Before Matt Damon and Ben Affleck became household names known for playing Jason Bourne and Batman, and before they were known for having beef with Jimmy Kimmel, on-again-off-again relationships with Jennifer Lopez, being made fun of by Team America: World Police, and addictions to iced coffee from Dunkin’ (and for cheating on Dunkin’ with STARBUCKS?!?!) the two were young, scrappy, and hungry actors eager to make the most of their careers, despite supporting roles in films such as Dazed and Confused, Courage Under Fire, Going All The Way, and School Ties.
They decided to work together on a script treatment that Damon had started writing back when he was a student at Harvard, and once they completed the script, there were several parties who expressed interest in making the film. Castle Rock Entertainment originally bought the script, with the intention of having Rob Reiner in the director’s chair, and instead of casting Damon and Affleck in the lead roles as expected, they wanted to cast other actors like Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. When the script came this close to ending up in Development Hell, Affleck and Damon turned to writer-director Kevin Smith (with whom they were both working on the film Chasing Amy), who convinced Miramax Films CEO Harvey Weinstein to look at the script. He liked what he read and bought the script from Castle Rock so that Miramax could make it instead.
And with that, Good Will Hunting finally went into production (with Gus Van Sant as director), and opened in theaters on December 5, 1997.
Will Hunting (Damon) is a 20-year-old janitor at MIT, with a genius-level IQ and an eidetic memory, who lives in the blue-collar neighborhood of South Boston, and regularly hangs out with his close friends Chuckie (Affleck), Morgan (Casey Affleck), and Billy (Cole Hauser). When MIT mathematics professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) posts a highly difficult equation on the bulletin board as a challenge for his grad students to solve, the person who ends up solving it is Will, though he does so without telling anyone. It isn’t until Lambeau posts a second equation (which is also solved easily by Will) that he catches Lambeau’s attention. When Will gets into a brutal street fight with a childhood bully and ends up in jail, he is approached by Lambeau, who informs him that his freedom is reliant on the two of them working together on mathematical equations, and on Will attending court-ordered therapy sessions.
Will is open to the former but has no patience for the latter. He pisses off every therapist who attempts to bond with him. As a last resort, Lambeau turns to his old friend and former college roommate, Sean Maguire (the late Robin Williams), a college professor/psychiatrist who also grew up in South Boston, and who is still recovering from the recent death of his wife. Will and Sean butt heads when they first meet, until Sean makes it clear to Will that he doesn’t scare easily, and that he’s willing to help Will open up about who he is and what he truly needs, while also making it clear that he’s not here for any of his bullsh-t. In the middle of all this, Will begins a relationship with Skylar (Minnie Driver), a medical student at Harvard, who finds herself falling for him, but suspects that he’s not opening up to her about himself as much as she’d like.
When Damon and Affleck were first working on the script for Good Will Hunting, their original plan for the film was to make it a thriller in which a government agency becomes aware of Will and his genius-level intelligence, and uses nefarious means to hunt him all over South Boston and force him to join their ranks. In that version of the script, there were scenes interspersed between Will and Sean in their therapy sessions when Will wasn’t playing cat-and-mouse with his pursuers. Eventually, they realized that the dramatic aspects of Good Will Hunting were the best thing about it and worked on developing that into something that could carry an entire film.
Let us all give thanks that Damon and Affleck chose to go for a drama that turned out wonderfully and stood the test of time, instead of a thriller that could’ve easily ended up just like Mercury Rising. (If the title doesn’t ring any bells, don’t feel too bad, as it wasn’t that good or memorable.) Damon and Affleck’s writing, Gus Van Sant’s superb direction, and the late Jean-Yves Escoffier’s lovely cinematography immerse us into both the academic worlds of higher education, where students either swoon over what they’re learning and who’s teaching them, or they’re counting the minutes until their course has ended so they can leave and hit up every dive bar in South Boston.
As we see Will slowly attempt to turn his life around and overcome his demons, we also get to see the people in his life attempt to do the same. For Chuckie, it’s accepting that no matter how much he loves Will and enjoys having him around, he knows that Will has what it takes to live a better and happier life elsewhere, even if it’s far away from Boston. For Skylar, it’s opening her heart to someone who is unwilling and incapable of doing the same for her. Lambeau is wrestling with the fact that Will is not only far more brilliant than he will ever be but that Will is reluctant to make the most of his potential like he did in his youth. (He’s also someone who is way too comfortable flirting with his grad students.) Sean is forced to realize that no matter how much he misses his wife, his grief has stopped him from living, and he can’t help Will overcome his fears until he also does the same to help himself.
Good Will Hunting has a terrific cast, but it’s crystal clear that the MVP is Robin Williams. He’s able to convey the weight of his constant sorrow with one look, and his monologue to Will about how the young man’s vast knowledge of the world through books he has read means nothing compared to actual life experience is incredibly compelling to watch. Williams knocks it out of the park, no matter how many times you’ve watched it. It’s easy to see why he won the Oscar for this, as he showed that he was as adept at drama as he was at comedy. And I still really hate that I have to refer to him in the past tense.
