In Promised Land, Matt Damon stars as a corporate salesman who has just arrived in a farming town. His mission is to convince farmers to sign leases allowing hydraulic-fracturing—the controversial process in which a mixture of water, sand, and chemical additives are pumped deep into the ground, cracking the rocks to release natural gas. As he gets to know the townspeople, Damon’s character begins to doubt his mission and himself.
The character that Matt Damon really wanted to play, was somebody facing a difficult decision.
Along with his co-star, John Krasinski, Damon wrote the script for Promised Land, which is based on a story by author Dave Eggers. The film, directed by Gus Van Sant, also stars Hal Holbrook, Rosemary deWitt, Titus Welliver, and Frances McDormand. It was released in selected cities on December 28, 2012 and nationwide on January 4.
Chris Moore co-produced the film together with Damon and Krasinski. In late December, Fran Korten, publisher of YES! Magazine, interviewed Moore about Promised Land and about Moore’s personal sources of inspiration.
Moore has co-produced many films, including the 1997 blockbuster Good Will Hunting, also starring Damon and directed by Van Sant. In Moore’s 2009 film The People Speak, historian Howard Zinn narrates, while a series of actors play the roles of movement leaders featured in Zinn’s book The People’s History of the United States.
Korten: In choosing to make a movie about fracking, why did you and the others involved decide to tell the story as fiction and rather than as a documentary?
Moore: Actually, we did not choose to do a movie on fracking. The character that Matt [Damon] really wanted to play, and the script John [Krasinski] and Matt really wanted to write, was about somebody facing a difficult decision. The kind of decision that everyone in the world faces today, about your own personal identity, and about corporate responsibility, and about how far can an individual really be pushed to do things for their job, or for money, or for something else that may not be in the best interest of the community. We felt that fracking was the best issue for that because it involves serious, long-term environmental effects. But it was not our goal to go out and make a fracking movie.
Korten: What intrigued you about being involved in this film?
Moore: In one way this is a small story about a fictional community in western Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal story about all of us trying to make it work in this world. This world is really hard right now, in my opinion. And it’s not just about corporate responsibility. It’s not just about work. One of the characters has a kid, and she has to leave her child to go do her job every month. A lot of the characters deal with the fact that the town is struggling, and they’re trying to figure out how to make the town work. We all know people represented by every one of the people in this movie.
This movie is about somebody finding comfort in his own skin. To me, that’s the ultimate feel-good.
All of us have to go through the decisions about being true to ourselves, true to what we believe in, versus the mass thinking. But every person is left to themselves to try to figure it out. That’s why organizing and movements are so useful, because you feel like you’re part of something when you’re fighting, rather than, right now, everybody feels like they’re alone.
Matt plays the “everyman” that I think America, and even the world, really likes and believes in. I think Matt is as close to somebody like Jimmy Stewart as we have right now. You think of some of Stewart’s movies, like It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There’s this desire for the world to be what we all think it can be. I wanted to make a movie like that. And I think Matt is, right now, one of the movie stars in the best position to play a character like that.
Korten: What do you think audience reactions to this film will be?
Moore: At some initial screenings, I saw that people were shocked at how crowd-pleasing it is. How much they laughed, how much they cared, how much they thought about stuff at the end. They really were surprised by what a feel-good movie it was. I’m really happy about that.
A friend of mine who works for a big bank in New York City came to one of the screenings. She texted me after the movie: “You know, I really have to think about whether I can keep this job.”
Korten: Okay. So help me understand in what sense is it a “feel-good” movie?
Moore: This movie is about somebody finding comfort in his own skin. So at the end, you feel really good for Steve. Because Steve figured out a way to be happy. To me, that’s the ultimate feel-good. There are some laughs in it, which is always a good feeling. That’s why I hope people go see it in theaters instead of waiting for it to come out on DVD. It’s really fun to laugh with 150 other people.
What’s hard about the movie, I will admit, is that some of those decisions about how to make yourself happy are really difficult. I need the money in order to pay for my kids to go to college, or repaint my house, or fix the roof on my barn. But then you are faced with the fact that maybe I’m going be using hydro-fracking that may hurt the earth underneath my farm that’s been in my family for 200 years. That’s a pretty big decision for a person living on a farm to try to figure out.
So the movie, for me, is “feel-good” because it’s saying, “You’re not alone.” Everybody is dealing with this stuff. It’s okay to be confused, and it’s okay to wonder, “What is the right choice?” And it’s all right to stand up and say, “This is what I think the right choice is.” That’s my version of feel-good.
Korten: Is the movie about democracy?
