Good Will Hunting: An Oral History

Fifteen years after the release of the movie that made them stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck—along with the rest of the cast and crew—reflect in their own words on how a long-shot film by two unknowns became one of Hollywood’s biggest success stories.

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

good will hunting oral historyBen Affleck and Matt Damon, as Chuckie and Will, in the L Street Tavern. (All photos courtesy of Miramax)

It’s hard to remember life without Matt and Ben.

But there was a time—before Jason Bourne, before Bennifer, and, yes, before Gigli—when they were just two struggling actors from Cambridge. Then came their script about a bunch of kids from Southie scraping their way through life. The hook: One of them, Will Hunting, is a genius, a guy who wows MIT, humiliates Harvard grad students, and turns down job offers from the National Security Agency.

Upon its wide release in January 1998, Good Will Hunting became a sleeper hit, eventually grossing $226 million worldwide and garnering nine Academy Award nominations. Robin Williams won the Oscar for best supporting actor, and Matt and Ben—who took their moms as dates to the ceremony—walked away with the award for best screenplay.

Today, the movie is beloved from coast to coast, but nowhere more than right here in Boston. With its authentic, affectionate portrayal of the city and some of its rough-around-the-edges characters, the film—and its stars—won our hearts.

A decade and a half later, Matt and Ben are bona fide stars, with more Oscars in their sights. This month, Damon and Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant will release their third movie together, Promised Land, which was cowritten by Damon. Affleck, meanwhile, recently directed and starred in Argo, his movie about the Iranian hostage crisis. Next up, the pair is planning to reunite and return to Boston to film a movie based on the life of Whitey Bulger—Damon will play the gangster, and Affleck will direct.

Still: How did we get here? To find out, we spoke with Damon, Affleck, Williams, Van Sant, and many of the movie’s cast and crew members. How do you like them apples?

 

good will hunting oral history

Damon and Affleck grew up in Cambridge and attended Rindge & Latin School, where they took drama classes together. After high school, Damon went to Harvard, while Affleck moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College. It was in L.A. that they connected with Chris Moore, a young Harvard alum who was just beginning to produce films.

Matt Damon: I was in my fifth year at Harvard, and I had a few electives left. There was this playwriting class and the culmination of it was to write a one-act play, and I just started writing a movie. So I handed the professor at the end of the semester a 40-some-odd-page document, and said, “Look, I might have failed your class, but it is the first act of something longer.”

Anthony Kubiak (Damon’s professor at Harvard): The thing that they always say when you submit a script to an agent is that they read the first page and they read the middle, and they can tell if they want to continue. They can see whether you can capture the human voice and dialogue. And that was all over this work. It was very authentic and real.

Damon: I was gonna be getting out of school in two or three months when I got a part in the movie Geronimo: An American Legend. I went out to Los Angeles and stayed with Ben. I slept on his floor. I brought my Act I of the Good Will Hunting script and gave it to him.

Ben Affleck: Matt said, “Look, will you help me write this? I’m not sure what it is or where to go.” So we started writing it sort of back and forth.

Damon: The only scene that survived from that document—it survived verbatim, actually—is the first time that I meet Robin [Williams].

Chris Moore (producer): We had been working on Glory Daze—that’s how I met Ben. And I always liked Matt, because we’d met in Cambridge. They said they had this script they’d been working on. So I said, “Sure, I’ll read the script.”

Damon: It was the first thing we woke up thinking about and the last thing we thought about before going to bed.

Affleck: We came up with this idea of the brilliant kid and his townie friends, where he was special and the government wanted to get their mitts on him. And it had a very Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run sensibility, where the kids from Boston were giving the NSA the slip all the time. We would improvise and drink like six or twelve beers or whatever and record it with a tape recorder. At the time we imagined the professor and the shrink would be Morgan Freeman and De Niro, so we’d do our imitations of Freeman and De Niro. It was kind of hopelessly naive and probably really embarrassing in that respect.

Moore: They wrote a great script, and I read it and was like, “This is one of the best scripts I have ever read, and I would love to produce it.” The three of us agreed we would try to get it made.

 

The script was completed in 1994, at which point Damon and Affleck approached their agent, who started shopping it around.

Patrick Whitesell (agent): Matt had talked about the script he was writing with Ben. Usually when you get a script from actors you don’t have high expectations.

Damon: I didn’t realize the stereotype at the time was that every actor has a screenplay.

Whitesell: I read it over the weekend and I was blown away. It’s almost an impossible thing to get a movie made that is written by two actors who want to star in it, when no one knows who they are. The only time it happened that I know of was when Sylvester Stallone did it in Rocky.

Damon: Nobody knew us. They knew we’d worked. We had résumés with movies on them. I think Ben had done Dazed and Confused and we’d both done School Ties, so we had these résumés that had some professional work on them.

Whitesell: I went out with it on the weekend to every studio in town and we said, “Here are these guys, and they have to star in it.”

Damon: We never cared about money—we wanted to be in the movie. That was our only thing. That was our big ask.

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