Q & A with Directors Brian Koppelman & David Levien

“Solitary Man” co-directors Brian Koppelman (pointing) and David Levien (center, next to Koppelman)

“Solitary Man” co-directors Brian Koppelman (pointing) and David Levien (center, next to Koppelman)

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to directors Brian Koppelman & David Levien about their new drama “Solitary Man,” opening May 21 in New York and L.A. from Anchor Bay Films in association with Millennium Films.

“Solitary Man,” premiered in September 2009 at the Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired by Anchor Bay. Directed by Brian Koppelman & David Levien, its screenplay is by Koppelman. It was produced by Paul Schiff and Steven Soderbergh and Nu Image’s Avi Lerner and Moshe Diamant.

Starring are Michael Douglas (“Wall Street”), Susan Sarandon (“Thelma and Louise”), Jenna Fisher (“The Office”), Mary-Louise Parker (“Weeds”), Imogen Poots (“28 Weeks Later”), Jesse Eisenberg (“The Squid and The Whale”) and Danny Devito (“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”).

The Story (spoiler alert): “Solitary Man” tells the story of Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a 50-something New Yorker and former successful car dealer, who through his own bad choices lost his entire business. When the film opens, Ben’s on the verge of a comeback, but some of the same motivations (particularly involving women) that led to his demise are threatening to take him down again.

Ben is divorced from Nancy (Susan Sarandon), his college sweetheart and the one person who knows him better than anyone. Although he still finds the time to hang out with his daughter Susan (Jenna Fisher) and his adoring grandson, she breaks off contact when she discovers he’s seeing one of her friends. His girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) is the daughter of a very influential businessman who’s on the board of a major auto manufacturer.

If Ben can just keep his hubris in check for a little while longer, he’ll be back as big as ever. But circumstances place him in very close proximity with the one girl he shouldn’t touch, throwing everything into jeopardy.

Directors Brian Koppelman & David Levien co-directed and co-wrote the 2001 comedy “Knockaround Guys,” starring Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green, Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich. Their writing credits include “Rounders,” “Runaway Jury” and “Oceans Thirteen.” As producers, their credits include “The Illusionist,” “The Lucky Ones,” “Interview With the Assassin” and the TV series “Tilt,” which they also created.

Koppelman and Levien met as teenagers at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and instantly became friends. A Tufts University graduate, Koppelman distinguished himself during his college years by discovering the award-winning singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. He went on to develop a career in the music business while earning a law degree from Fordham University during the evenings.

Levien graduated from the University of Michigan, where he published short stories in the undergraduate literary magazine. He then spent three years in Los Angeles, where he worked in the film business and began writing screenplays and fiction, including the novel “Wormwood” (1999). He went on to write “Swagbelly, A Novel For Today’s Gentleman” (2003) and the critically acclaimed crime thriller “City Of The Sun” (2008). His sequel novel, “Where The Dead Lay,” will be published later this year.

Q: How did “Solitary Man” come about?
A: Brian: I wrote the script in our downtime on weekends and in early mornings. I’d written the first 20 pages and brought them to David to say, “Should we work on this together?” because we always trade our ideas back and forth and pitch things to each other. He read it and said, “I think you have the tone and the voice of this, so you should finish it and then we’ll talk about how to make it.” Once I did finish it and showed it to him — and we went up and made a bunch of movies in the meantime — he said, “Let’s figure out how to get this thing made.” We then showed it to Steven Soderbergh and Paul Schiff. Michael Douglas was always our first choice. Steven immediately felt Michael was the right guy for it and gave it to Michael. Michael read it. We sat down with him. He shook our hands and said, “Let’s make this movie.”
Q: When was that?
A: David: The first draft of the script was finished in September of 2007. We sat down with Michael Douglas and he committed to the movie around March 15 of 2008.
Q: The two of you directed “Knockaround Guys” together, but it’s unusual to have pairs of directors and it’s not something the Directors Guild usually agrees to. How do you work that out?
A:Brian: We’re waivered into the DGA and there are a handful of directing teams. We made “Knockaround Guys” in Canada and we were members of the Directors Guild of Canada. When you shot in Canada at that time you were under the Directors Guild of Canada and they don’t have a prohibition against team directors.

