Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Did Good Will Hunting Win An Oscar?

Genre: Drama
Premise: A young janitor at MIT solves an impossible math equation, which leads to a unique relationship with a reclusive psychologist.
About: Good Will Hunting was originally purchased by Rob Reiner at Castle Rock for 675,000 dollars. The script at that time was a straight thriller about a math genius recruited by the government. Reiner told Damon and Affleck to cut out the thriller aspect, however, and focus on the character development. The rewrites went well, but eventually the project jumped ship to Miramax (spearheaded by Kevin Smith, which is how he got producer credit on the film). After demanding the usual suspects for the lead roles (DiCaprio and Pitt) and not getting them, Miramax begrudgingly allowed Damon and Affleck to play the leads, which would end up launching their careers. The script went on to win the best original screenplay Oscar in 1997. There was a lot of controversy behind that win, however, as many claimed William Goldman rewrote the script. Goldman repeatedly denied these claims though and told the screenwriting world they were simply jealous that a couple of good-looking kids could write a great screenplay. For an article about dialogue in GWH, go the the writer's store.
Writers: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

When Good Will Hunting came out, I didn’t see what the big deal was. A couple of pretty boy best friends able to make their dream project seemed to be influencing the Oscar vote way more than the quality of the movie itself. I mean, the story was basically about a couple of friends hanging out in Boston, right? Give me a break.

But having watched the movie a number of times since, and maybe growing up a little as well, I’ve realized just how complicated and well-written this screenplay is. Good Will Hunting is a multi-faceted multi-character study, which places its chassis around an engine that’s never officially turned on. It’s overly melodramatic in places. The backstories are a mite cliché (oh, daddy was abusive!). And yet it’s all powerfully affecting. It works in a way that so many other character studies (Smart People, Garden State, Brothers, Pay It Forward, Finding Forrester, etc., etc.) have failed. So what’s going on here? And what is it about Good Will Hunting that’s so complicated?

As I’ve stated many times before, most of the best stories start with a character who wants something badly. That thing they want? It’s called a goal. And their pursuit of that goal is what drives the story forward. Because there’s uncertainty in whether they’ll achieve that goal or not, we want to stick around to find out what happens. That formula right there is the core of any good drama.

However, every once in awhile, a movie is based around a character without a goal. In these cases, the character is known as “passive.” They’re passive because they’re not “actively” trying to obtain a goal. Movies based around these characters can still work (The Graduate), but they’re really hard to pull off, because it’s hard to get excited about a character who doesn’t do anything just as it’s hard to like people in the real world who don’t do anything. Inactivity is boring.

However, one of the ways to make movies with passive heroes work, is to give the goal that drives the story to someone else. In almost all cases, that secondary choice would be the villain. So in Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin doesn’t have a goal. It’s Joe Pesci’s villain, who’s trying to break in, who has the goal that’s driving the story. Macaulay Culkin is just trying to survive.

To recap, we have giving your main character the story goal or giving your main villain the story goal. But if neither of these two has a goal? Now you’re stepping into dangerous territory. Because very few movies work without the two most important people in the movie driving the story. I mean, if anyone besides these two is driving the story, why aren’t they the main character??

Yet this is what Good Will Hunting does. The goal in Good Will Hunting is Professor Lambeau’s. He’s trying to help Will realize his full potential. But it doesn’t stop there. Instead of Professor Lambeau - the person with the actual goal - being the one to guide Will to his objective, he brings in ANOTHER CHARACTER – a psychologist friend – to do the job for him. This means, by association, Sean (Robin William’s character), is the character responsible for the main goal that drives the story, a goal he personally (at least initially) could care less about.

If we were to go back to the conception of this idea, I think every one of us would’ve been more comfortable making the person who cares so much about Will becoming a math genius (Professor Lambeau) being the one to “help” him. Adding a buffer character between him and Will lowers the stakes, since Sean doesn’t have as much on the line as Lambeau. It would be like Daniel coming to Mr. Miagi in The Karate Kid and Mr. Miagi saying. “I want you to be a great Karate master. Let me introduce you to my friend, Cousin Taki. He will teach you.”

So, let’s recap again. Our main character has no goal. There’s no villain so the villain has no goal. A third person has the goal but pawns it off to someone else. And to make things as tough as they can possibly be on our writers, the goal itself is vague. They’re helping Will with his Math so he can…help the world? Sheesh, talk about a tough sell.

