Koppelman Calls the Hit Showtime Series His “Dream Show” and an “Absurd Privilege”
by Eric Johnson | Recode | July 19, 2018
On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, filmmaker and writer Brian Koppelman talks with Kafka about co-creating the hit Showtime series “Billions.” He talks about his writing process, the show’s intense commitment to detail — including its frequent visits to real-life New York restaurants — and whether he thinks the viewers of “Billions” are watching for the characters or for “wealth porn.”
Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited full transcript of the conversation.
Peter Kafka: I’m here at the “Billions” den of Brian Koppelman. Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me here.
Brian Koppelman: Hey Man. Pleasure. What’s happening?
This is. This is where the magic happens. This is where you co-create “Billions.”
What would we say if there were never an MTV “Cribs,” what would we say? We wouldn’t know to say, “that’s where the magic happens.”
Is that where that came from?
I think so.
All I know about MTV cribs is that’s where you go to see what someone’s empty fridge looks like-
… when you’re a temporary millionaire.
… the meme before we had memes, in the same way.
I didn’t realize that’s what I was citing.
The meme was that people would, the first time someone would walk into the bedroom and say, “Here’s where the magic happens.” And then on every episode, someone said it. And then people would say it about their fridge or the game room. Now there may be, and I’m sure there will be a cite of something earlier, but that is when that expression became really part of the Lingua Franca.
See, I brought a pop culture knife to a pop culture gun fight. So I should just stop now. Thanks again for having me here Brian.
So happy to have you man.
We’re just going to skip my standard intro, because you know, if you like the show, you should tell someone else about it. That’s all we ask. We’re about a month after the last episode of season three.
That the last episode aired. Yeah, I guess so.
So where are you in the cycle now for season four?
We are writing season four. My creative partner, David Levien and I, and our writing staff, are writing season four. And we’re prepping season four. We start shooting in September. So we are a couple months out from beginning to shoot the next season.
So explain how this works to people who don’t know how TV works. Will you have complete scripts done in September?
We will have written six of the 12 episodes before we start shooting and we will know the story of the second half of the season, too. Some can, I guess, begin their season without understanding the end of it. But David and I don’t understand how to do that.
Plus you guys make seasons where the beginning — I mean, these are little jewel boxes of shows, sometimes.
Yes, these things have to, what we are starting toward… We have to know what that ending is so that we can, you know, zig and zag and find our way there. And so, we will understand the architecture of the entire season. We already do actually understand the architecture of the whole season. And so the process for us is, we start talking about themes. These aren’t themes we talk about in public, but themes that we want to explore in the season. And we do that for a few weeks.
And that starts in the spring, while the-
The show is ending and we take a couple weeks and then we start. And this year we didn’t even really have a couple of weeks, because we just decided to keep the momentum going. And so we start to really break it out into episodes. And so we have now written… the first episode of next season’s written.
Dave and I wrote that. And we have drafts written by our writers of episodes two and three. And we’ve now broken the story for four. So we are already, I’m talking to you now, and I’m already living in the next season of the show, in the middle of the next season.
You’re there. How much of what you do when you’re writing the next season is influenced by how the show played out?
Played out in what way?
In terms of how, what it looked like to you when you were actually watching it on a screen. And then the reception you got from fans, from friends.
I was talking to Penn Jillette about this the other day. I mean, you can’t allow the way the thing lands to influence the way that you do it going forward. I mean, we’ve been really lucky that each season, people have liked it more and more.
People love it, right?
And that I am somebody who loves reading the recaps of the show. I love listening to the podcast about the show that Mallory Rubin and Sean Fennessey and Bill Simmons and Alison Herman do on The Ringer. But you have to listen to that stuff and read that stuff largely — I mean, I do it largely, more than a curio, I love when people pick up on the thematics. What it mostly does-
Because you’re engaged. You are tweeting. You’re back and forth.
If some asshole like me copies you on a tweet and with an ill-founded criticism about your tweet, you’ll respond to that, about the show. You respond to that.
I’ll engage in good humor.
And, I like to know, it gives, what I would say is it gives us, maybe more confidence to just follow, tell the story that we want to tell, because the people watch our show so closely. And there’s a community of people watching and talking about it. And what I’ve seen is that they’re really smart and they get it all. The fear one might have is if the stuff isn’t connecting, if you’re not being clear enough, but people get it and they’re, you know, if I make an obscure allusion to a moment at minute 12 of a minor movie or of a move that a certain professional wrestler did, it’ll be talked about, written about, people catch it.
So the reaction doesn’t steer us at all, not even 1 percent. Less than a 10th of a percent. But it does give us the confidence to keep telling the story in exactly the manner that we want to tell the story.
