Movie Legends Revealed: Was 'Good Will Hunting' Originally an Action Thriller?

MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: "Good Will Hunting" was originally an action thriller.

It’s sometimes shocking just how different the finished film looks from the first draft of the screenplay. For instance, the Ghostbusters originally were time travelers, E.T. began as a killer alien, "Snakes on a Plane" started out as a serious thriller and "Die Hard With a Vengeance" was once both "Lethal Weapon 4" and an original Brandon Lee-starring vehicle.

That was also the case with 1997's "Good Will Hunting," the touching story about a math genius with a tortured past who’s forced to see a therapist (Robin Williams, in an Oscar-winning performance) and work through his many issues. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the drama was a box-office hit, and earned its young writers an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. However, amazingly enough, the film started out as an action thriller.

Friends since they met at age 10 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both Damon and Affleck had landed film roles as young adults, with Affleck devoting more of his time to acting than Damon, who was attending Harvard University (ultimately, he left college a dozen or so credits short of a degree after being cast in the 1993 film “Geronimo: An American Legend”). Damon took a playwriting class during his final semester, but instead of writing a play, he decided to pen the first act of a film. After all, he was leaving school, so what did it matter? He later recalled, "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 took what he’d written with him to Los Angeles, where he stayed with Affleck, and the two collaborated on the screenplay, drawing on their own lives to flesh out the characters. "I've always been insecure because I only had a little bit of college and knew a lot of people from fancy schools,” Affleck recalled to Rolling Stone. “All that sort of resentment in ‘Good Will Hunting’ about people who went to college came from me feeling on the fringe."

What stands out about the original script is that it was essentially a thriller. Affleck explained to Boston Magazine's Janelle Nanos:

We came up with this idea of the brilliant kid and his townie friends, where he was special and the government wanted to get their mitts on him. And it had a very "Beverly Hills Cop," "Midnight Run" sensibility, where the kids from Boston were giving the NSA the slip all the time. We would improvise and drink like six or twelve beers or whatever and record it with a tape recorder. At the time we imagined the professor and the shrink would be Morgan Freeman and De Niro, so we’d do our imitations of Freeman and De Niro. It was kind of hopelessly naive and probably really embarrassing in that respect.

In 1994, while they were still in their early 20s, Damon and Affleck sold the script to Rob Reiner’s Castle Rock Entertainment. It was Reiner who ultimately told them it really shouldn’t be an action film.

Film producer Chris Moore, who gave Affleck his first starring role in "Glory Daze,” explained:

Rob Reiner at Castle Rock said, “Look, you have two movies in this script, and the movies are fighting each other. There’s the thriller aspect of the kids from Southie thwarting the big government agency, and then there’s this really awesome character story about this math genius and his relationship with this shrink. And we don’t think those two can live together.” And to their credit, Castle Rock said, “You guys wrote a great script and you’re the stars of the movie, so we’re putting it to you. You’ve got to pick one.”

Naturally, Affleck and Damon were worried.

Damon: At first we were terrified because we had this 120-to-130-page script, and once we removed the NSA stuff it was 60 pages. We were going, “What’s the movie then? What happens?”

Affleck: It was a complete overhaul.

However, after they rewrote the movie to make it roughly the film it eventually became, Damon and Affleck felt Castle Rock wasn’t paying enough attention to them. Affleck even devised a way to determine whether anyone at the company was actually reading the drafts. "We were so frustrated that Castle Rock wasn’t reading the script, so we felt like we had to develop this test,” he said. “We started writing in screen direction like, 'Sean talks to Will and unloads his conscience.' And then: 'Will takes a moment and then gives Sean a soulful look and leans in and starts blowing him.' We would turn that in, and they wouldn’t ever mention all those scenes where Sean and Will were jerking each other off."

Castle Rock also had differing ideas on who to direct the film. Ultimately, Damon and Affleck were permitted to take the script elsewhere, provided the other company reimbursed Castle Rock for the $600,000 that had been paid for the script. Eventually, with the help of filmmaker Kevin Smith, they ended up at Miramax.

Even there, however, the changes to the film weren’t complete, as director Gus Van Sant felt the ending needed to be darker. Damon recalled to Tom Shone:

Gus came down and said 'I want to do a draft where Chucky, Ben's character, dies on the construction site.' And Ben and I were just mortified. 'What are you talking about’ ‘I want him to get crushed like a bug.’ We said ‘Gus what are you talking about? You can’t just f**ing smush Ben. That’s a terrible idea.’ Gus said 'no I really want to see what would happen.' So we did a whole new draft on weekends of "The Rainmaker," when I wasn’t working, we would write, Ben and I did a whole draft, with a wake and everything. It took a left turn and went into this other place. The scenes in a vacuum I thought were good, but we still didn’t like the idea, then Gus read it said ‘okay it’s a terrible idea let's go back to what we had’.”

The film’s ultimate ending was inspired by famed filmmaker Terrence Malik, a friend of Affleck's family. They spoke to him and told him the gist of the story, and he came up with the idea of Minnie Driver's Skyler leaving and Damon's Will going after her (at that point, they left for Los Angeles together):

'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 remember 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."

It's fascinating to see how many people played a role in making "Good Will Hunting" such a classic film. Although, it's funny how the original premise was almost a precursor to Damon's later action stardom as Jason Bourne.

The legend is...


Thanks to Tom Shone, Janelle Nanos, Rolling Stone and, of course, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, for the information!

Be sure to check out my archive of Movie Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of films.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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