Promised Land: Casting

As Matt Damon and John Krasinski scouted towns in upstate New York, they encountered a setback. Producer Chris Moore notes, “From that and their research, they realized that way the windmill business really functions wouldn’t work for the movie, dramatically speaking.”

Damon remembers their having to accept the fact that “we had built this story on something that wasn’t quite true. It was a tough moment in the life of this project.” Moore reflects, “We wanted to move the project forward, but this became a hill to get it up and over.”

Krasinski and Damon spoke about transposing the story to a different setting with another issue as a backdrop while exploring the same themes and character studies. Coal mining, oil drilling, and salmon harvesting in Alaska were all considered. While Damon was away working on another movie, Krasinski came upon a natural gas drilling story and began a fresh round of research. He remarks, “It was the perfect contemporary lens through which to examine our questions of community and integrity.

“I wanted to establish an authentic foundation for those examinations.” Accordingly, researching the relatively new chapter in energy exploration meant that Krasinski logged
hours watching video accounts of whole towns and individual neighbors debating the issue, as well as reading voluminous reportage.

Before long, a new draft was underway. “John took it in his teeth and ran with it. Through this path, it became a better movie. The story remained basically intact,” says Damon. “There were all these characters we’d grown to care about and could now further explore.”

For nine months, work on screenplay drafts continued. Moore marvels, “Matt and John have a very strong work ethic; they would make time to get together and refine the script, whether it was in Mexico City, Vancouver, or New York City. These two guys are very secure in being able to tell each other when an idea is bad – which I think is the most important thing in a partnership and are truly supportive when an idea is good.”

Closest to home on the West Coast, the writing partners convened “every weekend while Matt was shooting We Bought a Zoo,” recalls Krasinski. “We’d write all day Saturday and all day Sunday with his kids and our wives all around. It could get chaotic.”

Damon says, “During the week, John and I would go back to our jobs and pore over what we’d written during our downtimes, scribbling notes and ideas before reconvening on the weekend to revise and revise and revise. “My wife said to me, ‘You had such a great time that even if it never gets made, it was worth it because you remembered how much you love writing and you had this incredible creative experience with John.’”

The scenario of the movie not getting made again nearly came to pass. Damon had intended to direct the feature, but when other movies that he was also committed to as an actor changed schedules, he realized that he would be unable to helm Promised Land.

“This wasn’t an enjoyable phone call I had to make to John,” he remembers. Krasinski reflects, “That was a hard night for us all. Matt looked at his schedule and realized there was no way he could do everything he was planning. He takes his work quite seriously, and so he didn’t want his opportunity to direct to be compromised.”

The morning after he spoke with Krasinski, Damon set out with his family for holiday travel. While they were all sitting in the plane on the runway, he e-mailed one of the directors he has collaborated with extensively, Gus Van Sant, and told Van Sant about his dilemma. Within moments, recalls Damon, “Before they told us to turn off our phones, Gus wrote back, ‘I’d love to read what you’re writing.’”

Van Sant reveals, “I was on the lookout for that script before Matt checked in with me that morning; I knew he had a project in the works. When I heard from him, I figured they needed my help.” Damon marvels, “I sent him the whole document while we were still on the runway, and turned off my phone. When we landed a couple hours later, I had a message from Gus saying he wanted to direct the movie. “I e-mailed John, ‘We have a director, and not just any director – we have the best!’”

Unbeknownst even to Damon, Van Sant was Krasinski’s favorite director “by far.” When Damon’s e-mail came through, Krasinski reports, “I was thrilled. I think I threw up and passed out. Being from Massachusetts, I think Good Will Hunting is tattooed on me somewhere…”

Van Sant reflects, “In reading the script, I noticed how it resembled other things that Matt had worked on as a writer, and I felt that he and John had turned out something so good together. It was very easy for me to say ‘Yes.’” The production was not only back on schedule but was accelerating – and filming began less than four months later.

Frances McDormand was part and parcel of the project because, as Damon notes, “We had sent Fran the earliest draft of the script, when it was still a windmill movie, and she committed to it then. Aside from John and me, she’s been with the project the longest.” Moore adds, “Through all of the ups and downs, she remained loyal to us. In playing the role, Fran brings great comic timing and conveys Sue’s practicality.”

