Gus Van Sant’s ‘Good Will Hunting’ (1997)

Photo by George Kraychyk. Courtesy of Miramax/Photofest. Copyright Miramax Films

by Gregory Fitzsimmons

In the fall of 1997, I had my first existential crisis.  I was a business major at the University of Arizona, complete with internship at Merrill Lynch.  I played video games, drank beer and watched every conceivable sporting event with my fellow future stockbrokers.  I went through the motions, slept through accounting classes and generally did what I was “supposed” to do.  But something didn’t feel right.

The semester wore on, and I found myself skipping entire days of class to go to watch films.  I had grown up going to the movies and, like most of my generation, embraced Star WarsE.T. and Indiana Jones.  Movies were a portal into another world, a chance to escape and live someone else’s life for two hours.  And in 1997, I just wanted to escape.  I wanted to sit in a dark theatre, alone for hours, and avoid the reality of what my life was fast becoming.  I saw anything and everything: GI Jane.  U-Turn.  L.A. Confidential.  It didn’t matter.  I had to get away.

Hunting followed his gut.  He took a risk to pursue love.  In doing so, he began a journey of self-discovery… Why am I selling retirement funds at Merrill Lynch?

One afternoon, immediately following a failed statistics test, I ducked into a mostly empty theatre to see a showing of Good Will Hunting.  The lights went down, Danny Elfman’s score kicked in, and I was swept up into the story of a working-class kid from South Boston.  Will Hunting, as played by Matt Damon, was something of a savant.  He worked as a janitor at MIT, solving complex math equations in his spare time.  Hunting was a tortured soul with a dark past, spending most days hanging out with his friends and getting into trouble.  He meets a psychologist, played by Robin Williams, who helps him find direction in his otherwise drifting life.  In the end, Hunting turns his back on his neighborhood, and follows his heart to California because he “had to go see about a girl.”

As the final scenes unfolded, I sat mesmerized, choking back tears.  Hunting drove westward to the tunes of Elliot Smith.  I was overcome with emotion.  I couldn’t help but draw immediate parallels to my own life.  Like Hunting, I was trapped in a stifling environment.  I had a group of friends who were fun to party with, but I yearned for something more stimulating.  As painful and difficult as it may be, sometimes we outgrow our surroundings and must push ourselves forward to continue on our path.

Hunting followed his gut.  He took a risk to pursue love.  In doing so, he began a journey of self-discovery––one that was scary, yet full of possibility.  The credits rolled and I watched the hundreds of names scroll across the screen: the grips, the gaffers, the caterers…  Something clicked.  Who were all these people?  How do they get to be a part of something so transcendent and inspiring?  And why am I selling retirement funds at Merrill Lynch?

I raced home and immediately began researching careers in the movie industry.  In the dark ages before the growth of the Internet, I had to scour the shelves at a local bookstore and read everything I could about what it took to “make it” in Hollywood.  I paid $20 for a “top secret” job list to be mailed right to my doorstep.  Within a month, I had quit my internship, and lined up a gig that summer as an assistant on a film production in LA, a David Spade comedy, Lost & Found.  The experience was incredible, I met a bunch of amazing people and, most importantly, I had discovered what I wanted to do with my life.  My own journey had begun.

Looking back on Good Will Hunting today, I realize how much the film shaped and continues to shape me.  First off, not a day goes by where I don’t try to work “Gordon Wood” into a sentence.  If I take a drink and cough, it is because I “swallowed a bug.”  And every once in a while, I insist on having “$200 in my back pocket, right now.”

Working as an editor, the film represents my personal philosophy in regard to the craft.  For me, the best editing is invisible.  It should always be in service of the story.  Jump cuts and special effects are no match for good characters and a strong, engaging narrative.

Will Hunting made a choice to leave his comfort zone and follow his heart to California.  He “had to go see about a girl.”  At the end of 1997, I too made a choice.  I had to go see about Hollywood.  It has been a journey fraught with difficulties and triumphs, but I don’t regret it for a second.   “How d’ya like dem apples?”