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Curious Guy: ‘Rounders’ Part II

Curious Guy: ‘Rounders’

Curious Guy

Welcome to “The Curious Guy,” where I e-mail questions to somebody successful — whether it’s a baseball pitcher, an author, a creator of a TV show, another writer or whomever — and we trade e-mails for a few days. This week’s exchange is with screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, or as I like to call them, “The Guys Who Wrote Rounders.” They also wrote and directed “Knockaround Guys” and created “Tilt” for ESPN, and they’re currently working on “Oceans 13” with Steven Soderberg. But with my virgin appearance in the World Series of Poker coming up, it seemed like the perfect time to exchange a bunch of e-mails with them about “Rounders,” the poker boom, the movie industry and everything else. Here’s what transpired:

Simmons: In the fall of 1998, I saw “Rounders” at the Loews Theater in Somerville (outside of Boston), which was still playing the “Bow cha-cha blow-bow bow? thank you for coming to Loews, sit back and relax, enjoy the show!” theme before every movie (I always insisted on going there because that song killed me). The future Sports Gal came with me, along with my then-roommate Ricky. And we were seeing it mainly because it was Matt Damon’s first movie since “Good Will Hunting” and the reviews were pretty good. At the time, I didn’t know much about poker; didn’t have anything against it, just didn’t know much about it. And the movie just didn’t do much for us; we were all confused by the poker scenes, we just weren’t educated enough about the game. Damon and Ed Norton were good, the music was good, Malkovich was great, it kept our interest ? but overall, it didn’t knock my socks off or anything.

Matt DamonAll right, fast-forward a few months. Thanks to Ricky, we had one of those doctored cable boxes that received all the pay-per-view movies, which he bought from a dude named Big Al. There were 15 pay-per-view channels in all, with the two marquee movies of the week running every half hour, so for a movie like “Boogie Nights” — which we watched approximately 950 times in 1998 — you could jump in at any point in the movie and avoid the parts that you didn’t like. (This is why I can recite just about every line from the moment Dirk Diggler shows up at Jack Horner’s house through the “Feel the Heat” recording session; we always stopped watching before That Scene. You know, the one outside the church. I don’t want to talk about it.) And only certain movies were rewatchable like that; I remember “Good Will Hunting,” “Boogie Nights” and “Out Of Sight” were three that worked really well. So when “Rounders” went into the rotation, I watched it a second time, and some of the poker scenes made a little more sense, and then I watched it a third time, and we started watching chunks here and there, and within two weeks, I knew the movie inside and out. And I was hooked. Totally hooked. Within a year, I lost my poker virginity in Vegas and have been playing ever since.

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Now here’s the thing: “Rounders” didn’t do THAT well in the theaters; it made like $25 million. But it had a second life on cable, and now we’re at the point where it has to rank along with “Shawshank”, “Boogie Nights,” “Road House,” “Hoosiers” and “Dangerous Pleasures” as one of the most replayed cable movies of all-time. Plus, I’m absolutely convinced that the movie inadvertently launched the poker boom, because all those repeat viewings on cable eventually sucked me in and made me want to start playing, and I just don’t feel like I’m alone there. So do you guys feel any sense of vindication about this whole thing? Are you still pissed that the movie didn’t do better in the theaters? Do you ever think, “Man, if we had only released that movie five years later, we’d be multi-billionaires and we could buy the Knicks from the Dolans?”

Levien: How you came around to “Rounders” is a story we’ve heard variations of many times now. We do, indeed, feel vindicated by the place that “Rounders” has in popular culture. When we wrote the script we had no career to speak of as writers, we had nothing to lose, and so we told the story we wanted to tell exactly the way we wanted to tell it. When we were first exposed to the underground poker world we were blown away — totally seduced, confused, overmatched. We lost so much money (and so quickly) to the rounders in the clubs. We learned a new game in Texas Hold ‘Em and a whole new language. Growing up we had always loved the kind of movies that weren’t 100 percent revealed on first viewing but then grew on you with repeated viewings — “Diner,” “Raising Arizona,” “House of Games,” “Goodfellas,” “Big Lebowski,” etc. — and actually aspired to write a movie with that kind of hidden core.

Madsen(And the fact that you threw it in there with “Road House,” well let’s just say we’re wiping little tears from the corners of our eyes. Really.)

We weren’t calculating at all about how a movie about an insular world, with a language of its own, might not be embraced quickly by an audience and what that would mean at the box office. We just thought poker was so cool that we wanted to capture the vibe in a true way. We didn’t worry about people understanding everything the first time around. We had faith people would catch up.

