His finest hour

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.

Meanwhile, Peirce and Benioff have teamed up for a screenplay based on a true story about small-time New York gangster Chris Paciello, who hooked up with Madonna pal Ingrid Casares to own two of the hottest clubs in Miami Beach. They are currently negotiating with DreamWorks.

Peirce said she read several of Benioff's screenplays before asking for a meeting, citing his ability to write small, intimate movies like "25th Hour" and then turn around and create a picture on a much grander scale.

"He writes wonderful human characters you can identify with and has wonderful structure," she said. "That combination is so rare in screenwriting."

To Jeff Robinov, president of domestic production for Warner Bros., which has signed Benioff for two movies, Benioff's screenplays "have heart and theme and great characters and real emotion, and he's a good storyteller."

A visit from Spider-Man

Before his Hollywood journey began, Benioff was a self-described "snotty New York novelist guy." He went to Dartmouth and received a master's degree in Irish literature from Trinity College in Dublin, where he wrote his thesis on Samuel Beckett. From there it was off to UC Irvine for a master's degree in creative writing, where he wrote "The 25th Hour" as his thesis.

Living in Southern California, show-biz buzz was unavoidable. At parties, he would tell people he was a writer. "Movies or TV?" they would ask. When he said he was a novelist, they'd often reply, "Fiction or nonfiction?" "It happened so often," Benioff recalled, "it wasn't funny."

He was teaching freshman composition at UCI to support himself when, in 2000, Spider-Man himself swooped in.

Tobey Maguire was looking for a film that he could not only star in, but also make his debut as a producer. His management company sent him a pre-publication version of "25th Hour." "I read it, and really liked it a lot," Maguire said. "I told them definitely try to get this thing." Benioff and Maguire met in a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard. Benioff decided that if someone were going to mess with his book, it might as well be him.

Maguire was skeptical that a novelist could turn out a usable screenplay, but Benioff told him he didn't have much to lose giving him first crack at the script -- he came cheap. All it cost was the Writers Guild of America minimum, $62,000. But that was enough for Benioff to quit teaching and devote himself full time to writing. The first-time screenwriter had no trouble with the slash and burn so often required to turn a book into a movie. "The book is out there as my writing," Benioff said. "I don't need to be absolutely faithful. I cut characters, I cut scenes. I was ruthless."

Three months later, Benioff turned in his draft. "I was floored," Maguire said. "I remember reading it and talking to a couple other people who were producers and saying, 'Wow, we don't need another writer. This guy is the real deal.' "

At the end of last year, Benioff's agent sent the script to Spike Lee (the William Morris Agency represents both of them). "I thought it was a very good story," said Lee. "I was thinking there were a lot of good roles here that should be able to get a great ensemble cast."

When Disney decided to back the film, Lee called Benioff. "Mickey Mouse is doing our movie," he said. The $15-million film is being distributed by Disney's Touchstone Pictures.

"The 25th Hour" tells the story of dope dealer Monty Brogan's (Edward Norton) last day of freedom before he heads to prison. He and his best friends, bond trader Frank Slattery (Barry Pepper) and teacher Jakob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) follow him through this journey. Monty tries to reconnect with his father, while wondering if his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) is the one who sold him out to police.

Because of his "Spider-Man" commitments, Maguire dropped plans to act in the movie. Norton took his place. The "25th Hour" screenplay was passed around among directors and studio executives and became Benioff's entree to Hollywood.

The script got him a meeting with Robinov, then Warner Bros. Pictures executive vice president. He pitched his idea for "The Iliad." This was Benioff's first pitch meeting, and he went in with more than a writer's usual insecurity. "Jeff's yawning as I'm giving my pitch," he recalled. "He's bored. I'm inarticulate. He's going to throw me out of the office. After five minutes, he looked like he was ready to fall asleep."

Benioff couldn't have been more wrong. "It was like he'd been thinking about it for 20 years," Robinov said.

Turns out, he'd been thinking about it even longer. When Benioff was a little boy, his mother was bedridden with a bad back. Benioff would sit with her while she read him "The Iliad." "Hearing it from your mother when everything a mother says is so holy.... This was the first time literature or art affected me emotionally. Hector and Achilles resided in my mind from that point on as the epitome of heroes. These were my superheroes."

Ten days after the meeting, the deal for "Iliad" was cut. A couple of weeks later, he sold "Stay" to Regency. Maguire had read the script. "I couldn't believe it was by the same writer [as "25th Hour"] because they're very, very different films in tone but with great character work, great honesty," he said.

After Benioff turned in his draft of "Troy," Robinov asked him what he wanted to do next. "For Whom the Bell Tolls," he said. "It's sort of this dream moment for a screenwriter. The head of a studio saying, 'Pick your book.' "

Even with studio executives asking for his services, Benioff remains insecure. "I always dread I'll screw up," Benioff said. "I think you can have some success, but you always know you're judged by the last thing you write. If anything, it's more profound now. Before there was very little to lose."

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