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.
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.
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.”