Was Good Will Hunting Originally an Action Thriller?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

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

When it comes to films from original screenplays, it is sometimes shocking just how different the finished film looks from what was originally envisioned in the first draft of the screenplay. The Ghostbusters were originally time travelers, E.T. was originally a killer alien, “Snakes on a Plane” was originally a serious thriller, “Die Hard With a Vengeance” was once both “Lethal Weapon 4” and an original Brandon Lee starring vehicle!

That was the case for 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” the smart and touching story about a math genius with a tortured past being forced to see a therapist and work through his many issues. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the film ended up becoming a major hit and won its young writers (who also starred in the film) the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.


However, amazingly enough, when Damon and Affleck first wrote the film, it was an action thriller! Read on to see how it all happened…

Both Damon and Affleck had parts in films while they were young adults, with Affleck devoting more of his time to acting than Damon, who was attending Harvard University. The two had been friends since they met in Cambridge, Massachusetts when they were 10 years old. Affleck was living in Los Angeles while Damon was finishing out his degree at Harvard. Ultimately, Damon decided to leave college a dozen or so credits shy of graduating because he had gotten a part in a movie called “Geronimo.” During his last semester at Harvard, Damon took a play-writing class. Instead of doing a play, though, he decided to write the first act of a film. His theory was that he was leaving school anyways, so what did it matter? Damon 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.’”

He took the 40-page screenplay with him to Los Angeles, where he stayed at Affleck’s apartment. He asked Affleck to work on the script with him. They drew from their own lives to flesh out the characters. Affleck later told Rolling Stone, “I’ve always been insecure because I only had a little bit of college and knew a lot of people from fancy schools. All that sort of resentment in Good Will Hunting about people who went to college came from me feeling on the fringe.”

What stood out in the original script that Damon and Affleck came up with, as opposed to what was actually made, is that the original film was basically a thriller.

Affleck explained to Boston Magazine’ 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, they sold the script to Castle Rock Entertainment, Rob Reiner’s production company. It was Reiner who ultimately told them that this really should not be an action film.

Film producer (and friend of Affleck and Damon, who had given Affleck his first starring role in “Glory Daze”) Chris Moore 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.”

The guys were naturally 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 that it eventually became, Damon and Affleck felt that Castle Rock was not paying enough attention to them. Asking them to do countless rewrites, but then not pay attention to the rewrites. Affleck even came up with tests to see if they were actually reading the scripts, “We were so frustrated that Castle Rock wasn’t reading the script, so we felt like we had to develop this test. 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, they allowed Damon and Affleck to take the script elsewhere, provided that the other company paid Castle Rock the $600,000 that they had laid out for the script. Eventually, through the help of film writer/director Kevin Smith, they ended up at Miramax.

Even there, though, the changes to the film were not done. Their director, Gus Van Sant, felt that 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 cant 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 its a terrible idea let’s go back to what we had’.”

In the end, the ending of the film was inspired by famed filmmaker, Terrence Malik, who was a friend of Affleck’s family. They spoke to him and told him the gist of the film 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 remmber 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…

STATUS: True

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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