Matt Damon couldn't have picked a more controversial backdrop for his latest film if he tried.
Promised Land, which he co-wrote with Office regular John Krasinski, dramatizes the debate over fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, an unconventional method of extracting natural gas that proponents say is safe and opponents say is anything but.
Damon stars as a salesman for the fictional Global Crosspower Solutions. With an associate (Frances McDormand), he shows up in a rural area to persuade members of a financially strapped community to lease the drilling rights to their farmland.
What seems like an easy job becomes complicated when a schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) urges his neighbors to read the fine print and Damon is drawn to a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt). When a slick environmental activist (Krasinski) arrives, the stakes are raised even higher.
When writing the screenplay, Damon and Krasinski attempted to represent both sides of the hot-button issue fairly. Selling (leasing rights) is a temporary lifeline to some people, Damon, 42, says. But there are potential downstream horrific outcomes. If you believe the energy industry, there are potential downstream benefits that we can't even imagine and geopolitical benefits as well.
Damon got a lesson firsthand in the issue's volatility when, on the first day of shooting in the small town of Avonmore, Pa., proponents and opponents of the drilling method showed up.
Some farmers said, ‘Is this a movie about fracking? Well, then, you shouldn't say anything bad about it.' There were people from the other side showing up saying, ‘Don't say anything good about fracking. … It's ruining our water. People are getting sick.'
Damon insists he didn't set out to make the movie to provide answers but to stir up questions.
Nobody wants to see a movie where they get a message at the end, he said, explaining the intent was to show this moment in time in our country and what happens when big money collides with real people, struggling on the back end of a recession.
Fifteen years ago, Damon won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Good Will Hunting, the drama he penned with lifelong buddy Ben Affleck. When he began co-writing Promised Land, he wasn't afraid to tackle big themes.
We wanted to look at where we've come from, where we are right now and where we're headed, Damon says.
The seeds of the story first took root in Krasinski's imagination. The actor already had begun the screenplay when he met Damon through Emily Blunt, Krasinski's wife and Damon's Adjustment Bureau co-star.
Initially, Damon hoped to make his directorial debut with Promised Land. But after a scheduling snafu with another movie, he opted out, passing the directorial reins to Gus Van Sant, who had overseen Good Will Hunting.
In the end, Damon says he's happy to have had Van Sant behind the cameras. The joke that John and I made was that my greatest contribution as a producer was firing myself as a director, which is probably true because we got Gus.
In some ways, making Promised Land with Van Sant allowed Damon to reflect on the past 15 years of his career.
The important things, you know, I have, he says, referring to his wife, former bartender Luciana Barroso, and their three daughters, ages 6, 4 and 2. Damon also is helping to raise Barroso's daughter, 14, from a previous relationship.
My life is different from how it was 15 years ago, but my love of (movie-making) hasn't changed at all. I just know more. I have more experience, but I feel equally giddy to go to work with Gus.