Looking Back at the Totally Crazy Story Behind the Making of Good Will Hunting

How two twenty-something nobodies turned into movie stars.

By Seija Rankin Oct 20, 2016 11:00 AMTags
Ben Affleck, Matt DamonAFP PHOTO/Timothy A. Clary

This weekend, Ben Affleck had the number one movie at the box office. He promoted The Accountant in between filming his second movie as the iconic Batman, and while gearing up to promote Live By Night, a film that he wrote, directed and starred in, as well as produced courtesy of the company that he owns with Matt Damon

Damon, for his part, has marked his year with an Oscar nom, his fourth Bourne movie (proving that he's still well within the action star category) and filming a Coen Brothers project. 

All of which is to say, imagine a world in which Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have no Oscars. A world in which they have no minimum-eight-figure contracts. A world in which Matt Damon lived on Ben Affleck's couch. This is where the wild folklore behind Good Will Hunting begins. 

Matt Damon: Movie Star

Actually, that's a lie. The making of this now-iconic movie started well before the BFFs were bumming around LA on a dime—and it's a story so fascinating that it deserves another look.

The Early Years

It all started, according to the tale Damon and Affleck have now been asked to repeat in countless interviews, in Boston, although anyone who's seen or even heard of Good Will Hunting shouldn't be surprised by that. The two were old family friends, with mothers whose professional lives crossed paths and educations that begin two years apart at Cambridge's Ringe and Latin School. They spent a good portion of their childhood years in Boston (and many a lunch hour, while other kids were presumably socializing) talking about how badly they wanted to be actors. They held summer jobs together to help each other save up for (presumably unsuccessful) trips to auditions. 

Matt was two years older, and eventually it came time for him to leave the nest, fly the coop, spread his wings. So where's a guy to go when he's an aspiring actor looking for a casual college education? Harvard University, of course. He pahhked his cahh on Hahhvahhd Yahhd, and then two years later Ben went off for a very (very) short stint at the University of Vermont, eventually landing at Occidental College in LA. 

But it's Matt's years at Harvard that are most important to our tale.

That's because it was there that he was assigned a final project for a drama class. He completed the assignment by writing a 40-page script—and yes, that was the script that would become Good Will Hunting

Damon eventually moved out to Los Angeles to commence the aforementioned couch-sleeping, and he and Affleck began crafting the script into a feature film. They also, in our imagination (and surely in real life) drank a veritable crap-ton of beer while doing so. 

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Shopping Around

Anyone in Hollywood will tell you that actually finishing the script is the easy part; it's the actual getting-it-made (or rather, finding somebody to get it made) is nearly impossible. But back in the mid-90s things worked a little differently—and the script for Good Will Hunting was different. Good different. Word of this gem of a flick spread like wildfire and eventually caused a bidding war for the rights. The production company Castle Rock Entertainment won, if you will, and did as production companies do—they asked for a total rewrite and then almost ran the movie to the ground with its...let's just call them creative differences.

Although, to be fair, it sounds like that rewrite was a pretty good idea. As Damon and Affleck told Boston Magazine, the original script had a lot of thriller-esque aspects relating to Will Hunting's job offer from the NSA. Castle rock steered the movie towards Will's relationship with his therapist (a.k.a. Robin Williams), and we can all agree that was easily the strongest plot.

The other differences involved who would star in GWH, or, in short, who would stay in it that wasn't Ben Affleck or Matt Damon. This wasn't flying with our men from Boston, so they enlisted some help from the few Hollywood cronies they had. (After all, by this time they were no longer fully unknown: Ben had been in Dazed and Confused and Chasing Amy, and they had both done School Ties). Ben's Chasing Amy director brought it to a guy we like to call Harvey Weinstein, and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.

Okay, that's a lie, too. Weinstein (and his then-company Miramax) did pick up Hunting, but from there it took so long to get the movie made that Ben and Matt ended up moving back to Boston. The flick did eventually find its director, Gus Van Sant, and its other lead, Minnie Driver. While this back-and-forth was going on, Matt ended up nabbing the lead role in the Francis Ford Coppola remake of the John Grisham novel The Rainmaker, which helped provide GWH with some street cred and seal in his potential as leading man material.

Oh, while we're thinking of it, for anyone wondering what backstage drama went in to deciding that Damon would get the lead role while Affleck was relegated to cronie status...the movie was Matt's idea. Plain and simple.

Miramax Films

The Making Of

Once filming got started, it was pretty much business as usual. Except for the fact that the writers were 20 and 22 when they started the screenplay, and were now 25 and 27, a.k.a. barely young enough to pass as the ages their characters were supposed to be. And except for the fact that they filmed right on location in Harvard Square, rowdy locals and all. 

And except for the fact that they were so emotional on the first day of shooting, after dreaming of making their first movie for decades and working on getting this script made for half of one, that they couldn't help but cry. Actually make that Matt couldn't help but cry; Ben still maintains that he was merely misty-eyed.

The two have since done many interviews on the magic of being on set, and a few gems have come out about behind-the-scenes secrets. Our personal favorite is that before they shot the pivotal scene in which Ben's character, Chuckie, tells Will that he has to leave town and start doing something with his life, the BFFs had practiced it literally hundreds of times. So much so that when it was done, they shot it several more times just so that it didn't have to come to a precipice so quickly.

Oh, and that famous "How do you like them apples" line? It was just something they used to say growing up.

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To The Oscars

The first step to winning an Oscar, after making a great movie, is releasing it during the perfect window. Good Will Hunting's technically premiered on January 9, 1998, but it held a limited opening in December, 1997 to make the Academy Awards deadline. It was up against Hollywood behemoths like Titanic and L.A. Confidential, but it held its own pretty well. 

To start with the box office, the flick was an instant success. It made $10 million over opening weekend and eventually totaled $225 million, the seventh biggest release of the year. That's not too shabby for a picture written by two struggling young Bostonians getting what we can only assume is very little sleep at the time.

It was critically acclaimed, too, and Damon and Affleck suddenly found themselves plastered across every major magazine cover. Matt was on Vanity Fair, Ben was on GQ, and they both covered Entertainment Weekly and Interview. 

Then, of course, came the nominations. The movie garnered a whopping nine, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director, on top of its two wins for Robin Williams and, famously, best screenplay. It was on this stage, accepting this award, that Ben and Matt cemented their place not just in history (Ben is still the youngest person to ever win that award) but on the A-list. They walked up the steps giggling and in disbelief, just to bros who made a really good movie, and they left as the actors who would go on to bring us ArmageddonThe TownArgo, Saving Private Ryan and The Departed

For those of us who basically only know them as Movie Stars (capitalization intended), it's almost laughable to think about their night at 1998 Oscars. They were so young, so skinny, their Boston accents were so strong. They wore tuxedos that were exactly what you would imagine two bros new to Hollywood would pick out when looking for a "fancy tuxedo." They waved to the audience. They yelled out names of people they saw in the audience, just because they were so excited to be standing onstage and seeing people they knew in the audience. Their moms yelled back to them from the audience.

It was a far cry from the actors we've seen at just about every Academy Awards since. And thus, as Ben and Matt would say, we ask how do you like them apples?