Season 5 Interview with Co-Creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien
by Sam Schube | GQ | May 3, 2020
If it seems like the verbal acrobatics on Billions could only have come from a kind of writerly mind-meld, that’s because they do. Co-creators and showrunners David Levien and Brian Koppelman met at 15, and have spent the intervening years precision-honing their blend of gee-whiz plotting (Ocean’s 13) and subculture deep-diving (Rounders). Billions, their turbocharged take on the Wall Street machers running the world and the law-and-order types trying to reel them in, represents the apotheosis of both. (The journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin is also credited as a creator.)
On the one side, Damian Lewis’s Bobby Axelrod, a made-it-from-nothing master of the universe with a taste for Metallica and cashmere hoodies. On the other: Paul Giamatti’s New York AG Chuck Rhoades, the rule-bending lawman with a taste—as made public last season—for BDSM. Orbiting them is a scenery-chewing bunch of character actors, joined this year by Julianna Margulies (a professor with a bestseller about the female orgasm), Frank Grillo (a he-man painter), and Corey Stoll (Mike Prince, a billionaire investor whose conscious capitalism rankles Axe). In other words: it’s all still extremely Billions.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, did a number on watercoolers and the TV shows we discuss around them, and Billions wasn’t immune. Production was halted after seven episodes; the remaining five will shoot and air whenever we figure out how to make live television again. That didn’t stop Koppelman and Levien from having the kind of joyous, back-and-forth conversation they’ve been prosecuting their entire adult lives.
GQ: Have you guys managed to pull together something like a routine?
David Levien: Yeah, well our season was interrupted. So we, pretty early on, started doing Zoom meetings for the writer’s room, which was pretty productive. And we’re marching towards finish everything up in that regard. We had to finish post on a couple of last episodes that were shot, and that’s been working remotely pretty well. Shooting the rest of the season’s going to be a problem, however.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, we’ll get it done. With the season written and everyone’s ready to come back, we’re all, as Chuck Rhoades might say, champing at the bit to get back to shoot. We just have to do it when it’s safe for the cast and crew.
What was that process of hitting pause like?
DL: We saw it coming, for sure. We were just going, “Is this going to happen? Yes, it’s probably going to happen. When should it happen? Okay, it’s happening.”
BK: Also, what I’m just remembering, D, we had a planned hiatus. We were supposed to take a week off starting the two days after we ended up shutting down. And when we saw that coming, that’s when we started talking to Showtime to say, “Hey, it feels like maybe we should do a shutdown a hair earlier.” And they were great. So we were able to shut down that Thursday night, or something like that, just before we were going to go into our hiatus anyway.
You know, Sam, I think we follow each other on Twitter, and I’ve been aware and pretty focused on [coronavirus] from January 14th.
Yeah, I was going to say—I remember you trying to pull together a bunch of experts, really going deep on the research, and maybe driving yourself a little crazy.
BK: It seemed like maybe I was being overly crazy or overly concerned, but then as I started reading more stuff… One of the things that Dave and I do is we research so heavily, and we learn how to figure out who the true experts are. So I was using a lot of those skills to figure this stuff out, and it started to seem like it might become a problem if we didn’t do certain things at the federal level that we didn’t do.
And then our friend Tim Ferris reached out to me and basically said, “Look, you guys who live in New York, this is going to be very, very bad in New York.” And he was looking at expert models and stuff. So then Dave and I started talking about it. We were talking to the crew about it. We started talking to Showtime about it, because it became clear where this was headed. And I think, luckily, we shut down in time. And the whole industry shut down three days later. We were a couple days ahead of it. That’s it.
When the season opens, we’re in some ways back where we started. After moving lots of pieces around and having Axe and Chuck team up, we’re back to the version where they are at each other’s heels. What was the thinking behind going to that spot to have them positioned there again?
DL: The thinking was: these are two powerful, effective forces, and when it was the only way for them to save their own skins, they were willing to team up. And of course when they put those powers together, they were super powerful. But when it’s two alphas competing over the same piece of territory, there’s going to be a reach for primacy at some point, and the desire to take the other person out. And these little grating infractions started to pile up, until people decided to make their move. To us, it just felt inevitable. That was the fun part about putting them together as allies. We knew that it was a ticking time bomb.
