Great scripts are hard to find, so Matt Damon and John Krasinski wrote one for themselves.
A suite on the 31st floor of the Waldorf Towers is a study in costly surfaces. Celeste blue wallpaper, cabriole legs, curtains slung in dangling brocade. The armchairs are plashed in old silk, the prints are a-trot with thoroughbreds. It is, in short, a stage.
In a chair by the tea service, John Krasinski is talking with the fluid animation of an Ivy League grad bolstered by nine seasons of an international hit sitcom and a marriage to Emily Blunt.
“It’s not about the control,” he says, referring to the production of his new movie, Promised Land. “It was about the camaraderie.”
As if on cue, one of the world’s top box office draws—and Promised Land’s costar and cowriter—arrives. Matt Damon is polite, even courtly, although his hair is shaved in a penal crop from reshoots on Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming sci-fi flick, Elysium. After shaking hands he swerves towards the refreshments tray, his brow furrowed over the breakfast china.
“Did you try the coffee?” asks the voice of Jason Bourne.
“No, is it good?” replies the voice of Jim from The Office.
“Well, mine wasn’t. Mine was really watered down. Maybe it came from the same pot.… We’re about to find out.” He sloshes it into a hotel issue cup. “No, no, no, no. This is much more rich.”
“They give me the good stuff,” laughs Krasinski. Rapidfire, Damon tosses shreds of muffin into his mouth and scoots up a chair.
“Awesome,” he says. “I’m in.”
People didn’t expect Matt Damon’s second major co-writing credit to appear alongside the name of John Krasinski. “Matt and Ben” is as much of a pop culture cliché as “My boy’s wicked smaht.” Krasinski’s former colleague on The Office, Mindy Kaling, made her name with those names, writing a play about how Good Will Hunting got made. But when the Internet started jabbering about an upcoming screenplay by Krasinski and Damon, it seemed like a natural match. Damon was a superstar, and by the second season of The Office, Krasinski had supplanted Barney Frank as Newton’s favorite son—his eyebrow alone expresses as much submission to cosmic absurdity as Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. And hometown ties count.
Krasinski says that when Damon and Blunt had been filming The Adjustment Bureau together, “Emily had been spewing Boston knowledge. Boston fun facts and how much I was a Boston guy. Matt thought that was hilarious, that a Brit was holding the flag for our favorite city. By the time I met him, we just dove into discussing the Red Sox and the Pats and all these different places that we grew up.”
“You have a common frame of reference,” says Damon. “You end up seeking out people from back home because they just understand you in ways other people can’t.” He laughs. “John does a good Boston accent, too.”
Double-dates ensued. “We make plans for going out for dinner, and it always ends as much more,” says Krasinski. “Sometimes we’d get wild and go straight to karaoke.”
Shared background and career is a solid basis for a partnership, and soon the two actors were talking about putting their laptops together for a screenplay. Krasinski had adapted Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace for film, but he’d never penned a narrative of his own. “I had a burning idea of talking about where we are as a people, as opposed to where we’ve been led,” he says. “No matter what happens in Washington or anywhere, we’re losing sight of the people being affected. I brought that idea to Matt, and he immediately connected with it.”
Damon’s antennae for social justice are famously sensitive— the man’s responsible for introducing the name Howard Zinn into the popular lexicon, after all. Over dinner, Krasinski floated the idea for a script, and soon the pair was spinning narrative threads. The theme for this rousing, populist entertainment: wind turbines.
“We found ourselves scouting locations, and we realized we had bad intel,” laughs Damon. It turned out, wind power wasn’t a locus for controversy, or even for drama. “We kind of built the house of our dreams on a clay foundation.” So Krasinski hit on the idea of transplanting the characters and storyline to the more topical soil of fracking, the extraction of natural gas from shale by injecting chemicals into the ground. This was the grist around which their script would coalesce. It would be a story about small towns and big business painted in the American textures of unfurling farmlands, town hall showdowns and characters of quirk. So between February and August of last year, the pair regularly met at Damon’s kitchen table to plot it out.
“It was a lot like working with Ben,” says Damon. “It didn’t ever feel like work. You could never tell who wrote what. I remember that happening with Ben. When Good Will Hunting came out, in large part because I played a character who was smarter than his character, people said to me, ‘Did you really write more of the script?’” He laughs. “I couldn’t tell you what I wrote in that script.”
