Making things up, without a hitch

Hollywood screenwriter Dode Levenson started off as a typesetter at ‘The Jerusalem Post’ but quickly let his imagination get away with him

Dode Levenson (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dode Levenson
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When student newspaper editor Dode Levenson walked into the offices of The Jerusalem Post in 1987 fresh off the plane from Massachusetts, he had modest expectations – to be able to find out what was happening back home.
“I had been editor of the Daily Massachusetts Collegian at US Mass Amherst, where I had access to AP, the New York Times – all these wire services at my fingertips. All of a sudden, I come to Israel and there’s an old TIME magazine at the newsstand for $5, and I was like, ‘this sucks!’ “So I walked into the Post and told [news editor] David Landau, ‘I’ll work for you for free, all I want is access to your wire services,” recalled Levenson, now 52 and a successful screenwriter in California.
Despite some grumbling and suspicion on Landau’s part, Levenson did start working at the paper – with a salary to boot – as a typesetter using the paper’s new computerized system, which he had already learned back at his student paper.
“I loved it, there were people there with me from all over the world, and I was around the news!” said Levenson, who returned to Israel last month for a well-deserved vacation after receiving accolades and awards for penning the new independent romantic comedy One Small Hitch for first-time director John Burgess.
Levenson, who grew up the son of a Conservative rabbi in Newton, Massachussetts, said he wanted to remain in Israel back in the ’80s, but was hesitant due to language and financial restrictions. However, he devised a plan.
“I knew I wanted to write, so I naively thought that I would go back to the US, write a movie screenplay for a lot of money and then come back to Israel without any economic pressure. I was so naïve, I didn’t know what I was talking about,” the burly but genial Levenson said with a chuckle.
“The other factor that turned me away from journalism is that I really wanted to make things up... and it was frustrating that I couldn’t do that in journalism. If your house is burning, you might stand outside and say, ‘Oh, this is terrible!’, but what I wanted you to say is, ‘The flames are licking the sides of the building, as all of my life is going up in flames and ashes.’ “I loved the fact that in the field of screenwriting, I could use those words, and I could manipulate the outcome and engineer emotions so the reader or viewer could feel what I wanted them to feel.”
So, after a year at the Post, Levenson left the paper and the country. Despite having no experience as a screenwriter, he set out to pursue his plan in California, where he obtained some film scripts that had been successful and spent time deconstructing them.
“I took them apart the way you would take apart an engine to find out what’s different in this million-dollar script than these other ones that aren’t selling? I went through them sentence by sentence, looking at the economy of language, the beauty of structure, the imagery, and I began to apply all of these things to my own stuff,” said Levenson. And he became a storyteller – something he’s very good at.
By his own admission, Levenson got lucky early on, selling his first script – a film called Freeze Frame about, you guessed it, journalists.
The film was never made – a common occurrence in Hollywood – but it led to his first screenwriting assignment, writing the script for a low-budget B-movie thriller, Rock & Roll Angel.
“I was so young and inexperienced that at first, I didn’t want to be part of a B movie and had no idea that there’s a rich history of great writers and directors starting out that way,” he said. “One of the beautiful things about low-budget movies is that there’s not enough people on staff so you learn to do a lot of different jobs. And you also learn about focusing your writing. I wrote one scene and was told, ‘We can’t do this scene, it only appears once, do you think we’re going to pay all this money for one scene?’ “So I really learned my craft and it was an education into how to tell a story with a limited number of locations and into how a producer thinks.”
From thriller to horror, Levenson went on in 1995 to write the third installment of the Stephen King Children of the Corn film series, called Autumn Harvest.
“Making a vegetable menacing was quite challenging, but I was just happy writing movies, I didn’t care what kind,” he said.
But it was his original screenplay for an urban sports-comedy called Homeboy that he sold to 20th Century Fox that proved to Levenson that his plan when he left Israel might have some legs.
