John Krasinski and Gus Van Sant totally immersed in film shot in Pittsburgh


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John Krasinski says "Promised Land" is "certainly not an anti-fracking movie" and he should know.

The actor came up with the idea, co-wrote and produced it and stars alongside Matt Damon, Frances McDormand, Hal Holbrook and Rosemarie DeWitt in the film that recently finished shooting in Pittsburgh.

The spark of the idea started two years ago while he was working on NBC's "The Office," on which he plays Jim Halpert, a Scranton paper salesman, husband, father and frequent funny tormentor of co-worker Dwight Schrute.

He called Dave Eggers, who wrote "Away We Go" featuring Mr. Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as an expectant couple, to hash it out, and the memoirist-novelist-screenwriter penned a small first draft.

"It was about something totally different but it was definitely the beginnings of some of these characters and some of these relationships that were really, really interesting and fun. Once I got off the show, I started writing it and I started doing a rewrite with Matt [Damon]."

The Internet has been ablaze with talk about "Matt Damon making an anti-fracking movie," but Mr. Krasinski doesn't characterize it that way. It's far too early to know if the natural gas producers, land men, farmers or fractivists see it that way.

"Fracking for us became a backdrop. The original script was about wind power," he said in a recent phone interview, with the core of the story about fighting for American identity and pride.

That loops back to his father, Natrona Heights native Ronald Krasinski, a Boston physician who recently retired.

It was the "way he described his upbringing and the country and the community that he grew up in, and how everything was incredibly honorable and loyal and incredibly rather simple in the best way -- going to work, having family, having friends, and taking care of what you needed to take care of, and there wasn't really much else. And someone's word was as valuable as anything else."

The 32-year-old actor, the youngest of three brothers and an honors playwright graduate of Brown University, felt as though something had been lost along the way.

"I really wanted to write a movie about a man who is going through a change of his own and living in this current world and debating how he wanted to live in this current country, and so that is Matt's character in the movie ... a salesman."

Mr. Krasinski then needed a backdrop that would magnify the country's state -- economic and otherwise -- and that's where natural gas entered the picture.

"The idea of fracking or natural gas was just a very apropos news story that was beginning to grow a year and a half ago. I just chose that as the background and, of course, that has grown into something quite wild in and of itself.

"I think I was completely ready for people to call it an anti-fracking movie; you know the fevered pitch that it's hit now. But a year and a half ago, it was just more of something that was going on and something to be debated."

Mr. Damon, whose salesman is teamed with Ms. McDormand (a Monessen High School graduate) in trying to lease land, goes into a small town where experiences remind him of his own upbringing and background.

Mr. Krasinski portrays a member of a grass-roots environmental organization that sprouts up, while Mr. Holbrook is a retired high school teacher and Ms. DeWitt another town resident, who is an elementary school teacher.

Most of the filming took place in Avonmore, Westmoreland County, which doubled as the movie's fictional town of McKinley, along with Apollo, Worthington and Slate Lick in Armstrong County, where several of the main farms were located.

Other locations included Alexandria, Delmont, Export and West Mifflin, with one day at the Grand Concourse at Station Square.

"I don't want to give too much away," Mr. Krasinski said, "but the situation people are in financially is very, very real. And what they're protecting is a community and a lifestyle that they believe very, very strongly in.

"So, for some of the characters in the movie, it's a choice to give up everything that they are and everything that they have come from, in order for a quick paycheck, which I think is in keeping with a lot of the different opportunities that are going on in the country today, whether it's the derivative market or anything else."

But in the balance sheet of life, a fast paycheck for one could mean a minus or loss for another. "If it seems too good to be true, perhaps it is ... and yet it doesn't necessarily apply specifically just to natural gas. It's just the idea that we don't necessarily make anything anymore."

"Promised Land" is about the country at large -- how much has been outsourced, what remains and how citizens are scrambling to find and cling to their American pride.

Gus Van Sant, Oscar-nominated for directing "Milk" and "Good Will Hunting" co-starring Mr. Damon and Ben Affleck, is directing what Mr. Krasinski calls a drama with some comedic aspects.

The movie filmed here for 30 days, drew 80 percent of its crew from Pittsburgh and hired 100 to 400 extras on many days. Donna Belajac Casting handled local speaking roles, and John Adkins served as location manager, after working in the same capacity or as assistant on "Jack Reacher" (formerly "One Shot") and "Abduction."

As for how he juggled his triple play of screenwriter, producer and actor, Mr. Krasinski quipped, "With a whole lot of prayer. It's terrifying and exciting at the same time and in a lot of ways, I wouldn't want it any other way.

"I think to be surrounded by such an incredible group of people, from Matt and Gus and Fran and all these great actors like Hal and Rosemarie, but also this crew. The people that we had on our crew were just outstanding. The vibe was incredibly mellow.

"These people were so incredibly experienced and professional. They had just done a whole bunch of movies, obviously, in Pittsburgh. You guys have been booming there. They are recommended and beloved by everybody from our set to 'The Dark Knight.' "

That helped to put Mr. Krasinski at ease and enjoy the experience. So did renting an apartment at the Cork Factory in the Strip District, having his actress wife Emily Blunt visit in between publicity commitments for her movies, and discovering Bar Marco at 2216 Penn Ave. a few blocks way. Mr. Damon reportedly rented a house in Fox Chapel for his family.

Mr. Krasinski and others spent their last moments (and many before) in Pittsburgh at Bar Marco. "I think we stayed out a little later than we should. The night we had our wrap party, we all ended there. It was incredible to have everybody open their arms and be really, really excited. Everybody was incredibly kind."

As for opting to rent a loft-style apartment rather than hole up in a high-priced Downtown hotel, he said, "I'm just a sucker for converted industrial spaces."

"The area was so phenomenal, it was just really great. ... It almost felt like some parts of Brooklyn, eight to 10 years ago, just on the verge of bursting and in the best way and then come the weekend, you realize your little secret neighborhood was not at all secret."

As a bonus, the Cork Factory also was close to the Achieve A-Nu-Yu gym on Liberty Avenue with general manager and personal trainer Ernie Therisod. "Hi, I'm John" is how the actor introduced himself to Mr. Therisod, who offered the actor privacy if he wanted it along with some restaurant recommendations for brunch or Italian food or a place that might afford him a little quiet.

"Promised Land" gave Dr. Krasinski and his wife, Mary, a nurse in Boston, reason to visit Western Pennsylvania. They went to the set and to Natrona Heights where the doctor, whose widowed mother died in 2008, ran into one of his oldest friends.

"It seemed like no time had passed at all being in that area with the two of them, it just seemed like they were two high school kids chatting again."

As for when "Promised Land" will be released, the actor said possibly as early as the end of the year in a small number of theaters, for starters. Mr. Van Sant, who did a bare-bones assembly during filming, is editing the movie and will huddle with his fellow producers and others at summer's end and tweak the movie through the fall.

"I don't think I've ever been as proud of something that I've been a part of more than this," he said. "I haven't really been invested in something like this.

"To have it be your words and your ideas and having all these people say it, shoot it, light it, all these different things, to have these people come together for something that you did is incredibly moving. I think that the responsibility was overwhelming at times and also I was full of pride, but I was also terrified and hoping that I had done something right to bring all these great people together."

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies. First Published June 15, 2012 4:00 AM


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