BK: Plus Wendy. Plus these primal feelings that they have. These characters really have deep-seated desires, resentments, needs that they have to fulfill. And somehow Axe and Chuck can’t fulfill them unless they’re on a path to destroy one another.
You guys have spoken about entering each season with questions you want to ask, more than points you’re trying to make. What were some of the things you were interested in exploring this year?
BK: Well, Dave, do you want to speak to the Mike Prince of it all as a way to answer that?
DL: As we’ve been researching and paying attention over the past couple years, we started noticing that a lot of the hedge fund world is looking to private equity and venture capital because the returns in straight equities have shrunk so much. So we knew we wanted to bring in a big rival billionaire character. So we set [Prince] in that world. And that kind of thing, where somebody is behind businesses and is an operator, not just a guy who buys positions, really opens it up, story-wise.
So that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s been a founder. He’s been an operator. He’s fashioned himself into a positive force for change, and he believes that a billionaire’s role is to make things better than they were before. And when he and Axe come together, there was just a lot of friction between the two of them.
BK: But the question that we had was: when somebody calls themselves out like that, is it possible that they can stay that way? We met with a bunch of people who considered themselves impact investors, or people who are trying to now use their money to, at the same time, do good and make money. We would meet with these people, and they clearly believed it. And then the question we asked ourselves is, “We’ll leave it if you can believe it. Can you really do it? Can you really serve those two different ideas?” What happens when push comes to shove on doing the good versus making an extra half a billion dollars?
And when he and Axe come together in, I think, the second episode, they have this remarkable back and forth that puts a lot of the conversations we’ve all been having culturally about the role of billionaires and wealth inequality into their mouths.
BK: Yeah, that was really fun to conceive of and to work on. Dave and I, and Adam Perlman, who wrote that episode, the three of us had a lot of conversation about how to use that interplay between those characters. That took a lot of work, and those two actors crushed it.
DL: That episode was directed by the great Lee Tamahori.
Oh, no kidding. [Ed.: Tamahori is the New Zealand director best known for films like Once We Were Warriors and Die Another Day.]
DL: Yeah. We’ve been huge fans of Lee’s for—however long, almost 30 years.
BK: 30 years, yeah!
DL: We checked into working with him a couple of seasons ago, and he was interested—he loved the show. And then it just took forever to work out the work visas for him. It finally came through, and he was still up for it. And he came to play, and he was amazing, and he’s so sharp. It was a career highlight, working with him.
I’m always struck by how you guys calibrate the tone of the show. It’s a little antic, and it’s got a huge sense of humor, but it doesn’t take any of these things not seriously. How do you think about tone when you’re putting the show together?
DL: It’s just very natural at this point for us. We just have this feeling of what makes it Billions. It matters to us, and we take it really seriously. So that’s built in, yet we want to have a good time. So we’ll let the characters think or say or do ridiculous things sometimes, within reason, and if we go too far, we dial it back, and that rarely happens. And sometimes we say, “Is that too far? What do we think?” And then we think, “No, that’s just far enough. Let’s go.” Just to keep it alive for ourselves and the audience.
BK: You’re talking to two guys who grew up watching Harold Ramis and Bill Murray and Barry Levinson movies. And the Coen brothers. So somewhere between Harold Ramis, the Coen Brothers and Barry Levinson and David Mamet, whatever could have worked in any of those four corners is something that we could potentially do.
Right. It seems as if the fun part of television, or anything serialized or episodic, is you can dip into any one of those things for a little while. You can have an episode that leans really heavily at a heisty thing or a caper thing, or another that deals more with personal back and forth.
BK: David Chase, in that great Brett Martin book [Difficult Men, about the early-aughts Golden Age of television], he says, “The number one thing is keep it entertaining.” There are these issues that we really care about. Obviously we’re prosecuting a bunch of questions. But we want to present it in a way that’s completely entertaining and compelling to the person watching the show. We want you to have a great, great fucking time while you’re watching Billions. And then, we want you to maybe think about what you watched.
