Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) is a writer, filmmaker, producer, and director. He’s currently the showrunner, co-creator, and executive producer of Billions on Showtime and the host of The Moment podcast.
What We Discuss with Brian Koppelman:
- Law school is an expensive (but not completely useless) place to learn life lessons.
- How do you know when you’ve done work of “undeniable” quality — in the absolute sense?
- The line between being an artist and being delusional is very thin.
- If you want to be a screenwriter, read a thousand screenplays.
- We focus so much on the hustle that sometimes we forget to focus on the work.
- And so much more…
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Do you have a way to access the most creative part of yourself? Do you acknowledge your secret dream and chase it with rigor, or do you neglect that dream and let it turn toxic inside of you?
On this episode, Brian Koppelman tells us how he turned around his writer’s block at age 30 and got himself out of the toxic slump to co-create Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen and become the showrunner, co-creator, and executive producer of Showtime’s Billions and host of The Moment podcast. (As an added bonus, Gabriel Mizrahi joins us, too!)
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, BRIAN KOPPELMAN!
If you enjoyed this session with Brian Koppelman, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Watch Billions on Showtime
- The Moment with Brian Koppelman
- Brian Koppelman’s Website
- Brian Koppelman at Instagram
- Brian Koppelman at Twitter
- Ocean’s Thirteen
- Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old) by Garth Brooks
- 23 Essential Quotes From Ernest Hemingway About Writing, The Write Practice
- Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction, Open Culture
- Amy Koppelman at Twitter
- The Films Of Sidney Lumet: A Retrospective, IndieWire
- The Seven Rages of David Mamet: Genius or Symbol of Toxic Masculinity? The Guardian
- The Five Defining Lines of William Goldman, The Ringer
- Spike Lee Is on the 2019 Time 100 List, Time
- The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin
- Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern
- David Levien at Twitter
- Andrew Ross Sorkin at Twitter
- Brian Koppelman at Vine
- Runner Runner
- Knockaround Guys
- Solitary Man
- Heidi Schreck at Twitter
- What Tommy Axelrod Learned at a Metallica Concert in ‘Billions’ Episode 4, Inverse
- Damien Lewis at Twitter
- 15 Surprising Facts About Paul Giamatti, Mental Floss
- Profile of Maggie Siff, Wendy From ‘Billions’ The Cut
- Malin Akerman at Twitter
- ‘Billions’ Star David Costabile on How He Takes Care of Wags’ Signature Mustache, and What People Yell at Him on the Street, Business Insider
- Toby Leonard Moore at Twitter
- Condola Rashad at Instagram
- TFW Hedge Funders Think They Are in ‘300,’ or, ‘Billions’ Episode 6, Inverse
- Daniel K. Isaac at Twitter
- Oh No by Andrew Bird
- Five Things You Didn’t Know about Jeffrey DeMunn, TVOM
- Brian Koppelman on Charlie Rose
- Mark Cuban at Twitter
- How Donald Trump Got His Money, Investopedia
- Awaken the Giant Within by Anthony Robbins
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Louis C.K.’s New Louie Editor Susan E. Morse Compares Him to Her Old Boss, Woody Allen, Vulture
- 30 for 30: This Is What They Want (Documentary)
Transcript for Brian Koppelman | How to Make Billions (Episode 283)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I’m Jordan Harbinger. As always, I’m here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world’s most brilliant and interesting people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you.[00:00:18] I want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. I want you to become a better thinker. If you’re new to the show, we’ve got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skillsets like negotiation, public speaking, and body language, persuasion, et cetera. If you’re smart and you’d like to learn and improve, then you’ll be right at home here with us. [00:00:40] We have an incredible guest today. He’s the co-creator of Rounders and Oceans 13, most recently, Billions. He’s also the host of a podcast called The Moment. Brian Koppelman, here with us today. This one is from the vault, which means we recorded it a few years back. It’s still valuable. It’s now re-edited, remastered. We typically don’t ever re-air shows, but I figured with a fan favorite from several years ago, we can’t really go wrong and you know, why not give the team a little bit of time off for the holidays? Am I right? These guys had been working non-stop for you and for me for years on end with no vacation. [00:01:11] Today, I’m co-hosting with my friend Gabriel Mizrahi, who’s the head of editorial here at The Jordan Harbinger Show. Today, we go inside the writer’s room and inside the brain of highly successful creative people. We’ll discuss how to get past creative blocks or bigger blocks if you don’t feel like you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing in your career or in your creative endeavors. Also, some behind the scenes on Showtime’s Billions that will give you a fun peek inside the kimono of how hit shows are created. We’ll also touch on how we know when we’ve done work of undeniable quality in the absolute sense and the idea that the line between being an artist and being delusional is actually very thin. [00:01:47] If you want to know how I managed to book all these great people and manage my relationships over time, using systems and tiny habits that don’t take all day, check out our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us and you’ll be in great company. All right, here’s Brian Koppelman. [00:02:12] I noticed that you went to Fordham Law. Are you a non-practicing lawyer like me as well?
Brian Koppelman: [00:02:16] Yes, that’s correct.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:18] Does that skill set come in handy for you? Have you noticed like, “Oh I learned about this in law school.”
Brian Koppelman: [00:02:23] My wife and I were talking about the state as we walked past Fordham Law School, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We talked about the fact that I never used it professionally and I never was a lawyer for a day in my life. She said to me, “But that character in Rounders never would have shown up if you hadn’t met that professor at law school.” And so right from the beginning of the fact that we set Rounders, we set the main character at law school as a law school student at night as I was, and gave him a professor — very similar to a professor I had, a guy who used to stay up all night drinking gin. So no matter what it paid dividends. It also pays dividends in a system of thought that I find really valuable and it taught me how to write on deadline. Another skill that I think is really valuable and it gave me a contact base.[00:03:02] So for me, law school was a win in every way, especially because I knew early on I wasn’t going to practice law, so I didn’t have any grade pressure. I just focused on stuff that was interesting to me. I knew I could do enough to get through law school and do fine, but I wasn’t grinding. I was there to pick up stuff that would be useful to me and to make relationships.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:20] That’s a really good skill set and really good to know. At least, in my case, I did better than I probably would have done not having that same grade pressure because I too knew I wasn’t going to be a practicing attorney, at least not for very long, and so it was easy for me to go, “Oh, there’s a test in a week. Well, yeah, I should look over everything and I’ll be pretty complete about studying for it.” Whereas other people were staying up for four nights in a row trying to outcompete each other, worrying themselves sick, literally a lot of the time.
Brian Koppelman: [00:03:45] Yeah. One of the great benefits of being a bright, entertaining person in that setting is that the really grindy students, we’re happy to share all their stuff with me. I would show up at their study sessions. I would make them laugh. I would tell them good stories. I would give them like life advice because I was already out in the world and they would then teach me over two days all the stuff that I had missed during the semester.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:08] This is uncanny. This is exactly how I got through law school. This is the same thing.
Brian Koppelman: [00:04:13] I wasn’t there as you weren’t, I wasn’t trying to learn life lessons. I just saw that as always is the case and it’s surprising each time you learn it when you’re young. Being a genuinely good person, meaning not looking to get over on anyone, just listening, sharing a laugh, telling a good story. Even when you’re not in any way being calculating that stuff lands on people. They look at you and they go, “Jordan is a good dude. This is my outline. This is an outline that a kid from two years before gave. Read that meet me tomorrow at nine. We’re all meeting here. It will help me to teach you towards it or remind me of what I don’t know.” And then it’d be like, “All right. Fantastic. I’ll show up at nine.” Then, you know, you show up at 8:45 and you bring the fucking donuts and everybody loves you and you pass.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:55] And you’re not competing with them for grades. They’re like, “Oh, well, what could we teach them in three days that’s going to endanger our curve? Nothing.”
Brian Koppelman: [00:05:01] Right. And like you, you know, you still walk out of there with plenty of A’s and B’s.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:05] Yup, exactly. I noticed something that you had written and it sort of surprised me actually, and I’m not sure in what context this was now that I look at it. I sort of clipped it out. You said if you do something great, people will notice. And I was wondering if you really believe that in the context of let’s say podcasting or show writing because I think it seems like now there’s so much media that doing something interesting is no longer good enough.
