Akiva Goldsman: The script superhero

By Stephen Applebaum, July 4, 2008
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Akiva Goldsman was raised among autistic children and spent ten years trying and failing to make it as a writer. Now, he has a screenplay Oscar under his belt

Hollywood screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was advised to give up writing by his university professors because they did not think he had what it took to succeed. “They’d say: ‘Stop, don’t do this. You’re not good enough’,” he grimaces. Goldsman, 46, was determined to follow his dream, however, and pursued it all the way to a Best Screenplay Oscar in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind, and, according to reports, a $4 million payday for adapting Dan Brown’s bestselling thriller Angels & Demons, following his work on the (critically panned) hit movie of The Da Vinci Code.

In London with his producer’s hat on, to talk up the offbeat superhero movie Hancock, his third collaboration with Will Smith after I, Robot and I Am Legend, Goldsman has no idea what was driving him to continue writing. “I just wanted it so much,” he says passionately. “I really did. I was lucky in that I always knew what I wanted to do.”

He first put pen to paper while growing up in Brooklyn Heights, surrounded by the kids with autism and schizophrenia who lived at the group home for emotionally disturbed children that his parents, therapist Tev Goldsman and child psychologist Mira Rothenberg, a Holocaust survivor, had established in their rambling old townhouse.

Although he did not share his surrogate siblings’ problems, they did not seem that different from him. “That was just the experience of my childhood,” Goldsman says, “which is, some people talked, some people didn’t. Some people bashed their heads through walls, some people didn’t. Some saw things that other people saw; some people saw things that only they saw.” Today, he finds it hard to write characters “who aren’t damaged in some way, who aren’t dark, or who aren’t suffering”, he says. “People that are well-adjusted are interesting to me, but other. They’re alien.”

While his surroundings informed his imagination, Goldsman’s desire — or rather need, initially — to write emerged from “feeling anxiety and discomfort in my own home”. One day “I went upstairs and began writing a short story. I was in the seventh grade or something. I found that it dulled whatever the sort of buzzing was that was destabilising me, and helped centre me.”

Actually turning a coin from his work took a long time. He wrote short stories for a decade, sending them to publications such as The New Yorker, but nothing was ever commissioned. “It took me many, many years to make a living as a writer,” he admits, “but it was something I wanted to do. It felt like an identity. It felt like a course I wanted to plot through life. But I was very, very bad at it for a very long time.”

Goldsman’s breakthrough came when he drew on his background to write his first screenplay, Indian Summer, about an autistic boy who witnesses a murder. The script was snapped up and filmed by Bruce Beresford as Silent Fall, earning Goldsman a job adapting John Grisham’s novel, The Client, for Joel Schumacher. He and Schumacher went on to score a box-office smash with Batman Forever; however, the sequel, Batman & Robin, and Goldsman’s first producing gig, Lost in Space, were expensive flops. “It was a pretty grim time,” he recalls, “and I felt myself stumbling.” People kept telling Goldsman that everything was fine, but the writer could feel doors closing. “What’s interesting is if you don’t know you’ve fallen down, you can’t actually get up again.”

What saved him, he says, was A Beautiful Mind. He had tried unsuccessfully to secure Sylvia Nasar’s book about the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash as a producer, so he “begged” to be hired to write the screenplay.

“I wrote that thing out of a desperate desire to get back, or to get to what I thought I wanted to be as a writer,” he says. The pressure was so intense that it took Goldsman almost a year just to deliver a script outline. “Brian [Grazer, the film’s producer] was going to fire me! I was terrified,” he recalls. “It was
really hard, really personal, but a great experience.”

The road to the Oscar was not so great, though. The filmmakers were accused of whitewashing Nash’s personal life and character, including leaving out any reference to his alleged antisemitism. The charge hurt, admits Goldsman, who says he was raised in a culturally Jewish household, insisting that the anti-Jewish remarks reported in Nasar’s book were part of Nash’s illness.

“At that moment it was terrible,” he says of the criticism, “but it truly mattered only in so far as it was like a dirty campaign smear. It never stuck in any way.”

More controversy followed when he and Ron Howard were accused of turning the boxer Max Baer — a man regarded as a hero by many Jews, who wore a Star of David on his trunks — into a cold-hearted villain in the film Cinderella Man. But this was as nothing compared to the lashing they received when they filmed Dan Brown’s controversial bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. Featuring the theory that Jesus fathered children with Mary Magdalene, and that the Catholic Church was trying to hide the truth to protect its power, both novel and film were damned by many Christians, who felt they were an assault on their religion.

Goldsman says that he and others on the production, such as Grazer, were conscious from the beginning that being Jewish could make them targets if there were a backlash against the movie.

“It certainly crossed all our minds. We talked about it and had security. But, you know, the fact is there are crazy people everywhere,” he chuckles. “And if they’re going to get you, they’re going to get you.”

Asked if he thinks it is ironic that he adapted The Da Vinci Code, and its prequel, Angels & Demons — revolving around a race to foil a bomb plot against the Vatican — which was recently banned from filming in two churches in Rome, Goldsman laughs.

“I always tease Ron about this. First he got me writing about math [A Beautiful Mind]. Then he’s got me writing about boxing [Cinderella Man]. Then he’s got me writing about the Catholic Church. Now the next thing should be ballet dancing, because it’s all the things I know nothing about.”

Nonetheless, he “quite enjoyed” adapting the Brown books. “It was far less laden with emotional danger for me,” he explains, “because my issues of faith are not as involved in that as, say, somebody at the Vatican. I just found it really interesting. It was a fun way to look at history.”

When the Observer film critic Philip French reviewed The Da Vinci Code, he suggested that Goldsman was a “usefully disinterested party in this inter-mural Christian affair”. So, does Goldsman feel that he brings a different point of view, as a Jew, to the subject matter?

“I think Jews look at the world in a certain way anyway,” he smiles. “But I can’t speak for anybody but myself. I’m not typically enamoured of anything that has a threatening component,” he says, after a long pause. “I have trouble reconciling the idea of that which is threatening and that which is divine. But that’s a personal bias, you know?”

Expect more controversy when Angels & Demons is released in 2009. Hancock is on general release

 

Snapshot

Born
Brooklyn, New York, 1962 

Family
The son of child psychologists, he grew up in the home for emotionally disturbed children that his parents founded. Now married to his second wife, the film producer Rebecca Spikings. They live in Beverly Hills 

Big break:
After years of failure as a writer of short stories, his first screenplay, Indian Summer, was snapped up by Hollywood and filmed as Silent Fall

Career high:
Won an Oscar in 2001 for his screenplay for A Beautiful Mind, about schizophrenic mathematician John Nash 

Career low:
Being accused of whitewashing Nash’s character, omitting any reference to his alleged antisemitism

On his Jewish identity:
Says he was raised in a culturally Jewish household, and believes that “Jews look at the world in a certain way”

    Last updated: 4:05pm, August 19 2008