Some Thoughts on ‘Good Will Hunting’

I love the movie Good Will Hunting (1997). It is a well made, precise, and economic film written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Robin Williams gives a great performance. Director Gus Van Sant brings a restrained mature hand to the directing. 

However, as somebody who has gone to therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I also have some complicated feelings about how it chooses to portray therapy. Good Will Hunting is a good movie, but it is essentially a fairy tale. Even on the DVD commentary, Damon and Affleck admit that this is not how therapy actually works. 

Now, I would like to stress that I am not really offended by this portrayal. A movie does not necessarily have the responsibility to portray reality. My points here have more to do with what makes Good Will Hunting a good fictional story rather than what makes it reality.

‘Ordinary People’

In writing this article, I thought about what would be the best depiction of a therapist that I could remember (not necessarily the best movie). I landed on Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980). In that story, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) sees Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) about the survivor’s guilt he experiences over the death of his brother. After attempting suicide, Conrad reluctantly agrees to see a therapist.  

More than other depictions, Ordinary People seems to understand what a therapist does. Dr. Berger acts as a health professional to Conrad – not as a friend or father figure. The audience does not get to know a great deal about him outside of his job. In the intro, the audience sees him act in an absent minded manner, but that is about it. However, throughout the story, Berger challenges Conrad to figure things out for himself without breaking ethical codes.

Berger’s job requires him to help Conrad, but he does not outright solve Conrad’s problems outside of therapy. Instead, he helps him realize the problems in his own life and move on from them. At the end of the movie, his parents split up and the movie ends on a bittersweet note of Conrad hugging his father (Donald Sutherland). While this scene is sweet, it is not a crowd pleasing cathartic ending at all. 

Role of a Therapist

The problem with many movies is that they present the therapist serving a role that a good therapist does not serve. A good therapist should not start romantic relationships with their patients (Prince of Tides (1991), Mr. Jones (1993), 50/50 (2011)). Having sex with a patient is a clear breach of ethics because of the power imbalance. A good therapist also does not torture and gaslight their patients into fighting back against them (Anger Management (2003)). Good Therapists do not take on these roles because they act in a position of power over a patient. Therapists can seriously hurt patients by violating their roles as health professionals. 

Recently, Apple TV+ has decided to release an upcoming series about such a case with The Shrink Next Door (2021). This series tells the story of Isaac Herschkopf, who took over the life of his patient Marty Markowitz for nearly 30 years. Over that time, Markowitz slowly lost control of his business and life. He became alienated from his sister. None of this changed until Markowitz chose to reclaim his life.   

Basic Setup

Troubled yet brilliant Will Hunting (Matt Damon) works as a janitor at the prestigious MIT. When mathematics professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) puts multiple difficult mathematics problems on the board for students, Will solves them pretty handily. Impressed by Will, Lambeau decides to learn more.   

After assaulting an old childhood bully and hitting a cop, Will gets put in jail by an unsympathetic judge. Recognizing Will’s genius, professor Lambeau strikes a deal with a judge to release him if he does math and sees a shrink twice a week. If Will does not comply, he will go back to jail to serve out his term.

Will’s Way of Finding a Therapist

In his book Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make It Great, screenwriter William M. Akers has a lesson where he suggests having the protagonist talk to other characters rather than doing research. In the book, he gives the example of Chinatown (1974), where Jack Nicholson asks an officious law clerk for a ruler. Akers suggests this because a lot of writing screenplays has to do with writing “actor bait.” If it is fun for the actors to play, they will more likely sign on. 

Gerald Lambeau’s method of finding a therapist has him go from health professional to health professional before landing on his last choice, college friend Sean MaGuire (Robin Williams), a widower who has not taken up therapy since his wife died of cancer.

These therapists include a stuffy uptight therapist (George Plimpton) and a hypnotist (Francesco Clemente). The Therapist calls Will a “lunatic,” while the hypnotist says he cannot do this right now. In both cases, Will gets out of it by not treating the therapy seriously and going after the therapist’s sexuality or profession. 

