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.
Van Sant: It was early in the morning and we were in the Bowery Hotel, and for whatever reason we had stayed up really late, so we were in a vulnerable state. And she was really good. I mean she is a really great actress, so she just blew us away.
Bender: The other really hard role was the one that Stellan Skarsgard played, Gerry Lambeau. It was such a pivotal role, and we just couldn’t find the right person.
Stellan Skarsgard (Gerald Lambeau): I was in Rhode Island shooting Amistad with Spielberg, and I was sent the script. I didn’t consider turning it down, ever. I had to go to Boston and see the boys and Gus. We went out to some bars in South Boston. The driver was so afraid that his black car would be destroyed there. It was pretty dangerous back then.
Damon: And then one night we took Robin to the L Street Tavern….
Affleck: Robin wanted to get a taste of Boston. I remember thinking, This is a fucking mistake. I mean, you gotta remember Whitey Bulger was still around and running things. And then it just turns into a mob scene. Guys got really drunk and wanted to fight me because I had my hat on backwards.
Williams: I remember this guy came up with a heavy Irish accent, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, and another guy, a Southie guy, said, “He wants to know where your private plane is.”
Charlie Harrington (Boston location scout): The whole neighborhood found out about it, and we kind of got mobbed and left. I remember Matt and Ben looking at it and thinking, I wonder if this will ever happen to me?
Damon: When Robin got a feel for that place, he called Harvey and was like, “We have to shoot this bar,” even though he wasn’t in any of those scenes. So then we got a message from Harvey and he was like, “DON’T TAKE ROBIN TO ANY MORE LOCATIONS!” It was because of Robin that we got to shoot at the L Street.
Shooting started on April 14, 1997, and was completed in just nine weeks.
Missy Stewart (production designer): We would talk about what would make it more “Boston.”
Moore: We had this costume designer, Beatrix, who came from Eastern Europe. The wardrobe she picked for the first day for the four guys so freaked us out that we had this mini meltdown. They were working class, but she dressed them almost like homeless people. Casey and Ben were trying to convince her, Look, these guys are poor, but the way they show their thing is they buy name-brand shit. They wear the Nike sweatsuit or the Adidas sweatsuit. In one of those panicked producer calls, I called Reebok and was like, “Look, I need some sweatpants.” It was five in the morning because we were trying to get a shot when the sun came up and this lady from Reebok got out of bed, showed up, brought all the stuff. Then there were the marketing people, who were hoping we would use chain restaurants so that maybe they could get a marketing tie-in. Matt and Ben kept saying, “No. We gotta go to Kelly’s Roast Beef. We gotta eat at the Tasty.”
Bender: I’ll never forget the first day of shooting. After it, Matt and Ben and Gus went in for this big hug. This was their baby, more than anyone else.
Damon: The very first day, I remember we started crying, because it was a scene between Robin and Stellan. And when Gus called action and we watched these guys—I mean accomplished actors—do our scene verbatim, we had waited so long for this to happen. I remember just sitting next to Ben and I had tears rolling down my cheeks because I was just so happy and relieved that it was really happening.
Affleck: We did tear up a little bit. But why is Matt saying this shit? Like, he holds his fucking tongue for 15 years and now because it’s Boston magazine, he says he started crying? His career is not over, you know what I mean? He needs people to believe that he’s like Jason Bourne or whatever!
The movie was centered on the relationship between Will Hunting, played by Damon, and therapist Sean Maguire, Robin Williams’s character.
Van Sant: The main scene for me in the movie is the first time Will meets Sean, that was always kind of the best scene. And it was also the original scene that Matt wrote. Sean was a sad character, and Will discovers that he has this Achilles’ heel.
Williams: It was reacting to him and listening to him, as a therapist and also a therapist who has a history, and him kind of pushing my buttons and me trying to stop him from doing that and literally going, “I know what you’re doing here.” And finally he pushes the wrong button and the next thing, Sean just snaps.
Su Armstrong (executive producer): I think the scene that comes back to me a lot—it was such a surprise when we were shooting—is when Will attacks Sean about his wife and Sean just slams him against the wall and basically says, “Don’t you talk about something you don’t know.” I was so shocked the set didn’t fall down, because it was so violent.
Williams: You know that line, “I’ll end you”? Matt or Ben said that they were in a bar when they saw this big guy picking on this little guy and saying, “Hey, I’ll kick your ass,” and all of a sudden the little guy got right in his face and said, “I will fucking end you.”
Moore: When Robin and Matt were shooting the scene on the bench in the Public Garden, in the movie it seems like they’re the only people in the park. And Robin at this time is a massive star. The Boston police deserve a lot of credit for helping us with this because it was not part of our deal with them. We ended up at one point with over 3,000 people out there, watching that scene.
Williams: While shooting the scene that day, I would ask Gus what to do, and he would say, “Just keep talking to him, just keep listening to him.” It was intimate, simple. I’m sitting down with him in this beautiful place in the Public Garden, and it was kind of this surreal thing with these swan boats.
Damon: Robin’s best addition is the last line of the film. There was nothing scripted there. He opens the mailbox and reads the note that I had written him. Gus and I were right next to the camera, because every time he came out for a new take I would read the letter to him because it’s a voiceover. He came out saying different lines every single time. When he said, “Son of a bitch stole my line,” I grabbed Gus. It was like a bolt, it was just one of those holy-shit moments where, like, that’s it.
The most famous scene in the movie involves Will coming to the defense of his best friend, Chuckie, who’s being taunted by a cocky Harvard graduate student at a Cambridge bar. After Will dresses down the grad student, he wins over Skylar.
Affleck: Shooting in Harvard Square was a big deal for me. It’s a quarter-mile from our high school, Rindge & Latin—and we’d go there after school, and out there to drink when we got older. It was sort of the nexus of our social life in a lot of ways. So getting to bring the circus home was a really fun thing.
Chris Moore: The Harvard bar scene has got so much going on. He has to meet the girl, we have to learn he hates smart people, that these guys are townies, and that his boys have his back. Then it wraps up with the famous “How do you like them apples?” It is, entertainment-wise, one of my favorite scenes.