A Love Letter to the Lost

The sudden, tragic death of Akiva Goldsman's wife paralyzed the Oscar winner, but a passion project helped him find his way back to writing—his deeply felt adaptation of the novel Winter's Tale.

©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment
Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay in Winter's Tale.
February 14, 2014 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
David C. Lee/Warner Bros. Akiva Goldsman

I had no real choice but to make this movie. I had to see it through. It became my way of having a Hail Mary to faith, I guess.

By his count, Akiva Goldsman, who has an MFA in the Fiction Writing program at NYU, has written “dozens and dozens, slews” of short stories, and not a single one of them has ever been published. “They were just never that good,” says the 51-year-old, Oscar-winning screenwriter. Indeed, one of Goldsman’s college professors actually advised him to stop writing altogether. “Sometimes people telling you ‘no’ like that just makes you try harder,” says Goldsman, today one of the industry’s most in-demand scribes. “If you want to be great at something you love, you have to keep chasing it, and I haven’t stopped chasing it.”

That drive and determination have served Goldsman well in a career now two decades young, wherein he has penned a formidable run of well-received blockbusters from The Client and I, Robot, to A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code, as well as more polarizing fare like Batman & Robin and Lost in Space. It is also what fueled Goldsman through the very long, almost Job-like big-screen development and adaptation of Winter’s Tale, a sprawling, beloved 1983 novel by Mark Helprin.

It was not simply the daunting task of translating Helprin’s nearly 700-page, genre-bending opus into a 120-page screenplay that vexed Goldsman. While working on the script—“a fairy tale for grown-ups,” Goldsman says, in which true love is bent to breaking and tragically lost, yielding to a richer, more miraculous purpose for its young hero—Goldsman’s wife, producer Rebecca Spikings-Goldsman, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 42. The loss paralyzed Goldsman for a long spell, the thematic soul of Winter’s Tale that ultimately drew him through his grief to complete the screenplay.

Winter’s Tale became Goldsman’s feature directorial debut. The Warner Bros. film, starring Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, and Russell Crowe, is deeply felt, visually lush, and almost defiantly romantic, an exquisite valentine in memoriam of his late wife. “For me, Winter’s Tale went from simply a story I loved to, for a very long time, the only thing I cared about,” he says. “I had no real choice but to make this movie. I had to see it through.”

Making Winter’s Tale was a seven-year journey for you, and a very challenging one at that. Tell me about your first encounter with Mark Helprin’s novel, and why it was so resonant for you.

I read it in the ‘80s when it came out. Like a lot of people, I was entirely struck by the language, obviously, this love letter to New York City, but the thing that sort of rocked my world as a young man was the magical realism—American magical realism. I had read Borges, Cortazar, and 100 Years of Solitude, but I had never seen magical realism painted on an American canvas before. It was a brick and mortar world, but magic was seeping through. There was real drama and, in the midst of it, a flying white horse. That made sense to me, the marriage of the impossible and the ordinary and how they constantly shift places. It resonated for me, and for a zillion other people who have loved the book. Interestingly enough, I’ve found—and this is true, to some extent, with the movie as well—that the book can be very polarizing, based on giving it to friends of mine through the years. Some would be absolutely enchanted and others would absolutely disregard the book once the horse flew, as if real drama and magic cannot co-exist. I, of course, think they have to.

Helprin’s novel was, for a long time, considered to be unfilmable. What made you think you could do it?

I didn’t really film the novel, at least not in its entirety. Part of my way out of that, honestly, was to skip Hardesty Marratta [a key figure in the book], who has hundreds of pages dedicated to him in the novel, and he only made one scene in one draft of my screenplay. I just followed the love story between Peter and Beverly. That love story most ignited my imagination when I read the novel, so that became the spine of the storytelling for me.

You’ve done a number of very high profile literary adaptations. Are there rules of thumb to approaching an adaptation as a screenwriter?

There are things I would preach, and which I practice more or less perfectly depending on the object. First and foremost, never adapt anything you don’t love. This may be heretical, but I don’t think there is a “correct” adaptation. There will usually be changes. There will usually be things that get cut. Books are not movies and movies are not books. So it has to be affection, passion, imagination, and love that get you through the adaptation process. I’ve veered from this path in my career, and whenever I have, it has not served me. Whenever I have slavishly tried to make something reflect the book structure or scene-for-scene or notion-for-notion of the book itself, I have had less success than when I have deviated—and when I say “less success,” I mean “creatively.”

I feel that the process for me then is pretty standard: I read the book a couple of times, no matter how many times I’ve read it before, and then I put it away and I try to kind of outline it from memory, trusting that my brain will keep the parts that I love and then I jot it down in movie form, sort of roughly. Then I go back to the book, and it’s, “Oh, how the fuck did I forget that?” Fundamentally, the first template comes from what’s stuck to me after reading the book.

Did you have any input from Mark Helprin on your Winter’s Tale adaptation?

I did and I didn’t. Mark read the first couple of drafts of the screenplay and said to me some version of, “Go with God. I made my book. You make your movie.” What Mark has always said is how much he appreciates my affection for his book.

Your work on some of the seminal, mythology-driven episodes of television’s Fringe seems, in retrospect, sort of a dry run for what you’ve done with Winter’s Tale. The thematic concerns are very similar.