There were differences from hanging out with Affleck, of course. “Matt would be asking a question or acting out a line, and then someone would just crawl up his back and another person would just crawl up his arm,” says Krasinski. (Damon’s function as a climbing wall comes from now being a father of four.)
“Our writing sessions were often interrupted by the need for me to give a piggyback ride or go get somebody a glass of milk,” says Damon. But, “I don’t think we ever had a day where we didn’t make huge strides.” On Good Will Hunting, conversely, “We had a lot of days where we just didn’t do s***. Where nothing got accomplished.” Hollywood stars are necessarily more miserly with their time than folk who don’t yet own Oscar statuettes. “And our wives would ask us what we got done at the end of the day,” he laughs.
It had been 15 years since Damon had settled down to a meaty writing project, and Krasinski had never attempted a fully-fleshed narrative, spiced with speeches from a wise old Hal Holbrooke-ish character (wisely cast with Hal Holbrooke) and one-liners from a punchy Frances MacDormand. “I hadn’t been writing in that wonderful, selfish way where there’s no green light on a movie,” says Damon. “When the whole windmill part started to fall apart, my wife said, ‘Even if you don’t make this movie, you’ve had the greatest time. You’ve woken up to this thing that you thought you were still doing, but really weren’t.’”
As in any writing foray, there’re the pitfalls of structural rot, plot splutters, tinnital lines and character arcs so brittle they fracture at the touch of human speech. Promised Land has none of that. It is very much a writerly film, but also an actorly one in that its animating spirit is to supply Damon and Krasinski with roles they wanted to play.
“The idea of a man living his life one way and trying to figure out if that’s the way he should be living it, there are tones of something like that,” says Krasinski, whose favorite movie is Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. “The Kazan movies were really important to me,” he adds. “On the Waterfront, Wild River and all those movies are about these characters and the struggle they’re going through. They weren’t beating you over the head.”
This actor’s taste for inner turmoil, for the staged riot of hamartia and third-act twists, infuses Promised Land’s script. But the risk in empowering the inmates—as anyone who’s read a latter day JK Rowling novel knows—is that you invite bloat. An expository town meeting scene ran to 15 pages in the shooting draft.
“It would’ve been 25 minutes [on film],” says Krasinski.
“If anyone paused for a second, yeah,” says Damon.
“If you weren’t doing a Mamet play.”
But even a ruthless hand on the delete key won’t make a script take flight. You need thunderclaps. Brainwaves. The electric tang of inspiration. Like when it occurred to Krasinski that Damon’s character, a salesman for the natural gas business, ought to have been raised on a farm.
“We got to a point where we realized the obvious,” says Damon. “That happens a lot. I remember writing Good Will Hunting, and we went and met with Terrence Malick in Austin. And the original end of Good Will Hunting was that Will and Skylar, the girl, leave Boston together. We’re sitting there and we pitch the whole thing to Terrence Malick, and he’s sitting there quietly having a cup of tea.” Damon mimics a tremulous Southern accent: “‘Well, ah think she should leave first, and he should go after her.’ And Ben and I just looked at each other and said, ‘We are the two dumbest human beings on the planet Earth. Of course that should happen.’”
Inspiration sometimes takes a long time to gestate. For years, there’s been rumbling in the media about Damon and Affleck joining forces for a Whitey Bulger biopic, but Damon sounds fatalistic about a reunion. “It’s tough because Ben and I talk about it. But now, his career is just in full... I mean, it’s out in the orbit, man. It’s unbelievable. I can’t imagine the two of us being able to sit down and take the time to write something.”
Time, for Hollywood stars as for everyone else, is always stamping its hooves in the background. As well as cowriting and costarring in Promised Land, Damon originally planned to make it his directorial debut. Work pressures tamped down that ambition, so he e-mailed the script to Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant, who accepted the canvas chair. “The best move I made as a producer was firing myself as director,” laughs Damon. “Gus, incidentally, is John’s favorite director.”
Van Sant’s sensibility—calm, intuitive, the camera lingering on a child’s coloring book while the grown-ups haggle over Big Themes—creates the illusion of simplicity, even folksiness. “This was just pure storytelling,” says Damon, who’s worked with nearly every major director in the business, from Eastwood to Scorsese to the Coen brothers. He’s something of a connoisseur. “I’ve always chosen by director,” he says. “Maybe I should’ve been more selfish about roles, but the best chance you have of making good movies is partnering with great directors. So that’s always been the way I’ve made my choices.”
