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Posts Tagged ‘John Nash’

“Literature abounds with stories about meteoric rises followed by catastrophic falls. There are very few stories, much less true stories, with a genuine third act. But John Nash’s life had such a third act. In fact, it was that amazing third act that drew me to his story in the first place.”
Sylvia Nasar

On the DVD commentary of A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard mentions that mathematicians on the level of John Nash don’t think it terms of numbers but of patterns.  I’m no mathematician (and certainly no genius), but in doing this blog for the past three years I’ve seen a number of patterns emerge. Today it happens to be journalists and Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Just as there was a great trail of talented people that led to the making of the classic film On the Waterfront , there was also a lot of talented people who were behind the success of A Beautiful Mind. And though both of those films were made over 45 years apart there are some common denominators between them.

Important parts of both stories take place in New Jersey. On the Waterfront in Hoboken and A Beautiful Mind in Princeton. I have been to both places, and though they are only 50 miles apart, culturally they are a worlds away from each other. (At least they were years ago.) Both stories center around a man facing great odds with a strong woman helping them endure. Both movies won Best Picture Oscars: On the Waterfront (1955), A Beautiful Mind (2002). Wait, both titles also have three words—this is getting scary.

And both stories were first brought to light by journalists. On the Waterfront flowed from 26 front page articles written by Malcolm Johnson. They first appeared in 1947-48 in The New York Sun and later in book form. For his work in exposing organized crime Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize.

A Beautiful Mind was the brainchild of Sylvia Nasar.  She was working as an economics reporter for the New York Times when she heard that John Nash would be sharing the Nobel Prize for his doctoral dissertation that was over 40 years old.

What had become of John Nash? Was he even still alive? He was alive, but he didn’t  understand why anyone would want to write a story on his life and did not give Nasar a formal interview. His friends and peers also were reluctant to speak to Nasar. She knows why, “There had not been a paragraph written on Nash, and no one who knew him wanted to put schizophrenia on the record because he had already suffered so much.” In 1994, The New York Times published Nasar’s article, The Lost Years of a Nobel Laureate.

One person who did talk to Nasar was Nash’s sister and that was enough to get started going deeper into the story. Nasar was also able to interview and talk with John’s wife, Alicia.

“In many ways these were the first prints in the snow, and the greatest thing that could happen to a reporter. It was an extremely rewarding experience not just telling a rise and fall story, but the fall and rise of an intellectual giant.”
Sylvia Nasar

Nasar took leave from the Times and spent two and a half years writing the book A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash. In 1998 the book won the National Book Critics Award for Biography and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Nash had a great (though not perfect) first act as a rising academic in the cold war era when some mathematicians were rock stars. He earned his Ph.D. at the age of 21. He married a physics major who also happened to be a cheerleader and was said to resembled Elizabeth Taylor in the movie Butterfield 8

Act 2 is when things got rough. He failed to accomplish the great things he thought he would in his field. He began hearing voices and having delusions. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in an era where the treatment was brutal. He ended up divorced, living in poverty and obscurity.

Five years after their divorce John called Alicia from a mental hospital  in West Virginia and asked her to help him. She did. And a mere 25-years-later he was honored with the Nobel Prize, and later the film A Beautiful Mind. He had finally found the success and fame that he hungered for as a young man.

“I dedicated my biography of John Nash to his wife Alicia. A Beautiful Mind is a drama about the mystery of the human mind, but it’s also very much a love story. It is very much an exploration of what Wordsworth called “the tenderness, joys, and fears of the human heart”...Without Alicia, Nash would have perished. There would be no recovery, no Nobel, no second take on life or the marriage.
Sylvia Nasar
Talk at MIT & Interview

So what does all of this have to do with Yellow Springs, Ohio? That is where Sylvia Nasar received her undergraduate degree in literature at Anitoch College. A place I have mentioned before since it is where Rod Serling graduated from on the road to creating The Twilight Zone.

We’ve all heard the horror stories from authors of books who’ve been less than pleased with the movie results based on their writings. Nasar’s Hollywood experience is on the other end of the spectrum.

