Brian Koppelman is a writer, director, and producer known for his work on films like Rounders and Solitary Man, the hit TV show Billions, and his podcast The Moment, which explores pivotal moments in creative careers.
Tyler and Brian sat down to discuss why TV wasn’t good for so long, whether he wants viewers to binge his shows, how he’d redesign movie theaters, why some smart people appreciate film and others don’t, which Spielberg movie and Murakami book is under appreciated, a surprising fact about poker, whether Jalen Brunson is overrated or underrated, Manhattan food tips, who he’d want to go on a three-day retreat with, whether movies are too long, how happy people are in show business, his unmade dream projects, the next thing he’ll learn about, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded August 22nd, 2023
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Brian Koppelman, who is a producer, director, and screenwriter.
He’s the co-writer of the movie Ocean’s Thirteen and the movie Rounders; the producer for films including The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones; the director for films including Solitary Man with Michael Douglas and the documentary This Is What They Want for ESPN; and the co-creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Showtime’s Billions and Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. His podcast is The Moment, and my own daughter thinks this is one of the sagest sources of life advice out there. Brian, welcome.
BRIAN KOPPELMAN: That’s awesome to hear because, as you know, my son Sam certainly has a high opinion of you and your work. It’s funny to me that you two knew one another, really, before you and I knew each other.
COWEN: And she knows you, I think, more as a podcaster than as a movie and TV person.
KOPPELMAN: Awesome. That’s great. I love people who interact with me via podcast and who get on the wavelength that I’m on on the pod. I do feel very connected, too, and I understand why they’re connected to me, so that’s great. I have to meet her sometime.
COWEN: These people like us more somehow, right? Isn’t that strange?
KOPPELMAN: It is. Do you feel this way? I do think that someone who’s listened to enough episodes of The Moment — they do have a sense of the things that animate me. The things that animate me are so much a part of who I am that, in a sense, they do really know me, or they know a part of me, or they know me when I’m trying to access the part of me that’s most alive, the best of myself.
When I meet someone and they’re a person who spent a lot of time engaged in that way, it’s not hard to find a way to connect. Do you feel that way, too?
COWEN: Absolutely. Some of the people who think they don’t know me — in fact, they do know me. They just can’t believe that’s what it means to know me, like, that’s it.
KOPPELMAN: Yes. Well, I think also, though, it’s hard to believe that somebody has not only the catholicity of interest and knowledge that you have, but the depth of interest and knowledge that you have. I’m sure when someone meets you, they’re trying to understand how a human being has that entire range.
COWEN: Thank you. I have some very simple questions for you about the history of television to start with. I grew up in the 1970s and I’ve long wondered, “Why was TV so bad for so long before the so-called Golden Age?” Maybe you could date that to the 90s or the noughties, but why weren’t shows in the 70s and 80s better than they were? Would you challenge that premise?
KOPPELMAN: Well, I also grew up in the ’70s. I was born in ’66. I’m not sure that the hypothesis that it was bad is correct. It certainly wasn’t, in general, as an art form, operating on the level that cinema was operating on or the level that music, in part, was operating on during that time.
But if we look at, say, children’s television, I could argue that Jim Henson and Sesame Street, for what it was and aimed at what it was aimed at, was as important as any television that’s on today. I would say that Jim Henson moved the art form forward. He figured out a use case for TV that hadn’t really been done before, and he created a way of thinking about the medium that was really different.
Then, look, Hill Street Blues shows up in the ’80s and, I think, figures out how to use certain techniques of theater and cinema and novels to tell these TV stories. Like any other business, when that started to connect, then people in the business started to become aware of what was possible.
Yes, it was a function of three channels, to answer your question. Yes, in the main, of course, TV was worse. No doubt about it, but there were high points. I think those high points pointed the way toward the high points that came later. For me, NYPD Blue is the network show that’s fully on the level of any of these shows that came after. David Milch cut his teeth on Hill Street Blues.
There’s a wonderful book by Brett Martin, called Difficult Men, that’s about showrunners. It starts, in a way, with Bochco and Milch in that time period. It’s a great look into how this idea of showrunners created modern television. HBO needing something, all these business reasons underneath it, but how people who came up through, originally, Hill Street were able to go on and start this revolution.
COWEN: In your view, how good, really, was I Love Lucy? Is it just a few memorable moments, like Vitameatavegamin? Or is it actually a show where it’d be good episode after good episode, like The Sopranos?
KOPPELMAN: Well, I was going to say we could look at shows . . . Obviously, she was an incredible physical performer, an incredible comedian. Her time was amazing. Also, when you asked the question, I started thinking about the ’50s, and I started thinking about directors like Sidney Lumet and people who became world-class directors of cinema, and who started by directing those live television presentations, right?
Those plays and all that stuff on TV in the ’50s — look, it was the dawning of an industry. It was the dawning of this art form in a real way. I Love Lucy has incredible moments. I’ve certainly seen every single episode, and I think probably not just because making this stuff is my job. It was never, ever a moment that it was my favorite show, but I love westerns.
I grew up watching westerns with my dad, and Chuck Connors, The Rifleman — it might not be a good show, but I think there are elements in that that are synchronous with movies, and have similar iconography, and maybe were able to deliver that in a digestible way that made you curious about what else was out there, what that was inspired by, or what that was inspiring.
COWEN: Well, if we move to the current day, there are many quite good TV shows, but why aren’t there many more? What is the scarce factor? Is it directors, is it money, is it viewers caring, is it screenwriting, all of the above? How should I think about that, as an economist?
KOPPELMAN: Well, art, as you know because you’re such a dedicated consumer and thinker about great art, you care a lot about it. You can hear a piece, and it does something to you. Yes, if we look at the music, if we look at Bitches Brew just for a second, how it was received in its time and how people think of it now. On one hand, we could say, “Well, music can be reduced to just frequencies. These frequencies, for whatever reason that we don’t yet understand, are pleasing to us.”
