Brian Koppelman And David Levien Talk SOLITARY MAN With Mr. Beaks!
Published at: May 17, 2010, 4:19 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
What happens when a self-styled "Master of the Universe" (we're talking Wolfe here, not Mattel) blows past sixty, finds out he's got a bum ticker, and is forced to confront his own mortality?
This is the question posed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien in SOLITARY MAN, a bracingly unsentimental character study that gives Michael Douglas a prime opportunity to skewer the cad-ish persona that made him one of the biggest movie stars of the late '80s and early '90s. Douglas plays Ben Kalman, a big-shot Manhattan car dealer who's made a hash of his professional and personal lives by engaging in unsavory business practices and bedding any comely young thing willing to give him the time of day. Ben is incorrigible, but he's such a charmer that he's managed to stay in his family's good graces; his daughter (Jenna Fischer) adores him, while he's still on cordial terms with his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) even though he threw her over for a younger, wealthier woman (Mary Louise-Parker).
But when this new woman in Ben's life asks him to accompany her high-school senior daughter on a college visit (where he's to grease the skids for her acceptance), the bottom quickly falls out. Ben's already clouded judgment gets worse, and he soon finds himself a man without a country or a future. This is where Koppelman's screenplay goes from comedic to dour. Rather than learn from his myriad mistakes, Ben brazenly lurches forward as if he's still the business icon who once graced the cover of Forbes - only now his indiscretions begin to directly hurt the people he cares about.
SOLITARY MAN is a brutally insightful piece of writing from Koppelman, a melancholy portrait of a Gordon Gekko-like capitalist in decline. Spiritually, it might turn out to be a more fitting complement to WALL STREET than Oliver Stone's forthcoming sequel. It's certainly hard to imagine Douglas being any better than he is here - and it's a credit to Koppelman and Levien's commitment to tone that they never allow the actor's natural charisma to overpower the indignity of his character's situation. Though one can't help but like Ben, his actions are consistently loathsome.
Koppelman may have written solo this time out, but there was never any doubt that this would be a team-directing deal with his longtime collaborator and "brother" Levien. Though Koppelman found the voice of Ben Kalman on his own, the character is based on any number of high-rolling bullshit artists the duo observed in their youth. This is a personal film. It's also a significant leap from the just-for-fun KNOCKAROUND GUYS, and, stylistically, a departure from the gamesmanship of their screenplays for ROUNDERS and OCEAN'S THIRTEEN. And while it may not be explicitly commercial (as evidenced by its lack of a studio distributor), it's so good that I doubt the boys will have to wait another eight years to direct their next feature.
In the below interview, I discuss with Koppelman and Levien the inspiration for the screenplay, why it was decided Koppelman should write it by himself, the fearlessness of Douglas's performance, the importance of ambiguity, the brilliance of Michael Penn (who scored the film), the status of their scripts for THE UNTOUCHABLES: CAPONE RISING and FRANKIE MACHINE (initially written as a late-breaking Scorsese/De Niro collaboration), and a whole lot more.
Mr. Beaks: This film reinforces that you guys have a great ear for dialogue.
Brian Koppelman: We always just got a kick out of listening to dialogue. Our favorite filmmakers are writers. One of the things that we responded to as kids since we first met... we were always quoting movies at each other, and incorporating quotes into every minute of our lives. We started from a place of wanting to write dialogue that would be memorable in the same way - and interesting and revelatory of character or just funny. For us, whether it was the Coen Brothers or Mamet or Barry Levinson... or Harold Ramis. It was all of these people who wrote really interesting, memorable dialogue.
Beaks: There's such an emphasis on film being a visual medium, and "showing" rather than "telling". Whenever you give someone a screenplay with a lot of dialogue, they'll immediately say, "This is way too much dialogue. Get rid of it." It seems to be antithetical to the way people want to read a screenplay, but half of the films I love would be nowhere without lots of dialogue.
Koppelman: I think you're right. I think it depends on the movie. One of the things about writing a character like Ben Kalman is you can justify it. Because of what he did for a living, and who he was, his patter, and his need to constantly re-state who he is and why he's in the situation, and where he is, allowed me as a writer to let him go. That's the kind of guy he is. We talked a lot about that. The way that he was a verbal character did get us to the counterpoint place of some of the meaningful moments being quiet, when he either ran out of steam to talk or ran out of raps to throw. We were conscious of trying to play with it to use it both ways.
Levien: I guess we do agree with the idea in general, that film is a visual medium and that you shouldn't write dialogue just to amuse yourself. You should serve somehow the scene or the story. I think in the beginning, everybody writes scenes where two people sit at a table and talk. Mamet always says that people don't talk unless they want something; I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it's not a bad thing to keep in mind either, so you don't bore people.