“Was I happy with the movie? Well, look….when Ron Howard screened the movie for us I had read many drafts of the screenplay. I visited the set, I talked with Ron Howard—nothing prepared me for how good it was. I was really blown away. To me this movie captured what was truley— yes, in a fictional way— what was truly unique and meaningful about this story, and did something that I have never seen any movie do by this very cleaver device it put the audience in the shoes of someone who can’t distinguish between delusion and reality…To be able to translate a story about two states of mind, mathematics and schizophrenia, that are pretty remote from most people’s experience and to communicate that to audiences in many different cultures  and countries around the world I think is extraordinary. So, I was very happy with it.”
Sylvia Nasar
MIT Talk

Nasar is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

Related Posts:
Writing “A Beautiful Mind”
A Beautiful Heart
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany

Scott W. Smith

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“I was the worst writer in my seventh grade class. And when I went to college I was the worst writer in my college class. But each time somebody told me to stop writing, I never stopped…When I went to graduate school and tried to get  a degree in creative writing they told me to stop because I wasn’t that good. And I didn’t stop writing.”
Akiva Goldsman
2007 WGA Rally

It seems every step of the way Akiva Goldsman has had someone tell him that he wasn’t that good of a writer. It’s a good thing that he has an Oscar to remind himself otherwise. But perhaps it was Goldsman’s naysayers that best prepared him to write the screenplay for A Beautiful Mind (2001).

As he told the story based on the life of John Nash and Sylvia Nasar’s bio of the mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia, Goldsman had to know he was also telling his story. A story of a man who knew that he could achieve something greater than what he had accomplished up to that point in his life. (By the way, that story or theme will resonate with every man, woman, and child that’s ever walked on this earth.)

Goldsman was raised in a group house where his mother, a child psychologist, lived and worked with children diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia.

“I am no expert on mental illness, but I am sure of one thing: the children who shared my home were not without reason. Their behavior made sense to them. They had reasons for everything they did. We just couldn’t understand their reasons. So, the idea of writing a screenplay about John’s life and the way he saw the world was tremendously exciting to me.”
Akiva Goldsman
A Beautiful Mind, The Shooting Script

An the team at Imagine Films (Brian Grazer, Karen Kehela, Ron Howard) got behind Goldsman’s vision of writing the story from the perspective of someone who has schizophrenia. Much of the time we see the world as Nash saw the world.

“It’s not a literal telling of Nash’s life. I tried to take the architecture of his life—his genius, his schizophrenia, his Nobel Prize—and construct a semi-fictional story.”
Akiva Goldsman

One of the pieces of the Nash’s life that became an anchor for the story was the relationship with his wife Alicia.

“It’s kind of a grown-up romance. The relationship was intensely complex, as where the challenges that Alicia and John faced together. John Nash’s story is incredibly heroic, but so is Alicia’s.”
Ron Howard
Director, A Beautiful Mind

One of the ways that Goldsman visually showed that bond comes at the 40 minute mark of the movie when Alicia puts a handkerchief in Nash’s tuxedo pocket just before he has his picture taken. On the DVD commentary this is how Goldsman explains the importance of that moment :

“Here’s where we set up the handkerchief. The sort of talisman, the ‘objective correlative’ as Wallace Stevens said. The object that represents emotion—in this case the handkerchief is the object that represents their love and will carry throughout the piece.”
Akiva Goldsman

The handkerchief becomes a motif throughout the film. And in the closing speech at the end of the film, John Nash is wearing the same handkerchief that she gave him—a symbol of their love and endurance.

And speaking of endurance. Goldsman not only endured the years in school where he was discouraged from continuing to write, but he was by his own admission a “failed novelist for ten years” before turning his hand to screenwriting. And screenwriting is where he started winning awards, unfortunately his first award was a Razzie which honors bad acting, writing and filmmaking. And he actually won two; the 1997 Batman & Robin (Worst Screenplay) and the 1996 A Time to Kill (Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 million.) It must have good felt five years later to walk up and receive his Oscar for A Beautiful Mind.

And Goldsman has gone to write many other screenplays that have made him one of the highest paid screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

P.S. I’m going to start throwing that phrase”objective correlative” around, because that really makes it sound like you know what you’re talking about. Not to mention that T.S. Eliot used it as well.

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

Objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end, — the pleasurable emotion.
Washington Allston around 1840 in the “Introductory Discourse” of his Lectures on Art

A few “objective correlative” examples off the top of my head are the volleyball from Cast Away (WILSON!), the fish from Jerry Maguire, and the Heart of the Ocean necklace from Titantic. Can you think of others?

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s a difficult case…to give a man back his heart.”
Angel (John Travolta) in Michael

“The fact is, I don’t like people much. And they don’t like me.”
John Nash in A Beautiful Mind


At the core of the film A Beautiful Mind is a love story. Sure it deals with mental illness and the fragmented life of John Nash, but at the end of the day—it is a love story. A love story between John Nash (Russell Crowe) and his wife Alica (Jennifer Connelly). Here is how screenwriter Akiva Goldsman brings the story to a close as Nash gives a speech at the end of the film:

INT.—ROYAL SWEDISH ACADEMY—NOBEL CEREMONY

A giant hall. Full. Nash, stands at the podium, blinking his eyes. Hundreds sit watching, as camera flashbulbs finally cease.

