Brian Koppelman & David Levien

Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) and David Levien(@DavidLevien) joined James Altucher (@JAltucher) to talk about the creative process, power lunches, and making Billions (their new Showtime show).

Not until I found myself taking notes did I realize how much I enjoyed Koppelman. He’s movies are good, but it’s his podcasts that I really like. He’s talked with Altucher twice before (here and here) but has also done some great interviews of his own like this one with Seth Godin and this one with Amy Schumer.

These notes will aim to answer: how do you write a great television show? Koppelman and Levien are on to promote their new show and talk about the creative process, so it makes sense that we approach it from that angle. Remember though, the point of the notes is never just literal. This isn’t about just making a great television show. It’s about making anything.

How you write a great television show is just a proxy for how you make a great anything.

Amanda Palmer wrote that we’re all creators of one kind or another. Your creation is similar to Koppelman’s and Levien’s in more ways than you know.

Ready?

1- Partner up.

Koppelman and Levien have been writing partners for a long time, and have worked together on Rounders, Ocean’s 13, and The Illusionist. Koppelman says that the partnership pays off when they’re writing and need to switch parts or challenge each other. Someone will be stuck on something, they’ll switch, and the problem gets worked.

This happened while writing Billions. One episode script came in that wasn’t as good as the duo hoped, and they had to punch it up at the last minute. The work wasn’t easy, but there’s a thrill in doing it with others. Other smart people also suggest a partner:

Philip Tetlock found that good forecasters were even better in groups.

Seymour Schulich wrote, “the key to a successful partnership is mutual veto power. If you cannot agree on a major proposition, you don’t do it.”

Charlie Munger said, “I hardly know anybody who’s done very well in life in terms of cognition that doesn’t have somebody trusted to talk to.”

Peter Thiel said, “a lot of these companies aren’t solo efforts of a god-like person that does everything.”

It’s easier not to go it alone – and you’ll do better work.

Once you find someone to work with, you both need to build career capital.

2- Build career capital.

“Career capital” comes from the Cal Newport book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and is the idea that rare and valuable jobs require rare and valuable skills.

Koppelman and Levien have the career capital to create a show like Billions. They’ve put in the time and effort to have the money and experience that allowed them to write the show. Koppelman notes that they’ve worked with Paul Giamatti on The Illusionist in 2006. If they didn’t do good work then, would Giamatti work with them now? That’s one unit of career capital.

This model for career capital is everywhere. B.J. Novak worked with Bob Saget and “stunk” at stand-up for 18 months before getting hired for The Office. He earned career capital. Casey Neistat made movies and tv shows before vlogging. He earned career capital.

Newport writes that once you get career capital you can spend it on career parts you want. More/less travel. Flexible hours. Location. Koppelman and Levien used their capital to write a TV show for Showtime.

If career capital is something you want, I’ve got good news. It only takes two things. Time and effort.

3- Start early because it takes time.

It takes time to create something, so you may as well start now.  Levien says that they started working on Billions in 2013 (which was only possible because of the years of career capital they built before that). It’s been three years of writing, filming, and – now – promoting and they still don’t know if more than one season will be made.

As the Tom Petty song goes, “the wait is the hardest part.”

“It feels brutal when you’re toiling away in obscurity,” David Levien said in his first interview with Altucher. Amy Schumer looked around and wondered why her friends were getting the good offers and she wasn’t. (James Corden had this exact same experience.)

Phil Rosenthal worked odd jobs around New York City before producuing Everybody Loves Raymond. Gary Vaynerchuk uses the metaphor jab, jab, jab, right hook to explain that it takes time. Give, give, give and then ask, explains Vaynerchuk.

Things take time, and you can’t rush that. Charlie Munger was once asked, “how can I become like you, except faster.” You can’t Munger replied. Instead you need to “slug it out.”

As you start this process, start to “write more than words.”

4- Write more than words.

“The struggle in the writing room, is getting people not to write just words.” – Garry Shandling.

