Don’t Try This At Home: Good Will Hunting

Now I'll draw a picture of a poodle.

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.

                                     LAMBEAU
                         This is a disaster! I brought you in 
                         here to help me with this boy, not 
                         to run him out--

                                     SEAN
                         Now wait a minute--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         --And confuse him--

                                     SEAN
                         --Gerry--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         And here I am for the second week in 
                         a row with my professional reputation 
                         at stake--

                                     SEAN
                         Hold on!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         Ready to falsify documents because 
                         you've given him license to walk 
                         away from this.

                                     SEAN
                         I know what I'm doing and I know why 
                         I'm here!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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 
                         here.

                                     SEAN
                         "Undermine?"

                                     LAMBEAU
                         He has a gift and with that gift 
                         comes responsibility. And you don't 
                         understand that he's at a fragile 
                         point--

                                     SEAN
                         He is at a fragile point. He's got 
                         problems--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         What problems does he have, Sean, 
                         that he is better off as a janitor 
                         or in jail or hanging around with--

                                     SEAN
                         Why do you think he does that, Gerry?

                                     LAMBEAU
                         He can handle the work, he can handle 
                         the pressure and he's obviously 
                         handled you.

                                     SEAN
                         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 
                         the most!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         Oh, come on, Sean--

                                     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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         Oh, that's nice--

                                     SEAN
                         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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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 
                         have been--

                                     SEAN
                         --I'm not angry at you--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         Yes you are, Sean. You resent me. 
                         And I'm not going to apologize for 
                         any success that I've had.

                                     SEAN
                         --I don't have any anger at you--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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.

                                     SEAN
                         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 
                         Medal!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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--

                                     SEAN
                         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 
                         on!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         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.

                                     SEAN
                         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!

                                     LAMBEAU
                         He won't be a failure!

                                     SEAN
                         If you push him into something, if 
                         you ride him--

                                     LAMBEAU
                         You're wrong, Sean. I'm where I am 
                         today because I was pushed. And 
                         because I learned to push myself!

                                     SEAN
                         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.

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