Brian Koppelman and David Levien Talk ‘Solitary Man’

By  · Published on June 15th, 2010

You don’t see too many protagonist like Ben Kaleman in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s latest film Solitary Man. For some, he’ll be considered a slimy and misogynistic creep getting what he deserves. For others, he’ll be a sympathetic man trying to figure out where everything went wrong.

That’s one of the (many) great things about Solitary Man. The film doesn’t tell how you to feel about Ben Kalmen. Then again, Kalmen is going to have his charm with Michael Douglas playing. Even with Douglas’s performance, much of the credit goes to writer/directors Koppelman and Levien for Kalmen.

Here’s what both Brian Koppleman and David Levien had to say about their latest film in my lengthy chat with them.

From day one, did you guys want to make Solitary Man independently? I imagine a lot of changes would have to be made if you went with a studio.

David Levien: We knew from day one we wanted to hang onto the project, direct it, and have more control over it. We didn’t see it as something that would do well in the studio system for exactly the reasons you said.

Brian Koppelman: When you said we’d have to make a lot of changes, what do you think they would’ve been?

Mostly with Ben Kalmen.

David Levien: I think the movie would’ve gone more into the direction of It’s Complicated, and that’s something we didn’t want to do.

Or even something like Up in the Air. I love that movie, but you could argue it sugar coats certain aspects.

Brian Koppelman: My sense about Up in the Air was that’s the movie that they wanted to make. I don’t think they made compromises for the studio.

David Levien: I think it had a commercial sensibility, and the book lent itself in that direction. There’s a little redemption in the book, but the movie is different. We certainly didn’t want to get in a situation where anyone else could steer this other than us, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Schiff. They of course were our producers.

You just brought up the redemption change in Up in the Air and there’s certainly a little redemption in Solitary Man, but it’s not exactly triumphant.

Brian Koppelman: Well, it’s a different type. Let me say this, I’m really glad that you see that there’s some. I certainly think the moment where he goes to Jesse Eisenberg is a clear moment where he’s trying to gain some understanding, when he goes to return the shirt. The point that you’re trying to make is that with a studio you really would have to highlight all of that. It was very important to us that any redemption with Ben Kalmen was very incremental. With big movies a lot of the time the changes have to be much larger and more obvious. I remember a long time ago in a different life I had the chance to have a conversation with Amy Mann. She said the first time she played a huge show she was playing before Hall and Oates and someone told her, “When you play your guitar, just don’t play. Make sure they can really see you strumming it and make sure you bring your hands up high and low enough for the guy in the back row.” What I took away from that story was her view of, “All I wanted to do was to play the guitar and feel the music.” That distancing thing can happen when you change your original vision. That’s what we try not to do.

Well, could you compare, say, working on Knockaround Guys where you did work with a studio?

David Levien: Well, Knockaround Guys was a good studio experience. They had notes, but that was largely the movie we wanted to make. That wasn’t a question of somebody dictating the way it had to be.

Brian Koppelman: But we did have to go through a testing process and make changes as a result of that on Knockaround Guys.

Would you say that was for better or worse?

David Levien: Not to the detriment of the film. It afforded us a chance to work on it longer, but the movie is not hugely different from our first script. There’s some differences, but that’s basically the movie we set out to make.

Brian Koppelman: The reason we did Solitary Man independently wasn’t a reaction to the way we’ve worked before, but it was just so obvious when you read the script that, if we wanted to tell this story, we would have to find a way to tell it independently. Knockaround Guys by its concept is more of a studio picture, because it’s about wise-guys.

An easier sell.

Brian Koppelman: Yeah.

David Levien: And that was a time when there more huge studios that had indie sensibilities, but they’ve been weeded out.

Brian Koppelman: If you look at it, Rounders was made with a studio. Obviously a small studio, but still a studio. The end of the Rounders is only marginally more traditional than the end of this movie. In most movies guys that have to make that type of choice don’t take the choice that Mike McDermott makes at the end of that movie. You’re not ending on that shot of him in a cab with a look on his face. It’s certainly different when you go make a movie like Ocean’s Thirteen because then you know you’re just making something for pure entertainment.

Since Knockaround Guys how much do you think you’ve changed behind the camera?

David Levien: Well, the thing that makes you most ready to direct your first movie is directing your first movie. Probably anybody who’s gone through that experience and gotten the chance to do it again will most likely do a better job the second time. The fact that we already directed one feature, a pilot to a TV show, and that we’ve been involved in many more movies since then we’re more experienced. We had the experience of being on a couple of Soderbergh movies as well.

Brian Koppelman: Being on a set with Soderbergh it was…

David Levien: A big learning experience on how to use the camera and how to tell your story in a much more organic way.

