Troy - Press Archive - The Straits Times
The Straits Times
15 April 2003
Billed as Hollywood's next big screenwriting thing, David Benioff wrote the
screenplay for his first novel and has done an epic adaptation of The Iliad
and two other novels
By Ong Sor Fern
WRITER David Benioff seems to have had a charmed career.
His first published novel, The 25th Hour, has been made into a movie directed
by Spike Lee and starring Edward Norton.
The film, about a yuppie drug dealer's last day of freedom in New York
before he goes to jail, opens on Thursday.
Unusually for a first-time author, he got to write the screenplay as well.
As the 32-year-old concedes dryly in an e-mail chat with Life!: 'Producers
tend to avoid hiring novelists to adapt their own works, on suspicion that
the story's creator might lack the ruthlessness required to chop a book into
But he got the gig, he says cheerfully, 'because I was cheap. As an
absolute novice, industry paid me the WGA minimum'.
WGA is the Writers' Guild of America.
Benioff adds with a hint of incredulousness: 'It's worth noting that the
WGA minimum for an adaptation is eight times more than I earned
selling the actual novel.'
The novel earned him an advance of US$7,500 (S$13,200) while the script
netted him US$62,000 before the book even hit the shops.
The money allowed the New York-born and bred author to quit teaching
freshman composition at the University of California, Irvine, and write
His second project is even more headline-grabbing: an epic adaptation of
The Iliad, Homer's epic tale of the beautiful Helen and her kidnapping
which led to the siege of a city.
Troy, which begins filming in a week, stars Brad Pitt as Achilles, Orlando
Bloom as Paris and Sean Bean as Odysseus. The movie will be directed
by Wolfgang Petersen.
Benioff confesses with self-deprecating charm that he was surprised when
the studio accepted his pitch: 'I also figured they'd want to hire someone
more experienced and prestigious than I am.'
Benioff, who holds a masters degree in Irish literature from Dublin's
Trinity College - he wrote his thesis on Irish literary great Samuel Beckett
- is now Hollywood's next big screenwriting thing.
His third screenplay, Stay, which was sold for US$1.8 million, will be
directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room). He is also adapting
mystery author George Pelecanos' Right As Rain for Oscar-winning director
Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential).
All this, plus a spanking-new house with a swimming pool in Santa Monica
and a label from People Magazine in 2001 as one of America's 50 most
This is quite a leap after 10 years of working as a DJ in Wyoming, a high-
school teacher in Brooklyn and a bouncer in San Francisco.
He owes his newfound fame to Spider-Man. Or, rather, actor Tobey Maguire,
who read the early galleys for The 25th Hour, loved the story and asked for
He told Benioff he wanted to play the part of Monty Brogan.
The part went to Norton instead because of Maguire's commitment to
Spider-Man but Maguire is credited as a producer on the film.
Benioff jokes dryly that the shock was so great he could not remember what
he said in the meeting: 'Mostly I remember sweating through my T-shirt and
my sweater and wondering whether I would start dripping on the nice leather
No one can accuse him of being an overnight success although it may look
His first attempt at a novel, he confesses frankly, was so terrible he did not
even send it out.
His second attempt earned rejections from 34 publishers.
Even The 25th Hour, his third effort, had to make the rounds of 13
publishers before No. 14 - Caroll & Graf - said yes.
But the former high-school wrestler who still runs and lifts weights is no
pushover despite his professed attack of the nerves.
He wanted to write the screenplay for The 25th Hour, he says with a hint of
steel, because of 'money and control. I was afraid whoever they hired would
tack on a happy ending'.
Ironically, he was so ruthless himself when it came to editing characters
and scenes that director Lee ended up asking him to stay more faithful to
'When Spike came on board, he said: 'I love the novel. Why did you cut
my favourite scenes?' '
One scene was of Brogan ranting, in a speech riddled with swear words,
about the city of New York.
Benioff adds: 'It represents Monty's profane valentine for his city. I call it
the F*** Monologue.'
Benioff reinstated the scene 'after he convinced me that he could film the
sequence in a dramatic fashion'.
Lee had another request: to set the story in a post-911 New York. Benioff
'New York changed irrevocably in the wake of the attack, and setting a
contemporary story in Manhattan without addressing those changes is
His affection for the city is evident when he reminisces about childhood
memories: 'Carl Schurz Park, where Fat Allie, the neighbourhood bully,
had threatened to 'punch a hole right through' me.
'86th and East End, where I got my first French kiss from a girl who lived
down the block.
'The East River esplanade, where I saw my first dead body.'
For the avid film buff, the realisation of the power of the pen came early:
'Even when I was seven, I was writing love poems to my homeroom teacher,
Ms Bell. She treated me well and I learnt that writing can sway people, and
sway is power.'
He adds jokingly: 'Being a rock star or the shortstop for the New York
Yankees would be fun but I've got no talent for music or baseball.'
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