Exclusive: Brian Koppelman & David Levien on Solitary Man
May 17, 2010
While Michael Douglas is already well on the way to being considered a living legend as an actor for all of the roles he's played in his forty-year career, he certainly has a lot more to show us, as shown by Ben Kalman, the character he plays in Brian Koppelman and David Levien's new movie Solitary Man.
Kalman is a former automobile magnate who has fallen on hard times due to a number of bad decisions. Even as he is finding his way back onto his feet, he continues to allow his attraction for the opposite sex create friction in his relationships with his family, his girlfriend (played by Mary Louise-Parker) and the business partners who believe in him. The strength of the film lies in Douglas' performance and his interaction with a number of fantastic actors like Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, and relative newcomer Imogen Poots, playing Parker's daughter who proves to be Ben's match when he agrees to take her to look at his old alma mater.
You can check out an exclusive clip using the player below and then continue on for our interview with the filmmakers.
Koppelman and Levien are probably best known for their screenwriting, becoming considerable players in Hollywood with their screenplay for the poker drama Rounder, before directing Knockaround Guys, a crime-drama that fell unfortunate victim to the Hollywood system. They then teamed with director Steven Soderbergh for Ocean's 13 and last year's The Girlfriend Experience, a relationship that helped Solitary Man get its lead actor and get made.
The movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year to generally decent reviews, particularly for Douglas' performance. Even so, one of the more awkward moments for any interviewer is when a filmmaker asks "What did you think?" In this case, Koppelman and Levien already knew what this writer thought from a negative post he made on Twitter after seeing it in Toronto. Fortunately for us, they were aware that we made an effort to see the movie a second time prior to our interview, and we did like it better because Douglas' character does grow on you as long as you're willing to accept how unrepentant he is about his behavior throughout the film.
That awkwardness out of the way, ComingSoon.net sat down for a brisk and lengthy interview with the duo about the movie, as well as talking about some of their other projects including the potential for a sequel to Rounders and long-delayed films like Frankie Machine and The Untouchables: Capone Rising.
ComingSoon.net: Obviously you guys have been working together for a long time and had already directed a movie together years ago. Was this something you'd been writing on spec with other things with plans to shop it around? Brian Koppelman: No, I had the idea and I started working on it, writing it, and I think from the moment that I started writing, I wrote in that needle drop of the Johnny Cash (song) "Solitary Man." When we're writing scripts that aren't for us to direct, we do that much less. Because that's really a director's prerogative, what songs and what music and maybe we'll indicate, but right from the beginning, it was that this story is personal, and we should direct it. When I showed the script to David, he immediately agreed. Right? It was never an issue of "I should go sell this," it was like "Let's go make this movie." David Levien: Ha... you don't want to tell him about the bidding war between Fox and Universal? (Brian laughs at that) No, I've gotta say he wrote this distinctive piece of material and it was perfect for Michael Douglas, and Michael's pretty much the only guy it could get made for, and that's already a crazy thing to do, but the idea of selling this to the movie studios as a piece of spec material would not have been good judgment.
CS: Even after you got Michael on board to do it? Levien: Yeah, it's just not a Hollywood movie. Koppelman: We would have had to change so much. Yes, you can start with this character in a Hollywood movie, but you would have to have him do a ton of different stuff from the moment that he takes the girl to college. Levien: Even to get it back to like "It's Complicated" level or "Bucket List" terrain. It's just a different exercise, like Hollywood expects in a lot of cases for things to be a lot more heartwarming. Koppelman: This is a difficult movie and the reactions we've gotten from audiences at the end of the screening, we've had someone come up and say, "That's my dad on the screen" and crying. You're showing people something that's unsettling. It's funny in the first half. If you see it in a room full of people, everybody laughs for the first half hour, and then the laughs take on an edge and it's darker. You fall for this guy and then the rug gets pulled out from under you, the way it does for people in his life. If you want a movie to work like that as a filmmaker, you have to know that you're making it for a smaller, rather than a greater, audience.