You may say, “Well, one has to come to Bitches Brew with an understanding of bebop, hard bop, this whole thing.” Or I might say to you, “I don’t think so. I think you could put that record on, in fact, to somebody who doesn’t come in expecting jazz to be something. They might be hit with it in a way that, suddenly, it nails them.” Which is to say that the effect that storytelling art has is, in a sense — because we don’t understand why — it’s magic.
When you ask why there’s not more that’s better, it’s like it always comes down . . . Of course, as an economist, you might say, “Well, how are we incentivizing people to make this stuff? How are we drawing the best people into it?” I do think, on the whole, television is a writer’s medium, and that you need to incentivize and reward writers to be willing to turn themselves inside out to create amazing stuff.
But I might flip it and say, “How much truly amazing stuff is there in any given art form at any given time you might take a snapshot of it?” Because so much stuff has to come together. The writing has to be incredible. First of all, the concept has to be one that nails the moment in time, you know, the way Franzen was talking about the duty you have to write the great American novel. It’s one that takes in and, in some way, processes the world that you’re living in. That could be a science fiction novel, right? It could be a historical novel, but in some way, it is hitting off the times in which you live.
A great piece of television — whether it’s Mad Men, whether it’s the Larry Sanders Show, whether it’s NYPD Blue that I was talking about earlier, or if it’s The Sopranos — it needs to, conceptually, be something that the times want to engage with. It needs to have a writer or writers with an incredibly clear sense of purpose, and they have to be talented enough and ready to give what it takes.
Then the magical alchemy of their words, the camera, and that group of actors has to take flight. You can hire really talented people, and sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes, suddenly, almost miraculously, it really does work.
This is why someone like David Milch — that’s another book I would recommend. It’s Milch’s book, which is one of the best, maybe the best book ever written about television, the one that came out last year. When you think about a guy like that, who was able to write some of the best episodes of Hill Street, then NYPD Blue, and then create Deadwood — that does feel to me, as somebody who does this stuff, miraculous.
KOPPELMAN: They are great shows. I want to give you an answer, but what I really think is, one thing I’ve learned . . . When your daughter says that there are things that she hears me say, I would say one of the things that I really have felt, the older I’ve gotten, is just an incredible comfort in saying, “I don’t know.” Whatever that amalgam of things are that’s created the ground to be fertile enough, and then the artists to be ready to make the work that they’re making and to have it connect — I don’t know. I haven’t studied it, so I don’t have a ready-made answer for you.
I think in a more global sense, we’re pulling back from 30,000 feet. There was a moment when I thought South Korean cinema was just incredible. It’s been for a long time. I remember watching this series of 8 or 10 or 12 movies, and I had a thought that it was a moment in time where the movies from South Korea — without ever mentioning what it feels like to have North Korea as your neighbor, as this bully, as this invasion of your psyche.
They would never say that. The movies weren’t about that at all. Yet, receiving those movies, I felt part of why they were so potent was that they were suffused with that idea somewhere in the consciousness of the people making it. So, it had that kind of effect because you felt this need for freedom. You felt this sense of encroaching doom, this sense of wanting to define themselves — the people in the movies and the filmmakers.
Perhaps something similar is going on. Anytime a certain area starts to produce work that’s really good and important . . . But I haven’t given the Israeli stuff the same amount of thought that I gave that South Korean stuff a few years back.
COWEN: I just watched Oldboy on a large screen for the first time. Do you like that one?
KOPPELMAN: Well, that’s a great one. For me, it’s an incredible movie, the original. For me, Bad Boy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance — those are two that I think are great. But there are many, many movies from 10 years ago and 12 years ago from Korea — I’ll text you a list — that are just great.
KOPPELMAN: I haven’t seen that one.
COWEN: Oh, you must, one time.
KOPPELMAN: I know, I haven’t seen that one. Somehow I missed that one. No, I missed it. I’ll watch it, for sure.
COWEN: When people watch TV shows, often these days, they binge, so they’ll watch many episodes in a row. I don’t do that. I like to watch something like one a week. At the margin, do you want to have your viewers bingeing more, bingeing less? What do you prefer? How do you think about that tradeoff? Do you binge?
KOPPELMAN: I loved the experience of watching Mad Men week to week. I’m so glad that I got to watch it week to week. It was almost like a holy day in our house. Amy and I would start taping it. It would just get a little run-up before we would start, because Mad Men actually had commercials, oddly enough. Even the later years, very few commercials, and they would chunk it, so that was great. There’s something about the anticipation and then seeing something when it airs.
When Twitter was slightly different, I really loved having a conversation on Twitter after a show that was meaningful. You would watch the second-to-last episode of Mad Men, and then you could see what Sepinwall was saying on Twitter, and you could talk to him, and you could talk to Matt Zoller Seitz. You could engage in that way, and that was incredibly fun.
But The Crown is probably my favorite show, The Bear and The Crown. I’d say both The Bear and The Crown — Amy and I binged those shows. The experience, this year, of watching The Bear was an extraordinary experience to binge it, because I felt like I was immersed in Christopher Storer’s imagination, in the way he saw the world. And it was like reading a novel, the kind of novel — even a big novel — that you read in a weekend, and that’s what we did.
We watched on a Saturday and Sunday, and it was an incredible experience, but I think to binge something like that, the show needs to be great. We also picked moments to stop. We picked moments to stop and think about it and talk about it. Then, picked the moments to stop and wait till the next day. I think both things are rewarding. I feel like The Crown is built to binge, and the way that it accretes really works in a binge model.
I have a feeling that Mad Men — because there were so many quiet moments in Mad Men, because Mad Men was about visual images and about symbolism, because his business was about semiotics — when you would be able to walk away and think about what you saw, it was really rewarding. The Crown is rewarding, too, in those ways, but I think they’re built slightly differently.
