Although Shawn Levy has had great success directing movies such as the Night At The Museum franchise, Real Steel, Date Night, Cheaper By The Dozen and The Internship, even turning a little more serious in the very fine dramedy This Is Where I Leave You a couple of years ago, he is most excited these days about his production company 21 Laps Entertainment.
With the success of the new film Arrival, which overperformed at the boxoffice when it opened on November 11, and the out-of-the-box hit status of the first season Netflix series Stranger Things, the company now has two projects potentially crashing both the Oscar and Emmy races, in addition to a whole new re-set for Levy and his partners Dan Levine and Dan Cohen. They sounded like they had just won the lottery when I sat down with them over Labor Day at the Telluride Film Festival where Arrival was just taking off after a smash 12 minute ovation in Venice. The Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner starring film has grossed $43 million domestically in just its first ten days and earned strong awards buzz.
As for 21 Laps, after the initial success of Night At The Museum Levy was offered his own company which was designed to develop movies for him to direct, commercial popcorn pictures like those he had been doing, but at some point their emphasis and enthusiasm changed when they produced the 2013 two-and-half-million dollar Sundance indie hit The Spectacular Now. “It was huge. I don’t care if that movie grossed a dollar, the value of that in the evolution of 21 Laps is everything because that was the first disruptor,” said Levy. “It was the disruption of people’s assumptions, and so suddenly with Spectacular Now we were getting an influx of things, Arrival being one, Stranger Things being another.”
For Levy, even though he recently signed on to direct the movie version of Uncharted based on the Play Station video game series, these days producing is where his heart seems to be. “The one thing producing has given me is it feeds me creatively in such a variety of ways that it’s allowed me to be more patient on the directing front. I am saying ‘no’ a lot more, because for instance I was free to direct some Stranger Things episodes. I found such inspiration in that. I have been deeply inspired working with (Arrival director) Denis Villeneuve, and just getting to collaborate with different voices,” he said while pointing out that the taste of 21 Laps has broadened way beyond just the family tentpole comedies the industry was perhaps expecting.
In the case of Arrival, Leivne says they met with a horror writer, Eric Heisserer, who also had written an emotional Paul Walker-starring movie called Hours. At the end of their meeting Heisserer, as he was literally walking out the room, casually mentioned a book of sci-fi short stories by Ted Chiang. The partners got the book and
came upon “Story Of Your Life ” (also the original title of the movie). “It was brilliant, a brilliant short story, and two things go through your mind: This is amazing, and please let the rights be available. PLEASE let the rights be available,” said Levine, who had to track down the author and at the same time began meetings with Villeneuve in 2011 about possibly doing something, this before the Canadian director had even done Prisoners. He did indicate he was interested in the sci-fi genre, and was a bit of a hot commodity since he had been nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar (Incendies).
“But literally at this point we did not have the rights to the short story, we did not have a firm commitment from Villeneuve, but we put it all together, and it has become Arrival,” said Levy. Levine added that “Story Of Your Life” was a title they all loved but Villeneuve felt it wouldn’t work on the film, so they began thinking about simpler titles of critically acclaimed hit movies like The Martian, Interstellar, Gravity. Thus they came upon Arrival, which works on more than one level.
Right from Venice, where they were floored by the reaction and then Telluride and Toronto, they have known Arrival, which is a Paramount domestic release and Sony internationally, was something special. “I will tell you this anecdote, because every once in a while you meet someone out of the business and they’re like what does a producer do?, ” said Levy. “Often what a producer does is exactly this kind of thing, which is to manhandle disparate elements in the hope they come together in some magical coalescence,and seeing the reaction to this movie feels very gratifying, that this is what a producer does.”
Stranger Things came about after Levy shut down his separate TV production deal with 20th Television to focus on movies. He still has the ABC Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing on the air. But as it turns out this development let the team free to take any potential TV project anywhere they wanted. Cohen said they started playing around with a couple of pilots and started to learn TV when they came across brothers Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer who had done the film Hidden. They wanted to tell this supernatural true story about the disappearance of a young boy, and wanted essentially to make a film that was eight hours long that could have additional seasons but be viewed as a movie. That led to Netflix.
“It was the first network we pitched, and it was sold by the next morning. We knew we were making something good, but in our wildest aspirations we could not dream of what it would become. We just hoped people would find it,” said Levy. He directed two of the episodes of the show, which landed last summer, and the series will come back on the air with a second season next year at some point. He said he was even getting questions shouted to him about it on the Venice press line. That is how quickly it has taken off internationally.
Opening for the Christmas holidays is the Bryan Cranston/James Franco comedy Why Him?, from writer/director John Hamburg through Fox where their deal is concentrated. They have another comedy, Table 19 with Anna Kendrick, set for a January release with Fox Searchlight, and Levy himself hopes to direct a biopic about the late music promoter Bill Graham for the studio where a majority of his films have been made (including the Night At The Museum trilogy). Levy is done with the Museum franchise, but the company has plans for a Chinese remake.
Of The Graham biopic he said Fox’s Emma Watts sparked to it right away. “She is in the room and said yeah, just like that. So they’ll invest in stuff that we believe in, but when there’s situations like Arrival, or I can name four or five others, where they say, ‘you know, we’re just not seeing it’ or ‘it’s not the right film for us at the moment’. I made Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day at Disney because it didn’t fit with Fox at the time. They let us go and make stuff if it doesn’t make sense for them, and to me that’s a remarkable partnership. I want to service them first and foremost because they have been great to us. They pay our bills. They always get first dibs.”
Among other upcoming projects for Fox from 21 Laps is YA adaptation Darkest Minds from Kung Fu Panda director Jennifer Yuh which shoots early next year. There is also Kodachrome from a script by Jonathan Tropper (who wrote Levy’s This Is Where I Leave You) that will be directed by Mark Raso, with Ed Harris, Elizabeth Olsen and Jason Sudeikis. A Damien Chazelle-scripted project called The Undergraduate could also go at Fox.
As for the change at the top of the studio Levy is just fine with it. “I love Tom Rothman. I love Jim Gianopulos. I had some great years with those guys, and they were champions, and we had a lot of fun together, but I have known Stacey since she gave me Big Fat Liar, my first movie at Universal, and then we made Real Steel together. I am very close with Emma, I’m also very close with Stacey, and though it is a moment of shifting sands, as they say, it’s all feeling pretty good and certainly I am comfortable in those relationships.” He also noted they are working with Rothman at Sony on a potential remake of Starman, which earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 1982 but had the misfortune to come out the same time as E.T.:The Extra Terrestrial. (Levy will be directing the aforementioned Uncharted also for Sony and Rothman).
And at New Line, 21 Laps has the Ice Cube and Charlie Day R-Rated comedy Fist Fight coming out February 17. In development at Warners is the feature adaptation of Sesame Street, to which 21 Laps holds the rights. Busy guys.
“I do believe there’s that throw quote: ‘In the end you only hit what you aim at’, ” says Levy on that rare day at Telluride when all three partners were in the same town at the same time. “And we have our sights set on certain goals , and now it feels like we’re starting to hit them. Between Arrival and Stranger Things, it’s like we wanted to be a company that made great things in a broad range of tone. From scratch. Things we developed, that we found, and that we nurtured, and no one’s doing the work for us. We want to be in it with our collaborators, and that’s how we do the job, so in the end we do hit what we aim at.”