Beaks: This is a very interesting prospect in one obvious respect, in that you're the only credited on the film, Brian. How did this screenplay come about?
Koppelman: David and I both grew up watching these guys, these sort of like "King of the World" type guys, or guys who held themselves out as not only great successes in business, but also great successes in life. As we got older, we realized how full of shit they were, and watched them get into their late fifties and sixties and start destroying their lives. You know, the same ambition and drive, or the way they used their charm or charisma, started rotting in a way. We'd always talked about guys like that, and thought of them as potential movie characters.
And then I witnessed one of these guys, with his thirty-two-year-old daughter in public, turn to his daughter - he was recently divorced - and say, "Don't call me dad in public, because it will make it too hard for me to pick up girls." It freaked me out! I couldn't get it out of my head, so the next morning I woke up and wrote the first twenty pages of the movie. And I came in and showed it to Dave - and I had the whole idea of the college trip and everything - and said, "We should write this movie." He read the twenty pages, and said, "Well, you've got the tone of the voice, why don't you write the first draft, and then we'll see if we can make it." So then I went off and did it, and then when I brought it in, Dave thought it was basically done. He gave me some notes, but he didn't feel we needed to work on it together.
Levien: The script was really far along at that point, so there wasn't anything major that needed to happen. It was just fine, and Brian could continue and do whatever the script changes were. And then we sort of set about trying to put it together to direct it.
Beaks: Is it common for one of you to go on a jag like that, and then begin to collaborate?
Levien: I would say it's uncommon between us. Usually we hash these things in the room together. That's why it seemed like it was sort of an indicator that this was one... I don't know, he just had the tone. Looking at those twenty pages, I didn't feel like I needed to add anything in a certain way. It was very intact. I just wanted to see more of it basically.
Koppelman: And I didn't write it consciously thinking it was going to be the next movie. I wrote it almost like journaling. I wrote it because I had to write it. But then when I read it back, I thought it was funny and engaging enough to show Dave. And then he said, "Go write the movie." It was so weird in a way. I already had Johnny Cash's version of "Solitary Man" in those first twenty pages, and the tone of the movie. It took years, by the way, to write. I started it before OCEAN'S THIRTEEN; it took forever to write it.
Levien: I write novels also, so it's not like the idea of somebody writing something on their own was weird. We'd both written numerous magazine pieces and stuff like that. It wasn't the weirdest thing in the world, but screenplay-wise it generally hadn't been the way we'd gone about it. But as a director, having someone hand you a script that's shootable is a great thing.
Koppelman: Because we've been like brothers since we were fourteen or fifteen years old, there's no weirdness. We're filmmaking partners. It wasn't like "I'm going to go write this thing and take it." It was like, "I'm going to write this, and we're going to make it together or nothing's ever going to happen with it." There was never a question that we were going to direct it together.
Beaks: There are a lot of older movie stars who might be the type for this role, but Michael Douglas brings something so particular to this. Did you think of him when you wrote this?
Koppelman: [His voice] was in my head the whole time, which is weird because we'd never met really. I think, David, the first time you read it, you thought that, right?
Levien: Yeah, there are a lot of older actors, but we didn't feel like there were so many for this. We thought Michael was perfect. Maybe there was one other person than that, but we probably wouldn't have gone very far in the process without Michael.
Koppelman: Because of the iconography he brings... the guys that I was writing about, and that David and I made the movie about, they think they're Gordon Gekko. So why not get Gordon Gekko? Michael represents someone who's a success, who's a winner, but also someone who's had very public difficulties - and the way that he's worn them seemed to make him the ideal guy. Our only question was would he go there? Would he actually go to this place? And, for us, he so completely goes there.
Beaks: Did you have to wear him down at all?
Levien: No, he came to play. For sure. He was ready to go, and didn't do anything that you sometimes hear movie stars try to do.
Koppelman: We liked that you said the film is "surprisingly unsentimental." So much of that has to do with that Michael didn't try to save himself at any moment. You know how I mean, how actors protect themselves sometimes? Michael was willing to play this thing without any vanity. I mean, you look at that scene with Olivia Thirlby; he just allows himself that moment when she says, "Aren't you a little old for this?" A lot of actors would be very uncomfortable with that, but he was willing to go any place that the story made him go. And that kind of gusto is rare in guys who have a legacy that they might want to protect.
Beaks: I was surprised that he allowed himself to be shot in that t-shirt with his gut protruding. I don't mean to make light of that. It's rare that an actor of that stature would allow himself to look like that [onscreen].
Koppelman: That's so astute. I'm glad you noticed that.