And your audience is building so you don’t have a fear of like, “Well, we’re losing audience. Maybe we needed to shake something up.” So you’re good there.
Dave and I don’t think about the numbers at all.
You must look right?
It just doesn’t … First of all, the way numbers work now has nothing to do with the way they worked when you and I were growing up and watching this stuff, right? Great thing about “Billions” is actually, a lot of people watch on Sunday night, but nobody cares.
That’s not the way that any of these, certainly no premium cable show is in any way judged based on that. They care about how people watch over two weeks, three weeks, a month. By the time there might be month-long numbers. I don’t even ask. I know what they are and I know that they’re strong. And I’m happy when Showtime, at the end of a season or whenever, they talk about it. It’s great to know that our show is like the number-two drama, or whatever it is on the network. But again, you cannot… Look, my first movie, the first movie David and I made was “Rounders.” That movie was a bomb at the box office and has had this incredible life afterwards. So you can’t get caught up. We made a decision a long time ago not to get caught up in that aspect of it.
That’s why we spent half our life making Indie movies.
Do you guys assume you’re going to have multiple seasons more to run on this? Or do you think “each season is potentially our last, so we should write it accordingly?”
Well, I mean, listen, the television gods could pull the plug at any moment.
I’m not a superstitious person, but I’m certainly not going to say we have all the runway that we want. On the other hand, we have a real audience, of kind of a fanatical group of people who love the show. Showtime loves the show. They are incredible partners. I certainly know we have a couple more years. That we’re going to get to do this.
So do you think out, like, “We’ve got a two year story we can tell?”
Oh, you have to. We know the, I mean, yes. We know how to tell a story through season seven of the show.
Yeah, you’re there.
I was going to ask you about the online community that responds. I listen to the Ringer podcasts. I read some of the writeups in the New York Times, and Vanity Fair. Our friend Helen Rosner has a newsletter dedicated to your show.
Her newsletter was fantastic, yeah.
Although it cracked me up because a couple episodes in, I realize she’s never watched the Godfather movies.
Mee, too. I couldn’t understand that.
Which was crazy.
Then she did.
Yeah. No, I was harassing her constantly. I would just say, “The following things are Godfather references in this episode, Helen.” And she finally cracked. What do you think about, I mean, obviously you like it, right? Because it shows that people are engaged in your show.
I assume it’s a new idea for you that there’s this existing community of media people who are going to create media based on your media.
So I was a fanatical, obsessive “Mad Men” fan. And I read Lisanti and Sepinwall and… what’s her name? She’s the greatest. She was in Grantland back then too, the third one. Molly Lambert! I would watch the show and I just couldn’t wait for their recaps to come out.
There was a fully baked-in part of the experience.
I would watch “Mad Men” and then I would hope that one of them had their review up. And then when other people would write ancillary pieces about it, I would love it. I would read every single “Mad Men” recap, I read and thought about and debated. And my wife and I would pass them back and forth. And David Levien and I would pass them back and forth. And we’d argue about it and we would cite our reading of the episode. And you know, I would follow it on Twitter. So when the finale happened and Andy Greenwald didn’t like the finale, it’s probably the angriest tweet ever sent was at Andy. I might’ve emailed him.
Over “Mad Men?”
Yeah. Made me think I never need to … And I love Andy, and he’s brilliant. But it made me think, “I never need to listen what that guy says about TV again,” because he didn’t like-
Take that, Andy Greenwald!
I just said, he’s brilliant. Take that! But I remember saying like, “Oh, that’s good. That releases me from caring about that ever again.”
And I was just a pure fan, not a fellow professional. And that’s what I love about the … So what gets me annoyed, there was a recapper this year who I felt really, truly didn’t understand the show. And all the recappers were so nice. And they did, they loved the show. And like, you know-
It’d be hard to do that if you didn’t love the show.
… did incredibly well in the ratings.
You kind of have to be a fan to make it work and I imagine if you didn’t it’d be uncomfortable for you.
But there was one recapper who I really felt like, at the core, liked the show for the wrong reasons and didn’t actually get it. Didn’t have any idea what Dave and I were doing. That was annoying to me. That’s when it’s frustrating. And that’s when you have to just not … I mean Glenn Kenny would say to me, “I have no business even commenting on it.” That the criticism isn’t for me. It’s for everybody but me.
So you’re not looking at the numbers, but you are definitely reading what people have to say about your show.
I love engaging with that.
It sounds like you’re investing hours a week consuming, right? Between the podcasts and reading them. Maybe it’s not hours.
No, it’s not hours. It’s a total of-
You’re a fast reader.
I’m a really, really fast reader. No, it’s an hour and a half, right? The podcast is an hour. Then it’s a half hour reading all the recaps.
