Drew Taylor Interviews Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Last week 'Solitary Man,' a charmingly salty-sweet drama, starring Michael Douglas as a disgraced car salesman who looks to rebuild his life despite an uncanny knack for self-destruction, hit Blu-ray. The movie has a novelistic feel, dense with character development and emotion (the deck is stacked heavily, thanks to a wondrous supporting cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, and star-in-the-making Imogen Poots) and features Michael Douglas' best performance in – no joke - years (Speaking of which, where is the 'Wonder Boys' Blu-ray?!!).
Released early this past summer, it was a welcome change-of-pace from the nonstop onslaught of movies like 'The A-Team' and 'Knight and Day,' if only in the fact that people actually talked to each other in 'Solitary Man' instead of just screaming loudly while running away from fireballs.
I got to talk to the co-directors of 'Solitary Man,' David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who have an impressive resume of wonderful for-hire screenplays (they penned 'Ocean's Thirteen' and 'The Girlfriend Experience' for Steven Soderbergh) as well as writing and directing 'Knockaround Guys' and producing 'The Illusionist' and 'The Lucky Ones' for director Neil Burger.
The filmmaking team, who began with the selling of their first screenplay for John Dahl's poker thriller 'Rounders,' are also incredibly nice guys. Read on for their thoughts on 'Solitary Man,' Steven Soderbergh, and what's next for these two!
DT How did you guys get together as a creative team?
DL We've been like brothers since we were 14 or 15 years old. We met on a student teen tour when we were kids. Growing up we were always watching the same movies and talking about movies incessantly, and we sort of went down different paths at different times but about 12 years ago we decided in earnest to write a script together. And that script turned into 'Rounders.'
DT In terms of 'Solitary Man' what drew you to it as a directing vehicle as opposed to something that you would sell to somebody else?
BK That's a really good question. We never had a conversation about anybody else directing this one. Somehow, our fascination with the world in which it takes place and a character like Ben made us not want to try and do it in a different way or want to be at arms length from it. We wanted to be intimately involved in telling the story. And I think that, from the writing of it, that's what was intended.
DT Was this a deliberate attempt to do something that wasn't genre-related?
BK We never had a conversation where we said "Well, the next thing we direct shouldn't be in a genre." It was more that the story occurred to me to write, and I guess you could take a character like Ben and put him in a context of more typically genre, like a crime context, but instead I wanted to treat it as it was. And put him in a context that was realistic and straight and funny also. And when I showed it to David, we immediately started talking about making the movie. And it immediately became clear we were going to tell it as clearly as we could.
DT Was this something that you wrote outside of the partnership and then later the two of you decided to co-direct it?
BK David and I are a filmmaking team and there was never a question that we were going to direct it together. It was just that I had started writing the first 20 pages and brought them to Dave and he read them and said "You should just finish it yourself, because you have the tone and the voice."
DL It just seemed very clear to me that I wanted to see it without my imprint in there.
DT It seems to me that one of the great assets of the movie is that it seems to deliberately sidestep some of the clichés that are inherent with this kind of material. Were there things that you guys avoided when putting it together?
BK That's very nice of you to say. It took me four years to write it and one of the reasons why was I was determined to let it unfold in a way that felt organic and real. And Dave has pointed out to me that sometimes when you have a time deadline, that's when it's easy to reach for the stuff that's familiar. You're not even intending to, but it's like what first occurs or when you're trying to manipulate the story or characters you might fall into that trap. But instead, we were trying to the truth of the moments. And so hopefully that helped us avoid those traps.
DT You guys are buddies with Soderbergh, you wrote 'Ocean's Thirteen' and 'The Girlfriend Experience' for him and he produced this. How is he as a producer as opposed to a director
DL Soderbergh is a great collaborator, no matter what capacity anybody is in. When he's directing and you're writing for him, it's a great experience, when we were directing and he was producing, it was great. And we also had Paul Schiff working with us. These guys were great. They were all about making the movie better and using all of their experience and knowledge in the business to help us maximize our resources.
DT One thing that struck me was the uniformity of excellence in the cast. Everyone, even the smallest role, was so wonderfully cast. Was it just that people read the script and responded to it?
DL It started with Sodbergerh. And I would say that there's this great word in the Paul Schrader-written movie 'City Hall,' where someone is referred to as "mensch-type." And Soderbergh is really "mensch-type." He gave the script to Michael Douglas and then Paul Schiff and Steven were able to take the script to various other actors. And everybody seemed to respond to the script and to the chance to work with Michael.
DT Can you talk about the differences between directing your own stuff than producing for someone to direct? Is there ever a time when you're heartbroken to give one of your scripts away?
DL We don't have the horror stories that you hear from some writers, where they write this perfect script and a director comes along and ruins it. So for the most part we've been part of the process and haven't felt shut out and feel relatively good to the way the movie comes out in comparison to the script. Some of the stories seem slightly more personal like something you want to spend the other year and a half completing and taking it all the way to finished film. I wouldn't say it's a reaction to any horrible experience, it was just a natural decision.
DT So you're working on the adaptation of Josh Bazell's 'Beat the Reaper,' which was one of my favorite books of last year…
BK We love that book man!
DT So how is that coming along?
DL That's set up at Regency and Leonardo DiCaprio is attached right now. It's hard to talk about movies that are being put together. Sometimes they happen and sometimes they don't.
BK We took it so seriously because we loved the book. And boy, do we want to see that movie!
DT I wanted to ask you guys about John Dahl, since he directed your first screenplay.
DL John was great. He really gave us our education as filmmakers. None of us went to film school. So being on the set of 'Rounders' was film school. He gave us total access. We were involved in bringing him into the movie. We were always interested in working with him. And we were involved in getting him the script and having the first meeting with him to get him on board. And because of the complicated nature of hold 'em, back then, it wasn't on TV and people didn't know the game like they do now, we were sort of the resident experts, so we had some utility. So John let us work with the actors and gave us a taste of the whole filmmaking concept, which inspired us to direct our first movie next, which was 'Knockaround Guys.'
DT Alright guys I think that's it. Thank you so much for your time! Really loved the movie!
BK Thanks for your interest and for seeing the movie. Oh, and anything that either one of us said that was a little bit sketchy, please attribute to Dave.