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THE ARRIVAL OF 21 LAPS - Can A One-Time Family Movie Impresario And His Hardworking Team Change The Storytelling Model? Stranger Things Have Happened.

Posted By Spike Friedman, Thursday, November 2, 2017

While I was binging the first season of Stranger Things last year, along with the rest of America, I had a moment. Maybe you had it too. During the show’s credits, a producer’s name jumped out at me. “Shawn Levy? The guy who directed Night at the Museum and Real Steel?” A quick IMDB search revealed that yes, not only did Levy produce Stranger Things, a sci-fi phenomenon that is getting people to rethink how television series are structured, but he was also a producer of last year’s Best Picture nominee Arrival, and his production company 21 Laps is shepherding an ambitious slate of projects through development. 

So in sitting down with him and his 21 Laps producing partners, Dan Levine and Dan Cohen, I wanted to know how a guy went from making big, mainstream family features to being a standard bearer for the disappearing, artist-driven studio feature and event miniseries. What I found was a trio of producers who don’t just love movies (boy, do they ever) but also love the work it takes to get great movies to the screen. From finding compelling material, to assembling the right team, to lining up finance and distribution, 21 Laps blew me away with their ability to do the hard work required to bring challenging material to big audiences. But it didn’t start that way.

21 Laps started almost 12 years ago, in the aftermath of the success of Levy’s Night at the Museum. The idea initially from Fox, still 21 Laps’ home studio, was for it to be a standard filmmaker-driven production company; they’d get first dibs on Levy’s work going forward, and he’d have a space on their lot. The company operated like this for a couple of years, supporting Levy’s work but not yet finding its larger creative groove. That changed when Levy brought in Dan Cohen and Dan Levine, now inevitably referred to around 21 Laps HQ as The Dans.

Producer Dan Levine (center) on the set of Arrival with fellow producer
Aaron Ryder (left) and director Denis Villenueve. Photo by Jan Thijs

The trio coalesced in a matter of weeks. Levine came on first, meeting in the narrow slot between a Real Steel motion capture session and Levy’s daughter’s school play. “[Levine’s] was the most cursory interview for literally the president position at a company,” says Levy, “but I had an instant good vibe.” Cohen came on just a week later. At the time, “I was focused in the genre world, working on indie horror films, and at first, looking at 21 Laps, there was really no overlap,” Cohen recalls. “But I’d heard such great things about Shawn and when I met him, I just wanted to work here.” The Dans themselves immediately bonded over their idiosyncratic taste in classic films. “That eclecticism was the key,” Levy says, looking back. “That range of tonality was the key to what we three aspire towards.”

Unlike many of the other production companies that have had success making filmmaker-driven films over the past decade, 21 Laps has done so with medium- to large-scale movies. Films like Arrival and the upcoming Kin and The Darkest Minds live in a space that’s bigger than indies but smaller than tentpoles; these films used to represent the bulk of what Hollywood produced, but it’s a space that has been increasingly squeezed across the industry. Even something like Stranger Things has an old-school, mini-series vibe, sharing more DNA with classic long-form events like 1984’s V than with most modern sci-fi TV series. Levine admits, “They’re hard. You look at Arrival or Stranger Things, they all had their disbelievers, people who passed.” But he credits the team’s relentlessness for getting them across the finish line. “It was our sheer conviction and passion for what our filmmakers were doing.”

Walk it like you own it; Levine, Levy and Cohen on the Fox Studios Lot.

“There were two things I realized early on when we started working together,” says Levy. “We all were truly passionate about movies, and we all are grinders. We work really hard. It’s a deep passion and belief, and the discipline is there to back it up with persistent, gritty hard work. That’s the culture of this company.”

 “And we can take a punch,” Levine adds. “You rarely get a good incoming phone call, or a good incoming email. Every time you pick up the phone there’s some hammer dropping. You gotta be able to get your heads together and go, ‘Okay we had this setback. How are we gonna go forward?’”

In describing the process that it took for Arrival to go from a critically renowned short story to a commercially successful Best Picture nominee, directed by the heir to the Blade Runner franchise, the grittiness of the trio comes through. “We pitched it,” Cohen smiles, “and it was amazing. The screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, pitched it with note cards, each with pictures that he laid out in a circle. It was a truly awesome pitch. Of course, no one bought it.”

“There were years when Arrival didn’t look like it had a path to production,” Levy remembers. “So you’d better love it. Because it’s gonna knock you down everyday.”

Since Heisserer’s passion for the project was every bit equal to 21 Laps’, the team continued working together, getting the script right on spec. “That was the moment,” Levine declares. “We had a suspicion it might not get set up as a pitch. We might need a script. It was a huge moment when Eric stepped up and said, ‘I’ll write it on spec.’” Levy points out this is not unique at 21 Laps. They have a number of projects that are sufficiently execution-dependent that they’re unlikely to be sold as ideas. But they readily keep the development work going in-house, gambling with their time and energy that partners will bite on a final product. 

Shawn Levy (left) on the set of Stranger Things with
showrunners  and creators Matt and Ross Duffer.
Photo by Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix.

The recruitment of Denis Villeneuve to direct was another signal moment for the group. As Cohen explains, “We were just in the process of getting [author Ted] Chiang to say ‘okay’ [to giving us the rights]. Ted, to his credit, had this beloved short story and looked at our credits at the time and he goes, ‘Convince me.’ After all, Eric had written only horror. We as a company had almost only made family films. And one of the key factors was that we said, ‘We’re gonna send you a movie. This is the guy we want to direct it.’ And we sent him (Villeneuve’s 2011 feature) Incendies. This is four years before Denis directed our movie.” 