Yeah, and do you give the Ringer guys feedback on their feedback?
Well, I mean it is a fascinating point, right? In that, because I’m not a member of the working media in that way.
I’ve done enough journalism that I’m —
I’m sitting in your podcast office right here.
Yeah. I’m a podcaster. I covered the Masters for Sports Illustrated this year. I’m journalist-adjunct and a certain way.
And I wrote for Grantland, from the very beginning of Grantland. Sean Fennessey and I are friendly, and Simmons and I are friends for 20 years. But we do separate, so those guys don’t ever — I never know what they’re going to say about the show. I never know if they’re going to like it. There have been movies that they haven’t liked. I mean, Simmons personally won’t slam a movie of ours, but he might not fucking cover a movie of ours. If a fact is wrong on the show, you know, if the fact was misstated, or if they say “this is the first,” you know… “It’s the first time we heard the character Taiga name.”
I caught that one.
But that’s a mistake.
I know. I know.
Taiga was said in the second season, so then the name.
Then I heard them correct it. That was you correcting them. It’s hilarious.
Yeah. Yeah. I just, I don’t know, however I did it. I wrote Mallory, I think, and I was like, “Oh, by the way.” Or I wrote Sean.
So that wasn’t a super … Some super fans, may have also written in.
So super fans do, I see it on Twitter. Super fans will write to me that there was a mistake or something like that. But then I can carry their water.
Also, there’s no super fan bigger than Mallory Rubin. She’s the biggest super fan, I think.
She’s pretty hardcore. It’s a little intense.
We were talking about writing. I was asking you off-air about the research for food specifically.
Oh sure, yeah.
But research generally…
So how much time, Andrew Sorkin is the, what’s his formal title here for the show?
I think in the third season he was a producer on the show, but he hasn’t been involved in the show since the pilot.
Right, so he’s not feeding you stuff.
How much time are you guys spending figuring out the mechanics of business, mechanics of social life?
So each season we’ve had technical advisors — at least one person who was at one time an assistant United States attorney for the southern district. One year we had someone from the eastern district. We always have people who are super-savvy about the world of finance. And then we have a person in each of those areas on the payroll as a season-long consultant.
And you bring them in, because you look, “We know we’re going to do an IPO plot line.”
“Help us figure out how this could work or would work” or, yeah. We want to understand what a short squeeze would feel like. Or how a short squeeze would be structured. And of course we’re all doing tons of reading. And we have the Slack is just — tons of articles-
… and all that stuff. But also from the first season. And I would say this was the biggest, you know, in the very, very beginning, Andrew did introduce us to a couple of hedge fund guys, when we were writing the pilot. And then David and I’ve kept those relationships up and then met many more hedge fund managers.
And I assume that the door, they’re knocking, right?
They want to be involved.
They want to come in. And a couple of these billionaire hedge fund managers have become something like friends. And so we can call them and ask them. And so Marc Lasry gave us some lines that helped us understand a certain character, who was on the show last year. And other people will give us how they felt when a stock was going in the wrong direction. And also, you know, you really have to, it’s almost impossible for us, as regular people, to understand what it is to live as a nation-state and the individual as nation-state, which is what these billionaires are and so spending some time with them, going over their estate, seeing how they deal with their people, seeing what the kind of … The particular brand of freedom they practice. You can’t really imagine it. You kind of have to witness it. And this has allowed us to witness it.
So your equivalent of a ride-along is going into a Connecticut hedge fund guy’s mansion.
And you’re creating the show, right? So you’ve done the research-
Because then you see the professional tennis player who was once ranked top 10 who lives in his guesthouse.
How great is that? You get to see what that life looks like, what it does and doesn’t look like. And then what’s the tension between saying, well, “this is what it really looks like and if we wanted to do it faithfully, it should look like this” versus “we need to make something that’s going to work on TV and that a bigger audience is going to get.”
Well sure, with the stock stuff. But we learned from our early movies, you know, the more specific you are and the more accurate you are to the real thing somehow the more universal it feels. People recognize it. You never lose by being super specific and super real, we don’t think. There are times you might compress a time. Probably the most common thing you do in any televised drama is compress the time frame.
But that’s mostly where we’re trying pretty hard to make it … Look, you know, there are also recaps about the reality level of the show. Literally, just look at how much does this-
“Could that deal actually have happened that way?”
Yeah. We win on that all the time.
There was one that I was scratching my head about, with Taylor and the Silicon Valley guy, and Bobby ends up screwing both of them over, screws her over, right? He’s getting his hands on capital, the idea’s that it’s gonna end up an IPO.
All that language about how you would value that investment, that’s all real.
That’s all real.
