From reward to risk

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."

In 2005, the filmmaker wrote Chabon a "fan letter" and invited the author to breakfast where Thurber outlined his adaptation ideas. "The novel has what I was calling 'a four-pointed love rhombus,' " Thurber said. "It's beautiful in a novel but inefficient in a film. My radical plan was to re-create it as a triangle. That would give it its energy."

From there, Thurber spent nearly six months pulling together a "spec" script -- that is, one written without any commitment from Chabon. "I said, 'If you dig that, let's go do it,' " said Thurber, an easygoing guy with the kind of square jaw associated with lumberjacks and Canadian mounted policemen. " 'If you don't dig it, please say so. I'm a big fan, and I can't wait for whatever you write next.' I wasn't trying to get the job."

Chabon (who declined to be interviewed for this story) ultimately gave Thurber the option with no strings attached. Screenwriter August may have been one of the only people in town who wasn't surprised to discover that Thurber -- the guy who used to retype his screenplays and care for his elderly dog -- had won over the Pulitzer winner. He pointed out that Thurber's father is professional lecturer Marshall Thurber, a kind of motivational speaker's motivational speaker who counts Tony Robbins among his students.

"Rawson's a closer," August said. "He's persistent. Not in a scary way. But he's going to stick it out for 100 rounds."

The festival effect

PostPRODUCTION on the modestly budgeted film ("It cost less than the catering on 'Transformers,' " is all Thurber will let on) wasn't finished in time for last year's Sundance deadline, and it had to sit, color-completed and yet unseen, for the better part of a year before it could try to get accepted to this year's festival. Still, its inclusion will play an important part in "Mysteries' " acquisition and commercial prospects. "The blessing of a festival can be the difference between a movie getting shown in the world or not," London said. "We held out for a long time to get in. It's a huge stroke of luck."

The filmmakers also hope that "Mysteries' " Sundance pedigree will ameliorate its current renown as the film responsible for pitting the outraged citizenry of Pennsylvania's second-biggest city against Miller, Britain's hottest ingenue export. Angry locals and newspaper editorials rebuked the actress and paparazzi invaded the movie's location shoots after she complained about the city's lack of glamour and jokingly changed the first part of "Pittsburgh" to a rhyming four-letter word in an interview with Rolling Stone.

Although Thurber hasn't been writing lately -- he's been a regular presence on the picket line in front of Paramount studios in Hollywood -- the writer-director is amped up for his next gig. And come the resolution of the writers strike, he's ready to cast the central role for his new project, an adaptation of the '80s TV show "Magnum, P.I." for Universal.

Thurber, however, is already advising Tom Selleck fans to adjust their expectations: "At the first meeting I had, I said, 'Here are the rules: no cameos, no short shorts, no mustaches. The aloha shirt thing for sure. It's not ironic "Starsky & Hutch," and it's not self-serious like "Miami Vice." ' "

Reminded that "Magnum" would have been the more logical follow-up to "Dodgeball," Thurber struck an appropriately indie maverick tone, placing his moviemaking ambitions within a kind of "I'm going to see if this works until I find out it can't" intellectual framework.

"I love a lot of different genres," Thurber said. "And when it comes down to it, I just want to do what I want to do. I imagine that if 'Mysteries of Pittsburgh' is received warmly and 'Magnum' does what it should do, that all doors will be open.

"That's not to say I will begin a reign of enlightened world domination. But rather, that I will less often have to explain why I do something. I'll just do it."

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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