Bad Guys Are Their Business
The veteran producers behind Showtime's Billions construct a tale of cunning and corruption on a highly contented set.
Con men, gamblers, prostitutes, corrupt used-car salesmen — these are the rogues who recur in the work of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, in films like Rounders, Ocean's Thirteen, Runner Runner and Solitary Man and the ESPN poker drama Tilt.
So it's natural to think that these writer-producer-directors are as hard-boiled and hard-edged as they come. But that notion is shattered about 30 seconds after meeting them, because rather than presenting as rough or gritty, they are affable, genuine and warm.
So, it can be a bit difficult connecting the duo to their Showtime drama, Billions, premiering January 17.
Starring Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Malin Ackerman and Maggie Siff, the 12-episode season tells a tale of billionaires, federal attorneys and those in their circles, who may or may not be crooked. In essence, the pair — who are creators (with Andrew Ross Sorkin), showrunners and executive producers on the series — are trading in underground poker parlors and gambling halls for Wall Street hedge funds and governmental law offices
So, more of the same, really.
The two have been best friends for more than 30 years and have worked together for 20. They never seem to disagree, don't talk over each other and tend to finish each other's sentences. Ask them about how Billions fits in with the rest of their work and the back-and-forth is like a game of Ping-Pong between two men sharing the same brain.
Koppelman: "We're really most interested in who people hold themselves out to be, versus who they really are. That's in everything we've ever done. Somewhere in it, that central thematic shows up. We don't talk about it ahead of time, we never discuss it with each other...."
Levien: "It just turns out to be a thing. People who work an arcane system to great profit, the way card players and con men do. Successful people of all stripes..."
Koppelman: "Insular worlds with a language of their own that people twist and turn..."
Levien: "We've been interested in this world for years — the hedge-fund world and U.S. attorneys and the power that they have. The resources they can bring to bear on the cases they want..."
Koppelman: "Then you have to start asking yourself a whole new host of questions about who people hold themselves out to be."
It all comes full circle. Their thought process and working habits have a unique effect on their coworkers. Their set is calm and happy, a feeling that starts at the top and works its way down.
Giamatti, for one, singles that out as one of the things he likes best about working with them.
"They're such lovely, jolly fellows. They're highly skilled, they're very good at what they do," says the actor, who first worked with the pair on the 2006 film The Illusionist, which they produced.
"I'm a guy who has, over the years, grown very wary of dealing with people in those positions. It's either adversarial or it has been set up by others to feel that way. But they're so open, so great, so enthused and engaged, and they so want you to engage back in a way that I never have before. It's unique for me."
Also unique is the pilot. Rather than have its two stars go head-to-head throughout, it takes its time, building to a moment in the final 10 minutes when Giamatti's U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades and Lewis's hedge-fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod have a brief but intense face-off — without it being entirely clear whom the audience is supposed to be rooting for. Which is entirely the point.
"Billionaires are like nation states, and U.S. attorneys are like kings in the amount of unfettered power that they have," Koppelman explains. "They have almost total discretion in that they choose what and what not to prosecute. Story-wise, it's two guys, each trying to manage their own kingdom and prepare for battle."
It's a story tailor-made for premium cable, where the pair is settling in for a potentially long run after mutual careers primarily spent telling stories ]in two-hour increments.
"We realized that with this story, we had a chance to do something that was particularly built for episodic television," Levien says. "So the idea of 12 or 24 or 36 or however many more hours to try to build out that reality, little by little, is hugely important."
After a somewhat frustrating experience on Tilt, their short-lived first show — during production they were working on other projects and also producing The Illusionist — the two learned their lesson and have now put their focus entirely on Billions. Assuming Showtime gives them more than a single season, that's where it will stay.
"Every theme we're interested in, every human interaction, it's here," Koppelman says. "If they'll let us keep making the show, we'll keep making the show for the foreseeable future."
They have an equally happy colleague in Giamatti: "I'm really engaged and having a great time, which is rare for me to say. I feel like I hit the jackpot." Which is exactly the kind of thing you'd expect one of their characters to say, right before raking in the spoils of a winning hand.
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