The Tim Ferriss Show, Episode 10: Brian Koppelman, Co-writer/Producer of Rounders, The Illusionist, Ocean’s Thirteen

40 Comments
The writing duo: David Levien and Brian Koppelman

The writing duo: David Levien and Brian Koppelman

This episode of The Tim Ferriss Show is sponsored by Bluehost, which I used for my first WordPress blog, and I still use them for sites today. Click here for a special offer!

Now, on to our guest…

“Everyday, it’s about building a practice that enables you to try and forget that you’re afraid.”
– Brian Koppelman

My guest in this episode is Brian Koppelman.

Brian is a screenwriter, novelist, director, and producer. He is best known as the co-writer of Ocean’s Thirteen and Rounders, as well as a producer of The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones. He has directed films including Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas.

In this episode, we explore how he got started, how he handles rejection, his big breaks, his creative process, and much, much more.

How does Hollywood work for writers?
How did he finally break through?
How did he discover singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman?
Will there be a movie for The 4-Hour Workweek?!?

His lessons and principles can be applied almost anywhere.

Click here to subscribe/listen to the show on iTunes.
Click here to subscribe to the show via RSS (non-iTunes feed).

Or stream the show in the player below:

If you have a second, please leave me an honest rating and review on iTunes by clicking here. It will help the show tremendously, including my ability to bring on more incredible guests. Thanks!

Show notes and links are below, and please let Brian (@briankoppelman) know on Twitter what you found most valuable or hilarious. He’s a good dude and loves to teach.

Enjoy!…

Show Notes for Episode 8 (Thanks, Ian!)

  • Tips on starting as a writer and moving into production and directing
  • The origins of the movie Rounders and what it took to create the screenplay
  • The writing routine of David Levien and Brian Koppelman while writing Rounders
  • The story of selling their first screenplay
  • Strategies for working with a writing partner
  • Making the decision to become a producer
  • The connections needed to create The Illusionist with Edward Norton
  • How an “option” agreement works for a writer when selling a screenplay
  • Tips on creating empowering relationship when representing an artist
  • How to secure rights to stories for film adaptation
  • On the disruptive force that is Tracy Chapman, and how they faced rejection together
  • How to cultivate mastery of screenwriting as a craft

 “Hollywood is a land of self-invention.” – Brian Koppelman

SOME LINKS FROM EPISODE 8

Connect with Brian Koppelman : Website | Twitter | Podcast

 

A Few Quotes of Many:

“For artists, there’s a very fine line between delusion and belief.” – Brian Koppelman

“What unifies every part of my journey is I always lead with my curiosity, obsession, or fascination.” – Brian Koppelman

“The step that a lot of people miss is a dispassionate evaluation of the reasons [for rejection]. If you can dispassionately evaluate the reasons for rejection and find them with merit, you can address them; if without merit, you can ignore them.” - Brian Koppelman

“If you are rigorous in your own R&D in whatever your area is, you do your own testing, and you really stress-test the thing that you do, I think that gives you a tremendous amount of inner fortitude when you come up against the monolith.” – Brian Koppelman

 

Posted on: June 4, 2014.

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40 comments on “The Tim Ferriss Show, Episode 10: Brian Koppelman, Co-writer/Producer of Rounders, The Illusionist, Ocean’s Thirteen

      • Hi Tim, could you please put a little mp3 link on this post where we can just right click and save. it saves trying to go on the maze to find the mp3 and would ensure more casual readers/podcast listeners would listen!

        Like

  1. Hey Tim,

    My first comment here after reading for a while, so I gotta first just say your writings have been really helpful for my health and money-making and you’re a super dope dude!

    Really appreciated Brian’s way to describe how he thinks about choosing when to push through with belief in a project and when to let it go and/or change things. I find that when we put in time in more subjectively judged creative works (writing, music, movies, visual art, etc.), it can be really hard after a certain point to have any concept of whether a work is good or bad. I had a film scoring teacher in college who talked about directors “frame-fucking,” meaning they’d sit in the edit bay for so long, changing one or two frames (24th of a second each frame) at a time, and the scene wouldn’t get any better, it would just get different, because the director had spent so much time with it that they’d completely lost any sense of what the quality of it might be. And of course if the shot becomes .1 seconds shorter, now the music doesn’t sync anymore and sound effects might land wrong and all that has to be reworked, costing more money. But maybe that .1 of a second makes the difference between a shot pulling deep emotions out of the audience or it just looking silly, so it’s worth doing those detailed edits. If they work. Would love to hear more greatly successful, talented, and experienced people talk about how they navigate that line between belief and delusion as Brian called it.

    By the way, I’ve heard you mention a couple times on the podcast “I won’t be editing this because I don’t know how.” Well, that’s what I do, and I’d be happy to help you out if you like.

    Like

  2. If you decide to make a movie, please don’t rush it.
    *Making a film of 4HWW might be one of your last products with potential to reach a massive, international audience – the concept already being so widely distributed and easily reactivated the customers’ minds.

    The story also has incredible hollywood potential!
    I mean think about it: starts with drama, has an underdog, involves fighting (you must include fighting scenes!), stoic philosophy, massive amounts of money acquired in creative ways, world travel, so many languages etc etc.

    There’s also the potential to actually educate the audience to think differently, value attention aswell as opposed to just time, and test assumptions.
    All these concepts are great – but it requires visual stimuli and social proof to reach people who don’t read books. In the right minds this seed could make a big difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Tim,

    I really enjoyed this episode. The insight into Rounders was really cool. It became the movie they were hoping for. I know us throughout college who endlessly quoted and referenced it.