CS: It's interesting tonally, because you do laugh with the fact that he's playing such an outgoing and outspoken character. Because he's coming out of a fall, you think he's going to rise back up, then you throw him even deeper into the well, which makes it even tougher. From the beginning, was that something that you set out to do, to see how much you could do to this character? Koppelman: It was less calculated than that. It was more like following what this guy would really do and what would happen. Once the initial construct fell into my head, I knew that for it to be honest, he'd have to try to f*ck the girl and once he f*cked the girl, or once the girl f*cked him, once that moment happened, how's he going to rise from that? Any redemption is going to be small. Levien: It's built in the movie that on the heels of that, he gets word that he's going to get his car dealership, and it's about a ten-second triumph that he gets in the film before he goes to dinner and the wheels start to come off. Koppelman: And I guess we felt like there's a little small moment of growth. After betraying Jesse Eisenberg's character, he does have a small grace note moment with that character, and that shows that someone other than Ben Kalman exists in the world.
CS: Most will probably expect that eventually he'll have some redemption and the fact that he almost does and then doesn't... Koppelman: But I think you're bringing your worldview into it...
CS: Maybe... Koppelman: No, I do! You know what? You're a romantic or a dreamer or... Levien: You've been conditioned by movies that do that. Koppelman: Or that you're a good guy and you're hoping that he'll do what you would do, which is eventually realize... you're a guy who is so sympathetic as a character that you would go see a movie twice to make sure your opinion of it is right. This guy is all about the self, and so he's a difficult character to watch, but there are people like that and we see them and they take giant bites out of the world and they spit it out a lot of the time. But we fall for them a lot of the time also. We fall for them as our leaders sometimes, as our business examples. We celebrate them. They're charming and they're funny and they're entertaining, but at the end, they leave us empty very often, and that felt fascinating to us. I always want to know why, Dave does, too... why do these guys fool us all of the time? And why do we keep thinking... the thing that you're putting on top of it is what we all put on top of these guys all the time is that "they're better than that"...
CS: Well, not always. You based this character around the type of the wealthy businessmen you saw around New York City. In real life, the people we see in the news who fall like Ben does, we don't ever really forgive them for that stuff. Ben does try to do good, though. When you saw these guys around town, did you wonder what they would be like if something bad happened to them? Or was Ben based on someone you saw in the news? Koppelman: Not in the news, but people we've known. He's an amalgam of various guys who were real business successes but whom couldn't help themselves. Levien: Though six months can't go by without the latest version of one of these things, whether it's Madoff or whether it's Spitzer or whomever it is. There's always somebody prominent who cut a wide swath and was a big guy who fell because financial troubles, appetite, something like that. Koppelman: It's men who constantly walk around defining the space and defining the conversation, defining who they are through their speech making, their selling. It's compelling. You know, those people who walk around going "I'm a good person" and then people just believe that! Someone says that and people believe that about them, but very often, they're not, it turns out. And you only have to talk to the people left in their wake all the time. The daughters they've humiliated or the women whose hearts they've broken or the guy in the business deal they've screwed over to know that charm leaves behind a gooey icky residue sometimes.
CS: That sounds like someone who has worked in the movie business for a long time. Koppelman: Ha! (laughs)
CS: David, the fact that Brian had written this screenplay on his own, did he then come to you and ask you to co-direct it or was that always assumed from the beginning? Levien: Yeah, he like brought in the first chunk, the first 20 pages or so, and was like, "I'm working on this," and I read it and said that he should just finish it on his own, because the voice seemed very intact, and it didn't seem like he was out of the blocks. It just seemed like it was going to get there and be something that was going to work. Then he went away and took his time and when he was done with it and I read it, he quickly said, "Do you want to make this movie?"
CS: What was the timespan of that? Koppelman: I was going to say. I wrote it over a number of years at odd hours, because the whole time, we were writing movies together. A lot of the time, we will take half a day off because David has a career as a crime novelist and sometimes on Friday afternoon, we'll go our separate ways so when he was working on one of his books, I would work on this.
