Miramax Films
Miramax Films

14 Wicked Smart Facts About Good Will Hunting

Miramax Films
Miramax Films

There are plenty of reasons why Good Will Hunting is one of the most beloved films of the past 20 years. It has that great Robin Williams performance, the only one he ever won an Oscar for. It put indie director Gus Van Sant on the mainstream map. And, of course, it gave us Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Cinderella story: two up-and-coming actors who slept on each other’s couches, wrote a screenplay, starred in the movie, and then won Academy Awards for their writing. (The movie tends to make us cry, too. We shouldn’t overlook that.) On the 20th anniversary of its original release, here are some facts about Good Will Hunting to help you appreciate it even more. If you didn’t know some of these things before, don’t worry. It’s not your fault.

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY ABOUT A MATH GENIUS AND HIS BUDDY OUTSMARTING THE GOVERNMENT.

That’s how Matt Damon and Ben Affleck conceived it, with the idea that they’d play the leads. When the producers at Castle Rock bought the screenplay (after a bidding war), head honcho Rob Reiner told the writers that they really had two movies here: the action-comedy about a reluctant whiz kid trying not to be recruited by the CIA, and the character drama about a genius and his shrink. He left it to them to decide which part of the story would survive. 

2. IT HAS A MIX OF REAL BOSTON LOCATIONS AND SETS BUILT IN TORONTO.

All of the MIT interiors were shot on a Canadian sound stage. The L Street Tavern is real, and the regulars were hugely supportive of the movie. In one peculiar instance of logistics, the exterior shots of Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College are real, but Dr. Maguire’s office within the college is a set ... a set built to look exactly like a real office at Bunker Hill Community College, where Robin Williams had visited a teacher for research. 

3. THE PARK BENCH BECAME A MEMORIAL TO ROBIN WILLIAMS AFTER HIS DEATH. 


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Located in Boston’s Public Garden, the bench where Dr. Maguire and Will have their iconic, crucial scene had been a significant part of Good Will Hunting lore since the film’s release. After Williams’s death in 2014, it’s where fans memorialized him.

4. FOR A WHILE THE SCREENPLAY HAD A GAY SEX SCENE AS A TEST TO SEE IF THE STUDIO WAS PAYING ATTENTION.

Castle Rock had Damon and Affleck doing rewrite after rewrite without getting anywhere, and the duo felt like the bosses weren’t even reading the new drafts. So they added a paragraph-long screen direction describing Sean and Will goin’ at it. Nobody said anything.

5. KEVIN SMITH HELPED IT GET MADE.

Though Castle Rock loved the screenplay they’d purchased (more so after the running-from-the-government angle was excised), they disagreed with the writers on who should direct it. Damon and Affleck wanted to do it themselves; Castle Rock thought that idea was preposterous. (Buying a screenplay from a couple of pretty-boy actors was risky enough.) They told Matt and Ben that if they could find another studio to take it off Castle Rock’s hands, they’d sell; otherwise, Castle Rock was going to make the film without the writers’ input, and that would be that. Desperate to find a buyer, Affleck approached his Mallrats and Chasing Amy director, Kevin Smith. In Affleck’s recollection, Smith said, “I wouldn’t dare direct this movie, this is so beautiful.” (Smith’s recollection is more self-deprecating: “Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were like, ‘Why don’t you direct it?’ But I was like, ‘That’s awesome, but we need someone good.’”) What Smith did do, though, was personally bring it to the offices of Miramax, where it was promptly purchased.

6. MEL GIBSON ALMOST DIRECTED IT.

After Miramax bought the script from Castle Rock, the company began setting up meetings with various potential directors, including Mel Gibson, who was a hot commodity at the time because of Braveheart. Gibson was interested, and he spent a few months developing the project, but ultimately he wasn’t moving fast enough. Damon politely asked if he might consider stepping aside for someone who really had a passion for it, and Gibson obliged.

7. IT’S BY FAR THE MOST PROFITABLE FEATURE GUS VAN SANT HAS EVER DIRECTED.

Van Sant was (and for the most part still is) a director of small, independent features, not blockbusters. The $263.5 million that Good Will Hunting made worldwide is more than three times as much as his second most profitable film, 2000's Finding Forrester, earned at the global box office.

8. ROBIN WILLIAMS CHOSE THE BAR.

Once he committed to the movie, Williams wanted to get a taste of South Boston by having Affleck and Damon take him around the neighborhood. They took him to a rough dive bar called the L Street Tavern, where the colorful locals mobbed the actor and drunk guys tried to fight Affleck. Williams loved the place and insisted that they just had to use it as a location (even though his character wasn’t in any of the scenes that took place there).

9. VAN SANT WANTED AFFLECK’S CHARACTER TO DIE.

At one point in the rewriting process, after Van Sant was onboard as director, he said, “I want Chuckie to get flattened on a construction site … Crushed like a bug.” He proposed that this would be the climax to the movie’s second act. Affleck and Damon protested, but dutifully wrote it. Van Sant read it and said, “It’s a terrible idea.” 

10. WILL HUNTING WAS MAYBE GOING TO DIE AT THE END, TOO.

Damon said one of the endings he and Affleck toyed with was where “Carmine came back with his boys and a baseball bat to kill Will Hunting, who deep down actually wanted to be killed. It was his way of getting out.” Yikes.

11. MATT DAMON AGREES WITH YOU THAT HIS HAIR IS TERRIBLE.

As he told an interviewer in 2012, “That is so my fault. For whatever reason at that age, I loved that haircut. Gus was like, ‘Really?’ Ben was like, ‘Really?’ If you look at Ben’s hair in that movie, it’s totally acceptable by today’s standards, but no, I wanted the frosted f*****’ hair. I don’t know what my problem was. I looked like I should be singing backup for Color Me Badd.”

12. STELLAN SKARSGÅRD STANDS BY HIS SCARF, THOUGH. 


Miramax Films

Some have mocked Professor Gerald Lambeau’s fashion choice, and the fact that he wears it constantly, but Skarsgård doesn’t understand why. “It was not my idea, it was the costume designer’s idea,” he said. “But it was totally in line with mine because the first thing I said was, ‘I’m a college professor—no tweed.’ That was a condition because I wanted a rock and roll professor more than a tweed professor. I want a professor that f*cked his students. And I got it!”

13. THE ENDING WAS TERRENCE MALICK’S IDEA.

The reclusive director of Badlands and Days of Heaven (he was a year away from making The Thin Red Line) happened to be good friends with an Affleck family friend, so Ben and Matt arranged a meeting with him. Over dinner, they told him the plot of the movie, which at that point ended with Damon's and Minnie Driver’s characters leaving town together. “In the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I think it would be better if she left and he went after her,’" Damon recalled. "And Ben and I looked at each other. It was one of those things where you go: of course that’s better … He started talking about Antonioni. ‘In Italian movies a guy just leaves town at the end and that’s enough.’ And we said of course that’s enough.” 

14. IT FEATURES TWO THINGS THAT VAN SANT HAD ALMOST USED IN HIS PREVIOUS FILM: MATT DAMON AND THE MUSIC OF ELLIOTT SMITH.

Damon had auditioned for To Die For, in the role that eventually went to Joaquin Phoenix. Van Sant later said, “[Damon] looked too much like the jock and I needed more of a dispossessed boy … I wanted to use Matt so much, and I could have gone that direction, but I felt it might actually destroy the movie.” As for Elliott Smith, Van Sant was given one of his albums when he was working on To Die For, “because I was looking for something that was really raw. [But] we were thinking more in terms of heavy metal, so we didn’t use Elliott.” 

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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