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Interviews
 
Brian Koppelman
Friday, Mar 11, 2011
Author: Will Plyler
 
Brian Koppelman lives in New York, where he grew up. He has written the feature films “Rounders,” “Knockaround Guys,” “Runaway Jury,” “Walking Tall,” “Ocean's Thirteen,” “The Girlfriend Experience” and “Solitary Man (all with David Levien except “Solitary Man”). Koppelman also directed “Knockaround Guys” and “Solitary Man” (with David Levien). He produced “Interview With The Assassin,” “The Illusionist,” “The Lucky Ones” and “Knockaround Guys” (with David Levien).


When did you first become interested in writing for film?

I always loved movies. Growing up, my dad and I would spend many Saturday afternoons watching old films on TV. Westerns and gangster pictures mostly. But the idea of actually making movies formed slowly. In college, seeing “Raising Arizona” and “She's Gotta Have It” awakened my interest in independent movies. The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee captured a new kind of language both spoken and visual and I was totally engaged by it. And then, years later, seeing “Pulp Fiction” opening night was, to me, the way people talk about seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Something sparked in me. It was another couple years before I actually started writing. But that was the moment it became inevitable.

Did you study film/writing in college?

I did not study film. Went to Tufts University where I majored in English. While there, I discovered the singer songwriter Tracy Chapman and produced the demo tape that got her signed to her record deal. Then, during my senior year, I executive produced her first album, the one with “Fast Car” on it. This led to a ten year tenure in the music business during which I also went to Fordham University School ff Law at night and got my JD.

Not to get too far off the subject of script writing, but you executive produced Chapman’s album? Did you have a music background?

I was not a serious musician, but I had been managing bands and promoting concerts for years by the time I got to college (that’s sort of how I got into college in the first place. Started my own business when I was thirteen promoting teenage bands playing for teenage audiences at a local nightclub).

So in terms of producing an album and working with an artist, is there anything from your experiences that you feel applies to the world of filmmaking?

Yes. Being an executive in the music business and a record producer was helpful training in having creative conversations with actors and directors. Coaxing a lead vocal out of a recording artist requires many of the same things: understanding, empathy, the ability to inspire and support. Most importantly, knowing when to shut up can help an actor get to a performance.

Tell us about writing your first script. What was your approach?

The first screenplay David Levien and I wrote together was “Rounders.” It was inspired by nights I'd spent playing cards in the underground poker clubs in New York City. I told David about the clubs and the two of us began going night after night, talking to card players, making notes, losing (and occasionally winning) money.

Once we had the basic research done, David and I met up every morning in a storage room on the bottom floor of the apartment building I was living in. We made a detailed character matrix first, then did an outline, and then we wrote the screenplay. We worked two hours every morning. From the moment we typed “Fade In” (with David doing the actual typing) it took us four months to have a draft. We put it aside for ten days. Read it. Did our notes. Sent it out.

In April 1998, you and co-writer David sold “Knockaround Guys” to New Line. How did the story come about?

That film was inspired by guys we grew up around who were the sons or nephews of wiseguys. We sold it as a pitch, with us attached to direct. Our working process was the same as on “Rounders.”

Can you tell us a little bit about your pitch?

As I mentioned, Levien and I grew up around these kids. We were fascinated by them and by the weird lives they lived—between the regular world at their schools and their dads and uncles and cousins. This was before the “Sopranos.” The kids we knew were all like AJ in varying degrees. Our idea was to take these kids and put them somewhere where their family names wouldn’t have any pull. Somewhere like small town Montana. Our pitch was probably 15 minutes long. We had the entire first act, the big turn and the very end. New Line bought it in the room.

The Monday after “Rounders” came out, Levien and I went to Wiboux, Montana to do research on small town life and the type of law enforcement that goes on, on a daily basis there. And then we started writing.

In 1998, “Rounders” hit theaters. What changes were made with the script during development, pre-production and then even production? And what influence, if any, did stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton have on changes to the script at any point? Or John Dahl?

