Film Scouts Interviews

Lawrence Bender on "Good Will Hunting"

by Henri Béhar

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Remember the blizzard in Manhattan a few years ago? That's when Good Will Hunting kind of gelled. After the New York Film Critics gave their awards, as the snowstorm raged outside on that night in mid-January, a bunch of stragglers-cum-diehards got stuck at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street. Among them: Kevin Spacey, Mia Sorvino, directors Ted Demme, Kevin Smith (Clerks) and Quentin Tarantino, as well as Tarantino's producer-partner Lawrence Bender and Miramax head-honcho Harvey Weinstein. Smith, a friend of Ben Affleck (whom he was to direct in Chasing Amy), knew the young actor had written a script with best pal (and also budding thespian) Matt Damon. He'd read it, liked it and, knowing it was in turnaround, passed it on to Weinstein. The latter cornered Lawrence Bender (a friend since "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction") at the bar of the Four Seasons and told him, "I've got this great script, it's my next big movie, I want you to get involved with producing it." In the days that followed, Bender read it, met with Affleck and Damon and... voilà!

Interesting bloke, that Bender guy. A University of Maine honors graduate in civil engineering, he chucked it all to become a ballet slash flamenco dancer in New York. Injured a couple of times, he took acting classes, taught pottery, studied karate, moved to L.A. with two suitcases and two thousand dollars, slept on whosever couch he could find, hooked up with then-video-store-clerk Tarantino, they co-founded the A Band Apart company and started doing commercials, until Tarantino wrote a Greek tragedy disguised as a gangster-thriller flick and called it Reservoir Dogs. The rest, as they say, is history.

Aged 40, Bender is now an established producer (Four Rooms, From Disk Till Dawn, White Man's Burden). Nothing quite prepared him, though, for the year 1997 where he produced no less than three films: The Price Above Rubies, with Christopher Eccleston and Juliane Margulies, Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting and Tarantino's Jackie Brown, with Pam Grier, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson, based on an Elmore Leonard novel. Excerpts from our interview which took place late November in Manhattan - as usual, Bender was, like, in and out.

A producer's frantic schedule: Literally I've been in production in January. The Price Above Rubies was shot here in New York, dead of winter. Four weeks later, we locked Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting. I called Gus and I said, "The good news is that we made the deal. The bad news is you'll have to make this work. Because of Robin's schedule on his other movies, we only have this slot where we have to shoot within five weeks. Can we do it and how do you feel about that?" And Gus said, "No problem." "You sure? We might not have time to find the locations that we want, we might not be able to get all the cast we want for some of the smaller roles, you may not have the time you really need to do it." He said, "No, I think we can do it."

I really didn't know Gus that well up until then. But you do get a confidence when you hear that from the director.

So we started shooting that a week after we wrapped The Price Above Rubies. At which I had to be up location scouting. Two weeks later, we green lit Jackie Brown, which started shooting three weeks before we wrapped Good Will Hunting. It's been crazy.

On being the ideal producer, i.e. a producer in absentia: Unfortunately, I have not gotten to that place yet (he laughs) On The Price Above Rubies, I was there completely all through pre-production: the casting, the scouting, fifty other things, and for the first four weeks of shooting. Afterwards we were shooting, we were up and running, everything is fine, they didn't need me anymore.

On Good Will Hunting, I was basically there for most of the pre-production and for the first three weeks of shooting. Right after that, I started flying back and forth between Quentin (Tarantino) and wherever Gus was shooting, either in Toronto and Boston. It was like: Pre-production Monday and Tuesday with Quentin. Take the red eye Tuesday night. Get off the plane Wednesday morning. Never go to the hotel, go straight to the set, work all day. It's exciting, but exhausting. Then after dailies, 9:30 at night, I'd get on the phone back with LA to deal with Jackie Brown from 10:00 to 1:00. Get up at 6:30... Don't talk to me about "the glamorous side of show-business". It's nuts! It was pretty crazed. As the saying goes, beware what you wish for, it might come true. These are all movies that I was really hoping to make ; unfortunately they all happened at the same time.

And they were all logistically very intense. The reason why is they're all a low-budget movies - about $5 million each, all shot on location. At the end of the day, Gus' movie was logistically the toughest to pull off out of the three, because it had the shortest prep time, we had three casting directors in three cities - Boston, New York and Toronto -, we literally had the crews off in five locations in two different cities at the same time. So logistically, I think it was the most difficult in the shortest amount of time...

Actors' directors: Gus and Quentin are very much actors' directors. And you go to actors' directors because they never use a monitor. Which a lot of directors, good or bad, do. It's not about whether you're a good director or bad director. But I think real actors' directors don't. Gus, like Quentin, would be sitting right next to the camera. he'd yell "Action" and "Cut," the actors would look up and look right at Gus. It was like a bond that happened right then and there. It's really a great thing to watch because it's a trust that forms. And it looks like a parent and a child in that an actor, if they feel like they are being protected, they allow themselves to go deeper and find other things inside themselves that they've never found before.

And that's really great to watch. Gus really gets people up to improvise on screen. It's almost like the script is a jumping-off point for him. Watching the dailies, I almost felt like I was watching a docudrama instead of feature-film acting. Didn't feel like performances, it really felt improvised, natural, organic.

Why Gus Van Sant: If you look at his other movies, all right, this doesn't seem like the right movie for Gus. But then you look at several things: He's amazing with actors and this is an actors' piece. It's full of people that hang around and talk. Two, he's a visualist. He's always interesting, camera wise. Three, he has a sense of the blue collar, the underclass group. And the script has that element of it. It also has... I hate to use the word "edge" it's so overused, but it's the only one I can think of ; the emotional parts of it had an edge to them, and so had the comedy part. And I felt that Gus really could hold that edge, and that he'd really relate to these guys.

Before Gus got involved, the script needed some work, and different characters needed different things here and there. But the tone of the script, the feeling was pretty much there. Unlike some scripts in Hollywood that read very professional but don't really deliver anything on a gut level, this one wasn't particularly "polished" but it affected you right away when you read it. Everyone who read that script had that feeling.

In all honesty, before Gus got involved, and almost until I saw the movie, actually, I never realized it could be as funny as it turned out to be.

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