Actor-screenwriter-producer Matt Damon, Part 1

Originally aired on December 11, 2012

The Oscar winner recaps his new feature, Promised Land—in which he stars and also co-wrote and co-produced.

Matt Damon has received accolades for work in front of and behind the camera. After earning industry attention with his turn as a drug-addicted soldier in Courage Under Fire, he won a best original screenplay Oscar for his breakthrough feature, Good Will Hunting (originally written while he attended Harvard). Damon went on to star in such high profile films as Ocean's Eleven and its sequels, the Jason Bourne trilogy and Invictus, which earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nod. The Boston native is also actively involved in charitable work, including co-founding Water.org and Not On Our Watch. Damon's new release is the drama, Promised Land.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Matt Damon to this program. The Oscar-nominated actor and Oscar-winning writer is out this month with a terrific new film called “Promised Land.” The movie will be playing in New York and L.A. in December and opening wider around the country come January.

Before we get to that and so much more, though, a look at a small sampling of Matt Damon’s outstanding work.

[Montage of clips of Matt Damon's work]

Tavis: Wow. Now on to the new project called “Promised Land,” also starring John Krasinski and Frances McDormand. Here now some scenes from “Promised Land.”

[Clip]

Tavis: I am so glad I have two nights with you. (Laughter) There is so much to talk about. I’m glad to have you here, first of all.

Matt Damon: Thank you very much. I’m really happy to be here.

Tavis: Thank you for finally – I’m glad to have you here finally for this two-night conversation. There’s so much to talk about. I think I want to start by asking me to tell me about Steve Butler.

Damon: Well, Steve Butler’s the character I play in “Promised Land,” and I wanted to write something – John Krasinski and I talked about the characters that I loved watching when I was younger, those Kazan characters, with the protagonist with that streak of self-loathing and internal conflict.

Steve’s somebody who at the beginning of the movie sees himself as a realist. He works for this company. He goes and he’s what you call a “land man.” These guys go in and they lease land for natural gas drilling. Talking to some of these land men, times are pretty tough out in these rural areas, so they go in there with all these promises of what can happen, and they’re injecting money in these local communities.

Oftentimes, they’re giving a lifeline to a farm that might be about to go under. So in Steve’s mind, he grew up in a farming town with the industry, the factory closed down and the town was all hollowed out. So in his mind he’s helping them hold on to a way of life. Then the story happens and he was kind of at a different place by the end of the movie.

Tavis: Yeah, and I was going to say, and then the magic starts to happen, where the town starts to change him a little bit and he starts to change the town a little bit.

Damon: Exactly, yeah, exactly. Yeah, really, in thematic terms the character gets fracked. (Laughter) So that’s kind of what happens to the town through these interactions with these people. He starts to reorient his thinking a little bit.

Tavis: Speaking of fracked, fracking, this subject matter is too deep for my feeble intellect, but I have been reading already a good amount of conversation about the issues that this film raises.

Obviously, as the writer of this, you had to know that when you put a film out like this there are going to be issues that are going to be raised, political issues –

Damon: Sure.

Tavis: – about some of the things in the film. So your assessment early on, we’ll see what happens as the film starts to come out and people start to talk more about it. But early on, what’s your read of what is already being said about the issues in the film?

Damon: Well, leaving the film out of it, it’s a very divisive issue and people feel very strongly one way or another. So for us, we wanted to make this movie about where we are in America right now, so it was really the perfect issue to use as a backdrop for that, to explore those themes, because the film covers where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we’re going, and what happens when big money collides with real people.

How do we make decisions as a country, as communities? Ultimately we wanted to make a pro-documentary, pro-community movie, and so there’s something – in the film at the end there’s a vote, and we never say what happens with the vote because where the character really arrives at the end is just that the decision needs to be made by, and deserves to be made by the people who will be affected by it.

Tavis: So what happens with the vote ultimately is incidental, in some way.

Damon: Right, because the movie is intended to just start a conversation.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Damon: We don’t want to preach to anybody.

Tavis: I was just about to ask, so I’m glad you said that. You’re a mind-reader, I see, on top of being a great thespian. How do you do this without proselytizing? This is not “Inside Job.” This is a different kind of project, obviously. But how do you take this kind of a story, make it a good story, a compelling story, without proselytizing?

