Brian Koppelman And David Levien, Solitary Man
We only get so many chances in life. Perhaps getting more than one, whether it be to achieve your financial goals or to grow into a mature and loving relationship, could be considered extremely fortunate. For Ben Kalmen (played by a pitch perfect Michael Douglas) in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s new film Solitary Man, no matter how many chances he’s given and despite his bountiful charm, he’ll find a way to make the worst of his circumstances. He’s the type of well to do, emotional self-saboteur that never realizes until it is much too late how his personal behavior slowly erodes every relationship in his life.
A divorced car dealership owner with a few troubling physical ailments, he struggles to play the various roles of late middle age, especially that of father/grandfather to his adult daughter and her young son, so caught up is he in his sexual misadventures with younger women. When he ventures with his wealthy girlfriend’s daughter to her perspective college campus in order to use his friendship with the school’s dean to ensure her admission, a brazen sexual encounter threatens to ruin him for good.
Brian Koppelman and David Levien are a multiple-threat duo; they produce (2006’s The Illusionist) and are a prolific screenwriting team (1998’s Rounders, 2003’s Runaway Jury, 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen, 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience). They have directed features (2001’s Knockaround Guys) and television (2005’s short lived series Tilt). Solitary Man debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It opens commercially on Friday.
Filmmaker: How did the scale of this project compare to some of the films you’ve written for other directors? You’ve written a number of studio films that were made for much more than what I imagine you were working with here.
Koppelman: We really don’t see it as that different. When you take Ocean’s Thirteen and Runaway Jury out, I think you can draw a line between Rounders and Knockaround Guys and this movie in terms of scope and scale. Rounders was our first movie. That was thirteen years ago, when we started. That was a world we had stumbled upon in New York that we really found fascinating. We wrote a movie that was of a scale that was appropriate to depict that world.
David and I had looked at guys like this for a long time. When I saw a guy talk to his grown daughter and tell her, “don’t call me dad in public because it makes it too hard to pick up girls”, that made me start writing. It just didn’t seem like a bigger story than this, it seemed like it had to be specific and personal, in the tradition of those kinds of movies. When I showed it to David and he read it and said, “okay, let’s try to make this”, we always felt like it was going to be a small movie, but hopefully it would be compelling.
Levien: The departure on this one is that Brian just wrote the screenplay.
Koppelman: I think David can talk really well to what it was like to direct something we didn’t both write. I think it was very liberating for him. For me, writing it, there were alot of days I missed having David’s voice there to help me figure out what to do. There was something personal about this in the writing. I had written the first twenty pages in a swirl of emotion after seeing this guy talk to his daughter that way. Watching him, he reminded me of ten other guys I knew growing up, father’s of friends of mine or friends of my dad mainly. I’d watched them trash their lives and suddenly this whole thing came spilling out. When I showed Levien the first twenty pages, he just said “well this voice is unified, why don’t you finish and then we’ll see.” I think we both thought that I’d finish it and then maybe he would rewrite it and then we’d end up writing it together.
Levien: When Brian handed me the full screenplay, it didn’t really need any substantial rewrite. It was very shootable. From then on any thoughts and changes, it was fine for Brian to just execute them. I didn’t expect I’d be directing something I hadn’t written. For some reason I had always conceived of us writing together and then directing stuff we’d both had a hand in writing, but coming to it was actually a great experience. I felt a great sense of objectivity to the material. I wasn’t a slave to all the effort of writing it. It was very easy for me to just keep an eye towards making the best movie possible, not think about what I thought I meant when I set out to write. The end result was much closer in a way.
Filmmaker: Michael Douglas character is quite a tight rope act. His reprehensible sexual and interpersonal behavior ruins nearly every relationship he has, yet you can’t help but root for him to repair his various relationships, ones that nearly everyone in the film, despite his misbehavior, wants to maintain. This must have been terribly tricky to pull off.
Koppelman: He brings so much to the table. When I finished the script and gave it to Dave and said “lets try to make this movie”, our list was Michael Douglas for exactly the reason you’re talking about. We wanted the movie to be able to suck you in the way Ben Kalmen can suck the people in his life in. He charms the people in his life to a degree that, as you pointed out, they still want to be around him. They want him to change and be better. We were hoping that that would happen to the audience too. So you needed an actor that while doing these more than questionable things was trying to verbally redefine the space that you the audience would still be willing to invest in him. Mike was just uniquely suited for that. He has a gift.
Levien: We didn’t sweat over the likability issue that much. We just had faith that he was so charming. The characters raps in the beginning of the movie are really funny and interesting to listen to and we felt that Michael was such a charming actor that interest in the character was going to trump a judgment for long enough so that people would connect and have empathy for the guy ultimately.
Koppelman: We knew that he would play it without vanity. By being so open the way that he is, by not trying to wink to you, not trying to earn what you just said happened when you watched it, by playing it so straight and honestly, he would invite you to take a really close look. It feels like that kind of happens when you watch it with an audience. We’ve seen this thing where for the first half hour everyone is laughing and bouncing along, then when that thing happens at the end of the first act, everyone sort of sits up straight in their seats. They can’t believe it and they can’t figure out how he’s going to redeem himself. Then he barely redeems himself at all, but we’re invested in him and rooting for him to change.
Filmmaker: Did it take much cajoling to get Mr. Douglas to do the film?