As far as notes: the process went very smoothly. Harvey Weinstein understood the material. His notes were mostly about beefing up Teddy KGB's villainy. John Dahl, Matt and Edward were terrific creative partners. I think your question is interesting in that it seems to assume that stars and directors change the screenplay as a matter of course. That is not my primary experience over the course of the last 14 years. All three of those guys embraced the spirit, tone and intention of the screenplay David and wrote. And any notes or ideas were only geared toward making it more of what it was. The great thing about Matt, or one of the great things, is that because he is such a terrific writer, and because he has actually written scripts, he has great respect for the written word and for the writers’ intentions.

“Runaway Jury” was released in 2003. You and David shared writing credit with Rick Cleveland & Matthew Chapman. Did you rewrite them or did they rewrite you? In working on an adaptation, especially from such a successful author like John Grisham, what pressures were there to stick closely to the book? What was your experience like on the project?

We wrote the greenlight draft of “Runaway Jury.” John Grisham had script approval and had rejected all prior drafts. He liked ours. So did the studio. We have had the opportunity to work with and get to know Grisham a little after, and he is as smart, engaging and creative as you would think.

In 2005, “Tilt” a series about playing poker you crated was shot and aired. Approximately nine episodes in all. How and why did you guys decide to create a series about poker?

We were first hired by ESPN to write a series about gambling and college football. In the end, they decided that it would be too controversial to air a show like that. A few months later, they came to us and asked if we wanted to do a show that revolved around poker, crime and Las Vegas. It so happened that we did.

What was the whole experience like in terms of doing a TV show vs. a feature film in terms of pitching the idea, developing the series, working with a other writers, dealing with a network and so on?

“Tilt” was a great experience in many ways. But it was exhausting. We had a very small budget to hire other writers and so ended up having to write or rewrite almost every one of the first five episodes. We also directed the pilot and were running the show, so what had started as a nonexclusive situation (we had only agreed to consult after the pilot) ended up taking over our lives. We did get to hire and work with a hero and friend of ours, Lawrence Block, whose writing was, of course, excellent. But when the network wanted notes done quickly and to order, it fell on David and me to do them.

Also, why only one season? Was it cancelled?

“Tilt” was not canceled. ESPN came to us and asked if we had ideas for a second season. But they also made it clear that if they were going to pick it up, we would have to be exclusive and commit to working only on “Tilt.” We felt the same way--it would only make sense if we were going to give our all to it. So we decided together that the first season would be the whole thing. ESPN were great partners. Fair and focused on making the best show possible given the resources.

And are you interested in ever doing another TV show again?

David and I have a deal with 20th Century Fox Television to produce TV. They want us to find new shows, new voices and new ideas to develop. So we are doing that. And I am sure that we will create another series sometime soon that we will write. I love the idea of doing a series, of having that canvas, of taking that kind of time to tell a story. We just need to be certain that we have a world, characters and setting that we want to live in for that long.

For 2006’s “The Illusionist,” you served as one of a thirteen producers. What was your involvement with the film? How involved were you with development, production and/or post production?

There were three producers of “The Illusionist.” Michael London, David and me. Others were executive producers or associate producers. We were the driving force to getting it made, putting it together, finding it a home. David and I optioned the underlying short story. Sometimes writers starting out ask about optioning properties. It is actually simple. You just need to be focused, aggressive and creative. And you need to be comfortable with risk. We approached the agency that represented the writer (we got that information by calling the publishing company, asking for the sub rights department, asking them who controlled the rights to the book), and asked for a meeting with the person responsible. We met her, told her that we loved and believed in the story (we had first read it thirteen years earlier and had carried it around since then). We told her that we wanted a free option. That we would get a screenplay written within six months. She talked to the author and they agreed. In the end it took longer, we got one more free option and then we did have to pay for an option. But a small amount in Hollywood terms, under five thousand dollars, and by then we knew we had a movie.

During this time, we developed the screen story with Neil Burger and brought Edward Norton to the movie. Michael was instrumental in getting financing. Everyone else was basically an executive of the financing company or foreign sales agents or money people of some sort or another. We were involved with every phase of that production.

