J.C. had the chance to chat with Brian Koppelman last year at the 13th Annual Nashville Screenwriters Conference, and Brian (lucky for us!) reluctantly agreed to be harassed via e-mail for this interview. Brian and his writing partner, David Levien, started their screenwriting career with the 1998 Matt Damon/Ed Norton film Rounders, and have been working steadily in the industry ever since, including a half dozen currently in development properties. Their next star-studded film, the drama-thriller Runner, Runner starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake is in pre-production now.
Q: First off, tell us a little about yourself. Who is Brian Koppelman?
A: Some guy who should be writing a screenplay right now but is procrastinating by answering these questions instead.
Q: When did you first become aware that films were actually made and that there was an entire machine and process behind what you were seeing on the screen?
A: My favorite TV show at one point in my childhood was S.W.A.T. My dad knew someone involved in the show. Our family took a vacation to L.A. and my dad was able to swing a set visit. I remember being amazed (and a little disappointed) to see that the police station had no roof. And that the walls moved away for camera positions. In that moment, at like 7 years old, I understood that it was a crafted, put together thing.
Never watched another episode of S.W.A.T. It was totally ruined for me.
And don’t even get me started on the movie.
This seems like an appropriate place to make this point: almost all of it is instinctive for me. I loved to write. Needed to write. Was happier writing than doing anything else.
Q: What was it, specifically, that drew you to the writing aspect of filmmaking?
A: Well, writing was the point of entry for my filmmaking partner David Levien and me. We didn’t go to film school. Didn’t study camera. But always loved films and the way language was used in films. We were both also committed readers of fiction from our early teen years forward. Writing was just always the starting point for us. This seems like an appropriate place to make this point: almost all of it is instinctive for me. I loved to write. Needed to write. Was happier writing than doing anything else. That lead to getting movies made. Which lead to a desire to direct, to tell the whole story… None of it has ever been planned out in advance. I am, however, a big believer in the power of decisions. I walked into a poker club, realized, ‘Hey, this is a movie.” Told David, he agreed, and then we made a decision together: We agreed to meet every day for two hours until the screenplay was finished. And we did.
Q: What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?
A: I had read a bunch of plays (and was in a bunch of plays) from junior high school straight through college. But I think the first screenplay I read was House of Games. The movie came out my junior year of college and a buddy gave me the screenplay as a gift (because I had already memorized the movie). The script was a revelation as was Mamet’s introduction to it, wherein he discussed the making of the film and what it meant to become a director.
Q: When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and, if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?
A: I didn’t read any books on the craft of screenwriting until after David and I sold our first script. I had read William Goldman’s books on the business, which had tangential commentary on what made a screenplay proper, but nothing directly instructional. David had gone through Writer’s Bootcamp and he walked me through the approach to outlining and story-building that he learned at that program, which did give us a helpful roadmap.
I walked into a poker club, realized, ‘Hey, this is a movie.” Told David, he agreed, and then we made a decision together: We agreed to meet every day for two hours until the screenplay was finished. And we did.
Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Alternatively, what really inspires you to write?
A: I don’t ‘seek out inspiration’ as some sort of technique. My whole life is geared around doing those things that are inspiring. And it has been ever since I got out of high school. I have always sought out music, books, movies, artwork and, mostly, people who inspire, engage, fascinate me. And then I spend as much time with those people, ideas, works of art as I possibly can. Because that’s what makes me feel alive. And it also has the benefit of making me feel creative.
Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?
A: Almost never use notecards. We do outline. And we still show up every morning. But the days last longer than the two hours they did when we were writing Rounders before going to our jobs.
Q: What software do you use and why?
A: Final Draft.
Q: Once you’ve finished the first draft of a project, how many people, and who specifically, do you let read it?
A: My wife, Amy (who is a hell of a writer and published novelist), and my son, Sam (who is a terrific writer at 16–you can read him at Huffington Post), read and comment on everything. And depending on the script and where David and I think it is, we may also show it to some professional writer friends, too. With Solitary Man, which I wrote alone, Amy read it first, then David read it. And then I sent it to two directors I admired, just in case Dave and Amy were being nice. And then, once the directors gave me thoughts, I sent it to our agents.
Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach and what is your process in regard to rewriting?
A: I don’t separate the writing from the rewriting. It is all one thing. I rewrite as I go, by reading up to the starting place as often as I can. And then, at the end of a draft, I wait a day, print and read with a pen, do those changes right away. And then put the script down for a week, read again on paper with a pen. And when we get notes, we absorb them, decipher, to the best of our ability, their true meaning, and then dive in.
Q: What was your first produced screenplay and how did the project come into existence?
A: Rounders. Have told the story too many times to re-hash it here.
Q: How long did it take you to write it; from the first word to the final draft?
A: Once we finished researching/outlining, we wrote the screenplay in four months. That’s the draft Miramax bought. After that, we worked with the director to refine it for production.
Q: How did you sell it?
A: David had met a manager, named Seth Jaret, who agreed to represent us/it. He sold it.
Q: What was the process like once it was sold (i.e. any rewrites during production)?
A: It was a great process. John Dahl, the director, taught us how to tighten and focus a script into a shootable screenplay.
Q: What was it like to sit in a darkened theater with an audience and watch your words come to life for the first time on the big screen?
A: It’s both horrible and great. And then, later, it’s only great.
Q: What was life like for you immediately after the film was made?
A: The biggest change for me was the one that happened once I committed to actually becoming a writer. Meaning, once I finally got past whatever had blocked me for the first 29 years of my life. All the other changes are a direct result of that change. From the moment we started writing Rounders, I have felt a kind of freedom I never felt before.
From the moment we started writing Rounders, I have felt a kind of freedom I never felt before.
Q: What lessons did you learn from that first film that informed or altered your approach to writing your later features?
A: I don’t remember anymore. But I do keep learning each day at the computer writing or on set or in the editing room. And it’s mostly about being willing to cut and tighten and sharpen. And to not be charmed by anything I write.
Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?
A: It’s inspired me. And given me a deeper sense of responsibility to them.
Q: Are you currently working on any projects and can we expect to see anything from you soon?
A: Runner, Runner starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck and directed by Brad Furman begins shooting this summer. David Levien and I wrote it and are producers on the film. And we are writing the Rockford Files for Universal and Vince Vaughn.
Q: Untouchables 2 was listed on the 2005 Black List. Did making the list change your career?
A: Not one bit. But I am always interested in reading the Black List scripts.
People want to know the secret to ‘success’ or ‘breaking in.’ I never thought about any of that.
Q: Do you think it’s beneficial for amateur writers to attend these screenwriting conferences in Nashville?
A: I think the Nashville Screenwriters Conference is a terrific event. They always get A-list screenwriters to come do panels, not supposed ‘experts’ who have never even sold a script. If you’re looking to go and talk to/learn from established professionals, Nashville Screenwriters Conference is a great way to do it.
Q: Finally, this is where I usually ask the interviewee for inspiring words for aspiring writers, but I think I’ll just give you the floor and let you speak your mind about what’s really in store for anyone crazy enough to venture into screenwriting with the thoughts of making it a career.
A: The only thing of real value I have to convey about this is: everything changed for me when I decided to commit a couple of hours each morning to writing. People want to know the secret to ‘success’ or ‘breaking in.’ I never thought about any of that. Or if I did, it was secondary or tertiary to just figuring out how to tell the story I wanted to tell. That’s it. Find a story you have to tell and tell it as well as you know how. And then do it again.