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NewCityNet Extraordinary People

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Charm is a funny thing, as mysterious as any component that makes up the facets of all the movies. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two handsome, up-and-coming actors, wrote "Good Will Hunting" for themselves to star in, and in the meantime, with Affleck in "Chasing Amy" and Damon in "The Rainmaker," they've become hot, hunky commodities. But that doesn't guarantee the kind of radiant charm we see on screen. What happened? Through five years of Hollywood intrigues, their sometimes florid, yearning script finally wound up in the hands of director Gus van sant, working with uncustomary restraint.

Will Hunting is a janitor at MIT, an unlikely mathematics genius and autodidact philosopher who's more content to get into dust-ups with his childhood buddies and to drink his life away whenever someone gets too close, whether math professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), or Harvard undergraduate Skyler (Minnie Driver) who falls in love with the pretty-mugged brawler. (Driver is a big bonus in this boy's-story--smart, darling and never subordinate to any other character.)

On one hand, "Good Will Hunting" could be taken as a modestly more ambitious version of studio high-concept: the therapeutic opening of a character's adolescent pain in "Ordinary People" meets the precocious genius of "Searching for Bobby Fischer" or "Amadeus." Yet the pop simplicity of the script-particularly once Lambeau brings Robin Williams' damaged therapist into the picture-is actually a joy. Etched with van Sant's trust of his actors and a remarkably textured use of Boston's Irish South End neighborhood, it all comes together to create a charming, affecting fairytale about finding the roles of parents and siblings satisfied in the larger world.

Van Sant talks in a charming, Warhol-like deadpan, filled with y'knows and reallys, but in his enthusiastic answers, there's a hint of why actors praise him so. "The script was so great, we used to call it a color-by-numbers script. As long we just filled them in, it would come to life. On the page, the screenplay was really fantastic. It was probably the best-written screenplay I'd ever read. A friend at Miramax gave it to me and halfway through it I was trying to call Ben Affleck and say, I'm in."

A feel-good movie seems an unlikely quantity from the career chronicler of sweetly lawless outlaws. "There were people like Harvey Weinstein who weren't quite sure," van Sant says with a sly grin. "I tried to sell myself by saying that 'Ordinary People' is my favorite film, which it is. Ben and Matt, however, saw nothing out of the ordinary about me directing. They had faith that I would keep the integrity of their words. Generally, in Hollywood, people are afraid. They put you in a category-you make this kind of movie, therefore you probably can't make this kind of movie. Ben and Matt never had that preconception."

But did van Sant have any doubts? "I think I can make any movie," he says, the small smile breaking into a grin. How about "Die Hard 4"? "Yeah." But would you? "I probably would if the price were right! No, I probably wouldn't because of the experience Michael Lehmann had when he made 'Hudson Hawk.' He made 'Heathers,' which was so brilliant, and then he made 'Hudson Hawk,' doing that thing, 'I really want to make a bunch of money so I don't have to worry about my future' and so forth. I think the movie was a totally valid idea, like me doing 'Die Hard 4.' But something went wrong." He pauses. "I would make a James Bond movie."

While Damon and Affleck have been friends since childhood, their on-screen give-and-take is truly fresh. I ask van Sant how he preserves such moments after five years of the actors being stuck in script development, so the characters have rapport instead of reciting the speeches. "You should be relaxed when you're working. It's hard when you have only one chance, that one day, to get the thing you've been planning for five years. Ben's first scene on the first day, he tells Matt that if he's around in thirty years, he'll kill him. 'I'd do anything to have what you have.' It's Ben's really big scene. All of sudden we're there and we did three takes and that was it. On Ben's part, what he had to do was just focus. It's being as fresh and relaxed as you possibly can. In that way, relationships become intimate. Remember, a lot of the dialogue is spoken between people in offhand moments."

While van Sant's lyrical style lurks within "Good Will Hunting"-there's a schoolyard fight as gorgeous as anything he's ever shot-it takes a back seat to capturing performances. "With this film I learned about speaking to the audience. When I go to the theatre, I'm looking for something that is moving. The audience is basically there to be moved, like an audience that goes to hear a symphony. They're after a movement of their emotions. I've learned the value of that, paying attention to audiences' needs, why people actually go. It's not so much about manipulating, but imparting something of value to the audience. In our case, it's like a lesson. Will Hunting is learning something that applies to all of us. We all have reservations about doing a certain thing because that will jeopardize what we already have. We're conservative with our directions in life. If you make this one move, you might endanger things you already feel safe with. Will takes a chance on getting to know someone that he's attracted to, but following his emotions jeopardizes his relationship with his friends. The film is saying, don't be afraid of change. It's something that I run across every day in my own decision-making."

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