David and you were hired for what might your biggest project to date “Oceans 13,” the third installment in the popular series. How did you end up being hired for the film?

Our agent called us and asked if we would be interested in meeting Steven Soderbergh to discuss writing “Ocean's Thirteen.” Soderbergh had long been among our favorite directors (also one of our favorite writer/producer all around guys). Soon after, we met at a Cosi on 6th Ave in Manhattan. We talked about con movies, crime movies, gambling movies, etc. and at the end of the lunch he offered us the gig. We said, “Yes,” before the words were even out of his mouth.

What was the whole development process like for the project?

In a word? Ideal. Steven had left to go shoot “The Good German” in Los Angeles. So after a few initial conversations with him and producer Jerry Weintraub, David and I would work on an outline in our office in New York during the week. Then we'd fly to LA to meet with Steven (every other Saturday at first and then, right before we went to draft, every weekend for three weekends). The outline was very detailed, about 40 pages. The great thing about working with Steven, or one of the great things, is that you can go anywhere creatively, stretch out as far as you want, and he is comfortable. So when we suggested having Virgil and Turk start a workers' strike in Mexico he laughed and encouraged us, instead of wondering how a studio or audience would embrace that idea in a comedy.

How did Steven Soderbergh influence you what you guys wrote? Or the stars, like George Clooney? Brad Pitt? Etc.

Once there was a draft that Steven and we were happy with, George was very involved in a super positive way. His notes were smart, focused, thematically driven and helpful. Once George and Jerry Weintraub were on board with the draft, the movie was set, and the screenplay changed very little from that point on.

Were there any certain mandates from the Warner Bros. in what took place in the story?

Nope. Steven, Jerry and George had earned their trust. And we were under their flag. Warner Bros was terrific.

What was the overall experience like for you guys on such a high profile project?

Again, in a word, ideal. We were on set every single day. We were flown around with the cast. Treated like real members of the creative team. Jerry Weintraub, Steven, George are the best people you could go into battle with. And the fact that we got to work with Matt Damon again was awesome. From day one, Matt encouraged us to make him and his character look ridiculous, say absurd things, take it as far as we wanted. The whole thing was a complete blast.

Was there a lot pressure?

The real pressure was that if the movie didn't come together it would have been our fault. That's certainly how the town and press would have painted it. We tried to forget that when we were writing, but it was hard.

After “Oceans” you again worked with Soderbergh on 2009’s “The Girlfriend Experience.” What was the genesis of this idea/story?

It came out of conversations we had while we were outlining “Ocean's Thirteen” together. The three of us were in Soderbergh’s hotel suite in New York, working. And we went down to the bar to take a break. And there was a woman across the bar talking to a much older man. They didn’t seem like they were on a date. But they didn’t seem like it was a business meeting either. The body language was just very specific in a way I cannot describe other than to say that it was…ritualistic, or transactional but not formal. Soderbergh said, ‘Whaddaya make of that.’ And Levien said, ‘GFE.’ Soderbergh said, ‘What?’ and we said, ‘That’s the girlfriend experience.” We then broke it down for him and said we had thought it was a movie and had been trying to find the way in. He suggested working on it together.

What kind of research did you guys do?

Over a period of about two years, we interviewed dozens of women who were escorts. And spent time researching the Hobbyist community online. It was surprisingly easy to get all of these people to talk, telling us the most intimate details of their lives. We contacted some guys we knew on Wall Street who were famous for using hookers. We asked them if they could connect us with a couple of girls for research. They put it out there and we got some calls back. We then went to Steven’s office and interviewed the first group of women, one at a time but for about three days in a row. We always had film business women around, either Steven’s assistant or ours or interns or producers we knew and we always had doors open. From those first interviews, we learned a ton about the world. Then we contacted some famous providers on the Internet, women who advertise themselves under false names, and gave them our agent’s number to call back so that they would know we were legit. They sat for interviews too.

What was the time frame to complete the script?