Levy lays it out: “When we gave Incendies to Ted, we didn’t have Denis committed. When we gave Denis the short story, we didn’t have the rights. It really was that crazy producorial juggling act. You have to act like it’s real to have any chance of making it real. That’s what we do. Bet on the come.” Once they got the package together and everyone onboard, the financing fell into place, and there was effectively a bidding war for the distribution rights on the project. 

“The work had to be done internally for the lion’s share of the process,” Levy explains, “so that it could become so self-evident that studios wanted to acquire it.” Cohen’s even more sanguine on the journey that led to the film’s production. “What if we did sell that fantastic pitch? It probably would never have even gotten made. It was such a specific story and process that it had to stay singular in its vision.”  

What comes through in talking to Levy, Cohen and Levine is that 21 Laps’ ability to make filmmaker-driven, midsized features and culture-bending television comes from bringing the best of the indie film model to bear with studio-sized resources. “I get asked often now, ‘What is the 21 Laps brand?’” Levy admits. “I’m way less concerned with that answer than ‘What is the 21 Laps culture?’ And the culture of 21 Laps is ‘do the work.’ That is an indie model. You believe in the idea. You do the work to turn it into a movie. And you trust that the financing will arrive as a result of that hard work.”

Even with Arrival’s success, which culminated in a Best Picture nomination, Stranger Things is the project that definitively changed the company’s perception in Hollywood. “It started with Dan Cohen coming in and saying, ‘stop and read,’” recalls Levy. “He said it was possibly the best spec pilot he’d ever read. I read it, agreed, and we brought in the [Duffer] brothers. And at that point I had no idea whether anyone would want to make Stranger Things, but I knew it was awesome. And I knew we wanted to help. So I told the brothers straight up, ‘Let’s link arms, let me help, let us help bring this into the world.’” Cohen lovingly recalls another set of pitch materials. “We had the pilot obviously,” he says, “but the Duffers had a lookbook that looked like an old, faded Stephen King paperback, which ultimately became the basis for our one-sheet. And they did a mood reel that was very cool, and it used Survive, who they ended up hiring to do their amazing score. You would sit with them and in 20 minutes, they pitched you exactly what you’ve seen.”

For the group, the strength of the Duffer Brothers’ vision on the show made pitching it a dream even if sometimes it was a tough sell. “They had the show in their soul from the get go,” says Levy, “but they were these unknown brothers, so it was a long shot. Unknown showrunner/directors with kid leads on a show that isn’t for kids? Conventional wisdom says that’s poison.” The producers didn’t fault the instincts of the many potential backers who passed on the project. But they held out hope.

“We always believed Netflix was the perfect platform,” says Levy, “because the brothers from day one said, ‘We don’t want this to be a typical series. We want this to be an eight-hour movie.’ So then we went with the Duffers and we pitched Netflix. And the next morning, they bought the whole season. It’s worth saying that there are very few buyers who are ready to bet to this extent on brand new television creators the way Netflix has on the Duffers.”

Producers Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen at the Stranger Things Premiere. Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision

Truthfully, when it came to putting together Stranger Things, things sometimes felt appropriately strange. There was no studio. The showrunners were inexperienced, but had Levy, a successful studio director, shooting episodes alongside them. The room in general was kept very small. “This ride with Stranger Things has been truly gratifying because of the creative team,” Levy says. “Those of us who actually make the show are an inordinately small group, so everyone does the work.”

This small team allows Stranger Things to maintain a unique feel. “It’s almost like a book,” says Cohen. “Each episode is a chapter and it feels like these paperback books these guys read as kids.” Levy puts it another way: “The Duffer Brothers’ instincts are the law of Stranger Things. They want to do what they feel is right. And as a result we’ve got this, now, quite singular show. I think season 2 will be equally renegade in its refusal to follow rules.” That respect goes both ways. “Making Stranger Things with Shawn and Dan [Levine] has been a dream,” the Duffers told Produced By. “From day one—long before the show was a hit—they believed in our vision. What we love about the company is that Shawn is a director first, so he’s extraordinarily protective of a director’s vision. He’s both our shield and our collaborator.”

The success of Stranger Things has been enormous. The October debut of season 2 is a tentpole by any other name, with some movies even moving off of the release date to accommodate it. But again, like Arrival, it’s a midsized production. It wasn’t initially a massive investment for Netflix like Adam Sandler’s slate of films or David Ayer’s upcoming feature, Bright. It’s filmmaker-driven, a throwback, and it hit huge because it was shepherded by a production company that cares first and foremost about the visions of its artists.

Now that they have redefined themselves as a producer of filmmaker-driven work, a place where artists can come to expand how they are perceived by the industry and the audience alike, 21 Laps has hit its stride. While I was surprised to see Levy’s name on Stranger Things and Arrival, going forward it’s no surprise that he’s connected to a wide range of interesting projects in the pipeline, from the aforementioned Kin to Kodachrome with Ed Harris. In speaking to the future of the company, Cohen puts it best: “Stranger Things came out of nowhere. That was new terrain for us. So we have to keep that hunger.” He pauses a moment, then clarifies, smiling, “I think we want to keep doing whatever we want with whomever we want.”

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