David [Levien] and I don’t really think about it in making Billions. I think we just want the whole thing to add up, to accrete, as I say. But also, we do want you to be able to watch in a discrete.
COWEN: Combining food and television viewing — did that make American food worse? Because Europeans don’t do that so much.
KOPPELMAN: Oh, yes. Eating at the kitchen table and watching is absolutely . . . I love the question. Well, yes, you should eat your food, have a conversation with yourself or your family, depending on your situation, and then get ready and watch stuff. On the other hand, if you’ve worked really hard all day, and you just want to sit down and eat and watch something . . . I feel like for certain things — I’ll use the word read — to read them, I do think that there’s a wrong and a right way to read certain pieces of material.
On the other hand, it’s entertainment, so if people want to be entertained while eating a burger and watching the thing, I think that’s all right. I think the people making stuff, to a person — I would say, just to circle to your question earlier, man — people making this stuff are trying really hard to make it as well as they can. The answer is never that they’re not working themselves to their greatest capacity, given their level of exhaustion.
But I don’t think, then, they require you to watch it under certain circumstances. I think you want certain people watching it that way. I would prefer that someone writing about the work is focused on it.
How do you feel about audiobooks? Do you feel that somebody on a run, listening to one of your books, is having an experience similar to the experience of sitting down with a pen and underlining when they read it? Or is it not at all similar to that?
COWEN: If I was reading it, I would feel fine about it. I don’t like to listen to audiobooks, but if my readers are listening, I think that’s great. But the people who read them — they’re somehow weird and corny. I feel it ought to sound like me, and it doesn’t. I get that if it sounded like me, it might sell fewer copies, but I don’t care about that.
KOPPELMAN: If I were you, I would insist on doing it yourself. You don’t do it yourself now?
COWEN: My last book, they’re “Oh, you should do it yourself.” Then they got the book, and they’re like, “Well, we’re going to have someone come in and do this.” Again, it was probably an okay commercial decision, but it sounds like a Martian.
KOPPELMAN: Oh, I feel like it’s really crucial. I couldn’t agree with you more. I really want authors reading their own books, and I want to feel the intonation from the author, particularly someone whose voice is so familiar to people now from the podcast. I feel like if I bought your book on audio, I’d want to hear you reading your book.
COWEN: Well, we will see.
Is there a television purchase that you would be willing to recommend to our listeners? What you watch, why you think it’s best?
KOPPELMAN: No, because things change. The truth is, I think there’s such a high quality now in the televisions. Where people get screwed up is in the settings. You’ve got to go in there, you’ve got to read, go pull up a cinematography magazine, and just pull up what cinematographers tell you. Rian Johnson’s talked about this online, the great director and writer. When I got the last TV I got, I asked Rian to just tell me what to set my television up to. I just set it up to exactly his specs, and now it looks great.
COWEN: Is that online somewhere?
KOPPELMAN: Oh yes, you can find it. It’s just turning off a bunch of the stuff that’s set up for watching sports only, and it returns it to looking like you want it to look, or as close as it can.
COWEN: Now, let’s say we put you in charge completely, and you get to redesign multiplex movie theaters. You can’t make them like the Hollywood palaces of the ’20s, but within reason, what are the changes you would make to improve the movie-watching experience? This is not about making more money. It’s about making the movie better. What would you do?
KOPPELMAN: Well, like a good Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master, you started by taking away the first thing I would do. You made it more difficult. The first thing I would do is make sure you could have a Zigfield-like screen because that big screen is immersive, and you’re lost. And the sound quality — I think it’s basic.
If Greta Gerwig or Chris Nolan — they’re setting up their movie to look a certain way. Whatever you need to do in the movie theater to recreate the experience that they last had when they approved it, sound and picture. Sometimes you’ll walk into a theater, and it won’t be bright enough. It won’t be enough candles. That stuff drives us nuts.
I would just want people to really care: the projectionist to care, the people setting the thing up. Make sure that it’s lit properly. Make sure that all the speakers are working properly. Make sure that the sound ratio is what the filmmakers wanted.
Those are my modest beginning things. Then, I do love seeing a movie on a giant screen. Seeing Mission Impossible at the IMAX — a proper 70-millimeter IMAX — was a phenomenal movie-going experience. There are only 13, I think, proper IMAX 70-millimeter theaters in the country. There’s one 10 blocks from me in New York City, and it’s a thrill to go to that theater to see a movie, every time I go see a movie there.
COWEN: For you, as a viewer, how crowded do you want the movie theater to be? I’d like two-thirds to three-quarters full or totally empty, depending on the film. Nothing in between. What’s your view?
KOPPELMAN: My very favorite time to see a movie is the first screening of the day on a Saturday morning. Probably my second favorite would be a really full screening on a Friday night, where I have the seat that I like, which is dead center, but the aisle.
I love an early morning seeing a film. I remember seeing Tree of Life, that great Terrence Malick film, at the old Lincoln Center Theater. You would go downstairs, the independent cinema. It was a Saturday morning, and I was alone. I felt like I was alone with Malick’s vision.
That theater cared a lot. The screens were small, but they cared a lot about the screens being accurate. I felt lost for three-plus hours. I was in a reality that I didn’t normally live in and I didn’t create. I was experiencing the world the way Terrence Malick saw the world. That is an experience that I wish everybody could have. It just rewards you. It rewards your time and effort. That’s my favorite: first thing in the morning on a Saturday.
COWEN: When is it you prefer to see the movie alone? No companion, no partner, just you.
KOPPELMAN: You mean, which movies do I prefer to see that way?
COWEN: Yes. Sometimes a sad movie, I might prefer to see alone. What if the other person doesn’t find it sad? It’s a bit of a discord.
