Friends: The Movie

David Kronke is senior writer at the Hollywood bureau of TV Guide Canada

What it boiled down to was Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wanted to write a movie that they could act in. Best buddies since their boyhood in Boston--they met when Matt was 10 and Ben was 8, united in part by the fact that they both had mothers who were teachers--they decided to take the industry by storm or, at least, put together a little movie that demonstrated their considerable acting prowess.

It's not like they weren't getting a chance to show off their chops--Damon, now 27, has been seen in "Courage Under Fire," "Mystic Pizza" and "Geronimo: An American Legend" and is currently headlining Francis Ford Coppola's "John Grisham's The Rainmaker." Affleck, 25, was in "Dazed and Confused," "Chasing Amy," "Mallrats" and "Going All the Way." Both appeared in "School Ties." They have, between them, more than half a dozen projects on the way.

But, hey, who's counting? Success in Hollywood is an ephemeral thing, and if they could skew the odds by creating roles that just happened to be perfect for them and them alone, that'd be one leg up on the vapid pretty boys of the world. Hence, "Good Will Hunting," a little movie about a roughneck boy genius who dazzles Boston's intelligentsia and has quite a lucrative career ahead of him--if he can shake his habit of decking anyone who crosses him. Damon began writing the script as a project for a theater class when he attended Harvard (he is still a few credits shy of a degree), and soon involved Affleck (who attended several colleges but never graduated).

Their script, unformed as it was, nonetheless generated heat and inspired a genuine Hollywood bidding wars, landing on the prestigious doorstep of Castle Rock. But the guys balked when the studio wanted to cut corners and shoot the thing in Toronto rather than in their beloved hometown.

Incredible as it seems, the two upstart writers were willing to go to the mat--not over their paychecks or the handling of the material, or even over friendships and connections, but over a shooting location. It may seem reckless or foolhardy--most aspiring screenwriters would throw in the ritualistic sacrifice of a grandparent to seal a deal--but when you hear Damon rhapsodizing over his pilgrimage to French Lick, Ind., hometown of legendary Boston Celtic Larry Bird, it's easy to understand why, in their eyes, Castle Rock's resistance to shooting in Boston was a deal-breaker.

It could have all come crashing down right there--Castle Rock hurled the project into turnaround and the duo risked not even getting cameos in the resulting movie. None of the studios originally interested in the script came calling a second time. Luckily, though Miramax had passed on the project initially (Affleck notes, with some satisfaction, that the person responsible for the script's coverage at the studio no longer works there), Kevin Smith--who was directing Affleck at the time in "Chasing Amy"--enthusiastically passed the script on to Miramax uber lord Harvey Weinstein.

Which brings Damon and Affleck to Dan Tana's in West Hollywood one Monday night to talk up "Good Will Hunting," directed by Gus Van Sant and co-starring Robin Williams, Damon's current squeeze Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgard, a movie that they're not only happy with but Miramax is proud of, too, revving up a major push during the holiday (and, therefore, awards) season. Affleck comes across as more seasoned in the art of being an interviewee, while Damon seems more Regular Guy, even after having worked with Coppola and Steven Spielberg.

Damon--who says he will have gone without a fixed address for two solid years when his work schedule settles down next year--has four upcoming movies: Spielberg's World War II epic, "Saving Private Ryan," with Tom Hanks; John Dahl's meditation on pro gamblers, "Rounders"; Kevin Smith's film about Catholicism, "Dogma," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which will take him to Italy. Affleck--showing up this evening after after two hours' sleep and a day's work, and with a nasty bug--matches his pal: He's currently shooting next summer's big-budget "Armageddon" with Bruce Willis, and will likewise move on to "Dogma," following that with the comedy "Forces of Nature" and the coming-of-age film "Balling the Jack," for which he'll also help tidy up the screenplay (he expects gratis assistance from Damon).

It's not like they need their own scripts anymore, but nonetheless, they're already working on their follow-up. They're a winning mutual admiration society--the two kid each other over their press (Damon's on this month's Vanity Fair cover; Affleck will adorn January's GQ cover), and Affleck fervently informs his pal he's been talking up Damon for yet another future project ("It's great to tell people, 'The greatest actor in the world, coincidentally, is my friend' "). Affleck even stresses Damon's obsessive professionalism before the pair settle into interview mode:

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Affleck: Did he tell you about this? There's one line in this movie--this guy is such a perfectionist that there's literally one line in the movie where the Boston accent just wasn't right, for whatever reason. Matt can do it, obviously, since we were little kids. But one line, "I can't play the piano," was just totally out of whack and driving him nuts.

