Matt Damon recounts how Western Pa. was selected for the filming of 'Promised Land'
January 4, 2013 3:00 PM
Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler in Gus Van Sant's contemporary drama 'Promised Land.'
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Promised Land" briefly lost its port-a-potties, but not its scenic rural locations, experienced crews or tax incentive.
"The guys we rented our port-a-potties from found out the movie was about fracking, and they assumed it was an anti-fracking movie, and they were pro-fracking and so they took our port-a-potties away," Matt Damon, one of the stars, writers and producers of "Promised Land," said in a recent phone interview.
"That was a bummer for one day."
He knows that "Promised Land," opening in Pittsburgh theaters today, will invariably be labeled the fracking movie. Here, it might be the fracking movie shot in Westmoreland, Armstrong and Allegheny counties.
"That doesn't sound, on the face of it, the first-choice movie that you would go see, but obviously we think it's a lot more than that, and that there's some great characters and some great acting, and it's worth people's time and money."
Failing that, he joked, "My position is always to say we have Hobbits in our movie. Maybe some people will come."
No Hobbits, but fracking feeds into larger themes.
"We really were setting out to make a movie about America today -- the idea of American identity and where we've come from and where we are and where we're headed," Mr. Damon said of the original screenplay he wrote with John Krasinski.
An early script was about wind power, but that backdrop was rejected as were coal mining, oil drilling and salmon harvesting.
"As we explored the issue of natural gas, it was perfect for us. The stakes are so incredibly high, the potential gains and the potential losses are so huge that it's a perfect place to put all your characters and talk about ideas of democracy and how we make decisions and community and stewardship. It's really the perfect issue for that."
Mr. Damon and Frances McDormand are "land men" and sales partners for a natural gas company who set up shop in a rural town to persuade residents to lease the drilling rights of their farmland. They lock horns with Mr. Krasinski's character, a member of a grass-roots environmental organization.
"The first day we were shooting, a couple of farmers came up and said, 'Are you making a movie about fracking? You know you shouldn't say anything bad about it, it's really helping us out.'
"Then, two days later, people came up and said, 'Are you making a movie about fracking? Don't say anything good about it, those people are poisoning the earth and they're poisoning the water.' ... You go into these rural communities, everybody knows about it 'cause they're all living through it and they all feel strongly about it, one way or another."
Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting," "Milk") directs the movie, also featuring Rosemarie DeWitt, Hal Holbrook, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver and Lucas Black.
Casting director Francine Maisler first floated the name of Mr. Holbrook as a retired Boeing engineer who teaches high school science. But since he is 87 years old and the part required some long scenes -- one during a town hall originally was 15 pages long -- the filmmakers inquired about his health.
They were told: "Right now, he's on the road touring 'Mark Twain' for the 58th year in a row. He's probably fine." And he was.
Asked about his time in Pittsburgh, the Oscar winner for co-writing "Good Will Hunting" with Ben Affleck called it "great, it was great." This marked Mr. Damon's return more than a decade after shooting "Dogma" for Kevin Smith.
He stayed at the William Penn Hotel in 1998, but this time he rented a house about 30 minutes outside Downtown. His wife and four daughters visited during spring break since the older girls are in school.
Yes, Mr. Damon spoke to real land men and that research helped to inspire a scene where his character greets a farmer who says, "I thought the census was over." When he clarifies that he's with a natural gas company, the stranger replies, "Why didn't you say so? Come on in."
One character thinks he's going to become a "shaleionaire" from selling the drilling rights on his land.
"We wanted all the characters to feel like people we know and let's face it, we all know that guy. In fact, Lucas Black -- who plays that guy -- thought we based it on a guy from his hometown in Alabama. ... He not only bought a Corvette he couldn't afford but he got the Corvette logo tattooed across his chest and then subsequently lost the car but still has the tattoo."
If you want to avoid spoilers, steer clear of a screenplay leaked online by someone who's taken aim at gas drilling opponents. Although not the final shooting script, it gives away a crucial twist and is an obvious attempt to hurt the box office grosses.
Mr. Damon had been scheduled to direct "Promised Land" but bowed out at the 11th hour because another movie's schedule was extended and this would have meant too much time away from his family.
So how did this movie land in the greater Pittsburgh area?
"It was between Western Pennsylvania and upstate New York, and it's always a money thing," the 42-year-old actor said.
"They both had the look that we wanted and they both had incentives. What happens when you have incentives in a place, a lot of work comes there and then, when a lot of work comes there, you get local people who are really good crew because they're working all the time."
In Western Pennsylvania, the production could hire local crew while upstate New York would have meant importing and housing crew in hotels, which is costlier. "It just becomes a numbers game at that point."
The movie 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 locations manager, after working in the same capacity or as assistant on "Jack Reacher" and "Abduction."
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.
"Promised Land" marked the first writing collaboration for the screenwriters although Mr. Damon starred with Emily Blunt, Mr. Krasinski's wife, in "The Adjustment Bureau."
Although they have nothing concrete in the works, Mr. Damon said, "I would definitely love to do something else with him. He's just great. I had a blast writing with him. It was like writing with Ben [Affleck]. We really have a similar sensibility ...
"My fear is that John just worked with me to get to Ben and now he's going to ditch me and the two of them are going to go off and write something," he joked about Mr. Affleck, who is having a very good year with "Argo," which he stars in and directed, but did not write.
"Promised Land" wrapped up 30 days of filming in June and opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 28, which is a speedy turnaround for a feature film.
"Directors who are as experienced as Gus don't need as long in post [production]. People like Gus or Steven Soderbergh or Clint Eastwood, people I've worked with, if their mind's set on doing something, they just kind of do it at their relaxed but efficient pace. It turns around a lot quicker."