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DECODING ‘DA VINCI’

Times Staff Writer

OSCAR-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman was “startled” when he heard that Vatican cardinals were condemning his next picture, the hotly anticipated film version of “The Da Vinci Code.” “Then I was concerned,” he muses, “and then I realized that the Vatican doesn’t like condoms either, and a lot of people buy those.”

If the 43-year-old scribe sounds insouciant, he has reason to be. At least 50 million people have read the novel, and awareness of the Ron Howard film, opening in the U.S. on Friday and starring Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, can’t get higher.

For those who’ve been insulated from the pop-culture machine since the 2003 debut of Dan Brown’s book, the inferno of controversy stems from Brown’s novel -- yes, novel -- postulating that Jesus and Mary Magdalene actually married and spawned a daughter -- and that the Catholic Church has been covering this up ever since. The murder of Louvre museum curator Jacques Sauniere -- one of the guardians of this secret -- plunges Langdon and the beauteous French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) into a thriller in which they dart about Europe, hunting for clues to the secret in the artworks of Leonardo da Vinci.

The film’s distributor, Sony, has been doing its best to keep the film shrouded in mystery, forgoing the usual media run-up in favor of an unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. It’s a tactic usually employed by studios to try to hide stinkers. But Goldsman says it was a strategy decided upon before the film was even edited, “which was to try to diminish the ability of people to indicate pre-release what was different from the book. Part of what is intriguing is the ability to go and experience that yourself.”

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Not incidentally, however, the strategy also undercuts critics and protesters who are forced to resort to debating the merits of the book -- not the film.

Still, as Goldsman prepares to leave for the “Da Vinci Code” junket, which is taking place on a train from England to Cannes, he knows the stakes he’s facing as the man who boiled down the 48 hours depicted in this religio-art-historical-pulp thriller, and condensed Brown’s various digressions into a hopefully rip-roaring two-hour cinematic experience.

“I’m the guy who wrote the screenplay that every single person has read the book of. That’s a lot of people going, ‘Let me tell what I imagined....”

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Hits, and an Oscar

THERE are few screenwriters who are as commercially successful as Goldsman -- he’s practically the Jerry Bruckheimer of the genre -- churning out popcorn entertainment as fast as he can type -- everything from his early oeuvre of Grishams (“The Client” and “A Time to Kill”) and Batmans (“Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin”) to his more recent Ron Howard canon of “A Beautiful Mind” (for which he won his Academy Award), “Cinderella Man” and, now, “Da Vinci.”

And that doesn’t include the other half of the Goldsman empire -- the hit movies he merely produces, such as “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Constantine” and “Starsky & Hutch” (as well as this past weekend’s less-than-stellar tent pole “Poseidon”).

One only has to know the history of his spacious corner suite on the Warner Bros. lot to understand Goldsman’s place in the Hollywood firmament. Previous tenants were Steven Seagal, director Joel Schumacher, and heartthrob George Clooney.

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Now in Goldsman’s tenure, this suite of offices with the de rigueur leather furniture and his movie posters (both the credited and the uncredited ones) has assumed the slightly desultory quality of a writer’s lair. There are no assistants buzzing about with officiousness or nervous junior executives yammering on phones, just some very young, sweet-faced helpers.

Goldsman seems to have reached that place in his career in which the fanciest accouterment is no longer arrogance but humbleness. He likes to point repeatedly to his lack of hair and to his neurosis. On this particular day, he’s wearing brown pants and a flowing, white-linen shirt, untucked. He’s not too tall, not too wide, with an amiable face that could belong to a shrink or academic and the congenial instincts of an entertainer. He tells the stories of his life with a kind of mesmerizing deftness borne out of countless Hollywood pitch meetings.

He follows what seems to be the classic rule book on how to become a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He swears by screenwriting guru Robert McKee, eschews writing original scripts, and worships at the altar of the three-act structure.

“The screenplays I write are formally very predictable,” Goldsman says. “They’re essentially the one-page version of a clothing dummy. They have two legs, a middle, two arms and a head. I can dress them up pretty on a good day, but the structure is simple, and I like that.”

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Of course, these screenwriting dictums work only if you have talent both for words and people.

“He’s really character-oriented,” says Howard, who considers Goldsman his go-to guy. “He blends plot with characters in a really effective way. He creates a kind of density that I appreciate.”

Unlike most screenwriters who are banished once filming commences, Goldman is on Howard’s sets every day.

“To him, it’s not about drafts,” Howard says. “He doesn’t mind rethinking the scene in radical ways if something’s placed on the table that clearly promises that the story can grow stronger.”

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The art of the deal

WHEN Goldsman first read “The Da Vinci Code,” it wasn’t a bestseller, merely an interesting galley floating around Hollywood. That had changed by the time he and Howard sat down with Brown more than a year later in a hotel room at the Toronto Four Seasons. “There were two cultures staring across the table at each other,” recalls Goldman. “We were the movie. He was the novel.... He [was thinking,] I’m sure, that our agenda was just to change everything.”

Adding to the intrigue is that Brown had written his own version of the script, which no one to this day has seen.