Brian Koppelman: [00:05:28] Well. All right, but you just changed the keyword. You read me my quote and you said doing something great. And then when you said it back, you said, just doing something interesting isn’t good enough. I didn’t say do something interesting. I said do something great. And another word that you could use to substitute for great in the way that I mean grade is undeniable. And so I think that we focus so much on the hustle that sometimes we forget to focus on the work and that if — yes, I am idealistic, but that idealism is born from the fact that I have witnessed and the success that I’ve had. When I always just go back to the fact, that I went in the basement with my best friend and wrote a screenplay, and we didn’t come out of the basement until we knew we had an undeniable screenplay. And the fact that we knew it was undeniable meant that we could bear the rejections that came because rejections always come. Because people who are in the market, the buyers — the supposed experts — are very comfortable saying no, and in fact, they’re so comfortable saying no that they save, and no very often before they even look at the work and regard it.[00:06:27] But if you somehow are able to know, you’ve put everything you had into it, you’ve used all your skills and all your effort, and also you’re applied tremendous rigor and that the thing itself is objectively undeniable, then yeah, I believe that that work transcends. You know, I was just sitting here before this podcast started, Jordan, that I was playing acoustic guitar. I’m a bad acoustic guitar player, but I love to play and sing. And I was playing an old Garth Brooks song, Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old). And I had the opportunity to spend a few days at Garth’s, and Garth told me the story that I was like, “Wow, man, when you wrote that song, everything must have changed.” And he said, “When I wrote that song, I knew I had done it. But I got up at the Bluebird and I played that song for like four months in a row and people walked in and passed on me.” And I said, “What do you mean people passed on you? You’re Garth Brooks. When you took the stage, you were Garth Brooks and you had this song.” And he said, “Yeah, but I knew.” I said, “How’d you know?” He said, “Because I had the song and I’m Garth Brooks.” And so I do think that when you have written Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old), the world will find you if you don’t give up.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:07:31] Yeah. This is so interesting, Brian, because when you talk about the word undeniable, I feel like there are two different ways to anchor that. One is undeniable to you, the way that your script was undeniable to you and David, and then there’s undeniable to other people. Like, for example, the agents who initially passed on Rounders when you first sent it out, and that later became part of your armor as you continue to take out your work. So how do people like you and, and how do you think artists should think about understanding when their work is undeniable in the absolute sense?
Brian Koppelman: [00:08:00] Sure. Well, I’ve said this before, but it’s really true, right? The line between being an artist and being delusional is very thin. And often, you don’t know until years later, which you were. I accepted in the arts, it can be difficult. That said, I would say like it’s binary. You’re either crazy or you’re not. Let’s say you’re not for the sake of it. If you’re crazy, I can’t help you. But if you’re not crazy, if in other areas of your life, people think that you’re smart, rational, somebody that they can reason with, then you can find people to help you determine when the work is undeniable. Also, if you’re a sane person, that little voice inside tells you the difference. You know, that’s saying that people tell you who they are in the first 10 minutes or the first half hour. It’s true. But we’ve trained ourselves sometimes to ignore it because it’s the sad reality of that first 10 minutes on a date when you realize that person isn’t for you. You kind of fool yourself and have another drink and she left. And you know what? I can make this work. Well, if you want to be successful in the arts, you’ve got to get rid of I-can-make-this-work. And you have to be willing to put a real cold eye toward the work — why you’re doing it, what you’re doing.[00:08:59] So yeah, it’s like an investor doing a channel check or something. Like you have to find ways. One of the ways you do it is by, let’s say you want to be a screenwriter, but it applies if you want to be a novelist or do you want to be a ballerina. If you want to be a screenwriter, read a thousand screenplays and watch a thousand movies and then you will have a frame of reference for the work if you’re honest enough with yourself. And so that is a lesson I learned and applied to my own work and apply it all the time. I mean, people ask me how I knew that you’re going to do to write Billions on spec. I don’t know. We’ll get to that. And how I knew when we finished it that it was right, and the answer is, I have the reps. I’ve done the reps, I’ve done reps for years and years and years in terms of thinking about doing the work, revising the work, applying rigor to the work so that I’m not looking at it with just boundless enthusiasm. I’m looking at it with a clear and cold eye. [00:09:50] And also another aspect of this that I think is crucial is knowing yourself is really important. I mean, you guys talk about it, you have to know who you are. I know that say the first 24 to 36 hours after I write a scene. You can’t talk to me about that scene because that scene is fucking perfect, man. It’s the greatest, funniest, most important scene ever written. For those first 24 hours, if you try to get me to change a line, I might punch you in the face, but I know that about myself, so I won’t show it to you until it’s 48 hours or 68 hours from now when I’m ready to look at it and go, “Oh, you know what? One line in that scene is useful. The rest is garbage.” Because I know that to get the work done, I have to basically put myself in a state of hypnosis that prevents me from really evaluating its quality right away. And I know that that effect lasts for about 24 hours. I don’t try to revise or look at it or judge it for that period of time. I hope that by the time I come back to it, I’m cool enough to be able to look at it fairly. Does that make sense?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:43] It does, yeah. It seems like is that where the whole, maybe not so superstitious, superstition comes from we’re creators and artists and writers always say, “Never talk about work in progress.” Is that part of why they don’t do that?
Brian Koppelman: [00:10:55] I think that’s part of it. I mean, Hemingway used to talk about, “Don’t talk the book away.” That’s a famous sort of Hemingway quote. Like some people it helps. It’s funny because that’s in conflict. Like Tony Robbins sometimes says that it’s good to put the pressure on yourself by telling other people that you’re working or what you’re working on. I remember we were writing Rounders. I didn’t tell people what it was about or what we were doing, but I did sell people. I’ve committed to two hours every morning to go into the basement because I wanted to put that pressure on myself. But yeah, I certainly would say you don’t want to show stuff around until you’re really sure that you can handle it and you’re ready.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:27] What does writing do for you besides paid the bills? I would imagine that in order to create something undeniable that you think is bulletproof, there has to be a fire in there that’s more than just, “Okay, I’m going to grind this out because I need a project.
Brian Koppelman: [00:11:40] Oh, yeah, that’s 100% man. I can’t say I’ve never written anything for money, but I can say I pretty much had never written anything good for money. I mean, Samuel Johnson famously said, “Anyone who writes for anything other than money is a blockhead.” And I understand that that’s talking about professionalism and being a professional. But every one of the important or really good screenplays movies, TV shows that I’ve been a part of have come from an incredible amount of curiosity and fascination with a subject and an incredible desire to share what I’ve found with others. That I looked around at the world of poker players — underground poker players — and I felt like I was looking at modern-day gunslingers and I didn’t have people to talk about it. Only Dave my lifelong best friend and my wife Amy — I could tell them about it. I go to the poker club and tell them about it, but I knew this is something that will fascinate a lot of people. Same with Peter for years and years that we put into researching the hedge fund world and United States attorneys for Billions. It was like, “Wait a second. These people exist. They walk among us. They’re like nation-states, but they’re people like I have to share what I’ve learned. Holy shit, listen to how these people talk. Look at how they conduct themselves. I have to tell everybody about this.” How do I do that? Well, the thing I know how to do is do it in a fictional construct. Set up challenges for these characters and watch them fight through it. So yeah, 100%, this is just the way I work. Like other people don’t work that way but the way that I have to work from a place of fascination, curiosity, boundless enthusiasm.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:59] I completely agree with the sentiment that it has to be enthusiastic, but it has to go to almost pathological levels with some of this stuff because you’re swimming upstream against people that are actively — not just the current resisting you there or people constantly going against you. I’ve noticed you’re very critical as well, of these so-called screenwriting experts that don’t write themselves in these sorts of gurus and that creators and artists and entrepreneurs are filtering in and out. What role do those people play in your world, these so-called experts? And how do us as creators and artists and entrepreneurs — How do we evaluate and filter in the right things and filter out the armchair quarterback who just wants our money?