In order to join the DGA as a team you have to have directed before as a team and you have to really be a bona fide team. By directing “Knockaround Guys” in Canada under the DGC’s auspices we were able to prove to the DGA that we were a team. And then we went and appeared before a board at the DGA when we wanted to go direct the pilot episode of our TV series “Tilt.” So by the time we directed “Tilt,” which was four years ago, we were already in as a bona fide team.
Q: How do you work as a directing team?
A: David: Seamlessly. We approach all aspects of the job in a joint manner. We both talk about the material. Often, we’ve written it. In this case, Brian wrote it. We plan the approach towards the shoot. We are in rehearsals together. We almost always see eye to eye on the way things unfold. When we’re shooting a scene, 99 percent of the time it’s the exact same takes that we’ve chosen.

Brian: We used to divide up the duties, but for us it’s (now) a collaboration from the beginning.
Q: Why do you like working this way?
A: Brian: Since we were 14 we’ve been like brothers. We grew up watching movies together, reading the same books, listening to the same music. Whenever one of us would find a new artist that we loved or a musician, we would share it with the other guy. We would always talk about it together and as a result of that each of us built our individual aesthetic in conversation with the other guy. So in a way we built this shared perspective and this shared vernacular about all this stuff.

David: We’re not selling the idea that everybody should go work as a team. It’s just something that works for us.

Brian: For us because we have this comfort with each other, we’re able to communicate really well in trying to realize whatever the creative vision is. It’s just more fun to drive to the set with Dave and at the end of the day know that we did this thing together. It’s just more entertaining and more fun for me that way.
Q: Suppose it’s a bad day and something went wrong. Do you then take that back and live with it for the rest of the day?
A: Brian: No. Afterwards we go back to each of our own families. We don’t argue like that. When I’m stuck I can turn to David. On this thing where I wrote the script myself it was still totally seamless to work together and try to achieve this together.
Q: You shot “Solitary Man” entirely in New York, but it doesn’t look like it’s all taking place there.
A: Brian: Good.

David: The college is supposed to be a small New England liberal arts school, but for various reasons — one, budgetary for the tax situation of getting the rebate if you shoot entirely in New York and the other because travel would have been prohibitive — we just found a campus (Fordham University in the Bronx) that we could double for New England.
Q: How easy was it to bring in Michael Douglas?
A: David: Soderbergh knew him well. They made “Traffic” together. He gave the script to Michael and Michael responded to the script really strongly.

Brian: It was wild because in writing it we heard Michael’s voice saying these words the whole time. At our first meeting, he was dressed like the character. He was dressed in all black, which is how the character was described. He just seemed to understand the DNA of this character. He shook our hand at the end of the drink and said, “Okay, let’s make the movie together.” And then it was just a question of figuring out how to do that. We ended up starting to shoot in November 2008.
Q: You attracted a great ensemble cast for the movie. Was that difficult?
A: David: We had a lot of things going for us. We had good material. We had a great lead actor that actors wanted to work with. And we also had a list of some people we had wanted to work with for a long time. Jenna Fisher was someone we’d actually worked with a couple of years back on a pilot. We knew we wanted to have her in the movie. We’d been trying to get Ben Shenkman to come do something with us for a while.

Jesse Eisenberg was somebody we were huge fans of. Olivia Thirlby is somebody we really wanted to work with. Mary-Louise Parker we were longtime fans of. So it was like going down the list of New York actors, who we love, and getting a chance to go to them with this opportunity that seemed like it could be something worthwhile because of Michael already being on board. Michael’s enthusiasm carried. He was the one who was so happy to call DeVito personally and say, “Come on, buddy, let’s do this.”
Q: I was going to ask how you got Danny.
A: David: He’s great. Michael made a personal call to him because they go back as long as the characters go back. They go back to their post-college days when they were young actors in New York. They were roommates. When Michael was producing “Cuckoo’s Nest” he gave Danny his first big great role. In our movie, we needed characters that could fall back into that rhythm where you’d know they hadn’t seen each other for a long time and in a way that would be totally natural and they’d seem like great old friends.
Q: What sort of budget did you have?
A: David: Just barely enough to get that thing on film.

