Brian Koppelman: The Screenwriter Experience

Bitter Success Interviews, Lawyer 11 Comments

Like other lawyer-scribes Bitter Lawyer has interviewed, Brian Koppelman is an example of someone who’s taken a JD and spun it into Hollywood success. Koppelman, who’s screenwriting credits include Rounders, Walking Tall, Ocean’s Thirteen, Runaway Jury and the ESPN television series Tilt, most recently caught our eye with his latest project, The Girlfriend Experience. The Steven Soderbergh-directed film stars porn star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort in New York. Naturally, we couldn’t resist sitting down to find out more.

Name and current title?

Brian Koppelman, screenwriter, director, producer.

You went to Fordham, but you never practiced. Why? Was that the plan all along, or did you just dodge a bullet when Hollywood came calling?

The day I finished reading Morris Dees’ A Season for Justice, I applied to law school. I had always been interested in the law—its ability to affect change. At the time, I was working full-time, so I needed to attend at night and stay in Manhattan. Fordham was perfect for me. I loved the time I spent there. But it became clear to me very early on that I would never be happy unless I was writing and telling stories for a living. So I finished, but knew that I would not practice law.

Has your legal training helped you at all as a writer, or was law school just a fertile source for some really good stories?

Among other things, law school taught me how to organize my thoughts and write on a deadline.

What’s a typical day like for you? Be honest, you’re having way more fun than your friends from law school, right?

Well, one of my best friends from Fordham is Brian Kelly, who is among the most successful businessmen around. He and his partner Bobby Kotick are co-chairmen of the board of Activision, a leader in the video game software space. Brian and Bobby built that company, and he seems to be having a pretty great time, too.

But yes, I love my job. I write, direct and produce with a partner, David Levien, who has been like my brother since we were teenagers. So there are no inter-office politics (though the one-liners do cut pretty deep). We always have a football with us, so if the opportunity for a pick-up game presents itself, we are ready—also, throwing a ball around tends to help us come up with ideas.

When we are shooting, our hours vary—sometimes you need to be on set before the sun comes up and don’t finish until really late at night. Other times you are shooting from midnight to noon—but either way, the time goes by incredibly quickly. In between shoots, when we are writing, we keep to a more regular schedule, getting to our office at nine and finishing up in time to get home to our families.

One of the hallmarks of your and David’s films is a lot of research. Did you talk to a lot of escorts for The Girlfriend Experience? Did you find out anything that really surprised you?

We interviewed many women who provide “the girlfriend experience” to their clients. I was surprised by how smart many of them were, how business-like they were in their approach to their careers.

Porn star Sasha Grey makes her feature film debut in The Girlfriend Experience. Was she who you had in mind for the role of the escort? How did you guys land her? Or, how did she land the roll?

Although we didn’t know of Sasha when we began thinking about making this film, she is exactly the type of woman we had in mind. When we read her cover story in Los Angeles magazine on her, we reached out to her through her MySpace page, made contact, and introduced her to Steven Soderbergh, who then cast her in the film.

There’s a lot of improvised dialogue in this movie. How is writing a story different when the plan is to improv? Did you like it?

The dialog is often the last thing we write. So this wasn’t as different as you might imagine. We laid the story out, outlined each scene, specified the emotional arcs of each character, various things they would discuss, etc. Normally, once that is done, we write the dialog in the scenes. This one stopped just short of that.

You co-wrote a really great film called Rounders, where Matt Damon plays a law student who gets caught up in the world of underground poker tournaments. Was any of it based on your experiences at Fordham? Did you cut class to play a little hold ‘em?

I did play a ton of poker while going to Fordham Law. And the character of Abe Petrovsky in the film is inspired by a wonderful professor, lawyer and friend—the late Abe Abramovsky.

Why did you choose to make Damon’s character a city law student? No love for Fordham?

In the original screenplay, the character did attend Fordham. Somehow the university wasn’t thrilled at the idea of a gambling picture set at their esteemed school of law.

There’s a great tell in Rounders that features an Oreo Cookie. Was that based on someone in real life? What is the weirdest/most unusual tell you’ve ever seen?

Oreo was a visual representation of all tells. A way for the novice to understand the concept. Most real tells have more to do with betting patterns, both the size of the bets and the timing. Once in a while you’ll run across something obvious and physical, but not usually as broad as the Oreo. Check out The Book of Tells by Mike Caro for a more detailed deconstruction of how tells work.

You also co-created Tilt, a dramatic series about poker for ESPN. Every now and then, we hear a story about some law student or lawyer winning a big poker tournament. What’s the connection between poker and the law? Do lawyers make good poker players?

Effective poker players and lawyers need to make clear-eyed, rational decisions even when their emotions are pulling them to make different decisions. And both groups must have the capacity to bullshit the other guy while never bullshitting themselves.

You used to be in the music business. We heard that you “discovered” Tracy Chapman while you were an undergrad. What’s the story there?

I was very active in student government at Tufts. Back then, the university’s endowment was partially invested in funds doing business with South African interests. I helped organize the pro-divestment movement on our campus to end this immoral association. In the process of putting together the community leaders and speakers to address the student body during a rally, I came across Tracy Chapman singing protest songs. I convinced her to come and participate in our movement and then began working with her to advance her career.

You’ve adapted two John Grisham novels—Runaway Jury for film and The Street Lawyer for TV. How did that come about? Did you work with Grisham on those projects?

We were lucky enough to get to work with John on both—meeting with him, getting notes, discussing the story. We were hired to write Runway Jury by the movie studio, but once John read and liked our first draft, we were able to begin interacting with him. And then he and David Gernert, his long-time agent, approached us for The Street Lawyer.

What advice do you have for any lawyers looking to get out of the law?

Some people think you need to quit your job to chase the dream. I disagree. We all have more hours in the day than we think—before work, in the middle of the night—so use them to begin working on your passion.

Did you ever consider yourself Bitter while you were in law school?

No. I had a good time there. Fordham is a pretty great place. I was getting bitter in my job at the time, though, which is why I began to write.

What are you working on next?

David and I have just finished directing a film called Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito, Susan Sarandon, Mary Louise Parker, Jenna Fisher and Jesse Eisenberg. And we are currently adapting the novel, Beat The Reaper for Leonardo DiCaprio to star in.

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  • Wing Fat

    Ya, good article, BL.  Sasha Grey, she good for roll in the hay, no?

  • Grover G

    Is this guy the son of Ted Koppel?  He is also in the media, though I think that Ted Koppel would not be nuzzling with a porn star.

  • swiggy

    duuude, what happened to Tilt?  I loved that show.

  • Bitter Screenwriter/JD

    Great interview, guys.

  • LD22

    Kool interview

  • Anonymous

    Rounders is an awesome movie. Ocean’s 13, not so much. What happened?

  • Hollywood

    What happened?  He got paid!  I bet he got paid 3x more for that!

  • Robert

    Great interview.  Rounders is great movie.  Gives me hope.

  • Alma Federer

    What the heck is Rounders about?  It had better NOT be about women’s bodies.

  • Anonymous

    Alma, you’re one daft dame.

  • Anon Female

    great interview.