Damon says, “Her performance as Sue is so layered and nuanced. The character is a single mother who is on the road a lot. After several years together as a team, she and Steve relate to each other like siblings; there’s a competitive element there, but you also see the affection and the fondness.

“Many times, I would be playing a scene with Fran and sense something strong happening. Then, watching the dailies, I could take the opportunity to see the distinctions in every single take she did.”

Krasinski concurs, noting that “in those dailies, something’s different each time as she’s bringing a purity and intensity to the role. If I were as good as she is, I’d point at myself and say so, yet she’s self-deprecating and shrugs off compliments. But, Fran shines.”

McDormand comments, “Writing a screenplay is a craft, like writing a short story or a poem, and John and Matt know the craft of screenwriting. I was impressed by their intelligence. They are also self-aware enough that they don’t try to make everybody come along with their opinion.”

As with many of the members of the creative team, McDormand could relate all too well to the challenges facing McKinley and the people who live in and visit it in the story. She explains, “I went to high school in a steel town in Pennsylvania. Now the town is suffering a lot, although I have friends that are still living there happily because it’s their community and they belong to important church communities there.”
In Promised Land, community necessities weigh heavily on Frank Yates, who lives a harmonious existence on his family farm and who well understands Steve’s conflicting interests.

Damon notes, “As an older man, Frank has a sense of stewardship. He’s a believer in industry, a retired Boeing engineer who now teaches high-school science because he wants to educate the next generation in his community. He is conscious of his place in the town, and in the world. He challenges Steve so that other people will ask questions and
then go through the healthy process of making a decision all together, as a community.

“For Frank, it’s about making time for education. For us, it was about making time for Hal Holbrook to play him.” Chris Moore elaborates, “We had to work Hal’s shooting dates around his Mark Twain [one-man show] performance schedule, but there was no question that we were going to. We knew Hal would just embody Frank as the conscience of the community.”
The veteran actor met with the filmmakers and agreed to be part of “a movie which had some meaning to it beyond just pure entertainment. The material, the script, is what’s important. That Matt was going to be in it was a big plus, because I admire him; he’s maturing as an actor, and he’s not a showy actor. “My heart was in this role because this man is pointing out, ‘We can’t make a fast decision. We need to think it all through.’”

Rosemarie DeWitt marvels, “As an actor, Hal Holbrook embodies this incredible sturdiness and vulnerability at exactly the same time, which is perfect for this story. I would get goosebumps watching him. Also, he never blows a line – we all would, but he’d be letter-perfect every time!

“I think every actor looks out for scripts like this – beautiful, well-executed, and about something important. Yet it’s not an ‘issue movie.’”

There was no shortage of actresses interested in the role of Alice, which was the last key one to be cast. The character becomes a touchstone to Damon’s Steve. Damon praises DeWitt as being “what we wrote Alice to be, only better.” The actress assesses the character as “someone who grew up in the small town and then went to grad school in the big city. She has had her own series of life lessons and loss.”

Moore offers, “Alice represents the future; she’s someone who has made the choice to return home to make a difference, which is an important element in our story. She is someone the age of a lot of people today who might say, ‘Well, this is my life, can’t change now.’

“Rosemarie’s charm, savvy, and charisma brings the role to life – and also allow her to inhabit with aplomb the space in between the conflict of Steve and Dustin, given that they’re both attracted to her.”

DeWitt “had worked with me before,” says Krasinski. “I loved acting opposite her, and so had my wife on another project. When Rosemarie came in to read for the role, it was like, ‘Well, this makes sense!’ Plus, she has great chemistry with Matt.” Further on-screen chemistry evolved between Damon and Krasinski. Damon remarks, “People are going to be surprised by John. He’s playing someone who has his own story to tell. I’d come away saying, ‘This guy is amazing,’ even though I already knew him.

“15 years ago, on Good Will Hunting, Gus said to me, ‘Directing is 95% casting.’ On this, we got everybody we wanted. Then we turned them loose and they started doing great things we couldn’t even have anticipated.”

Moore found that with this ensemble, “there wasn’t a whole lot of bull about getting hair done. No time was wasted waiting on someone. This capable cast supported each other.” McDormand says, “Making Promised Land was a collaborative effort in the best possible way.”

