Williams left Damon ‘raw and bloodied’
BY THE time Robin Williams was cast in Good Will Hunting he was a huge star known for his over the top characters. So he was a surprise choice to land a role playing a grieving therapist for Matt Damon's character.
The few weeks filming changed Robin's career. By portraying a character much less zany than anyone on set expected, he was finally recognised by the Academy, winning an Oscar for best supporting actor.
But the scenes were intense, with Robin actually injuring Matt Damon during a critical moment.
Below is an extract from the book Robin, detailing his life and career.
GOOD Will Hunting was first acquired by Castle Rock Entertainment, then picked up by Miramax, the independent studio run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein.
There, it caught the interest of the director Gus Van Sant, who had made low budget hits like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and To Die For - films about drug abusers, male prostitutes, and a murderous meteorologist - and who saw Affleck and Damon's script as possessing more mainstream appeal.
Van Sant knew Robin from their abortive efforts to make The Mayor of Castro Street (in which Robin was set to play Harvey Milk - the film eventually was developed into Milk, starring Sean Penn) and thought he could play the role of Dr. Maguire.
Robin also got strong endorsements on the script from his CAA agents and from Marsha's niece Jennifer, who was working as a production assistant on The Rainmaker, a legal thriller where she'd befriended Damon.
Robin signed on to Good Will Hunting that March. He later described the screenplay as "layered and very moving, but in a very simple way," and said that he saw the repressed Dr. Maguire, who at times gets so wound up that he threatens and even assaults Will, as a conduit for a type of rage he could not release in other roles.
"It was great to tap into that anger with him and go, 'Would I hurt him? Yeah. If you keep going,'" Robin explained. "'You want to work? You want to really deal with who you are? Let's talk. Or you want to sit here and spray musk all day? You can do that, but I don't want to be around it.' ... It felt good to get the cojones to do that."
Robin's time commitment to the project was brief, just a few weeks of filming in Boston and Toronto that May and June; for the film, which was budgeted at about $16 million total, he was paid about $3 million in salary - a steep cut from his usual asking price that was offset with a portion of the movie's profits, if it earned any. He prepared thoroughly for the role, working closely with a dialect coach to learn the nuances of the working class South Boston Irish accent and to master the mysterious vowel sound described in his notes as "a sound halfway between the a of 'fat' and the ah of 'father.'"
When Robin first travelled to Boston to begin rehearsals, Van Sant had the now common place discovery that the actor was very different from the man he had expected. "He assumed this personality, which I'm not sure wasn't always part of him, which was very down," the director said. "He wasn't Mr. Stand Up and Tell a Joke. And I thought that when we were doing the film, that there would be a lot more of that." In fact, Van Sant said Robin could be needy for his approval once shooting started, and he never allowed rampant buffoonery to overwhelm his work.
"He would go, 'Yeah, yeah, boss. Was that not good?'" Van Sant recalled. "And I would say, 'No, that was great. That was really great.' And then we'd move on. And I would never really encourage him to go beyond. I never said, 'But Robin, I thought you were really going to let it go, like Good Morning, Vietnam - like, let it go, baby!' Because I thought maybe that would be the wrong thing to point him towards. Because it was really working, the way he was doing it."
Affleck and Damon had provided the Maguire character with a couple of emotional, award-baiting monologues. In one, delivered on a bench in the Boston Public Garden, he tells Will that his book learning is no substitute for Maguire's life experience. ("I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable.") In another, set in his office, Maguire excitedly re-enacts Carlton Fisk's twelfth inning walk off home run from Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, only to reveal that he missed the game so he could strike up a conversation with the woman who became his wife. "I gotta see about a girl," as he put it.
Robin performed these scenes with gusto, and, where he could, he added his own improvisational spins. When Maguire lovingly describes to Will the idiosyncratic qualities about his late wife that he did not expect to miss, it was Robin who came up with the detail that she used to fart in her sleep. That joke drew a laugh from Damon, so of course Robin kept going with it. "At one point - it's not in the movie, they started laughing - he said, 'I used to have to wake up and light a match'," Affleck said. "And then Matt said, 'Is that how she died?' That's what they're laughing at, uproariously." The finished film used Robin's and Damon's authentic reactions to this adlibbed bit, though much of the dialogue that followed was not exactly appropriate for the scene. "At a certain point we were so far afield," Damon said. "We went on this riff about farting that just got so insane that I think we were doing our selves a disservice by the end of the day."
Robin also showed an unexpected intensity in a scene where he threatens Damon's character not to disrespect his dead wife and, in doing so, forcefully grabs him by the throat. The actors performed the sequence so many times that, in the final takes (including the one used in the film), makeup had to be applied to Damon's neck to cover the skin left raw and bloodied from Robin's repeated chokeholds. "Robin really got upset for this moment," Damon said. "I don't know what he was thinking about. But he couldn't stop grabbing me really hard."
In a more serendipitous moment, Robin supplied the film with what became its final spoken line, on one of his last days of shooting in Boston. For the scene, which would precede the closing shot of Will driving off to California to pursue his girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver), Robin was merely supposed to open his letterbox and discover Will's farewell note, which concludes, "I gotta see about a girl."
As Damon recalled that day's shoot, "We must have done twenty takes. He went into the house, folded the letter up, put it back in the letterbox, shut the door. And on one of the takes, in the middle, he said, 'Son of a bitch stole my line.' And went back in the house. I remember grabbing Gus, like, 'Holy shit! F*ck - what did he just - that is great!' And then he did like ten more and he never repeated that line again."
Robin by Dave Itzkoff, Published by Macmillan. RRP $32.99 from 29 May 2018