David Benioff is an unlikely bouncer. Standing at the entrance to the AMC cinema on 42nd Street in New York, with a tangle of thick, curly hair, and a sharp, aquiline nose, he looks too skinny to menace a Chihuahua, let alone the two Samoan bodybuilders he once threw out of a club in San Francisco.

''They were beating the crap out of some

little guy, and I realised that, if they wanted, they could beat me to a pulp,'' he recalls. ''By and large, though, you're just sitting on a stool watching the clock turn. It was kind of like what soldiers say about war: long periods of boredom punctuated by brief bouts of extreme terror.''

His days as a bouncer might be over, but echoes of them surface in 25th Hour, a new film by Spike Lee based on Benioff's novel and screenplay. One crucial scene near the end, in particular, feels like an out-take from Fight Club, whose director David Fincher, coincidentally, is involved in another film by the writer.

These are heady days for the 32-year-old author who spent his itinerant years writing novels and reading rejection slips. Two sprawling books were each turned down by more than 30 publishers; his third, 25th Hour, fared slightly better. It got only 15 rejections before a small New York publisher agreed to put it out. That was when Benioff Got Lucky.

Getting Lucky means having rising Hollywood star Tobey Maguire option your book, and commission you to write the script. It means that when Maguire drops out to make Spiderman, Edward Norton takes his place. It means that suddenly everyone wants a piece of you. As well as a thriller for David Fincher, and a true-life tale of Miami nightlife for

Kimberly Peirce, who directed Boys Don't Cry, there is a thriller for Marc Forster, of Monster's Ball fame, and adaptations of

Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Homer's The Iliad, staring Brad Pitt. And still the calls keep coming.

With little fanfare, Benioff has become the busiest screenwriter in town: for proof of his arrival, look no further than his entry in

People magazine's celebrated list of America's 50 Top Bachelors, which shows our man

sitting at the edge of a pool, dressed in standard-issue black. For the record, his competitors include the holy trinity of George Clooney, Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck (before he met J-Lo). Not bad for someone who was

bouncing Samoan bodybuilders and working as a radio DJ in Moose, Wyoming, just a few years ago.

Suddenly the distance between where David Benioff is, and where he wants to be, has narrowed. It is as if an odd-jobbing slacker went to bed in Moose and woke up in Beverley Hills, with a three-book deal from Viking, and movie projects left, right and centre. His most recent script sold for $1.8m, causing ''jaws to drop'' according to the industry bible, Variety, and making him eligible for a 90210 zip code, requisite pool and a guard dog called Murphy. After years of standing outside nightclubs in cheap tuxedoes, he smells like success, and it smells good.

Now the Top 50 Bachelor stands outside the AMC cinema, in his big Dr Who scarf and Pumas, as the crowds swirl around him in the rush and tumult of a Saturday afternoon. Even with a streaming cold, Benioff cuts a dashing figure, and this combined with his prodigious success is a sure recipe for envy. Mine. But then - this is the thing about Benioff - he is so down-to-earth and unspoiled by his success as to make his good fortune feel like yours.

Later, Benioff plans to watch his movie, among an audience of real New Yorkers, though it just occurs to him that real New Yorkers don't go to 42nd Street. Too bad, but an audience is still an audience, and Benioff thinks he will go anyway. That sounds awfully masochistic, but the novelty of seeing how strangers react to characters he invented has yet to wear off.

''That shift from concept to real life is

surreal,'' he says. ''The weirdest thing was when they started casting. I was at a party in LA, and Rosario Dawson came up to me and said, 'I'm playing Naturelle'. Naturelle had existed in my head as a figment of my

imagination for years, and suddenly you have this incredibly beautiful woman saying,

'I'm her'.''

That is quite an advertisement for a notoriously rough business. Screenwriters may be at the bottom of the Hollywood caste system, but at their most successful they have the power to transform fantasy into flesh. Who could ask for more? The beauty of 25th Hour is, in fact, that it feels more lived than imagined, made blisteringly real by its acute sense of place. It is at once a small, observant drama about a drug dealer facing incarceration, and a pitch-perfect tone poem to the world's most diverse city. I saw it shortly after New Year, and almost three months later, I still cannot get its images out of my head. They burn into your subconscious and stay there.

Although the story belongs to Norton's self-loathing small-time dealer, Monty Brogan, as he prepares for one last evening with his best friends before prison, the real star is New York. Like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the film evokes the tumult and energy and variety of the city with a handful of characters you know all too well.

It is also the first film to capture the city

as it is now. Spike Lee had only just begun

working on the movie when two passenger jets tore down its monumental towers and shook the city to its core. As a result, 25th Hour is suffused with mourning, without ever being exploitative or maudlin.

Benioff, who was in LA when the attacks took place, wasn't entirely sure about this at first. His novel was pre-9/11 after all, but the more he talked it over with Lee, the more he relaxed. ''It's not a story about 9/11 but it is a contemporary story,'' he says. ''To ignore what happened or pretend it didn't happen, as many directors have done, would be cowardly, and more importantly, dishonest.''

