Shawn Levy's 'Museum' debut had special effect on director

'I rejected it a half-dozen times because I was straight-up scared'

The first time 20th Century Fox offered Shawn Levy the job of directing "Night at the Museum," he passed. And the second time. And the third. And the fourth. And the fifth.

Levy had directed the 2003 family comedy "Cheaper by the Dozen" for Fox, and that had proved successful. But for a director who had never done a single visual effect, the idea of taking the reins of a big-budget, effects-driven comedy — the story of an American Museum of Natural History security guard (Ben Stiller) who discovers that the exhibits magically come to life after dark — was, frankly, terrifying.

"I rejected it a half-dozen times because I was straight-up scared," Levy, 46, remembered on a recent morning in his office on the Fox lot. "Finally, I said, 'If I don't make some bold gestures, I'll never know what I can do.'"

Originally conceived as a one-off, 2006's "Night at the Museum" went on to gross nearly $575 million worldwide, spawning a trilogy that has now come to a conclusion with "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb." The third film in the franchise — which brings the story to the British Museum in London — opened this past weekend to $17.3 million, less than the first two films but still strong enough to pull ahead of Sony Pictures' competing family film, a remake of the musical "Annie."

After years of development, the third "Night" film coalesced around the idea of saying goodbye. In "Secret of the Tomb," Stiller's character is struggling to accept that his college-age son is leaving the nest, even as the museum exhibits are facing their own possible demise. "The idea of letting go became the dominant theme," Levy said.

With the death in July of Robin Williams, who played Theodore Roosevelt throughout the three films, that theme, Levy said, "has become much more poignant."

"This movie was already about a farewell, and I genuinely didn't know how it would play in the aftermath of Robin's passing," Levy said. "I put it in front of some audiences two months after Robin's death, and I was relieved and moved at the extent to which they gave me the feedback that, while it was sad, it was a respectful, loving kind of sad."

For Levy, "Secret of the Tomb" caps a phenomenally busy year that also saw him direct September's dramedy "This Is Where I Leave You" — an adaptation of Jonathan Tropper's bestselling novel about a dysfunctional family that comes together after the father's death to sit shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning — and produce October's Disney comedy "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

"I could work a lot of years and not have a more frantic pace than this year," said Levy, who also has four daughters with his wife, Serena.

Despite his punishing schedule, Levy — who also has numerous projects in development, both large and small — radiates a restless, boyish, almost gee-whiz enthusiasm for filmmaking that's somewhat surprising to see in a director carrying the burden of a billion-dollar global franchise on his shoulders. Actor Owen Wilson, who has appeared in all three "Night at the Museum" films, marvels at Levy's stamina: "Shawn has really held on to his kid energy. You could imagine him at 80 and he'd still be youthful."

From early in life, Levy, who grew up in Montreal, Canada, displayed an unusual level of ambition and drive. "When I was 10 years old, I was taking a theater class, and I asked the teacher, 'What's the best university for theater?' " he recalled. "She said, 'Yale.' "

After graduating from Yale — where he cut his teeth directing a young Paul Giamatti in a production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" — Levy attended USC film school while supporting himself as an actor with parts on TV series such as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "21 Jump Street." (Of one of his earliest roles, in the 1987 schlockfest "Zombie Nightmare," the less said, the better. "I play a bad boy with Duran Duran-style long hair who throws a fistful of spaghetti in his mom's face," Levy said.)

Making his studio directing debut with 2002's "Big Fat Liar," Levy quickly found his groove in the family-comedy genre. Ever since, in films like "Real Steel," "Date Night" and "This Is Where I Leave You," he has never strayed far from the often-fractious relationships between flesh and blood.

"Without question, I have some dysfunctional family dynamics in my past: an early divorce of my parents when I was 3, remarriages, step-siblings, half siblings," he said. "All of that is at play in the movies."

Still, Levy's films have tended to be fairly light, mainstream-friendly affairs, which may partly explain why he's never been a critics' darling. Not that he seems particularly troubled by that. "If you live by metrics of applause elsewhere, that's not a road to inner happiness," he said. "I'm not a dark guy, so unsurprisingly I'm never going to be drawn to dark material."

Following the success of 2009's "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," Levy wasn't certain he wanted to return to the franchise. "As long as it was simply about a new museum, Ben and I weren't compelled to make it," he said. "We had drafts that went to the Louvre, drafts that went to Cairo. It was when we came up with this notion of 'the end' that it really had a reason to be."

Levy was in the editing room cutting the film together when he got a call from his agent that Williams — who had worked on "Secret of the Tomb" for three months, far more than on either of the previous films — had committed suicide.

"I had a very weird reaction," he said. "I got very emotional but also angry in disbelief. My agent told me that it would be less than half an hour before the news became public, so I called Ben. It was an intense, horrible day."

On the set, Levy hadn't seen signs of the profound depression that drove Williams to take his life. "I saw a guy who certainly was weary because he had just shot a full season of a TV show," Levy said. "But he was Robin. He was prepared. He said to me repeatedly, 'Let's make this the best of the three.'"

Indeed, throughout the trilogy, Williams had always lifted the spirits of those around him, said costar Ricky Gervais: "I remember doing the junket for the second movie with Robin. Everyone knows junkets are soul-destroying, but honestly, with Robin it was a joy. You'd just watch him do his thing."

For Levy, "Secret of the Tomb" represents saying goodbye to Williams and to the franchise that launched him into the studio-tentpole big leagues. But in another way, it opens him up to pursue new avenues, some of which — like "This Is Where I Leave You" — are outside of his usual wheelhouse. Among other things, he is currently developing "Forty Thieves," a new take on the Ali Baba folk tale, and a comedy about a grown-up Tinker Bell to star Melissa McCarthy.

"Most directors have their thing, and they do their thing," Levy said. "I didn't need to go do a $19-million, R-rated shiva movie like 'This Is Where I Leave You,' but I needed to for me. It was an opportunity to use different muscles. And now I know I love that."

josh.rottenberg@latimes.com

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