Brian Koppelman: [00:13:36] Well, I think the armchair quarterback is easy to filter out, right? I mean, you just look and see what kind of work they’re producing. Like to me, I read Sidney Lumet’s books and I read David Mamet’s books and I read William Goldman’s book and Spike Lee’s books. Like books by people who made work that I love. I was not at all interested in the work by people who just talked about it from a perch that they said that they’d earned. But when I would look and see what work have they produced, there was no work produced. The reason that I get really annoyed about supposedly screenwriting experts is because, to me, they’re con men, they’re charlatans. They’re in iridescence somewhere trying to tell you what genre you should write in, but they’ve never written anything and they take people’s money. I feel like it’s completely illegitimate to do that, and it’s morally wrong to do it. I love self-help. Tony Robin has been an incredible help to me. My friend, Seth Godin has been an incredible help to me. These are people who do a tremendous amount of work and you can just see it. You know, you pick up Seth Godin’s book The Dip, and it’s just immediately apparent that that guy is telling you the truth about something, a discovery that he really made. He’s not guessing. I guess that’s a big part of it is I want information from people who aren’t guessing from people who came by the information the hard way.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:14:45] Right. You want the real deal. Because there’s something unique about screenwriting that attracts that figure in the ecosystem who’s there to tell you how to do it but isn’t necessarily doing it himself. And that authenticity, I think actually carries into so much of your work. I mean, we could talk about almost any project you’ve taken on, but Billions, in particular, is so steeped in the details of Wall Street, of the agent’s office of all these mini-worlds that come together to conspire to create the plotlines of that show. Tell us a little bit about how you think about research and just a color of what it is. I feel like at times you’re just obsessed in the most wonderful way you get off on the reality of worlds on authenticity. So tell us about that in the writing process.
Brian Koppelman: [00:15:21] Well, yeah, thanks. I mean, there’s nothing better than uncovering a jewel-like that. I was watching Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and there was a big tuna head that he’d had, and he went inside with this incredible amount of enthusiasm and he was like, “Ah, the part I want is like the inside of the eye, the muscle that moves the eye because that it tastes like the sea.” The way that that guy went after it, it was like, you know, how many years and how much time it took him to know that the muscle inside the eye is the thing that you want when it’s prepared a certain way, and I’m always looking for that in any world that I’m exploring as a writer. I’m looking for that thing that maybe someone else makes gross or off-putting or that they take for granted. I want to unearth those special details. Okay, take these hedge fund people, many of them are like genius-level IQ and a level of ambition and need to have the success that I can’t quite understand. I’m somebody who obviously has wanted to be successful and worked for this success in an incredibly impossible industry in which to have it. But I can picture myself becoming satisfied feeling like this is enough work or wow, this is an incredible ride I’m on or how lucky I am. And then I would watch these people, someone who has 300 million and it’s not enough and 500 million and they need more at a billion, but that other guy has 2 billion, I may have to have more than that. So to me, the challenge of how do I get next to those people, how do I get those people to want to tell me about their lives? How do I become a person that they want to confide in? How do I then want to be able to take that and honor them by telling their story in a way that feels true to them? There’s just something about that really fucking turns me on, man.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:16:57] Yeah, it’s obvious. And let’s talk about that too. So when you get in the room with these guys, you’re trying to get information that not only nobody else has uncovered in television at least, but information potentially that might not be very favorable to them, that might not look great or sound great or make them look like heroes, and that’s the good stuff. So how do you open these guys up?
Brian Koppelman: [00:17:16] Yeah. Great question. I mean, it’s a lot of the stuff that you guys talk about on this show. First of all, I’m not in there to fuck them over in any way. Like I said, I’m in there to honor who they are and their experience. I’m never going to use their names. I’ve never told anybody who I sat down with. You can’t find an interview anywhere where I’ve talked about who the billionaires are that I’ve spent time with. They know that I’m going to give them total anonymity. They know that if they say, “Hey, this one-piece is not something you can use, even fictionalized.” I’m going to be cool with that. And also I’m not in there judging them. People don’t like to feel judged. They want to feel understood. And so if I’m in there with a posture of “Hey, I want to understand how this all works. You’re amazing. How did you do that? Tell me about this deal. Tell me about fucked-up time you walked into a room and somebody underestimated you. Were you good in school? What teacher did you want to see you succeed?” I mean, you guys know, you’re just in there trying to find that little magical switch that will suddenly turn them on. Feel like you understand them and get them to want to prove to you or show you that you’re on the same wavelength.[00:18:17] Because I’m genuinely fascinated. That’s part of the answer to the earlier question. I’m not in there unless I’m already totally engaged in this search and this need to discover something about a world that I find compelling, and so they feel that coming off of me too. They feel that Dave, my lifelong best friend and writing partner — I mean, they feel us in there with passion and enthusiasm and commitment and without judgment. You have to be willing to share about yourself and you have to find a way to become a good storyteller also. And it doesn’t hurt if you can make them laugh and it doesn’t hurt. If you can provide access to a world that they’re interested in, that maybe they don’t always get. I mean, you know, it all takes a lot of work and then it takes somehow feeling very comfortable in your own skin. Because you can walk into a guy with three billion dollars and. 400 people who work for him and it’d be easy to be intimidated or to feel out of your element. And you know, when you give up those vibes, then people feel judged even if you’re not judging them. A big piece of it is what kind of process do you have to go through to feel comfortable in your own skin so that you can relax in that setting? Because nothing makes somebody else relax more than feeling like you sitting there with them are relaxed. And so it’s all that stuff.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:24] Yeah. I definitely identify with the process of becoming comfortable in your own skin, making people laugh, making people feel at ease, getting them to like and trust you is exactly what we do. I do wonder though, what’s in it for them? I understand how you get them to open up tactically. These guys don’t need exposure. Is it just the novelty of, “Oh, they’re going to make a TV show about us? Finally, the recognition.” Does it appeal to this weird like narcissistic side that their success breeds?
Brian Koppelman: [00:19:48] Jordan, who have you ever met who doesn’t want to be understood?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:51] That’s a great question. I’ll ask the questions here, Brian.
Brian Koppelman: [00:19:55] So I mean, that’s it, right? It’s this sense that, look, I didn’t go into these billionaires having no track record. So the first people I had to get to trust me in this way were poker players underground. When you do a piece of work that resonates in the culture, that helps a tremendous amount because I’m not just somebody calling a billionaire hedge fund manager and saying, “Will you give me some of your time?” I’m somebody who’s made these other movies and maybe made a movie that meant something to them along the way, or I made a television show, or they’ve heard my podcast, or they’ve watched the 30 for 30. Dave and I’ve done enough stuff in the culture that somehow it’s possible that there’s a handhold there that makes it sort of interesting to spend time with us.[00:20:37] Also, being in New York, we probably, and on this show, we partnered with Andrew Ross Sorkin who knows a lot of these people. That’s another way. Andrew could say, “These guys are cool. They’re worth spending time with.” But beyond all that, once you’re in the room with them and you’re able to look them in the eyes, they know I’m going to go write about this stuff. I’m going to try to tell this story. And they, I believe, want to know that the world they’re living in and putting so much time in is going to be represented in a way that it ends up being recognizable to them. And so it’s that need for understanding that I think makes people want to share.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:21:18] And that understanding is a huge part of your podcast, which we definitely have to talk about for a moment because it is really such a gift, I think, to creators and artists — I mean, people from all walks of life, I think, walk away from your podcast with something universal and essential. I certainly have, Jordan has. I’m curious to know like what you’re describing about wanting to understand people minus the agenda is the DNA of The Moment, your show. And the one question you keep asking people is, you know, what is, or what are your moments? These inflection points in your life where things might have gone south or you didn’t know whether you should continue or always lost. And after asking that question so many times from so many interesting people, do you have a sense of what the common elements of people’s key moments are, and is there something we can take away from what all creative people have to go through when they do what they do?