But Nash just stands there. A long beat. And even longer.

KING-CLOSE. In the audience. Concerned. (*)

ALICA-CLOSE. In the front row. Starting to worry.

Back to Nash. Still standing there. See what he sees. Hundreds of faces staring back at him. Finally, just when all seems lost…

Nash: Thanks You for your patience.

But he’s not only looking at the speech before him. He’s not looking at the audience. He’s looking at Alicia.

Nash: I have always believed in numbers. In the equations and logics that lead to reason. I was wrong. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reason can be found. Perhaps it is good to have a beautiful mind. But a better gift is to discover a beautiful heart.

And suddenly there is no one else in the room but the two of them, Nash’s magical vision reveling the patterns of the heart.

Nash: Thank you for your belief in me after so many years. You are the reason I am here today.

On the A Beautiful Mind DVD commentary this is how screenwriter Goldsman sums up that scene;

“This speech, which was not a speech that was actually made, was for me a construct for me to signify what was important about the theme of the film and personally my experience with people who suffer from mental illness began very young, and this movie and the writing of this movie was a tribute to my mother…What she taught me is this ‘It is a good thing to have a beautiful mind, but a better gift is to discover a beautiful heart.’ I’d like to believe that’s what this movie’s about.”

And as a nice poetic gesture, Goldsman’s mother was on stage sitting behind Russell Crowe when they filmmed that scene.

Nash’s personal life may have been even more schizophrenic than the movie, (and we could debate the dichotomy separating the head and heart for the next decade) but I think director Ron Howard & Goldsman were simply creating a story that would resonate more with audiences’ hopes and dreams. How we’d like life to be, rather than how it is. The movie did resonate with audiences and the Academy as well as it won four Oscars in 2002, including Best Director, Best Picture and Best Screenplay (based on other material, Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, The Life of a Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laurate John Nash.)

And over the credits of the film is the beautiful voice of Charlotte Church singing All Love Can Be:

I will guard you with my bright wings,
Stay till your heart learns to see
All love can be

Happy Valentine’s Day—

(*) Isn’t that moment echoed in The King’s Speech?

Scott W. Smith



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When the Sylvia Nasar biography A Beautiful Mind, the story of  John Nash, was brought to the screen it was a giant of a creative team that created a beautiful movie.

It not only earned Russell Crowe, who played John Nash, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role, but at the 2002 Academy Awards it won four awards; Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Jennifer Connely), Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Picture (Ron Howard & Brian Grazer) and Best Writing, Screenplay based on Material Previously Produced (Akiva Goldsman).

Screenwriter Goldsman is another case of taking the long and winding road to success. With an MFA from NYU Goldsman spent 10 years as a failed novelist (his words) before turning to screenwriting. But one of his first nominations wasn’t the good kind. He was nominated for worst script by the Golden Raspberry Awards (Razzies) for his Batman & Robin script.

These days Goldsman is reported to have been paid $4 million to write the sequel to the Da Vinci Code making him one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. In the introduction of The Shooting Script; A Beautiful Mind,  published by Newmarket press, Goldsman touches on what it took for him to write an Academy Award winning film:

“I’ll skip the writing part, except to say, I used about a million packs of cigarettes, a thousand pots of coffee, several hundred cans of tuna eaten over the sink, and my whole heart.”

Akiva Goldsman, Introduction in
                                                                       The Shooting Script; A Beautiful Mind
                                                                       Newmarket Press

It’s hard to do anything with your whole heart for five minutes, much less write an entire script that way. Think about what it means to do something with your whole heart. The image that comes to mind for me is of triathlete Julie Moss who became famous (as well as the sport itself) when she collapsed (while in the lead) toward the end of the 1982 Ironman competition and crawled the last 100 yards to the finish line.

Copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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What can politics teach us about screenwriting?

statefair.jpg

I’ve already talked about the importance of conflict so let’s skip over that for this blog. And first let me say that I took all the photos for this section in the months leading up to the famed Iowa caucus. Jay Leno joked that many people don’t realize that the word caucus is Indian for “The one day anyone pays attention to Iowa.” (Bonus points if you can tell which political “Where’s Waldo” is in the above photo.)

