Chris Moore‘s career as a movie producer began in 1995, with the release of Glory Daze. Since then, he’s produced nearly 30 films and television series, including American Pie, Project Greenlight, and The Adjustment Bureau. He also served as a producer on Good Will Hunting, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year.
We met up with Moore for brunch last week in Santa Monica, where we discussed his career, his thoughts on contemporary Hollywood, and, of course, his experience as an upstart producer on Good Will Hunting.
So to start, I was wondering if you could give a little background about where you grew up, and how you ended up working in film production. Was it something that’s always been a dream of yours, or was it something you sort of fell into?
Well, it’s been a long time since I went back that far. I grew up in a little town in Maryland called Easton. It’s probably as stereotypical suburban — or not really suburban — just a rural small town. [I] played sports, chased girls, you know, drank a lot of beer. I’m a Redskins fan, you know. I would say back in those days I had no idea what I was gonna do, I wasn’t really a planner; I’m still not a good long-term planner. Then I went to college, and I went to Harvard, was in Boston, which was my first big city. When I was there, in what was a massive drought for the Red Sox, they made the World Series in 1986. That’s how old I am, I was a sophomore in college when that happened.
That was the Buckner-between-the-legs year, right?
That was, yep. And I got hired by a friend of my family’s to be a PA for the broadcast of the World Series and I really started to like entertainment and media, sort of the speed of it, the pace of it, and being part of it was really fun for me — you know, being a small town kid from Maryland, being there on the field when Buckner missed the ball. I was holding the mic when that happened. And through the guys I worked with, I ended up doing a fair amount of sports in the Boston area in the late 1980s. Did lots of Celtics-Lakers games, you know, it was fun.
And so, I actually thought I was gonna get into television through sports. Then I graduated and came to LA with a couple of buddies, and ended up working in a mailroom at an agency. It was like SNL — I made copies, got people coffee. Then I got promoted to being an agent and sold a bunch of scripts, a number of which became movies. So I had a reputation as a guy with a pretty good eye for popcorn entertainment, though I certainly wasn’t a genius or anything.
People would send me scripts, I’d read them, I’d pick the ones I thought I could sell, and I’d try to sell them. A bunch of them became movies — The Stone Age, PCU, Airheads, Last Action Hero, My Girl, and a bunch more. So, at that point I was in it. And I just stuck it out.
So, the agency I worked for got bought by ICM, and ICM is different — a much more corporate, more difficult place to work, or at least it was then. This was more than 20 years ago. And I really didn’t, you know… As I said before, I wasn’t a planner, but I liked to learn and I’d watch and observe what people did there. My biggest problem with being an agent was, you’d fall in love with a script, you’re the first person to read it, you’re sort of the the gatekeeper, but once you sell it you’re done. You just walk away and, if you’re lucky, you get invited to the premiere. And I just liked [my movies] too much. And some of the movies I sold didn’t turn out that well, Last Action Hero being the most famous among those.
So, with the ICM acquisition, I wasn’t that happy, I didn’t like it, so I decided I could be a producer. I thought, “I see what these idiots do, I should be able to do that, too.” So I left and through my connections at Harvard and a couple of really good friends we raised enough money to make a movie — the first movie I made, called Glory Daze.
I had met Matt Damon in college but we weren’t good friends or anything — we were four years apart — but I’d met him and so when I was casting the first movie I went to Matt and I said, “Listen, I’d rather know the person who’s starring in this movie, just so in case I’m fucking this up, you’ll be comfortable telling me that I’m fucking this up.” [smiles] I don’t know if I’m allowed to cuss on this website.
Yeah, it’s cool. There’s much more offensive stuff in our movies.
Yeah, I suppose that’s true. Well, fortunately Matt was struggling and just starting out, so he needed work. At the time, he’d just got a paying acting job, so he said, “You should meet my friend Ben.” So Ben came in and auditioned. He was great, we decided he definitely should be the lead [in Glory Daze]. The director and I really liked him.
