By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times
10:00 AM EST, January 28, 2013
Hunched over a desk in his spartan Westwood apartment, David Klawans squints at his computer monitor and knits his brow in concentration. "I'm perusing," he says.
His eyes dart between headlines almost indecipherable on a Web page displaying about 800 stamp-sized images of newspapers from 90 different countries.
"Two kids running? What's that?" he exclaims before clicking on a photo. "Oh, it's refugees. Whatever. Moving on."
Nearly every day, for upward of 10-hour stretches, the independent film producer speed-reads police blogs, articles from RSS feeds and niche-interest journals in dogged pursuit of an elusive prize: a story on which to base his next movie.
His biggest hit to date is "Argo." Before the film landed seven Oscar nominations (including one for best picture) and two Golden Globes (including best drama picture), before it generated more than $180 million in worldwide grosses, "Argo" existed as a declassified story in the quarterly CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, which Klawans happens to have been perusing one day in 1998.
"It's like going on the beach with a metal detector," the self-described news junkie says of his process. "Like Kanye West looks through records to sample on his songs, I'm looking for stories to turn into films."
Klawans, 44, has established himself as Hollywood's least likely movie macher by heeding the advice of his mentor, the old-school producer David Brown ("Jaws," "A Few Good Men"): "Read everything you can get your hands on."
Indefatigable in his quest to root out oddball, overlooked true-life stories, Klawans spins material most others ignore into cinematic gold.
"Argo" took nearly 14 years to reach the big screen after Klawans read about CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez's rescue of six American diplomats hiding in Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Mendez (portrayed in the movie by "Argo's" director, Ben Affleck) posed the group as Canadian filmmakers scouting locations for a science-fiction film, created a fictitious production company and planted articles about the bogus project in Hollywood trade papers.
Throughout the '90s Klawans was scraping by as a production assistant for an L.A.-based Japanese TV commercial firm. He didn't own a car, so he bicycled to UCLA's magazine archive to check the story. In microfiche files, he came across the CIA's planted articles in the Hollywood Reporter and Variety from January 1980. "My jaw dropped," he says.
Problem was, Mendez already had representation at Creative Artists Agency and was preparing to publish a memoir, "The Master of Disguise." Even so, Klawans persuaded Mendez to let him attempt to set up a movie project. He eventually bought the rights to Mendez's life story as well.
"I'm cycling to pitch meetings wearing a backpack with a change of clothes. It's summertime and I'm sweating. And I'm getting to know studio security. They call me 'bike boy,'" remembers Klawans, who would switch from bike to business attire outside the studio gates. "I would basically throw my backpack behind a bush — I was embarrassed to look like a messenger guy."
The New York University film school graduate was born in Chicago. His family moved to Belgium when he was 2 and he grew up in Europe and the U.S. consuming a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy films including "Star Wars."
He came close to setting up the "Argo" project as a cable TV movie. But when that deal fell through, Klawans says, "it hit me that Tony had planted stories in Variety and Hollywood Reporter as a cover. For the CIA, it's all about illusions and perception. I thought, 'That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to plant an "Argo" story in a magazine.'"
The producer had met former L.A. Weekly staff writer and "This American Life" contributor Joshuah Bearman through friends who thought the two shared an appreciation for offbeat material. Bearman also had experience turning a magazine story into a movie; an article he reported for Harper's became the 2007 documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," about two die-hard video game players vying for the world's highest score in the vintage arcade game "Donkey Kong."
Klawans handed over his research and contacts to Bearman and proposed that the journalist write "Argo" as a magazine article that would entice movie backers.
Bearman landed an assignment from Wired magazine, then interviewed everyone he could: Mendez, officials in the State Department with knowledge of the exfiltration and Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran who housed some of the fugitive American diplomats, as well as the six embassy "houseguests."
"He intuited that, in doing all the research for the story, I'd be able to flesh out these characters and bring the story to life in a way that's hard even for screenwriters to do," Bearman says. "The work required makes it easy to see that the narrative could also work somewhere else."
It wasn't the first time Klawans — who loved film so much as a child that he subscribed to the Chicago Sun-Times for the movie ads — defied Hollywood's conventional M.O. to sell a film property. To pitch a story from a British newspaper about 52 animals, including a dog, cat and horse, which were awarded medals for valor during World War II, Klawans created a poster of a pigeon being saluted by soldiers. Sony Pictures executives bought the idea, though "Pet Heroes" stalled during development and was never made.
Undaunted, Klawans stumbled across a story in 2001 about a Mexican priest who moonlighted as a lucha libre wrestler to raise money for the church orphanage. After shopping the idea to Antonio Banderas' production company and negotiating with Benicio Del Toro, Klawans set up a deal with Nickelodeon Pictures. That project evolved into the 2006 Jack Black comedy "Nacho Libre," which took in nearly $100 million worldwide.
"David is a dude who works totally outside the system," Bearman says. "In other words, he wasn't some big Hollywood producer who says, 'Lemme tell you, boychick, this is going to happen.' He didn't make it seem like we knew what we were doing."
Just before publication of his article — "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran" — Bearman's agent circulated a copy of the story to Hollywood production companies. Within 48 hours, Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and George Clooney's Smokehouse Pictures were vying to acquire it.
"When I read the article, I thought, 'This could be a commercial, entertaining movie that could say a few things and hit a lot of buttons,'" recalls Grant Heslov, Clooney's partner at Smoke House. "It's a story you can't believe would actually happen; the truth is so much stranger than fiction. The fact that it is based on underlying material that's real is key to its appeal. People become more invested because it is based on truth."
"The Men Who Stare at Goats," directed by Heslov, is based on a non-fiction book, and Clooney co-wrote (with Heslov) and directed "Good Night, and Good Luck," the true-life drama about the clash between newscaster Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Smokehouse bought "Argo" from Klawans and Bearman, with Clooney attached to direct (in 2011, Ben Affleck replaced him in the director's chair).
"I always knew it was going to get made," Klawans says. "I didn't know it was going to do over $100 million domestic."
The film's success has barely changed Klawans' lifestyle. Though he can see a substantial six-figure payday if a project gets made, Klawans can earn nothing if an idea never gets turned into a film. His spacious apartment betrays little evidence of his news-junkie tendencies save for walls lined with posters of movies he's produced and an office closet that fairly heaves with boxes of clippings, transcripts and microfiche printouts dating back to the early '90s — the raw material Klawans earmarked as possible films.
Bearman and Klawans have set up two more movies and an HBO series through stories Bearman has published — or "planted," in Klawans' mind — on NPR, in Rolling Stone and other news outlets, although the projects are in production limbo. Another article for which Klawans bought the rights, about a bank security guard pretending to be an FBI agent, is being produced at Fox Searchlight.
After a break from his perusing, Klawans is back in full scanning mode at his 23-inch Samsung touch-screen computer monitor.
Clicking through the articles clogging his inbox, he pauses as a few headlines jump out: "Clone dogs run wild in Central Park." "Naked sauna rampage forces spa booze limit." "Red Bull killer gets wings clipped." "Family puts kids in charge for a month."
One of these stories might make the cut for "the bin," the desktop folder where he keeps ideas with serious movie potential.
Klawans glances up at his framed "Argo" poster, then turns his attention again to his monitor and says, "It all starts here."