Van Sant’s film, it’s true, feels as unfussy as a drink of lemonade. While the character actors lick their chops over their lines, there’s a goodly amount of weather, flags and landscapes molded by combine harvesters. And of people washing their faces in moments of mucked conscience. The movie is a morality play dressed in shots of Americana. “What it did for me was that every time I do a film now, I’m going to prepare for it as a director,” says Damon. “I’m going to think about it as if I were directing it in detail, how all the choices influence everything in big and little ways.”
Promised Land will make a grab at the Oscar ring—it comes out in the nick, under limited release on Dec. 28—but it’s hardly Good Will Hunting 2: How Do You Like Them Frackers? For one thing, Damon is a restrained 42-year-old performer. The fuller mold of his face, the whisper of gray at his temples, the milkshed chic and dad jeans—this is a mature role. As a young actor, he says, “I was always angsting and trying to beat myself up and torture myself to feel things. Now I just relax and get out of the way, and it’s right there.”
He credits his kids for his evolution. Fatherhood, he says, has “filled me up emotionally. The only thing I can compare that to is that Christmas story. You know, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. At the end of the book there’s that part where his heart grows five sizes or whatever. That’s what it felt like being a father.” A marination in family life seasons not only Damon’s performance in Promised Land, but his approach to fresh projects. “If it’s a big job, it means moving house. We have to figure it out as a family every time I go to work.” Several years ago, scheduling conflicts prompted Damon to turn down the lead in Avatar. And while the Bourne movies inoculated his career by guaranteeing a windfall of box receipts, the future isn’t so certain without a blockbuster action franchise. “Now I don’t have that, so I wonder,” he says. “It’s tough. If it’s all superheroes... there’s gotta be something for me.”
Movies like Promised Land—with a diffident budget and a yen for storytelling—continue to disappear in a fusillade of CGI ordnance. Damon’s next film, a Steven Soderbergh picture about human cockatoo Liberace, is releasing next year not in theaters, but on HBO. “We couldn’t get the money traditionally from the feature world,” says Damon. “Steven said to me, ‘If we tried to make The Informant! now, we wouldn’t get the money.’”
Krasinski, too, is mindful that there’s a change of scene ahead. “It’s very scary to be going through a transition in your career like I am now,” he says. “And the fact that [Promised Land] is coming out right when the show’s ending... it’s weird.” He holds no illusions that The Office has welded Jim Halpert indelibly on his résumé, and on his life. “I wouldn’t be so pretentious as to say, ‘I’m ready to play a heroin addict!’ Or, ‘I’m ready to do Philadelphia!’ I’m sure I’ve been typecast,” he admits. “I’m honored to be. Being on The Office is one of those things you don’t try to run away from. You try to hold onto its pant leg as much as you can. I think it’s absolutely time to end the show, but it’s given me everything.”
Damon, too, is grateful for his breaks. “I feel lucky just to be here. I remember George Clooney said to me when we were doing Ocean’s Eleven, we went out and had a drink one night, and he said, ‘If you can survive 10 years in this business, you’ve really done something. If you have a 10-year career, that is unheard of.’ A few years ago I sent him an email saying, ‘We did it!’” He laughs. “I guess we’re probably on borrowed time at this point.”
Krasinski, too, is philosophical. He’s got two other scripts in the works, and while he’s not turning down any Halpert-esque nice-guy roles, he’s determined to dig deeper. “I’m more engaged in playing people with conflict,” he says. “This is who I am.”
But the immediate task is to put Promised Land in front of the 3-D-queasy masses, hoping that it coaxes them from their jaded shells. At a private screening in the creamy leather depths of the Revere Hotel, Krasinski watches the movie with his family, friends and a light sprinkling of Boston journalists. After the (unfeigned) applause, he takes the stage to field questions, gracefully lobbing back the answers. In character with his most famous role, he gives them a bashful spin. “There were a lot of pinch-yourself moments during this,” he smiles. “One’s happening tonight.”
In the lobby bar, Krasinski’s parents, brother and sister-in-law chat about Thanksgiving arrangements while he patiently banters with fans. A stunning woman slips him a refill of sauvignon blanc before leaning in for a snapshot. Reporters cast about for flattering, deferential observations about the script. In a month, Krasinski’s words will be echoing from theater sound systems around the country. In a month, the Academy lets slip the dogs of Oscar season.
If this, like Damon says, is indeed borrowed time, then it feels like time well spent.