So Ben ended up being the star of that movie, and then later, when we shot some more of it, Matt was available, so he actually has a small part in the movie. Ben had done Dazed and Confused before that and actually, Matthew McConaughey had done a part with us, as did Brendan Fraser — people that [Matt and Ben] knew. Ben was a real producer-type actor anyway, he would call up all his friends. So Ben and I worked on that project, sold it into distribution, and while we were doing it, they finished the script to Good Will Hunting.
And so they asked me if I’d read it because I’d sold a bunch of scripts as an agent, and I’d raised the money for this movie, and so they thought maybe I could help them get the movie made. So I read the script and I loved it. I thought it was really good.
But they really wanted to star in it. And I said, “That’s gonna be your hardest thing.” I told them, “We could make it independently, but the problem for me, as an ex-agent, is the fact that you could also sell this script for a lot of money. It’s a good script. [Even if] we sell it for a lot of money, I don’t know if the person who [buys it] is also gonna let you be the stars. But the good news is, you could find out and just decide not to sell it to them, right? We’re broke and everybody needs money, so why don’t we try it? It could just be good enough that you have a bidding war, and if you have a bidding war, then you could ask whatever you want.”
So that’s what happened, there was a bidding war. They asked to be the stars and they got a million dollars, and it all turned out great. So then I got to stay on as producer and we went through the whole process together — it was about four, four-and-a-half years of our lives — so you get to know each other, and obviously I’d known them even before that. So that’s how we became friends and started working together.
I know that the word “producer” can mean different things in different contexts, but what was your day-to-day role in the creative process, or even the execution of Good Will Hunting?
Well, I’m what they call a hands-on creative producer. There’s not a lot of us left, we’re a dying breed. There’s not really room for us anymore. Back in those days, studios didn’t have millions of executives — they’d have producers make the movies for them. Creatively, I play whatever role the creative talent would like me to play. So, in the case of Matt and Ben, at that time, with Good Will Hunting, they needed office space, so they came and wrote every day in my office. Every now and then you just wanna brainstorm or bounce things off somebody, so I’d read pages and give them my opinion, but they’re very confident guys, as is obvious from the last 20 years of their lives. And they knew what they were doing and I also really loved what they were doing, so I wouldn’t say I really had a big role in it except to sort of react to other people’s ideas — mostly really bad ideas.
I was on set every day, we shot every day, and I supervised. It was my first big movie. We did Glory Daze for about $1.6 million. We did Good Will Hunting for about $25 million. We had a great line producer named Sue Armstrong who had done a lot of movies and who taught me a lot. And Lawrence Bender was around, being the über producer, but he was also doing Quentin [Tarantino]‘s movie, Jackie Brown, at the same time. So it was a fun little group, and Gus Van Sant knew what he was doing. So I got to learn a lot, I didn’t get in anybody’s way, and we just had a lot of fun.
I was actually about to ask you about the choice of Van Sant as director. How did you guys decide on him as director, and why did he choose to take the project?
You know, there’s no way I can answer, from their point of view, what they were going through, or how Gus got hired or why Gus wanted to do it. I can say from my point of view, after watching the process and being in the rooms while it was happening, that it was all a very honest, pure, creative situation. Gus and Matt had met early on, and Gus had, I think, auditioned Matt for To Die For, or had at least met with him about it. And Casey Affleck had actually done To Die For, so Gus was sort of a friend of the family’s. Casey and Gus were very good friends and they all liked each other, he’d hung around with Ben. We all liked his movies, too, and we wanted someone who was less commercial, less… mainstream to do Good Will Hunting, because it needed to be that kind of personal story. Because at the heart of it, Good Will Hunting is a character story, and it’s a somewhat fucked up character story.
