Entertainment & Arts

Matt Damon digs deep about his Promised Land

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Media captionMatt Damon speaks to Emma Jones about his new film Promised Land

Matt Damon's films are in the habit of raking in $15m (£9.8m) on just their first night of release in the US - but that was the total cost of making Promised Land, the 42-year-old actor's latest movie, which he also co-wrote.

While he is best known to audiences for blockbusters like the Bourne trilogy, Promised Land explores a farming community's decision of whether to sell their land for industrial fracking - the process of extracting natural gas that is trapped underground.

"I wanted to make a film that explores the American identity," Damon says.

"How has it changed, and what is our relationship with our communities now? How do we make decisions? What is there for future generations? And the issue of fracking was perfect as the stakes are extremely high, and it's polarising societies."

Damon co-wrote the script with actor John Kraskinski, who co-stars with Damon and Fargo's Frances McDormand.

Damon himself plays a corporate "salesman" who comes to a rural community to persuade them to sell their land for fracking.

While some want the money the company is offering, others are fearful of the environmental impact.

Image caption Damon says the movie aims to illustrate a real-life dilemma

As well as writing it and starring in it, Damon hoped it would mark his directorial debut, he says.

"I really wanted to direct it, but my acting schedule became crazy and I had to give it up. It nearly killed me to have to bow out though," he says, adding that "the only reason it ever got written was because John Kraskinski cracked the whip on me. I was so busy it was written on weekends".

Damon eventually asked director Gus Van Sant to take over. He and the film-maker have been friends since Van Sant directed Damon and Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting in 1997, for which Damon and Affeck won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

This was the two Boston-born actors' Hollywood breakthrough after writing together since childhood - but despite the high-profile recognition, Damon says writing is something he struggles with - and since then, has only scripted one film, Gerry in 2002 - which Van Sant also directed.

"I have to write with a writing partner," Damon claims. "I was an English major at college (he attended Harvard but dropped out before graduating) and I used to find myself staring at my computer. With two of you, there's a lot of improvisation and laughter. Ben and I used to have a blast when we wrote."

He asserts that he and Affleck, who won an Oscar for Best Film this year with Argo - a screenplay Affleck also adapted - will reunite in the near future.

"We are moving as a family to Los Angeles this summer," he explains, "and we're actually moving down the road from Ben. We have a production company together and I think we'll cook something up fairly soon."

When launching Promised Land at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Damon told reporters he was "very proud" of Affleck's recent success - in contrast to a decade earlier when the actor was dating singer Jennifer Lopez, and became known as "Bennifer" to the popular press.

"He's taken everything that was thrown at him on the chin, and disappeared from the Hollywood scene for a long time. It's been worth it."

Unlike his writing partner, Damon has enjoyed a steady rise in his career, becoming the star of the lucrative Bourne franchise as well as part of the Ocean's Eleven trilogy, and enjoying critical hits including Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Image caption The film received a Special Mention at the Berlin Film Festival

However, Promised Land caused controversy on its US release in December 2012 because of its subject matter.

The film was part-funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi. Conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation claimed that this state, as member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Companies (OPEC), had a direct interest in slowing the development of the natural gas industry.

In Pennsylvania, where the movie was filmed in 2012, the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition bought onscreen advertising space to be shown at the same time as the film.

Damon says he stands by "every frame of the film", but adds that the movie was not made for audiences to form a judgment on the issue, but to illustrate a real-life dilemma.

"It's a heart-breaking situation in rural America at the moment," says the actor.

"If you think a recession hits a city hard, go to the country instead. These farms are really struggling and something like fracking represents a lifeline to small farmers but there are potential risks to the environment which we try to explore."

However, Van Sant says he was at odds with some of the script.

"I'm from a farming community myself, and farmers exist to make money from their land.

"Unless it's truly adverse they're all for it. But a few times in our movie we have a crusty farmer questioning the salesman and I don't think that actually happens that often. Where we filmed their attitude was basically, 'welcome, corporations to our land'."

The film received a Special Mention at the Berlin Film Festival - but so far has only made half of its original budget back.

While Damon will soon star in the summer sci-fi blockbuster Elysium, directed by District 9's Neil Blomkampf, which is expected to be one of the biggest box-office draws of the year, he still admits Promised Land's performance has been "disappointing".

"Many films make money later on in their life, and audiences often find a film later on as well," he says. "I love it and can't understand where the criticism has come from."

Promised Land is released in the UK on 19 April.

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