Levien: No. The producers were Paul Schiff and Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh gave Michael the script. He responded really quickly that he liked it. He wanted to meet, we met and he said in a short meeting, “I’m on board, lets do it.”
Filmmaker: Was he the first on board?
Levien: Michael was the first on board. The nature of film financing dictates that until he’s on board, there’s not a movie. We then went right to Jenna Fischer, who we’d worked with in the past. We wanted to work with her again and we thought she’d be great for this. We put the rest of it together after that.
Koppelman: Jesse was clearly our first choice. He auditioned. He was the first person to audition. We couldn’t even believe he was willing to show up. He wouldn’t have even had to audition. We showed up and the casting director said Jesse Eisenberg is going to come in and we said to her, “you didn’t have to make Jesse come in”. He came in a read and right there we said, “please come and do the movie with us”, it was so clear he was our guy. Even the little parts, like Ben Schenkman, who I’m sure you know from Pi and other movies, he plays the guy who works for the car dealership company. He’s a guy we’ve always wanted to work with. The guy that plays Jenna’s husband, David Costabile, he’s a great New York character actor. Mary-Louise [Parker] is our favorite actress, so it was incredibly thrilling to get to work with her. I think everyone responded to the idea of getting to play these scenes with Michael.
Filmmaker: How do you work as a directing duo? Is there any division of labor involved, or do you both have a say in every aspect of the production?
Levien: We don’t divide the labor, we just share in the tasks. It wasn’t difficult for us. That’s the only way we’ve directed. We’ve directed another movie before this and then a television show, so that’s our way of working. Directing itself is plenty difficult, but no more so because we’re doing it together. As far as talking to the actor we would both do it, but not at the same time.
Koppelman: We’ve been like brothers since we were both fourteen, fifteen years old. So we have a method of communicating with each other. We’ve built up a shared language of movies, books, music, references so that, when we’re watching an actor or talking to camera we can just look at each other and know that we’re on the same page. Then one of us just talks. Because of how long we’ve known each other, friendship from fourteen until now, sitting in a room eating two meals a day together for thirteen years, it sort of makes that part of it seamless.
Filmmaker: The film has an unassuming beauty too it. Alwin Kuchler has shot some of the most gorgeous and perhaps overlooked European films of the past decade, such as Morvern Callar and Code 46. His use of color on your film is very subtle but unquestionably effective.
Levien: We’d seen Morvern Callar a long time ago. When we were beginning to have the cinematographer discussion, Soderbergh and his longtime collaoborator Greg Jacobs brought up Alwin’s name to us, so we looked at his movies.
Koppelman: We had tried to get Alwin and we were told he couldn’t leave England to go do this.
Levien: For some union reason.
Koppelman: And then somehow he was able to work it out. We sent him the script, he responded and came to New York. Normally you’re having these DP meetings, you’re sitting and talking and Alwin had flown in to meet with us and we immediately went out to locations together. It was a New York movie, we knew it’d be a New York movie, so we just kind of started working together in that very first meeting. We went out to some basketball courts where we were going to shoot that first scene and figured out how we’re going to shoot it.
Levien: He’s a great, really relaxed guy with an awesome sense of humor. His sense of visual style is elaborate enough that had he twice the schedule, he could have done something beyond anyone’s imagination but he was willing to work within our tight parameters budget-wise and still deliver us something great.
Koppelman: We only had twenty-six days to shoot the movie and that’s not an easy thing for the DP to have to grapple with. He was a fast as could be and really ready to embrace our idea which was to shoot and play alot of the movie in these masters and let the actors really act so you would understand as a viewer what Ben Kalman was doing and how it was working. It wasn’t being done through cuts, us cutting in close all the time, you were watching him work. Alwin totally embraced what is alittle bit unconventional and ran with it.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Steven Soderbergh several times before when writing scripts for his films. What was it like working with him as your producer?
Levien: Steven is a great collaborator. No matter what job title you hold and what job title he holds, the movie is always first. Everyone’s ideas are always welcomed. That’s the spirit in which he took on this one with us. He was really involved in pre-production. We had alot of conversations about our visual approach. We would check in with him about casting. He didn’t hover doing shooting. He looked at the first couple days worth of dailies. He gave us some great thoughts about the sort of film grammar we were choosing in the movie. Then he kept watching the dailies, but he felt like we had a good handle on it so he just laid back. He became more present in post-production where he’s got an incredible background as an editor. His thoughts in that area were really welcome.
Koppelman: We asked him into the editing room a few times. It was awesome. Tricia Cooke cut the movie. She’s cut several Coen Brothers movies so she’s used to dealing with multiple voices in the cutting room. She was very welcoming about it.
Levien: Paul Schiff, our other producer, was sort of there every day, collaborating with Steven and us. They were a good team.
Koppelman: We’ve produced in the past. We produced The Illusionist and Interview with the Assassin for Neal Burger, but we really didn’t want to produce when we were also writing and directing. It was just too much. We wanted smart, objective voices in there and that’s what we got with Steven and Paul.
Filmmaker: Where there certain aspects of the film that were especially difficult to make work in the editing room?
Koppelman: The hardest thing to talk about and express is tone, right?
Koppelman: Locking in on that tone of the movie was the whole mission in editing. Its not like there were a whole lot of narrative choices that we could make so it was all about making sure that the tone was locked in and that the rhythm of the picture felt right. In terms of individual scenes, the scene with the kid and the frisbee was very hard to get right. We had one day and I wish we had had two. That took some finessing in the editing room.