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MOVIES : THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

From reward to risk

On the heels of 'Dodgeball,' Rawson Marshall Thurber invests his capital in an indie.

January 20, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

A funny thing happened to Rawson Marshall Thurber en route to becoming just another film school-educated, underemployed Hollywood hopeful no one ever heard of.

In 2003, the self-described "sports nerd" and "comedy dork" wrote a winking, shaggy dog sports comedy called "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" with lead roles written with Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller in mind. By Thurber's recollection, every studio in town "passed on it twice." But he somehow sold "Dodgeball" to Fox with himself attached as director and landed his dream cast. Upon release, the movie stunned industry observers by besting Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' "The Terminal" during the films' opening weekend in 2004 before going on to take in $114 million domestically.

Suddenly, the San Francisco-born writer-director went from zero to hero (well, sort of). "There were all these offers for me to do romantic comedies about competitive darts players. Or curling," he recalled. "I got seven competitive eating scripts."

But then another funny thing happened to Thurber en route to becoming the next Judd Apatow -- or at least, the next auteur of blow-Pepsi-out-your-nose-inducing, below-the-belt comedy. Against the advice of his agent ("He said: 'Capture the bouquet of this moment' -- do something that's very similar"), the 32-year-old followed up his "Dodgeball" success by making . . . a low-budget, independently financed art house drama.

His adaptation of Pulitzer-winning author Michael Chabon's first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," will premiere in competition tonight at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. "I guess it's the anti-follow-up," Thurber shrugged, biting into a croissandwich at a Hollywood diner days before leaving for North America's preeminent indie film fest. "It's a novel I have loved since I read it in '95. And I wanted to use whatever momentum, whatever juice I had, to make something that wouldn't have gotten made otherwise."

'Mysteries' casts a spell

In "Mysteries," protagonist Art Bechstein (played by Jon Foster) is the son of a mob money launderer who's confused about his family and his sexuality. The 23-year-old gets caught up in a love triangle with highly literate biker come jewelry thief Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) and his "splendid" girlfriend Jane Bellwether (Sienna Miller). Much of the action takes place in the main character's head and a handful of gay sex scenes are key plot points.

"Mysteries" producer Michael London (of "Sideways" fame) agreed to back the film on the strength of Thurber's "moving and original" adaptation of the book, banishing notions of him as "the 'Dodgeball' guy." Still, he put the writer-director's professional choices in perspective.

"So many other people in his position would just cash in," London said. "But the material meant so much to him, it tells you a lot about his character that he chose to do it."

Screenwriter John August ("Go," "Charlie's Angels") is no stranger to the boom and bust vagaries of Hollywood and tried his best to counsel Thurber -- who worked as his assistant for three years -- against adapting "Mysteries." "I probably actively dissuaded him four times," August said. "A script is a year of your life, and there's no guarantee it will become a movie.

"Rawson has always come to me for advice and rarely taken it. He understood the risk but was completely undeterred. That's how somebody gets a career in this business."

Viewed in terms of other self-made Hollywood successes, Thurber's career ascent seems more Brett Ratner than Paul Haggis -- a series of charmed, interlinked professional advancements kissed with randomness rather than the long, hard slog out of obscurity punctuated by hack jobs and false starts.

The short film Thurber wrote and directed while at USC, "Terry Tate: Office Linebacker" (about an over-ampled football player who tackles, trash-talks and generally terrorizes a group of office workers into increased productivity), was accepted at Sundance in 2000. But the short was pulled from the festival before it could screen -- Reebok bought the license to use "Terry Tate" as a TV commercial, and it was later shown during Super Bowl XXXVII.

Earning author's trust

TO even be able to adapt "Mysteries," Thurber had to persuade his literary hero Chabon to hand over the rights to his bestselling 1988 debut novel -- no small leap of faith considering that Thurber had never so much as written a dramatic scene and his highlight reel includes footage of a grizzled dodgeball coach throwing wrenches at his players' genitals.

"It's insane," Thurber said. "To this day, I do not know why he said yes. Give your book to the guy that made 'Dodgeball'? It truly does not make any sense."

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