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'Real Steel' director ready for his next knockout

Shawn Levy eyes projects from James Cameron and Steve Martin

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For the longest time, director Shawn Levy has wanted to give you something to cry about. The 43-year-old built his career on comedies such as Date Night, Cheaper by the Dozen, and the Night at the Museum movies, but with the Hugh Jackman robot-boxing film Real Steel he finally got the chance to flex some dramatic muscle. ”I have no delusions about what I am. I’m always going to want to make movies for a broad swath of audience,” he says, sitting in his 21 Laps production office. ”What those movies are in terms of style, genre, and tone, I feel has been broadened with Real Steel.”

The film not only debuted atop the box office, but it also surprised moviegoers with the heartfelt story of a deadbeat father seeking redemption — something critics said elevated the movie above just brawling bots. ”Shawn chose to tell a story about a character who has some unresolved darkness in him,” says Real Steel exec producer Steven Spielberg. ”I don’t think [he’s] ever dealt in a serious way with a complicated character. That alone required Shawn to step up as a filmmaker and a storyteller.”

Levy’s now in the midst of finalizing his next project — and the two most likely candidates are both darker adventure stories: James Cameron is wooing him for a remake of Fantastic Voyage, about a doctor shrunken to the cellular level so he can cure a patient from the inside, and Universal is hoping he’ll update Frankenstein, focusing on the uneasy friendship between the mad doctor and his assistant, Igor. While his genres are changing, a large part of Levy’s sensibility remains. ”Most of my movies come back to domestic themes of family,” he says. On a shelf behind him are myriad photos of his wife and their four daughters. ”I believe in the redemptive power of the right relationships — sometimes it’s with our parents, sometimes it’s with families of origin, and very often it’s through families of choice. That’s what Fantastic Voyage and Frankenstein would be.”

Eventually he’d like to shift again, away from giant visual spectacles toward more intimate stories, such as an adaptation of Steve Martin‘s tragicomic novel The Pleasure of My Company. Another, called Kodachrome, is a drama about a family making a trip to the last Kodachrome processing lab to find out what’s on an undeveloped roll of film. (Both screenplays are by This Is Where I Leave You author Jonathan Tropper.) Meanwhile, Fox has asked Levy to direct its just-acquired Pinocchio prequel, The Three Misfortunes of Geppetto.

It’s been a long journey for a director who got his first big professional break on an obscure Nickelodeon puppet show in the late ’90s. That gig on Cousin Skeeter paid off when producer Brian Robbins remembered Levy’s work and hired him to make the 2002 kids’ comedy Big Fat Liar with Levy’s Yale School of Drama pal Paul Giamatti. ”I have always believed you do the work and hope that the right people are noticing,” Levy says. Including Liar, he’s made eight movies, totaling more than $1.7 billion at the worldwide box office. With numbers like that, who isn’t noticing?