We had suggested Gus early on, and at that time, he wasn’t in a place where a lot of people were trying to get him to do movies. So at first, no one would take him or meet with him, and nobody would do it, but we really liked him. Gus is also very good to work with — he’s very collaborative, he works well. Casey and Joaquin [Phoenix] had a great time on To Die For. So we were always hoping it would be Gus.
You know, the project was first at Castle Rock before it was at Miramax, and they had no interest in Gus. He was too “out there” for them. We actually had a fight with Castle Rock about who the director was gonna be, and ultimately we parted ways. So then, when we were at Miramax, Harvey [Weinstein] was more open to it. Now, Harvey thought he had this great script, and maybe he could get some big director, so we did go down that road –
[Our food arrives. One salad, one omelet.]
So when we got to Miramax, Harvey went through a few big names. Michael Mann shot a test with Matt and decided Matt wasn’t a good enough actor to carry the movie, and that’s why he didn’t direct the movie.
I can’t even imagine what Michael Mann’s Good Will Hunting would look like. I mean, I guess hindsight’s 20/20, but…
Yeah, it’s hard to imagine in retrospect. We also met and spent some time with Mel Gibson, and Mel was really a champion. I know people now think he’s sort of gone haywire, but that guy had some really good ideas, he really wanted to do it. But at the time he was coming off winning the Oscar for Braveheart, and it just wasn’t at the top of his list. So we met with him a few times. Maybe two or three months went by. He was shooting Ransom, that movie with Ron Howard, in New York. So we went to see him, and I give Matt a lot of credit; he’s been very secure in having real conversations with people. He went to Mel and said, “Look, I know you’re Mel Gibson and we’re nobody. But if you hold on to this script forever, we’re gonna get too old to play these parts and it’s not gonna get made. And Harvey, most likely, will wait for you because right now, having a Mel Gibson movie is a big deal.”
I think this was around Thanksgiving, and [Gibson] said, “You know, I respect your asking me. I’m not gonna hold you up, I just gotta think it through, I’m looking at two other things I wanna direct. Just give me til the holidays, when the movie stops shooting. I’ll think about it, but I promise you that by the first of January I’ll let you know.” And he called Matt over the holidays and he said, “You know what, I’m not gonna hold you up. I’ve got these other two things I’m thinking about. If for some reason it doesn’t come together, I do love the script, but I wish you guys the best of luck.”
And that’s really cool. A lot of directors today would just hold on to it because it’s a good script or they’d be afraid to be that honest. But whatever you wanna say about Mel, he’s secure and he knows who he is, and he is talented as hell. He was really straight up with us. So after that, we’d already had Michael Mann drop out, Mel decided not to do it. Harvey sort of hit a point where he said, “You know, we should really think about making this movie.”
And the beauty of it was that Matt then got [a part in] The Rainmaker, the John Grisham movie that Francis Ford Coppola was directing, and he was gonna be the lead. He was gonna be the Rainmaker. So that made Harvey realize, “Holy shit, this guy’s gonna lead somebody else’s movie, I’ve got him right here, we should start planning this movie.” So it really kicked into gear there, and he started looking for other actors.
That was another big part, actually getting actors. Gus and Robin [Williams] came into it around the same time, and they had actually worked together on a [Harvey] Milk project — which Gus obviously ended up doing later in his life — so they knew each other. It all came together very quickly right around the time Mel said no and Matt got The Rainmaker.
I think it would be weird if I wrote a script for a movie that I star in, but don’t direct. You know, because on one level it’s kind of like your baby, but you’re ceding control to someone else. How was the on-set dynamic between Matt, Ben and Gus?
Well, I don’t know what the latest gossip is inside film schools about the definition of directing, but in my opinion, directing has three facets to it. One is figuring out how best to visually tell the story that’s contained in the script. In the visual regard, they totally gave over to Gus. They were just like, “Yeah, we don’t know shit about this.” We had an awesome director of photography named Jean-Yves Escoffier, who unfortunately is no longer with us. There was never any, you know, “You should shoot it this way,” or whatever. Now, obviously, both [Matt and Ben] have a lot more experience, and Ben is out there directing his own movies, so I don’t think that’s how he’d feel today [laughs], but back then they were a lot more inexperienced.
