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.