Levien: Once he was doing the shot leaning against the wall taking the leak, we figured that it was game on.
Koppelman: But that t-shirt was in there for the whole time, and I remember when Ellen Mirojnik and Jenny Gering, our costumers, picked that shirt. And, again, without a question, Michael just did it, and didn't try to protect himself - which is what this calls for. A guy who's still proud, but allows himself to go to these real depths.
Beaks: I had just watched GREENBERG a week or so before your movie, and I was struck by how they both went to the same places, dragging their protagonists down further and further. They're both studies of bottoming out.
Koppelman: These movies get made rarely, but this was just a story... I'm not sure that we intellectualized this as much, as just wanted to show this emotional journey. I think it has a lot of resonance with what's going on in the world, that there are a lot of guys who helped destroy our economy, and that the idea of approaching death is, to people who think they can control everything, devastating to the effect of throwing their whole lives out of whack. Part of that is allowing the viewer to live in these really uncomfortable moments with them. That's what David was talking about with the silent moments. GREENBERG did this, too. We were conscious of letting him, when the gas ran out, have to sit there and grapple in silence with all of it meant.
And I agree: in a traditional studio movie, it would be hard to do those things.
Beaks: Before I saw the film, I kind of thought it would be something of a two-hander, with the rake teaching the naif [Jesse Eisenberg] something about life, and the naif teaching him something in turn.
Koppelman: Well, our next movie is definitely THE RAKE AND THE NAIF. You just set that up for sure.
Beaks: (Laughs) Good.
Koppelman: We'll give you a "story by" if you need it.
Beaks: I'm good with that.
Levien: The script sort of gave you a taste of that, and some of the fun of that. But the truth is, at the end of the day, the older guy certainly isn't going to get the wonderful lesson that turns him around and changes him 180 degrees. He may get something out of it, but... the changes in this movie weren't seismic. For Michael's character, they were incremental.
Beaks: Well, at the beginning of the film, he's essentially rejecting a moral order; he's giving himself license to go out and be this guy.
Koppelman: Why do great man always, or often, do that? Even if you look at Clinton, who was on my mind a bit while writing [the script]. There's something about these guys and hubris - and deciding that they can be the arbiters of everything - that's dangerous not only to them, but to everybody around them. That was really interesting to us.
Beaks: It's always magic seeing Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito together. That relationship goes all the way back to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. Watching those two work together, did you get any good stories? How do they relate to each other?
Koppelman: There were tons of great stories being referenced all the time between the two of them, but it was in a language that was just their own. These guys have forty years of this shit. They lived together, I think, in Manhattan.
Levien: There was some reference made to when they were both in their early twenties sharing an apartment.
Koppelman: They certainly had some version of the old "Put a sock on the door if you're in the room with a girl."
Levien: I think they did the reverse.
Koppelman: And they might've violated that on occasion. There were a lot of references to lost nights in their twenties.
Beaks: To see those two together in this kind of film, it elevates the sense of [Ben's] tragedy a little bit.
Koppelman: It's really great that you think that. That was certainly the effect we were hoping for. It's really great when it lands, so that's good to hear.
Beaks: I was also really happy to see that you got Michael Penn to do the score. Even though he had a huge hit in the late '80s [with "No Myth"], it still feels like he's a really well-kept secret.
Koppelman: We loved this movie HARD EIGHT, where he did the music. Do you like that movie?
Beaks: I loved it. I've loved pretty much everything Paul Thomas Anderson has done.
Koppelman: Us, too. So Michael and Jon Brion did that score. And early on in thinking about this somehow, we were playing the HARD EIGHT score a lot and thinking about it. Both of us are enormous admirers of Michael's, and he saw an early cut of the movie and reacted really strongly to it. Something about it was very resonant to him. He called us up, and said he was interested in doing it. He was amazing to collaborate with.
Levien: He's so unbelievably conversant in the emotional language of the movie. He's great at expressing how that should come across musically. He made it very understandable for us. I personally find it very hard to talk in those terms, but he was really able to, which made him so great to work with.
Koppelman: Some days, we'd be sitting in our office and get an IM from him. And getting an IM from Michael Penn... if you're our age and love his music, and love The Wallflowers album he produced, and love Aimee Mann's music... we'd get this IM from Michael, and he'd just send through the latest cue. We'd go pop it on in the other room, watch it, and be able to text him back.
Levien: It was great. We could make a comment or a note or something, and he would translate that and distill it down into the musical change. And that would be what we were looking for.
Koppelman: I particularly think the piece he wrote at the end of the movie when Michael's sitting on the bench really adds so much - because the wrong music there would tip the hand. And it was so important to us to not tip the hand, and not to, in that moment, have the wrong kind of musical flourish that would leave you, or the character, in a better or worse place than we wanted to leave him.