Looking back, we really feel like two things were at the start of the poker phenomenon — the hole-card cam and our movie. We wrote the movie on a scale that would allow us to go and raise half a million bucks and make it ourselves if there were no takers in Hollywood. When Miramax bought it, and the director and cast came together, and the thing was realized on that level, it’s true we thought that then everyone in America would come along and see it and think high-stakes poker was as fascinating as we did. When the movie came out we learned an important lesson that applies to a lot of businesses: that being early is just as bad as being late when it comes to trends. But seeing how the movie has developed such a cult following, and how it continues to mean so much to each generation of young guys coming up, is totally rewarding. Whether it’s the countless games we’ve been at where guys quote the movie, poker sites full of players using the characters’ names, WSOP champions saying they started playing after seeing the movie, or you using “Rounders” quotes for your NBA awards a few years back — the lasting impact makes up for the fact that it wasn’t huge when it came out. We wouldn’t change anything about the way it all happened.

Koppelman: Dave’s right, it has all been upside for us (despite the fact that neither of us are particularly long). We wrote “Rounders” in an apartment building’s basement storage room that my wife cleaned out for us. I was 30 years old. It was the first script we wrote together. If we had stopped for a moment to consider the odds that two childhood best friends could write a poker script in a basement, sell it to a studio, get it made, get primo cameos in it wearing absurd facial hair, and then that those same two buffoons, whose prior business venture together was bootlegging Cohiba T-shirts, could actually find their way to a career in film, we would never have been able to start.

Our whole approach, since we were kids playing two-on-two hoops against faster, bigger opposition, has been to pick-and-roll, give-and-go, crash the boards as hard as we can, and then, when you start giving us a little room, surprise you by hitting a couple of Downtown Freddie Brown specials. We’ll take the win any way we can get it, even if it’s delayed a couple of years.

One more note on vindication: You never really forget the people who totally micturate on you in print; you just hope that someday you can get back at them. In that spirit, I’d like to take this opportunity to mention that the week “Rounders” first came out, David Ansen of Newsweek and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone both took really personal shots at Levien and me. Ansen completely misunderstood the film, as is his stock-in-trade, and, when he got confused by the internal language of the game, decided that it was just “Mean Streets” in different clothes. Travers on the other hand, accused us of ripping off “Good Will Hunting” by writing the role for Matt (so that he could play another street tough genius). Never mind the fact that our script was written before they even started shooting “Good Will Hunting” or that, much as we love him now and can’t imagine anyone else playing Mike McD, neither of us had ever heard of Matt before Harvey Weinstein told us he was going to be starring in our film. So to Travers and Ansen, nice work. Hope the approach to 60 and retirement is a smooth one.

Simmons, The NBA, and “Rounders”
Back in 2002, the Sports Guy needed a little help from “Rounders” to hand out his NBA awards:

NBA & “Rounders”: PART I
NBA & “Rounders”: PART II

Simmons: So glad you brought up movie reviewers ? they definitely serve a purpose because they serve as crash test dummies for us. In other words, they see a movie in our place, tell us what they think, and then, we decide whether we want to spend the money on the movie ourselves. But here’s what I never understood: Why would a magazine or newspaper hire just one movie reviewer? You brought up Travers and Ansen? if those guys are my father’s age, then how could they possibly be expected to understand a movie like “Anchorman,” or even why “Basic Instinct 2” is worth seeing because it’s so unbelievably atrocious that we will probably remember it as the funniest movie of 2006 some day?

I mean, my father and I have disagreed on pretty much every movie that’s been released since “Shawshank” came out. It’s gotten to the point where, if I tell him that I liked a movie, he will refuse to see it. And my wife loves these stupid chick flicks — for instance, she has been watching “The Wedding Date” on the HBO rotations recently because she thinks Dermot Mulroney is “smoking hot” (her words). Well, I was reading a magazine one time while she was watching it, so I started asking her questions just to bug her, and she started telling me about the plot: Basically, Debra Messing (who has a career just to ensure that Sarah Jessica Parker isn’t the least attractive lead actress working in Hollywood today — I think Parker pays her $500,000 a year just to keep working) plays this crazy woman who goes to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding in Europe, so she hires a hot guy as her escort (Mulroney, who’s as wooden as ever), and they fly to Europe and end up falling for each other during the wedding week. It’s preposterous. It’s utterly preposterous. But if my wife were writing reviews for Entertainment Weekly, she probably would have given it an A-minus.