Brian Koppelman: They were movies that we had written, but the key was that Steven invited us to be on set all the time, and as did John Dahl on Rounders. We got to really be hands-on and watch a guy who we really think is a master. We tried to really watch with our eyes open.

One thing that is different from your other films with Solitary Man is that it isn’t very genre specific. Was that a deliberate choice?

David Levien: Again, it wasn’t a thing where we deliberately said, “Lets not do a genre now.” It was that the story Brian came up with in a crystalized way and it seemed like he had an extreme handle on the voice of it. It seemed like a good idea that he should finish it on his own. Clearly, it doesn’t apply to the typical genres but that was sort of just a coincidence of the fact that it was just a story told organically.

Brian Koppelman: What Dave is saying is true. The idea just came to me to tell this specific story. During the writing I never thought it was going to be challenging or difficult, but I was just really entertained by the voice of this character and the situation he was in. After that, I just hoped others would be entertained too.

The first thirty minutes of film are very comedic, before a tonal shift. Is that a tough transition to pull off?

David Levien: That was intentional. We wanted to try to use the comedy in the first half an hour to pull the audience in much in a way that Ben Kalmen does to the people around him or just like a good salesman does, but we wanted to strip back on the humor after that. People felt a little caught off by that. Anyone who’s had the experience of having someone in their life that’s really charismatic, charming, and funny, you sort of get that feeling of losing your exact barrings for quite a while, before you realize who they really are. Sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re not-so-great.

Brian Koppelman: When you talked about us having a handle on the tone you’re so right in that there were definitely conversations about taking big laughs out as the movie progresses. Like, there’s that scene on the porch where Imogen Poots’s character reveals a truth to her mother. There’s a moment in that scene before she comes out talking to Michael and where she says, “I got two things off my list: the spy thing and the daddy thing,” and Michael says, “The daddy thing.” There’s a cut of the movie where we pop in close to Michael’s face where he says that, and it becomes a comedic moment. For the sake of the movie, we decided to stay in that two-shot, which is more of an objective shot. The moment doesn’t play as comedic. It may take a view viewings where you look closely and notice you may chuckle seeing that look on his face. We trusted the audience to be engaged in the story and to stay there instead of not just to try and go for easy laughs.

David, you mentioned earlier how Kalmen obviously is a smooth talker, similar to plenty of your other characters. What’s the attraction to that archetype?

David Levien: (laughs) That’s a very good observation. Ever since we were kids we were drawn to movies that were dialog intensive, where you could watch them over and over where they reveal more about them, like, Diner. Something about that just seeped in.

Brian Koppelman: We’re also just fascinated by those type of guys and the world where they could talk themselves in and out of any situation. Just like Dave said, Diner and those type of characters were very engaging to us.

David Levien: We were interested in filling the air with these big moments because that would really counterpoint when the guy didn’t have an audience or ran out of steam. The silence would creep in and you’d have to deal with it.

Brian Koppelman: It’s funny, when Elvis Mitchell interviewed us he pointed the same thing out that you just pointed out about these characters. I’d say that we don’t conscientiously walk around with an awareness of the characters we’ve written before, who’ve we’ve created, or their effect. We’re just trying to tell a story and you don’t do that type self-examination until when you’re doing these type of interviews. You just try to tell a story that’s compelling to you and try to make it in a way where it’s compelling to everyone else. It’s only later until you realize that there’s a pattern of how characters have a certain similarity. I can’t tell you why. It’s fascinating to us, but it’s clear you’re right. It’s just not conscious.

David Levien: Like we don’t sit there and say, “This is where there should be a one page speech.”

Brian Koppelman: I guess when you watch Diner and Stripes hundreds of times the idea of a couple of guys and the way they communicate with each other just seeps in.

I feel like Ben Kalmen is a natural progression of those characters, where they could end up.

David Levien: Well, you’re not wrong. At some point most hustlers don’t ride off into the sunset. If a character has got some hustling in him he could end up in a place where he’d have fewer and fewer options where he’d get boxed-in.

Brian Koppelman: I think even in the movies that you’re talking about where characters talk like that I think there’s foreshadowing in those movies that things probably aren’t going to continue all that well for them. Guys like Ben Kalmen are fascinating to us. We grew up watching guys like that. When we watched them they really started to blow up their lives. That type of character is very much from life or even more so in movies.

Are you surprised by how much people have been relating to Ben Kalmen?

Brian Koppelman: Yes, it’s been amazing how almost every time we screen the film someone comes up to us and says, “That’s my dad up there!”

David Levien: Yeah, we like the fact it plays outside of New York.

Brian Koppelman: This woman came up to us in Dallas who was a middle aged and very sweet who was just weeping. She came up to us saying how she understood more about her own father now. I told her you may think I’m horrible, but you’re making me smile that you’re crying (laughs).

I definitely want to ask about the scene between Michael Douglas and Olivia Thirlby because that’s where you truly hate Kalmen. How did that scene and Thirlby come about?