KOPPELMAN: I would say I’m lucky in that Amy is a great movie-going partner because she’s also a filmmaker, and if we don’t receive them exactly the same way . . . David Levien, my creative partner — same thing. But I love seeing movies alone. I would say I love seeing a movie for the second time alone. The answer is, really, when I go see something for the second time, like PTA’s [Paul Thomas Anderson] movie The Master. The other thing I love to do is —
COWEN: Well, why is that better the second time? Tell us that first.
KOPPELMAN: Being alone the second time — because the first time, you’re swept up in the film. You’re with somebody, you’re like, “Can you believe this moment? Look at that shot of him going across the salt flats. Oh, look at the look on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s face in this moment.” You’re in it together.
Then the next time, when I’m alone, I’ve seen it, so it’s not about just being swept away, and it’s not about being analytical. It is about allowing myself, in a very private way, to notice things and then take my time noticing them and thinking about them, thinking about them as it’s going. I know what the story is. I saw it the night before. There’s something about the solitude of a second time.
Y tu mamá también I remember seeing a second time because I had a question in my head. “Okay, how did he get to this?” The voiceover is reminiscent of the way Melville would sometimes do voiceover, like in Bob le flambeur or something.
You’re like, “Okay, what is this? How did he decide that that’s the approach he’s taking? How is this used so well? Why does this movie both feel so intimate in first person and yet have this omniscience?” I had some questions, so the second time, I could, alone, allow those questions to wash over me and try to see if I came up with answers to them.
COWEN: Why are so many movies today too long? Yours are not, I’m very happy to say, but how’d that happen?
KOPPELMAN: Well, I’ll get to that, but I want to say one other thing. The other thing I love is, I remember the first time I saw She’s Gotta Have It. I didn’t know who Spike Lee was, and —
COWEN: Nor did I. It blew me away.
KOPPELMAN: Right. I was thinking about movies that really changed me, and that was a movie that changed me. I remember going to see it in Boston. I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t say “in Boston” because I went to Harvard. I did not. I went to Tufts. Don’t think I’m trying to be smart and subtly say that. I didn’t.
COWEN: The Harvard people say Cambridge, right? That’s the arrogance — not to say Boston.
KOPPELMAN: Sometimes they say “New England. I went to a small . . .”
I remember going to see it, and all I wanted to do was bring people to it. I saw it, and then when he reveals that it’s him at the end — because as you’re watching it, you don’t know he’s Mars Blackmon because it was so early in the thing. He wasn’t famous yet. I remember the theater I saw it in and everything. I went back three days in a row to see that movie, and I brought groups of people.
I love that with all forms of art. I love when you stumble upon something that has the thing about it that reminds you. For me, I wasn’t yet somebody who was doing this. I wasn’t a filmmaker. I didn’t even know I could be a filmmaker. I didn’t know I could be a writer. But there was something about the way Spike Lee used language and he used cinema that blew my mind, and I had to share it with people. In a way, it’s a very personal experience, but I wanted it to become communal. That’s the gift of the movies.
I remember bringing groups of people both nights. Say I saw it Friday. Then I saw it Saturday night, and I saw it Sunday matinee. Sharing it like that — this is why there are movies. This is why this art form is so fantastic. I remember experiencing it with those people and loving it just as much, all three times that I saw it.
COWEN: Movies being too long. What happened there? Or are they not too long?
KOPPELMAN: I don’t know why —
COWEN: Well, my friends say they’re too long. I’ve never heard someone say, “Oh, I want more movies that are 2 hours, 49 minutes.”
KOPPELMAN: Is Citizen Kane too long?
COWEN: No, but that’s Citizen Kane.
KOPPELMAN: Is Casablanca too long?
COWEN: No, that’s Casablanca.
KOPPELMAN: Is The Third Man too long?
COWEN: But there are so many movies, like the 13th-best movie that came out this year. It’s almost three hours, and those are too long.
KOPPELMAN: It just depends. Look, that’s that thing where, for a long time, people would slam an artist for making a double album. Yes, a lot of double albums — there’s a lot of fat, but when I listen to The River and then I listen to what would have been the single album of The River —
COWEN: The double is better.
KOPPELMAN: The double is better. I love certain of the songs. “Be True” is great, and I wish that was on the bigger record, but the bigger record is there for a reason.
Look, I’m somebody who wants the artists . . . I love Tarantino’s movies, and I want his movies to be long. I’m happy to sit there and see him fully exercising his vision. I don’t really think that the studios let most people make movies that are just too long.
I don’t know Wes Anderson. I don’t know him, but I met him once. I love his movies, and I love that his movies are 90 minutes. The one time I met him, we were screening a film. He invited some people who happened to be in town, who he knew were film people, so I got to watch a movie with him. Afterwards, we were just talking about movies, and I said, “These movies of yours — they are 90 minutes,” and he said, “Yes. I found that the concepts I’m interested in don’t really support a journey that lasts longer than that.” He’s an incredibly disciplined filmmaker. I was like, “That makes total sense.”
Can you imagine telling PTA — let’s say Magnolia. Perhaps some people find aspects of Magnolia to be really about a filmmaker working some stuff out for the filmmaker’s purposes, but there are other people who find those parts of the movie incredibly satisfying. I think when somebody is a masterful artist, like PTA, let’s give them the room to do that.
I’m also someone who doesn’t like baseball games being shortened, and I don’t like pulling pitchers who are pitching a perfect game in the eighth because of the pitch count. I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to this stuff, so I’m indulgent of the wishes of both filmmakers and pitchers.
COWEN: Speaking of Magnolia, what has happened to what you might call old-school movie stars? This is 2023. There were major films with Harrison Ford at 80, and Tom Cruise at whatever age, in the lead roles. Good for them, I’m all for that, but why is there no next generation of very top movie stars?
