Insights from Producer Randy MacLowry
Randy MacLowry, producer and co-writer of A Brilliant Madness, talks about his experiences making a documentary on John Nash. He shares some of the misconceptions he had about schizophrenia, the challenges of conveying the emotional aspects of Nash's story and the ideas behind a few of the shots in the film.
Introduction — chapter 1
I was brought on to work on the film by American Experience. Mark Samels and Margaret Drain contacted me to see if I was interested in working on the project. I read the book, A Beautiful Mind, and found the story very compelling and decided that it would be a very worthwhile story to tell.
The Documentary — chapter 2
Our documentary was inspired by the book, A Beautiful Mind, which did tell the wonderful story of John Nash. Our story is similar in that it does follow the arc of his life. We obviously had to make choices to fit his life into a 52-minute show and so we are sticking to the rise to genius, his falling into the depths of his illness and his reawakening and being recognized for his effort, his work by winning the Nobel Prize. It's really that same three-act structure that you find in the book, but there are differences. Obviously, we are telling a story in a visual way.
Visual Motifs — chapter 3
We decided that portions of his life would be better represented by photographs and stock footage of his early childhood, his time in Princeton, his time at M.I.T. We had documentation of that but we wanted to find a way to re-create or capture the experiential aspects of schizophrenia, through the interviews that we had done and things in the book -- describing some of the symptoms and some of Dr. Nash's delusions as he descended into his illness, and when he was in the throes of his illness, what was happening.
We wanted to find ways to visually capture that, and so there were certain things — at M.I.T. he started noticing -- men wearing red neck ties -- and it seems to take on a greater significance to him. We wanted to visualize what that would be and when working with our cinematographer Peter Donahue, he did a wonderful job providing us with a really spontaneous and creative look at this material.
We really went out and wanted to in capture a lot of different things that would include people with red ties. We went to MIT and shot there at the university but in ways that would not be typical of seeing the university. We didn't know how it would have been cut together but in the editing process, it's really a wonderful distortion on reality and that was really what we were trying to do with the visuals. And through a variety of techniques: of obscuring things, playing around with focus, shooting through foreground objects. We actually brought a door that had a slit in it, with reinforced glass, and we would shoot though to try and give a sense of somebody in the mental institution looking out of a room of confinement. And so there were ways of placing objects in unexpected places and that was some of the ideas that we had in terms of trying to capture this more delusional part of his life.
Telling the Story — chapter 4
We did have to make choices in terms of content with telling the story of John Nash. He did incredible work in mathematics. He did his work in game theory which led to the Nobel prize. They are very complex and very significant concepts and ideas that are difficult to delve into deeply and try to convey an understanding to an audience within the timeframe that we had, plus tell the story. So we really stuck more closely to the arc of his life and tried to place it into the context of his times, and also identify those things that he was so known for, in terms of his work. And we tried to get individuals who can speak to his genius, and speak to the value of his work. In that respect, we did have to leave things aside.
Game Theory— chapter 5
Game theory was an element that we really wanted to explore, and we do explore it, to a certain extent. We tried to give it a context, in terms of getting a sense of where it came from and why it seemed to be important. And then also, later on, when the work that John Nash did as a young student in the late 40s, early 50s -- why 20 to 25 years later that work became so important. Game theory had its own story, but our story was John Nash. And he really left his work in game theory in the 50s and it came back to find him when he won the Nobel prize.
Cold War Paranoia — chapter 6
The paranoia that Dr. Nash expresses are symptoms of his illness but the context or content of that paranoia is rooted in the background of the times. And it is not unusual that someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia would draw on those elements around them in terms of placing that paranoia. For him feeling that the communists were schemers and that there was a conspiracy against him, or that the pope might be someone who is opposing him -- these are elements that were part of the time period that basically became the background of his paranoia. He was at Princeton and M.I.T. during the rise of the Cold War. Even when he was at M.I.T. there was a scare at that time. Several members of the math department had to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. So there was definitely elements surrounding him and others that would have informed how he would view the world in that respect.
Spontaneous Combustion — chapter 7
We'd always been intrigued by the time period when Dr. Nash went to Europe, after resigning from M.I.T. This is right after his initial breakdown. He arrived in Europe, in Paris, at a time that was fraught with a lot of political protests against the arms race. And it was also an incredibly hot summer. There was a heat wave going on. There was a story about the fact that a car had spontaneously combusted on the streets of Paris. We thought this was a potentially wonderful metaphor for what was happening with John Nash at the time. So there was this idea, this hunt for trying to find an old Citroën that we could explode and capture on film. Alas, we never really made it that far, but we did find some stock footage of a burning car that seemed to perhaps fill the void.
The Interview with Dr. Nash — chapter 8
Dr. Nash gave us a fascinating interview. He was incredibly open about his experiences with his illness. It was fascinating to hear him talk about what he was experiencing and also how he feels he recovered from his illness. He gave us some very insightful, very honest and very intriguing answers to those questions and I think people will find his interview very compelling. He is a fascinating individual to look at, very expressive, and has a unique take on the world. He really provided some real clues into his state of mind at that time and where he is right now.
The Hollywood Film
I felt that the Hollywood film did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of his story. They really did a very nice job in terms of dealing with the mental illness and the struggles that he and his family went through. And how devastating the illness is, to not only the individual but also the loved ones around him, and his recovery.
Our documentary will be a real complement to the Hollywood film. They obviously made choices with a certain storytelling device that utilized certain fictionalizations of Dr. Nash's story, but within their story line, I think they did a really admirable job at telling his story.
Support for the Mentally Ill — chapter 9
Working on this film really opened my eyes to issues of mental illness that I had not been aware of before, and also altered my conceptions of mental illness. There are a lot of misconceptions about schizophrenia and I shared some of them before coming onto this project. I learned a lot in that respect. One of the things that really struck me is how important the community is to individuals who are suffering from mental illness. The support of loved ones, be it family, friends, colleagues -- and the tolerance of those individuals within families, within communities, is so important in helping them to hopefully deal with their illness and in some cases overcome them.
Doing the Story Justice — chapter 10
The most challenging part with any film is really trying to find the core of the story and supporting the story visually and emotionally. We had a wonderful story here, a very compelling story of a man who had great promise — a genius who had the world in front of him who was struck by a great tragedy and descends into thirty years of devastating mental illness and then rises and is recognized for his work through the Nobel Prize. It's just a wonderful heart-warming ending to this story, and trying to do that justice, trying to capture that... I think that film has a real power in that it conveys information but it can also capture emotion. And I hope that we do that with this film.