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AT THE MOVIES

A new vantage point

Screenwriter Barry Levy is enjoying the view from the top.

February 21, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times

BARRY LEVY could not get read. He had been kicking around town for years, working as a development executive for an animation studio, but the aspiring screenwriter couldn't get anything of his own made.

Yet on the strength of one spec script, the multiple-perspective assassination thriller, "Vantage Point," now a major motion picture starring Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox and Forest Whitaker opening in theaters Friday, Levy is on the verge of becoming Hollywood's next big thing, working on several high-profile projects including Warner Bros.' upcoming "Kung Fu," based on the 1970s television series.

"That's the greatest thing about Hollywood," says "Vantage Point" producer Neal Moritz. "Nobody knew who he was; he writes this great script, got it out on a Wednesday afternoon and by Thursday morning, he had sold it for a lot of money. We called his agent, 'I'll offer you a million bucks but the offer's off the table in 10 minutes.' Then everybody knew who Barry Levy was."

But the 35-year-old Levy laughs at the notion of being a screenwriting sensation: "Believe me, my hairy back excluded, if I could have been a stripper that wound up writing 'Juno,' I mean, there's something great about that story. I remember when I was in college, meeting John Singleton, and I just loved his story. There was no story for me. 'Nebbishy balding Jewish guy writes a script.' That's a real sale."

After attaining history and psychology degrees at Washington University in St. Louis, Levy attended the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. He went from there to assisting the head of Canada-based animation studio Nelvana. Within a year, the 24-year-old had become a top development executive there. But he wasn't doing what he wanted. At 27, he walked off the executive path to make his own films. With a few scripts in hand, he hustled for direct-to-video work for a few years, earning credits on little-seen films such as "Black Irish."

"The first nine jobs I got as a screenwriter totaled less than the Writers Guild minimum for a half-hour script [about $21,000]," he says. "Never again, I was so tired of writing what other people wanted me to write. [I thought,] 'You know what? I'm going to tell the story, "The Hero's Journey," Joseph Campbell, but it's a relay race.' "

Buoyed by that determination, he finished his original screenplay for "Vantage Point," which garnered attention for its grafting a "Rashomon" structure with its shifting points of view onto a conventional political mystery-thriller. Set in Spain, the story begins from the perspective of Sigourney Weaver's TV news producer, who witnesses the assassination attempt on the life of the U.S. president, played by William Hurt. Then, the same scene is replayed from the perspective of Quaid's Secret Service agent, slowly revealing more details about the events that are unfolding. (Sort of like what would happen if ABC's "Lost" were condensed into a roughly 90-minute feature.)

"I always wondered, if there had been someone on that grassy knoll, what was their story?" Levy offers. "I was really fascinated with different points of view." It was the beginning of a new chapter in Levy's life. "Three months later, I'm engaged, I've bought a house, I've written a script, [my manager] sends it to a couple of agencies on a Friday, and by Monday I'm at United Talent Agency."

Keya Khayatian, who with Charlie Ferraro represents Levy at UTA, says, "If I get a Paul Haggis script or Guillermo Arriaga script, I know they're going to be good. When you read a new writer and a script of that caliber, it's really exciting. It comes out of nowhere."

Levy's manager, Stephen Marks of Evolution Entertainment, says, "Several studios were interested. I was told that an executive at Warners was literally in the car driving to the studio head to enable him to surpass the set amount to bid [when it sold]."

"It's very hard to find original voices in Hollywood, especially with good characters, plot, unique ideas," Moritz adds. "It's hard to put them all together. That's probably why you find so many writers on so many movies. Barry's the only writer on this movie."

For Levy, the challenge will be to sustain his current momentum. He had been hired to work on several major studio projects, including the Tom Clancy adaptation "Rainbow Six" and another conspiracy thriller, "Last Man," but both of those films are on hold for the time being. He's more confident about the chances for his screenplay for DreamWorks' "The Button Man: The Killing Game," based on a graphic novel by Arthur Ranson and John Wagner.

"I think it's like one in 14 scripts that get purchased, that ever get made," Levy says. According to the Writers Guild, studios develop about 1,500 scripts each year and actually make about 250. "So if I bat .300, I've made it to the big leagues and I'm doing well."

Asked before the "Vantage Point" premiere how hot Levy is, Marks says, "The smart-aleck answer would be 'Ask me next week.' But whether or not this movie does well, people who know Barry Levy know he's super-smart, he cares about every project he takes, he'll never let a buyer down."

"This town is voracious," says "Kung Fu" producer John Jashni. "It's supply and demand, and the talent he possesses is a scarce resource. When someone is identified as having the goods, everyone wants to access that."

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