Damon: I think for me it’s about the characters, and what John and I talked about when we were writing it was making sure we had characters who felt real, who felt three-dimensional, who didn’t – no one’s wearing the white hat, no one’s wearing the black hat.

We recognize all these people as people from our own lives. Lucas Black plays a character who gets $5,000 and goes and buys a Corvette. I know that guy. (Laughter) Fran McDormand is just so wonderful in the movie, but she’s making all of her decisions around her son, and she’s willing to rationalize a lot of things because she’s doing it for her kid, and I know that person, too.

So I think as long as the movie isn’t judging any of these people, what you’re really looking at is just the human cost of this type of issue, when a town is – because this issue of natural gas drilling, it really does tear apart communities, and there are thousands and thousands of communities in the country that are living through it right now.

Like when we were shooting, we were in western Pennsylvania, and it’s going on there. Everybody has an opinion about it. The first day we were shooting, a couple farmers showed up, said, “Hey, is this movie about fracking? Don’t say anything bad about that. We need that.”

Then other people came down and said, “Well, wait a minute, is this movie about fracking? Don’t say anything good about it, because this is terrible. It’s poisoning the water, people have serious health issues.”

So we found ourselves in the middle of that conversation, and on one side people say this is a lifeline, it’s saving us, and on the other side, people say, well, do you take your daughter to the whorehouse when times get tough? That’s literally the conversations that you hear when you are in the middle of these folks.

Tavis: Can you imagine an instance where there could be something that you had written, a screenplay that you’d written, where when you got to the point of filming it there was such a response instantaneously in the community that it might get you to reconsider what you had written or the direction that the film was going in, or is that completely a stupid question?

Damon: If the community itself came?

Tavis: Yeah.

Damon: Well, I mean -

Tavis: The community that you were filming in. Because to your point, this is a movie, but the real community around which you’re filming, people have thoughts and feelings about this. I wonder as a screenwriter, as the guy in charge of this production, whether or not you get tugged at one way or the other.

Damon: No, no, certainly. That’s exactly why we wanted to make it. Because it’s complex and the stakes are incredibly high for everybody. That’s why it’s exactly the movie we wanted to make. The fact that people are divided is why we wanted to explore it.

Tavis: Yeah. Tell me how – I’m curious, and again, I’m glad we’ve got a couple of nights to get into this – but you and I were talking before we came on camera here about the fact we have a mutual friend – hi, Terry. (Laughter) He knows who he is.

Terry Clayborn is a mutual friend of ours, and knowing Terry as I do, I doubt this ever got to you. But I told Terry a thousand times in conversations with him, tell Matt I’m a huge fan, I love his work. I didn’t mean just the acting, and he knows that I really talked about your heart and the kind of human rights work that you’ve committed yourself to, because that’s the most important thing, I think, in the long run.

But I’ve always been curious as to how, where, what triggered all of that. Because everybody doesn’t respond in the same way to the conditions in the world, the suffering that we see every day. So just take a moment to tell me how your mom, your dad, your family, your surroundings, how did that happen for you?

Damon: Yeah, I think that’s all just from, yeah, the parenting, and then the community I grew up in and the teachers. I think I was very lucky. I think I had a lot of social capital, and so when I found myself in this position of influence, I just – then I started to engage a bit with some of the problems in the world and realize that I could actually have an impact.

Then there was no way that I could with any conscience not try to help. That was where Water.org came from, was really starting to study issues of extreme poverty and realizing water and just how massive it was, and how it was underlying everything.

We live in a world, it’s very hard for Americans to understand that every 20 seconds a kid dies, a kid under the age of five, right, dies somewhere on the Earth because of lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Every 20 seconds that happens on our planet. It’s just very hard for us to relate to. These kids are dying from diarrhea, from things like that.

We don’t know anybody that that happens to. It just doesn’t happen here, because we’ve had that problem solved. None of us can even relate. Maybe we have stories about our grandfather or their father, and they didn’t have running water.

But for us, for most of us, the kitchen sink is not that far away, or the bathroom sink, and we can’t understand that the water in our toilet is cleaner than 880 million have access to.

Tavis: Andy Garcia, another fine actor, was just on this program I think a week or so ago, in this very chair, and he has a new movie out about this issue, about a particular place in South America, as I recall, where water has become the issue over which a fight is breaking out.