KOPPELMAN: Well, let’s see if Margot Robbie is that. Why isn’t she? She very well may be. If you look at how she’s built her career, it’s very possible that she will be.
COWEN: But who’s the next Harrison Ford? It’s a big gap, right? Thirty years, and it’s not clear who you would put in that same post.
KOPPELMAN: Well, how old should . . . I’m not asking it rhetorically. In your mind, how old should that person be now? Where on the continuum?
COWEN: 53, and they’ve been doing it for 16 years and have at least three or four excellent movies under their belt.
KOPPELMAN: Perhaps Bradley Cooper. Let’s see what happens with the Bernstein film because perhaps Bradley Cooper is that person. Perhaps Matt Damon is that person. It’s a difficult question because you’re really asking, I think, about what happened to the movie industry. Let’s adjust, so life expectancy and how long one can do this. Is Tom Cruise at 60 Harrison Ford at 53, and if so, is Tom Cruise that person?
Also, of course, there’s the question of mystery and all that stuff, right? We didn’t know anything about Jack, or we knew funny things about Jack or Pacino. Also, those guys are still doing it. Those people are still making movies. Bogie died. The generation before those guys just died. William Holden and Bogie — they died off and created room, but as you say, you still have Harrison doing this stuff.
COWEN: I’m sure that you — as is the case with myself — you know many very smart people who just don’t understand movies very well. If you show them Tarkovsky’s Solaris, they’d be bored, no matter how big the screen. If you had to explain, in as few dimensions as possible, what differentiates the really smart people who get movies from the really smart people who do not get movies, what’s going on there?
KOPPELMAN: Perhaps openness, perhaps the ability to not have to analyze in real time and to experience — and perhaps it’s a gateway thing. I find Casablanca is a remarkable tool to solve this problem because Kane is slow. Citizen Kane is slow, and Citizen Kane is very much a masterpiece with a capital M. Casablanca sneaks up on you. Casablanca is just fun. It’s fun from moment one. Citizen Kane is portentous — not pretentious, but portentous, right? From the moment it starts, you understand you’re supposed to take something very seriously. It’s in everything that Welles does.
Casablanca is a delight. I have never met anyone immune to Casablanca’s charms, so it’s a gateway into understanding what makes great cinema, because if you get them . . . Now, a lot of people are resistant to sitting down and turning it on, or sitting down and watching it. But if you get someone to watch 10 minutes of Casablanca, and 10 minutes in, you go, “Hey, all right, cool. You tried, let’s go,” they’re like, “No, no, no, what happens?” Then you’ve got them.
I do find it to be an incredible thing to hook people. I think All the President’s Men is another great example of a film that does that because right away, you are in this mystery. It doesn’t announce itself as proper cinema, but it is proper cinema. It deploys all the tools of proper cinema. It’s another gateway film, as is Raiders, the first one.
Then I guess there are some people who could stand in front of a painting, and it just doesn’t move them. Maybe they think, “Well, I don’t like paintings.” Maybe they don’t like Caravaggio, but maybe they like Jasper Johns. They don’t know that they like Jasper Johns because they would never go look at a Jasper Johns. Or they don’t like Jasper Johns, but suddenly, they see something else that speaks to them. Poetry functions the same way, right, Tyler? Why are people immune to poetry, and other people — it just speaks to them?
COWEN: I see a clump distribution when it comes to cinema and Americans. Almost everyone I know quite likes Casablanca, but they draw a line somewhere, just as people will draw a line, maybe, with modern art or abstract art. They won’t love Fellini or Bergman or whatever else you want to put on that list. Who crosses that line, and who doesn’t?
KOPPELMAN: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, okay. Is it like this, though? I don’t understand atonal composition. I don’t enjoy atonal composition. I understand what it is as an exercise, but as a listener, I don’t want to put in what I would have to put in to get out of it what some of my friends perhaps get out of it. It’s like Bergman.
I was once talking to an author who I admire a great deal, Mark Helprin. Mark Helprin who wrote A Soldier of the Great War and Winter’s Tale, not the political journalist. They’re different people — not Halperin, but Helprin. He talked about the emotional cost of reading novels after 50, and the way a novel can stir you up, because the best novels are about death, essentially. Whether they are or they aren’t, they are, right?
KOPPELMAN: The best movies — Bergman is about death. Bergman is about impermanence, right? All the great works of art, in some way or another, are about impermanence, and people often don’t want to deal with impermanence. You have to decide how you’re going to deal with that when engaging with art, because when art can affect you that deeply — in a way that it makes you think about impermanence — maybe you don’t consider that a good time.
Maybe you can watch Michael Mann, a cinematic master, make Heat because although there’s death in it, it’s not really about death. It’s about consequences, and that’s entirely different. The other stuff is about impermanence, regardless of deserve, regardless of consequence. I think in some way, it gets to the answer to that question.
COWEN: Speaking of death, what’s your favorite Hitchcock movie?
KOPPELMAN: It’s funny. I was watching him talk yesterday about the use of staircase imagery in films. It’s a very boring answer, but North by Northwest. I watched it pretty recently and was just blown away by it. I would say the coldness of Hitchcock and his style of directing performance — he’s a master. He’s the greatest, but it’s not my personal favorite. There’s a difference between what we understand and can fully appreciate and what we just love. I’m not just someone in love with his movies.
COWEN: Are Jerry Lewis movies funny?
KOPPELMAN: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes they are. He, as a human character, obviously is a complicated figure. I don’t go back to his movies very often.
COWEN: Why does comedy seem to stand the test of time less well than drama? If I watch silent movies that are supposed to be funny — there’s some Chaplin that quite speaks to me, but for the most part, I just think, “This isn’t funny.” A lot of movies from the 1950s — to me, they’re just flat-out not funny. Bringing Up Baby I enjoy, but very few early comedies. What’s happening there? And they don’t cross borders as well either, as you know.
