Resurrecting a writing career

String of hits puts `The Da Vinci Code's Akiva Goldsman back on top

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When screenwriter Akiva Goldsman sat down to adapt The Da Vinci Code, he was not thinking about how many copies of Dan Brown's book had been sold, or how many splashy headlines had been spawned by the controversy that surrounded it, or even how to deal with the Catholic Church's outrage at an allegedly blasphemous story.

Instead, the writer says, he simply focused on the task at hand.

"As I'm writing I'm thinking how to get in and out of the first act," Goldsman says. "With any adaptation, you sort of have to put your head down and do the work, and politics has to come second to doing your job."

But now that The Da Vinci Code has opened -- the film had its world premiere Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival and opens nationally today -- Goldsman has more time to consider the controversy.

"I am intrigued by it, certainly," he says by phone. "Anybody to whom it will be offensive or unpleasant, I hope they avoid it. Clearly our attempt has never been to create or cause despair for anyone.

"What I hope," he continues, "is that the movie is pleasing. And so those people who like to ask questions, like to have a fun afternoon at the movies, can do some revisionist thinking and play around with ideas how history might have or might not have played out."

The theological tempest remained dormant when Goldsman pecked away on his computer and when cast and crew barnstormed Europe for a year to shoot. Goldsman counted one protester, a woman on a motorcycle who identified herself as an outraged nun but turned out to be an impostor.

Goldsman, producer Brian Grazer and Code director Ron Howard could be the start of a bad joke: "Two Jews and an Okie walk into a bar ... ."

But they are a serious success, collaborating on A Beautiful Mind, for which Goldsman won a screenplay Oscar, and on the critically loved Cinderella Man.

The 43-year-old screenwriter calls Howard a genius wrapped up in a nice-guy's suit. And he credits Grazer for resurrecting his career. In 1998, Goldsman was in Mexico for a shark movie he was producing called Deep Blue Sea (1999). Nursing wounds from brickbats hurled at three of his previously penned movies, 1998's Practical Magic and Lost in Space and 1997's Batman and Robin, Goldsman feared his pursuits on the creative side were kaput.

It was an odd sensation for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-raised Goldsman, who is now the industry gold standard in script adaptations. He had his first original screenplay out of NYU film school made into a 1994 Bruce Beresford film called Silent Fall. (You can see it every few years on HBO at 3 in the morning, he jokes.) He then crafted two John Grisham books for the cineplex, The Client (1994) and Time to Kill (1996).

Goldsman lugged his crumbling psyche to L.A. in the middle of Deep Blue Sea to meet Grazer and beg him for a crack at A Beautiful Mind. Grazer's yes and the execution of the screenplay was the most important experience of his professional life, he says.

"Moviemaking with Ron and Brian is a joy because a good idea is a good idea, no matter where it comes from," he says.

But that didn't stop Goldsman's jitters when Howard and Grazer approached him to reimagine Brown's 50-million-sold best-seller Code for the screen. Goldsman went through typical procrastination -- he kept tinkering with Cinderella Man -- while he wrestled with how to juggle Brown's sprawling religious thriller. It begins with a professor arriving at the scene of a murder in the Louvre. He uncovers a trail of clues about an underground society that guards the secret of Christ's lineage and could change the concept of divinity as we know it.

"Ron didn't have to talk me into it," Goldsman explains. "It's that I didn't understand how to do it without his help. He said, `See this as Hitchcock, associate it with the thrillers of the '70s,' and that was an exciting prospect."

Although Tom Hanks being cast as Professor Robert Langdon was one of the worst kept secrets in the industry before it was official, Goldsman sped through a draft with only the author's character in mind. Then Hanks put in his considerable two cents during rehearsal.

The L.A.-entrenched Goldsman was on the set most of the time. Not so long ago, that would have been considered rare. He likens not having the writer on site as leaving the costume designer at home. What if something doesn't fit?

"The great news is, it ain't respectable yet, but being a writer is starting to be OK," he says. "More and more writers are being made a part of the filmmaking process. It's just a reasonable response."

Ron Dicker is a freelance writer for The Hartford Courant.

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