Moore: Actually more than democracy, it’s about self-government. It’s about the concept that we have the right to decide what we’re going to do. And that right only has value if we exercise it.
You have to take a stand. I think that is threatening to anyone who is trying to slip in undercover to get anything done.
At the beginning of the movie, a bunch of people in this community have anticipated that at some point, a natural gas company is going to show up in their town. They’ve gotten together and decided they’re not going to just stand by and take the money. They’re going to research it, ask questions, and vote on it. And they’re going to involve the entire community. Which, obviously, is not something the gas company, nor the town council members who are behind the gas company, want to have happen.
And so it’s really about self-government. It’s about the fact that when you hear about something coming to your county, you don’t have to just go, “Well, okay, it’s not my choice,” or, “Somebody else will decide.” You can say, “No, I want to understand and I have a right to have an opinion on this.”
Korten: Is the message of this film a threat to the gas industry? Showing that people can get together and make these decisions?
Moore: I don’t know exactly what the oil and gas companies are trying to do, so I can’t say whether it’s threatening. What I can say is that anyone—whether it’s an oil company or a mall developer or a guy trying to put up a Wal-Mart—is definitely not going to be happy with the point of the movie, which is: “It is your choice. And you should take responsibility for that choice.”
Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler in Gus Van Sants contemporary drama Promised Land a Focus Features release. Photo by Scott Green.
I think a lot of people, when faced with confusing and hard decisions in life—I know this is true for me—tend to want to put that out of their head. Your brain wants to say, “Hey, this is not my choice. I don’t know enough. Hopefully the people who are smarter than me, or the people who are more engaged than me, or the people who have more time than me, are going to make the right decision. But I don’t have time to get into that.”
But if you choose to let everybody else make the decisions, you’re not going to be in a good place. You have to take a stand. I think that is threatening to anyone who is trying to slip in undercover to get anything done. In the research we did for the movie, we found communities where they woke up after the fact [and realized] that something was happening that they didn’t want to happen. This movie says, “Don’t let that happen to you.”
Korten: Do you have anything you want to say to YES! readers?
Moore: I hope people go see this movie. Because it’s about making people feel like they’re not alone in these hard decisions that are going on out there. If you’re in a community that needs to be reminded of the power of self-government, go to the movie. Use it as a conversation tool.
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I’m proud of the movie. It’s my small way of being part of the community that YES! represents. What I love about YES! is that you focus on people actually going out and doing stuff. They don’t sit home and talk about it, they don’t write papers about it, they do it. They build their house out of garbage, or they build a community based on another economy, or they start a business that treats people differently, or they encourage the Portland government to create bike lanes all around the city. At YES! you guys are highlighting the way people are living their lives, and you’re saying, it’s about being engaged in this world.
Korten : Chris, what is next for you?
Moore: You know the movie we did with Howard Zinn, The People Speak? Others are finding the format [of actors speaking roles of figures in historical times] works for portraying their own “people’s histories.”
Lessons from Howard Zinn
The late historian and activist was a compelling example of someone committed to a life of struggle and enjoying that to the fullest.
Last year, we did The People Speak: United Kingdom with Colin Firth, Keira Knightly, and others. In December The People Speak: Australia came out. We are doing The People Speak: Italy. Now we’re doing one with the History Channel, The People Speak: Civil War. They felt, and we agree, that there’s a side of the Civil War that nobody’s ever seen. We’re doing another one on economic justice. These last two will hopefully be out by the fall to be useful for teachers.
Korten: What effect did Howard Zinn have on your life?
Moore: There are people who actually live the life that they want to live, and they stand for the things that they want to stand for. They are secure and strong enough. On a personal level, I wasn’t sure that I could be somebody like that. Spending three or four years with Howard gave me a lot of confidence to stand out a little bit more. Even at 85 years old, seeing all that he had seen in his life, he still believed in the power of the people.
Korten: It’s interesting to hear you say that, Chris, because it comes right back to the theme of Promised Land.
Moore: You’re right. That’s why, when I heard the idea for this film, I said to them, “I have to be part of it. You have to let me produce it.” Because I think I’m not alone in wanting to be part of the solution, or part of the conversation in some way.
Korten: Thank you, Chris. And best wishes with the film.
In conjunction with the national release of Promised Land, Participant Productions launched “Champion Community Change,” an online resource that highlights everyday changemakers and provides toolkits for community action. See www.takepart.com/promisedland.
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Fran Korten is a contributing editor for YES! Magazine, writing about opportunities to advance a progressive agenda in politics, economics, and the environment.