#59 Brian Koppelman

James Altucher interviews Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) who ruined Altucher’s life. While, maybe not exactly, but he did influence the path when he created the movie Rounders in 1998, which was based on the Mayfair Club in New York City. The NYTimes wrote about the club in 1984 as a place to play backgammon, but warned, “This is an establishment where a lot of money changes hands. Players here are experts and they have a predilection toward huge stakes.” Five years there was an attempted robbery where the police burst in, guns blazing, to a a group of sixty and seventy year old men trying to get away with $20,000. It seems like Koppelman wrote one of many possible scripts about the place. In 2000 the club was shut down, but before that the police opined it was an illegal gambling club.  When it was shut down Koppelman wrote; An Elegy for a Carpet Joint.

In the interview, both Altucher and Koppelman comment on eating at the club, and loving the meals. “There was a historical film that almost settled across the club.” Altucher says, it this probably has tinted the rose wine glasses he’s remembering. In Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink summarizes more research on the psychology of eating than a Cheesecake Factory menu, showing that where we eat matters as much as what we eat. If your cafeteria has Rodeo Ron Chili you’ll probably like the food and venue more than places that don’t have the same name. Part of the “good food” that Altucher and Koppelman remember (and admit to in the interview) was from just being there.

The Mayfair Club was also a high dollar poker club and at first Altucher felt like “There was like a vacuum cleaner on my money.” Considering that club member finished 11th, 6th,and  5th, in the 1987 World Series of Poker, and have had other successful showings, it makes sense. Koppelman mentions that he’s started playing again, but Altucher doesn’t want to, saying it would take six months to get back to the level he was at. Though he tells the story about hoping his wife and newborn would fall asleep so he could sneak off to the club where Ingrid Weber told him, “I’m not letting you in here.”

After the poker talk, Altucher says that Solitary Man (which Koppelman wrote and directed) as “beautiful.” The movies stars Michael Douglas as a once successful car dealership owner who is on the brink of a comeback. Its Tomatometer is 81% but only one in two non-critics enjoyed it.

Growing up Koppelman says he had a “different sort of ideal road for me, partially because I wasn’t a good student when I was young. When I was a kid I had pretty bad ADHD.” Koppelman says that he was able to hyper focus on some things, but not others. This disadvantage turned into an advantage is something that Malcolm Gladwell looks at in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell’s thesis is that some successful people succeed only because some constraint that causes another attribute to grow. One example from the book is the number of highly successful dyslexics. Gladwell suggest that because they had difficulty reading, they constructed alternate  skills to make up for this like; the ability to learn very well from listening, public speaking, or reading people and situations accurately. Another “desired difficulty” from the book is losing a parent, which seems to catalyze some types of people.  If you’re a skeptic of Gladwell, this idea has been shared in other areas; philosophically by Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, analytically by Nassim Taleb in Antifragile, and educationally by Paul Tough in Grit. Having something that pushes you back seems to ultimately make you move forward.

Altucher asks Koppelman about his story meeting Tracy Chapman. It was an early story about Koppelman’s persistence when he “saw the matrix.” He would follow her to shows, repeatedly asked to manage her, and didn’t stop when other record executives turned the pair down. Soon after she did sign with his label, Chapman released Fast Car in 1988. The song hit number 6 in the US and 4 in the UK.

One idea Koppelman remember when he faces resistance, is to consider the “limiting belief” idea from Tony Robbins. Robbins likens these “Subconscious idea about what we deserve” to a mental thermostat, only instead of temperature it’s success. If our mental baseline is for a lot of success, and we aren’t there, then we’ll find a way to get to that place. If, on the other hand and as Koppelman suggests, we think we’ve had to much success, then we can self-sabotage. Altucher has hinted that Tony Robbins is coming up on his podcast, but if you can’t wait, he did a nice interview with Tim Ferriss.

Before his experiences with Tracy Chapman, Koppelman was instrumental in getting Eddie Murphy connected to his father for the comedy albums. The stand-up world has always interested Koppelman and Altucher. James even promised to do stand-up with co-host Aaron Brabham.  In a recent webinar Tony Stubblebine, CEO of Lift, suggested Zen and the Art of Stand-Up Comedy as a good recent book. Koppelman says Allan Havey is very funny.

Altucher and Koppelman talk about the really great stand-up comedians, and Altucher’s friend from school Jim Norton, who Altucher says was “so far beyond everyone in humor even as a little kid.” I’ve played a lot of pickup basketball in a lot of places, and this is similar to the guy who was a college basketball player. No matter how small the school, the pickup player who played in college is leagues better than the best amateur at any club.

Later in the interview Koppelman tells a funny story about living in the same building as Philip Roth. He was self-aware that Roth would judge him based on what he was reading, so he hid his book as he went to and from his building. One day he got tired of secrecy and went without a book, and of course the subway got stuck and he had nothing to read. After that Koppelman didn’t care who say what. In his recent Rolling Stones interview Stephen King said much the same thing when asked about the Young Adult genre, “It’s just crazy. I read all of the Harry Potter books, and I really liked ’em. I don’t approach any books in terms of genre saying that “This is young adult,” or “This is a romance,” or science fiction, or whatever. You read them because you read them.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you read, especially if you live near Philip Roth, who told Koppelman later, “I know you try to hide what you read”  and he paid the doorman to find out.

They pair briefly talk about Koppelman’s Six Second Screenwriting tips on Vine.

While Koppelman doesn’t offer much advice for screenwriting, Rolf Potts author of Vagabonding does when he takes a turn on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Potts suggests; Writing Tools by Clark, Story by McKee, and To Show and to Tell by Lopate.

Part of the reason Koppelman doesn’t suggest anything for aspiring screenwriters, is that he believes the core stuff is already out there. “You can find out online how to write a properly formatted screenplay” he says. Rather it sounds like Koppelman is encouraging people to find their own stories and begin to tell them. For Koppelman this happened when he read Awaken the Giant Within “in my 20’s” and he says he had to “dive deep.” He has also read The Artist’s Way and he meditates. 
A lot of times we want to find the superficial answers to the deep questions and that never works (I think that’s what Koppelman is trying to say.) In a recent episode of Cool Tools, Seth Godin is talking about the articles about building an online business and says that “most of the people clicking those links don’t want to succeed, and the proof of that is the internet has opened up this huge door for people who actually can work at home and make a living as a freelancer, as a researcher, as a writer, and huge numbers of people are doing it wrong. Almost intentionally sabotaging their work and falling victim to hucksters.”  Steven Pressfield says the same thing in his book, Do The Work.

These guys – Koppelman, Godin, Pressfield – are all echoing Altucher’s mantra to Choose Yourself. It’s not just the choice though, to really choose you must act.

Brian Koppelman’s success has largely been from persistence. He persisted when no one would sign Tracy Chapman, he persisted when no one would buy Rounders, he persisted when the creative avenue of writing was temporarily closed by moving to stand-up comedy. For a full list of his work see Koppelman’s IMDB profile, which includes the wonderfully underrated Runaway Jury.

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