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His finest hour

Rejected many times as a novelist, prolific screenwriter David Benioff has to get used to the word 'yes.'

December 02, 2002|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

David Benioff once submitted a short story about a computer virus to a well-regarded literary magazine. The editor wrote back, "You have a bright future ... at Microsoft." Benioff didn't even bother sending out his first novel. His second try was rejected by 34 publishers -- 20 of them in a single day.

He spent two years writing his next novel. Fourteen publishers turned that one down. He found luck with the 15th, which offered him a $7,500 advance -- not much, but at least it made him a published novelist.

These days, a $7,500 advance wouldn't even be a house payment for the 32-year-old writer. Benioff has very quickly gone from a guy who couldn't give his books away to one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood, selling scripts for close to $2 million with myriad filmmakers and studios bidding for his services. The first of his films, the suspense drama "The 25th Hour," based on Benioff's novel and screenplay and directed by Spike Lee, opens Dec. 19 in Los Angeles and New York.

Benioff's odyssey is the kind of true-life fairy tale that stokes the dreams of striving writers. It's the kind of tale that's particular to Hollywood, where success seems to feed on itself. In the 2 1/2 years since Benioff sold "25th Hour" to Disney, he has cut deals for five other screenplays and is on the verge of a sixth. He is involved in projects with such well-known directors as Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"), Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "8 Mile") and Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm"). In the meantime, his literary ambitions have not been forgotten: He has a contract for two novels and a collection of short stories.

After 10 years working as a disc jockey in Wyoming, a high school teacher in Brooklyn and a bouncer in San Francisco, Benioff finds his newfound fame and fortune sweet. "No doubt I'm a competitive guy," said Benioff, a former high school wrestler. "So many people say no to you as a writer, and there are so few yeses. I hate losing."

He used to live in an apartment in Santa Monica, next to a home for emotionally troubled men. Not anymore. Seven months ago he moved into a house with a swimming pool in Benedict Canyon where he lives with his dog, a boxer named Murphy. He calls it "the house that 'Stay' bought," referring to the screenplay he sold for $1.8 million that David Fincher ("Seven") has signed on to direct.

Take a wrong step off the tiny patio of Benioff's home and you'll slide into a ravine. Benioff points across the canyon to the frame of a mansion that Microsoft founder Paul Allen is building and a house with a Spanish tile roof that once belonged to Rudolph Valentino. Benioff has turned a bedroom into his office, where he writes from 10 p.m. until 3 or 4 a.m. five days a week. A poster of the Fellini film "Notti di Cabiria" hangs above his desk. On the couch is a present his grandmother made, a needlepoint-pillow version of the cover of "25th Hour," showing a night scene on New York's East 14th Street.

Suddenly, Benioff has enough money to do just about anything he wants. "I'm not neurotic about it," he said. "I love having money. I love having a nice house. I get to live here and have a dog and look at the canyon."

Low key, with a dry sense of humor, Benioff still peppers his conversation with literary references. He runs, lifts weights and favors a hip, unshaven look (People magazine named him one of the nation's 50 most eligible bachelors last year).

Benioff's success isn't based on any proven track record in Hollywood, so when "Stay" sold recently in a daylong auction, Variety said the price "caused jaws to drop." Echoed the Hollywood Reporter: "Indeed, when David Benioff's 'Stay' sold for $1.8 million this fall, what generated talk wasn't its story line but the fact that anyone was spending that kind of money at all."

What seems to have impressed filmmakers and studio execs about Benioff is his range, his ability to take on anything from a Greek classic to a mystery and turn it into his own. Benioff's current projects include:

"Stay," to be directed by Fincher ("Panic Room"), a thriller about a psychologist at an Ivy League college trying to prevent a student from committing suicide.

"Troy," a retelling of "The Iliad," to be directed by Petersen and starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Filming is expected to begin in April.

"Alpha," a military/political thriller that will be directed by Forster. DreamWorks paid $1.25 million for the rights and will pay $500,000 more if it's produced.

An adaptation of George Pelecanos' mystery "Right as Rain," which Hanson will direct. Benioff is receiving more than $1 million for his script.

A remake of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," based on Ernest Hemingway's novel about the Spanish Civil War (the original starred Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman), for which he will be paid more than $1 million.

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