How Elliott Smith’s Music Transformed Good Will Hunting

The script actually called for world music.

It’s hard to watch Good Will Hunting and not immediately be drawn in by its music. The film was scored by Danny Elfman, who did a masterful job creating the music that teases out the dramatic tension in scenes like the one below. But it’s Elliott Smith that steals the show with his spare, heartfelt songs that make up the bulk of the soundtrack. (Confession: Both the soundtrack and Smith’s seminal album XO were on heavy rotation on my CD player in college). Smith wrote an original song, “Miss Misery,” for Good Will Hunting, and it was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar, meaning he had to take the stage after Celine Dion had belted out the Titanic theme, “My Heart Will Go On” (which would eventually win, surprising just about no one.) Later, Smith told the Globe what it was like to perform before the biggest audience of his entire life: “[T]he Oscars was a very strange show, where the set was only one song cut down to less than two minutes, and the audience was a lot of people who didn’t come to hear me play. I wouldn’t want to live in that world, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day.” Sadly, Smith took his own life in 2003. Below, director Gus Van Sant and others talk about working with him and his music.

Gus Van Sant (director): I had heard [Elliott Smith’s] music when I was doing To Die For. Or no, I actually had a record that a friend of ours had given us, because I was looking for something that was really raw. And we were thinking more in terms of heavy metal, so we didn’t use Elliott in To Die For. So I hadn’t actually heard his record, but it was [still] in my car. And on this particular road trip that I took, I heard his music for the first time. He was in a band called Heatmeiser, but then he started doing solo stuff, and doing all the instruments himself, and he had this little recording studio. So I just really liked the music. And the next project was Good Will Hunting and I thought that it would be really nice as a sort of musical backdrop of the movie.

Lawrence Bender (producer): I remember in pre-production Gus said, “There’s some music I want to play in the movie. You gotta listen to this stuff.” And I started listening to Elliott Smith and I called Gus after listening to a couple of albums and I go, “Gus, this is just beautiful. This is great. It’s got this melancholy beautiful sound to it.”

Van Sant: I think even before we started shooting I was thinking in terms of Elliott’s music. But I didn’t know until finally we were able to put it in whether it was going to work. That was the plan. And I told Pietro [Scalia, the film’s editor] to use Elliott’s music. [In] the script it had mentioned that there was world music, and he was trying to make that happen. But we just went ahead and used Elliott’s music [instead].


Pietro Scalia (editor): We were in Portland editing, and I remember Gus saying there’s this guy with these cassettes, we should play. And I remember playing them as I was editing and I started incorporating them. And it was beautiful music and great songwriting.

Van Sant: Toward the end of the movie editing in Oregon, we were pretty sure that we wanted to use Elliott so it was time for us to ask permission. We were somewhat positive that he would say yes, because it was still somewhat before he broke out. He was starting to become more listened to around the country. But just some select people–super hip people–starting to figure out about Elliott. And he didn’t have a whole lot of exposure, so we just assumed that we would be okay with him. And I had a boyfriend who knew Elliott through working with Elliott’s girlfriend at a bar. So I had this connection, and I think I’d even met him at one time, but I didn’t remember. So through DJ, my boyfriend, we contacted him and sort of gingerly explained to him that we put his music all the way through our movie, and would he consider letting us [use] it. And so he watched the movie in my house and said yes. And then he did the last song “Miss Misery” at the end. We wanted an original song. The ones that we were using had already been released. So we asked him whether he could write something. So he wrote it after he watched the movie.

Missy Stewart (production designer): The music is one of the stronger parts of the movie and getting Elliott to do the songs was just brilliant. I still think to this day that it is one of the most beautiful soundtracks because of that. I remember because [at the Oscars] Celine Dion played this giant music number from Titanic and then Elliott came out with a white suit and his guitar. He just played acoustic guitar. It was just sort of the essence of that movie. You can do something simple and make it true.

Below, watch the video of Smith’s performance at the 1998 Academy Awards.


Correction, 1/10/2013, 9 p.m.: The spelling of Elliott Smith’s name has been revised. We regret the error.