Brian Koppelman: [00:22:08] I love thinking about this. I was talking to my son about it yesterday. I thought that it would be easier to graph it all. I can put it all in the same quadrant, but it seems like there are a few answers. For some people, it’s a great ability not to notice how bad things are and sort of blinders that keep them moving forward. For others, it’s putting into practice a process that lets them revert to process so that they’re not thinking about results. To others, it’s locking in on just will and anger. That won’t let them lose — I think one common thing is when you talk to people who’ve found a way to hit those moments and move forward, they don’t tend in the moment that the bad thing happened. They haven’t let themselves really marinade in it. I think that a lot of us want to, a lot of us want to wallow. The thing, Tony Robbins calls, we want to tell ourselves our story over and over again, and it can be in a bad story, but I think that a common theme is sort of like, “Okay, this is a setback. I can sit here and live in it, or I can take whatever lesson I can quickly and move forward.” And I think that that ability and the sort of decision to move forward is in all of the stories. Maybe that’s the one thing is like a conscious choice of, “Nah, not going to allow this thing to define me.”[00:23:29] You know, I’m as interested in The Moment. I think as many people fucked their lives up in the moment of success, the first blush of real success as in the failure. I’m as interested in that in a way. It’s like the people who in those moments of success, instead of going, “Hey, I’ve done it. I’m a success.” Go, “Okay, I’m here now. This is nice. What’s next?” And I think that that idea that what’s next — I know for me — Dave and I — when the weekend that Rounders came out, and it was our first movie, that Friday night, we went out with our friends and we went to movie theaters, and then the next day we got on a plane and went to Montana and started researching our next movie. I remember we went into this town where nobody knew us, where nobody had heard of the movie because it had just opened. And we were talking to these people in this really desolate farm town and we were starting to put together the beginning thoughts for how we were going to write our next film. It was very conscious on our part. “Okay. You know what we’re not going to do is spend a week and a half or two weeks in New York, like kind of dining out on the fact that, ‘Hey, we made it, we got a movie released.’ We’re going to go and figure out, ‘Okay, that thing’s done now how do we start on the next thing?’ And also how do we start on the next thing by rolling up our sleeves and actually working, getting back into the practice of working.” And I think that that as simple as that sounds is a huge part of it.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:24:49] That is huge because, yeah, you’re right. Those moments in our minds, usually we associate them with being down or having a challenge, but what you’re saying is that those moments can just as easily or more often be the moments when things are going well, and then the next move is that much more critical, right?
Jason DeFillippo: [00:25:06] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Brian Koppelman. We’ll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:26] I got to say you’re quite the Vine star. It looks like almost 57 million loops, as they call them over there. That seems like such a weird medium for somebody who spends like a hundred plus hours on a script that turns into 45 minutes of TV and I’ve got this other medium Vine that’s six seconds long, and I assume a lot of those take pretty much zero planning other than making the coffee you’re drinking during the shot. Am I wrong about that? Why is that important to you?
Brian Koppelman: [00:28:50] It’s funny. It’s not important to me anymore at all. What’s important about it? I had these rules and when I got to the end of it, I stopped and the rules were I would do one a day for as long as I had something true to say that I believe would help somebody. And so it was very simple to do. The shock was that people responded the way that they did. I did it out of anger. Anger at these charlatans we were talking about earlier. I was doing Twitter Q and A’s and I really love to do things like that. I love being able to answer and help people because as I said I looked to other working writers and so if I can help somebody who wants to do this by doing a Twitter Q and A or ask me anything, I’m happy to do it. But I noticed that some of the questions that would come to me had an underlying premise that was faulty. This underlying premise would say like, “I know that you have to have a five-act structure, or I know that you have to break in by writing only in one drama, but — ” I’m wonder like, well, what is this presumption? Where’s it come from? And I realized that there were a few people supposedly teaching screenwriting. It got me so annoyed because they were teaching it wrong. Almost like the Steve Martin joke of, “I’m going to teach my kid English wrong before nursery school,” that I decided — I just looked into the Vine camera one day out of nowhere and I just said, “All screenwriting books are bullshit all of them. Read screenplays, watch movies. Let those be your guide.”[00:30:09] And I just called it Six-Second Screenwriting lessons, Volume One, and I put it up and immediately. It started getting re-vined and sent around, and I got tons of emails from famous actors and directors like, “Aw, thank you fucking doing that.” And I did like seven of them the first day and I just saw that there was this incredible hunger for somebody to speak in a non-bullshit way about the stuff that actually mattered about living a creative life. And so I did one a day for like 330 days. I ended up getting a really big following for them, and when I got to the point where I felt like I’d said all the stuff — you know, I feel like if someone goes and watches those, I’ve given them what I can give them in that area. Like if something occurs to me, I’ll say it on Vine, but it’s been over a year since I was doing that on a regular basis. And yeah, it’s just funny to me as it is to you that 57 million loops of that thing you’ve got out there. I mean, that’s ridiculous.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:01] That’s a huge number, huge, ridiculously huge.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:31:04] But also that makes sense because I think it works for people because it works for you. Like you tweeted almost a year ago or about a year ago, that you were making those Vines while you were writing the pilot script for Billions and you were almost talking to yourself. It’s interesting like you were giving advice, living the advice that you wanted other people to follow, that you yourself needed at that moment and I think that’s the difference.
Brian Koppelman: [00:31:24] Yeah, 100% it was like so much bullshit in the world, and I knew that Dave and I were taking this big chance of writing this thing on spec. You know, it was a weird time. Like the first true bomb that we’d ever been a part of had come out, which was Runner Runner. We did other things that weren’t commercially successful, but then they would have critical renowned or some scene in the movie we would know immediately, I kind of knew that things were good. Knockaround Guys got really shitty reviews, but I knew almost immediately that there will be a group of kids who would fucking love that movie and be able to quote it. I knew that there was enough in it that it was cool. It didn’t bother me. But Runner Runner is a shitty movie, and it was really painful to make and painful to be around knowing it was going to be shitty. I never tweeted about the movie in a positive way or do interviews like, “Hey, it’s a great movie.” I knew what it was. But the result of that was when I came out of that experience and I felt rocks for the first time because it’s a real public sort of, even if you’re sort of haven’t long enough career and you’re mostly a nerd to this stuff. It’s one thing if people are reviewing badly, something that you know is good, but it’s another thing to have to live with a movie out that you know is not good.[00:32:27] And I knew that what I wanted to do, Dave and I wanted to go back and just write something undeniable and control it ourselves and not let it get out of our hands and not sell it in advance. You get in trouble and you sell things in advance. So we were going to write the script and then either sell it or not sell it. And that was going against all the conventional wisdom because in television if you’re like us and you have a track record, you can get a deal. Anytime that Dave and I want, we can get a deal to go write something. Someone would pitch an idea, someone will pay us to go write it. But for us it’s binary. It’s yes or no. It’s either something gets made or it doesn’t get made. I felt like the way to get this thing made and get it made well with us in charge of it, in control creatively was to write it on spec. And so yeah, I was telling myself to go against the conventional wisdom. Like, when I was telling people in the Vines to go against the conventional wisdom. So you’re correct about that.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:33:14] Yeah. So let’s talk about that for a moment, because it sounds like the way you guys went about writing Billions was almost getting back to the privilege you had earlier in your career of doing things for yourselves without some of the constraints, which are blessings but they come with their own constraints of having a track record or having a deal or selling something before you make it. Do you think writers or creators of any kind almost have to invent those conditions for themselves? Again, at a certain point, almost artificially invent them so that you can get to that place of, “I want to make something undeniable for me before I share it with the entire world.”
Brian Koppelman: [00:33:46] I mean, I love that idea. I know that we needed to do that, and I’ve done that with Solitary Man, which I think is our best movie, and certainly is the best-reviewed movie that we’ve ever done. I mean, I wrote that on spec also, and it took four years and I wrote it in off hours by myself but I do think there’s something incredibly powerful about doing a thing, knowing you might fail, knowing no one might care, but you’re going to do it to the best of your ability. It’s the advice I give people all the time. It’s a great thing about being a writer or a creative person, you can write your way out of any situation. This gets back to the question you guys started with about undeniable to who and the answer is I do think there’s an objective version of this stuff and I feel like I’ve proven it for myself time and time again of sitting down in a room. Knowing that I didn’t hedge it at all. I didn’t get money ahead of time. I didn’t protect myself. I didn’t get a trade announcement that says I’m doing it just a little room with Dave and we’re going to go create something. And there is a magic to that. Like sometimes famous authors too will say, “I’m not going to make a book deal. I’d rather write the book and then have somebody take it who I know is in love with it and is going to promote it the right way.” And so yeah, I think that there is something for me that is kind of magical about doing it that way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:54] It looks like from my amateur inspection of the credits that you and David pretty much write every episode. Tell us a little bit about the writer’s room because I assume it’s not just you two sitting there, surrounded by empty Krispy Kreme boxes.
