Shawn Levy on Netflix's 'Stranger Things,' a 'Real Steel' Sequel and His Secretive Alien Movie 'Arrival'
"The ground is shifting under our feet," says the founder of 21 Laps Entertainment as he weighs in on the sequel slump and what he'd say if 'Star Wars' came calling.
The story behind Shawn Levy's prolific 21 Laps Entertainment begins with a 5-year-old. Years ago, one of the Canadian director-producer's four daughters was in a school jog‑a‑thon, and Levy expected her to run fewer than 10 laps. But she kept going — all the way to 21. "I was on that sideline weeping with pride," says Levy, "but also [because of] something else: surprise that my idea of who my kid was was not the full picture."
So when Levy, 47, founded his film and television banner in 2005, he picked the name to challenge perceptions of who he was. At that point, he was known as the director of the now $1.4 billion Night at the Museum franchise. In the decade since, he has helmed more family fare like 2010's Date Night, 2011's Real Steel and 2013's The Internship, but he also has made the smaller dramedy This Is Where I Leave You and, as a producer, he's building an eclectic slate: His eight-episode 1980s horror series Stranger Things, starring Winona Ryder, debuted July 15 on Netflix; Denis Villeneuve's next film, Arrival, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, lands in awards season Nov. 11 via Paramount; the comedy Why Him? with Bryan Cranston and James Franco follows Dec. 25; Anna Kendrick's wedding dramedy Table 19 opens Jan. 20; and New Line's R-rated comedy Fist Fight, with Ice Cube, opens Feb. 17. Plus, 21 Laps and its staff of eight have a ton of projects in development, including a Starman reboot with Sony, Damien Chazelle's The Undergraduate at Fox and a biopic of concert promoter Bill Graham.
How do you measure success of a Netflix show?
You're speaking to a bit of a numbers whore because I made popcorn-y movies, and they make money. So, there's two metrics that I've gotten very used to: how loud the laughter is in the theater and what is that number opening weekend. With Netflix, people are watching in their homes, and they don't tell us numbers. There are reviews, but it's largely a cultural buzz metric — I suppose that will be the measure of it. We just want it to do well enough and be alive in the culture to a degree that we get the thrill of making several more seasons.
How did you end up working on Stranger Things?
It is to a large extent in my sweet spot in that it's very Spielberg-ian, Amblin-y, but it's also way creepier, way more genre. The Duffer brothers [the writers] came in, and within 10 minutes I knew that these were future major guys. They had a self-assurance that was self-evident. So, we pitched it to Netflix, and within 24 hours, we had the whole season bought. We decided that we would direct all of the episodes ourselves.
Did you expect people to binge watch this show?
Without question. It’s deeply addictive. I would read a script, give notes on the script, and be waiting for my inbox to deliver me the next script. We’ve really broken out stories and told the story in a way so that it works if you want to take a breather between episodes, but we expect that you won’t.
As a director of movies that play well in theaters, would you make a film for Netflix?
The ground is shifting under our feet. We just sold a movie to Netflix called Mika Model that's a midrange-budget sci‑fi drama. There is a huge swath of movies that will not get made by the studios anymore. There are small independents and there are franchises, but the middle of original content — character‑driven stories — are almost impossible to get greenlighted. As a filmmaker, I view these new outlets as a huge opportunity to make things that will struggle to get made by studios. Now, if I'm going to do Night at the Museum or something of that ilk, you better believe I'm going try to make it for a major studio, because with that kind of world‑building, spectacle‑based filmmaking, I want that theater experience.
Speaking of studios, Arrival was sold in 2014 to Paramount for $20 million, one of the biggest sales in Cannes history. How did you find that project?
When I was first given a deal with Fox, it was a result of Night at the Museum, and the expectation was that I would develop on-brand movies for me to direct and produce. But a few years in, I started feeling a bit more voracious to go beyond the perceived brand. So I just started looking at anything that we would like to watch on TV or in a movie theater. Now my biggest pride is that we have as many comedies as we have dramas. Arrival was a short story by Ted Chiang that was just this really rich idea of a linguist who's brought in by the military when aliens arrive. It's at once a kind of global threat sci‑fi movie, but it's also this incredibly moving character drama with a twist that I can't possibly give away.
Does such a big sale create added pressure for success?