The highest point in Iowa is just 1,670 feet but the political view from just about anywhere is spectacular leading up to the caucus. We understand politics and power, but what’s this all got to do with screenwriting?

When I connect screenwriting and politics it is not the Watergate Hotel, Bill Clinton’s cigar, hanging chads in Palm Beach, restrooms at the Minneapolis airport, or the back stabbing kind of politics. I simply mean this year’s race for the presidency of the United States. The process of going from the many to the one.   I call this the power of one.

When I set out to write my first screenplay one of the first questions I wondered about was, “How do you keep track of all the characters?”  My answer now could make this my shortest post ever; Your screenplay is about one person. Not too hard to keep track of one person is it? Feel better?

Granted not every character is on a deserted island like Tom Hanks in Cast Away. (I still see Wilson sadly drifting away–“WILSON!”) But most scripts are like Cast Away in that the story is really about one person being transformed. Even if it appears that the film is about two or three people it’s really about one person. Just like there is only going to be one president. Here are a couple Academy Award winning examples:

Good Will Hunting – Will (Matt Damon) is the one who is changed at the end. Ben Affleck’s character is basically unchanged. It’s Will’s story.

The Shawshank Redemption – Where would Andy (Tim Robbins)  be without Red (Morgan Freeman)? But it is Andy’s story. Red is like the Vice President.

Rain Man – Dustin Hoffman got the Oscar and the memorable lines, but the story is really about Tom Cruise’s character. He is the one who undergoes the transformation.

Wasn’t that simple? Sure there will be more than one character in your script,  a strong antagonist and a supporting cast, even a couple subplots,  but your script will have one focal point. There are exceptions–such as ensemble casts (Crash, Magnolia, any Altman film)–but I am addressing probably 75% of all films made.

One could even argue that in buddy films like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Thelma & Louise that the characters are so close they represent one person. (And those dynamic duo’s are as rare as they are close.)

As I mentioned, here in Iowa we get a ground floor perspective on the presidential candidates. And not just for a week or two leading up to the caucuses but it’s a several month-long process. In fact, my writer friend Matthew said it should come with a warning, “If elections last longer than three months…see your doctor.”

My goal leading up to the ’08 election was to see as many of the candidates as I could. I got a nice jump-start when I received a call from Des Moines to cover an event in my neck of the woods where I would be video taping six of the presidential hopefuls. By the time the caucuses were over on January 3 I had seen a total of 13.

It is a bit overwhelming to keep track of what 13 people believe and what they say they can do for the country. For the majority of the candidates I was within ten feet of them and all this happened no more than ten miles from my home. Considering I had only seen one other presidential candidate in my life, I thought it was a pretty interesting opportunity.

huck.jpg

Tuesday night Mike Huckabee officially dropped out of the Republican primary so what was over a dozen candidates just two months ago is down to three viable ones. By November it will be either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama versus John McCain.

hillary300.jpgobama125.jpgmccain.jpg

But come January there will be one new president. And just one.

And so it is with your script. Pour your creative energy into one main character and you will be on your way to keeping track of your characters. I need to stress the importance of reading scripts a lot more than reading books about screenwriting. In reading a script multiple times you will begin to see patterns. Read Susan Grant’s wonderful script for Erin Brockovich and you’ll see that Erin (Julia Roberts) is in every single scene.   In most cases if your protagonist  is not in a scene you need to have a good reason for that scene being there. (And if neither the protagonist or antagonist is in a scene you need to take an extra long look at why that scene is in your script.)

To test this out I just flipped through Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning original screenplay Juno, I found three scenes without Juno but even those three were about or connected to Juno. The same thing holds true for A Beautiful Mind where the script I have has John Nash (Russell Crowe) in every scene. (Even if I missed a scene or two where the protagonist is absent you have to admit the evidence for the power of one is pretty strong.)

So the main ways to keep track of your characters is to limit them and don’t let them wander off-screen too long.

This isn’t just a Hollywood movie star thing, it keeps the story on track. Easy for you the writer, easy for the reader at the studio or production company who is reading four scripts a day, and easy for the audience to follow.

We’ll look at the importance of a strong protagonist later, but think of your favorite films and how one character is at the center of the show. Never underestimate the power of one.

I’m sure if Addicus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night), or Ellen Ripley (Aliens) were running for the presidency they’d get a few votes. Heck, I bet The Terminator could even win the thing. What would his plan for Iraq be? Maybe in the future there will be amendment to the Constitution that allows cyborgs to run for president.

Photos & Text Copyright © 2008 Scott W. Smith

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