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As the authors of Rounders, Knockaround Guys, and Ocean's Thirteen, David Levien and Brian Koppelman are known for writing about characters who are great con artists, but Solitary Man marks the first time one of them is basically conning himself. In their new film, which Koppelman wrote and they directed together, Michael Douglas plays the king of all snake-oil salesman, a used car magnate who becomes a shameless, self-destructive lothario after a doctor's visit hints at the possibility he might be dying. Always seeing all of the angles but ignoring the eventual repercussions, Douglas' character feels like the culmination of the grifters and con men the duo created in their previous films, but with the added gravitas that comes from knowing happy endings are the stuff of movies, not real life.
Cinematical sat down with Koppelman and Levien for an intimate chat about Solitary Man following a screening at the 2010 Dallas International Film Festival. In addition to talking about the origins of this particular character, they reflected on the rich history of con men they have created, and offered a few insights about the process of putting together this series of increasingly complex stories.
Cinematical: Just to get started, can you guys can talk about where this idea came from? Hopefully you'll take it as a compliment that neither of you seem old enough for the kind of self-inventory that this guy goes through.
David Levien: It would be a real bummer to do this movie when you were living through it, I think. It'd be too depressing.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah. I say it's like a very personal story but it's not autobiographical. Watching, these men have had a huge sort of impact on my world view and ours really because we grew up together. Since we were kids, I would watch these friends of my dad's or parents of kids I went to school with, and I grew up 45 minutes out of New York City. A lot of these men were titans of industry or guys becoming titans of industry or hyper-successful lawyers, most of them were guys who had just made the money, who weren't generationally wealthy, and they walked around like they didn't just make a couple million bucks - the guy who was the personal injury lawyer acted as if he were on the Supreme Court.
Levien: And the financial success confirmed their wisdom to themselves.
Koppelman: In every area of life, and to us, at 12 and 13, they were, they were f*cking gods, you know? You would go, I mean, we would go down on a family trip to Florida, and my family didn't have boats or anything like that, but these guys would have these incredible cigarette boats that they would race around and they'd see who could have the loudest one. And you know, you view that kind of thing very differently when you're 12 than when you're 20. They'd erect these giant modern houses and it was very important to them that they could walk into restaurants and everyone knew who they were. And I was really fascinated by them at first, enamored with the whole thing, but then we watched their lives turn. Like all the same stuff that forged them in the end turned against them - the incredible power to charm their way out of any situation, or think their way out of it or use the force of their ambition and rationalize to themselves. We watched so many of them end up either busted out, in jail, divorced, divorced again, and yet they still walked with their shoulders back. I mean, you know, I'd be slinking around, and they still walked like they were the kings of the world.
Levien: And they were like one move away from a full comeback and, you know, a re-confirmation of their brilliance.
Koppelman: And we're using the past tense, but we're still engaged with a lot of these guys. And what triggered the whole thing was I saw one of these guys dressed in black tell his 32-year-old daughter at the time, "Don't call me dad in public, because it would affect my ability to hit on girls." And it just got me so, I don't know, it got me really angry and curious, and I started writing the next morning.
Cinematical: This certainly isn't the same as some of the other stuff you guys have done, but it doesn't seem like extremely dissimilar in that you have a guy who is a hustler, but he's sort of almost hustling himself more so than anybody else.
Levien: I think in some ways it's a departure from our other movies, because a lot of our movies have sort of existed in various genres, that's just like the nature of Hollywood and movies in general. You know, our first movie is Rounders and we knew that it was going to be on the fringes of what can be considered like a criminal area, which was these underground poker clubs, though playing is not a particularly, you know, deep criminal offense. And we made a conscious decision not to have guns in the movie. Other movies, like Runaway Jury and Ocean's Thirteen had aspects of crime and breaking the law and cons, more specifically. This one was the first one that was sort of free of genre plots and existing much more in just a dramatic and comedic space. And you're right, this guy was sort of an emotional grifter and his first victim his himself often and he'll spread it out from there and everybody takes a hit.
Koppelman: I know we love guys who try to talk themselves out of any situation. I mean, for some reason, since we were kids, we've been fascinated by guys with the ability to, you know, the Butch Cassidy-like ability to spin their way out of any situation.
Levien: And the thing that, one of the things that's great about the character and something that Michael definitely brought to it and identified and heightened is, there's sort of like a buoyance to this guy and even when all of his little maneuvers failed, he's a little bit indomitable, he keeps popping back up and going after what he wants. And to us, that sort of got at, at a bit of a heroism. I mean, you know, he's not the most heroic character in cinema or literary history, but there's something, the indefatigable nature of this guy and his optimism was winning to me personally and very American in a certain way.
