Now I’ll close with my picture of a poodle.
Sometimes a screenplay or movie will come along and catch fire to such an extent it inspires a slew of writers to try the same high-wire act. Usually that’s fine. We see movies to be inspired and to learn. We read scripts, read scripts, and then read scripts. But there is such a thing as trying to copy from the wrong movie and too often that’s what we try to do.
Take Good Will Hunting, Oscar-winning screenplay 2007. It’s a movie of fast-talking, monologue-heavy, cry-screaming, melodrama, complete with unlikely ironies like a brilliant young janitor who can solve equations that leave the rich kids he cleans behind and their brilliant professors stumped. God the movie is so talky…and so irresistible. So many times we’re taught that we have to steer clear of cliche and melodrama but done right it satisfies this primal itch better than anything else. (Maybe there’s an argument to write towards cliche?) Check out the New York Times synopsis below.
A rebellious 20-year-old MIT janitor Will Hunting (Damon), gifted with a photographic memory, hangs out with his South Boston bar buddies, his best friend Chuckie (Affleck), and his affluent British girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver). After MIT professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) stumps students with a challenging math formula on a hallway blackboard, Will anonymously leaves the correct solution, prompting Lambeau to track the elusive young genius. As Will’s problems with the police escalate, Lambeau offers an out, but with two conditions — visits to a therapist and weekly math sessions. Will agrees to the latter but refuses to cooperate with a succession of therapists. Lambeau then contacts his former classmate, therapist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), an instructor at Bunker Hill Community College. Both are equally stubborn, but Will is finally forced to deal with both his past and his future.
So many things could go wrong here. The allegorical name: Will Hunting. Photographic memory. Seen it a zillion times, right? The genius kid janitor. Well, maybe we haven’t specifically seen a janitor but the unlikely victor’s pretty familiar. The therapy visits….ooh yeah, the promise of pages and pages of dialogue about our poor abandoned hero and what mom and dad did. But there is the promise of drama in the closing phrase: The therapist and Will are equally stubborn (conflict) with Will finally forced to deal with both his past and future.
Twenty-six years later I’ll admit there are some things I find a little ham-fisted about Good Will Hunting. Perhaps it is how sentimental and precious it seems in a harsher, hook-up, navel-gazing, hashtag world. And some of the motivation and psycho-analsysis seems so obvious. And while the dialogue is 99 percent sensational, sometimes it is on the nose, overwritten and saved only by those performances.
Exhibit A: This super-talky scene between Sean (Robin Williams) and Lambeau (Stellan Skaarsgard).
INT. SEAN'S OFFICE -- DAY
Lambeau stands across from Sean, seething.
This is a disaster! I brought you in
here to help me with this boy, not
to run him out--
Now wait a minute--
--And confuse him--
And here I am for the second week in
a row with my professional reputation
Ready to falsify documents because
you've given him license to walk
away from this.
I know what I'm doing and I know why
Look Sean, I don't care if you have
a rapport with the boy -- I don't
care if you have a few laughs --
even at my expense! But don't you
dare undermine what I'm trying to do
He has a gift and with that gift
comes responsibility. And you don't
understand that he's at a fragile
He is at a fragile point. He's got
What problems does he have, Sean,
that he is better off as a janitor
or in jail or hanging around with--
Why do you think he does that, Gerry?
He can handle the work, he can handle
the pressure and he's obviously
Why is he hiding? Why is he a janitor?
Why doesn't he trust anybody? Because
the first thing that happened to him
was that he was abandoned by the
people who were supposed to love him
Oh, come on, Sean--
And why does he hang out with his
friends? Because any one of those
kids would come in here and take a
bat to your head if he asked them
to. It's called loyalty!
Oh, that's nice--
And who do you think he's handling?
He pushes people away before they
have a chance to leave him. And for
20 years he's been alone because of
that. And if you try to push him
into this, it's going to be the same
thing all over again. And I'm not
going to let that happen to him!
Now don't do that. Don't you do that!
Don't infect him with the idea that
it's okay to quit. That it's okay to
be a failure, because it's not okay!
If you're angry at me for being
successful, for being what you could
--I'm not angry at you--
Yes you are, Sean. You resent me.
And I'm not going to apologize for
any success that I've had.
--I don't have any anger at you--
Yes you do. You're angry at me for
doing what you could have done. Ask
yourself if you want Will to feel
that way for the rest of his life,
to feel like a failure.
That's it. That's why I don't come
to the goddamn reunions! Because I
can't stand the look in your eye
when you see me! You think I'm a
failure! I know who I am. I'm proud
of who I am. And all of you, you
think I'm some kind of pity case!
You with your sycophant students
following you around. And your Goddamn
Is that what this is about, Sean?
The Field's Medal? Do you want me to
go home and get it for you? Then
will you let the boy--
I don't want your trophy and I don't
give a shit about it! 'Cause I knew
you when!! You and Jack and Tom
Sanders. I knew you when you were
homesick and pimply-faced and didn't
know what side of the bed to piss
That's right! You were smarter than
us then and you're smarter than us
now! So don't blame me for how your
life turned out. It's not my fault.
I don't blame you! It's not about
that! It's about the boy! 'Cause
he's a good kid! And I won't see
this happen to him- won't see you
make him feel like a failure too!
He won't be a failure!
If you push him into something, if
you ride him--
You're wrong, Sean. I'm where I am
today because I was pushed. And
because I learned to push myself!
He's not you!
I apologize. Truly. And I’m sparing you, cause the scene goes on and honestly, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a script editor that wouldn’t delight in taking a red pen to this stuff. It’s not as bad on screen…it’s fast and it moves but God help me I think it could use some pruning.
How does Good Will Hunting get away with this? It creates such a sympathetic character that you root for in the underdog Will, the Boston the story takes place in is so specific and infuses the dialogue so deliciously, and the two angels battling for Will’s soul, Sean and Lambeau are both so fully-drawn elsewhere that they are allowed to let anger and frustration lead them into this on-the-nose shouting match. In other words, if you create a deeply satisfying story and characters, scenes like this will slide by.
But if you fail to do the groundwork– and I saw my share of these scenes as a reader (and write my share of them too as a writer)– it will be awful.