I definitely want audiences to find it. I always want to make money for the people who give me money. There are certain directors who will tell you, "I'm strictly about the art and the craft." But I know that I'm lucky that people trust me with their money. So, yes, the deal at Cannes puts a certain pressure on the movie.
Why the new title?
It was a collective decision. I learned with This Is Where I Leave You that multiword titles can be really problematic. And Story of Your Life sounds a bit like a One Direction song. It doesn’t really skew or service the sci‑fi tension of the movie. It services the character twist that I can’t talk about. But Arrival feels more enigmatic and appropriate.
We haven't seen much yet in the way of marketing. How secretive is this movie?
It's not a matter of secrecy as much as it's a matter of marketing materials getting crafted now. But secretive enough that when I wanted to put one of the alien-language images on my wall for this interview, I was told no.
Do you have a motto for 21 Laps?
We're pretty virulently anti-cynical. And I always look to Ron Howard as a bit of a model because as both director and producer, there's a range of tone and a range of genre, but it's always decidedly humanist. That's certainly true of my movies.
You haven't directed since 2014. Why?
I came up for air at the beginning of 2015, having released two movies in the same year and having done 11 movies in 13 years. I suddenly awoke to what many friends and family told me, which is, "This is a bit of a psychotic pace for a director." I've made a conscious choice to say no to more, force myself to behave patiently — even though patience is completely unnatural to me — and to feed my creative avarice with the producing.
Would you direct a superhero film?
I've had those conversations. It would have to be a character that really resonated for me — there's only a few of those, and some of them have been made already. With some of those movies, there is a preference for the emerging director, and I'm not that guy. Let's put it this way: If Star Wars comes calling, that's a hard yes. That's been put out there as well, but we will see how all these things play out.
You said that the third Night at the Museum was the last. Is that still true?
That was a great run. The family film has shifted; I think we see that everywhere. [Star] Ben [Stiller] and I knew that the third movie would be about the characters saying goodbye and us also saying goodbye. And then when Robin [Williams] died, that sealed it. That was just a horrible many months. But I'll enigmatically say that I don't believe that the extension of the Night at the Museum franchise is done. There's a Chinese Night at the Museum that I am executive producing, and there are other things we're talking about, offshoots of the film franchise.
Why do you think so many sequels are falling flat at the box office this year?
Getting people to feel that it's worth leaving their homes for entertainment is an increasingly daunting task. They're just not going to show up and spend the money to go to the movies unless they feel that they're getting something legitimately new and fresh and unlike what they've seen before. The bar on the movie theater experience is only going to keep getting higher as more content is available to people without leaving home. So if it smells either overly familiar or not great, they're not going to show up.
Will there ever be a Real Steel sequel?
There is no question I field more often. My entire relationship with Twitter is about nothing but people asking me about the Real Steel sequel. We are trying, we have been trying.
What makes a good director?
As much as the job is about the choice you make, it's about just making a choice — decisive leadership. The crew craves it; studios crave it. And most of all, actors crave it. So, I try to choose directors for our projects —whether they have done it before or not — I want to see that innate sense of leadership because that makes for a better movie, and it sure as hell makes our job easier as producers.
What is the biggest challenge facing producers today?
The proliferation of tangential people who get to glom onto movies and call themselves a producer of some ilk is a real bummer. It dilutes the nature of the job. And those of us who do the work, to have to frankly share fees and credit with people who don't do the work — it's a problem, and it sucks.
You have a lot of projects in development. As a producer, do you find that part of the process frustrating?
Yes. And increasingly, if you're not a sequel or a superhero movie, it is really hard at every single studio to get your project attention. It is so hard. But many producers with more experience than I have told me that sometimes the job is being the most dogged, tireless pest.
What else do you want to do?
I want to keep confounding people's expectations of me as a director and us as a company. I love that in the next six months, we will make it impossible for anyone to say 21 Laps does that one thing. As a director, I'm certainly not done with tentpole comedy family. But I love to throw in a Real Steel or a This Is Where I Leave You. As an audience member, I love a lot of different kinds of movies, so why wouldn't I be the same way as a director and producer?
How do you unwind?
First of all: rarely. But every once in a while, I sneak out of work to go to a matinee alone. It is my one dark secret. Occasionally my wife will find a ticket stub in my pocket, and I'll be busted.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.