Damon: It was keeping me up at nights. I said, "Gus, I have to loop that line. That's my only note on the film--I have to loop that line."

Affleck: That's all he cared about. And I was saying, "Matt, nobody's gonna notice, it's only one line. There's other things in the movie we should change." And he was, "Yeah, yeah, but I gotta change that line." So now he's looped it twice.

Damon: Three times. It didn't come out right. It sounded like it was looped, and that's really lame. I didn't want you to be in a scene, and suddenly it sounds like a kung-fu movie. I nailed it today. [To Affleck] Oh, I got off the plane today, and there were paparazzi there.

Affleck: You are kidding me.

Damon: I swear to God. Nothing like this has ever happened to me.

Affleck: Baptism by flashbulbs.

Damon: I said, "What is going on? Why are you taking my picture? Guys, how did you even hear about me?" They said, "We wait in the airport for every New York flight, and whoever's on it, we take your picture." I said, "Oh, OK, I feel better--I'm not being stalked."

Affleck: I just thought that was further proof that the editors of three major magazines in the country make who's a movie star and who isn't. I've seen these casting lists and it's amazing. I never thought that studio people gave that much credence to the publicity machine or the hype, but they pretty much have the same perspective as everyone else in America. If they read about someone in Details or whatever, that validates them. It's pretty amazing to me. I keep calling Matt and saying, "Is anything happening from the Vanity Fair thing? Are people recognizing you?"

Damon: I'm hanging out, standing by magazine racks.

Affleck: I was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and all that happened to me was I got a bunch of [crap] from the people on the movie. After that, it seems almost curmudgeonly to pose serious questions. Nonetheless . . .

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Q: Your script went through a lot of incarnations, including one with a thriller element. How'd it get molded?

Damon: A lot of it came from our own inexperience as writers, just not knowing where to take the story. We had well over 1,000 pages of these characters. We didn't know what to do with them. We had the National Security Agency taking interest in his gift and wanting him for their nefarious schemes. Rob Reiner and Liz Glotzer [president of production at Castle Rock Entertainment] were really good about that. Rob and Liz were the first to say, "Make this story very small, and it's OK." That was a tremendous burden lifted off our shoulders.

Affleck: We thought we needed to insert an element that would sell the script. We were lucky to run into people who were smart enough to say, "You don't need that." We were reluctant at first because we thought that was what everyone was supposed to want. We figured we needed an antagonist. Now the movie doesn't really have an antagonist, which is more interesting to us, because it's more ambiguous, but we didn't know that you were allowed to make a movie without a bad guy. We didn't think anyone would do that.

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Q: So you were going for Hollywood formula and Hollywood people said forget it.

Affleck: There were people who we talked to who wanted to cultivate that part of it, and make that the story, but we just happened to run into really smart executives who were willing to take risks. And I think they knew that that wasn't our strength--"Stick to writing real people and don't trick it up with all this other stuff."

Damon: A lot of the film was based on things we saw or people we knew.

Affleck: It was written in fits and starts--we get inspired, then boom-boom-boom, a lot of stuff comes out, and then you sit around, not knowing what to do next.

Damon: Where we had a lot of problems was in creating a structure around which these scenes could revolve.

Affleck: You know, "This is a cool idea for a scene--is there any way it could possibly make sense in the context of a larger story?" As actors, that's where you come from, in terms of scenes, not larger story arcs, just little moments, pieces of dialogue.

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Q: Robin Williams has a couple of monologues that seem very wise to be written by guys who are young enough to be on the receiving end of them.

Damon: It was a combination of things, not the least of which were speeches which had been thrown our way by our own parents.

Affleck: Exactly--"Don't think you understand everything already, because you don't."

Damon: And even if we don't understand those things, we understand them enough to repeat those things. (laughs)

Affleck: And you have to remember, we wanted to give the great monologue to the movie star. We wanted to attract somebody. We had to get somebody big to do it because, at the time, nobody was all that interested in making a movie with two guys no one had ever heard of. We knew we had to get a 40-ish star, so we wanted to write something that we thought an actor would want to play. And to Robin Williams' credit, what's wonderful about that monologue is that he doesn't act it. He has this serenity, and the way he says it is very peaceful. He lets the camera just play on his face.

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Q: What did Gus Van Sant do to massage the material that surprised you?

Damon: He has an ability--people would call it "his eye"--he always puts the camera in an extraordinarily uninhibiting place. And it's always the right place, to pick up these moments of humanity. He watches you rehearse it over and over then goes quietly about setting up the shot. It's always about what you're doing, he's never telling you what to do.