That came verified, documented-
So, me scratching my head, that’s me being wrong.
Yeah, yeah. When the idea is that by making that investment, there’s already a pre- … that whole run, yeah, that came from somebody who structures those deals.
That’s a thing?
Okay, so I learned something already.
I remember when we found that solution, that was from talking to our consultant and saying, “here’s what we want to happen. How would you make up this short? Give us these different ways.” We backed into that, the specific thing, because by understanding from a consultant how to make that work.
I was asking about financial accuracy. A big part of your show is lifestyle, right?
Both, how these people live, and then a lot of where they eat. Which is great, because you’re a foodie, and it seems like … Is there a restaurant that you’re highlighting that you have not been to? Or do you go sample everything?
There might have been … Yeah, I’m sure there’s been a joint that I haven’t been in, but, I’m there when we’re shooting. So I’m there.
Are you occasionally saying, you know what, “I would really like to go to ‘X’ restaurant, let’s make a scene that’s there.”
No. I don’t think so. No, you’re doing this research, again, what you’re trying to do is figure out where these people would go, and what that signifies. So, you’re looking at where these restaurants sit in the firmament, where these characters sit, and what the intersection of those things is. What’s available to the viewer, is as much as the viewer brings to it.
Right, well sometimes you-
So, the Nakazawa scene is really funny.
This is the famous sushi scene.
Yeah, but that’s funny whether you … It doesn’t matter, right? Wags acting in that way is great.
And, also, he fills in the context for you, right?
Yeah, but if you go further, well he mentions the Ag, the Tomago. But, if you’ve watched “Jiro,” and if you’ve done a little reading, and you understand that connection, it’s that much richer for you. Look, that’s what we’re trying to do. Mostly, we’re just trying to tell a really particular, entertaining story. David and I are so freaking lucky that we get to do this with this insanely brilliant cast. This incredible crew of ours. But imagine getting to write to Paul Giamatti, and Asia Kate Dillon, and Maggie Siff, and Damian Lewis, it’s crazy. And Dave Costabile. Look, we’re trying to give these actors great stuff to do, and set the scenes in places that make sense, and might offer additional commentary on the world that we’re writing about.
And the fact that you get to hang out with Dave Chang, or whoever. Is a benefit.
Yeah, but again, that’s an example, listen, Dave Chang’s an old friend of mine, so that was a true joy. I am a person who spent a lot of time in the New York food scene. You’re catching me three-and-a-half weeks into a Keto/Atkins thing.
Oh no. Well, you seem in good spirits.
It’s working. But, I’ve been out of … It’s like Sinatra not being able to go into the joints and –
Momofuku is not in the cards today.
I can’t go to a noodle bar on Keto. But, I love David Chang and I love his restaurants. More than that, right, we set that scene at Ko. And the idea was that Axe bought the restaurant out, so he’s alone, or had a relationship with David Chang, and said to David Chang, “Hey man, I need to come in when Ko’s not open, would you cook for me and a friend?”
And he does a few of those right? A power play of your restaurant and you announce this is the restaurant, and it’s a big deal that he’s here.
Yeah. That’s something that people do.
That’s a great power play. I gotta find someone who can do that.
It’s an amazing thing to do. It’s not something we can do, but it’s something people can do.
I assume people are now offering themselves up.
I was offered … The other night, a chef offered, in a high-profile restaurant, offered that I could come have a dinner. Me, and Dave, and one other person. The night the restaurant was closed, they offered to open the joint just for us, because they would like to ultimately be featured in it. I said, “No, I can’t.”
You don’t want to be in that world where you’re trading dinners for TV time.
Never. Also, I’m not … We’re nothing … We’re not Bobby Axelrod. Listen, I was talking to somebody today, and we were talking about the levels of bad behavior we’d engage in. I will say, I am probably one of my worst characteristics is, if I know somebody at a restaurant, and they’ll let me cut the line, I’ll cut the line, and I won’t be guilty about it. But I can’t go make you come to work on a day you’re closed in the hopes that you’ll be on the show. I’m not a favor-trader.
If you’ll listen to this, you don’t care, but we’re gonna probably have some spoilers here, so, if you haven’t watched Season Three, go back and watch it and come back.
When did you learn about ortolan?
Oh my God. Like in the book of lists or something when I was a kid.
Yeah, never heard about it. Do you want to explain what it is, in case someone cares, and hasn’t seen the show.
It’s this … Well, now, it turns out, I mean, “Succession” then put it on “Succession.”
That’s what I was gonna get to, yeah.
But, I didn’t see the show, I just get tweeted about it. You know what? “Hannibal” did it before we did. Which I didn’t know.
And then someone told me that “Hannibal” did. I never watched “Hannibal”-
The TV show?