Titus Welliver, who plays the neighborly proprietor of Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas, remarks, “John and Matt have done such a great job writing this script that they invite you into the process.”

Rehearsals were held with the actors, deepening their senses of place and character beyond the milieu they were on location in. Whether as actors or screenwriters, Damon and Krasinski were primed for the spontaneous moments that might occur.

DeWitt remembers, “It really seemed like Matt and John were occupying the same brain– with Gus! When they were not working on-camera, you would see them over with Gus rewriting or reconceiving a scene. “But when they were playing their characters in scenes, they were completely immersed as Dustin and Steve.”

It is never specified in the story in which state McKinley is located in; as Damon notes, “That’s on purpose, because it’s meant to be Anywhereville, USA.”

Krasinski notes, “It’s a movie about the state of our country, so it made sense to go out in the country and film where things are actually happening.” Accordingly, Promised Land was shot entirely on real locations in western Pennsylvania’s farm country.

“It’s so pristine and perfect and unspoiled there,” marvels Holbrook. “I was struck by the sight of green hills rolling against the sky. It’s what we came from, this country.” “Working in Pennsylvania was helpful for understanding my character,” says DeWitt. “There would be conversations about what had gone on over the years in the area. You could immerse yourself in local culture.”

Krasinski, whose father grew up in the state, notes that “there’s something you can never capture without coming here, a supportive energy and sweetness.”

Production designer Daniel Clancy, whose family ties are to Illinois, offers the perspective that “when you go on [a sound] stage, you lose a sense of reality. You’ve got to get the real texture, the real grit of what a place is. Gus is highly visually oriented, so he and I were on the same page.”

Affording a producing perspective, Moore reports that “being there makes the movie better from a visual standpoint, as everyone in front of and behind the camera picks up on things. The impact will be felt in the script, in the costume design, in the performances, in the look of the film, and so forth.

“There are three deciding factors in choosing a location. The first is purely creative: does it look the way you want your movie to look? The second is the empowering feeling it gives: if you put actors and crew in something like the actual place where the story is happening, and surround them with locals from the area in small roles and on the crew, then that’s all to the better.

The third reason is financial. States have implemented incentives that will encourage you to shoot your movie there, although you will want to go work in a place that truly values people who make movies. It’s not just about the tax benefit; it’s about, will the citizens let you come into a local church to film?

On Promised Land, all three factors came together harmoniously.” Deciding on the state cued an even more detailed set of locale requirements, and locations manager John Adkins took the lead in the search for the desired settings. After conversations with Gus Van Sant going over specifics, Adkins mapped out a radius surrounding downtown Pittsburgh and scouted numerous farms. He then consulted with Clancy, paring down the options.
When it came time for Van Sant to go to Pittsburgh, the gateway destination was Slate Lick Road in Worthington, PA, about 40 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Armstrong County.

Adkins recalls, “In looking for stunning pastoral farmlands, I remembered Slate Lick Road from scouting other films. When Gus flew into town, I picked him up at the airport and we went out to the Worthington/Slate Lick area, driving along that distinctive road.”

“I had never been there before,” notes the director. “When John drove me around the country area outside Pittsburgh, it seemed perfect.” “That was it,” says Adkins. “Our movie was coming to the region, which became as big a star of Promised Land as anyone else.”

The farms around Slate Lick Road that were used in the film were chosen because of their beauty, warmth, and naturalism. There is also a real-life history that hews to the story’s themes; the Rhea Farm, which serves as the Yates Farm on-screen, has been in the Rhea family for four generations, and the farmhouse itself is over one hundred years old and was built two generations ago. Currently, goats, emus, and cattle are raised on the property and hay is cultivated.

Other farmhouses “were all but destroyed,” reports Clancy. “We cleaned them up and added our own touches to them while staying true to the core of what they are. “A lot of people today don’t know what rural America is. You can be living in a city and not aware of what is happening just an hour away from where you live. That’s why this is an important story to tell.” To find the right locations making up the town of McKinley, Adkins was given a mandate to “look for a town that has clearly gone through some economic hardship, but that still has a pulse – and, crucially, a heart.”