It’s rare when twenty-something actors write something so well received, let alone so profitable. Orson Welles did it with Citizen Kane. 1 Peter Fonda did it with Easy Rider. 2 Sylvester Stallone did it with Rocky. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did it with Good Will Hunting.
Released in December 1997, Good Will Hunting earned $225 million worldwide on a production budget of $10 million, making bankable stars out of Damon and Affleck.
Hard to imagine this film as a thriller, but that’s exactly what it started out as. In early drafts, Will’s recruited by a government organization that eventually attempts to kidnap and/or kill him. I wonder how close the NSA/code breaking monologue was to the external goals of those drafts. Perhaps it’s possible Good Will Hunting had a Real Genius slant…but, you know, without all the popcorn.
Originally setup at Castle Rock, Rob Reiner had Damon and Affleck focus on the relationship between Will and his therapist. Fleshing out Reiner’s suggestions with a little help from William Goldman, a dinner with Terrence Malick would give the film its ending. The original script depicted Will and Skylar leaving for California together, but it was Malick who suggested what we see today. According to Matt Damon:
Terry didn’t read the script but we explained the whole story to him, and in the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I think it would be better if she left and he went after her.’ And Ben and I looked at each other. It was one of those things where you go: of course that‘s better. He said it and he probably doesn’t even remmber that he said it. He started talking about Antonioni. ‘In Italian movies a guy just leaves town at the end and that enough.’ And we said of course that’s enough. That’s where we come from. If you just leave that’s a big enough deal. It doesn’t have to build up to anything more. 3
With Castle Rock unable to secure the cast they wanted, the project was put into turnaround and picked up by Miramax. There, it was given the green light, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were cast in the roles they wrote for themselves, Gus Van Sant was hired as director, and shooting began in 1996. The rest, as they say, is history.
Sigmund Freud believed the problems we face in our adult lives relate to unresolved conflicts from our childhood and adolescence. Will Hunting had a rough life, suffering unfathomable abuse as orphan. He was beaten — once even stabbed — by the people he needed to trust the most. To reinforce this, the inciting incident utilizes a story about a kid who beat him up in kindergarten. Violence was all around him and it’s shaped his adult world.
Good Will Hunting’s prevalent theme deals with relationships enhancing your self-worth. Maybe it wasn’t until Will found friendship, in what Lambeau describes as “those retarded gorillas,” that he felt any self-worth. To say Chuckie, Morgan, and Billy are just blue collar simpletons misses the point. They taught him the value of loyalty. Sean hits the nail on the head in his argument with Lambeau — any of those guys would take a bat to his head if Will asked. But with Will’s abilities, it’s easy for the audience to see he’s not challenged and not living his life to its true potential. We need not look further than the scene with the two friends taking a lunch break on a construction job:
EXT. MAGGIORE BUILDER’S CONSTRUCTION SITE -- PARKING LOT
Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way, but in 20 years, if you’re livin’ next door to me, comin’ over watchin’ the fuckin’ Patriots’ games and still workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill you. And that’s not a threat, that’s a fact. I’ll fuckin’ kill you.
Chuckie, what are you talkin’...
Listen, you got somethin’ that none of us have.
Why is it always this? I owe it to myself? What if I don’t want to?
Fuck you. You owe it to me. Tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be fifty and I’ll still be doin’ this. And that’s all right ’cause I’m gonna make a run at it. But you, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket and you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in. And that’s bullshit ’cause I’d do anything to have what you got! And so would any of these guys. It’d be a fuckin’ insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years.
Good Will Hunting’s screenplay structure interweaves five different stories:
- Will and Sean
- Will and Skylar (The Romantic Line)
- Will and Lambeau
- Will and Chuckie
- Sean and Lambeau
The screenwriters pull from each of these story lines to fill the main beats. With Will and Lambeau, you get the first steps on the external line of action (finding Will solving the second theorem) and the first act turn (Lambeau’s visit to Will in jail). From the point Sean meets Will at minute 39, that relationship fills major beats, pushing Will toward change. Chuckie pops up for an important beat: a shake down of $200 at a job interview Lambeau setup. Skylar’s line is used when Will takes a step towards intimacy.
It’s easy to misinterpret the inciting incident as the moment Will solves the first of Lambeau’s theorems, when it’s nothing more than brilliant subtext — a deep desire, perhaps unconscious, to find someone like him. Will haunts the hallways of MIT as a janitor, cleaning up the garbage of students, even professors, who are his intellectual inferior. The screenwriters are telling us this is Will’s ordinary world. The inciting incident is his arrest because it forces him to work with Lambeau and eventually, Sean.
With the downloadable screenplay analysis, I’ve also pointed out the the major beats in the story between Will and Skylar. Their meeting is an inciting incident for the romantic line 22 minutes into the film. The first date with Skylar is a trial. After blowing her off, he asks her out on a date (pushing him closer to intimacy) — a great midpoint for their story. There’s a turn when she asks him to move to California and a point of no return beat when he can’t say if he loves her. The climax brings their story line together with all others.
Opening and Closing Images
I have a feeling Gus Van Sant had a lot to do with this choice. The script originally opened on a St. Patrick’s Day parade, cutting to inside a bar with a story about Chuckie’s cousin accidentally killing a cat. Opening the film with juvenile humor wouldn’t have served it well. Opening images are important. Van Sant’s choice of words and numbers blurring together represent Will’s intellect; something we can’t begin understand. When the images come into focus we see Will reading and it sets the tone. These people, the authors, are the ones who challenge him.
