LOS ANGELES -- With his new movie "Promised Land," Matt Damon wants to get people taking about whether it's OK to do something that could have long-term risks if it's a solution to an immediate problem.
In the script Damon co-wrote with "The Office" star John Krasinski, the question is posed around the story of a natural gas company representative who comes to a small farming community with the promise of riches. His company wants to purchase the rights to do fracking, a process that uses high pressure liquids to create cracks in rock layers for retrieving gas and petroleum products. There would be an immediate economic boost for a community where many farmers may lose their land. But the fracking could cause environmental problems that could ruin the land.
The film deals with a specific problem, but Damon sees it as a representation of a broader look at what's going on in America right now.
"We were talking about American identity and where we've come from, where we are and where we're headed. We knew that we wanted to have a hopeful ending and we wanted it to be a pro-community, pro-Democracy kind of movie," Damon says.
"The point at the end is that if you don't get involved in the decision, it's going to be made for you. No one wants to go see a movie where they get a message at the end. That wasn't our intent. It was just to show this moment in time and the stakes when big money collides with real people who are struggling on the back end of a recession."
Krasinski started the script with author Dave Eggers, but he needed a new writing partner when Eggers had to switch focus to write his next book. Damon, who was working on the feature film "We Bought a Zoo" at the time, agreed to work with Krasinski, whose week was filled with work on "The Office." The pair met at Damon's house on the weekends to write and then used free time during the week for revisions.
The work included researching fracking and the more they dug into the matter, the more it appeared to be the perfect backdrop.
"The more we looked at it, the more we realized it was perfect because people are so divided. The issues are so complex. It is a temporary lifeline to some people. But there are potential downstream horrific outcomes," Damon says. "It's such a high-stakes game, it was a perfect place to kind of set a movie about decisions we make as communities."
Once filming started, Damon heard from people on both sides of the issues. Some told him that without the millions of dollars paid by the gas companies, they would have lost their farms.
"Then there are people on the other side who say, 'Do you take your daughters to a whorehouse when times get tough?' What are you willing to gamble here? What are you willing to do to save your farm? It's very complex and people feel very strongly about it," Damon says.
Damon originally planned to direct the movie, but he decided the shooting schedule would take him away from his wife, Luciana Barroso, and his four daughters for too long a period. He turned to Gus Van Sant, who directed Damon in "Good Will Hunting," to take over the film.
"Good Will Hunting" changed Damon from being a struggling actor to an Oscar winner in 1997. Since then he's made it to the A-list for actors, become a concerned activist and embraces being a family man.
"My life is different from 15 years ago, but my love of doing this hasn't changed at all. I just know more. I have more experience than I had 15 years ago," Damon says.
"I've become even more convinced 15 years later that it's a director's medium and the most important choice is the director.
"I use to think script, director and then the role. But now, it's really for me, working with the right director. A mediocre script can be made into a great film by a great director. But a mediocre director will make a great script mediocre. That's how my thinking has evolved."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.