Brian Koppelman: [00:35:06] We’re executive producers of every episode, but we’re not the writer of every episode of record. Like Episode Four of Billions that was on Sunday, was written by a guy named Young-Il Kim, Episode Five is written by a woman named Heidi Schreck, but we’ve all sat in a room together and we’ve gone over the story a million times, and Dave and I have given these people notes and help them with dialogue. And ultimately it’s up to the two of us to make sure the show sounds like the show. So that may mean doing a dialogue pass on every script where we’re going through and keeping the lines that other people wrote that feel like the show and then adding lines. But the way we found it’s best to get the writers to feel a sense of ownership is that if the writer on our staff starts the script, even if we’ve done work on that script, it’s that writer’s script in that writer’s name goes on the script.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:49] I always wonder about some things when it comes to dialogue and nonverbal communication in shows. For example, I think it was Episode Four, Axe is going to fly to this Metallica concert and he says something to one of his colleagues on the tarmac and he has this, you know, he does that subtle wink it’s almost involuntary. Is that something where it’s like give a subtle involuntary wink or is that just something that he as an actor is throwing in there to color this on his own?” And you’re like, “That was awesome. That’s why we hired you.”
Brian Koppelman: [00:36:17] Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman and David Costabile, Toby Leonard Moore, and Condola Rashad — these are like incredible top-flight professional actors and all you want is to remember to take your characters and make them three dimensional. We’re standing there on set with the actors and the director of the episode 90% of the time, and by the time Episode Four rolls, I mean, Damian Lewis is Bobby Axelrod. There’s no difference. So no, in the script, you wouldn’t say Bobby gestures this way, but you might say Bobby gestures or Bobby looks over at him, or Bobby nods to him, but then Damian is going to do whatever Damian is going to do in a great way to communicate, to be Bobby Axelrod. I mean, his job is to physicalize what we write. Obviously, we have to write an airplane or else you show up on the day and none of that stuff is there, and you write every word of dialogue that they say, and then you hope that the actors take something and make an attitude, that our actors do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:06] I used to work on Wall Street. That was my only experience as an actual attorney. How do you make something like that interesting for television? Because you have done so. I mean, a lot of this stuff, especially with hedge funds and things like that, it’s done by computer. It’s amazing. It’s not just a shell about people sitting behind desks. How do you bottle up the politics of Wall Street and turn it into a show?
Brian Koppelman: [00:37:24] Well, I think that’s like years of learning how to tell stories that are, you know, I mean, how do you make poker compelling? How do you make any movie story interesting? You put obstacles in front of the characters and you watch them have to get past the obstacles. But also I think that the hedge fund world is inherently fascinating because hedge fund managers, especially big-time hedge fund managers, they’re not just sitting in front of their screen all day. Because they’re raising money, they’re trying to keep their investors happy, they’re managing their portfolio managers, they’re managing their analysts. They are motivating those people. So to me, you’re looking at people who are five-tool players. And so five-tool players are always interesting to watch. The closer you can get to how they do what they do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:04] The whole show so far up to Episode Four and feel free to send me an advanced DVD of all the other episodes if you want to.
Brian Koppelman: [00:38:10] Sure.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:10] It’s really fundamentally about the power dynamics of Wall Street so far. How do these power dynamics compare to the power dynamics in Hollywood where you live and work?
Brian Koppelman: [00:38:20] Listen, you get good at recognizing those kinds of power dynamics as you move further and further into any kind of career. As you become successful, you start to recognize the habits of all sorts of different people or group dynamics you start to recognize. You walk into a room and you start to subtly understand where the power is and, of course, there are similarities. I mean, the difference is scale in a way. Like when you think about the scale that these people operate on. And one of the things that we got to do is we get to go and watch morning meetings and we get to go hang around hedge funds. We got to watch hedge fund guy A who manages three billion pitch, hedge fund guy B who manages 10 billion, and we got to sort of watch the power dynamics play out. And also living in New York for as long as we have, there are power dynamics every time you walk into a restaurant because somebody knows the maitre d’, somebody else knows the chef, somebody else knows the person sitting at the table that they really want. If you’re interested in that stuff, you kind of tune yourself to it and then you pick it up everywhere.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:14] I think this makes sense, and obviously just part of being human and being an astute human is noting these power dynamics. I think the brilliance comes in being able to put it into film and to television.
Brian Koppelman: [00:39:24] Well, we catalog all this shit. Like we will watch something that’ll happen. I mean, in Episode Six of our show, there’s a tiny little moment that came from Hollywood. It’s a moment people love in the show, and I’ll just tell you what happens between Axe’s right-hand person who’s played by David Constable, the character’s name is Wags and his analyst Ben Kim. And there’s a moment revolving around the delivery of food that Dave and I witnessed in a movie studio president’s office 17 years ago and for 17 years we carried that around with us. And then we were able to finally deploy it in a believable way here. Then it mirrors the power structure exactly. Literally 17 years ago, we looked at each other like, well, that’ll go on something someday, and then 17 years later it’s going to be on Showtime.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:05] I totally understand that. For example, I know a lot of my comedian friends and me, even me, who’s far less funny than your average comedian will say something or see something that happens and you go, “Oh my gosh, all right, I got to write this down. Or just burn it into my brain because this is such a good bit and it has to have the right context, or it’s wasted.” And I’ve been holding on to some stuff for five years. Literally, I totally get it.
Brian Koppelman: [00:40:25] Yeah. That stuff’s really fun. I know with music too, like that song that opened Episode Four and closed it — Oh No by Andrew Bird — like we’ve been walking around with that song in our pocket since it came out. Like, “Oh, wouldn’t this be incredible to use?” And then the perfect moment came to use it and that is really rewarding cause a bunch of the recaps singled out the song and picked up on the words and understood why we deployed that song where and when we did. That was super rewarding.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:48] Now your point of view on the world and of hedge funds and the US attorney’s office in general or the government in general, there’s always going to be some bias in writing. Feel free to jump in and correct me if I’m overstepping here, but it seems like there’s always going to be biased when it comes to storytelling. Characters that are black and white for example, are just not that interesting and few people are just good or bad kind of blanket or on their face. And the same is true for the industry, parts of government. So much of storytelling these days seems to aggressively pursue some sort of agenda one way or another, and it doesn’t really let the audience have their own point of view. How do you control for that bias, or is this something that you kind of deal with subconsciously now that you’ve been doing it for so long?
Brian Koppelman: [00:41:26] Well, it’s not subconscious in that we certainly had an awareness that we were going to try and deal with the fact that both Chuck Rhoades — the United States attorney, Bobby Axelrod — the hedge fund manager, would be people who if you met them in life, you’d find pretty compelling. And so that meant that they would have a bunch of characteristics that would make him seem good to you or engaging to you. But when we look at people in those positions. There were abuses of position and power sometimes, and so we’re really interested in how that stuff gets bundled together. You know, we’re really interested in the idea. If you start thinking about people like this and you start thinking about, “Okay, someone who has a prosecutorial platform like that with almost unfettered powers. Do they all just use them for the public good?” Well, the rhetoric is that they use them for the public good, and they certainly do a lot of public good. But then do they also use those positions for career advancement. Do they say, run for president or governor or mayo?. And if they do, then do you want to go backwards and do an autopsy on some of the things they prosecuted and try to figure out. What, wait, was that one for the public good or for their own good?[00:42:31] By the same token, some hedge fund person who does a tremendous amount of good for charity or employs a lot of people or is a leader in his community, but as you look back on the deals or the way that that person got in the position or the culture of the environment that that person’s created, is there some gray area there too? Is it possible that that person isn’t exactly who he holds himself out as and isn’t that interesting also? And so yeah, of course, we’re going to look at these worlds and try to peel the layers back to figure out the truth of these things and perhaps the truth is that these people, like we all are a multifaceted, multi-dimensional. [00:43:08] I know my podcast, which says a tremendous amount of good for people. People are moved by it. Is that the only reason I do it? Do I also do it because it’s a great excuse to get in a room with somebody I really admire and get to pick their brain and then have a relationship with them? Sure, I do. There’s some part of me likes being the person, so I get tired of turned on by being the person who’s able to unearth the gem from that person and show it to someone else. Do I get an endorphin rush from that? I do. Does that invalidate the fact that my prime purpose is to share? No, but I have to own that. I also get an endorphin rush from it. And so I love looking at these things, and Dave does too and trying to see them in a fully multi-dimensional way.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:43:42] But that is a delicate balance, right, Brian? Because on the one hand, you’re trying to dramatize something and show it as it is, but writers have a plan in a wish to show something in a certain way. So I have to imagine that that’s an ongoing conversation in the writers’ room when it comes to Billions, like, yeah, let’s figure out what the tension between the SCC and the AGC’s office says about the politicking inherent in the way people will go after the hedge fund industry. But at the same time, you know, let’s kind of let these characters do the work for themselves and let’s just let the audience decide how to feel about it.
