Finding PROMISED LAND

The Locations and Locals of an American Small Town.

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Matt  Damon Scott GreenMatt Damon stars as Steve Butler in Gus Van Sant's contemporary drama PROMISED LAND, a Focus Features release.
It is never specified in PROMISED LAND in which state McKinley is located; as actor and screenwriter star Matt Damon notes, “That’s on purpose, because it’s meant to be Anywhereville, USA.”

Actor and screenwriter John 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 Hal 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 Rosemarie 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, producer Chris 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.”

After scouting some 60-plus towns “where the conversations that happen in our story were ongoing,” Adkins was joined by Clancy to narrow the field(s). “Dan and I hit it off from the outset – which was a good thing, since we spent hours and hours together in my Jeep – and he and I were like-minded in how we envisioned things for the movie, for the aesthetic Gus wanted.”

Clancy muses, “Farms are harder to find these days, yet the town was the toughest location for the whole picture. It couldn’t be too big, but it couldn’t be too small. It had to have a certain decayed look yet be far from destroyed. It had to be able to tell our story.”

Avonmore, PA, in Westmoreland County, settled in the early 18th century, filled the bill. Its profile has progressed from farming community to industrial town, with coal mining now second to steel mills among local vocations. Numerous residents commute to Pittsburgh for their daily jobs, but make their homes in Avonmore amidst a diverse community numbering over 1,000.

Indiana Avenue in Avonmore evolved into McKinley’s Main Street, with varying colors and architectural styles that reveal a once-booming past through frayed edges as well as pride and a tenacious hope for the future. Van Sant responded strongly to the setting, from which Clancy’s team elicited something “a little like Norman Rockwell’s imagery, and a little bittersweet.”

When the production moved in, it crafted complete façades and signage for McKinley storefronts on Indiana Avenue: a bakery, a general store, a VFW outpost, a post office, and more. Rob’s Guns, Groceries, Guitars and Gas was created out of an empty space.

Clancy says that the ideal was to “detail the lifeblood of McKinley, the why and the how of people living in this small town – and what would drive them to save it.”

“When we were in Avonmore, there was a lot of natural gas business being conducted, similar to what’s in our movie,” muses Van Sant.

Avonmore’s bar My Buddy’s Place was slightly altered to become the film’s bar Buddy’s Place. Welliver laughs, “Watching those scenes, you’ll be able to smell the peanuts and the beer.”

Adkins enthuses, “It gifted us with three different settings under one roof – the pool table area, the bands-and-karaoke area, and the bar itself where hundreds and hundreds of names have been carved into it.

“Most importantly, the place was big enough to fit in cast and crew and equipment. The owner, Gerri Bumbaugh, was accommodating; she developed a quick friendship with Gus, and you can catch her tending bar in the scenes in the movie.”

As on previous movies, Van Sant sought to integrate into his cast locals who were not professional actors. On PROMISED LAND, this enhanced the verisimilitude of scenes calling for dozens of community members as well as made for invigorating on-camera interactions with the main actors.

Multiple open calls were held, each attracting hundreds who auditioned. Ultimately, some 500 people were employed by the production as extras. The production also drew from the region’s talent pools of professional actors, including working child actors who were cast as several of the youngest characters.

Whether getting on-camera or not, the townspeople welcomed the movie people with open arms. Penny Dunmire, a lifetime resident of Avonmore and secretary of the Avonmore Community Association, says, “Our newest industry is tourism, with kayaking and canoeing on the river, and here was something bringing a lot of people into town for the first time – people who were so wonderful to us.

“It’s a source of pride for us that this movie was made in Avonmore. You could not believe the excitement. Everybody was enthralled by the filmmaking process.”