It just seems to me like movies hit people different ways, and if that’s the case, how could one reviewer be expected to sum everything up? To use a sports parallel, it’s like having one boxing judge for a fight — don’t you need a bigger sampling of opinions to get the best decision possible? (Take “Million Dollar Baby,” for example: Everyone was doing backflips over this thing, and yet, in the first wave of reviews, I never read anyone point out that it was unconscionably depressing OR that the danger subplot may have surpassed “Forrest Gump” running back and forth across the country as the single dumbest subplot in the history of potential Oscar contenders.) Just for the sake of accuracy, I think they should send three reviewers: An older guy in his 40’s or 50’s, a younger guy in his 20’s or 30’s, and a chick. Wouldn’t that work much better or am I crazy?

Anyway, here’s my question: When you’re writing movies, how much do reviews affect your confidence as writers? Do you read them? Avoid them? Take them with a grain of salt? Out of all the people who have written about your movies, what was the percentage of people that made you think, “Wow, that dude really nailed it?”

Levien: As far as reviews go, we have a unique approach — Koppelman reads them all, and I mean all of them. There are Web pages the creators have even forgotten about, but if there’s a posting, BK has seen it, and he’ll remember it for posterity forever.

Koppelman (interjecting): It’s true. I’ll Google-translate Russian reviews of illegally imported “Tilt” DVDs, search Technorati for blog mentions.

Boogie NightsLevien: If we get an interview request from a journalist, BK might say “We’re not talking to that guy. He said the lighting in some scene of ours was a little hot in a review he posted on i’manobody.com.” I don’t read them. But because he does, opinions filter through. We both subscribe to the “If you believe it when they say you’re a genius, you have to believe it when they say you’re a moron” school of thought, so we try not to take any of it too seriously. One thing about the critics, whether they get the movie or not, they’ve never once pointed out a flaw that we didn’t notice already or a solution we hadn’t already thought of (months too late to make any changes, of course).

Koppelman: Obsessed as I am with reading them after the fact, when we are writing or directing, we never think about the possible critical reception or add or take anything away with the critics in mind. We just think about the story we’re trying to tell and all the people who hated us in high school having to see our names in huge letters on screen one more time.

Simmons: See, that’s why I didn’t write a review of “Tilt” for ESPN.com — I was afraid to cross Koppelman. Which reminds me, during a recent weekly meeting for our “Writers Who Worked on a Creative Project For ESPN” support group, I thought you guys were quite gracious when the moderator asked you about your “Tilt” experience. That was your first time creating a television show. How was it different from doing movies? How much did you have to sacrifice dealing with a TV network as opposed to a studio? Was ESPN the right place for it, do you wish you had taken it somewhere else, or do you wish you never did it in the first place? After all, the ratings and reviews were decent, right?

Koppelman and Levien: As writers/directors, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to anyone who has the faith to spend tens of millions of dollars on an idea of ours. That’s the way we feel about ESPN. Especially the guy who was the head of programming then, and who has since left the network, Mark Shapiro. Mark was totally committed to the project and is a force of energy. The guy’s got Diet Coke running in his veins and we’d go back into battle with him any time. That said, doing a TV show is like waging a land war in Asia — mistakes are going to be made by both sides (creator and studio), which was definitely the case with “Tilt.” It’s just a lot easier to live with mistakes that you make while creating your vision of a show or movie than it is to reconcile the ones that come from the outside.

There is no way we can overstate this: We must have quit/threatened to quit the show five times over the nine episodes. The whole time we felt like H.I. McDonough in front of the parole board in “Raising Arizona” — no matter what we said, we just couldn’t believe the answers coming back at us. You don’t need chapter and verse on it, but know this: when the project was hatched we were urged to make something huge happen EVERY SINGLE MOMENT, because “24” was the hot show the prior season. By the time we were in production, a certain program about infidelity in the suburbs became a giant hit. Now, if you’ll recall, our show was about high-stakes poker, crime and … well … actually … that’s it: High-stakes poker and crime related to winning at high-stakes poker. But suddenly, just when this certain program starring Tony Parker’s girlfriend was gracing the covers of all sorts of magazines, we started getting notes asking if “Tilt” could have a little more of a “Desperate Houswives” feel. The fact that we should have seen it coming didn’t make it easier to take while working 20 hour days, which is what is required during a TV show.