Which is one of the great TV shows. I never watched it, but they had fake ortolan too. So, everybody’s done –
And this is the thing that obscenely wealthy people do-
…is eat this semi-illegal-
Semi-illegal little bird, you should not be eating it.
De Gaulle had this as his last meal, he had like three of them, or something like that. Or Mitterrand, Mitterrand, I guess did it. It’s a French thing, really. But, yes, it’s this decadent thing. None of us, again, none of us will ever get to eat ortolan, but the idea that these people can do that. This bird that’s eaten whole, and soaked in brandy is amazing.
So, I’ve watched that scene. I’ve never seen it, and had to Google it, and then I’m watching “Succession,” which is another show about obscenely wealthy people. They also have an ortolan scene in there. Should we make anything of the fact that there’s two shows airing within months of each other that feature obscenely rich people eating super decadent/illegal French food? Does it say something about where we’re at as a culture, or is that just random chance?
The truth of the matter is, in the same way I didn’t know that Hannibal did it, maybe they didn’t know that we did it.
Look, I think it’s true. I think it’s fairly true to the thing. Bourdain talked about, rest in peace, but Bourdain talked about an incredible night in France and ortolan, and I think … There’s not that much that regular … That we can’t do in the world, so that these people can do what they often want, is to experience that which is incredibly difficult to experience.
I was with a restaurateur the other day, who said-
It sounds like they’re spending a lot of money on, buying something that regular people can’t get.
A restaurateur said the other day, one thing that you need to know about billionaires like this, is they don’t want to be an inclusive … this was his, as a restaurateur’s opinion, this is not necessarily my opinion. But, I found the statement fascinating: He said, “They want to be in exclusive restaurants. They don’t necessarily want the best treatment at an inclusive place. What they want is to be in an exclusive environment.”
And you can treat them poorly, and whatever.
I don’t think you can really treat them poor. No, no. They want to be treated the best, in the place that’s impossible to be.
But they want to be in the thing that you can’t get to.
Yeah, the room-
And that’s the experience.
The VIP room beyond the VIP room.
What I started getting at, is what do you think … How much of the appeal of “Billions,” do you think, is specifically sort of, the wealth porn? “This is what a really rich person lives like.”
Well, I think the ortolan thing was something different, right? The ortolan was a way, in the way we used it in the show… This is an episode when everything gets perverted in a way. The whole idea of justice. Wendy becomes compromised, and the key line, in that scene is, they say, “One is sublime, two is gluttony.” Then Axe says, “What’s three?” Wylie says, “Let’s find out.”
Or Wags says, “What about we have another one?” Wylie says, “Let’s find out.” So, these are people, the idea is they’re willing to go to a place beyond gluttony for their particular form of satisfaction, no matter who has to get drowned in Armagnac, as a result of it. You know.
For us, it was a symbolic thing, much more than it was an example of … What we liked about it was the idea of it being a rite of some sort. R-I-T-E, rite.
That they were engaging in this at this very heightened moment when everything was in jeopardy for Axe, this is the way Wags thought that he was going to take Axe’s mind off his troubles, or focus him in a different way, or say a kind of, a good-bye to him. So, no, our show could go way further in the wealth porn. I think that people love to watch hyper-intelligent, hyper-verbal people who are charismatic and charming, and who really love what they do, and who love being in this contest and this game.
For us, what we’re interested in, is why America is willing to substitute verbal acuity, charm, power and wealth for true qualities of character, like kindness and empathy? We hope that by watching the show and getting off on it when these characters do really bad things, it makes us all wonder why we’re rooting for them sometimes.
Because, these are dark times, and these people are living in these times. And they are very rarely doing that which they say they are doing. And yet, we not only forgive them, we love them. I love them.
What percent of your audience do you think is engaging with you in that fundamental question, which is clearly what you’re trying to do? And what percent is like, “That’s a really cool house?” There’s an ad, for I don’t know, one of the carriers is saying, “You can watch TV with us,” and they’re showing a clip from Showtime, and they show Bobby Axelrod walking around his Hampton house, and the guy on the couch goes, “That’s a really awesome house.” They clearly think their audience thinks it’s cool to look at cool stuff.
I think that’s a small-
You think it’s small.
Everything that tells me … nobody’s ever come up to me to talk about that. People come up to me to talk about Bobby Axelrod, and Chuck Rhodes, and Wendy Rhodes, and what they’re going through and them as people, much more… The only thing anyone’s ever mentioned to me along those lines, is the “his” and “hers” airplanes. That’s the single only thing anyone’s ever mentioned about that.
So, what’s the line in the beginning of the season, where they think they’re gonna lose everything, and-
That “$300 million’s not enough.”
