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Like most directors after they have a hit movie, Shawn Levy started his own production company following the global success of “Night at the Museum” in 2006.
The company, 21 Laps, wasn’t just a status symbol proving Levy had made it in Hollywood. It also had a practical purpose – and would eventually lead to Netflix’s biggest new hit of the year, “Stranger Things.”
Several years ago as 21 Laps got off the ground and Levy came up with his next film, the Steve Carell/Tina Fey comedy “Date Night,” he had a home base to immediately make it a reality.
“I had the idea with my wife over dinner, then I had a company that allowed me to go into work the next day, work out the story, hire a writer, package it with actors, and make it,” Levy recently told Business Insider.
Levy and 21 Laps have evolved since those early films to a point where Levy has transformed from a go-to director for all-audience family films into the head of a production company behind TV shows and movies that have found huge acclaim.
“Stranger Things” is 21 Laps’ most prized effort yet.
Made by virtual unknowns Matt and Ross Duffer, “Stranger Things,” in case you haven’t watched it, is about a young boy’s disappearance and the mother, friends, and police chief who try to find him with the help of a girl with telekinetic powers.
The project was piling up nos around the industry when it caught the attention of 21 Laps executives Dan Levine and Dan Cohen a few years back.
Though the company had modest success with the 2013 indie hit “The Spectacular Now,” it was still known in the business as the company for Levy’s own directing efforts.
But suddenly Levy needed a change. He had just released the comedies “This Is Where I Leave You” and “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb” back-to-back in 2014 and wanted to take a break from the director’s chair.
“I went into 2015 saying, I’m really operating at a slightly unhealthy pace and I want to force myself to have a little more patience,” Levy said. “So I started turning down more movies and it allowed me to focus on 21 Laps and literally be in the office with Dan and Dan and our junior executives and just be in the bloodstream of my company in a more engaged way. Then ‘Stranger Things’ came in the door.”
Levy saw how great the “Stranger Things” story was. He and the Duffer brothers built a strong relationship that culminated with Levy standing alongside the Duffers when they walked into Netflix to pitch the show.
But Levy’s involvement didn’t end when Netflix gave the green light. He took a hands-on producing role, which meant everything from getting on the phone and convincing Lucasfilm to let the series feature the Millennium Falcon in a scene to Levy coming on to direct two episodes at a crucial point in production.
“We only had a certain number of scripts, and it became clear that we did not have scripts ready for the second half of the season,” Levy said. “So I went to the Duffers and I said, ‘Guys, if you want, I’ll buy you some time. I’ll do [chapters] three and four, you go bury yourself in the writing.'”
Levy’s involvement didn’t just help the Duffers in finishing the writing of the season, but his visual style influenced how the Duffers shot the rest of the season.
“I wanted to do episodes in a way that felt consistent with their vision, but I definitely started moving the camera a lot more,” Levy said. “[The Duffers] came to me after a week of me shooting and they were like, ‘We’re watching your dailies, we f—ing love all of this camera movement. So we’re going to throw out our rule about static frames and we’re going to start emulating that camera movement.’ It’s why chapters five through eight, you see the evolution of the series.”
Now one of the most-watched shows on Netflix, which is getting a second season, has put 21 Laps in the crosshairs of filmmakers who want to make unique content. Levy admits submissions into the office are at an all-time high. But the company currently has a slew of other projects either finished or in production.
One of those is the upcoming award-season contender “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams as a linguist who is chosen by the military to assist in communicating with aliens who have just landed on earth.
Levy, along with Dan Levine and Dan Cohen, came across a collection of short stories by sci-fi writer Ted Chiang three years ago and found that the story they liked most, “Story of Your Life,” had never been optioned for a movie.
The 21 Laps machine went into motion, and hired screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Lights Out”) and director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”).
“Arrival” is now one of the most anticipated movies of the fall (playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival and then opening in theaters on November 11) and Adams is an early favorite to receive an Oscar nomination.
Levy admits he never considered directing “Arrival,” but he’s working on getting back to his features. Though he’s busy producing a pair of indies, “Kodachrome” and the sci-fi action movie “Kin,” he’s eyeing his own remake of the 1984 Jeff Bridges sci-fi romance movie “Starman” – or as Levy calls it, a “reimagined remake” (he agrees the term is as annoying as you likely think it is).
He’s also got his eye on a biopic on legendary rock promoter Bill Graham. But Levy admits both are far off in the distance. Right now he’s enjoying being a producer and expanding 21 Laps’ portfolio.
“21 Laps in its first 10 years was largely about finding, developing, and producing the movies that I directed and I think in this next chapter we will spend equal energy producing the movies of other filmmakers,” said Levy, who mentioned that he’s currently developing the next movie from “Whiplash” and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a little more confident as a director, but I think I know that I can be an effective and happy producer. I really love it and I really love making the thing, but I also really love seeing the outcome. It’s a different relationship to the material, but it’s one that I now know I really enjoy.”