To paraphrase Jim Mercurio, action descriptions at the beginning of scenes are less about literary prose and more about establishing the characters in the scene, mood, tone, pointing out important props, and giving the essence of the space:
INT. SEAN’S OFFICE – DAY
Sean’s office is comfortable. Books are stacked against the wall. There is a PAINTING on the wall behind Sean. Sean is seated behind a desk. Lambeau sits in a chair in the back of the room, next to Tom. A long beat passes, they wait.
From the Good Will Hunting screenplay
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
I don’t think in the Good Will Hunting screenplay that the 1969 book I’M OK—YOU’RE OK is mentioned but it’s prominently (yet subtly) featured in the background of a key part of the movie when psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) has a tense (and unconventional) introductory counseling session that ends with Maguire’s hand clutching the throat of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and a threat.
The whole subtext of the scene could be called “I”M NOT OK—YOU’RE NOT OK.” You could even say it’s one of the themes of the entire movie. Heck, I imagine a history professor or theologian could make the case that that’s the entire problem of the human race.
But my point is that visual cue is not in the screenplay. Perhaps it was added by set decorator and moved into places by the director. That’s how the collaborative process works. But in the screenplay Matt Damon and Ben Affleck only needed to write the basic setting description that includes what’s core to the scene.
“Books, painting and a chair that’s pretty much all we need. Basically later on we’ll learn what books there are. We’ll learn the details. But the books, the painting, and the photos, and the chair, that’s where everything in the scene happens. Everytime [Will Hunting] gets uncomfortable he sits down and gets up. Or if he’s trying to get under his skin he looks around and finds a book or find a picture. And eventually the painting is the thing that gets under his skin. I don’t need to know the details of the book until later, I don’t need to know what the painting is yet, but it’s all there now and we’re not going to spend five or six lines giving those details. Those will come out later.
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course
Here’s how the scene plays out:
P.S. I saw Good Will Hunting three times when it first came out in theaters and imagine I’ve seen it a dozen times now, but had never noticed the I’m Ok, You’re Ok book in the scene until Mercurio pointed it out on his DVD.
Descriptive Writing -Pt 5, Setting (Tip#26) “It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting anyway—it’s about the story, it’s always about the story.”—Stephen King
Two Lines of Action “I try never to go longer than two lines of action.” Sheldon Turner
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’
Scott W. Smith