KOPPELMAN: A couple of answers to that. Comedy clearly is of its time because that applies to stand-up comedy, too. People our age — there’s literally nothing in the world that seemed funnier than the first two Steve Martin albums. You could try those albums on some younger people because the world took a lot of what he did. No part of what he did seems stunning or surprising now. On the other hand, man, maybe it’s just about truly great stuff is what lasts because Thin Man is still as entertaining. If I put on Thin Man —
COWEN: I agree. Even After the Thin Man, yes.
KOPPELMAN: The first two — if you watch the first two, those movies are so fucking funny and endearing and charming and just amazing. Maybe it’s just that they were great, and the other stuff wasn’t great. But I’ve done the test, as I wonder if you have. I’ve done the test because it’s a long time now from when Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray were in their prime, making those movies back then. It’s 40, 50 years later — 40 years later, certainly. They still really work. Stripes is still very, very funny, and Trading Places is still very funny.
COWEN: I agree.
KOPPELMAN: Those things can last, but Thin Man — that’s another movie that I would say to people, “If you think you don’t like old movies, watch Thin Man.”
COWEN: What’s the Steven Spielberg movie that you feel is quite deep in some underappreciated way, if you had to pick one?
KOPPELMAN: I don’t join the people who condemn Spielberg for being a populist. I loved the movie about him that came out last year.
COWEN: I agree.
KOPPELMAN: I just loved it. Couldn’t have loved it more, his film as memoir. I loved it. Some people really didn’t like it. I just have to say it was my favorite movie of the year. I just loved it so much. I think Close Encounters is a great movie. It’s about alienation, and I think it’s a great film. E.T. is a great film. Either of those serves. I think Close Encounters is probably the one that’s quite deep, even if on the surface, it doesn’t seem that way.
COWEN: Which is the Murakami book that is especially deep and not sufficiently appreciated?
KOPPELMAN: I’m glad you asked. I saw that somebody wondered about Murakami. I’m glad you asked the question.
COWEN: For me, it’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland, but I love many of them.
KOPPELMAN: That would’ve been my number two choice! I’ve been thinking about it.
COWEN: Ah, what’s your number one choice?
KOPPELMAN: I think Kafka on the Shore is astonishing. To me, Kafka on the Shore — it works so well, and it shouldn’t work. It encompasses the entire experience of life and love and war. It just encompasses so much, and every page is entertaining. The thing about Haruki Murakami, and why I think he’s the living writer that captures my imagination the most, is that he never forgets the reader.
He’s completely consumed with the personal. He’s completely consumed with making these things live for himself and to be fully personal expressions of how he feels and sees the world. Yet his incredible, magical, mysterious gift is that he makes every page entertaining for you, the reader.
I’ve read every single Murakami book more than once, except I’ve held out two to read for when he’s no longer producing books because I want to have two that I can read later that I’ve never read. I find him a miraculous marvel. I’ll never forget reading Norwegian Wood for the first time and just understanding that there was somebody out there working at the highest possible level that you could work at as a writer.
COWEN: What’s your favorite book about poker and why? I know you’ve bought hundreds of them.
KOPPELMAN: I have. There’s a little-known book. The books about poker that are nonfiction books — Al Alvarez’s book is perfect. It’s a perfect book. I highly recommend it. Anthony Holden’s book is really entertaining. Peter Olsen’s book about the World Series of Poker. There are many, many great poker books. I’m leaving so many out.
There’s a tiny little book called King of a Small World by Rick Bennet. I don’t even know if it’s in print. It’s 210 pages. It’s about Maryland poker games. I’ve read that book 10 times. It is a perfect encapsulation of a certain kind of poker life that existed a while back. I’m leaving books out, I’m sorry. I do have one of the biggest poker book collections. I’ve been collecting poker books for 35 years.
COWEN: How was Maryland’s poker different? Because I live in Virginia.
KOPPELMAN: Those games were at like these fire stations. They had to be under fake charities. It’s this whole byzantine set of rules that allowed these couple hustlers to live in it. I never got to play in that scene, and I’m glad because I would’ve been fleeced. This guy creates these incredible characters. This guy wrote a really special book.
Oh, I have to just mention, the other writer who I think is the best writer in the world, and he also dabbles in magic realism, and he wrote, for me, the best book ever about a person who’s in the world of gambling, and that is William Kennedy’s Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. Have you ever read that book?
COWEN: No, I’ve never read it.
KOPPELMAN: Tyler, Kennedy, to me, is like another one of these people. Kennedy, I think, should have won the Nobel. I think that that Albany Cycle is a stunning achievement, and I think that Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game is his best book. Everything that’s been about gambling since, in some way . . . This book is in the same way that David Maurer’s The Big Con, where every single con artist movie came from. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game is like an urtext of sorts, and I highly recommend it.
COWEN: What would be something you feel you’ve learned about the poker universe that a well-educated American is likely to simply not understand or not know about that would be surprising and nonobvious?
KOPPELMAN: This is basic, but it’s not obvious to most people, which is you probably can’t win.
COWEN: When you say “probably,” where does the probably come from? Why not just you can’t win?
KOPPELMAN: You may be one of those gifted freaks who can sit down and suddenly the math makes sense and reading people makes sense. But basically, if you don’t study and think about poker at least a little bit every day . . .
I think about poker every day, and I am not a world-class poker player. I track my results very closely, and I’m flat. I’m usually flat, and I play a lot of poker. Being flat is a gigantic victory. Some years I win a little bit, and some years I lose a little bit. Basically, in competitive, difficult poker games, I am flat. I think about poker. At least, I engage in some way with materials about how to be better at poker every day. That’s where it’s like chess. It’s required, I think.
Oh, okay, I can tell you. In your home game — that’s your casual Monday night game — if you have a rotating group of 12 people to make your 9 or 7 who show up, what you don’t know is that at least two of those people actually are taking it almost as seriously as their job. That’s the thing that most people don’t know.
