Matt Damon has played Jason Bourne, the brainwashed assassin. He won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck. And now he's returned to the writer's chair for his latest film — Promised Land.
Damon plays Steve Butler, a salesman who comes to a small Pennsylvania town to sell the local farmers on allowing his company to drill on their land for natural gas using a controversial process known as fracking.
Matt Damon speaks with Linda Wertheimer about the experience of writing the film — as well as the possibility of another Bourne movie.
On why he made a movie about fracking
"The issue came later. We wanted to make a movie about American identity and where we are in the country right now and where we've come from and where we're headed. And in researching different things, this was the best issue to kind of explore those themes. 'Cause it's highly divisive and people feel incredibly strongly on both sides of the issue, and so it was a great way to explore kind of how we make decisions. Do we do it individually or as communities? And how are we thinking? Are we thinking in short term or are we thinking about the long term?"
On writing about a controversial topic
"For us it was really about the characters and in writing it, we loved every single one of these characters. The screenplay and the movie is not supposed to judge any of these people. These are people who are in tough situations and are making tough choices. And — and that's a reflection of what's really going on. When we were in Western Pennsylvania and the first day we were shooting, a couple farmers came up and said, 'Hey, you guys making a movie about fracking. Don't say anything bad about it, we really need that.' And then a couple of other people came up and said, 'Hey are you making a movie about fracking? Don't say anything good about it, you know, it's poisoning the waters, it's, you know, poisoning the air. It's terrible.' And this is all in the same community in Western Pennsylvania. So people are quite savvy about it."
On his character in the film
"Essentially at the beginning of the movie, he's a guy who's pro-industry. He grew up in a farming community that basically went under when the industry left town."
"He sees himself as a realist and he feels like he's helping these people, he's saving them, he's bringing them back. And then, in the second act, he basically starts to get fracked, you know, emotionally, through these interactions with all these people. And by the end — he's not an environmentalist at the end, it's not that movie, you know — he basically takes a stand for democracy."
On the possibility of another Bourne movie
"I would absolutely love to do another one. I mean, we just, we just don't have a story. And if we had a story, we could do it. But what happens in those movies, and what happens a lot of times in Hollywood on big movies, is you get a release date before you have a script. [...] And the last movie was like that."
"We've always had this deal that we won't make another one unless we honestly feel it has a shot to be as good as the other three, as if it belongs in that family. I care about it too much."
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Matt Damon's breakthrough in the movies was a film he wrote with his friend and fellow actor Ben Affleck called "Good Will Hunting" about an unknown math genius who works as a janitor at MIT. That very successful movie with Damon in the title role was directed by Gus Van Zandt. And those two are back together for Damon's newest movie, which he also wrote, again with a fellow actor who's in the movie - this time John Krasinski. The movie is called "Promised Land." It's about persuading farmers to sign over rights to drill for natural gas on their land, using a controversial method called fracking. Damon plays the man who makes the pitch, working for a big energy company.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PROMISED LAND")
WERTHEIMER: Matt Damon joins us from NPR West. Welcome to our program.
: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: I guess the basic question I want to ask you is why on earth would you decide to make a movie about fracking? Is this an issue that means something to you?
: No. In fact, the issue came later. We wanted to make a movie about American identity and where we are in the country right now, and where we've come from and where we're headed. And in researching different things, this was the best issue to kind of explore those themes. 'Cause it's highly divisive and people feel incredibly strongly on both sides of the issue. And so it was a great way to explore kind of how we make decisions. Do we do it individually or as communities and how are we thinking? Are we thinking in short-term or are we thinking about the long-term?
WERTHEIMER: But you know fracking is a controversial topic in some parts of the country, and a very serious one. How did you and John Krasinski work out telling a story that, presumably, would make, you know, a certain percentage of your audience mad? You've got two hot guys in a movie together and they're talking about drilling for natural gas. I mean, did some bells go off somewhere, and if not, in your mind, in your agent's mind, saying, why, why Matt?
: I think I have that conversation with my agent all the time.