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The sides came together over, of all things, codes. Brown was pleased to find out that the pair was fascinated by the use of such mysteries in the book and that Howard wanted to add more codes to the film (which he’s done). The ice was broken, so much so that Brown hung around the set “a good third of the time,” says Goldsman.

As is his way, Goldsman conducted no outside research but just read the novel over and over, outlined furiously, then hammered out his first draft in two months.

Today, he’s at once open and cagey about the differences between the book and the film. Howard for one is adamant: “What Dan Brown did with the novel, we didn’t back away from in making the movie.” Goldsman describes what sounds primarily like technical changes, like making “Da Vinci Code” Langdon’s first adventure into thriller-dom instead of his second so the Harvard professor would be slightly more unmoored by the prospect of a killer albino monk. He also made Langdon less savvy about the arcane details of the Jesus-marries-Mary Magdalene conspiracy so he’d have more of a need to seek counsel of an erudite specialist, Sir Leigh Teabing, played by Ian McKellen.

There’s also the reenactments -- flashbacks to the supposed historical moments referenced (but not actually depicted in the novel).

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Goldsman declines to itemize or even describe the reenactments or say specifically if they show Jesus romancing Mary Magdalene -- which would be inflammatory. “I think what’s inflammatory about the movie is what’s inflammatory about the book. The ideas are inflammatory ... whether that’s going to play as a sentence or an image.”

The only time in the last 15 years when Goldsman deviated from his strict diet of adaptations was for “A Beautiful Mind.” Yes, it’s based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography about the Nobel-winning economist John Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia, but Goldsman used the construct of Nash’s life to download his own very real experiences with schizophrenia.

Goldsman was raised in Brooklyn in a group home for emotionally disturbed children, which was run by his parents, both psychologists. “I never had the easiest time being entirely clear about what’s real and what’s not. It comes from that experience,” Goldsman says. In today’s much more sophisticated world of mental health, his mother’s model of treatment from the ‘60s “would be arcane,” he adds. “You took kids. You loved kids. You entered their world, and through that they got better. Mental illness was a narrative. Somebody always had a story you couldn’t see. There was always a reason that a kid didn’t want to walk through the door even when you couldn’t see anything. When you’re 4 or 6, you also get scared of that door.”

It would turn out to be weirdly apt training for the young man who fantasized about becoming a fiction writer, a goal that seemed ever elusive. He wrote a novel for his college thesis at Wesleyan, and “I was told to stop writing by my advisor. He literally said, “You’re never going to make it.’ ” He studied fiction at NYU and sent off short stories to a raft of magazines. He never had one accepted. For eight years, he continued his day job -- following in his parents’ footsteps, working with the mentally ill -- and eventually started his own consulting company in the mental health field.

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Then he had an epiphany: “I have turned into my mother,” he realized. “I quit that day” and signed up for McKee and ultimately wrote his first script, his only real original: 1994’s “Silent Fall,” about an autistic boy who is the only witness to his parents’ double murder.

Goldsman is the first to say that his debut in Hollywood was charmed. And then came the dark years -- the making of “Batman & Robin,” perhaps best known for George Clooney’s plastic nipples and codpiece, and “Lost in Space,” both of which were reviled. Recalls Goldsman, describing the experience of really, really bad reviews. “It’s an out-of-body kind of humiliation. It’s that feeling you have in high school but multiplied by a power of about a zillion.”

As soon as he read the galleys of “A Beautiful Mind,” he asked Warner’s to buy the book for him, but the studio refused. When Brian Grazer bought it for Universal, Goldsman begged for the job. “If I couldn’t write this ... then I shouldn’t be writing. ‘A Beautiful Mind’ became my excuse for telling that story,” says Goldsman, the story of mental illness as he knew it. “Sylvia Nasar didn’t actually write about John’s internal life. John didn’t participate in the biography. The movie’s utter fiction except for the truth of John’s character arc.”

Undoubtedly, the most striking aspects of “A Beautiful Mind” are Nash’s visions. They’re first introduced to the audience as real people and only later shockingly revealed to be figments of Nash’s addled imagination.

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“It’s an attempt to simulate the experience of schizophrenia for the audience,” Goldsman said. “Really it’s an attempt to pull the rug out from the eyes of the viewer and not to see madness from the outside in.”

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The truth about facts

GOLDSMAN’S matter-of-fact reflection comes several years after the film’s debut, when critics roundly attacked it for whitewashing alleged anti-Semitism and homosexuality from Nash’s life and for billing the story as true when in fact there were many omissions. The debate over truthfulness in works of entertainment has only accelerated in the last few years, reaching its apotheosis recently with author James Frey getting publicly castigated by Oprah Winfrey for fictionalizing key elements of his days in drug rehab.

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One reason “Da Vinci Code” has sparked so much heated debate is that some readers are confused by Brown’s deft weaving of supposed facts into the fictional narrative.

While fans of the book dissect where fact and fiction diverge, Goldsman says he’s one for whom the “truth” in books or movies has never had any special allure. “When I see something is a ‘true story,’ that doesn’t pull me. I’m missing that gear that says, ‘I want to see that.’ If I know that nobody is going to fly ... if there’s no magic possible, I’m less interested.”


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