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 historyFrom MIT and Harvard Square to the Public Garden and Southie, the movie captured the heart of the city.

Whitesell: In Hollywood, there’s a network of creative executives, and when they hear something is good it catches fire. My phone started ringing like crazy. Everyone wanted to sit down with Matt and Ben. It started getting hot. There was a bidding war.

Damon: Patrick Whitesell, in the span of just four days, kind of whipped the town into this frenzy. We sold it to Castle Rock, which was our very first choice. They had a great reputation.

Affleck: I remember it was printed in Daily Variety that we were going to get $600,000 on it. We had no credit, so we went to rent this house that was $3,000 a month, and we used a copy of the Daily Variety to get the place. I was like, “I don’t have credit, but this is who we are.” And the landlord was like, “All right, sure.” We thought $600,000 would take care of us for 20 years, so we rented nicer apartments and each bought Jeep Cherokees. And we were completely broke in a year.

Damon: We started working out because we were like, “We gotta get in shape for the movie”—four years before it got made. I remember just feeling like the film moved at such a glacial pace.

Moore: Rob Reiner at Castle Rock said, “Look, you have two movies in this script, and the movies are fighting each other. There’s the thriller aspect of the kids from Southie thwarting the big government agency, and then there’s this really awesome character story about this math genius and his relationship with this shrink. And we don’t think those two can live together.” And to their credit, Castle Rock said, “You guys wrote a great script and you’re the stars of the movie, so we’re putting it to you. You’ve got to pick one.”

Damon: At first we were terrified because we had this 120-to-130-page script, and once we removed the NSA stuff it was 60 pages. We were going, “What’s the movie then? What happens?”

Affleck: It was a complete overhaul.

 

Castle Rock liked the new script, which focused on Will Hunting, but disagreements over who would direct the movie almost torpedoed the project.

Affleck: When the question came up, we would say, “We’ll direct it!” and there would be silence in the room. It was a polite silence, like, “Are you high?” But it was the beginning of my own directorial ambition.

Moore: So Castle Rock, in my opinion, did the right thing, and said, “Okay, we have a creative disagreement. Even though we own the script and we could fire you guys, we’ll give you time to go out and find somebody who will buy your version of the movie. But there’s a price tag: We want to get our money back, and if you can’t find anybody to buy it, when it comes back to us, you guys are not the stars.”

Affleck: They told us that someone else would direct it, rewrite it, act in it, and that we’d be lucky to fucking get invited to a premiere. But instead of scaring us, it kind of emboldened us. Because then we really thought, Fuck this. We’re gonna go out there and do it.

Damon: At that point Castle Rock was having us do these rewrites and we were going in circles.

Affleck: We were so frustrated that Castle Rock wasn’t reading the script, so we felt like we had to develop this test. We started writing in screen direction like, “Sean talks to Will and unloads his conscience.” And then: “Will takes a moment and then gives Sean a soulful look and leans in and starts blowing him.”

Damon: They weren’t reading the script closely anymore. It was literally probably a full paragraph about what these two characters were doing to each other.

Affleck: We would turn that in, and they wouldn’t ever mention all those scenes where Sean and Will were jerking each other off.

Damon: Over the following weeks, we went back to meet with all of the studios who had bid on it who we hadn’t gone with, and basically everybody took the meeting just to tell us to go fuck ourselves.

Affleck: We went back to Ted Field at Interscope, who had offered us a million dollars. And then we got in the room with him and he was like, “I’ll tell you why I took this meeting: Because I’m going to tell you I’m going to pass.” I actually used that as inspiration for a scene in Argo. That’s when the dryness started to take hold in the back of the throat. Like we might be cooked.

Damon: Ben gave it to [Chasing Amy director] Kevin Smith and said, “Will you please save us? Will you direct this movie?” And Kevin read the script and was unbelievably kind. I still remember the message. He said, “I wouldn’t dare direct this movie, this is so beautiful.” Kevin went in personally to Harvey Weinstein’s office at Miramax and handed him the script, and basically said, “Drop everything you’re doing right now and read this.”

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