The other part of directing is figuring out how to deal with the other talent. When it came to the script and the acting stuff, Gus was really collaborative. He loved the script. And Robin’s actually really collaborative, too. And Stellan [Skarsgard] is great and Minnie Driver’s great, so we had this great little — it was like a theater troupe, right? You had Gus sort of in the center, you had this script that everybody liked, you had a dumb, naïve producer like me who didn’t say anything because I was just happy to be there. And the studio loved the script.
Back in those days, studios didn’t send executives to the set. There weren’t fucking people on set. It was just like, “You guys go make the movie and show it to me when you’re ready. And then I’ll figure out how to fix it after I see it, but hopefully you made a great movie and I just have to go out and sell it.” That’s what I miss about Harvey. Harvey’s the greatest at that. Bob’s the same way — they’re just like, “We hired you, now go out and make the fucking movie.” And yeah, they may fight with you after, because you didn’t make the movie they think they can sell. But they’re good at that. And so we had a great time. There was a lot of improv. Robin couldn’t help it, but Ben and Matt and Stellan and Minnie were all good at improvising, too. And Casey and Cole and Matt and Ben are really good friends, so all four of them would just bullshit with each other and tell stories. And Gus was ok with it, he just let the camera roll.
So it was very loose, very fun. I’ve had the great luxury of working with them again, too. The movie I’ve just produced [Promised Land] is a Gus Van Sant movie that Matt starred in, and it was really funny to see them both, 15 years later, making another movie that Matt co-wrote. And it was still the same situation — both of them working together, lots of collaboration. A Gus Van Sant set is like that, and because of that, people then start to talk about the stuff they really care about. You’d have to ask Gus or Matt or whoever about which parts they fought to keep in the movie, but from my view, it was all very collaborative. It wasn’t a situation where like, the best idea wins, that kind of thing.
So it was more of an evolving process.
Getting back to the on-set improv — are there any scenes in the final cut that were just totally improvised on the spot, unscripted?
I mean, one of the greatest things — Robin Williams can do a scene in so many different ways, all of them equally good. And that’s the hard thing about any artistic endeavor. There’s no right answer. If you build a house it’s like, “Well, if the floor falls through people die. So we gotta build it in a certain way to make sure that people don’t die.” But [as an artist], you can be super funny, you can be raunchy, you can be sweet, you can be mean. And Robin was all of those.
There’s one scene in particular, in the Southie bar, where Robin hangs out. Robin does a walk into the bar where Stellan’s character is waiting for him in the back, and he does this riff as he walks in, with the camera following him. And he’s talking to the bartender about how this high falutin’ MIT professor has come to this cheesy Southie bar. And the camera follows him all the way to the back until he sits down. I think he did it like, 11 or 12 times, and it is some of the funniest shit you have ever heard or seen. Like, if you were reading the script, it’d be a throwaway scene. Literally, in the script it says, “Sean walks into a bar, sees Gerald, and says something to bartender.” And there were some lines there, but in nobody’s mind was that a scene that you’re gonna remember, much less a scene I’m gonna be talking about during an interview with you 15 years later.
But that’s just an example of like, Film School 101 — this is what’s possible. This is how many versions of “a guy walks into a bar” there can be. It’s awesome. There were a lot of things like that where it wasn’t like they created whole new things in the script, it’s just that the way the scenes played out were totally different from the way they were written.
There’s this great scene in the movie where Chuckie says to Will, “If you live next to me in 20 years and our kids are going to same little league, I’m gonna beat you up,” or “punch you in the face” or whatever. And it’s a pivotal scene in the movie where he says to Will Hunting, “You have a gift.” The big moment is where he says, “I have 15 seconds every day when I drive to pick you up and I walk up to your house and I hope you’re not there.” but that line is like “I just hope — no word, no call, you’re just gone. That would make me happy.”