The biggest problem with the whole thing was budget: “Tilt” was made for less than half the money spent on the average television series. There were not enough shooting days, we had to shoot on a stage in Canada, and only were given two days total in Vegas. We didn’t have enough to pay writers, directors, or actors. We called in every favor we could to land quality talent — from the cast down to “Rounders” director John Dahl who came in and directed two [episodes]. And Eddie Cibrian, who is a pantheon-level great guy, and who we know is going to be a huge star, totally came to play, brought his A-game, sacrificed so the team could get under the cap … the whole deal. We think the show came out well. Great looking, terrific performances. And it was well-reviewed. We got to tell a story we wanted to tell and a limited-run series was the right form for it. We know you didn’t love the show, but we think time, and a repeated viewing or two of the DVD set, might shift that opinion.

Anyway, there’s this great line in “Men In Black”: Tommy Lee Jones is explaining to Will Smith that the citizens have to be kept in the dark about the existence of aliens. Will is arguing that the citizens can handle it. He says, “People are smart.” Tommy interrupts. “No,” he says, “a person can be smart. People are stupid.”

That sums up the relationship between TV execs and writers better than anything: One TV exec can be smart; multiple TV execs working together can be stupid. Especially because they’re operating in a nonstop climate of fear, and as such their entire game (other than doing everything they can to keep their jobs) is to find ways to appeal to the absolute lowest common denominator. Making feature films brings a lot of the same problems, but the level of compromise just seems to be slightly less than in TV, so you’ve got a better shot at doing your best. That said, if we had an idea that we felt we needed 22 episodes per year to tell, and that was the only way we knew how to tell it, we’d probably head back into the waters. Cause, after all, we’re people. And people are stupid.

(And a note to future programmers out there: Don’t launch a new show in a slot following live basketball games. “Tilt” ran between 15 and 25 minutes late every episode … if the game isn’t exciting, viewers are gone. If people tune in and see a game on instead of their show, they get confused. Everyone’s TiVo and DVR was totally screwed up. But, hey, we’re not bitter … )

Simmons: I see all your points. But I will always believe that, for a seedy poker show set in Vegas to work, it needed to be on HBO or Showtime to reach its full potential. You needed copious amounts of nudity, gratuitous violence and everything else, and it needed to be completely over the top, like “Oz” crossed with “Rounders” crossed with “G-String Divas” crossed with “Go.” Basic cable was always going to hold you back. Just watch a “Sex in the City” re-run on TBS — with the nudity and bawdiness removed, that’s a completely unwatchable show, and it was unwatchable in the first place. The “Tilt” concept and ESPN were fundamentally mismatched coming out of the gate, and that’s before all the other problems you mentioned. On the bright side, it did lead to Michael Madsen getting serviced in a bathroom 10 minutes before a Thursday night “SportsCenter” started. So that’s always fun.

Koppelman and Levien: You might be right about the “Tilt”/basic-cable mismatch. It’s a branding issue. You speak for a lot of people who say “I don’t want shows from ESPN, just give me the sports.” A few guys in the focus group actually said “Yeah, it was good, and I’d watch it on HBO, but on ESPN I’d rather see Olympic curling trials than a drama … “

As far as the content goes, there’s no point in quibbling now. There was talk about a lot of leeway and freedom in the beginning and then reality set in … it was a major victory for us to keep the “‘I’m gonna go relieve myself … reveal the hooker in the bathroom moment.” We had to shoot it pretty carefully, you know, to make it “tasteful.” And if there’s ever a director’s edition of the first episode, you’ll see a pretty hardcore scene in which Eddie and Clark bag a pair of strippers in the same room … and then switch strippers. That was killed at the corporate level. We could complain that they stepped on our creativity and the true tone of the show, but on the other hand, when they saw the dailies and it looked like a porno, they didn’t shut the whole series down.

Simmons: While you’re feeling bitter, I wanted to ask you about “Knockaround Guys,” a movie that I really liked and kinda came and went. That turned out to be a pretty stereotypical Hollywood story — you guys had some juice after “Rounders,” so you were able to get control over your second movie, and you made it the way you wanted to make it (with an excellent cast, by the way), but the studio ended up burying it … and then Vin Diesel became a breakout star after “The Fast and the Furious,” so suddenly the studio was like, “Hey, we have this already-made movie with Vin Diesel in it, let’s get this baby in theaters!” And you’re thinking, “All right, we lucked out with this Diesel thing, this movie has a chance!”

But the movie ended up making like $12 million and that’s it. So what went wrong? On paper, that movie should have done much better — not only was it a good guy’s movie, you had Diesel (when he was white-hot, no less), the always underrated Barry Pepper, Dennis Hopper, Seth Green, Malkovich, the creepy killer from “Manhunter,” even Waingro from “Heat” (a Hall of Fame That Guy). I still don’t understand what happened there. Does this go back to the famous William Goldman quote, “Nobody knows anything?”