“Two things happened. One was that I met Jill Solloway [Transparent] at a party after I did the Stephen King film and it changed my life. She said, ‘you’re funny, you should be doing comedy.’ “For me, comedy writing had seemed elusive, but she told me ‘write what makes you laugh, and if it makes you laugh, chances are it will make other people laugh.’ That simple phrase prompted me to attempt to write Homeboy.”
The other development was that the family fare script, written with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in mind as the lead actors, resulted in a bidding war. Levenson profited handsomely from it, although, once again, the film never was made.
“It was a sweet family comedy that struck a nerve, and it took me from being below the radar to being an in-demand studio writer and it put me on the map,” he said.
Levenson also moved into TV, developing shows for MTV, including an animated post-apocalyptic comedy series Doomsday, executive produced by Howard Stern, that was scrapped post 9/11.
“Part of the frustration of my career is that I’ve sold a lot of scripts but don’t have much on the screen to show for it. I found out later that it happens all the time in Hollywood – regime changes and so many variables between the script and the finished product.
After putting so much time into projects for so long, it’s kind of sad... but that’s the business we are in.”
It’s also the business that produces a longshot hit like One Small Hitch, an unassuming but sweet romantic comedy in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding genre.
“I was getting married when I started writing it and by the time I finished it a year later, I was getting divorced,” said Levenson. “It was quite an experience writing a romantic comedy when your marriage is falling apart.”
The film focuses on a 20-something whose father is dying, and expresses the regret that he’ll never get to meet his son’s bride. In a moment of weakness, he passes off his best friend’s sister as his fiancé, a premise that has sitcom and silly Sandra Bullock comedy all over it.
But Levenson takes it in a different direction.
“It’s really grounded in reality – and looks at how if you were in that situation, how would it really impact on your relationship with your father, and with the other people in your life,” said Levenson, who citing the film’s “emotional authenticity.”
He had pitched the script around to studios without success and was just about to give up hope on it when it made its way to Burgess, a graduate of the USC film school who had made award-winning short films and was looking for a script for his first feature film.
“He read it, and said, ‘this is it, I’m going to make this movie.’ I was skeptical, but he came up with a fix to the script that I had had a problem with and that saved it. He was so determined and resourceful that I thought, who knows? I got paid immediately when he acquired the property and I moved on... but slowly I realized, hey, he’s really going to do this.’” The film was shot on a low budget in Chicago and Los Angeles without big-name stars, but a strong cast featuring Emmyaward winning actor Daniel J. Travanti (Hill Street Blues), Rob Belushi, (Jim’s son) and Shane McCrae, and the female lead is up-and-coming actress Aubrey Dollar, who is starring in Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and David Shore’s (House) new show Battle Creek.
Levenson was impressed when he saw the final cut, but assumed that the film would end up being one of those under-the-radar “straight to video” movies that regularly turn up on HOT and YES movie channels.
“I said that to John and he goes, ‘I don’t think so, I really think this could be in theaters,” said Levenson.
“And I told him, ‘I’m not going to underestimate you.’ He breathed life into the project, figured out a way to shoot it on budget, and... it started winning all these awards!” Among them were the Best Picture Comedy at the California Independent Film Festival, and Best Picture Comedy at Cinequest.
“People were crying and laughing in all the right places when I watched it for the first time with an audience. That’s when I got it. The viewers were really invested in these characters, these people I just made up.”
One Small Hitch is being released on DVD in February and Levenson said he expected the film to be distributed to theaters in Israel early this year. But he’s already busy focusing on a plethora of new projects.
“Everywhere I look I see stories and possibilities – I’m easily seduced,” he said. “But now I have to put another romantic comedy in the chute to see if this thing has any kind of bounce.”
At the same time, he’s working on an animation project, writing episodes for a sci-fi series for a cable network, and gets approached with opportunities at every turn.
“At the end of the day, my networking skills are solid, but they don’t necessarily lead to gigs. I’ve learned that you have to have the goods. I have to create original material in order to advance my career. Luckily for me, I’m the machine that can do that.”
Phase one of Levenson’s plan when he left Israel has been a success. But will phase two, in which he comes back to the country as a writer, be carried out? Levenson just smiled and said, “Let me tell you a story... .”