Well, the way Gus shot it, it’s in this massive construction site, this blown-up fucking building in Canada. They’re standing over the truck, drinking beers after work. That scene feels so different than it did in the script because it was so spontaneous. That’s what Gus did to undercut the scene. He picked the place. It wasn’t like Chuckie said, “Hey, you should come over, I wanna talk to you about something.” It was like, it totally came out of this conversation about “I went and had this job interview.” And they’d had some of this in the script, but the way it played out in the movie was so much better, in my opinion.
It almost seemed like an off the cuff conversation.
Right. The other experience that, as a young producer, I’ll never forget as long as I live is one where, again, if you’d read the script, you’d never think it’d be one of the funniest scenes in the movie. There’s a sequence where Matt finally admits that he likes Skyler [Minnie Driver's character], and Robin’s telling him, “I had this woman I loved and she died. But it’s not the big things, it’s not the side of the tracks you grew up on, it’s the little things that make you love somebody.” And during the shooting of that scene, he went on this riff about the little things, like farting in bed. Some of it made it into the movie, but there are whole sequences that didn’t. I mean, he was so funny. And I had to go get a camera to take shots of this because there weren’t cellphones back then, because there were crew members who were on the set, but literally diving out doors because they don’t wanna ruin the take by laughing so hard. They just couldn’t stop laughing, so they were trying to bail out, like a building on fire. You see people jumping out of the building because they’re afraid they’re gonna start laughing while it’s happening. I was lucky because I had headphones, so I wouldn’t even go near the set. I would sit outside laughing my ass off listening to the whole thing.
So the farting in bed bit wasn’t in the script to begin with?
I mean, I can’t remember the script well enough to be sure, but there were a few of those things. By then, neither Matt nor Ben had been married. I don’t know if that specific one was in the script or not, but I bet it wasn’t, knowing Matt and Ben, and knowing Robin.
That’s interesting, too, because to me, it seems as if Robin and Stellan almost act like the two generational counterweights to Matt and Ben — at least onscreen, though I guess offscreen, too. Because I can’t imagine, as a 20 year old, writing a line about that kind of marital intimacy, something you’d think only comes with age and real experience.
Yeah, and quite honestly, the genius of that movie was casting Robin Williams — someone who’s probably closer to a genius than any person I’ve ever been around. He turned that character into somebody you really cared about.
What was the performance that surprised you the most? Were there any that completely floored you or came out of left field?
Not by the time the movie was happening. We had spent enough time rehearsing and working on the script and auditioning people or whatever. But I would say that the biggest surprise in the whole thing was Minnie. We spent a lot of time trying to find that girl. She came in and auditioned, and she didn’t have the traditional sort of look, but she was awesome. She was really good at improv. She came into this sort of boys world and held her own. And even though, you know, she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar or whatever, to some extent, it’s one of the hardest things in the movie, because you’re the dramatic person. As far as surprises that was the biggest surprise.
I also loved the emotion between the four guys. Like, I thought Cole, Casey and Matt and Ben were amazing, not only because they’re friends in real life, but also because they’d been together, they’d been to Southie. They made me feel like, “I wanna be their friends.” That’s hard to do, because there are other movies that have you know groups of guys, but it always seems like they’re kind of faking it.
Or there’s always like, “the funny one, the stoner one, the smart one” — very formulaic. Though I guess it helps if you’re actually childhood friends in real life.
Yeah, but that’s not really who they are in real life. They’re definitely acting. But even in character, they found a way to be endearing.
Watching the film now 15 years later, as you’ve moved further away from it, does it mean different things to you or does it take on a new kind of resonance? I guess what I’m asking is, how has your relationship with the movie evolved over time?