Brian Koppelman: [00:44:11] Sure. But like, okay, when you guys were asking earlier about. It goes back to the research, because when you guys were asking earlier about why people tell you what they tell you, I mean, the most mind-blowing thing anyone’s said to us, and I said this on Charlie Rose the other night, but it’s absolutely true. We were sitting with somebody in a really, really high prosecutorial position. It’s not attorney general on our show. It’s the United States attorney’s office. There are different things, but yeah, we were sitting with somebody in a really high position of power, the prosecutorial power, not a United States attorney, but somebody very high up in the prosecutorial ranks, and this person had been offered a two million dollar a year job at a private law firm, and they had turned it down. We asked them what kept them at this prosecutorial position and what we assumed they would say is I get to do good here. I’m serving the people. But we were kissed into the meeting with this person by a trusted third party, and so the prosecutor didn’t lie to us. He looked us in the eye and he said, “The power. I have so much power. I get to decide who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. I get to decide who I’m going to prosecute and who I’m going to let free. I get to decide which little crimes I get to say, ‘Well, you have to let those go so that business can function,’ and which crimes you get to say, ‘Nope, I’m going to stop this business from functioning.’ It’s about the power.” David and I when in those moments — Jordan, I’m sure you’ve had some of those kinds of you just want to say as still as possible so the person doesn’t realize what they’ve just said to you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:32] Right.
Brian Koppelman: [00:45:33] But I actually want to keep them talking, but I couldn’t believe that he admitted to us he was motivated by power. So once somebody sends something like that to you, you don’t have to consciously think about how you’re going to put that in the character. That’s just a character, it’s just grabbed. That’s part of the character. Like you then understand that that’s a huge plank. That’s a huge motivating plank. And then you find the other motivating planks and they’re just there. Look, why do we as like — I really like Mark Cuban. I know Mark Cuban personally, and I’m a big fan, but why is it culture do we celebrate billionaires. Why is he the biggest reality star? Forgetting Trump a politician. Why was Trump such a huge reality star? What is it about a certain kind of success that we in America have decided is heroic? And so if you’re interested in those questions, I think maybe that’s a way to drill down into this. I’m not trying to give you the answers on the show. Dave and I aren’t. What we’re trying to do is like continue to ask the questions and ask ourselves why these people are like they are, what they tell themselves they’re like, and what the truth is.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:46:26] Which is so much more refreshing for the audience.
Brian Koppelman: [00:46:28] Thanks. And then, you know, we want to make it entertaining and funny.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:31] I want to take a figurative jump back in time. You were a blocked writer until you were 30. First of all, what does that mean? And that gives a lot of people hope that you weren’t doing this when you were 13 years old and then focused on it for your whole life. Because I think in order to get great at something, a lot of people have this misconception that they’ll even say. “Well, Jordan, you know you’re a decent talk show host. Did you want to do this when you were a kid?” And it’s like, “Yeah when I was eight I kind of thought it’d be cool to be a radio host.” And they’re like, “Oh, see.” That really deflates a lot of people’s ambitions, I think, to think that you have to start so early. But if you started at 30, I don’t want to insult you, but if you can do it from that age, a lot of people can start something from that age. It’s not too late.
Brian Koppelman: [00:47:08] I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, that’s a foundational belief that you don’t have to be 20 years old or 18 years old. Now, I did a lot of stuff before that gave me certain tools. I always knew I could write. I will say this, I always knew that I had the ability to make you feel something when I wrote. So even in college or law school, if I had to write a paper, I knew that my problem was like ADD and not being able to finish anything. But I could certainly write a page that would make you go like, “Oh, that motherfucker can freaking write,” all the time, but I couldn’t finish anything. I was really blocked and I couldn’t write any kind of fiction. I would just be myself up. I was a real perfectionist and attention deficit person, and I had a successful career doing other things. But my son was nine months old and I had this realization that I wanted to be the kind of parent who would tell his kids to chase their dreams, but I have the secret dream that I was an artist and that if I didn’t attack it somehow. Something in me would die and when things die, they become toxic. I knew that that toxicity would spread. I might instead of being, a dad, I would come home and be like, “Hey, what is it that turns you on today about school? What are you passionate about?” I would just be like, “Bring me a beer. I’m going to sit in front of the TV.” And so I made the decision that I was going to make the change. And so I had read, Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins and did a bunch of those exercises to figure out what I wanted to do. Then I read The Artist’s Way and I did those exercises, and that is what broke me through. By doing the morning pages, almost instantly upon starting the morning pages, I was able to write every day.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:48:46] You’re listening to the Jordan harbinger show with our guest, Brian Koppelman. We’ll be right back after this.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:54:31] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. And don’t forget the worksheet for today’s episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’re listening to us in the Overcast Player, please click that little star next to the episode. We really appreciate it. And now for the conclusion of our episode with Brian Koppelman.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:01] Being able to unblock yourself is huge. I think a lot of people who write in — I get hundreds of emails every week from people who seem to have similar issues. How do other people who are blocked and whatever way, how do they uncover what they’re good at or what they should be doing if they don’t know what that necessarily is?
Brian Koppelman: [00:55:18] Right. That’s sort of feeling inside that there’s something more, but I don’t know what that more is. I mean, I still think that Awaken the Giant Within is the best tool I’ve ever come across at figuring that stuff out. I mean, Jordan, I’m sure you’ve read some at Tony Robbins’ stuff or gone to some of his programs. Or if you haven’t, you’re missing something out, especially in this area, is crucial. The way that Tony sets out the questions, which is really what it is. It forces you to ask yourself why and what is it that you want to feel, what emotions you want to feel? And it helps you to figure out what decisions you have to make. And then it’s about finding the resources. So once I realized I wanted to be an artist, it was easy to then find The Artist’s Way. Then I just was talking to Dave, my lifelong my best friend, and I was like, “I’m really frustrated. I know I have to unblock myself. I’m finally willing to say I need to be a writer. All my friends are writers. All I want to do is read and watch movies. How am I not doing this?” And Dave was like, “Well, you have to do The Artist’s Way.” It’s like once I figured out the what, figuring out the how was easy.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:56:14] What role did David play in helping you unblock and step into that new phase of your life?
Brian Koppelman: [00:56:20] A huge role. First of all, he gave me the book and told me to do the exercises. That then really unlocked everything and he was willing to throw in with me and write the screenplay together.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:56:29] I would love to talk about that partnership for a little bit if you’re open to it. I think the creative partnership is one of those — it is so powerful and personal and intimate. There’s so much that goes into that relationship and there’s conflict and there’s collaboration. Tell us, and I realize this is a huge question because this partnership is a huge partnership, but like what is the DNA of that relationship and how have you guys managed to stay so close working on so many projects over such a long period of time?