Affleck: You see these naturalistic performances in his films and wonder what he does. And I found that I was never more at ease--it was never about the fact that it was a movie, it was easy to forget that and do your thing. A lot of movies, it's, "Here's the light, here's your mark, this is the big moment, do it."

Damon: Often there's a sense of, the clock is ticking, money's being spent--perform right now. That's antithetical to the entire process of acting, which I think comes out of relaxation. And we had a great director of photography, Jean-Yves Escoffier, who is brilliant working with natural light. When it takes an hour and a half to set up the lights--I think even with great actors, when there are lights surrounding you, you feel this pressure to perform. You've got to do something, and you can't just play subtle and small, because why would they have bothered to set up all the lights?

Affleck: You feel it's gotta be enormous.

Damon: So Jean using the neon light of a beer sign in a bar and you're really in a bar doing a scene--

Affleck: You feel totally comfortable existing as you are in real life. It never feels like something bigger or that you need to do more.

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Q: Having run the gamut from blockbusters to indies, what do you feel is the most important element in making a film? Does the budget matter if you have a director you're in sync with? Does the sheer weight of a big studio film pull on you?

Damon: In those big action movies, when you're doing the action shots, often there's very little movie being made per hour, as opposed to when you're doing dialogue-heavy scenes. It's a different talent to amp yourself up for moments of running when you're supposed to be conveying fear for only five seconds of film. On "Courage Under Fire," I only did two days with Denzel Washington and a month of running around in the desert for the same amount of screen time. There were days where I thought, "Oh, God, is this ever going to end?" because it would take so long just to set these shots up.

Affleck: The waiting around is inhibiting to what you want to do. You're there, you're ready, you want to go, and you wish you could do it then, but it's another two hours, so you have to work extra hard to do what you really enjoy. But in a sense, it's a luxury having 100 days to shoot. In "Chasing Amy," we had 20 shooting days, and we had enormous dialogue scenes, and we'd have to get them all done before lunch. You know? One, two takes and move on. No coverage, no nothing. If you didn't get it, if you wanted one more take, you had to say, "Kevin, please, let me try once more." In ["Armageddon"], you have time to get little moments right, but by the same token, the disadvantage is it's so fragmented you don't remember where you are, how scared you're supposed to be for these frames of film. There's not as much continuity, it's possible to get lost in a sea of minuscule moments--this is one explosion, this is one expression.

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Q: [To Damon] Compare Coppola and Spielberg.

Damon: They're totally different. It's amazing to watch these people who get such amazing results and yet they're so totally different. Francis is very indulgent of actors and very much wants spontaneity, those happy accidents which occur when you're acting. I'd go up to a door and knock on it, and Mary Kay Place is supposed to be at the door, and some other actor is at the door, so I do a double take. And Francis came up and said, "You see? You never know who's going to answer a door in my movie." It's like, wake up and be available to what's going on, be honest about what's going on.

It was a great lesson. The only way I can describe Steven is, I was on the set one day and he said, "Hey, you want to see a movie I made when I was 14?" He showed me this army movie, it was his first army movie. I watched that and it all made sense to me--it's simple, he's a genius. Literally, there were dolly shots moving into over-the-shoulder shots where you think, wait a minute, and he says, "Yeah, I used that in 'Raiders.' Oh, yeah, that, I did that in 'Jaws.' " I tried to keep up with him one day, just to see what it was like to be Steven Spielberg. So I kind of stayed two steps behind him and followed him around while he directed a day's work. By the end of the day, I was cooked. He had this well of energy that he draws from when he needs it, and he burned me out. I couldn't keep up with him.

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Q: Having worked your way into your current positions, what's your take on impending fame?

Damon: I think it's hysterical. I can't believe I was on the cover of one of those things. I can't believe he's gonna be on the cover of GQ.

Affleck: He really can't believe that. . . . I heard that you got to keep the clothes, and I didn't. Maybe I'm not cool enough. Maybe if I was Al Pacino, but they were, "We'll be needing those jeans back." "What do you mean? They're 20 bucks!" Guys make so much money, but there's something appealing about free stuff.

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Q: So what free stuff are you scoring these days?

Damon: We got suits! [To wear to an industry fete of Miramax's Bob and Harvey Weinstein.] Very fash.

Affleck: And I steal stuff off of "Armageddon" all the time. I was going into Bruce's [Willis] trailer, because he has all the good fruit, all the good sodas. I'm never stocked up, but Bruce has all the right stuff.

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Q: So you're making off with all the stuff earmarked for Planet Hollywood.

Affleck: I'm like, "If you want my clothes for Planet Hollywood, you have to pay." So my stuff may not be appearing.

Damon: I think it's safe to say your stuff won't be appearing.

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