That’s a hard question. The thing about that film, for my life — and I don’t know what the other guys would say — is that it’s somewhat defining. It was certainly the beginning. So it’s very hard to watch it and not think about your life and about where we all were, and where we’ve all come. Luckily we’re all still friends. But I just love the movie. I still get teared up in some of the scenes, and I still love the “How do you like them apples?” sequence, and I’m a Harvard guy but I love that he fucks with those asshole Harvard guys. For me, it also represents a kind of movie that, in some ways, never gets made anymore. Good Will Hunting would’ve been a genius television show today, but movies have changed.
Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that. Let’s say Matt and Ben were starting out today as, you know, penniless, upstart actors. And they write this script. How different do you think it would’ve turned out, and how different do you think their experience would’ve been? Would they have just like, produced it in their garage and put it on YouTube or something, or would they still be able to get it made through more traditional industry channels? I guess that’s a really long-winded way of saying, “How would today’s movie industry treat Good Will Hunting?”
Look, it was a great script. And I think they would’ve written it as a script and they would’ve made it. I think the marketing of it — you know, Bob and Harvey and some of the other pioneers of independent film were just starting to create art-house movies at the time we came out. Now, it’s a mature business. Everyone knows what they’re looking for. There are theaters that cater to [indie film], websites, companies — there’s you know, demographic research.
So I think for a project like Good Will Hunting, the system still works. I think the bigger issue, today, is that it would be pigeonholed right away. The thing I miss about those days was that the people running companies, the people with the money — whether they be studio heads or independently rich people — there was still this belief that if you made a good movie, you’d get your money back. That’s it. Now, the business has somehow morphed to the point where everyone says, “There’s gotta be a genre, it’s gotta be predictable,” or whatever. And it’s just not a predictable business. People just don’t know how the fuck to make money anymore.
So the point is that I don’t know what happens to a movie like Good Will Hunting. I have another one that’s like it now. It’s not quite as good, but it’s that type of movie, and the responses I get are just shocking. Like, nobody calls up and is like “Yeah it’s a really good movie let’s go figure out how to make it.” And so for me, that’s the saddest part of the business, as a whole.
Yeah, but every now and then you have a movie like Beasts of the Southern Wild that slips through the cracks, right?
Yeah, but do you think Beasts of the Southern Wild was produced by a studio? Fuck no! Beasts of the Southern Wild was produced by one rich guy! If it weren’t for the rich guys, there’d be no movies slipping through the cracks. So the point is that if we were making Good Will Hunting today, we’d be searching for a rich person.
So it’d be more like a patron system, like Michelangelo and the Medici family or something.
That’s right, it’d be like, “You gotta paint this fucking church for me, then I’ll let you go paint the shit you wanna paint.” And that’s the business and that’s been the business since Michelangelo — fuck, since Plato! But the second you have art mixed with money, the art sucks. Whenever people start thinking about how art will make them money, the art sucks. To create art like Good Will Hunting, you’ve gotta be in a certain state of mind. You’ve gotta be starving, sitting at home in your fucking hovel that you’re renting with your friend. You’ve gotta be in a situation like Matt and Ben were, where whatever you produce has gotta come from your heart, because you’ve got nothing else. And once you churn out something like that you’re like, “Fuck, it’s gonna be hard to do that again,” so you just become movie stars and move on.
That’s kind of disillusioning.
But it’s not, because there are always people who are starving and striving. Good Will Hunting is an example of the bridge project. So is The King’s Speech.
What do you mean by “bridge”?
The point is that it bridges the two worlds — there’s the commercial world with the MBAs and all the fucking research and all the estimates and all the bullshit. It’s a machine. Then there’s this other business that’s all the patron business. And every year there’s a movie that starts in the patron world, and graduates to the MBA world. But it’s not predictable, it’s not repeatable, even though all these movie studios try to find the next one. To actually create a matrix that predicts how much money these arty movies are gonna make? Impossible. Who the fuck knows? It’s luck.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Good Will Hunting 15th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is available now, featuring 90-minutes of new special features, including retrospective interviews with cast & crew.