“These are not just jokes.” – Steve Carell to B.J. Novak.

Consistently doing good work requires deep understanding. “(The story should) communicate the themes in every way,” Levien says about the different parts you see on screen.  

Altucher says he saw this when he was on the set. He noticed that the director was shooting a car scene over and over again and then it clicked. The director wanted the car to come out of the parking lot a certain way because the person driving it would do that. Ditto for how he shot wide or tight.  

Novak was surprised when Carell said, “these are just jokes.” “Yeah,” Novak told Tim Ferriss, “that’s what do, we write jokes.” Only later did he get it. It wasn’t just the jokes. It was more than that.

Stephen King addresses this (vis a vis authentic dialogue) in On Writing:

“The Legion of Decency might not like the word shit, and you might not like it much, either, but sometimes you’re just stuck with it – no kid ever ran to his mother and said that his little sister just defecated in the tub.”

That’s more than words. It’s the stuff below the surface.

There’s a great part (25:30) of the podcast where Koppelman and Levien tell Altucher about a dinner with a billionaire. They pick a restaurant and the guy changes it to his favorite place at the last minute. The place is pricy. Then they order wine, and it gets really pricey. Their dinner bill is over $2,000. “This was a guy smart enough not to do anything on accident,” Levien says. Koppelman adds, “for many of these people each exchange has a winner and a loser… most of us don’t think of winning a dinner.”

Their interviewee needed to “win dinner.” He felt (they speculate) that because he was giving access, he needed to get something in return, and it needed to be good.

This person, Koppelman adds, isn’t “bad” or “good.” They’re a person. They contain multitudes.

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Koppelman says, look at someone like Mark Cuban or Marcus Lemonis. Those guys are rich and take over businesses, but we don’t see them as “bad” – why? That’s the question Koppelman and Levien want to unearth.

Ideally as you write, “you want the people leaning left and go right,” Koppelman says. B.J. Novak said this too, that his goal is to have the punchline right in front of you the whole time.

To do good work you have to understand more than just the work. You have to know the why and how. The psychology of a person and macroeconomics of the economy.

If you can build valuable career capital by doing good work over a long period of time then you have an option about options.

5- If you can, keep your options.

Levien and Koppelman have career capital (#2), that means they can have optionality. For Billions they wrote the script on spec. They had two options.

  • Someone could buy it and make the pilot. or
  • No one would buy it.

In the interview the duo note that if they had even more career capital, they could have had actors attached to the script and then they could have a third option:

  • Someone could buy it and make an entire season.

This spectrum, (maybe, one episode, one season) is important to Koppelman. There’s the financial compensation and there’s the I made this, I said something compensation. “The work felt important and satisfying,” Levien explains.

It reminded me of what Marc Maron told Judd Apatow,  quoted in, Sick in the Head:

“When you see a movie that Sean Penn directed, you realize he’s not fucking around. It’s like listening to a Nirvana record or something. This is not a job. They have something to say. And in comedy, the people that we like the most, when they score they have something to say that’s important to them. And to me, that’s what I’m always looking for.”

If you have optionality in your career then you can have the financial and personal rewards.

But you don’t always get this option to say what you want to say. You have to work for some options.

Chris Dixon maintains optionality with prorata rights. Scott Adams keeps optionality with his friends. Ryan Holiday keeps optionality by not signing a book deal with a publishers. If you can, keeping your options open is good advice.

There’s one final step to make a great show.

6- Work (really) hard, and pray.

As with anything else, for Billions to succeed Levien and Koppelman need some luck. Altucher says the show is good, and Koppelman and Levien are proud of it, but luck matters.

Mellody Hobson was lucky with her purchase of Madison Square Garden. Cliff Asness never rules out the role of luck. Kevin O’Leary said, “life is very serendipitous.” 

That’s all it takes.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. Want to catch up on the posts, The Waiter’s Pad: Volume 6 is available for purchase here. You can also donate a few bucks here. Also, get in touch if you want to work together. I’m looking for some creative partners.

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