CS: As far as getting Michael on board, it's obviously a great script and a role that's perfect for him... Koppelman: It is.
CS: Was it just a matter of sending him the script? Koppelman: Soderbergh did.
CS: Did he meet with you guys to talk about the character and develop the character after he read it? Levien: Michael did, yeah. We had made "Ocean's 13" and we had gotten "The Girlfriend Experience" with Steven, so we had an ongoing creative relationship with him, and then when he got "Solitary Man," he agreed that Michael was perfect for it and was willing to send it to him. Michael loved the script and did say, "Okay, I'll meet these guys," and we sat down in L.A. and had a meeting and just got on well and he felt comfortable and said, "Let's do this thing." And then actually "The Girlfriend Experience" and this movie kind of came together and shot right around the same time. I guess that was a little before this one but literally by weeks. Koppelman: That finished shooting and then a week later we started shooting this, three days maybe. I know that because Dave was in it. We were in prep and he had to go over for two days while we were in prep. Levien: We were in pre-production and Brian, as the writer, was going to the set of "The Girlfriend Experience" to throw around ideas, because we had structured this outline on that movie and a lot of the dialogue was improv, but he would go check in like we would both ordinarily do but since I was going to be in that movie, I didn't make those set visits. On other days, I would go in and do my little part.
CS: As far as working with Michael, you had to have him there the whole time because he's in every scene and then you had others coming in and out, was there any sort of rehearsal at all? Koppelman: It was great, we had like four or five days, which is a lot, a luxury, so we had a day with Michael and Danny (DeVito). We had two days with Immogen and Michael, we had a day with Jesse and Michael... Levien: And then an afternoon with Susan and Michael. The New York aspect of it was really helpful because most of the cast lived in New York. Koppelman: Jenna flew in too! Jenna came in and gave us her Saturday in the middle of her schedule. She's great. Levien: I'll tell you that there's usually this moment when you hear the actors read something for the first time where it sort of takes on a different life, where it sounds like, "Oh, now the actor's doing it." It sounds a little different from the script. In this case, it was just like, "Oh, that's the way it sounds," because it was so in Michael's voice. Koppelman: It was really in his voice. Levien: There was no change, it was just right, now he's just saying it.
CS: It was interesting to see this after seeing "The Girlfriend Experience" which mainly used non-actors... (to David) no offense. Levien: I'm the most non-actor of the bunch!
CS: But even without known actors, that felt very real and here you have actors who are so well known and there's a danger of that taking you out of the movie, but the dialogue feels just as natural and it doesn't really do that. Koppelman: Yeah, we really wanted to be naturalistic with this movie and we have a lot of scenes play almost in one, and Steven was really helpful in reminding us that that was what we set out to do, because that is what we set out to do. These actors are all so good. Even for us, having Olivia Thirlby come in and do that two-day thing uncredited was fantastic.
CS: Why was she uncredited? Koppelman: Because she's a leading actress really and she did us a favor. She liked the script, we sent it to her and we really needed somebody great in that part, because it's so pivotal. That's the moment where you're really free to be furious at Michael's character and we wanted a woman who your heart would break for in that situation and you really want for Jesse's character. And we read a lot of women and they were great, many of them, but for us, Olivia Thirlby has an unbelievable quality, so we sent her an Email saying, "Look, we really need you to do this if you like it. Billed or unbilled, but it's really just to have fun for two days with Michael Douglas," and she said, "I'm in" and then she actually showed up! It was great.
CS: How did you go about figuring out the logistics of filming this? You have all these actors coming in and out, you have a couple sections in New York and then the Boston scenes. Koppelman: Our AD (Assistant Director) was really good, Steve Apicella, and it was all determined by the actors. Danny had a very specific time that he could give us, Susan had a very specific time she could give us. Immogen and Micheal were obviously around for the whole picture and Jesse was very flexible and willing.
