Promised Land has been met with a few Frank Capra comparisons, clearly establishing it as one of director Gus Van Sant‘s more easily digestible and accessible pictures. The filmmaker has never been afraid to test an audience’s patience or make them feel truly uncomfortable, but the new Matt Damon- and John Krasinski-penned movie isn’t one of those pictures. If anything, Promised Land, the story of a man trying to convince a small town to turn towards big business fracking, fits in quite neatly with Van Sant’s other, softer pictures: Milk, Good Will Hunting, and Finding Forrester. Those are his audience-friendly movies, the kind you’d pick watching with your grandma over, say, To Die For or Elephant.
Speaking with the highly acclaimed Van Sant, we discussed his relationship with his audience, the process of test screening, and the investigations his characters tend to go on:
Is testing a movie important for you?
It’s interesting. If I don’t officially test a film, I will show the movie to a group anyway. It’s not really a test, but playing it for an audience.
Do those tend to be friends and filmmakers screenings?
I’ll do at least one. I don’t do it a lot, you know?
Was there anything you learned about Promised Land from those screenings?
Yeah. Those screenings were official tests which asked, like, two pages of questions. We gained a lot of information. The general questions were…I think one of the things about those tests is, if you ask an audience about the pace of a movie, they’ll always say it’s too slow or too long. That one is invalid, since they always say that. I think I learned about if somethings were understood over what we were trying to get across. We learned how favorable they were, by the percentages, if you read them a certain way. They seemed to be very agreeable to the movie. I believe we only tested it once.
Is that ever tough, having your movie reduced to percentages?
Yeah, but, since it’s a test…I guess, I can use the numbers, but not with how much money should be put into the advertising. I use them to get a feeling for what people think of the movie. They are used for many different things, you know?
When you have movies like Paranoid Park and Elephant, do you test those?
No, because HBO doesn’t test. Well, at least Elephant was HBO. They have market screenings, but they don’t use them to decide how to edit the movie. You’re not part of those, if they do test them. For Paranoid Park, I think we just had friends and family.
Since those type of movies aren’t for everyone, do you even see the need to test them?
The only way to have a real, honest test is…it’s a little hard and costly. You can do your own faked up version of it, but unless it’s done by the Nielsen company, it doesn’t feel like a real test [Laughs]. Not that they can’t screw it up, because they can. It’s a whole weird world. If you want to maneuver the tests, you can get high scores and low scores, depending how you position your film. Like, for To Die For, we tested it two or three times. For whatever reason, they didn’t really have a “dark comedy” category for movies they wanted to sell at Sony, so they had us tested as a “romantic comedy.” When you get people in there based on Sleepless in Seattle, it’s just a turnoff. I mean, it’s about a woman who manipulates a man into killing her husband. People make that their date night, so they get disappointed when you show them this downer. When you ask what they think about it, they’ll give you a bad score, since they’re mad at you.
You know, you can manipulate things to make the scores go up and down. Nowadays, most people are pretty savvy, that most people are going into a movie with a certain knowledge over what it’s about. They way you recruit people is by giving them a rundown or a synopsis of a story, as if they’ve seen marketing on TV or read articles about it. You prepare them. When we tested Good Will Hunting, he wanted everyone to be aware. He wouldn’t let people into the screening who hadn’t seen three serious Robin Williams movies. He stressed it wasn’t a Robin Williams comedy, so you weren’t allowed in if you hadn’t seen three of his serious movies, as a way to prepare for the audience.
Once you’re done with that process and the movie is out in the world, are you done with it? Do you do a lot of reflection?
I’m not done with it until it comes out in theaters. After that, I’m done with it.
If Good Will Hunting is on television, will you rewatch it and analyze it?
I haven’t. I mean, I saw it in a screening for its anniversary, but only the end part. I don’t know about analyzing it, but I did do that for Drugstore Cowboy. Now I realize that movie is about a hex more than I ever remember it being, so it could’ve been called “The Hex.”
So your thoughts on a more don’t change too much over time?
In that case, it did. Your perspective does change.
When you’re working on more conventional stories, like Promised Land or Milk, do you still find moments for experimentation?
With the camera, you can always experiment. With the script, we didn’t, but I guess we could have. We were pretty much working under a tight schedule, so we were just going for what was written down. In this case, no. For Drugstore Cowboy, we did, in changing the dialog. The editing and shooting, not so much. We stick with the material.
Do you experiment a lot with editing?
Oh, yeah, for sure.
Can you recall any unexpected moment or change on Promised Land you found in editing?
We constructed the entire story in the editing room. If you compare the script and the scenes in the movie…unless you read a copy of the movie. Things were in different order in the original script. Like, we put scene 100 in 36 — that kind of stuff. They really shuffle like cards.
Do you try that on other projects, to see what you get?
Well, not to see what you get, but the order would appear we shuffled them like cards. We do it with intent. Yeah, I did that with To Die For. Things were completely changed. It depends on the movie.
I know we talked a little bit about this earlier, but going back to reflection, do you ever think about how your work ties together?
Yeah, I’ve thought about it. I think there’s grouping of films that all try to show you things you may not know, but there’s different techniques. For Good Will Hunting, it’s teaching the audience how a character cannot realize, no matter how smart he is, he’s stuck in a rut. Psychologically there’s something impeding him or the audience. For Finding Forrester, it’s pretty much a “how to write”; he’s teaching him how to write. In Promised Land, we’re letting you know about the different points of view of hydraulic fracturing. The other films, they’re different, but still investigative. Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days…two of them were in the press a lot, but they’re all films where there’s unsolved mysteries. Just through playing out the events, it’s setting up your imagination to let you decide what happened in the mystery. There’s other groupings too.
Promised Land opens in theaters on December 28th.