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A Conversation with Brian Koppelman

As the co-writer (along with his writing partner David Levien) of movies like Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen, Knockaround Guys, Runaway Jury, and Solitary Man (which he also co-directed with Levien), it’s safe to say Brian Koppelman knows a thing or two about making criminals and con-men spark for wide audiences. As his film Solitary Man blazes a path across the DVD shelves, Koppelman talks about the indelible aspects of his writing process and the eternal appeal of a dangerous man dressed in black.

“Not a Poe Fan” explodes off the page with much the same wildly clever, expansive dialogue you’re known for writing in the screenplays for films like Ocean’s 13 and Rounders. Plus or minus a few lines of description, is writing prose really that different from writing scripts?

Thanks for the kind words. Truth is, I love to read writers talking about this stuff—process, intention, technique—but when I am writing, I never think about any of it consciously and certainly not when putting out the first draft. I just try and let whatever is below the surface come out onto the page. And then, when I rewrite, I try as hard as I can to clean it up without fucking it up. In that way, the screenwriting and prose writing are the same, I guess. The work that happens before the writing begins is different, though, for me. There are such specific time constraints in film that you sort of need a roadmap before you start. A plan. When writing this story, as I am sure reading it will tell you, I had no map or plan at all.

Along with your partner David Levien, you wrote Rounders, one of the latest in a long line of classic gambling films. From The Hustler and The Cincinnati Kid to The Gambler and The Color of Money, movies of the gambling experience form a subset of some of the best crime films ever. Have any informed your work more than others? 

Well, you named one of them, The Hustler, for its depiction of a seductive demimonde and for the George C. Scott character, the cold-blooded guy dressed in black who has lived in underground gaming halls for so long that he has become like a dark king. The language, code, and mood of that picture loom large still. Another giant influence in that world is House of Games, the David Mamet picture. The way Mamet’s characters express themselves, the way they define their universe and chop up the marks blew my mind the first twenty or thirty times I watched it.

Over the past few years you and David have been tapped to adapt many of the best crime and suspense novels the bookshelves have to offer. From The Winter of Frankie Machine to Beat the Reaper, whether your iterations of the books make it to screen or not, what is your approach to taking material that is so rich on the page and translating it into an equally rich but vastly different medium?

Both Frankie Machine and Beat the Reaper are books we love. And in approaching turning them into movies it was important that we kept the tone and spirit that Don Winslow and Josh Bazell each created in their novels. So in writing new scenes or cutting other ones out, we are always measuring against the author’s intention and against what it was that made us dig the book in the first place.

You and David are in the process of developing David’s novel City of the Sun as a film. In terms of getting a movie off the ground in today’s market, has the fact of a finished book, in this case preemptively controlled by David, enhanced your ability to garner interest in the project?

The fact that David did the heavy lifting already is a huge help. To me. ’Cause there’s less for me to do. The business stuff—how we garner interest—we don’t get caught up in that until we have a screenplay we are absolutely convinced will make a great movie. And then we really disregard the business stuff (because the odds are always depressing) and just put our heads down and find a way to get it done. I think City of the Sun is the best debut crime novel of the last ten years (no offense to our buddy Haas; Silver Bear is a hell of a debut too). Whether or not David had written it, I’d want to make it. We are close to finished with the script and I am convinced it can be a killer film.

The rumor mill has been touting the possibility of Rounders 2. You and David seem to perennially have a long list of interesting projects on the horizon. What’s next?

Can’t comment on Rounders 2 other than to say it’s really rewarding to all of us—David, Matt, Edward, John Dahl, and me—that so many people still care so much about the first one. We’d all enjoy the opportunity to fire it up again. Next up for David and me is, as discussed above, City of the Sun. Hope to be ready to go out to cast and put it together before too long.

Brian Koppelman’s most recent film is Solitary Man, which he wrote and, with David Levien, directed. The two also wrote Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen and The Girlfriend Experience, among others, and directed Knockaround Guys.