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Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien Discuss ‘Solitary Man’

Brian Koppelman and David Levien made a name for themselves in Hollywood penning stellar scripts for “Rounders,” “Knockaround Guys” and “Ocean’s 13.” This dynamic duo, who have been friends since childhood, have become two of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters. Now, their march to cinematic greatness continues with their second directorial effort, “Solitary Man.” In the film, Michael Douglas stars as Ben Kalmen, a used car magnate who becomes a shameless, aging, self-destructive lothario set adrift on an rapid decent from perceived greatness after an irregular EKG turns his world upside-down. Kalmen ventures with his wealthy girlfriend’s daughter to her perspective college campus in order to use his friendship with the school’s dean to ensure her admission, as well as a opportunity to get his declining career back on track. After a brazen sexual encounter with the daughter, opportunities for redemption continue to pass him by and his choices threaten to ruin him for good. Michael Douglas’ performance jumps from the screen as he nails his performance with interactions with a number of high-caliber actors like Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, and relative newcomer Imogen Poots. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Koppelman and Levien to discuss their roots in the entertainment industry, the making of ‘Solitary Man’ and their upcoming projects!

You guys have been a dynamic duo for quite a while. How did you initially form that bond?

Brian Koppelman: We have been like brothers since we were 14 or 15 years old. We met on a cross country student bus tour. I was carrying, my idea of cool, a leather valise full of cassette tapes. Dave was the only one not put off by my geeky music fandom and we became friends.

David Levien and Brian Koppelman

How did you decide to pursue a career in the entertainment industry as opposed to going in a different direction?

David Levien: Our paths diverged for a little while after college. I went out to Hollywood and started working in the business. Brian had a successful career in the music business for a while but our goal was always to do movies. We had this shared sensibility, so we decided that we wanted to do a film together. We were looking around for the right arena to set a movie in, when Brian got taken to an underground poker club in New York one night. He lost all of his money but he smartly recognized that it was a great place to set a movie! He called me at 3 in the morning just to say, “Hey, I think I have the subject of this movie!” We started going to the clubs every night and playing cards. That is what ‘Rounders’ came out of and got us started.

As filmmakers, how difficult is it to get a film made outside the Hollywood system these days, like ‘Solitary Man?’

Brian Koppelman: That is a great question. Yeah, it is very difficult! We had a few things going for us. Obviously, the main difficultly was that it was a small story on Hollywood standards. It is about a character whose redemption doesn’t come easily, if it comes at all. Steven Soderbergh had read the screenplay early on and loved it. He sent it on to Michael Douglas. Once Michael agreed to be in it, it was a battle as it always is to get the money together to shoot and have enough resources. But once Michael and Steven were in, we knew that we had a movie! It is difficult every step of the way and we only had 26 days to shoot it, so if we wanted an actor other than Micheal for more than scale, we would have probably had to put our own money into the movie to get them. It was all worth it, you do anything you have to, to get these kind of movies made.

How did the script for ‘Solitary Man’ originally come about?

David Levien: We both grew up in New York and Long Island, specifically. There were a lot of men like this. There is no one person that the script is based on. This type of guy, the type who have a tremendous amount of business savvy, they think that it leads to a certain amount of authority in all other areas, was just fascinating. As a young kid, looking at these guys you believe that they have all the answers. As you get a little older, into your 30s and 40s, you start to realize that they don’t really. I started to wonder about hubris and power, people whose charm and ability to influence was so great that it perverted something essential about them. Then it was like, “How do you make that entertaining, funny and compelling?” The most rewarding thing has been that everywhere we have gone with the film, which started on two screens and ended up on 200 and there have been festivals, people come up to us and they say, “That was my dad up there!” or “That was my mother’s father up there!” or “That was my uncle and now I understand why he acted the way he did.” So, although it wasn’t based on one person, I think there are a lot of people out there that have aspects of Ben Kalmen.

You mentioned Michael Douglas, who plays Ben Kalmen and is in just about every shot in the film. How much of his own personality did he bring to the role as opposed to what was on the written page?

Brian Koppelman: From the moment that he showed up to talk about it, he had a complete understanding of the character. He didn’t draw any parallels to his own life. We never spoke to him about his personal experiences. It was always about the character and what the character was going through, yet he clearly had a very deep emotional understanding of the issues that the character was facing. He brought a complete command of the material and total professionalism. He really led by example and set a great tone. He made the whole thing possible to shoot in 26 days on a very high level.

You mentioned the time frame in which you had to shoot. Was that the biggest challenge in making this film or is there something else that stands out in your mind?

David Levien: When you are lucky enough to make movies for a living, like we do, we don’t really live in the place of taking off to challenges really. We wake up every day and are so glad that we get to do this and are able to tell these stories. There are challenges that come up every day but it is more about using the resources that you have and trying to tell the best story that you can within that framework.

David Levien and Brian Koppelman

You’ve worked with Steven Soderbergh several times before in different capacities. What was it like working with him as your producer?

Brian Koppelman: He is brilliant in whatever role that he is playing in a film. To watch him direct a movie is like watching a maestro in action and, as a producer, he is totally supportive. He has made enough movies and is secure enough that he doesn’t want to get into the business of the directors, he just supports the whole thing. He puts the movie first and has great ideas …

David Levien: We talk a bit about this on the commentary track of ‘Solitary Man’ on the DVD. We get into talking quite a bit about how Steven was helpful in the editing room and his various suggestions. He brought a real specificity, a filmmakers point of view that was very helpful.

How do you think you have evolved as filmmakers since your first film?

Brian Koppelman: That is definitely for someone else to say based on the work. But there is nothing like making your first movie to prepare you for making your first movie, unfortunately! By the time you are done, all the knowledge that you have gained is in you, so it is great to get to go and direct another movie to feel more experienced and ready for the challenge throughout the process.

Does directing get any easier as you move forward?

David Levien: Directing a movie is a job where even if you know exactly what you want to do, you never walk off the set saying, “Yeah! I nailed it! I am the best director in the world today!” There is always room to grow, so you just do your best every day. It is not a job that you can do perfectly, no matter what.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to aspiring scriptwriters or filmmakers?

David Levien: Sadly, the only advice is sorta the sage advice from the beginning of time. David Mamet said that, “People who make it in Hollywood are the people who refuse to go home.” I interpret that to mean that you have to take every day to move it forward. Write every morning. If you can’t write in the morning because you have to work, write at night. Surround yourself with talented people and don’t stop.

Brian Koppelman: Don’t let anybody else define the restrictions of the world for you.

You guys are attached to a lot of upcoming projects. What is next for you and will we see you behind the camera again soon?

David Levien: We are currently writing a project set in the world of online gaming, the off-shore web casinos in Costa Rica and places like that. That is a project for Leonardo DiCaprio’s company. That is one that we are writing, not sure about the directing aspect of that. We plan on directing again as soon as we find the project that is totally animating to us.

Well guys, our time is short. Is there anything you want to say to your fans before I let you go?

Brian Koppelman: Just thanks! We hope that everyone gets a chance to see the film that didn’t get to see it in theaters.

We will be spreading the word. I think it is a film that a lot of people will enjoy. The dialog in the film was fantastic and I wish you all the best!

Brian Koppelman: That’s awesome, man! Thanks so much!

David Levien: Thank you! We really appreciate it!

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‘Solitary Man’ is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 7th, 2010! Visit the official website for the film at www.solitarymanmovie.com.