Beaks: I love the open-endedness of the conclusion. This film, the way you tell the story, really feels of the '70s.
Koppelman: A movie like SAVE THE TIGER was something we were aware of and thought about. It's hard to find movies like that. There aren't as many of those stories being told now.
Beaks: Characters have to be fixed into some kind of story structure that's recognizable to the audience.
Koppelman: Well, of course, we originally did have the subplot where he saved the world from nuclear extinction, but we took that out at the last minute. We felt like nuclear winter really didn't jibe with teaching Jesse how to pick up chicks.
Beaks: (Laughs) Right. But there are faint traces of that still in the movie.
Koppelman: You can still feel it, right?
Levien: Did you pick up on the new Manhattan Project under the college?
Beaks: You know, I didn't. Wow. That's well hidden.
Koppelman: On the seventeenth viewing, it will become clear.
Beaks: I'll have to keep trying to piece that together. Seriously, though, with that final shot, do you know where he's going?
Koppelman: I would say this: all I knew the whole time was that the last line of the script was, "And then, after one long moment's thought, he stands." I knew he made a decision, and I knew he stood up. Dave, when he first read it, said to me, "We're not shooting one in the car, and we're not shooting one where he goes after the girl. Because if we shoot them, we're going to find ourselves choosing one."
Levien: I loved the ending, and my whole goal was to try to find a way to capture it the way that it read - which was a great script. I knew that it would be frustrating to some people, but really satisfying to other people. And those people are the audience we were looking for.
Koppelman: By the way, the one thing I would ask to please not misattribute is that anytime someone said the script is great, it's Dave, not Brian. Because I read Ain't It Cool every day, and I know what the comments will be if I say it's a great script. I have no idea if it's even a decent script. But if Dave wants to say it's "great", that's really nice.
Levien: Usually when we make stuff we can never talk about the quality of the script, because we've both written them and that would be weird. But in this case, it's easy for me to objectively say it.
Beaks: Over the last few years, you guys were involved in two projects that I got really excited about, and, for one reason or another, they kind of went away. The first one is THE UNTOUCHABLES: CAPONE RISING. As a huge Brian De Palma fan, I can't help but anticipate each new project even if I'm not sure why he's making it. But that was a strange project because it was a prequel, and it was dealing with this idea of Malone and Capone coming into each other's orbit, which just seemed odd given the way the first film was played. How did you get involved with that project?
Levien: Art Linson's the producer, and he had the concept that it should be a prequel. Even though there's sort of a huge fudging of time. If you think about the length of Capone's reign, it's very short. There's no way that there could've been a young Malone at the same time that there was a young Capone; there was too much of an age gap. So we just fudged that reality, and it was going to be a young cop crossing swords with a young mobster on the rise. Yeah, so we wrote a script, and think it's a good Chicago gangland story. And De Palma, as far as we know, is the director of it still. He was attached a while back.
Koppelman: There are so many things... because Art is a strong producer, it's so far out of our hands that it's hard to tell. You can't find two guys who are bigger fans of the early David Mamet, so I think the idea of getting to play around in his backyard in that way was very appealing.
Beaks: Writing a prequel to a David Mamet script must've been daunting.
Koppelman: It was daunting, but it was also sort of exciting. We both know the original movie by heart, before we got the assignment to go do that.
And then the other [script] was FRANKIE MACHINE, right?
Beaks: (Laughs) Yes.
Koppelman: FRANKIE MACHINE is, I think, going to happen. I believe that will happen with our screenplay. It seems very clear in the last couple of months that that's the case.
Beaks: Did you work with Scorsese on the script?
Koppelman: I feel like the best month of our career was spent with Marty working on that script. It was incredible. For two guys who grew up in New York, there's nothing that compares to getting to spend a month doing that. But I don't know if he'll end up making the movie. I think that Robert De Niro will end up being in it, but I'm not sure who'll end up directing it. Don Winslow's book is great, and we really tried to be faithful to the book.
Beaks: I enjoyed the book. The minute I found out you guys were writing it, and that it was to be a Scorsese/De Niro film, you couldn't keep me away from the book.
Koppelman: If you liked the book, I think you'll like the screenplay. I believe it's going to happen. It feels very good right now, even though for a while it felt like it wouldn't.
Beaks: Do you think De Niro might try to direct it?
Levien: I don't know. All we can say is that he's recently reengaged with actively wanting to be in it and play Frankie in the version of the script we wrote.
It's a great role for De Niro. Here's hoping it gets a greenlight soon.
In the meantime, you should absolutely check out SOLITARY MAN. It opens in limited release this Friday, May 21st.