COWEN: What’s your greatest weakness as a poker player?
KOPPELMAN: I think you’ll understand that I’d rather not say.
COWEN: Jalen Brunson — overrated or underrated?
KOPPELMAN: Underrated. Let’s go! He’s properly rated now. That’s what I think. He was underrated. It’s one of the only times the Knicks got an asset below what should have been the market price for that asset. I love him. He overdelivered, which hasn’t happened since Bernard King, probably, for the Knicks, where someone just overdelivered. Shohei Ohtani, though — underrated.
COWEN: Are the Knicks going to get Joel Embiid? The Coase Theorem says they should, right?
KOPPELMAN: You think that he is going to force a trade? He’s going to force a trade of some sort?
COWEN: Well, this is August of 2023, but it seems to me, at this time, not impossible that Harden leaves Philly and Embiid wants out.
KOPPELMAN: I agree.
COWEN: Not that many teams can actually attract him, and the Knicks are one of those. Tell me if I’m wrong. New York market, right?
KOPPELMAN: Yes, if he forces a trade, meaning if it’s not when he’s a free agent —
COWEN: As many draft picks as the CBA will allow.
KOPPELMAN: Yes, but Daryl [Morey] is going to want Brunson. Daryl’s going to want Brunson.
COWEN: No, you can’t do that.
KOPPELMAN: And you can’t do that. Let me just say this, and Daryl, if you’re listening — I’m friends with Daryl, as I know you know him, too — Darryl, if you’re listening, I think it’d be a great idea — just take some draft picks and give us Joel Embiid. I think it solves all your problems.
COWEN: What is it you really think of New Jersey, anyway?
KOPPELMAN: I loved Fred Armisen’s version of David Paterson when he would just say New Jersey with so much contempt. My wife’s from New Jersey. I’m from Long Island originally, and she’s from New Jersey. I always figured, no matter what, I would marry someone where they would be able to use as a trump card on me, “Well, what do you know? You’re from Long Island.” But at least she’s from Jersey.
COWEN: Let’s say I’m in Manhattan, and I’m looking for good food. What is it you think that you might know that I do not, being a northern Virginian but ultimately from New Jersey?
KOPPELMAN: Well, David Chang is a Virginian, so he certainly figured it out. I think you should look at the places he recommends in Virginia. Just go to those places. I would say, yes, a lifetime of being in this city and eating in this city, I think I’ve developed relationships with chefs. I might know where chefs are eating, and that might give me some insight.
Also, just knowing where some younger people who aren’t able to spend a lot of money are finding great food is a valuable thing to know in this city because someone’s always opening an amazing spot. There are people here who really want to find out what that spot is before it becomes impossible to get into. You just learn to have an instinct for that.
Also, where the place that’s not hip or cool is — I’d say I really do know that. I know the place that if you want to go to a great diner, go to Joe G’s, and don’t worry about where the internet is telling you to go. If you want to get a great steak au poivre, just go to Lucien, which was really hip 20 years ago but isn’t hip now.
Those kinds of things. I could take you to 25 uncool places, places that are not hip and not cool, where we could just have something perfectly prepared and delicious, and you would leave really happy, and there would be nothing about it that felt like you were part of a scene. Maybe that’s something that only someone who lives here could put together.
COWEN: What’s the part of town that is most ripe for further exploration in these directions? If I’m in the Upper West Side, it can be tough going, I feel. There aren’t that many good places. What’s wrong with you people? If I’m in the East Village, I’ll do better. It’s everyone feels that way now. Then I start thinking, “Well, there’s some trick here. This isn’t going to last.”
KOPPELMAN: Well, the Upper West Side does now have New York’s best restaurant in Tatiana. But other than that, you’re totally right, the Upper West Side’s been a wasteland for food. There are practical reasons, because that’s a neighborhood people move to to raise kids, and they’re not going out to eat as much. They’re at home. Whereas the West Village or the Lower East Side or Midtown East or over in Koreatown — there’s just so much great stuff that’s unexplored.
COWEN: Let’s say you could spend three days at a retreat, and you get to choose two or three other people who will show up and talk with you for those three days. Now, people in cinema — you can already do that, right? Maybe some other people, too. Living people — who are the two or three people you would choose?
KOPPELMAN: Well, can these be friends of mine? Or you don’t want them to be friends?
COWEN: No, you can already do your friends. No, you can’t do your friends.
KOPPELMAN: I can’t say Seth Godin, even though I would say Seth Godin. Well, Haruki Murakami — that would be great. Even though I am not someone who has cats, I would supply them if he wanted to be there.
I will tell you, I would love to be able to talk to Donald Hoffman for a few days because it would take a few days for him to be able to find where I could understand him well enough that we could really communicate. I would want to take that time to really understand his theory about what reality is. I feel that would be an incredibly useful thing, to be able to sit with him and get the building blocks so that I could begin to understand where he is.
Then I think you have to say Bob Dylan because if you were able to be in a spot where Dylan was, and assuming for this game that Bob was interested in sharing. He wouldn’t have to share autobiographical details. Like you, I’ve read, I know all the things, but if I assume that Dylan is perhaps the wisest person, he must be the smartest person. He’s an accident of nature, and he’s, let’s say, the smartest human walking around. I would want to understand what it is that he understands if there were a way he could explain that to me.
COWEN: You have a career. Dylan has a career. What do you think you can learn from his career?
KOPPELMAN: Well, I said this to Paul Schrader on my podcast once. I don’t know, Bob Dylan’s ability . . . For instance, he said that he wrote the Kennedy song. There was some interview that he gave where he’s like, “Yes, I wrote this song.” He said something about where in time he wrote it that was just not true because he didn’t want to talk about the fact of when he’d actually come up with it, which was recently to comment about the world we were really living in. I think he told some story about writing it seven years ago or something like that.
