'Good Will Hunting' came from teamwork and friendship

January 02, 1998|By Steve Murray | Steve Murray,COX NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- They're young, they're talented, they're on magazine covers.

Oh, swell, two more movie star pretty boys, right? Well, not exactly.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck star in "Good Will Hunting," which opened last week. It's the tale of a working-class Boston guy named Will (Damon) who's constantly getting hauled into court for public brawling and talking his way out of it. He happens to be a genius. But he's headed for jail unless a rumpled, troubled therapist (Robin Williams) can break through to him.

Affleck plays Chuckie, one of Will's childhood friends. That wasn't exactly a stretch. He and Damon have been best friends for 20 years.

You might want to dismiss the two as Hollywood's latest double-scoop flavors of the month. But here's a difference: They wrote their way into the spotlight, penning the acclaimed script and, of course, writing roles for themselves in it. "It was five years of our life, hanging out at night and improvising scenes," Damon says of the writing process. "It was like doing a play so long that you've done every part."

Affleck, he says, is the better typist.

Sometimes the late-night sessions weren't totally on the money. Affleck remembers reading lines the next day, wondering, "Did we have a few beers last night? 'Cause this isn't very good."

The idea for the script came from a 50-page story Damon wrote. And the final product earned a buzz at the studios where it was submitted. Only one problem: Damon and Affleck stipulated that they'd sell the script only with themselves attached as actors.

The execs said no thanks.

"We were considering pipe-bombing certain studios," Damon says. "They didn't want us as actors. They thought they could get people who would bring in money."

Eventually, though, the script reached Gus Van Sant, who read only half of it before putting in a call to Affleck's brother Casey, who'd been in the director's last movie, "To Die For."

Van Sant said he wanted to do it. Next on board was Williams, whose dramatic performance is considered by some to be his best yet.

Though Williams was in serious acting mode for the movie, that didn't stop him from improvising, including one riff about his deceased wife's, ahem, flatulence. The speech made the final cut. "Gus just really likes to find real moments, no matter what," Damon says with a laugh.

As for being the third man out while directing the two guys who wrote the script, Van Sant says: "It would have been hard if our sensibilities were different. But they were pretty much in line. I wanted to learn through them about the material, and in turn they entirely, utterly trusted me."

Their movie is about class divisions and life in South Boston, but Damon and Affleck grew up in Cambridge, Mass., in the shadow of Harvard University and MIT. Damon's mom was a professor at Lesley College.

Lest his upbringing sound too comfy, Damon quickly explains that Cambridge wasn't gentrified back then, that he grew up "middle class in a working-class neighborhood."

The actors lived two blocks apart. "Then Matt went to Harvard, and I became a derelict," Affleck quips. "I didn't have the benefit of a lot of great teachers who inspired me." It was more a case of "stamping B's on the foreheads of students." (Damon, 27, left Harvard two semesters shy of graduating.)

After high school, Affleck, 25, moved to New York to continue acting. He'd started at age 8, despite his schoolteacher mom, who "thought acting was foolhardy. Still does, by the way," he says. His dad worked as a janitor at Harvard, so a little biography seems to have made its way into the movie: Will Hunting works as a janitor too.

Both actors have had stealthy careers, moving steadily toward this moment of wide exposure. Affleck played a bully in "Dazed and Confused" and the romantic lead in Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy." Damon turned up as an emaciated Gulf war vet, part of Meg Ryan's chopper squad, in "Courage Under Fire."

Now, you can't get away from them. Damon is on screen as the lead of "The Rainmaker," and he's shot the title role in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," starring Tom Hanks and due in theaters in June.

Affleck, meanwhile, is helping Bruce Willis save the world from an asteroid.

Together, Damon and Affleck can next be seen as earthbound angels on the verge of destroying mankind in director Smith's theological comedy "Dogma."

In whatever spare time they have, they're cobbling together a new script, an ensemble piece about relationships set in a halfway house.

So do they want to write, produce and direct in the future? "We'd love to do that," Damon says.

But he's not totally cool with this sudden surge of fame. "It's a little weird these days," he says. "I'm a little anxious. ... this is five years of my life. But that's a big theme in the movie -- not to have regrets."

He won't have any if the National Board of Review is any indication. Among its 1997 citations announced Dec. 9, the critics group gave Damon and Affleck an award for special achievement in filmmaking.

And Damon's received another benefit from "Good Will Hunting": He's dating the movie's female lead, Minnie Driver.

"I would never want anyone to get the impression that ," he begins, then trails off, blushing. "I mean, I had never even met her before she auditioned."

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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