Like other lawyer-scribes Bitter Lawyer has interviewed, Brian Koppelman is an example of someone who’s taken a JD and spun it into Hollywood success. Koppelman, who’s screenwriting credits include Rounders, Walking Tall, Ocean’s Thirteen, Runaway Jury and the ESPN television series Tilt, most recently caught our eye with his latest project, The Girlfriend Experience. The Steven Soderbergh-directed film stars porn star Sasha Grey as a high-class escort in New York. Naturally, we couldn’t resist sitting down to find out more.
Brian Koppelman, screenwriter, director, producer.
The day I finished reading Morris Dees’ A Season for Justice, I applied to law school. I had always been interested in the law—its ability to affect change. At the time, I was working full-time, so I needed to attend at night and stay in Manhattan. Fordham was perfect for me. I loved the time I spent there. But it became clear to me very early on that I would never be happy unless I was writing and telling stories for a living. So I finished, but knew that I would not practice law.
Among other things, law school taught me how to organize my thoughts and write on a deadline.
Well, one of my best friends from Fordham is Brian Kelly, who is among the most successful businessmen around. He and his partner Bobby Kotick are co-chairmen of the board of Activision, a leader in the video game software space. Brian and Bobby built that company, and he seems to be having a pretty great time, too.
But yes, I love my job. I write, direct and produce with a partner, David Levien, who has been like my brother since we were teenagers. So there are no inter-office politics (though the one-liners do cut pretty deep). We always have a football with us, so if the opportunity for a pick-up game presents itself, we are ready—also, throwing a ball around tends to help us come up with ideas.
When we are shooting, our hours vary—sometimes you need to be on set before the sun comes up and don’t finish until really late at night. Other times you are shooting from midnight to noon—but either way, the time goes by incredibly quickly. In between shoots, when we are writing, we keep to a more regular schedule, getting to our office at nine and finishing up in time to get home to our families.
We interviewed many women who provide “the girlfriend experience” to their clients. I was surprised by how smart many of them were, how business-like they were in their approach to their careers.
Although we didn’t know of Sasha when we began thinking about making this film, she is exactly the type of woman we had in mind. When we read her cover story in Los Angeles magazine on her, we reached out to her through her MySpace page, made contact, and introduced her to Steven Soderbergh, who then cast her in the film.
The dialog is often the last thing we write. So this wasn’t as different as you might imagine. We laid the story out, outlined each scene, specified the emotional arcs of each character, various things they would discuss, etc. Normally, once that is done, we write the dialog in the scenes. This one stopped just short of that.
I did play a ton of poker while going to Fordham Law. And the character of Abe Petrovsky in the film is inspired by a wonderful professor, lawyer and friend—the late Abe Abramovsky.
In the original screenplay, the character did attend Fordham. Somehow the university wasn’t thrilled at the idea of a gambling picture set at their esteemed school of law.
Oreo was a visual representation of all tells. A way for the novice to understand the concept. Most real tells have more to do with betting patterns, both the size of the bets and the timing. Once in a while you’ll run across something obvious and physical, but not usually as broad as the Oreo. Check out The Book of Tells by Mike Caro for a more detailed deconstruction of how tells work.
Effective poker players and lawyers need to make clear-eyed, rational decisions even when their emotions are pulling them to make different decisions. And both groups must have the capacity to bullshit the other guy while never bullshitting themselves.
I was very active in student government at Tufts. Back then, the university’s endowment was partially invested in funds doing business with South African interests. I helped organize the pro-divestment movement on our campus to end this immoral association. In the process of putting together the community leaders and speakers to address the student body during a rally, I came across Tracy Chapman singing protest songs. I convinced her to come and participate in our movement and then began working with her to advance her career.
We were lucky enough to get to work with John on both—meeting with him, getting notes, discussing the story. We were hired to write Runway Jury by the movie studio, but once John read and liked our first draft, we were able to begin interacting with him. And then he and David Gernert, his long-time agent, approached us for The Street Lawyer.
Some people think you need to quit your job to chase the dream. I disagree. We all have more hours in the day than we think—before work, in the middle of the night—so use them to begin working on your passion.
No. I had a good time there. Fordham is a pretty great place. I was getting bitter in my job at the time, though, which is why I began to write.
David and I have just finished directing a film called Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito, Susan Sarandon, Mary Louise Parker, Jenna Fisher and Jesse Eisenberg. And we are currently adapting the novel, Beat The Reaper for Leonardo DiCaprio to star in.