While this is more entertaining, it does not get into what finding a therapist is about. The audience does not get into what Will has, so sending him to every doctor seems like a waste of time and money. Choosing a therapist is basically choosing a doctor, so going from one specialist to another willy nilly tends to not work out well.

Behind the Scenes

In the commentary for the movie, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck talk about how these sequences built up to Sean, but they were always on Miramax’s chopping block of “do we need this in the movie?” Eventually the studio agreed to allow them to do those scenes.

Lambeau and his assistant Tom also sit in on the session. At one point, Damon talks about how Lambeau is violating legal and ethical boundaries by sitting in on the session. The writers even put in a scene to partially explain why Lambeau and Tom would sit in on a session. Damon describes this part of the movie as “a bit of a stretch.” Affleck replies that “the whole movie is a bit of a stretch.”

Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire has always taken chances. Instead of going to see Pudge Fisk’s famous home run, he went to have a drink with his future wife. He always buys a lottery ticket which he claims will be the winning one.

I have also never seen a therapist who talks like him in my life. The film introduces this character with him joking about sexually exploiting his patients to an entire class of psych students (“nail them while they’re vulnerable”). According to the commentary, Sean is trying to keep the students invested by making sex jokes. However, a therapist joking about this in real life suggests a massive breach of ethics.

The Choke Scene

In their first meeting, Will discovers that Sean was married in the past. Will proceeds to explicitly insinuate that he married the wrong woman and that she had an affair. Like a sociopath, Sean takes off his glasses, grabs him by the neck, and shoves him up against the wall. He then threatens to kill Will if he ever disrespects his wife again. Sean later tells Will that he took his life apart based on an assumption he made. 

On top of other concerns about this sort of behavior, Sean met Will in a situation where he will have power over him. A therapist should not commit assault under any set of circumstances, even if the patient acts out like this. Even if Will is acting terribly, he does not know what happened to Sean’s wife. In a real world situation, Sean has a million responses here, so literally going for the throat is absurd.

Framing of This Scene

Unlike life, movies get to choose what they want to portray. Sean grabbing Will by the neck seems to have no lasting impact on him. Similarly, the attack does not bring up Will’s past traumas. It just exists as a moment that the film moves on from.

Similar scenes have also happened before in fiction, but unlike other stories, this film emphasizes that Will deserves to have this happen to him. In Ordinary People, there is a similar scene where Conrad insults Dr. Berger, based on not knowing him. That scene has Dr. Berger challenging Conrad to emote, rather than Conrad antagonizing him. Berger plays it off as a joke. Director Robert Redford chooses to cover it in a wide shot to show that this moment of acting out should not be treated seriously. Conrad acts out, but the film does not see this as a reason for his doctor to physically attack him.

First Blood also has a similar scene where Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has a guard come to cut his hair with a straight razor. The scene cuts to a war flashback of Rambo getting cut by a guard. In that scene, Rambo is portrayed as a complete victim of a system.

Behind the Scenes

In the audio commentary, Affleck and Damon said that this scene did not really change from the first draft and they wrote the film around this scene. Damon also says that the audience can see his neck bleeding a little bit from how Williams grabbed him multiple times as part of the scene. 

Damon says that the story after the choke scene becomes a father-son story because the choke scene would break professional ethics. Even in the commentary, they admit that this is not really a movie about therapy in the traditional sense of the word.

The Commentary also reveals how successful the scene was. Gus Van Sant says that he never had such a good grabber in the scene. Audiences cheered after that scene because it defined Sean as the hero and the audience knew that he would return based on his last line in the scene. The whole buildup has paid off with this scene.

My Personal Experience

While I never had somebody put their hand around my neck like this, I did have some frightening experiences in college. At the time my experience with these events occurred, I was about Will Hunting’s age in the movie. 

Before I worked with my current therapist, I had a bad experience with a former therapist. While it was nobody’s fault exactly, it did destroy my confidence in myself for a few years until I realized I had OCD. When I went to find a new therapist, I went in prepared with a list of questions from the International OCD Foundation to make sure that I got somebody who would actually help me. 