“Not enough.” That’s intentionally-
But that’s why I think most of the audience is along for the ride that Dave and I want them to be along for. Because-
You want them to recoil at that line?
Yeah, you want them to ask themselves, why they’re still rooting for them. And ask themselves why they kind of understand it. Why are they kind of like, “That’s gross. Give me $300 million. I see why it’s hard for them to live on three.” I want that entire conversation to be going on in your head when you’re watching it. This is one of the rewards of Twitter, I can say that conversation was going on in people’s heads. I know it, because I saw it. I saw it happening.
When you write that line, do you think, “This is gonna be a … People are gonna chew on this.”
You have to, when you write the thing, you have to discipline. If I were coming up now, it’d be different, but because of how we started, I’m able to divorce myself from all of it when I’m working. When I’m writing, man, I’m really just writing. It’s the least intellectual part of the thing. It’s the least calculated. The writing is the purest part of the whole thing. When you’re writing the dialogue, in particular the dialogue, the scene is themselves. So, you’ve outlined it and that takes a lot of thinking, because you’re doing the story math, but when you’re writing it, I mean, I’m sitting somewhere, I have giant headphones on, I’m listening to music loudly, I’m not here. I’m not in the world of Twitter in that way.
When I finish a scene sometimes, my pathetic version of taking a walk sometimes, is to then go to Twitter and blow off steam, but then I’m fully back in this imaginary world. That’s the incredible joy and luck of what I get to do for a living, is I get to live in my imagination a lot of the time.
Were you a smoker? You seem like a guy who would have walked around and smoked at one point after you finished scene.
No, cigars when I was young-
Cigars were your favorite?
…because my dad was a big cigar smoker. I smoked cigarettes for maybe nine months when I was in law school. My, I think last year of law school, I was going at night, and the guys I studied with, I was no threat to them, so I studied with the smartest guys in the law school, and they all smoked.
So, if you didn’t do cigar, you didn’t do cigarettes, what was your writerly neuroticism?
My entire existence.
Yeah, yeah. That’s what I figured.
Basically, you know. No, I don’t have a particular affect like that. Other than the big headphones, which you look like a douche with big headphones. There’s no real way to-
…be 50. No, no.
Jelani’s got big headphones on.
You can’t be 52 years old, and look like I look, and walk around with the big headphones without looking like a jerk. I love … I need music when I work almost all the time. Not all the time, but almost all the time I need that, and a lot of coffee.
Speaking of writing, you did a thing back when Vine existed where you were doing writing lessons via Vine. What was the impetus for that? Six second writing lessons?
Six Second Screenwriting Lessons, that was a tongue in cheek title, but what happened was it was in reaction … One of the things that drives me mad in the world is fake experts, con people. I wrote a piece on my blog about the screenwriting industrial complex, con men and the screenwriting industrial complex, because these people set up in a Radisson somewhere and charge people to teach them how to write genre. These are people who haven’t written anything that’s gotten made.
I was getting questions on Twitter from people where the premise of their question was faulty. They would say, “I know you have to write in a five act structure, but I’m wondering …” I’d be like, “Wait. Who told you you have to write …?” “Well, this guy who has this seminar, this script consultant, this reader.”
It got me annoyed, and Vine had just come out. I just picked up my phone and looked in it and said, “Read screenplays, watch movies.” I said, “All screenwriting books are bullshit, all of them. Read screenplays, watch movies, let them be your guide.” I called it Six Second Screenwriting Lessons, and I sent it out there into the world. Then it went nuts. All these actors, and directors, and writers started retweeting it. Then I just did a bunch of them.
What started kind of as a goof, what happened was I realized quickly that people were desperate for permission. They just wanted permission to try, to try to find the most creative part of themselves, and to express themselves, to tap into it without being told they had to do it in some set and prescribed way, and without believing other ways of expression were proscribed or were not allowed. What they needed was somebody who’d done it to tell them how hard it was to get over feeling like they didn’t have permission, and that was me as a young person.
I didn’t feel like an artist when I was a young man. I felt like my artistic intentions were frivolous and maybe fraudulent and that I wasn’t a writer. It was only when I was 30 years old and Amy and I had had our first child, and I realized I wanted to be the kind of dad that would come home and tell him and then eventually my daughter to be anything they wanted — I wasn’t living that life, and I had to break through, and I found a way to do it by doing morning pages every day as described in Julie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I learned how to get in a state of flow and to do the work every day.
I realized I could give that gift back to people. I realized I could do it without any profit for myself and that I could maybe put a dent in this industry of con people. I decided as long as I had something new to say and as long as it was interesting to me and people were getting something out of it, I would do one a day. I did one of these a day for 360 days, and at the end, I had over 65 million views on the Vines.