All that said, Good Will Hunting doesn’t take itself too seriously, and a lot of what makes the film so memorable is the sense of humor that makes an R rating very necessary. Will and his friends busting each other’s balls as only they can; Morgan using Chuckie’s baseball glove to do the Five-Knuckle Shuffle at Chuckie’s house, and inside his mother’s bedroom; Skylar telling an extremely filthy joke to Will and his friends to win them over; Will’s verbal beatdown of an arrogant Harvard student (Scott William Winters) whose attempted plagiarism of obscure history books to impress Skylar spectacularly blows up in his face, leading up to Will asking him if he likes apples; Chuckie wearing an ill-fitted suit with white socks and slicked-back hair that makes him look like he’s dressed for Picture Day in junior high school, and acting as advisor on Will’s behalf at a job interview; Sean telling Will how he first met his late wife, Nancy, and the look of utter disbelief on Will’s face when he learns that Sean missed out on Game 6 of the 1975 World Series to make that happen; and this improvised scene between Robin Williams and Matt Damon, in which Sean describes how Nancy used to fart very aggressively in her sleep. This not only made Damon crack up, it also had the same effect on the camera operator, as the camera slightly moves and loses focus during the scene.
Good Will Hunting was a critical and financial success for Miramax Films, which helped contribute to the studio being the unstoppable juggernaut that it was in the Nineties and early 2000s, for better and for much, much worse. It won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Robin Williams), and for Best Original Screenplay (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon). The film’s success, especially the fact that it won an Oscar for its writing, led to a rumor that Damon and Affleck didn’t actually write the script, and that it was either written by the late and legendary William Goldman or he heavily contributed to it. Goldman denied those rumors and admitted that all he did was read the script during its development, and gave advice to Damon and Affleck on how to improve it.
Two up-and-coming writers named Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers were both fascinated by Good Will Hunting’s success, and by the stories and interviews of how Damon and Affleck wrote it and starred in it. They couldn’t help but notice that Damon was seen by some people as the smarter and more intellectual of the two, and Affleck was seen as more of a pretty boy himbo. This led to Kaling and Withers writing and starring in the off-Broadway play Matt & Ben, about the friendship and working relationship between the two actors, and how they were blessed by the Good Will Hunting script magically descending from the heavenly skies to arrive in their apartment. (Yes, really!)
Damon and Affleck were very booked and busy thanks to Good Will Hunting, and took on leading roles in numerous films in subsequent years: Rounders, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Dogma, The Sum of All Fears, the Ocean’s trilogy, The Bourne Identity and its sequels, Armageddon, Changing Lanes, Stuck on You, Forces of Nature, Bounce, Shakespeare In Love, Pearl Harbor, The Departed, Batman v. Superman, Justice League, and many others. They would also go on to make headlines for reasons that had nothing to do with their movies: Damon and Minnie Driver became romantically involved while working together on Good Will Hunting and dated for several months, only for Damon to appear on Oprah, and announce to the world that his relationship with Driver was over. This was breaking news to Driver, as Damon had said nothing to her about it beforehand. Affleck began a relationship with Jennifer Lopez after they worked together on Gigli, which led to nonstop media coverage and their pairing being nicknamed “Bennifer.” (The media coverage from the press remained just as intense even when Affleck and Lopez called it quits, and he went on to marry Jennifer Garner, and then date Ana de Armas after he and Garner divorced, followed by Affleck and Lopez getting back together and finally tying the knot.) The less said about Damon habitually sticking both feet in his mouth, especially when he talked about how he learned to stop using the “F” slur at his big age, the better.
In 2001, Damon and Affleck collaborated on producing the HBO reality series Project Greenlight, in which up-and-coming filmmakers competed on whose pitch was most deserving of being financed and developed into a feature film to be produced and released by Miramax Films. In the show’s fourth season, Damon became the subject of controversy when he appeared in one episode and clashed with producer Effie Brown on the matter of choosing diverse candidates for directing a feature film for the show. Damon implied that diversity is a matter that should be acknowledged for the making of the film, and not for appearing on the show. This led to Damon getting called out and cursed out for his mansplaining toward Effie, especially on Twitter, where the hashtag #Damonsplaining was soon created, and for acting as if his knowledge about the need for diversity in film was more important than hers.
Good Will Hunting was musically composed by Danny Elfman, but it also brought more attention to the music of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who died by suicide in 2003, and whose songs “Angeles,” “No Name #3,” “Between The Bars,” “Say Yes,” and “Miss Misery” were featured in the film and on the soundtrack. They weren’t written for the movie, but after seeing how seamlessly the songs blend in with it, it’s hard to imagine scenes in Good Will Hunting without them.
If you’re yearning for the days when there were a lot more options for movies that don’t feature explosions or superheroes (not that there’s anything wrong with them), and you want to watch more small-to-mid-budget dramas then Good Will Hunting is something worth choosing for your viewing pleasure. It’s a hell of a lot more than I can say about its sequel, Good Will Hunting 2: Hunting Season.
Good Will Hunting is now streaming on HBO Max. (Or at least it will be, until it disappears from the streaming service’s catalog along with damn near everything else.)