: No. You know, for us, it was really about the characters. And in writing it, we loved every single one of these characters. The screenplay, you know, and the movie is not supposed to judge any of these people. These are people who are in tough situations and are making tough choices. And that's a reflection of what's really going on. When we were in western Pennsylvania and the first day we were shooting, a couple of farmers came up and said, hey, are you guys making a movie about fracking? You know, don't say anything bad about it. We really need that. And then a couple other people came up and said, are you making a movie about fracking? Don't say anything good about it. You know, it's poisoning the water. It's, you know, poisoning the air. It's terrible. And this is all in the same community in western Pennsylvania. So, people are quite savvy about it. In fact, you know, talking to the land men, a lot of times they'll go to these farms and the farmers will come out and meet them, which is what we have. And the first farm we go to, Tim Guinee, who's a phenomenal character actor, who I've known for a long time, plays this farmer with this little daughter and he's clearly down on his luck. And he sees me and he said, hey, I thought the census was over. And I say, no, I'm from a natural gas company. And he said, hell, why didn't you tell me? You know, come on in, come on in. And he's been waiting. And that's what we heard from some of these land men that these people are waiting for them, they're hoping that they'll show up.
WERTHEIMER: Well, I noticed that your character, who, you know, has a kind of a very earnest and appealing sort of patter, which he uses over and over again, trying to seduce the local farmers into selling him the right to drill on their land. But he keeps meeting people who are the polar opposite of rube. I mean, these are people who see right through him and his sales pitch. You know, you don't just play it down the middle. There are surprising people in this film.
: Yeah. A lot of that was based on a movie that we loved, "Local Hero." And it had that idea of a guy coming in and, you know, expecting perhaps the town to not be quite as...
WERTHEIMER: Smart as he is?
: Exactly. And being surprised when he finds out that he might actually be the dumbest one there. But, yeah, I mean, you know, in terms of how I present the guy, you know, a lot of that's based on talking to these land men and how they go in. And essentially, he's a guy at the beginning of the movie who's pro-industry. He grew up in a farming community that basically went under when the industry left town.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PROMISED LAND")
WERTHEIMER: So, you've made a serious and thoughtful film and, obviously, it means a good deal to you. So, does this mean that in your next movie everything will blow up?
: Well, the next movie that I'm going to have coming out is an HBO movie about Liberace and I play his lover.
WERTHEIMER: I had heard about that, yes.
: Things blow up emotionally in that one.
WERTHEIMER: The wardrobe blows up.
: Yeah, things blow up in different ways. But then after that is a science fiction movie called "Elysium" that Neill Blomkamp, who directed "District 9." And that's a big science fiction and action movie. So, the three of them together are pretty different.
WERTHEIMER: I'll say.
: Yeah. But pretty big explosions in "Liberace," I have to say.
WERTHEIMER: Well, now, you did leave the door a tiny bit open for another "Bourne" movie. I'm a big fan of those films. So, I want to ask you, any chance?
: Yeah, sure. I mean, I would absolutely love to do another one. I mean, we just don't have a story. And if we had a story we could do it. But what happens on those movies and what happens a lot of time in Hollywood on big movies is you get a release date before you have a script. People like the concept and they go, great, August 3rd you're going to come out.
And you go, well, hang on a second, you know. You know, and the last movie was like that. We got sent to locations that, you know, we did not have a script that we could use. And so we wrote it as we went. And it was really terrifying and it wasn't fun at all. And there were days where literally we were in the wrong country, where we looked at each other and said there's nothing else we can shoot in Spain, is there? You know, and you got 100 people sitting around and going, is there anything? I mean, can I film an entrance or an exit? Can I do anything right now? Should I just walk across the street and you film it. And we just look at each other going, no, this is - nope. We're in the wrong country. And that is just - it's so disheartening. We just didn't want to be in that position again. And if we had an idea, 100 percent, we would have jumped at it. But we've always had this deal that we won't make another one unless we honestly feel it has a shot to be as good as the other three, if it belongs in that family. I care about it too much. As much as people who like that franchise care about it, believe me, I care about it more. It's a big part of my life.
WERTHEIMER: Matt Damon co-wrote and stars in "Promised Land." The movie's in select theaters now. It opens around the country on the fourth of January. Matt Damon, thank you so much.
: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.