It was clearly something that people did want to feel, was this sense that Hollywood doesn’t know that there are no experts, there are no gatekeepers. I would tell the stories of my first script getting rejected, or of the first musical artist I worked with before I was a writer getting rejected, and how it’s easy for gatekeepers to say no, and how you have to be the one to tell yourself yes.
It was really satisfying doing it. It probably led to the podcast that I did because the podcast-
Yeah, The Moment with Brian Koppelman, because I realized that I wanted to talk to people who’d gotten the best out of themselves creatively and figured out when they wanted to give up and how they got through the moment they wanted to give up. All of us have wanted to give up, so what it felt like when they were at their low point and how they transcended that. I’ll talk to people as diverse as … I’ll talk to Aimee Mann, I’ll talk to Colson Whitehead, I’ll talk to Seth Meyers or Danny Meyer. You know what I mean?
It’s kind of the core story, right? “I was down and then I got up.”
Well, and the ways in which … I’m equally interested in what is it … I was reading the Springsteen autobiography and that moment that he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek was really heavy for him. Seth Meyers was on the cover of those things and I asked Seth about that. “What does that feel like? How do you actually recover from that kind of success and expectation?” That’s the flip side of it. I’ve always been fascinated by that too.
Who’s the guy you want for that show, or girl, or woman?
There are two people that I want the most, maybe three. The three would be Michael Stipe, Haruki Murakami, and Barbra Streisand.
I assume you’ve asked some of them.
Michael Stipe’s around. He’s fine-
I’ve had Mike Mills and Peter Buck.
Yeah, you’re working your way up. I get it.
I gotta have Stipe.
I got it. I wasn’t planning on having a screenwriting discussion, but I’m just curious. Is there any advice about structure and stuff like that that people should be thinking about? I’m only asking because I went down a “Die Hard” rabbit hole last week.
He was great, Steven E. de Souza.
I ended up on a Dan Harmon Wikipedia page where he’s explaining something about story structure and he’s using “Die Hard” in each chapter. I was fascinated by it.
My approach to this is everybody has their way of doing it. I guess what I think is when you start thinking in a certain formal way about structure, that’s fine. It should be ingrained in you though. We all know how to tell a story. We all know what it is to have some crazy thing happen to us in the world, come home, and tell our roommate, our spouse, our significant other, about the crazy thing that happened at work, on the road, wherever. What happens when we do that? We have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Often, we have a beginning, a middle, the thing you think is gonna happen that you lead them towards, and then holy shit, it’s actually this other way that it ended. That’s why we want to tell the story because it’s strange but familiar, and we’re gonna tell it.
I think the more you can get people out of their heads worrying about that stuff and just know, hey man, tell the story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there should be some reversals and conflict in every scene. But also, although Dave and I don’t make avant garde stuff, we don’t make really hyper-traditional stuff either… “Billions” is a very odd show. These two protagonists, there aren’t like A, B, and C stories the way there are, I guess, in lots of shows. There’s not really a good guy and a bad guy. It’s a show with its own rhythm, its own meter, and its own story, its own story flow.
I think our movies also don’t necessarily have … like “Solitary Man,” which is our best reviewed movie and made Roger Ebert’s Year In Best List and New York Time’s Year In Best List and all that stuff when it came out. It’s basically a movie with … Later, someone told me that movie has two acts really, not three, even though most movies have three acts. I think that’s probably true. I just never thought about it when I was writing it. David and I directed it, I wrote it, and I never thought about it when I was writing it. I was just trying to tell the story.
I’ll say this, be entertaining when you write your stuff. Don’t indulge yourself. Be entertaining. Write the first draft for yourself, then keep refining it after you get the first draft written, and be rigorous about it.
We were talking about structure at the beginning of this, sort of accidentally. How important is it for you to surprise someone with where the plot goes?
It’s not the apex goal, but it’s a lovely thing to have happen.
Do you want little surprises, do you want big surprises? If you watch season three, and again if you haven’t, you’re listening to the wrong podcast this far in, it kind of seemed from the beginning that there was gonna … You said, there’s conflict between Taylor and Bobby Axelrod, right? You can sort of see where that’s gonna end up. It could’ve gone a bunch of different ways, but it ended up in a way that you might have predicted. Are you okay if I thought that at the beginning of the season?
We put the hints in there. Yeah.
You want me to be thinking about it.
The astute viewer can, because the character stuff’s more important, like the caring about them and understanding why or how or what is the pathology?
The season before with the short and the ice juice, that was much more of a surprise.
Yeah, each … But I think we can’t just try to recreate that. What we have to do is just go deeper and deeper into the characters. There will be … Look, you were right about that, but almost nobody saw the last moment with Chuck, Wendy, and Axe.