So then, why does Good Will Hunting still work?

Well, it starts with something not a lot of people who write character work think about – a hook. Will is a genius. He can solve impossible math equations, equations that would give Einstein fits, in a matter of seconds. So right away, you have something unique that intrigues an audience. But the writers go one step further. Will is a janitor at MIT. They’ve harnessed the power of an ironic character. A janitor at MIT who’s smarter than all the students? Who doesn’t want to go see a movie about that?

What the hook also does is it makes us like Will. Remember, audiences love characters who are talented at something. It’s no different than real life. We love people who are great at something. We look up to them. Admire them. Wish we could be like them. And so even though Will beats the shit out of people for fun (although it’s important to remember that the person he beats up is the kid who bullied him in kindergarten), we really like the guy.

Affleck and Damon then introduce the secret engine that’s driving the story. You didn’t know about the secret engine rule did you? Well pay attention, cause this is the key to why this story works. Are you ready? WILL HUNTING DOES NOT WANT TO DO ANYTHING WITH HIS TALENT. And that, my friends, is the conflict that’s driving the story.

Our character wants to be one way. **But we want him to be another way.** Conflict. We, just like Lambeau and Sean, want Will to realize his potential. We want him to realize what he can do for the world. And that’s why those therapy sessions between Sean and Will work so well. Because there’s so much at stake. If Will doesn’t open up, if he doesn’t listen to what Sean has to say, he’s going to be mopping floors and banging bricks for the rest of his life. And we can’t have that. It’s a really weird driving mechanism for a story. Because normally character goals or mysteries drive a story. In this case, it’s our desire to see this character reach his potential.

There are some other risks Affleck and Damon took in Good Will Hunting as well. Usually, in a drama like this, you don’t want to have any more than 3 central relationships for the main character to resolve. And that’s because if you spread yourself too thin, you won’t have enough time to explore those relationships on a meaningful level. So in Rocky, we have the relationship with Adrian, with Paulie, and with Mick. Here in Good Will Hunting, we have five. Will’s relationship with Chuckie (Affleck), with his group of friends, with Professor Lambeau, with Sean, and with Skylar. That’s a lot of jumping back and forth and by no means easy to juggle. Now on top of this – as if these guys weren’t making things difficult enough for themselves - we also explore Sean and Lambeau’s relationship AWAY from Will. This is a risky move because it isn’t required. They could’ve nixed it and kept the story leaner and more focused. But they did it and it paid off, because it made us understand these characters in a way we couldn’t have understood them if we had only seen them around Will.

Good Will Hunting also seems to violate the melodrama rule. Which is you don’t want to stack a bunch of really intense (yelling, crying) scenes back to back as the melodrama will overwhelm the audience and cancel itself out. Yet at the end of Good Will Hunting, we get, I believe, 5 back to back scenes with our characters breaking down, crying, or screaming. In every other instance I’ve seen this attempted, it’s failed miserably, as the audience just gets drama’d out. Yet in Good Will Hunting, it works. And it works because the characters are so unbelievably crafted. Each one of them feels like a real person so we believe that they’d really be crying and yelling at each other.

And the touches here. The touches are amazing. Making sure to keep enough humor in the script to balance out all the melodrama. Stuff like Professor Lambeau’s study aid, a character who could’ve been forgettable but Damon and Affleck gave him a jealousy storyline. The script strives to create those all important “memorable moments” (“How you like them Apples” and Chuckie’s “retainer” interview). And the dialogue. Jesus Christ the dialogue in this script is tremendous. I mean they must’ve written those scenes between Will and Sean a thousand times because none of it is cliché. Not a lick of it. They just kept pounding it out and pounding it out and pounding it out until it felt unique and infinitely organic to this world. I can’t say enough about this script. I think it’s genius. And it’s on Neflix Streaming for free. So what the hell are you waiting for?

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[x] genius

What I learned: Good Will Hunting is a testament to the power of rewriting. It’s well documented that they rewrote the shit out of this thing. Probably over a hundred drafts. And when you keep going back and holding every scene up to the spotlight and saying, “Is this as good as it can possibly be?” and not stopping until the answer is yes, that’s the attitude that leads to great scripts. Just remember though. These guys had some really smart people giving them notes (Rob Reiner, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Smith, Robin Williams). Getting fresh eyes on the script after every rewrite helps you identify problems in your script that aren’t working which is the key to making it better.