CS: But what about the locations? Because you had some stuff to shoot here and some in Boston... Koppelman: All shot in New York... Even the college. Levien: We shot at Fordham and the DeVito diner was in City Island, and those frat parties and things were around. Koppelman: Yeah, we made the New York tax deal so we had to shoot the whole thing in New York somehow. But yes, it's supposed to be New England obviously.
CS: I was surprised by that. Whenever I watch a movie, especially the second time, I try to piece together how things might have been done, not always successfully. Going back to Michael's character, how important or hard was it to make him likable other than the fact that it is entertaining to watch his womanizing. Was it a hard balance to maintain? Koppelman: It's weird. We never thought about it. Because of what the movie was. He is so likable, Michael Douglas, and the character says a lot of charming things... Levien: Entertaining things... Koppelman: He's a salesman, so what's the empty thing behind the salesman sometimes? Part of why you see him with the doctor but then you see him in bed shirtless, you're seeing him as the world doesn't get to see him, letting it all hang out with all his ugliness, this character. Every movie shows you a likable character. We were more interested in showing you hopefully a fascinating character but one that you would see... A lot of movies will have a secondary character like Ben. A movie that was one of our favorite movies when we were kids. Two movies that had a shaping effect at different times were "Diner" and "Flamingo Kid," weirdly enough. Phil Brody, that character in "Flamingo Kid," Richard Crenna's character is a lot like Michael. He's charming. I didn't realize this until today, but usually that character is over to the side, like Bagel in "Diner." You know that he's a tin man, you later find out, but it's interesting to take that kind of guy and put him front and center and put a movie star in the part and see what the effect is.
CS: I really feel this is a great role for Michael. Even though he's had a lot of great roles, this is one of those that just seems to suit him so perfectly that you can't imagine anyone else doing it. Koppelman: He really sunk his teeth into it! He just dialed in... right, Dave? Levien: He was on it right from the beginning. It wasn't one of those things where the whole thing had to be broken down and then sort of built back up, he just had it right in the right place.
CS: As the directors who also wrote it, do you just get the right actors for the roles and just let them do their thing and you don't have to give them a lot of direction? Koppelman: We said to Soderbergh before we started, "What should we know?" He said, "You should know he has the psychological underpinnings down all the time, and he's also great at staging. He's going to be off book and everything memorized." So we're like, "So basically we just point the camera?" and he said, "Pretty much!" Levien: And don't make him wait. Koppelman: And don't make him wait. Michael, though, said to us on the first day in rehearsal, "Tell me everything." Levien: "Kick my ass, direct me..." Koppelman: Of course we worked with him collaboratively, but he was so open to taking direction, and he didn't need a lot. Other actors, some actors want to ask a lot of questions. That's not Michael's approach. Levien: A lot of the outcome is sort of decided at the casting stage. If you cast it right, if you pick the right people, then when you're doing it, you're already a long ways away to where you want to be and then there's a little bit of tweaking and massaging. In our careers, we've made a couple of missteps for whatever reasons, really mostly in smaller roles where we could really get away with it, but then it's like no amount of work, right there, with everybody waiting, and the lights on, you work your ass off, but by the end of the day, it's only gotten a little bit better. The die was really cast earlier. Koppelman: So for this movie, every one-line character, we sat with our casting director and we were grinding over. Getting Ben Shankman to play the car dealer or getting this guy David Costabile, who is a New York stage actor to come play Jenna's husband, each role we were really careful and thoughtful about who was going to play... Levien: Because we knew that later when we shot, it would just largely be taken care of.
CS: Since this has been done for a while, as directors, do you have any idea what you want to do next? Do you have a script of your own or someone else's? Koppelman: Well, David wrote this book called "City of the Sun" that came out a couple years ago that had wild renown and a commercial success, and the plan is to adapt that to direct next.
CS: Will you adapt that together? Having written the book, do you feel like you want to have someone else's voice? Levien: Yeah, we're working on the script together.