You mentioned being deep researchers when it comes to creating this world. Do you hear anything that surprises you at this point?
DL: One thing that surprises me, and I shouldn’t be surprised anymore because we’ve heard enough versions of the answer, but this brash fearlessness that you’ll occasionally get— especially in light of the pandemic starting to happen, when we spend some time with these guys. This attitude of: “This is really not going to get beyond my powers. I’m not going to have a problem dealing with this.” There’s such a surety there that you’re like, “Wait a second. This person’s brilliant. How can they be so sure?” And you’re like, “Well, they’ve built quite an empire being so sure.”
BK: Surprising is not exactly the right word, but the level of access and information that these people have is still gobsmacking—how small the world is for you if you are someone with a titanic amount of money and influence. Meaning, if you want to get to the bottom of anything, you can. If you want to reach anybody, you can.
DL: Yeah, recently, there was a lot of buying of personal ventilators and stuff.
It would seem to me as if hearing some of this stuff firsthand would maybe make it hard to generate sympathy for characters like this.
BK: Well, that’s the job, is to be able to empathize and get inside somebody’s head. But the other part of it is, these people are very good at actually making you see the world the way they see it. Certainly while you’re with them. Now, our job is to go away from that and immediately disambiguate. But you understand the way that they self-mythologize and the effect that that self-mythologizing has. And so if you understand that, and then if you pick out the parts of that that are true, the way in which they had to overcome whatever they’ve had to overcome, you understand how to look at the world from their point of view when you’re writing that character. The show won’t be from that point of view sympathetic to those needs, but you have to be when you’re writing it.
You zoom out a little bit, and over five seasons, you guys are making an argument. You’re articulating some ideas about what this kind of power, either on the judicial side or the financial side, does to people, and the results are not super optimistic.
BK: They’re not. Right. [But] we’re not just slamming their way of life. In fact, we’re completely understanding the allure. But the allure to them and the allure that the myth has to us as a society—then we do have to allow the show to demonstrate the ramifications. Both the ramifications within the world of the show, and within the world at large. Otherwise, we’re not doing our job as writers.
There are a couple of new characters this season. It’s got to be pretty fun to be able to have Corey Stoll and Frank Grillo and Julianna Margulies show up on set.
DL: Yeah, and these are people that we’ve been dying to work with for years and years. So for us, it’s a joy and a privilege to get to write for them and have them come and see what they do. We start as fans with all of them. And it’s great when they come to the show.
BK: Hey, now there’s only Tucci left. He’s the only one left.
It seems as if Billions has really risen in critical esteem. Is that something you guys track at all? Obviously, it’s nice to get a good review, but does it feel any different to be a little more in that conversation now?
DL: We’ve become aware of it. It’s hard to avoid it. If you just go on social media, it’s all tied together. So it’s flying through your feeds. And it’s great for the people we work with and for the cast, for them to get recognition. The fact that they don’t get recognized more widely for awards and stuff, to us, seems like it’s a miscarriage of justice or something. For ourselves, we don’t care. We already have won so huge because we get to make this show exactly the way we want to make it. We love it. We’re working with people we love working with. Our network has our back, and they’re great partners. So we don’t really need anything else, but we’ve always felt like these other people who are toiling and doing such great work should be getting written up. So it’s great to see that happen.
BK: I do track this stuff closely, and by the second season, we were already getting very, very, very top reviews for the show, which was nice. The first six episodes, some critics had questions, but within a year, many of them wrote those pieces where they said, “Oh, I’ve changed my opinion. I’ve realized what these guys were trying to do.” So yeah, it is satisfying. What’s most satisfying, as Dave said, is just the fact that the people who love the show love it so much. We’ve been lucky enough that our obsessions, our enthusiasms have been shared by groups of people a few times over the course of our career. If it happens to you once, it’s amazing. But the fact that Rounders still is that way after all this time, that people know that by heart.
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