like this drains words of their meaning.

  9. I am shocked — SHOCKED! — that the majority of the people bad-mouthing this movie and calling it liberal propaganda haven’t seen it.

    That almost never happens.

  10. I realized this movie was facing serious issues when all the TV promo went from “serious issue movie” to “upbeat romantic comedy” in the blink of an eye.

    When the Marketing people don’t even know what they have – and how to pitch it – it does not bode well for the filmmakers.

  11. Yeah, movies with a clear liberal agenda always fail; movies like: Erin Brokovich, The Lorax, Wall-E, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Happy Feet, The China Syndrome, An Inconvenient Truth, and SmurfGully with Wolves–I mean, Avatar. When is Hollywood going to learn that forwarding a liberal agenda with your films just doesn’t sell? I mean, right?

    1. Actually you’re forgetting a few. The “Happy Feet” sequel is one of the biggest bombs in animation history. “Lorax” was very subtle and was following a popular children’s book. “Earth,” was a big budget sci-fi film which made very little money after worldwide promotion, and is still considered a box office disappointment today.

      “China” was controversial but not a box office hit. “Erin” really isn’t that liberal, its a legal “small hero” vs. “big evil lawyer firm” yarn that have been around since the Jimmy Stewart era.

      “Avater” was toned down considerably (over 45 minutes of footage) before release after the first scenes (all heavily liberal) shown greatly disappointing fans at conventions. It also had 3D. Its sequel though is facing an uphill climb even to get made since 3D demand is very low and Avatar’s story is still considered the weakest of James Cameron’s career.

      “Wall E” was Pixar and could be argued a conservative film just as much as liberal (self identity, self reliance, government indifference, those type of things). Pixar films had a great box office track record well before “Wall E” came out.

      And now, you’re forgetting the rest. There have been over 300 such “liberal” induced films over the last 10 years. Outside of the few you mentioned, the rest tanked at the box office. The “liberal activist” genre is easily the worst box office performer in film history. So no, a handful of films doesn’t save an entire box office failure of a genre.

      1. Oooh, but those “conservative activist” films — real Box Office juggernauts. Like, for example… hmm, wait, help me think of one…

      2. Did you adequately disprove my sarcasm? No.

        Although, I do mostly agree with what you’ve said. You are right that the majority of films which forward a liberal agenda do fail; the majority of all films fail.

        The existence of the exception (i.e. a box office success), however, will always warrant the attempt to recreate it. That’s true for liberal-leaning films, conservative-leaning films, and–hell–even films about airplanes. Top Gun was a hit, and they’re still trying to sell movies about airplanes; nobody wants to watch movies about airplanes.

        On top of that, this was a film that two stars wanted to make and reunites Matt Damon as a writer with Gus Van Sant, a combination that happened to work once. That’s clearly not as proven a formula as the “Pixar” brand or adapting a popular children’s book, but it’s still a formula.

        The idea that this film shouldn’t have been made because it’s “liberal” is far outweighed by the idea that it should have been made, in the hopes that it would be the exception, like the films I mentioned.

  12. Hey Conservatives! You lost the election. Your tired ideas and shitty candidates have been REJECTED by a majority of Americans. Only through GERRYMANDERING have you been able to keep the House. You don’t deserve to lead, nor do you deserve to dictate the content of films. Sit down and shut up.

    1. Hollywood is not a political venue. It’s a business. Are you endorsing “seizing” Hollywood — Hugo Chavez — style just cause you won an election.

      If not, then “No” — Filmmakers need to put out films that make money since so many’s people’s jobs rely on the business. Again — BUSINESS. Without profits, the business would cease to exist.

  13. I don’ know about the movie whether its just a ‘liberal propaganda’ film or not, but I am not so sure its really that bad if it is one.

    Fracking will happen regardless of whether a movie is made because rich people stand to get very much richer and that is all that matters.

    I’m sure that there is a safest way to do fracking, but corporations have a history of cutting corners (ie deep water horizon). In a town about 10 miles from us in PA they did fracking and not long after many people in the town came down with Multiple Sclerosis, livestock died left & right, people could set their water on fire and you smelled like a paper mill if you washed in it. That’s not some liberals fantasy thats what happened.

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