Similarly, I had a much older student put his hands on me in college for not paying attention in a class. A large reason why that happened was because the man had poor communication skills. With people who challenged him, he would often say that their opinion was stupid. He would also often threaten to withhold something or commit violence. Luckily, he never had control over our lives in any way, shape, or form. 

Sessions

In Good Will Hunting, the sessions play out as quick exchanges. Each scene focuses on one problem in an hour. Many of them feature a big speech where Sean pontificates about life. In 3 separate sessions, Sean ends the session early. The film also tends to show these sessions in their full length instead of cutting into the middle of one. Therefore, a lot of these sessions last only a few minutes.

This keeps the storytelling dramatically satisfying because it keeps the audience focused on the problems of this story. Damon states that a session where Sean leaves Will at a park was inspired by a scene in Hoosiers (1986) where Gene Hackman tells a player that he does not care if he plays or not. Van Sant said that the punch and drive of each scene drew him to the script.

However, in actual therapy, such short sessions tend to not really work out that well. A lot of therapy is not a dramatic bunch of revelations. It is working through a problem. Also, paying for an hour-long session that the therapist kicked you out of after five minutes seems like a major rip off.

Another great thing about filmmaking that does not exist in real life is that the filmmaker can reorder scenes to make them more dramatically satisfying. In this film, Van Sant reordered the second half in the editing process to make the story work in a more dramatic way. This makes the sessions flow better.

Van Sant’s Visual Style

As a director, Van Sant has to create a visually interesting way of presenting people talking in rooms for 2 hours. Throughout the film, Van Sant creates interesting masters and establishing shots that lead the audience into the world. In establishing a reunion, Van Sant begins by having a quartet sing. When Skyler and Will go to the dog track, he shows the audience the dogs running first. Since actress Minnie Driver won a bet in the dog race, he also decided to include that in the movie. 

Van Sant also contrasts many styles. A fight scene with many slow motion shots will follow a mainly handheld scene. A phone conversation will present Will in a cold blue room that will contrast Skyler’s warm dorm room filled with reds and oranges.

With the sessions, Van Sant designs them from various angles. Many of them go from the side. For a scene where Sean acts out a famous baseball game, Van Sant starts with an overhead shot before moving into more complex coverage.

Will’s Catharsis

In the later sessions, Sean challenges Will in a more direct way than the earlier sessions. He asks Will what he wants out of life and tells him to go home if he does not want to talk about it. These scenes ratchet up the tension, as they suggest that Sean will not tolerate Will’s antics.

Will’s breakthrough comes when Sean and him discuss their histories of being abused and Sean tells him that it is not his fault. Although Will acts reticent at first, he eventually hugs Sean and cries. Matt Damon notes that the script describes this moment as “two figures being father and son together” in the commentary.

Framing of Will

In many ways, Good Will Hunting presents its character almost like the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol

Both stories force the lead character to do something that makes him uncomfortable so they can see the error in their ways. In Scrooge’s case, he has to have three ghosts guide him through the uncomfortable parts of his life. In Will’s case, individuals have to force Will out of his comfort zone. This includes Will’s new girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver), who Will hides many secrets from. 

At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes because the ghost of Christmas future reveals that he will die unloved. Good Will Hunting has Will change because his friend (Ben Affleck) tells him how disappointed he would be if Will squandered his life. 

Good Will Hunting ends on an open ended but hopeful note. Will drives out to California to see if he can potentially meet up with his ex-girlfriend Skylar, who he drove away over the course of the story. Will has taken the first step towards change by taking a chance on Skylar. Unlike Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Will does not demonstrate some great change of heart at the end. 

While the audience might have empathy for Will, the filmmaking and screenwriting does not. Throughout the story, the audience tends to see Will from the outside. Many early shots frame him against doorways and hallways. The first scene sees him through a kaleidoscopic vision made out of crystals. Before Sean chokes Will, Van Sant overexposes Matt Damon’s face to make him seem alien to the audience. On the reverse side, the audience almost never sees a cinematic subjective viewpoint that will illuminate Will’s deep seated anxieties. The character seems more like somebody the audience should observe and rather than understand. The audience does not really see anything from his perspective until the end.

Themes

As stated by Damon, Good Will Hunting is not really a story about therapy, but a story about growing up. Over the course of the story, Will will have to decide what he really wants to do with his life. Will seems to need a constructive father figure more than a therapist (I have never had a therapist replace either of my parents).

In almost every scene in the movie, the lower class bumps up against the upper class. Will works at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. After infiltrating a Harvard bar, Will impresses Skylar by telling off a stuffy student. Besides his insecurities, Will ends up destroying his relationship with the upper class Skylar when he accuses her of wanting to do this so she can brag to her friends about going “slumming.” 

On the other side of the spectrum, Lambeau experiences more blue color characters when he goes to Sean’s bar and when he meets Will’s janitorial boss. Sean’s bartender does not know what Perrier is, while the janitorial staff does not have much respect for Lambeau coming into their dwelling. In each of these scenes, Lambeau gets challenged by these blue collar workers.

Perspective

Whenever I watch a movie, I look at the perspective the creator comes from. In this case, the story comes from two struggling young actors and an arthouse director in the mid-1990s. This section of the article will focus on Damon and Affleck primarily because they created the project and carried it through to the end. 

By the time Good Will Hunting came around, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had starred in multiple movies. Damon had met Van Sant auditioning for Joaquin Phoenix’s role in To Die For (1995). However, they could not get traction to star in the movies they wanted to play. When they wrote the script, they understood what would attract actors to the script, but getting the movie made was another matter. A big reason that the movie did end up getting made was Francis Ford Coppola cast Damon in The Rainmaker (1996), which helped Miramax head Harvey Weinstein see him as a potential leading man. 

Investments and Gambles

The production story of Good Will Hunting consists of a whole bunch of investments and gambles (both financially and creatively) that worked out. The film began as a dream vehicle that turned into a product Damon and Affleck could actually make work. Since this article focuses primarily on artistic choices, this section will focus on the creative gambles made rather than the bureaucratic ones.

Writing Process

There is an old adage that says “write what you know.” Matt Damon and Ben Affleck technically did that, but they did not write themselves as characters. They wrote roles they wanted to play and put them in a world they knew well. The adage “write what you know” does not necessarily mean “write yourself.” It often just means work with what you have. 

Although Damon and Affleck understood the business, writing the script did not mean that their first instincts were always right. They initially wrote the script as a thriller where Will outsmarted the NSA. In Boston Magazine’s oral history, Affleck described it as a Beverly Hills Cop (1984) or Midnight Run (1988) type of movie that they imagined starring Morgan Freeman or Robert De Niro (who they would impersonate when writing the script). Rob Reiner (co-founder of Castle Rock Entertainment) and William Goldman suggested they change it into a drama. Terence Malick suggested the ending.

According to the actors in the DVD commentary, they did not have a title, so they ended up buying the title of Good Will Hunting off their friend Derrick Bridgeman, who wrote a novel with that name. Bridgeman also appears in the film when Lambeau discovers the first math problem has been solved. They had named the character Nate before buying that title.

Throughout the commentary, Affleck and Damon talk about writing supporting characters as devices that they needed actors to flesh out. In particular, they describe Professor Lambeau and Skylar this way. Stellan Skarsgard decided to play Lambeau as a semi-famous professor who wears scarves and hits on every woman he sees (including students). Minnie Driver brings a lot of warmth to her role.

Miramax

Originally, a reader at Miramax rejected the film. However, in a roundabout way, the film came back to them.

Affleck and Damon’s agent, Patrick Whitesall, eventually sold it to Castle Rock Entertainment. After getting picked up by Castle Rock, co-founder Andrew Scheinman wanted to serve as the director. After Affleck and Damon held out for Van Sant, Castle Rock decided to give the script back to them for a window to see if they could sell it. If they did not sell it, it would revert to the studio without Damon and Affleck in the leads. That is when Affleck gave the script to Kevin Smith, who read it and brought it to Harvey Weinstein with Scott Mosier. They both have a co-executive producer credit in the final film.

Filmmaking Process

Damon and Affleck went to bat for Van Sant. In the audio commentary, they say that Van Sant is the only one who would accept them in those roles. Since Van Sant directed, the dramatic scenes in Good Will Hunting act in a lowkey way. In the hands of a more comedic or melodramatic director, a lot of the scenes would have fallen flat or felt cringe inducing. For example, Van Sant does not put in the many music cues that would have been in other Robin Williams movies of the time. He also does not film and edit in a style that mainly exists to showcase Williams’ improv abilities.

In the editing process, Van Sant cut out many scenes that took focus off Will and put it on other characters. This included the original opening where Chuckie tells a story about killing a cat and a scene where Skylar goes to see Chuckie about Will. In hindsight, Van Sant said he would put many of those scenes back in if he knew that the movie would be the megahit that it was. 

Results

Although Damon and Affleck wrote a good script, the level of success that came from that script is outright insane. There have only been two success stories where actors wrote parts for themselves, became movie stars, and won the Oscar (the other being Sylvester Stallone for Rocky (1976)). The movie made a lot of money and won awards, but it also jumpstarted two careers.

During an episode of Dinner For Five, Affleck said that Harvey Weinstein pushed them to do as much publicity as possible. Affleck did not realize that you could turn down doing a lot of publicity until later. In many of the interviews, Affleck and Damon discuss the difficulties of getting the film made and how they nearly gave up.

The cast reaped the financial benefits of appearing in the film. Robin Williams agreed to take a cut of the profits in exchange for a lower salary. When Donald Sutherland got offered a similar deal for the smash hit Animal House (1978), he rejected it. Both movies went on to make money, but neither man necessarily knew that it would become the hit that it did.

Awards

In the commentary, Affleck and Damon talk about how more people watch the Oscars than will ever watch any of the movies. Since this happens, they will more likely know you from that as much as any of the work you make. 

Damon and Affleck both won the Oscar, but both had a more modest reaction to winning the award. Affleck said in the same episode of Dinner For Five that the award had a popularity contest element to it and that people can win if 26 to 28% vote for that script. He described people as seeing it like an answer on a test when it is much more subjective. Damon said that he loved getting the award, but realized how fleeting winning the award was.

What Has Happened Since Then

Although Damon and Affleck have now worked as Hollywood stars for over 2 decades, a lot of what made Good Will Hunting successful has disappeared. Harvey Weinstein has gone to prison for multiple sex crimes. Affleck and Damon have largely moved on from these types of roles into other projects. Even the business does not resemble the model that Good Will Hunting was made under.

However, the biggest change probably comes in the form of tech. Good Will Hunting exists in a world of pay phones and late 90s tech. Ben Affleck fedexed the script to Kevin Smith because no internet existed. Although they broke into the business, they broke in at a very different time period. 

Perhaps the best example of this is Project Greenlight (2001-2016), a show about breaking into the business executive produced and presented by Damon and Affleck. After its cancellation in 2016, HBO Max rebooted the show with Issa Rae, a filmmaker, actress, and showrunner who originally got her start on YouTube. 

Conclusion

Although I know that Good Will Hunting works primarily as a fairy tale, I still like it. Whenever I get a DVD, I like listening to the commentaries because they are often the place where the filmmakers do not try to sell the film to the audience. Therefore, they can discuss the complexities and intricacies of the actual filmmaking process. 

In the commentary of Good Will Hunting, Damon, Affleck, and Van Sant often admit that not everything about the film was perfect all the time. Damon points out that there’s part of a long speech where he looks back to remember part of it.

Both Affleck and Damon have certain misgivings about the final film. Affleck feels that one scene between the characters of Sean and Lambeau gets too heated. Damon does not like part of his performance in another scene until Van Sant points out that it was what he naturally did on the day. 

At the end of the commentary, Affleck and Damon say that their friendship preceded all of this and that is why they were able to make the movie. I like these sorts of commentaries because they reveal the humanity of the creators of such films.