Akiva Goldsman on ‘Lobo,’ ‘Jonah Hex’ and the new ‘Swamp Thing’

Oct. 19, 2009 | 8:22 p.m.

This is a significantly longer version of an article I wrote on Akiva Goldsman that ran Sunday in the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. Goldsman is one of the busiest Hollywood figures in comics and sci-fi projects with four adaptations coming based on DC characters and his new role as a key figure for the Fox series “Fringe.” He’s also a figure of controversy for fans who have not forgotten the sight of a Bat-suit with nipples. 

Akiva Goldsman

Akiva Goldsman arrived at the door of producer Brian Grazer in 1998 with one purpose. “I went there,” the screenwriter says, “to beg.”

Goldsman, who had enjoyed a steady ascension in Hollywood for years, was coming off a string of films that had badly battered his reputation. He had produced and written the forgettable dud “Lost in Space” — and far worse, he had written the screenplay that would become the 1997 bomb “Batman & Robin,” one of the most savagely disliked movies of the decade.

Lobo

Given that history of burnt popcorn, Goldsman seemed like the least qualified writer in Hollywood to take on the task of adapting Sylvia Nasar’s “A Beautiful Mind” for the screen, but that’s the job he sought when he visited Grazer at the offices of Imagine Films. Shockingly, he got the gig, and the eventual film, about physicist John Nash and his slippery hold on reality, would win four Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay for Goldsman, best director for Ron Howard and best picture.

“It was a profound experience for all of us involved,” Goldsman recently recalled. “And I cannot overestimate what it meant for my career at that point.”

The breakthrough put Goldsman in a lofty strata in Hollywood, and his screenwriting credits would include blockbusters such as “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels & Demons,” “I Am Legend” and “I, Robot.” And now, a decade after seeking a bit of largesse from Grazer, Goldsman is undertaking a new career path behind the camera.

He recently directed the season premiere of the Fox series “Fringe” and is now lining up his feature-film directorial debut. And despite having written what is perhaps the most reviled comic-book movie adaptation of all time, he’s aggressively pursuing his childhood love of superheroes as the producer of five movies based on Marvel or DC comic books, including the Guy Ritchie adaptaion of “Lobo,” the popular anti-hero show in the image on the right.

On closer inspection, comic-book fantasy and dark psychology are the touchstone themes of Goldsman’s career. It’s a tandem that might make a therapist smirk or reach for their notepad, and the same goes for the 47-year-old’s memories of his childhood. The writer is the son of child psychologists Mira Rothenberg and Tev Goldsman, and the nature of his youth was a key reason that Grazer used the writer for “A Beautiful Mind.”

Batman and Robin

“I grew up, essentially, in one of the very first group homes for what was then termed as ‘emotionally disturbed children’ — these were days when, unimaginably, childhood schizophrenia and autism were lumped together in the same population,” Goldsman said. “My parents founded this home, and I grew up there in this brownstone in Brooklyn Heights and my peers were, um, crazy. My definition of sanity is very labile; it’s flexible and open.”

Young Goldsman also lost himself in the tales of Batman, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Legion of Super-Heroes and all the other gaudy champions who inhabit the wildly intricate mythos of Marvel and DC. He sees his revisitation to his youthful concerns as a common experience in Hollywood. “I think we’re all trying to make sense of what happened [in our childhoods] and that’s what’s startling — in getting the chance to make stuff, sometimes, when everything is supended correctly, it feels like it makes sense.” 

These days, his office at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank is dotted with comic-book art, superhero statues, sci-fi imagery — pop-culture signifiers that once would have been viewed as juvenilia but now are as proudly prevalent in Hollywood work spaces as Hitchcock posters and espresso machines.

Losers

On a recent afternoon, Goldsman gleefully showed off a personalized drawing that had been given to him years ago by the late Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman, and then debated the finer points of “Days of Future Past,” a landmark two-issue X-Men comic-book story from 1981.

None of that, though, changes the fact that Goldsman might be booed off the stage if he were introduced at a comic-book convention. “Batman & Robin,” the bloated 1997 movie directed by Joel Schumacher and starring George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger, certainly possesses an odious place in Hollywood history. Times critic Kenneth Turan said the Goldsman script had the “eerie feeling of having no beginning, no middle and no end.” That was on the gentle end of the reaction; Goldsman and Schumacher actually received death threats, which suggests that there are a lot of people in the world who take their funny books seriously.

A few months ago, Kevin Feige, the president of production at Marvel Studios, said that “Batman & Robin” was more than a mere failure. “That may be the most important comic-book movie ever made,” said Feige, whose studio is now at work on “Iron Man 2″ and “Thor.” “It was so bad that it demanded a new way of doing things. It created the opportunity to do ‘X-Men’ and ‘Spider-Man,’ adaptations that respected the source material and adaptations that were not campy.”

Goldsman won’t exactly apologize for the film, but he comes pretty close. He said he is proud of the effort put into it and weary of the conversations about its merit. He did learn a lesson from the film. “What got lost in ‘Batman & Robin’ is the emotions aren’t real,” Goldsman said, picking his words carefully. “The worst thing to do with a serious comic book is to make it a cartoon. I’m still answering for that movie with some people.”