If I bear down with a vigor [that] I would not recommend to anyone else and take a look at my own work, there are a lot of uniting principles there. A lot of them have to do with faith, belief, the idea that emotion is transformative, that love is transformative, that life surprises you in way that can be quite dark, and that you can use emotions to rise above that. I’m not the first person to write about that, not by a long shot, but it seems to be where my writing goes.

Tell me about the process of writing Winter’s Tale.

I loved the book, as I’ve said, for a very long time. At a certain point in your career, if you’re lucky, people begin asking you, “What do you like? What do you want to write?” And I’d always ask them, “Have you read Winter’s Tale?” Some people had. Some people hadn’t. It was always encumbered. Martin Scorsese had it at one point. It was never quite available, and then it was. Eventually, I got Warner Bros. to option it for me. But I’m a boy, so as soon as I got the thing I wanted most back home, I stopped paying attention to it and I went and did I Am Legend and all sorts of other things that were fun and exciting, and Winter’s Tale just sat there. Warners kindly kept renewing the option. At a certain point, I realized, “I really need to finish this script.” But I didn’t know how. I couldn’t quite figure it out.

And then quite suddenly in 2010, your wife passed away. That was a real turning point for you on the project, wasn’t it?

It was. I mean, after that happened, I didn’t really want to do much of anything. Your world just sort of breaks. But with time, I found my way back to the script. I was not back to the world yet. But I found my way back to the script. There is, in the object, in Mark’s novel, the idea of this “fairy tale for grown-ups.” It starts with the prospect of a very classical, optimistic fairy tale, a love story—the promise of eternal happiness—and then it is very crushingly subverted, and the main character is forced to find meaning in life absent his true love. This, of course, spoke very clearly and resonantly to me.

Winter’s Tale became, for me, an opportunity to work out the ideas of purpose and meaning in the face of loss. When I found my way to the end of the script, I just couldn’t let it go. It was written with a tremendous amount of feeling. As such, I asked Warner Bros. if I could direct it as my first film. They said, “Oh, uh, that’s really expensive.” With love, they gave me about half of what we had budgeted the film at, about $40 million, and I just said, “Yes, thank you.” I had no real choice but to make this movie. I had to see it through. It became my way of having a Hail Mary to faith, I guess.

Writers are known, at least stereotypically, as very solitary creatures, but the relationships in your career seem very key. You’re the go-to guy for a number of high profile directors and writers, working repeatedly with people like Ron Howard, Will Smith, Russell Crowe, and a lot of the Winter’s Tale cast and crew. Tell me about that.

Well, I like relationships. The people I know and love, I’ve known and loved for many, many, many years. They really matter to me. I’m kind of like a bad penny; I’m hard to shake off. [Laughs] That’s just the way I’m built. The truth is, I also think that writers are, and have always been, historically, marginalized. I very quickly realized as a writer I wouldn’t get to go to the fair unless I became protected, so I became a producer as well—honestly, just so I wouldn’t get fired. I really had no desire to produce, though it turns out I’m okay at it, but I did it purely out of self-protection. And it’s become more common now, which I find to be very pleasing.

What is the role of the screenwriter in Hollywood today?

For me, writing is a vitally important piece of the collaborative art that is moviemaking. I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of directors who feel the same way. Going back to your previous question, my writing has always been in two phases: the locked up alone in a room and typing part, which we all know is deeply miserable, but also kind of wildly gratifying once it’s over, and then the social part of it—the fun part of it, where you write your way onto the movie set. Once I got there, I realized that all creative people are kind of doing the same job: they’re just trying to figure out how to tell a good story. Moviemaking is a collaborative art. If you want to be God, go write a novel. Otherwise, you’re in this endlessly, odd creative summer camp, where you’re moving everything forward together. I’ve had the good luck to be around really great people I like and who have allowed me to work well with them.

You’re doing pretty well for a guy who was told by his university professors he should give up the dream of ever being a writer.

That’s a true story. It couldn’t be more true. There was a fellow on the visiting faculty at Wellesley, where I went to college, who will remain nameless, but who was quite a celebrated writer and poet, who I worshipped. I just thought he was the bee’s knees. I was a relatively fatherless youth, and he was sort of the perfect surrogate dad. I kept trying to write, to write, to write. I had asked him if he would be my thesis advisor, and he said, “No. You should really just stop writing.” [Laughs] So I went and found somebody else, and then I went to grad school, and I just kept on writing. The fact is, I’ve never sold a short story. I have a master’s degree in fiction, but I could not write my way through a short story. Not for not having finished dozens and dozens of them, slews of them; they were just never that good. But I’m a believer that writing is a muscle. It’s like a sit-up. You just keep doing them, and you get stronger and better. There are a thousand bad paces behind the first good one. You have to keep writing.

That’s the only distinction I have. I am not the best writer in the world, but I’ve kept writing. There’s a stubbornness there and a willingness to identify good luck as it’s passing you by and grab hold of it. Sometimes people telling you “no” like that just makes you try harder. If you want to be great at something you love, you have to keep chasing it, and I haven’t stopped chasing it.

© 2014 Writers Guild of America West

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