Brian Koppelman: [00:56:54] Know it’s so hard to answer it. Anything that will sound almost too idealistic or dreamlike, but like the truth is, we met when we were 15. I just turned 16 and Dave was 14 and a half. He’s a year and a half younger than I am, and we met in a summer bus trip and with students, and I don’t know, we were like the only two kids who liked reading. So we were like passing books back and forth. You know, we had a similar sense of humor. And somehow we were each in an age that we were really ready to make a sort of like our first real grownup, like real friends. And to us, we defined it probably because we were both Godfather fanatics. We defined the term really strenuously and there was just immediately packed with a tremendous amount of like loyalty. For years, we would trade books and music and movies. Constantly, be talking about this stuff that we were tuning our artistic instruments without even being aware that that’s what we were doing and we were getting them on the same frequency. Then at a certain point, Dave went to one college, I went to another college and we would have different experiences, but then bring them back. So Dave would watch a movie and tell me about it. We would get on the phone in the middle of the night and talk about the movie.[00:57:59] And then when we decided to work together, we committed to this no-bullshit thing of like two hours every day. We were going to show up in this little room and had a slop sink and one chair and I sat on the floor a lot of the time. He sat in the chair gross room underneath my apartment and we worked for two hours every day. We decided right away that the project was what mattered. Our egos, we’re not going to get involved, meaning he could tell me an idea sucked. I could tell him an idea sucked when we were not going to take that personally. We were just going to try to tell the story in the best way we could. We’re incredibly fortunate in that we each have done the work on our own, meaning neither of us have ever stopped trying to grow and learn and then bring that stuff back to the other guy. And that’s a big part of it.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:58:38] Have any of those principles evolved over the years of the partnership? Like obviously putting aside your ego or feeling open and trusted to speak your mind probably because it’s universal, but like have you guys had to redefine the terms or ever introduced new ideas?
Brian Koppelman: [00:58:53] I will say this, there’ve been like a few lucky things in my life. My wife and I talk about this all the time. I’m married for 24 years. My wife is the person that I’m the closest to in the world. We tell each other absolutely everything. We are fully open with each other. People always talk about how much work this should take. It doesn’t take any work. It doesn’t take work with Dave either. It takes a tremendous amount of work to produce the actual work product, but the relationship part of it, if you’re just like honest and I guess consciously always assume that the other person is acting in the best interest of the project. Like, you know that law school thing where we can stipulate the fact pattern in the way that most benefits the other party.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:30] Right contracts.
Brian Koppelman: [00:59:31] That is a practice that I’m in all the time. If someone does something, if Amy does something, it’s my wife, Dave does something, my immediate thing is to frame it in a way that most benefits that person makes that person look good because there’s no use in doing it the other way and then proceeding from there. I’ve been lucky enough that the most important relationships I have which is Dave, my wife, and my children. That stuff’s just never been on the table.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [00:59:53] I like those principles, Brian. It’s basically a, don’t treat your partner the way any of the characters in Billions would treat the AGC’s office.
Brian Koppelman: [01:00:00] That’s exactly right.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:01] How do you find enough discipline to be a self-starting writer? I personally don’t have problems with motivation, but people ask me this stuff all the time. How do you stay focused? How do you stay motivated? And I’m of the opinion that when you find something, it’s not a matter of how do you stay motivated. It’s actually harder to not do that thing that you feel burning.
Brian Koppelman: [01:00:20] Well, yeah, I love doing it. Even when it’s hard, like, look, there are days that difficult, but I’ll tell you something I fail at. You will never find me doing legs in any gym anywhere in the United States of America. I just want two legs. Truthfully, I’m not even in the gym doing chest or arms right now, but let’s say I was doing that stuff. I wouldn’t be doing legs. I’m just bad at it. It’s not something that I care about and it’s not something that I do, but I love writing and I know that if I start, even if it seems impossible and annoying in a half an hour, it’s going to be fucking great because I’m going to be in that place that I only get to that hyper present, alpha state, that only happens to me in a few different modalities and one of them is writing. What I learned from when I started doing The Artist’s Way was to put a creative practice in a place, so that I deliver myself to the screen every day to work. I wake up, I meditate, I do morning pages and I take a long walk and I do those things every day. And I define a successful day by whether I’ve meditated twice, done my morning pages, and taken a long walk. I’ve had a successful work day.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:22] Morning pages, just in case this went over my head. Are you creating something in the morning or is this a specific drill?
Brian Koppelman: [01:01:27] Morning pages are this thing that comes out of The Artist’s Way and it’s three longhand pages that you free-write in the morning.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:35] What does that do for you?
Brian Koppelman: [01:01:37] It taps into the subconscious somehow. It’s sort of like dipping the pen and ink. It’s like a way that before you’re able to activate your critical — you know, we all have like this critic inside us that might try to shut us down or tell us we’re not good enough and when you do morning pages and the way that Julia Cameron describes them in The Artist’s Way. It’s a very specific exercise. It’s three longhand pages. You’re not allowed to lift the pen. You’re not allowed to go back and reread it. You’re not allowed to censor yourself. You have to fill three pages. And what happens when you do that every day is you just get in the habit of dumping your stuff out — whatever you’ve been thinking, do it early in the morning and you dump your stuff out and it just has this result of getting you firing and ready and active for the day.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:20] Is this something that’s only for writers or is this something that you recommend for frigging everybody.
Brian Koppelman: [01:02:25] It’s really great for anyone who wants to do anything, tap into the most creative version of themselves. What happens when you do The Artist’s Way is you realize — it starts you in figuring out what it is that you want to do.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:34] We’ll link to that book, of course, in the show notes, the book by Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way.
Brian Koppelman: [01:02:39] Yes do.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:40] How do you find your David Levien and how do you find any partner that’s going to be able to even have a functional or a super high-functional relationship like this? Because it seems like that’s the question. People do this wrong all the time. We see it in marriage and then business.
Brian Koppelman: [01:02:54] It’s true. It’s very difficult to answer that in a way that isn’t glib because nobody knows the answer to that question. I haven’t met the person who has the answer to that. I mean, so much of it has to do with preparing yourself, right? It has to do with getting yourself to a place where you’re ready to give the best of yourself to somebody else. So that you are ready to actually not allow your need to be a star or your need to personally thrive to get in the way. How can you add value? And if you’re out there trying to add value, you know, something like Seth Godin talks about really well. John Aycock talks about it really well too. Then I think that you’ll find people who are willing to add value to you.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:34] Do you not want to kill each other occasionally, or do you avoid that pretty skillfully somehow?
Brian Koppelman: [01:03:39] No, we don’t, man. I mean, again, it’s a lucky thing. There’s something about the fact that we’ve been like brothers since we were kids. We have all the good parts of being brothers, but none of the bad parts. None of the parts where we were raised in the same home and had to fight for like our parents’ attention. We found in each other the brother that we never had.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:55] I can definitely see why this is tough to answer without sounding glib. Because it’s like when you ask people what’s the key to a happy marriage and they’re like, “Just be understanding.” And you’re like, “Oh, go jump off a bridge.”
Brian Koppelman: [01:04:05] I mean, yeah. The marriage thing is really to make sure you like the person a lot and they make you smile and you think they’re a good person.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:10] Yeah.
Brian Koppelman: [01:04:11] Foundationally you really think they’re good.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:13] I understand in some way how partners can share credit. It seems like it’s probably not as hard as sharing something like blame or defeat as something doesn’t go well. How do you show that?
Brian Koppelman: [01:04:23] That’s the best! I mean, to have a partner when things are going badly, a real partner, not someone you’re just looking to blame. I mean, that’s the best thing ever. Like going through failure with a partner when you know that person has your back. Boy, that gives you a tremendous amount of strength. You look at that person and be like, “Man, this is fucked. What are we going to do? How do we get ourselves out of it?” “You’re going to show up here tomorrow.” “Are we giving up?” “Oh no. You’re actually going to show up tomorrow.” “Fuck, I better show up if you’re showing up. I got to pick up my end of this thing. I can’t leave you, man, hanging.” I mean, serving somebody else is tremendously empowering. Because let’s say I wanted to cash and then after — Like Runner Runner comes out, it’s a bomb. David, I know it sucks, but like if David showing up Monday morning to start work, what am I going to let him sit there alone? No, I’m going to fucking get out of bed. Show up. So that’s tremendously powerful. I think in the bad times and specifically about the credit thing early on, just as a policy and unspoken policy, I will say constantly, people ask who row what line and we will never, neither of us will ever answer that question. We wrote all of it. The most you’ll ever hear is I’ll say David wrote a line. Like, I’ll point out the line that he wrote that I had nothing to do with, which is “Mike, you should have played the Kings.” But like he wrote that line and I remember falling down on the floor laughing when he wrote it. But basically, you’ll never hear me say, “Oh, do you like that line? I wrote it.” Because it’s all something that we did together.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [01:05:36] And having a partner like that, treating the partnership in that way, I imagine helps deal with the fear that a lot of creators feel. I mean, you’ve written that there is a way to use fear as fuel. You say when it’s channeled the right way, then it is fuel. Tell us a little bit about that. How does a person turn fear into fuel when you’re being creative?