I raise that only because I’m curious as to your take into the future, how serious the fight over water will be. We think of – there are too many wars, of course, in the world as we speak, but my read on this suggests to me that water is going to be the resource into the future that we’re really – that countries, nations, are going to be fighting for control over.

Damon: Yeah, there’s a lot of speculation that that’s where it’s going, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Damon: Again, Water.org, our main concern is just right now getting clean water to people in the developing world, but no, there are a lot of people, and I’ve read some things about that, and it does seem to make a lot of sense, that that might be where we’re headed.

Tavis: I’ve asked this question of others and I’m particularly curious about your process in this regard. How do you go about choosing the kind of stuff that you want to do, particularly at this point in your career, given that you do have things in the world that you really do care about, that you’re really passionate about.

And, of course, you’re an actor – you want to entertain us as well. So how do you, Matt Damon, go about making choices about what you want to do at this stage in your career?

Damon: I think at this point a lot of it’s intuitive in terms of when I read a piece of material or I hear about a project. I’m a writer, so I’ve written movies. I’ve read at this point thousands and thousands and thousands of screenplays. So if something gets me, then I don’t ignore that. Then it’s happening for a reason.

But oftentimes when I’m deciding to do a movie, the main thing is really, that I look at, is the director. I’ve come to feel that more and more. The more movies I’ve done and the older I’ve – the more experience I have, I always knew it was a director’s medium, and I always said that, but I really understand what that means now.

Tavis: For those who don’t get that, about why you put such a premium on who the director is, tell me more.

Damon: Well, the director’s in charge of every single decision. It’s a dictatorship. (Laughter) It’s a benevolent dictatorship, but it’s true. It’s every single shot. There’s nothing arbitrary. I’ll give you an example.

In “Promised Land,” there’s the shot where I go to pitch one of these leases to a farmer who’s down on his luck, and he’s got a little daughter, six or seven years old, little daughter with these blonde curls.

We go into his house and we’re in one room and the daughter’s in the kitchen. So Gus Van Sant, the director, gives the daughter a coloring book, this little actress, this little seven-year-old, and she does what most seven-year-olds do – she starts dutifully coloring in her coloring book and forgets that a camera’s there.

So he frames the shot. The camera’s about six feet away from this girl. She’s in the foreground, very prominent in the foreground, taking up maybe a third or half the screen, and in the background you see her father in another room, sitting on a couch in his beekeeper’s, dirty beekeeper’s outfit.

Then you see the land man, me, but you just see my hands, because there’s a door frame. So you can’t see me but you see my hands and this clipboard, and you hear us start talking. And the camera slowly starts to push in on the girl innocently coloring in the coloring book.

What you have right there is the visual expression of the entire thing. It’s one generation making a deal behind the back of another generation that’s going to pay the consequences, who’s going to live with the consequences, one way or another.

She’s oblivious and innocent and just coloring in her coloring book. That’s directing. John Krasinski and I, we saw that shot and we’re high-fiving each other. We wrote this and we didn’t even think that. (Laughter) That’s the way a lot of times you can just lose all the dialogue in a scene and you can know exactly what it is, because the director’s shooting it exactly the right way.

Tavis: Did I read somewhere – and I don’t believe everything I read, but you’re going to tell me the truth here – that you either were scheduled to or wanted to or thought about directing this, but it just didn’t work out, speaking of Gus Van Sant?

Damon: Yeah, I was supposed to direct it and I was writing it thinking that that was going to happen. Then just for personal reasons I went long on another movie and I’d been in Mexico, and my kids had had to start school in New York.

So I’d been away from them, I was commuting. On days off I would fly back and then fly, and it was really rough on the whole family. I looked at my schedule and realized I was going to have to start two weeks after I got home, and I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t the right time for my family.

So I got that hack, Gus Van Sant, to do it. (Laughter) In fact, that’s the joke. John Krasinski and I say that my biggest contribution as a producer was firing myself as the director. That’s probably true.

Tavis: I have seen you in any number of situations, seen and read in any number of situations where you have made mention of the fact in one form or another that your family is at the epicenter of so many decisions that you make.

I’m not putting anything on you that most people don’t consider.

Damon: Sure.

