In the 15 years since Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the Academy Award for their “Good Will Hunting” screenplay, Damon has worked with some of Hollywood’s best directors, become a humanitarian in Africa and even parodied himself with the help of Kevin Smith and Jimmy Kimmel. What he hasn’t done is write another script.
In partnership with John Krasinski of “The Office,” Damon, 42, has returned to the blank page, co-writing “Promised Land,” a script that he initially intended to direct, about a young comer in the natural gas industry who is selling the controversial practice of “fracking” to homeowners in struggling rural communities.
Despite the lengthy interlude between scripts, the process, he said, felt remarkably familiar to his collaboration with Affleck.
“John usually has his laptop, and we jump around the room gesturing at each other and he writes stuff down,” said Damon during a conversation with Krasinski, whom he credits with shepherding the project through. “It’s actually the way Ben and I did it. Ben and John are the two funniest guys I know, and it ends up that we just laugh for eight hours straight and at the end we have a few scenes that we really like.”
Krasinski would crisscross North America, meeting up with Damon on weekends in Vancouver, Canada, while Damon was shooting “Elysium,” or in New York when the married father of four was back home doting on his household full of women.
“We wrote in the middle of barbecues, pizza time. I was a villain for a month and a half, the dude that was taking their dad away,” said Krasinski, 33, whose wife, Emily Blunt, starred opposite Damon in “The Adjustment Bureau.” That’s how the men met.
Despite the almost 10-year age gap, Damon and Krasinski have a lot in common. Both hail from Boston, each could compete in a pearly whites contest with their bright Hollywood smiles and, surely if Damon were ever to hand off his “nicest guy in Hollywood” title, it would have to go to Krasinski. Still, despite the easy rapport the two have, the process of getting “Promised Land” to production was anything but simple.
First, there was their working styles. Krasinski is lightning fast; Damon not so much.
“John is like a supercomputer. His mind is fast. And I go in real time. I read at the speed in which I talk,” said Damon. “John would spit out all these ideas, and it would literally put me into brain freeze, where I would just sit there.”
Which in turn would throw Krasinski into bouts of insecurity seeing Damon’s stony reaction to his ideas. “I thought he hated me and wanted me to leave.”
That is until Damon’s wife unlocked the secret to that blank stare. “She said, ‘You know how Matt works? Before bed, I’ll say we’ve got to do this, pick this kid up, do this with this person, and he would just stare at me and I’d get really furious,'” relayed Krasinski.
“I’m just trying to make sure I can do everything she says,” Damon jumped in.
“The moment she told me that, the light bulb went off,” Krasinksi said. “The second half of [writing] was so much easier. I didn’t slow down, but I’d wait. I’d go watch a half hour of television. Then I’d come back and Matt would say, ‘Oh, I got it. I like it.'”
The next hurdle was the story itself. The project began as a story about wind farms. A two-hander, abstractly sketched with the help of novelist Dave Eggers. It featured Damon as a slick city boy in CAA-agent-quality suits and a female country mouse, to be played by Frances McDormand, with Krasinski as the interloper. But when the two writers went to scout locations in upstate New York to confirm their premise that fly-by-night companies were erecting wind towers only to collect the government subsidies and hand them over to coal companies — never actually powering up the towers — they were shocked.
“We couldn’t hear each other because the windmills were blowing so loud,” said Krasinski with a laugh. “They were working so well,” added Damon, that they quickly realized their whole premise for the film, which they had spent hundreds of hours writing, was completely wrong.
“It was devastating,” said Damon. “We had put in a lot of time at that point, and we knew we couldn’t carry out the story we had written.”
That was June 2011, and Damon was about to begin production on the sci-fi film “Elysium” opposite Jodie Foster. Rather than abandon the project, the duo, still attached to their characters, found a new backdrop to house them, landing on the natural gas industry with help from reports on “60 Minutes” and in the New York Times. Now Damon plays a representative of a natural gas company, and Krasinski, well, he’s still an interloper.
“Weirdly, not only did it work, it upped the ante and immediately became high-stakes poker,” said Krasinski. “It was no longer about neighbors pointing to a windmill and saying it’s big and makes noise. It was people saying, ‘I could be a millionaire’ and others saying, ‘Our town could be unusable in 50 years.’ The potential gains and losses were so dramatic.”
But the drama wasn’t over yet. Despite endorsements of the script from their high-profile friends, including Cameron Crowe, Affleck, Steven Soderbergh and others, and a financial commitment from Warner Bros., Damon gave up his director’s seat weeks before he was set to begin pre-production. Exhausted from his lengthy shoot and missing his family, he just wasn’t up to it, and there went their financing.
Luckily for the crushed Krasinski, Gus Van Sant, who had directed “Good Will Hunting,” stepped in quickly as the replacement, and Focus Features came in to finance and produce the film.
“Pretty much overnight I agreed to do it,” said Van Sant from an airport terminal on his way to Poland. “A lot of screenplays I read have a few things missing. To me, this one had it all. It was funny, entertaining, serious, romantic, tragic, everything. It was a nice, balanced story.”