Brian Koppelman: We knew we wanted Olivia Thirlby to come and do this movie with us. We just think she’s one of the best actresses around and we needed someone for that part who was going to really break your heart and who was going to be strong enough to stand there with Michael. Olivia does leads in movies so we met her, showed her the script, and asked her to do us a favor. We just asked her to come and do this for two days. We didn’t even have money to pay her and we asked her to just do this for scale. She read it, emailed us, and said she was in. I’m not sure her agents were happy about that, but she did it. As for writing the scene, we wanted the character to go as far as a guy like that would really go. You could write off a lot of his other behavior in a various ways, but there’s no way to excuse what he does there. We felt it was important to have a moment like that where we were saying to the audience it’s your choice whether you still want to hang with this guy or not.

Your dramas usually end with ambiguity. I know this is an obvious question, but why leave doors open?

David Levien: Sometimes it’s really fun to write Ocean’s Thirteen where you know how you wanna wrap it up: you want the good guys to win, the bad guys to lose, the funny joke to be payed off, and the sad guy to get a little something. In movies that are a little more grounded in reality, the ending is usually not so neatly tied.

Brian Koppelman: Any other ending for this would’ve felt forced. This felt legit. I would say The Girlfriend Experience has a very closed ending too.

Why do you say that?

Brian Koppelman: Well, I think the moment in the jewelry store points you in a direction.

Couldn’t you say the same for Solitary Man?

David Levien: The last shot of Solitary Man is…he doesn’t look either way and the camera is dead centered.

Brian Koppelman: You can decide what you think, but her engaged in that scene… To me, obviously Steven made those final decisions. I love that movie. I think he did an amazing job. To me, that scene at the end of The Girlfriend Experience tells you a lot. It shows the lies that Chelsea told herself and the trajectory that her life is probably going to go on. I think, in a more clear way, that our movie tells you. You don’t think so? You think they’re equally open ended?

A little. For The Girlfriend Experience, I thought she was aware of her lies.

Brian Koppelman: Right, where she could walk out of that jewelery store and make any decision she wanted to?


Brian Koppelman: That’s true. That is totally true.

David Levien: She’s only like 21 years old or something too.

Brian Koppelman: Well, David, you’d be in a better position to know what that character is going to do. Does your character go and meet her? Does he go and meet her later?

David Levien: No, my character doesn’t. Doesn’t that scene in the jewelry story come right off the heels of her having nothing booked on her blackberry? I’m trying to remember the final cut. It comes right after that she has something not work out. She has nothing booked, and then she has that final thing with that guy.

You don’t think she could “get it” at some point though?

Brian Koppelman: Maybe. Just go back to Diner, which I wasn’t even conscious about at all, but you can’t get any more open-ended than that ending. Many of the movies that continue to resonate to us, like The Graduate, are movies that don’t land so hard on a final verdict.

Well, what’s your interpretation on the ending of Solitary Man then? It doesn’t matter the intent, but what do you like to think Kalmen does?

David Levien: No. We can’t answer that.

Brian Koppelman: No, we can’t. It’s really yours to say and not ours. I think he makes a decision on the bench and after that happens he stands up. I will tell you something that most people don’t know is that the blonde that walks by him is Brooklyn Decker. Do you know Brooklyn Decker?

I don’t.

Brian Koppelman: Oh, she was the Sports Illustrated cover girl. She was even in that whole online speculation about who was going to replace Megan Fox in Transformers. She was one of the three girls. We only shot her from the neck down because we wanted that moment to have a certain effect. Just a little unknown fact that she’s in the movie. If you don’t know who Brooklyn Decker then that has less impact for you.

I didn’t even notice that you didn’t show her face in the shot.

David Levien: Good.

Again, you guys obviously can’t talk too much about the ending. But to me, I found it hopeful.

David Levien: Well, you’re really a sensitive viewer in a really good way. We think there’s something hopeful in the ending, because Ben has gained some understanding about himself. With that, he gains self-knowledge about himself. I’m glad that you felt that there was something hopeful about it. We certainly didn’t set out to make a movie that was just depressing. Ben is an entertaining guy. It’s hard for us to talk about that stuff, but it’s great for us to hear other people talk about it.

Since we’ve been discussing it a little, I’d like to end on The Girlfriend Experience. Were you at all surprised by how divisive that film was?

Brian Koppelman: We weren’t surprised at all. I think Steven knew that movie was going to be polarizing. We all together cast a porn star in the lead in a country where people are very polarized about the place that porn stars have.

David Levien: We all did that together. We found Sasha Grey for him and I’d say we all knew it was going to be polarizing.

Brian Koppelman: I honestly thought this movie was going to be even more polarizing.

Solitary Man is now in theaters and will be further expanding in the following weeks.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.