Tavis: I think most people of good conscience make decisions with their family in mind. But you seem to have – they have primacy about how long you stay away, about where you go, about when you shoot, where you shoot, whether you’re going to direct a project or not.

Damon: Yeah. Yeah, that’s just how it works for us, and it’s a personal decision for everybody. All parents are trying to balance. Look, I’m lucky in the sense that I can control my hours. I can choose my jobs, and not everybody has that choice. But I definitely, it’s a family decision every time I take a job.

Tavis: You used the word “control.” I want to pick up on that word, if I can. Is writing just for you a creative expression, or is it also, between the two of us, about control? And if it is, I ain’t mad at you. I’m just asking.

Damon: No. Look, ultimately, again, it’s a director’s medium, so I’m giving that control away at the end. So no, I don’t feel like it’s necessarily about control. Early on, Ben Affleck and I, nobody would hire us. So it was about control in the sense that we were like so many young people in L.A. who are trying to break in as actors.

It’s very frustrating, not just because you’re getting rejected constantly, but also because you’re at a time in your life where you have an enormous amount of creative energy, and there’s no way to express it. That’s why a lot of people get into drinking or drugs or whatever.

Ben and I talked about trying to channel it somewhere, and the script was a good way to do that, because it kept us focused and it captured that creative energy which otherwise would have just been frittered away in some other way. So in one sense it was about control then. Now if there’s an idea I think is really good and I feel like I can write it, then I’ll do it. But I don’t know that that’s about control, necessarily.

Tavis: I don’t know how to frame this question, but I’m going to ask it and you’ll do justice to it, I’m certain. Given that you started out as a writer, to your point, because you couldn’t get hired at first, what kind of freedom, liberty, I’m trying to find the right word here, has the writing, knowing that you can write, knowing that you can write really good stuff, knowing that the good stuff you write can be made, so that you’re not ever stuck in this actor’s lane, if I can use that – you see what I’m getting at?

Damon: Yeah, no, I do.

Tavis: How have you processed that?

Damon: Well, it just means that I don’t have to make decisions out of fear.

Tavis: That’s what I was trying to get to. Thank you, I appreciate that.

Damon: Yeah. No, but Ben’s a great example, because he got put in actor jail about 10 years ago.

Tavis: (Laughter) Say that again? “Actor jail?”

Damon: Actor jail. It’s not as bad as jail, but for what we do, it’s not very good.

Tavis: Right.

Damon: I remember talking to him at the time when the tabloid stuff was at the height for him, and he said – he was very, very aware. He said, “Look, I’m in the worst place you can be. I sell magazines and not movie tickets.” That’s actor jail, right? You want people – the ideal life is you don’t sell a single magazine, nobody’s interested, but they want to come see your movie. Because that gives you true freedom.

But he was in the opposite place, but he never had to panic because what he had to do was do what he’d done before. He had to write his way back twice. He’d done it once with “Good Will Hunting,” and now he had to do it again. So he directed “Gone, Baby, Gone,” which he wrote. He adapted that screenplay, which was a big critical success.

Then that got him “The Town,” and he rewrote “The Town” and then directed that and starred in that, and that was a huge success, and now he’s at “Argo,” where -

Tavis: Which is amazing.

Damon: Which is amazing.

Tavis: I love that project.

Damon: It’s great.

Tavis: I love it, yeah.

Damon: But it’s all a function of his ability as a writer, as a director, and that gives him a certain amount of freedom, to not have to live in fear of well, is the – because if you’re just an actor you’re reactive. You’re saying, “Well, I hope Hollywood gives me a role, or gives me a chance at a role,” whereas if you can generate your own content, then you can go where you want to go.

Tavis: Told you 30 minutes ago I was glad I had two nights with Matt Damon, because I’ve got a whole lot more questions, and I’m just getting started. So we’ll continue this tomorrow night with Matt Damon. Once again, the new film is called “Promised Land.” We’ll see you here tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Bobie

    I’ve always been impressed with Matt and Ben. It’s just wonderful to observe such talented, humane actor’s, whose done, and doing POSITIVE things with their lives and EARNED incomes!

    Too bad we can’t see individuals like them as our President.

    Thank you Tavis, for bringing Humanitarians like Matt Damon to visit us on a Personal, Caring, and Intellectual level. Bobie Tulsa OK

Last modified: September 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm