The Surprising True Story Behind Good Will Hunting

What were you up to during your final year of college? If you were like me, you were waking up to existential crises, applying for countless jobs, and wondering why you didn’t major in finance. If you were like Matt Damon, you were writing a script that would send your career hurtling to stardom — and garner you an Academy Award for screenwriting. Exactly two decades ago, the world learned who Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were, thanks to a little movie called Good Will Hunting.
By now, the story of genius janitor Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is the stuff of cinema legend. But the movie's creation is a lesser-known, and equally extraordinary, story. When Damon began writing Good Will Hunting, he was in his fifth year at Harvard University, having delayed his graduation a year to star in Geronimo: An American Legend.
“I had a few electives left. There was this playwriting class and the culmination of it was to write a one-act play, and I just started writing a movie. So I handed the professor at the end of the semester a 40-some-odd-page document, and said, ‘Look, I might have failed your class, but it is the first act of something longer,” Damon said in an oral history in Boston Magazine. As it turns out, Damon’s professor, Anthony Kubiak, wasn’t upset that Damon threw out all of his directions. He called the script “very authentic and real.”
Likely, the idea for Good Will Hunting had been floating around in Damon’s head even before Kubiak’s class. In a long answer on Quora, Damon's Harvard classmate Michael Montoya recalled an “Intro to Directing” class he took with the budding actor. For one assignment, students were asked to perform an original scene before the class.
“[Damon] brought in an original piece he had been working on. It involved a scene in a shrink's office and centered on a very bright kid turning the tables on his therapist by means of analyzing a painting hanging on his wall. Matt played the troubled kid in what later became known as Good Will Hunting.”
Montoya said that watching Damon act, even at that young age, was “a rare thrill.”
Where did the young Damon get the material necessary to create such a script? Broadly speaking, Good Will Hunting isn’t based on a true story. But Damon did incorporate aspects of his personal life into the script. For example, Skylar (Minnie Driver), Will Hunting’s love interest, was based on Damon’s then-girlfriend, medical student Skylar Satenstein. Interestingly enough, Satenstein went on to marry Lars Ulrich, the co-founder of Metallica.
The movie’s most famous image of Will Hunting writing furiously on a blackboard is also based on a story from real life, as Damon revealed in his M.I.T. Commencement Address in 2016.
“One of the scenes in Good Will Hunting is actually based on something that happened to my brother Kyle. He was visiting a physicist we knew at M.I.T. and he was walking down the Infinite Corridor. He saw those blackboards that line the halls. So my brother, who is an artist, picked up some chalk and wrote an incredibly elaborate, totally fake version of an equation. And it was so cool and completely insane that no one erased it for months. This is a true story,” he said.
After developing act one of the film on his own, Damon took the script to his childhood friend, Ben Affleck. They finished the script together, and shared the Academy Award.
Wouldn't it be nice to stop the story here, on the lovely symmetry of a movie about a wunderkind mathematician being written by a wunderkind screenwriter and actor? Alas, like so many beloved movies, Good Will Hunting's legacy has been slightly tarnished ever since October 5, 2017, the day the Times exposé on Harvey Weinstein was released.
We can't forget that Good Will Hunting was only possible because of Weinstein. Initially, Good Will Hunting had been sold to the Castle Rock production company, but Affleck and Damon were frustrated that producers wanted to change the script's direction. They were able to shop the script, and eventually it reached Weinstein at Miramax, by way of director Kevin Smith. Weinstein read it, loved it, and bought it for $1 million in 1995. He also let Damon and Affleck play the leading roles, something Castle Rock had balked at. Weinstein hangs over this movie, and so many other beloved movies, like a looming specter.
A lot changes in 20 years. The way we look at the story of Good Will Hunting — and the major players involved — is certainly one of them. After the Weinstein revelations came out, Damon and Affleck were under particularly intense scrutiny because of their long working relationship with the producer. As many detractors claim, Damon and Affleck were in full knowledge of Weinstein's practices, but chose to stay silent.
Four days after the expose broke, former Times reporter, Martha Waxman, accused Damon of conspiring to kill a damning article she was researching in 2004 about a Miramax executive, Fabrizio Lombardo, supposedly hired to "take care of Weinstein's women needs." (In response to the allegations, Damon told Deadline that he did call Waxman, but said he did not attempt to suppress the article's publication. He also asserted that he was not aware of Weinstein's alleged predatory behavior.)
The once bright-eyed figures who wrote this movie are now distorted by time, and age, and their relationship with Weinstein. On this twentieth anniversary of Good Will Hunting, we can celebrate the creative energy that it took to write the movie, but must acknowledge, yet again, Weinstein's prominent role in shaping our cinematic landscape and cultural memory.
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