They successfully turned a high-tech thriller into a tearjerker, and struck a box office heart of gold -- but the real payoff may come on Oscar night

Good Will Hunting

Math prodigy Will Hunting, on a job interview with NASA, is given a test code to crack. He quickly spots an evil scheme: NASA and the FBI have set him up with a real code, which, once solved, could cause mass destruction. Hunting recruits his best friends and understanding shrink to hatch a plan, beat the government, and save the day.

This is not, most certainly, the subtle, warm-the-cockles-of-your-heart Good Will Hunting that has propelled cowriters, actors, and childhood best friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck onto Hollywood’s most-wanted list, into the hearts of American audiences, and toward the Oscar podium. And the tortuous path Affleck and Damon were forced to navigate in order to transform the movie from a high-tech conspiracy thriller to an intimate character study is one of the most dramatic stories of the Oscar season.

After five years of knocking, Damon, 27, and Affleck, 25, have been admitted to the Movie Hall of Fame so suddenly that it’s a little disconcerting. A few weeks ago, an 80-year-old woman walked past the Manhattan set of Miramax’s Rounders, in which Damon plays a card shark, and — upon learning who the star was — exclaimed in wonder, “Matt Damon, the sex symbol?!” And when Affleck — in L.A. to film the summer blockbuster-in-waiting Armageddon with Bruce Willis — went to the Disney cafeteria and signed for his lunch because he’d forgotten his wallet, he learned the next day on a television gossip show that he had, in fact, pitched a fit and demanded a free meal. “It worried me,” Affleck says. “I haven’t trashed a hotel room yet, but yesterday I leaned back in my chair at the Four Seasons and it kind of snapped. What will they think?”

What they’ll think is that Good Will Hunting‘s odyssey is a classic Hollywood-in-the-’90s Cinderella story, the kind that ends with the prospect of Academy Awards and surprisingly good box office. Which isn’t far from the truth, if the evil stepmother becomes a studio, and Prince Charming is redrawn to look like (gulp) Harvey Weinstein.

Affleck — who refers to his partner and himself as “the Milli Vanilli of screenwriters” — and Damon began to work on Good Will Hunting in 1993, basing the story on a one-act play Damon had written at Harvard (he left before completing his studies). They drew from their own life growing up in Boston, where they were introduced by their mothers, both teachers, 17 years ago. “We’re pretty inseparable, in terms of our experiences,” Damon says. “We look at things in exactly the same way.” While they wrote, Damon says, “it wasn’t like someone was good at structure and someone at dialogue. The only difference between us is Ben can type.”

Neither, however, can edit. “We must have written 1,500 pages,” Damon says. “We had Will Goes to the Zoo episodes.” Within months, they settled on a script combining a friendship adventure with a “banana in the tailpipe” plot, as Affleck described the then-thrill-a-minute NASA caper. The characters of Will (Damon), a down-and-out boy genius, and his best friend Chuckie (Affleck), a construction worker, were already in place. But instead of the mentor/professor eventually played by Stellan Skarsgard, imagine a nefarious FBI agent attempting to corrupt Will, and instead of boy-meets-therapist bonding, picture a climax with world peace at stake.

That may have been a tall order for what Damon and Affleck envisioned as an independently financed $2 million project — and in November 1994, when Castle Rock won a bidding war for the script, director Rob Reiner, a partner in the studio, told them to drop the adventure angle and focus on the relationships. “It was a scary moment,” says coproducer Chris Moore. “We started [all over again] with 63 pages and made it a character story.”

Good Will Hunting
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