Will Hunting, a janitor at M.I.T., has a gift for mathematics, but needs help from a psychologist to find direction in his life.
I recently read the Academy Award-winning screenplay Good Will Hunting by Matt Damon & Ben Affleck to prepare for a scene assigned in acting class.
Here are three lessons I learned from reading the Good Will Hunting screenplay:
1. How to make “difficult” characters likable.
2. Elements of a strong monologue.
3. What creates an authentic psychological breakthrough.
#1. On the following page of the Good Will Hunting screenplay, Will and his buddies are at a Harvard bar and Will stands up to a bully who tries to embarrass his friend:
HOW TO MAKE “DIFFICULT” CHARACTERS LIKABLE — By this point, we have seen Will start a fight, taunt police officers, get fired from his job, and display a slew of other unlikeable attributes. However, he is also witty and charismatic. Even before therapy and healing, we like him, or at least I did as a reader and viewer. Why is this?
Many of these actions are done out of a sense of loyalty, which is essential to the character’s socioeconomic background. Will and his friends are loyal to each other, which is a basic admirable trait. He starts a fight earlier in the film because the man stole his buddy’s love interest; in the scene above, Will uses charm and intelligence to ward off a bully in protection of his best friend.
These motives are understandable and we relate. In turn, we want Will to win. His brilliance is undeniable and as the film proceeds, we see how his reactive nature and fear of intimacy hold him back. Will says, “Hey fuck you” to a professor because he personally feels threatened.
Will’s aggressive nature and avoidant attachment style become more and more apparent and Sean, played by the late Robin Williams, gives a wonderful monologue to Will in a therapy session…
#2. Here, Sean delivers a beautiful monologue to Will Hunting:
ELEMENTS OF A STRONG MONOLOGUE — A lot is accomplished here. In one page, Sean effectively establishes his own past and breaks down Will’s behavior, giving the audience insight into the brokenness inside the “boy.” By learning more about Sean’s past struggles and admirable love for his wife, we immediately love him on a primal level. In his observations of his patient, we see the truth and so does Will, based on his unusual sense of silence.
The way the above monologue is written forces Will to confront his own lack of life experience, which he has been making up for through sheer intelligence and cerebral remarks…all in a manner that prevents Will from getting defensive. As readers and viewers, we know how quick Will is to retaliate and go “shields up” when threatened. This is a common personality trait found among individuals who have experienced severe trauma and developed an avoidant attachment style. We have been shown this repeatedly and expect Will to explode or retaliate at any sign of disrespect.
Truth is delivered to Will in a way that he receives it as Sean delves into his own past. A potent and powerful monologue.
#3. The following page contains the iconic “It’s not your fault” breakthrough scene in Good Will Hunting:
WHAT CREATES AN AUTHENTIC PSYCHOLOGICAL BREAKTHROUGH — Simple repetition used with love, authenticity, and intention after garnering the boy’s trust allows for a powerful breakthrough. On a cerebral level, Will seems to recognize that the abandonment and abuse he endured were not his fault. However, it is common for trauma patients to have an inner voice blaming them for what happened.
Will needed to hear this truth. Yet even upon hearing it from one of the only people in the world whom he trusts and respects, Will brushes it off. Sean tells the boy that it is not his fault SIX TIMES before the message is received on an emotional level rather than just an intellectual one. Notice the slight alterations written into Will’s dialogue with each response; he goes from “nonchalant” to smiling to “dead serious” before saying, “Don’t fuck with me” (showing that the message still hasn’t gotten through).
Sean moves around the desk to sit in front of Will, effectively removing the physical barrier between them (a common behavioral technique used to build rapport and improve influence), and says it again before the “tears start.” Only then do we see the barriers inside of Will come crumbling down in a poignant moment.
Powerful on the page and onscreen, this psychological breakthrough is a fantastic climax for the Good Will Hunting screenplay.