The outline was developed over years, but, sort of, weeks at a time and then we'd put it away again.

I assume it’s safe to say you guys have a good working relationship with Soderbergh.

Yes. Absolutely. He's probably our closest ally in the business.

In April 2009, you sold the script “Beat the Reaper” New Regency with Appian Way and Rick Yorn’s company attached as producers. The thriller centers on a Manhattan ER doctor whose life becomes complicated when a mobster recognizes him from his former life as a hitman. It was based on a novel? Is that right?

“Beat The Reaper” is an adaptation of Josh Bazell's incredible novel of the same name.

What’s its current status?

New Regency is finding the right director for it.

Also in 2010, a script you wrote “Solitary Man” hit theaters. It starred Michael Douglas, Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito. It was a film you and David directed together. Why did you write this script on your own?

I didn't intend to write it on my own. What happened was: I was walking through a park on the east side of Manhattan and saw an interaction between an early thirties woman and her father. He was crude and mean to her in a way that bothered me. I went home and wrote about 15 pages inspired by that moment and a whole bunch of other stuff that had finally added up for me. Then an entire outline poured out of me. Or, rather, a beat list, moments that would take the story to its end. Next day, I gave David the pages and he said, 'Write it yourself . You have the tone, voice, story. Do it!' So I did.

I believe you mentioned it took about four years to write. Why?

Two reasons. The first is, I had the original idea and wrote those pages before we got hired to do “Ocean's.” So that took me out of it for awhile. Also, the one thing I didn't have in the initial beats was the action that would take place between around page 40 to 70. And it took years to sort out the honest way those events would happen.

How do you two work together as co-directors particularly on a script you wrote by yourself?

David and I are like brothers. Have been best friends since we were 14 and 15. Hard to articulate how we work together. Harder to imagine it any other way.

What’s a typical writing day like for you and David?

We keep regular hours. Start the day at 9 am. Finish up somewhere between 4 pm and 6 pm. And then sometimes work on our own at night.

Does one write while the other rewrites? Or are scenes swapped? Divvied up? And what is a writing day like for you on your own? Is it any different than when you are working with your co-writer?

Wow, you emptied the whole clip on that one. Okay...we don't swap scenes usually. One of us types and we go through it line by line together. Occasionally, like on weekends, we will send scenes back and forth, but it's not the typical way it happens.

Do you outline your stories first?

Yes. We like to have as detailed a road map as possible. But we feel free to abandon it at any moment.

How do you prepare before you begin a script? Is there much research involved?

We research a lot. Sometimes we call it by its other name. Procrastination.

How do you guys approach rewrites?

We try and figure out the problems in the screenplay, the original writer's intention, and then we try to make it better, make it work as a movie. There is usually a director involved when we come aboard, so we talk to him or her as well, and the producers, studio etc... The main thing is that we won't take a rewrite job unless we think we understand what the movie should be. And unless that notion is aligned with what the producers, director and studio wants.

Any method or path that you typically follow? And how do you work with notes from executives which might be unclear, vague and so on?

I know it's fashionable to bash studio notes. But when you are rewriting something with a blinking green light or a high priority film, the studio works really hard to funnel the notes to you in a clear way, so that the path to victory is obvious.

What things do you feel writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What should screenwriters keep in mind while navigating the waters of Hollywood?

Don't let fear run you. Know that you are bringing something valuable to the table. But be open to other ideas.

In reading the forums on Done Deal Pro, I notice that many people are trying to find the formula to success. But there is no formula. The only thing you can do is follow your own taste, your own instincts and your own passions. Write comedy if you love comedy. Write sci-fi if that’s your thing. Don’t try and game it all out. Chasing the tail of what seems to be in demand at the moment is a sure path to insanity and frustration. Write because you have to, write as well as you can, and always start a new thing when you finish the current thing, then you’ll have a shot.

What are you working on next? Assignments? Spec scripts?

We just finished the screenplay for our next film to direct, an adaptation of David's book “City Of The Sun,” and are now working on “National Treasure 3” for Bruckheimer.

 


 

 

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