Brian Koppelman: [01:05:55] You know, it’s habit by now, so I’m trying to think about how the real concrete way that I would say it started in the beginning. I guess when you feel that kind of fear of I’m scared to put this on the page. I’ve now learned that that feeling means maybe what I’m going to do is really going to be good and that if I have the guts to just sit there and not run maybe something special is going to happen. It also has to do with, again, like these things that I do make me use the feelings as opposed to running from them. I want to recognize what I’m feeling and then I want to be able to use what I’m feeling instead of turning off when I’m feeling. One thing is I used to listen to podcasts when I would walk to work and walk to my office to write. And then I realized that was a way to escape. So I’ll listen to them on the way back but I listen to music on the way to the office because I want to be living in these thoughts and feelings and fears so that I can be actively grappling with them.
Gabriel Mizrahi: [01:06:49] In your own worlds before you dip into someone else’s.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:52] When you look at adding someone in temporarily, like the pilot, at least the credit, say that Sorkin helped with the pilot, bringing someone into a partnership like this seems like bringing someone into your marriage.
Brian Koppelman: [01:07:03] Could it be, but Andrew did write the pilot with us. There’s no question about it because David and I are like one. We felt like Andrew had a lot to offer, a very specific skill set in regards to this world and a specific point of view. But it was worth it and that we would welcome him in the same way that we welcome each other. And so that did work and we were able to create the pilot together.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:25] I have some questions about Billions that I’m itching and I know non-spoiler-ish stuff, of course. In Episode One, I’m so curious because there’s a scene where Paul Giamatti and his wife are fighting and she pulls this shrink move by calming him down and it seems super realistic.
Brian Koppelman: [01:07:41] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:42] Do you have to research or is there somebody who researches certain characteristics? How this person would handle situations? It seems incredibly involved and who does the legwork of finding out. All right, she’s a wife, who’s a spouse, who reacts in a fight at home.
Brian Koppelman: [01:07:55] I love that you picked up on that. I mean, that is about — I think that’s just about like having writer’s eyes on. You sit and think about this stuff. If the characters three dimensional to you, you’re just as you’re writing, you’re putting yourself in that person’s point of view and frame of mind. So they’re reacting if you’re doing this well and you’re kind of locked into it, then the contours of those scenes sort of show up to you as you’re doing the thing because you’ve done the work of fully imagining the character. That scene in outline form was Chuck and Wendy argue about this. And then whichever one of us did the first pass at it starts that thing, of course, that’s the way in which Wendy would gain control of the scene and then together we all work on it. Dave and I are then grinding on figuring out how do we really shape that and then how does that inform our character going forward. Wonderful moment to pick up on. That’s really close watching. That’s great.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:42] Well, it was something that jumped out because you expect arguments on television to go a certain way. It didn’t go that way at all and I remember I paused it and I was like, Jenny, get over here. So I called my girlfriend over and I was like, “Look how they handle this.” This is so expert because they stop it from escalating even though they’re both emotional and they kind of let that happen. She’s like, “Wait, hold on.” And then I’m like, “Oh, that’s the shrink training right there.”
Brian Koppelman: [01:09:04] That’s exactly right. And that’s definitely something that we said in discussions with Maggie Siff before it was like, this woman is aware of where she is at all times in these conversations. She is who she is like. It’s great that you picked up on it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:18] Last thing, I promise they’re deposing someone in Paul Giamatti’s office, in Chuck’s office. The guy says they’re like Kings. There’s always someone coming to assassinate and the next shot, they’re golfing on the course and the guy takes a club out of the bag and it goes like — like metal on metal sword leaving a scabbard who picks the sounds. Because that’s not an accident. That’s symbolic beheading.
Brian Koppelman: [01:09:37] That’s right. That’s right.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:39] Is there a sound guy that’s like, “Oh, I’m going to throw that in there,” or is this written in?
Brian Koppelman: [01:09:42] Man, that’s phenomenal, another wonderful insight on your part and so rewarding to know that you picked up on that. I mean, that’s why it’s so exciting to work with great collaborators. So the editor for that episode is a woman named Susan E. Morse, Sandy Morse. She was the editor on the 17 or 16 Woody Allen movies, including Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters, and she was the editor of 30 for 30 documentary on Jimmy Connors, This is What They Want. And so Sandy came in and as the editor on that episode, and we wrote the scene before the Kings thing and then the golf thing, but in the editing room, Sandy did a very put up, just a very basic version of that sword thing. And she showed it to us and Dave and I both started howling with laughter and we said, “Sandy, that’s fucking brilliant.” She was like, “Well, you know, I figured, I wasn’t sure if you guys would love it or not, but I thought I’d give you the option.” And so Sandy came up with that as an idea. Then we go to the soundstage, and then we’re working with top sound professionals to craft the exact perfect version of that. But that was a thing where we create an environment with all of our craftspeople, where it’s like a view of an inspired idea, please share it with us. We may say no, but we’ll really salute the effort and we’ll reward you for the effort. And so we try to create a culture of everybody sharing their best creative ideas. And that came because Sandy Morse was like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if it’s out of like someone on sheathing a sword?” And she didn’t say it to us. She just showed the scene to us. We started howling and we were like, “That’s got to go on television.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:09] Brian Koppelman. Thank you so much. Billions in Showtime on demand. We will link it all up in the show notes. Thank you so much for your time.
Brian Koppelman: [01:11:16] This is really fun. I love what you’re doing on your show. Thanks for having me.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:19] You got it, man.
Brian Koppelman: [01:11:19] Take care.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:20] Take care. Bye.
Brian Koppelman: [01:11:20] Bye.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:23] Big. Thank you to Brian Koppelman. His podcast is called The Moment. We’ll link to that in the show notes. There are also worksheets for each episode, so you can review what you’ve learned from Brian Koppelman at jordanharbinger.com. That will be linked to the show notes as well. We also now do have transcripts for each episode, and those can be found in the show notes as well.[01:11:41] We’re teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Don’t do it later. You got to do it now. You got to dig the well before you get thirsty. Once you need relationships, it’s too late to leverage them. You’ll be that person who’s coming out of nowhere. “Hey, I need a favor.” Nobody wants to be that person. So go dig the well before you get thirsty. jordanharbinger.com/course and the drills, they take a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. It is crucial. Again, it’s all free, jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us and you’ll be in smart company. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and/or follow me on social. I’m at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. [01:12:28] This show has created in association with PodcastOne and this episode was produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFillippo, and edited by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, and music by Evan Viola. I’m your host, Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own. And yes, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, which is ideally in every single episode. So please share the show with those you love, and even those you don’t. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we’ll see you next time. [01:13:10] For those of you who are interested in going to prison with me, February 26, 2020. I am going to bring a bunch of you to an educational program for prisoners at their graduation, so it’s a big deal for them. This is such a life-changing and fascinating event. I have a little bit of additional details. I’m going to be emailing the interest list about this. You can get on the interest list by emailing me at email@example.com. It’s going to be February 26 near Lake Tahoe, so kind of near Nevada, kind of near California. This is a unique event that Hustle 2.0 has never done in the past, but I’ve done the prison thing before. We’re not winging that. Registration is open right now to a limited number of people. It’s going to be around a thousand. We’re trying to get it below that. That provides a 12-month scholarship to one incarcerated student enrolled in Hustle 2.0 at High Desert Prison. We don’t get any kickbacks. Don’t worry. You’re going to have to, of course, travel out there and stuff, but I’m going to make this affordable. You get details by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can’t wait to meet all of you behind bars.