He said honoring the source material is the guiding concept for the projects he has in the pipeline now. Filming recently wrapped on his Warner Bros. project “Jonah Hex,” which stars Josh Brolin as the bitter and scarred Old West antihero from DC Comics that dates to the 1970s.

“He’s a character that has been described as having one foot on Earth and one foot beyond the grave, that he speaks to the dead . . . at the same time he is very much [like Sergio Leone’s] ‘The Man With No Name.’ “

Jonah Hex poster

“Hex,” now in post-production, is being  directed by Jimmy Hayward, who is following up his very different directorial debut, last year’s “Horton Hears a Who.” John Malkovich plays the villain, an evil preacher, while Megan Fox and Will Arnett also star.

After that is a commando film called “The Losers,” also a DC adaptation, about a team of CIA operatives who are unwittingly sent on a suicide mission but survive and return to face their superiors.

The film stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan — who got strong reviews for his black-ops and black-hearted role in “Watchmen” – as well as Zoe Saldana and Jason Patric and is due in April of next year.

There’s also “Lobo,” a blue- and gray-skinned, super-powered alien who has a bad attitude and delights in mayhem; the character, for the uninitiated, looks like a buffed-out, biker version of Beetlejuice and acts like a bar-fighting big cousin of the extraterrestrial scamp from “Lilo and Stitch.” There’s also some common ground with the hero-behaving-badly tale of “Hancock,” which Goldsman produced. 

“Lobo” is being directed by Guy Ritchie, which sounds like an odd fit — he’s rarely succeeded in stories that go past London and this one would take him off-planet — but Goldsman says he’s thrilled with the fit.

“There’s something hyperbolic and authentic about a Guy Ritchie movie. His best movie are deeply, deeply  stylized yet they are all grounded; there’s a grit of stylization, which sounds like an oxymoron but it makes perfect sense when you’ve seen his films.”

Goldsman added: “We’ve never seen Guy’s sensibility married to a project with such a large special effects budget. “

Fringe poster

Goldsman said Ritchie will shoot a test scene in November — “We’ve got the character design pretty much done,” Goldsman said, “and the test will get us moving forward to the next step” — and casting will be decided after that.

Then there’s “Swamp Thing,” which Goldsman said will be closer in tone to the character as presented in Alan Moore’s eerie, metaphysical horror comics than the rubber-suit bog creature from the 1982 Wes Craven B-movie.

“We want a film with real Southern, dark horror overtones, a little bit like a classic Universal horror film,” Goldsman said, knowing full well that his presence on the project will stir controversy — it’s a character that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has called one of the “few remaining Holy Grails” in comics. There’s also also talk of a Fantastic Four reboot, which has been met, no surprise, with sharply different reactions.

Vestiges of fan vitriol remain on the Internet for Goldsman, but in Hollywood his reputation is stellar. J.J. Abrams has brought him into the fold on “Fringe” as a key story collaborator, and Howard has now directed four films with Goldsman as screenwriter.

Howard said he has been “prodding” Goldsman to direct since watching the writer work with Russell Crowe and others on the set of “A Beautiful Mind.”

“There have been many screenwriters who moved into directing with varying degrees of success, but it’s not an automatic path,” Howard said. “Screenwriters have, of course, a great sense of story and the nuances trying to being achieved, but they shield themselves from the practical matters of getting that story told on film. None of that is a problem for Akiva. He’s comfortable having conversations with actors and collaborating.”

Will Smith and Akiva Goldsman

 

Goldsman puts a premium on his affinity for teamwork and rattles off all the lessons he’s learned from collaborators, such as Howard’s open and supportive style, Peter Weir’s devotion to authenticity, Will Smith’s relentless optimism.

Goldsman got his start late in Hollywood. He had graduated from Wesleyan in 1983 and worked in the mental health field carrying the family tradition of sorts, but he found he was gripped more by flights of imagination than clinical challenges. He studied creative at New York University but novel writing defied him. He became an avid disciple of screenwriting guru John McKee’s approaches and had a breakthrough with his 1994 adaptation of John Grisham’s novel “The Client.”

His own literary beacons won’t impress anyone with art-house sensibilities — he talks with wonder about Stephen King’s “ability to understand the emotional architecture of our imagination” — but his populist tastes, skill with story and that old comic-book collection make him a man for the moment in Hollywood. He’s now looking for a feature film to direct, and it may end up being a screen version of his favorite novel, “Winter’s Tale,” Mark Helprin’s 1983 fantasy about an alternate-history New York, a thief and flying white horse.

It’s yet another new chapter in the career of a man who has specialized in playing well with others in an asylum setting. “I’m very scared of many things, but drop me into world of people raging with schizophrenia and I feel perfectly at home,” Goldsman deadpanned. “And I love Hollywood. Go figure.”

– Geoff Boucher

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Photos: Akiva Goldsman on the Warner lot (Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times). Lobo from DC Comics. The cast of “Batman & Robin.” Posters for the DC series “The Losers,” the upcoming “Jonah Hex” film and “Fringe.” Will Smith and Akiva Goldsman in 2007 (Toshifumi Kitamura/Getty images)

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