Koppelman and Levien: Let’s just rip the old scabs right off. It’s really rewarding to hear that you dig the film. We threw everything we had into making it. We wanted to make a post-modern gangster movie that dealt with the sons of wiseguys (kids we had grown up with) that had elements of a Western and a Coen brothers’ sensibility. For some reason that seemed manageable on our first movie as directors. Unfortunately we got caught in the Hollywood executive spin cycle on it. The guy who was president of production at the studio was fired while we were in post-production. The new guy is always leery when it comes to the last regime’s projects — if they succeed, the former guy gets the credit, if they fail the new guy gets the blame. But because he and the studio’s chairman actually liked it, our movie survived the regime change while half a dozen movies were put straight to video. But the chairman hired a new head of marketing. The new marketing guy responded to the movie, but due to the prior mentioned success/failure logic, he said “I need to design a new campaign … we’ll put it on the schedule for next year.”

Now this was not a horror movie or broad comedy (where reviews don’t matter). And every single review save for “Ebert and Roeper” (2 thumbs up, by the way) and about two other critics basically said “This movie has been on the shelf for 18 months so something must be wrong with it.” They stuck a fork in us. So yes, the bottom line is nobody knows anything … except William Goldman, who knows everything.

Unfortunately we just make ’em, we don’t sell ’em. But a funny thing is happening. As “Knockaround Guys” starts its heavy cable rotation, people are beginning to respond to it — beginning to quote it in their profiles on Myspace and all that. The “500 fights” speech and subsequent beating in particular seems to really grab hold of people. Even Diesel has told us that he can’t go anywhere without someone throwing that line at him. Glad you noticed Waingro and Tom Noonan. We’ll always endeavor to stock the pond with a few That Guys.

Simmons: Let’s talk about the whole “writing as a team” thing. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child, because I always think I’m right, because I like getting credit for everything I write (which used to drive me crazy when I was writing for Kimmel’s show) ? but I can’t imagine co-writing ANYTHING creative with another person. I think it’s like having two alpha dogs on the same basketball team; it just doesn’t seem like it should work. Plus, I would never be able to be productive with someone else in the room — I’d always end up having sports arguments with them, convincing them to play a video game or make an online wager, getting distracted every time they make a phone call, farting on them when they weren’t looking and so on.

And yet, you guys have made a career out of writing with one another. Are you surprised you lasted together this long? Are you like an old married couple at this point? Can you finish each other’s thoughts? Have either of you thought about branching off on your own at some point? Or is it like having a fantasy partner in a roto league, where you’re actually better off with a second person because you can bounce ideas off one another and talk each other out of the bad ones?

Koppelman and Levien: First of all, we have one overriding rule. We’ve had it from the beginning and it is unbreakable: No PlayStation, Xbox or GameCube in the office. Because we know, with all certainty, that the day we start playing Madden at work is the day our career ends. And you’ve hit on another key to this partnership’s survival — there is no farting in the writing room. Because, again, to get started with this, is just to invite disaster. So just know if you come to our office and try to fart on either one of us, you’re in for a world of pain.

Look, as we said above, we’ve been best friends since we were kids and we’ve been completing each other’s sentences since the day we met (please save the Vito Spatafore inspired jokes, they weren’t funny when they were Richard Simmons jokes.). As far as alpha dogs working together, we don’t model ourselves after Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce. On good days we try to operate like Pearl and Clyde. Or at least like Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf. We have a wealth of shared experiences: we’ve watched all the same movies, listened to the same music, read the same books. When we write a script, we usually agree on how it should go. If we don’t, the resultant conversation generates a better idea. It’s true, there’s lots of sidebar chatter that distracts from the work. If Tiger wins a major on a Sunday, Monday is a wash until lunch. Also, in contrast to the “no video game” rule, there is always a football around. In fact there have been labrums torn throwing post routes during breaks in shooting.

We have each done some individual work: Levien has published two novels and Koppelman’s a widely published essayist. But filmmaking is a collaborative process and our collaboration starts right at the beginning. Frankly, you’re thinking about this all wrong, worried that someone else might get credit for a laugh you created. When you left Boston you were a man. Now, LA has made you Johnny Fontaine-soft. ACT LIKE A MAN! Imagine how productive you’d be if you had a partner. And as far as us sharing credit for lines goes, you know, Simmons, which one of us wrote that last line. But we’re happy to share the credit/blame. In fact, none of our favorite lines are our own, they are always the other guy’s.

Simmons: How dare you guys compare Vito Spatafore to Richard Simmons.


Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy’s World site here. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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