CS: What about some of the other scripts you've been working on over the years that have been in various stages of development? Levien: Well, there's one that we finished recently which is "Beat the Reaper," based on the Josh Bizell book, this really cool book, and that's for Leonardo DiCaprio's production company but also for him to star in hopefully. Koppelman: That's probably not for us to direct. That's a studio movie at Regency. Levien: Yeah, so hopefully that one will go kind of soon. And we do work on screenplays for Hollywood studios and then hopefully get to make these movies when we can.
CS: The fact that you've directed a couple of your screenplays and you already have plans to adapt David's book, as you say, how hard is it to let other screenplays go when they don't want you to direct them? Koppelman: We wouldn't. The answer is if we wrote something that we wanted to direct on spec, we would not let it go. We take jobs but especially before this movie came out, if we were going to take a writing job in Hollywood, it's their property. We couldn't then assume that they would want us to direct it, and so we certainly want to serve the movie and make it the best thing we can to attract the best director. We certainly hope--and we started to have reaction--that when people see (this movie) in Hollywood, they'll consider us for some of those things, but one of the reasons you write your own material is to be able to determine your own fate. Right, David, don't you think? He actually could have sold his book to Hollywood but we never sent it to Hollywood, because we knew down the road that we'd try to make it. Levien: Even if for some reason we weren't writing scripts for hire and we were independently wealthy and just sitting in our office all day thinking, "What are we going to do next?" not everything that comes into your head is one that you're going to write and then direct and then live with for like two or three years. Certain ones come along and you realize, "Okay, this is one we should do." Like "Solitary Man," "Knockaround Guys" before that... If we have ten ideas and we think five of them could be good movies, probably one of them would be one we wanted to direct.
CS: Did either or both of you always have aspirations to direct or did you just fall into it? Was one of you always more into the idea of directing than the other? Koppelman: I don't think so. Levien: Well, we didn't come from a film school background. We just love movies. We were both basically English majors, and we came to it from a storytelling background, and we did have the opportunity to be part of "Rounders" right from the beginning. We were sort of involved with bringing John Dahl onto the project, and he allowed us access to be on set the whole time, so that was our film school. As we saw it happening, that's when we inspired to sort of say that at some point in the future, hopefully the near future, we wanna find a way to make the step and make all these creative decisions, try that, and that's why we did "Knockaround Guys" pretty quickly on the heels of that. Koppelman: And then we directed "Tilt" for television and then just didn't have something we wanted to direct until we had "Solitary Man."
CS: A lot of the screenwriters I've spoken to who do direct, many of them have gotten into that out of frustration of handing their scripts to other directors. Levien: Well, a lot of guys have been burnt, where they feel they've wrote a great script and then some director came along and screwed it up, and they're like, "Well, I'll do it next time so if there's anyone to blame, it'll be them." We feel like we've had movies turn out well, we've had movies turn out maybe slightly less well, but it was more of a question of, as Brian said, controlling your own destiny in a way. But we don't come to it from this embittered place where it's gone wrong horribly. Because it was right at the beginning of our career and "Rounders" was really well done and really well-realized. We like that movie. It wasn't to right a wrong in the score column. It was like, "Well, this was great. Let's try to do all of it." Koppelman: There's something about this movie that's very personal, and there's something about "City of the Sun," David's book that's very personal, and that makes us want to just stand there and live with it and tell it the whole way.
CS: I have to check the book out. Koppelman: Oh, it's really good. It's dark, by the way. If you think this movie is for dark, "City of the Sun" is f*cking dark.
CS: Hey, I like dark. What happens when you start getting into that project and you have to be set or be available to work on one of these other screenplays? How hard will it to balance that? Levien: Well, you can't balance it. You gotta step out. We would have to finish up whatever commitments we had and then you've gotta clear the decks. If you're writing and directing a movie, there's really not much else you can do. It's pretty time-consuming. Well, I don't know, maybe some people can keep their full life going on the side, I can't. There are certain masters who can sort of create a situation where they can work slightly shorter days and have longer shoots, and they're always in production, like Clint Eastwood and Soderbergh. That is their life. Everything fits around that. Koppelman: Steven can do ten things at a time.