Brian: I don’t think we can answer that question.
Q: Can you characterize it? Like, is it under $20 million?
A: David: Way, way under $20 million.
Q: Do you want to put it under $15 million?
A: David: Yeah, sure we do. It’s well under $15 million. Obviously, (everyone) worked for reasonable amounts and we all did what we had to do to figure out a way to do it correctly.
Q: How did shooting go?
A: Brian: The biggest challenge was that we had 26 days to shoot the movie. It’s a dialogue heavy film and the actors are doing the heavy lifting on this one. There are no effects and not a lot of action. We were really fortunate that Michael was unbelievably prepared every day. He’s just so smart and understands the psychological underpinnings of every moment. He was completely off-book from the time of rehearsal. Word of that kind of thing spreads like wildfire on a production so every actor knew when they were getting in make up that Michael was on it. So everybody was on it the whole time, which helped us tremendously.

David: Everyone was so focused and prepared because they were standing in there with Michael Douglas who was firing on all cylinders. So many actors turned to us after takes and said, “Wow. He’s so alive.” Sometimes people think that legends just rest on their reputations, but watching people work with Michael in a scene and have the scene come alive and see them light up was really thrilling for us. And it happened again and again and again. I think that’s why people stay legends — because they never phone it in. They keep delivering and keep giving everything every time.
Q: But getting a legend to sign on to do a small film, can’t be easy. Why would Michael Douglas want to make a film like “Solitary Man?”
A: Brian: It’s hard for us to talk about why. That’s for him to say. Anything else would be immodest. But my guess is that something must have been resonant in this character’s journey for him.

David: He never shied away from some of the less attractive qualities in the character, the less endearing stuff. He brought this natural charm and this gift of gab that the character had, this charisma, but he was willing to bare himself to the less flattering aspects, which is what makes it such a great performance.

Brian: There’s no vanity at all at play in his performance.
Q: Without giving anything away, let me ask you about the ending where there’s a certain degree of ambiguity that we’re left with. Why did you decide not to have a more specific ending?
A: David: It’s a movie that deals in real truths insofar as that the changes in the characters aren’t seismic. They’re incremental in the way that people don’t do 180’s in life all the time just because it’s a good ending. The first time I read the script I thought the ending was perfect and it was always my goal for us to find a way to capture that and bring it off the page. There was just something very genuine about it and not easy or trite.

Brian: It was important that Ben Kalmen makes a decision sitting on that bench at the end of the movie. I think that you see on his face that he’s decided something. You know, he’s always talking, this character, and there was something for us about just reading what happened inside of him — a true moment — and ending on his decision. I don’t want to give the ending away, but I’ll just say there is a clear moment of decision on his face, I think, and, yes, we don’t know exactly what the next five minutes of plot are. But if you think about the movie, whichever way he went at the end only means that’s where he’s going for the next five minutes.

David: It just felt like the ending was endemic of who this character was. The difference is, he now knows himself. And I don’t think until that moment he really knows himself.

Brian: From the beginning we said we weren’t going to shoot anything other than that ending. There were a couple of logical other things we could have shot if we would have let the camera roll for another two minutes and followed Michael’s character. We just didn’t. Maybe in a moment of weakness or writer’s insecurity as opposed to director’s certainty I would have said, “Well, it will give us choices.” Dave looked at me the day before we went (to shoot the ending) and he said, “Remember, our thing is we’re not going to shoot anything else.” And we didn’t. And we’re so glad that we didn’t. Most people who see the movie, even if initially they want that answer, it seems to us they come to agree that this is the right ending.
Q: Anything you can share with us from production?
A: Brian: Olivia Thirlby’s in the movie unbilled. We couldn’t find somebody to play that part (of Jesse Eisenberg’s girlfriend). It’s a very important part, but it’s only played in two scenes. We really needed someone who could in two scenes be memorable, lovable, understandable and stand toe-to-toe with Michael. We asked Olivia, who we didn’t know well. But we had met her and knew she was a real artist. We e-mailed her. We didn’t go through agents or anything.

We went directly to her and said, “We want to ask you a favor. Would you read this and come for two days? And you can be unbilled. If you respond to the material, we really need someone like you to do it.” And she just showed up and did it and I think she adds a tremendous amount to the movie. You know, for Jesse Eisenberg we needed someone to be his girlfriend, but someone who then interacts heavily with Michael. And we just needed somebody of their weight to stand in there. Olivia gets lead roles in all these movies and she’s becoming a movie star. (In her next film, Fox Searchlight’s “Margaret,” directed by Kenneth Lonergan, she stars opposite Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick.) And I think it says a lot about her that she showed up to do this for us.