The closing image is the perfect contrast. Will’s moving on with life. Thanks to his therapy with Sean, he has the ability to love Skylar and the desire to see if it can work out. Who knows whether he’ll find her with arms wide open or on the arm of a Danish heavy metal drummer. We just don’t know. But that’s not the point. The ambiguity doesn’t interfere with his climactic act. Will’s found someone who challenges him and he’s grown enough to overcome his fear of intimacy. The closing image reflects that. He’s moving forward in life. I doubt there’s one book in the car.
Inciting Incident — minute 12 — Will’s arrested for assault. Without the arrest, he would not be forced to work with Lambeau and see Sean for therapy. When we learn how much abuse he’s suffered, the significance of this beat is even more transparent.
Strong Movement Forward (external) — minute 15 — Lambeau and his assistant, Tom, find Will writing on the hall chalkboard. Scolding Will as he disappears, Lambeau soon discovers a janitor just solved a problem that took two years for both him and his colleagues to prove.
End of Act One Turn — minute 28 — Will’s given the option to both work with Lambeau at MIT and see a therapist, or complete the remainder of his jail sentence. If he slips up at any point, he’s back in jail.
Decision — n/a — The decision for the end of act one turn happens off camera. Will is simply shown during the start of Act II as if he accepted Lambeau’s offer.
First Trial / First Casualty — minute 42 — Commenting on Sean’s painting is Will’s first real obstacle based on his decision from the first act turn. He pushes the wrong button and discovers Sean’s not like the other five therapists he was able to sweep under the rug: this man has experienced Will’s level of violence, if not worse.
Combat — minute 47 — On the park bench, Sean cuts Will down to size — his intellect alone does not make him a man. Sean’s perceptions are sharp and cut deep. Will’s unable to say a thing.
Midpoint — minute 57 — Will finally engages in therapy, reflecting on his date with Skylar. This is not a disaster as typical with most midpoints. It sets up the conflict Will must face as a result of getting deeper into both his therapy and relationship with Skylar.
Assumption of Power (external) — minute 79 — Will pushes on his external desire to work in an “honorable” profession. He believes there’s nothing honorable about sitting behind a desk crunching numbers. Thanks to Chuckie, we get some great comic relief — “you’re all suspect!”
Assumption of Power (internal) — minute 82 — This might be the first time in his life anyone’s ever asked him about his abilities, let alone a woman. This is not, nor has it ever been a conversation with Chuckie. Sean wants to get to know Will, not the genius. And Lambeau’s more interested in the work than a personal relationship. Here, Skylar receives something from Will that’s honest and heart-felt. Perhaps a simple answer, but it’s more than he’s ever gave. That’s intimacy.
EXT. AU BON PAIN COURTYARD, HARVARD SQUARE -- DAY
Will and Skylar sit in the open courtyard of this Harvard Square eatery. Skylar is working on another O-chem lab. Will sits across from her...
Do you play the piano?
Yeah, a bit.
Alright, so when you look at a piano, you see Mozart.
I see “Chopsticks.”
Alright, well...Beethoven, he looked at a piano and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
So, what are you saying? Do you play the piano?
No, not a lick. I look at a piano and I see a bunch keys, three pedals and a box of wood. Beethoven, Mozart, they saw, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
But you can do my O-chem lab in under an hour.
Yeah, when it came to stuff like that I could always just play.
End of Act Two Turn — minute 91 — Will’s grown impatient of working with Lambeau. The job interviews antagonize him, shredding against his identity. He finds no honor in their type of work, it’s just too easy — he doesn’t hurt at the end of the day. When Lambeau pushes, Will’s had enough…
Decision — minute 92 — Will quits working with Lambeau, setting his latest work on fire. Lambeau rushes to put out fire. Broken, Lambeau confesses he wished they’d never met.
Point of No Return (internal) — minute 111 — “It’s not your fault.” Well, it’s actually much more than the dialogue. It’s Will recognizing he has the ability to trust again and form new relationships. I feel like crying, too.
Point of No Return (external) — minute 113 — Will accepts the job at McNeil. On the external line of action, Will’s acceptance of the job marks a separation with Chuckie, Morgan and Billy. Will’s identity has changed. However, it’s still not the decision the audience wants. Think of it as the assist on the climax’s slam dunk.
Climax — minute 123 — Will leaves Boston to “see about a girl.” Enough said.
EXT. SEAN’S APARTMENT -- SAME
Sean opens the card Will left for him. It reads:
Sean -- If the Professor calls about that job, just tell him, “Sorry, I had to go see about a girl.”
Sonuvabitch. He stole my line.
I’ve provided full Good Will Hunting screenplay analysis available for download, which breaks down the protagonist’s characterization, misbehaviors, internal and external goals, theme, central dramatic question, and story engines. My analysis is based on Daniel P. Calvisi’s Story Maps method. Dan is a story analyst, screenplay consultant, author and screenwriter. If you’re serious about the craft of screenwriting, I highly recommend checking out Dan’s site, Act Four Screenplays, and his e-book, Story Maps: How to Write a GREAT Screenplay. You can purchase Dan’s book from Amazon.com or the iTunes Store.
- Orson’s co-writer, Herman Mankiewicz, was in his forties and Citizen Kane initially failed to recoup its investment. ↩
- Peter’s co-writers Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern were in their thirties and forties. ↩
- Shone, Tom. “Malick Gave Good Will Hunting Its Ending.” Taking Barack To The Movies. 05 Jan. 2011. Web. 06 Aug. 2011. Link. ↩