CS: He's amazing. I've spoken to him a bunch of the years including last year for "The Girlfriend Experience" and I'm just amazed by the guy. I don't even know he could find time to talk to me. You mentioned "Rounders" at the beginning and a few times now, and that came out before the current craze where poker really took off like it is now. Have you thought at all about re-exploring or re-examining it, because right now, it probably would be a very different movie if you made "Rounders" now. Have you explored that at all? Levien: Well, yeah, it's such a huge area of entertainment, poker. It's like a pastime that everybody is aware of and watches on TV now. We've talked a lot about doing "Rounders 2" when we were making "Ocean's 13" and we were working with Matt again. We talked about it a lot and Edward came by and we had meetings and we called John Dahl, and he's in to do the sequel. It's just a question of when we're going to do it, when we have the exact angle in.
CS: Have you written any sort of script at all? Levien: We haven't written a script. Koppelman: No, no, if we wrote a script, there'd be a movie, but we don't have the idea yet, and we promised too many people that we wouldn't do it if it would suck. That movie is really important to some people. It's like "Diner" to some people, that's what we wanted to do with that movie is make a movie that was like "Diner" was for us, a movie you can quote and watch over and over again. It's clearly that. There are guys who've watched that movie twenty times and know every word, and to f*ck them over by doing some sh*tty sequel just feels too craven. Matt and Edward have both said many times publicly that they'd love to do a sequel but we all need to have the right story to tell. It took Richard Price thirty years to come up with "The Color of Money," the sequel to "The Hustler," and to figure that out, so...
CS: I would think you guys would want to strike while the iron is hot before everyone is sick to death of poker where they wouldn't want to see a movie about it. Koppelman: For some reason, we choose difficult challenges.
CS: I wanted to ask about a couple things you must have written a while ago, which is "Frankie Machine" and "The Untouchables" prequel. Both of them seem to have been in development forever. Are either of these ever going to get made? Koppelman: "Frankie Machine" will get made. Robert De Niro has recently committed to making the movie from our script. It won't be with Michael Mann, it will be a new director, and it will be Robert De Niro starring in it. Levien: "The Untouchables" is a situation where Art Linson is the producer and like right in the beginning, before we finished a second draft, he attached Brian De Palma to direct it, and as De Palma's fortunes have gone in Hollywood over his last couple of movies, that's the future of where "The Untouchables" has gone. Koppelman: On the list of legendary directors, I don't think Brian De Palma has a legitimate place... so most guys who are considered masters I love and admire, and I think De Palma has had a long free ride that's deservedly coming to an end.
CS: Really? So you're saying that as long he's attached to it, it will never get made? Koppelman: I don't think it will. Hopefully he'll drop off the movie though, and then they can find a great director for it. Levien: Mamet says that Hollywood is the most obvious place in the world, so his movies have done so badly lately that the studios want to hire him right now. If he finds a way to make a movie that is well-received and a big hit, then it's an obvious place, they'll probably think it's a great idea. It's just not something we can affect right now. Koppelman: Linson is a true impresario and an awesome movie producer and if anyone can figure out how to revive that, he'll do it. Levien: Or maybe at some point, De Palma will let it go or Linson will decide that he wants to take it to somebody else. Art's a really loyal guy to the guys he's worked with, so it's likely they're fine the way it is and they'll just make it one day. They play like a long game.
CS: At this point, it's doubtful you could get anyone from the original movie back. Levien: That was never the intention, because it's the prequel, so it would have been weird. Koppelman: "Frankie Machine" is a script that we really believe in. Don Winslow's book is excellent and it's really a character that De Niro should play. It's an elegy to all of the mob characters that he played and it's a great story. The fact that he's reengaged is really exciting to us. That's one I really want... we're grown-ups. You work in Hollywood and sometimes they don't get made. This one would really kills us if it didn't get made.
Solitary Man opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, May 21, and in other cities after that.