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Locally made 'Promised Land' eyes drilling controversy

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Focus Features
Matt Damon (left) stars as Steve Butker and John Krasinski stars as Dustin Noble in Gus Van Sant's 'Promised Land.'

Another fracking controversy is brewing. But this one is on the big screen.

“Promised Land,” which opens Friday, is a film whose fictional story revolves around the controversial practice of crushing shale underground to release reserves of natural gas. Parts of the story were filmed in the region in April and May, primarily in Avonmore in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Matt Damon stars as a land agent for a global natural gas company. He travels to the economically depressed town of McKinley, where he deploys an aw-shucks charm to persuade local farmers and other landowners to lease their land for hydraulic fracturing. While some see the offer as the chance at economic rebirth, an environmental activist played by John Krasinski (“The Office”) begins rallying residents against the idea. The two antagonists also compete for the affections of a local schoolteacher played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Frances McDormand, a 1975 graduate of Monessen High School, plays Damon's associate.

Damon and Krasinski co-wrote the screenplay. Directing the film is Gus Van Sant, who directed Damon in “Good Will Hunting.”

As of October, more than 4,000 well permits have been issued in the state, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. By comparison, more than 350,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since the first commercial oil well was developed in 1859. The commonwealth first began regulating drilling in 1956. Industry estimates say a typical well could generate $4 million for landowners over its life. Some environmentalists and health officials say not enough research has been done on the potential hazards.

And attorneys such as James J. Brink say landowners can be duped. Brink and Steven C. Townsend are partners at ShaleAdvice LLC, Downtown. They represent landowners to make sure they get fair terms when they lease their land to natural gas companies.

“I've been to meetings where we'd be sitting in the back and listening to what is being said by gas companies,” he says. “The first thing out of their mouths is, ‘Everybody in this room will be a millionaire.' That's not true.

“The folks are promised that the streets could be paved with bricks of gold,” Brink says. “Then they realize they've signed something that's going to affect their land for the rest of their lives and their children's lives.”

But others say environmental fears are exaggerated.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a local nonprofit coalition, will run ads at selected “Promised Land” showings, says spokesman Travis Windle. The ads will direct audiences to a web-site called learnaboutshale.org.

“A lot of folks think they understand the nuclear industry because they've seen ‘The Simpsons,' but we don't want people to walk away from this fictional film thinking it's an accurate depiction of how the natural gas industry conducts its business,” Windle says.

“Promised Land” also was shot in New Alexandria, Apollo, Delmont, Export, Slate Lick, West Mifflin, Worthington and the Grand Concourse at Station Square in Pittsburgh.

Donna Belajac served as location casting director for the film. She cast about 15 speaking roles. Generally, she auditioned 20 to 30 actors for each part. She composed a description of each character after consulting with director Van Sant. She says the director was keen on hiring actors who looked like everyday people.

“It was mostly professional actors with a handful of regular people who had a good look,” she says.

The latter included non-actor Gerri Bumbaugh, owner of My Buddy's Place, a bar in Avonmore where several scenes were shot. She plays a bartender named Jesse who makes a bet with Damon's character that involves doing shots of vodka. Damon doesn't realize that she's actually pounding down shots of water.

“It was pretty easy, because that's what I do, (work as a) bartender,” she says.

Bambaugh describes Damon and Krasinski as “very nice guys. We had a good time.”

Krasinski has family ties to the Pittsburgh area — his grandparents, the late Leo and Regina Krasinski, were residents of Natrona Heights, Harrison, and other relatives still live here.

Bambaugh says Krasinski's parents visited the set. “He took me over and introduced me to them,” she says.

The film's subject has generated some strong opinions locally.

“I know several guys that do that for a living,” she says. “A lot of them were kind of mad, but others said, ‘It's only a movie.'”

William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at wloeffler@tribweb.com or 412-320-7986.

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