Exclusive: Ron Howard Changed His Mind; and Screenwriter Admits to 'Semi-Fictional Movie'

A Beautiful Mind Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman | Ron Howard 

Exclusive: Ron Howard Changed His Mind; and Screenwriter Admits to 'Semi-Fictional Movie'

There are new revelations about the strange history of Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. And yesterday I spoke with the movie's screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman, about the choices he made putting together Nobel mathematician John Forbes Nash's story for film.

Goldsman, calling in from his flight home from the Berlin Film Festival, conceded that his film — which is admittedly very good and deserves high praise — is a semi-fictional biography. So which category should it be in for the Oscars? Best adapted screenplay, since it was adapted from Sylvia Nasar's book about Nash, or best original screenplay?

Goldsman said: "It's adapted. If you notice my screen credit is written by, not screenplay by. Which is a subtle Writers Guild distinction. It means a significant departure from source material."

For Goldsman, one problem here might be that all his past screenplays have been fictional stories, from two Batman movies to a pair of John Grisham novel adaptations. His next credit is a screenplay for Tom Clancy's thriller The Sum of All Fears. When I asked him if this was his first non-fiction movie, he replied, with a chuckle: "This is my first semi-fictional movie. I've tried to say very, very up-front that this not a biopic. You've read Sylvia's book. There is no Charles, there is no Parcher (Ed Harris' character), there are no pens at Princeton."

Goldsman made all that stuff up so the movie would work dramatically. Isn't there a risk you run though being selective about adapting a biography? "I say that this is his life but this isn't his entire life. No matter what I included I would have left something else out."

In fact, Goldsman told me something I hadn't heard before. He wrote several scenes pertaining to Nash's childhood, including a sequence in which he loses a close friend. Goldsman was afraid that audiences would connect that loss with the creation of Nash's make-believe friend, Charles. So he dropped all references to the childhood. "It created a kind of inappropriate relationship between childhood loss and the illness."

Wouldn't it have been easier, I asked him, to write a screenplay about a fictional person with the same problems as Nash? "You wouldn't have believed it," he said. "There are a lot of truths in this story. There are also consolidations. It doesn't mean that there wasn't a John Nash who suffered from schizophrenia and won the Nobel Prize."

Goldsman, by the way, says he's been in touch with the Nashes, who so far have remained removed from the spotlight. According to Goldsman, John Nash has seen the "movie several times. I watched it with him once. John and Alicia have been so gracious to me and complimentary. And that's a big deal for me."

How Ron Howard's Mind Was Changed

On another front, separate from Goldsman and his screenplay, A Beautiful Mind is back in the news. Yesterday, Anne Thompson of Premiere magazine revealed on premiere.com that John Forbes Nash was not the first schizophrenic Ron Howard wanted to make a movie about.

In 1995, after reading an article in The New York Times Magazine, Howard bought the rights to the life story of Michael Laudor, a Yale Law School graduate who'd suffered from and survived schizophrenia. Howard and Imagine Films plunked down $1.5 million for the rights to Laudor's story. Leonardo DiCaprio, and then Brad Pitt, were scheduled. Yale Law School Dean Tony Kronman showed Howard around the campus, allowing him to soak up the atmosphere for the movie.

What Thompson didn't report though was that Laudor also had a book deal. At the same time as the movie deal, literary agent Tina Bennett of the Janklow Nesbitt Agency — a law school friend of Laudor's — got him a $600,000 book advance from Scribner's, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, to expand the Times article. Laudor wrote an 80-page proposal for the book, which was going to be called Laws of Madness.

Susan Moldow, publisher of Scribner's, remembers Laudor. She told me yesterday he was "very intense. He was a brilliant and compelling person."

Laudor's hallucinations were similar to the ones Nash has in the movie. According to the Times article: "He began to imagine that some musicians he jammed with once a week were part of a cult. Then he began to hear bells in the night, and embellishing a line from Psalm 130 about 'watchmen for the morning,' thought his neighbors were ringing bells to keep watch for the dawn outside his bedroom window."

But Laudor's overnight fame proved to be his undoing. On June 17, 1998, after moving out of his small apartment and into better digs in Westchester, N.Y., 35-year-old Laudor snapped. He stabbed and killed his pregnant fiancée, Caroline Costello, in their kitchen in Hastings-on-Hudson. Costello had been associate director of technology for the Edison Project, a group that manages public schools.

Immediately, both deals were ended. Laudor was no longer movie material. Nash, who hadn't murdered anyone, was termed the more palatable schizophrenic for big-screen treatment.

Laudor's history was filled with details that could have made a movie. After graduating summa cum laude from Yale University in a swift three years, he went to work for Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Co. He has a nervous breakdown, was diagnosed a schizophrenic and lived for eight months in the psych unit at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.

Doctors put Laudor on Risperidone, and he moved into a halfway house in White Plains, N.Y. He was told to try for a simple job at Macy's but Laudor — a Yale graduate — set his sights on Yale Law School. He graduated in 1992.

After the murders, and the rescinding of his book and movie contracts, a psychiatrist ruled Laudor unfit to stand trial.

What caused Laudor's violence? According to reporting from Time magazine, it might have been the pressure to write a book on deadline. From Time: "Others speculate that the attempt to contain his life with enough lucidity to work on a manuscript due in August placed extreme pressure on the perfectionistic Laudor, perhaps to the extent that he stopped taking his medicine. A publishing insider who saw Laudor's book proposal said it was written with 'an almost mathematical use of language.' It was an intensely emotional tribute to his father, who Laudor believed saved his life."

Editor Muldow says of Laudor's situation, "It was one of the four worst things I've ever heard of." (She declined to say what the other three were.)

Calls to Laudor's brother, mother and attorney, Andrew Rubin, were not returned.

Even though the book was tabled, screenwriter Chris Gerolmo (writer of Mississippi Burning and once Liza Minnelli's brother-in-law) planned to go ahead with the movie. According to one source, Gerolmo wanted to do the project still and stayed in touch with Howard in hopes of making Laws of Madness into a film including the murder and the aftermath. "He submitted several drafts to Ron Howard," said the source. But in the end, murder was considered worse than latent homosexuality and infidelity.

"You couldn't just leave out murder and say it didn't fit into a two-hour movie," quipped one industry observer.

Premiere.com's story also suggested yesterday that Goldsman might have been influenced by reading Gerolmo's script. Gerolmo issued a statement yesterday claiming not to have seen A Beautiful Mind, but in any case he didn't plan on filing any grievances. Beautiful Mind producer Brian Grazer, using a sympathetic and diplomatic tone with Thompson, told her: "Gerolmo doesn't deserve any credit. They are two different movies with two different themes about two different people."

So there.