So you got a delightful surprising moment at the end of the season. You also got something that you could’ve thought might happen, but you didn’t think Malkovich was gonna be sitting there at Mason Capital at the beginning of that episode. There’s always gonna be some element of yeah, you want to be surprised.
Le Quinton said that the challenge in a postmodern era of doing any of this stuff is that the audiences are so aware and so smart. It’s like when you’re riding Space Mountain. The first time you ride Space Mountain, the turns take you totally by surprise, you’re in the dark. The fourth time, you start leaning before the turn. We have to understand where you might be leaning and then sometimes go the other way or sometimes let it go that way so that the ride feels fresh each time.
You mentioned that last scene, it ends with the Velvet Underground.
Yes, it does.
Great Velvet Underground song. I interviewed you, did a mini interview with you last year about music. You clearly enjoy music as much as food when it comes to getting great songs in here. I think at the time you said Led Zeppelin was your big white whale.
It’s just very difficult to organize.
Still didn’t get him. Is that still something you’re trying to land or you move on?
It’s fine. If it shows up, yes. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time. I would love to use the right Zeppelin song at the right time, but you’re really trying to make these moments work, you know what I mean? The perfect song for the perfect moment.
Does anyone come to you and say, “You know, it’s great that you’re doing great ‘60s and ‘70s rock songs and also great recent rock songs, and you got Craig Finn in there. There should be more hip hop in there,” there should be more of this or that, or this show should reflect-
No, Episode 7 ends with an insanely great Vince Staples song.
Episode 3-07 ends with a crazy Vince Staples song. No. The first season, we used Sly and the Family Stone, and we’ve used Aimee Mann, and then we’ve used, like I say, Vince Staples. So no. I mean, that in general, working with Showtime’s incredible in that they give us an astonishing amount of freedom to make the show. They’re great partners. They give us notes, we have great conversations with them, but I would say distinct from any creative experience David and I have had with the financing entity, this is spectacular.
Is there something you’ve wanted to do creatively that some is too difficult financially to pull off so far?
No, we’re all grown ups who have made stuff for a very long time. We did that Metallica thing. That was insane.
What you do is you’re responsible. If you’re gonna do something crazy, you warn everybody way in advance, and you figure out how you’re gonna pay for it during the season.
So if we’re gonna spend money going to China, we’ll figure out how to save money somewhere else.
I think in any business, talk about where you don’t want surprise, what you don’t want ever is to surprise the people paying for you to execute what you’re trying to execute.
“Oh by the way …”
We’re ahead all the time, so the moment we had a big idea, we’re calling Amy Israel, who’s our creative exec at Showtime, we’re getting on the phone with Gary and David, who run Showtime. We’re all talking about it. “Is this worth it? How would we do this?” It’s a constant conversation, but like I’m saying, this is a singular situation. It’s a great conversation. They’re making the same show we’re making.
How great is that?
And you don’t feel ratings pressure.
No. People like the show.
You have your standard writer’s neuroticism, but that’s kind of it.
I have tons of neurosis about doing it well. I don’t want to let people down. That’s terrifying to me.
Maybe it’s the diet, but you look calm and confident.
Letting these actors down would kill me too, man. Getting to make a television show that’s your dream show, that’s the exact show you and your lifelong best friend want to make is so rarefied, such an absurd privilege that, of course, I wouldn’t be normal if I didn’t have fear and anxiety about losing it. The thing is that giving even a moment’s thought to that is useless. You have to just make the show. The only way to keep making the show is to make the show.
You’re a gambler. You’re a gambling guy.
I’m a poker player.
Poker player. Rounders is a great poker movie. You’re in one of the great poker scenes in Michael Clayton.
Yes, I am.
Which is one of my favorite all time movies.
I loved being a part of it.
You get to rip apart George Clooney.
Which is a rare experience. How do you view poker and gambling versus the Wall Street characters you’re writing about? Is it the same highs and lows or different?
This is probably a longer conversation than we have the time for, but they’re closer to poker players than to gamblers because I separate poker from gambling. Most gambling games, the numbers tell you you can’t win, and in poker, if you’re better you can win over the long haul because of … Over the long haul, the variance gets smaller and so it’s a game of skill. Yeah, like great poker players, these people understand game theory, and they understand numbers, and they understand people. I think there are skills that … A bunch of hedge fund people are world class poker players.
I would assume so, yeah.
Some world class poker players have gone to work, some of the young superstar poker players retired from poker and have gone to work for some of the biggest hedge funds. It’s definitely, you’re right, definitely a lot of commonality there.
You did a poker game, was it last season or the season before?
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