Cinematical: Obviously Michael Douglas would be an ideal candidate for a role like this. Can you talk about sort of his contributions and how, if at all, the character kind of changed from the page to the way that he interpreted it?
Levien: When Michael came to it and we started doing rehearsals and just started putting down the performance, it was not one of those things where it was a real metamorphosis into something else. He just made it come alive, but he was really, he was really engrossed in what this character was on the page and he never tried to sort of reinvent it. I guess, the fear would be coming into this that an actor would try to take it over and make him super sympathetic, that was never on Michael's mind, he was always willing to be unsparing and reveal himself in all these negative ways. And, you know, this is a very verbal character. He sort of spins these webs with these stories and he's either confusing people or hiding something from himself or misleading the audience or something like that. And, you know, some actors are incredible talents based on their physical portrayals. Michael, I mean, across the board, but he's really got the gift of gab; he'd just sort of spin off these soliloquies in a way, and he was just ultimately perfect for that.
Cinematical: How difficult or easy was it to strike a balance, either working with Michael or in the writing and directing process, to balance the idea of this guy's sort of capabilities and at the same time his pension for self-destruction? Because there's the idea that he could see this woman and he knows to send her drinks, but he does not have the foresight to know it's totally going to blow up in his face inevitably. How difficult was it to find the right level of like self awareness and obliviousness that this character needs?
Koppelman: Well, that's the gift that Michael has, really, because, because he makes you want, because he's so fucking charming, man, he like, he brings you along on the journey with him!
Levien: But I also think at the script stage, that was very well plotted, that little, sort of the points on that graph. You know, it really just, the sort of, the steps that the character takes and the way that he fulfills his own desires, he can't put a check on them, is very true and truthful and it allowed Michael to just play each scene legitimately and then the result was that the audience, you know, they either saw it coming or they didn't see it coming, but like, you're sort of with him in each moment before he, he messes it up.
Koppelman: I would say it's one of the gifts of like doing a non-genre movie, I didn't really think about it when I was writing it. Basically the question that I kept asking myself was, how does charm work, how does this level of charm-for lack of a better word-work? You know, like serving the guy's appetites and then, but serving his bigger agenda and when does one get subsumed by the other? When I would write the scenes, it was really just like what he would do, which is get what he wants right then and then know he could fix whatever had to happen later, until it gets to a point where he can no longer fix it.
Cinematical: One of the things that I was saying after the screening is that in a movie where you see a guy who is a lothario and who can seduce anybody, I want to see what he actually says to these people. How much of that stuff did you originally think to include, and just for the sake of narrative expediency did you sort of cut that stuff out?
Koppelman: It's funny, I'll tell you a story we haven't told anywhere, which is we had the scene where Michael seduces somebody at a bar. It used to go on a minute longer, and you heard the whole rap.
Levien: But it took the mystery out of it in a way.
Koppelman: Well, I would say at the script level though, it was the thing that everybody pointed to. I mean, everyone was saying like, "That's the best thing in the movie," I mean, and they loved the lines that ended the scene and all this stuff. And we had the opportunity to show the movie to Ethan Coen, of the Coen Brothers, but with the scene long and in the movie. And Ethan just said, "You have to make a cut right here, and cut that minute out." And we said, "Why?" And he said, "You know, because the scene ends in that moment when she" - because that's the power of film – "in that moment when she looks at him, you're done." The rest of it is really for somebody's sense of curiosity, because you like the way the words sound.
Levien: And he put it so well. He said, "You've already made it to the roof, now kick the ladder down behind you." That's what we did.
Cinematical: Well, I can only imagine you've probably been asked this question a bunch, but why do you think that your creativity lends itself so readily to these characters in situations where there are these sort of like cons or sort of seduction mechanics?
Levien: Everyone else is boring.
Koppelman: They're so interesting. In my case, I could say, I grew up, my dad's nothing like Ben Kalmen, and my father, no part of my father is in this character, other than this, other than the self-confidence of a self-made man. And the self-made man's knowledge that he can, with his words and his attitude, find his way out of any situation. And I think since I was little, I would sit and listen to stories, and the stories that were the most interesting were the stories about a situation that was going to fall apart if not for an angle that needed to be played. Plus, you know, we grew up, I mean, we grew up watching the movies we grew up watching and, you know, your first memories are watching gangster films and westerns with your father. Your sort of drawn to these characters when you get older and still watching all of those movies, I don't know, there's something that just, people who live by their wits have always been fascinating.
Levien: I mean, that's what it is, the people who've lived by their wits, even, whether they're like a persuasive salesman or something like that, or across the line is a con man who's actually like running games to break the law. The shared thing between those two worlds is somebody living by their wits, and that's always been interesting.