I think he’s great at taking pressure off himself throughout his career from any externality. I think the clue is what he said when he won that award, when he said, “My father said to me that a man can debase himself so much that even his own family will turn his back on them, but God never will.” I tie that to the thing he wrote in the book of lyrics, that poem he wrote about Woody — not “Song to Woody,” but that poem he wrote about Woody, when he talks about going to the hospital to visit Woody.
Woody Guthrie, for those who don’t know — I know you know, but just people who don’t know — when he goes to the hospital to visit Woody, and Woody let him clean his bedpans and stuff because Woody wanted to show Bob that no man should be a hero to another man, that he was just a person. He produced this work because of what he was willing to do to himself to produce this work.
I think there’s something about that moment, and Bob saying the thing about debasing himself, and all the shit he made up in Chronicles — the lesson is that none of the externalities matter. Yes, Bob wanted success, and it’s always confusing with Bob because he’s a multi-headed hydra and all that stuff. But at core, he is this writer who always found a way to hear only his own voice and to have the confidence and comfort to then serve and produce that voice only for those people who were willing to try to hear it.
I think, as any kind of an artist, that’s almost impossible to do. You tell yourself you can, but it’s very difficult to do it because there’s all sorts of other considerations that come into play. It seems to me that only Dylan and Miles and Chuck Berry were able and willing to do that. Bruce [Springsteen] had Jon Landau, who he could bounce this stuff off to make a third thing out of it. REM did that for five years, but Bob has done that for 60 years. It’s crazy. Do you think that the read I have of Dylan and what he does — does it line up with your read?
COWEN: Absolutely. “Study the past” is another career lesson from Dylan, I think, and just keep on going, be willing to reinvent yourself, and choose your audiences wisely, the ones you care about.
KOPPELMAN: Yes. Be willing to reinvent yourself, not in the . . . David Bowie is a great artist, too, but a different kind of artist. To me, anyway, not reinvent yourself to fit the times, but be willing to reinvent yourself because it’s what your inner voice is telling you you need to do to stay an artist, I think is what he’s doing.
COWEN: Yes. Last few questions. How happy are people in the movie business?
KOPPELMAN: When the strike’s over, thrilled.
COWEN: But in general, it’s this long-standing cliché — someone wants to be a movie star, wants to be a director. At the end of that pot of gold, are people happier than average, less happy? Vishy Anand — I interviewed him two weeks ago. He said he thinks the top chess players are really happy. Would you say the same about your line of work?
KOPPELMAN: When engaged in the work. On set, doing the work — that’s the time that people are really taking flight. The rest of it, I think, for people, at times, can be hard because of a series of pressures and things. There are some people who seem to be able to be happy, but I don’t know that it draws happy people to it. I don’t know that if you’re happy, you feel like this is the form of expression that you need to engage in. But I do think, in the making of something that you care about, I think that’s where there’s a lot of joy.
COWEN: At the meta level, what did you learn from your dad? Obviously, very particular things, but viewed largely.
KOPPELMAN: It’s an enormous question. He only died seven months ago, so it’s a hard question. It’s obviously the question I’m thinking about the answer to a lot. I would say there are the basic things like loyalty, which I mean, but I would suggest I’ve thought a lot about . . .
My dad was somebody who never felt intimidated to have any conversation with anybody. This idea that no one is better than anyone else was important to him, even if it might not have seemed like that. That is, he had a really egalitarian idea about people’s capacity and that you had to keep your eyes open because greatness could show up at any given moment. That is something I’ve carried with me.
I think he probably wouldn’t have expressed his curiosity in the way I express my curiosity, but he had a similar kind of curiosity and appreciation for greatness. I think that I chase greatness in the same way that he did.
COWEN: At the meta level, what did you learn from your mom?
KOPPELMAN: How to love people with your whole heart and not hold back.
COWEN: Is there an unrealized dream or project you have — again, current conditions aside, but that somehow the world won’t let you make it?
KOPPELMAN: We always wanted to make Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. It’s set in Albany in 1910, and it’s a really very difficult kind of a thing. It’s got magic realism in it, but if you could somehow . . . I’ll tell you, there are two things.
The other thing is American Tabloid, which is one of the greatest things ever written about what’s at the heart of a certain kind of America. James Ellroy’s American Tabloid clearly, to me, is best, the book that’s going to live on of his. Black Dahlia can too, same with L.A. Confidential, but for me, American Tabloid was this guy at the moment in his life as an artist when he was firing on all cylinders.
Before, even to himself, they became — tropes is the wrong word. I don’t mean it negatively, but he hadn’t fallen into a groove yet. Even The Cold Six Thousand is almost in reaction to American Tabloid, whereas American Tabloid is its own thing. To me, what’s at the heart of American Tabloid could just be the most staggering and crushing television series. It’s been very hard to try to do that. That would be an amazing thing to be able to do.
COWEN: I can see the problem with Albany, 1910, but American Tabloid sounds commercially viable to me at some point.
KOPPELMAN: People have owned it. It’s just challenging to put together.
COWEN: Final question: what is the next thing you will set your mind to learning about?
KOPPELMAN: I want to take my knowledge of opera up a huge amount. Opera would be one thing because I didn’t like it till I was 52 years old. I really like it now, but only some, and I don’t understand why yet. I have no idea why I put on one piece and I love it, and I put on another and I don’t dig it at all. I’m curious about that. That’s a simple little one.
Then the bigger one for me is related to physical fitness and working out. I’ve been working out a lot, and I want to see if I can return myself at 60 — I’m 57 — by 60, if I can somehow turn myself back into the basketball player I was at 30.
COWEN: If you send me your Korean movie recommendations, I’ll send you my opera. Brian Koppelman, thank you very much.
KOPPELMAN: Thanks, Tyler. This is great.