Benioff's passion for New York has an earthy, feral quality, as if he spent a lifetime wandering its streets, and can't quite shake it from his system. It is what makes Spike Lee such a great fit. ''It was always my fear that it was going to be directed by someone who really didn't know the city,'' says Benioff. ''I was worried that it was just going to be all your typical cinematic landmarks, but instead I think he showed the city I grew up with.''

The New York that Benioff grew up in was the city at its most squalid, in the crime-

ridden, drug-addled 1980s; he can count at least three occasions when knives were pulled on him, but only one in which he was

genuinely scared (''We were hammered, and when someone takes a knife out it's the most sobering thing in the world''). In spite of his own skirmishes, he thinks the city's reputation for violence is exaggerated, and recalls an excursion to London after taking a year out to study Irish literature in Dublin.

''I was in London for one week and every night I'd walk out the door and there was someone punching someone else in the head,'' he says. ''People in LA are always telling me how much they love New York but can't imagine raising kids there, and I can't think of a better place to be a kid. You get on the subway in New York and every nationality in the world is represented there, and that was my childhood. Hollywood kids are f**ked-up kids. You see them wandering around in their little gaggles, everyone cellphones, and they're all driving Porsches. It frightens me.''

Benioff is careful not to disparage LA more than necessary - it is now home after all - but you can see he belongs in New York. Most writers do. He tells a good anecdote about moving to California and introducing himself at Hollywood parties as a writer. ''Movies or TV?'' people would ask, before backing off, when Benioff explained he was a novelist.

Now that he is writing film scripts, Benioff gets a lot more attention. It has been a great boost for his love life, but also made him a

little paranoid: are his relationships less sincere now he is loaded? The possibility dogs him. He was buoyed recently by an interview with Barry Zito, a womanising baseball ace with the Oakland As. Asked whether he thought women were only after his money and his fame, Zito shrugged. ''Of course they are,'' he said. ''But I'm after them for their bodies, and I'm going to enjoy it for a while.'' Benioff thinks it is a pretty good philosophy.

Anyway, he must be the envy of his former college mates at Dartmouth, a notorious frat house of which his principal memory (and there is no delicate way of saying this) is being made to eat his own faeces. Yuck. He

volunteers this information quite casually, as if such stomach-turning stunts were a matter of record. Perhaps they are: it was one of those rituals so common in the more exclusive US universities, ''the kind of thing that when you're 18 and drunk, makes sense''. Well, quite.

Benioff learned to appreciate the power of words early in life. At the age of seven he fell in love with his high school teacher, Miss Bell, and wrote her love poems in which he asked her to marry him. She didn't, but young Benioff was singled out for special treatment, and quickly determined that writing paid. He was always a voracious reader. It is a family tradition. His mother - recuperating at home for a back ailment - read to him from The Iliad each afternoon when he was six, and he was mesmerised by Hector, the doomed hero.

''I think anything your mother reads at that age takes on such importance,'' he says. ''I guess the stoicism and doomed romance of it has always appealed to me, which is one of the reasons I love Irish literature. The Irish have made a cult of the beautiful loser, and there's something of that in Hector, because he can not ultimately compete with Achilles.''

Likewise, Benioff finds himself rooting for the bad guy in movies, not - he points out - because he identifies with sociopaths, but out of sympathy for the underdog, and a desire for the tired formula to be reversed. ''Sometimes you think, 'God, I wish that villain with the snarky English accent would actually kill Ben Affleck, that would be kind of cool','' he says.

After 25th Hour was picked up Benioff was invited to meet the executive vice president of Warner Brothers, and pitched The Iliad as a movie. He didn't expect it to go anywhere, but the success of Gladiator has revived the sand and sandals epics that were once a Hollywood staple. Benioff walked out with his second commission. ''I was always kind of shocked that we have this great epic of Western literature, pretty much the mother of epics, and no one has taken a crack at it,'' he says. ''But I don't think Warner Brothers could have taken the chance without Gladiator.''

Of course, Hollywood is notoriously fickle. In a city where every guy wiping tables at Starbucks is a budding screenwriter, today's hot new voice is tomorrow's reject. And Benioff is under no illusions. ''I think any one of those directors would replace me in a

second if they believed they would get a

better script out of it, so it is something that goads you on. I think I'm prepared for it, but it's going to be very painful when it happens.''

With luck it won't be happening any time soon, and if it does, Benioff still has his three-book contract with Viking to keep him occupied. As for his experience watching 25th Hour at the AMC that afternoon, he was

fortuitously seated in front of a guy who laughed at everything, and a woman who was crying at the end. Not a bad endorsement. ''Then, when I was walking out of the theatre there was this young Latino couple, and the girlfriend really liked it and the boyfriend did not, and she was really trying to convince him why it was a good movie,'' he says. ''I thought she was much more eloquent and intelligent than he was.'' Well, naturally. n

The 25th Hour is released on April 25. The book of the same title is published by Hodder and Stoughton on March 31.