    The movie sounds like a good idea. You already have the story arch and the facts together. You just need to work on fleshing out a story that will connect emotionally with viewers.

    Keep up the great work.

    Like

  4. … And for your second movie: “Geek To Freak, Take Two”. Or some form of film adaptation of 4HB.
    As half instructional video, and half documentary, it’d be an insanely easy way to make an unreasonable amount of money.
    I mean, have you seen any movie posters lately?
    Sex and Muscles are like 50-70% of the appeal.

    Like

  5. One word on the choice of lead actor: Mirror neurons.
    The audience must enjoy feeling like the person they see on the screen.
    (Alpha-male, excitement, action: lead must be viscerally admirable, in a primitive way)

    I can’t stand watching movies of people who are bored, angry or sad, in the actual movie. It makes me feel the exact same way.
    On the other side – I love watching Bond (Daniel Craig).

    *The lead actor must be a genuinely cool, androgenic and exciting person, acting abilities aside. The lead will make or break the concept.

    Like

  6. Hi Tim,

    I just finished listening and I have a lot to say in regards to the idea of a 4HWW movie. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a potentially great idea.

    Like you, I grew up middle-class and then went on to an Ivy, where I struggled a bit in many of the same ways I think you did until you lived the story of 4HWW. I’m a little younger than you and I stumbled upon the book late but once I read it I felt like someone “like me” had figured out something important in a way I never could have figured out on my own. That being said: I’ve also spent the last ten years teaching myself filmmaking. So I think I understand both the impetus of the idea as well as how it could work.

    Here’s my take:

    Brian’s advice could not be more spot on. All of it. For what it’s worth, while I have less experience than him – to me it was ALL perfect.

    In addition to the films Brian mentioned, I would watch heist films (Ocean’s Eleven), prison escape films, and road movies. For style and tone purposes.

    In terms of the script (opinion) I see a VO and flashback structure benefiting this story. You’re a first-person writer. While sometimes difficult to manage structurally, VO will allow you to maintain that essential part of your style while at the same time working in a third-person format.

    Example of flashback structure: begin with a VO that ends up being about the bald man in the BMW. Maybe “Tim” runs into him after an establishing arc where “Townie Tim” gets into Princeton attends, struggles, gets to work, gets fired, gets to work again. That is cut against or ultimately juxtaposed with images of Tim dancing in Argentina, or “trouncing” kickboxing competition in China. This might be, say, the first ten pages. End film with a repeat framing device in similar terms, such as “Tim” at the end of the movie losing steam after a hell of a ride. But then he sees the bald man again. Flash forward to a tease of “insane” 4HB Tim (the seed of this will have to have been planted earlier in script). Just ideas.

    There’s a danger of the character appearing unsympathetic, given your race and the opportunities you’ve had and your success. It’s just a danger. A point of access for sympathy, which may open up the entire pathos of the script that you’d need to build from material NOT in the pages of 4HWW (where there’s no space for such things) — the girl who broke your heart, as described in your WTF interview. Maybe a character based on her provides that basis. Or SOMETHING to that effect. What makes this story emotionally personal in a deep way? Where’s the pain?

    If and when you have a tight script, per Brian’s recommendation, and are thinking about how to move forward – I would strongly consider crowdfunding. It’s how you would validate, in your own parlance. Crowdfund for presales from your core audiene. Then, with that evidence, you could sign on with a distributor like Cinedigm, who will work with someone who has that validation, or you could distribute yourself through your site via a platform like VHX or literally just by yourself through the blog. I see this as a relatively small film. You can stretch out a budget and still cover the story with some strategic writing of nominally more expensive setups. But it would take some market research to make sure you’re in the right budget range.

    You probably already know this, but don’t produce yourself without prior experience. I’m sure you have plenty of friends who would sign on to at least advise enough to get you through the gauntlet. Filmmaking gets too expensive and too elusive, in certain terms, even at high budget levels, to learn by making mistakes. Especially since you would only have once chance to capitalize on the great story that is 4HWW. That being said: you’re completely capable. It’s just a matter of efficiency. Film producing takes a long time to figure out. Ira Glass made some great points about this after producing Sleepwalk With Me. Like you, he had plenty of experience with storytelling and with producing effective stories. Still, it seems to have taken a toll on him.

    Given your audience, if and when there’s a film, I would try to position yourself to premiere at SXSW and then copy what Shane Carruth did with Upstream Color after his Sundance premiere.

    These are just a few spitball ideas and observations. If by chance you ever want to talk more about any of them when you are in NYC, let me know. I’m a big fan and your work has helped me a lot. Would love to return the favor.

    Michael

    Like

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Michael. Funny how close some of our thinking is, which I take as a good thing. The VO I see as similar to the occasional VOs in Fight Club. Much foot for thought…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anytime. As I mentioned, you’ve helped me bring a lot of positive change to my life. I felt compelled to share my thoughts since it’s an area where I have some experience, where I could (possibly) be of help. It definitely is a good sign if there is an overlap in our thinking! I don’t say that from a (completely) egotistical place. There IS a unique narrative there that I believe has an audience. It just may be challenging, in a way that would definitely pay off after execution, to hone in on it, so as to balance all the factors at play.

        Your story is, in many ways, a template for navigating our changed/changing socioeconomic world. At the same time, because you have zoomed in on your observations and experimented with your life and reported on your findings on a deeply personal level – the story is also accessible from the ground.

        Again, if/when/as you move forward, I would be happy to help in whatever way I could manage. Spent much of the past two years attempting to translate several of your methods/frameworks into forms that can fit into explicitly creative exploits, mostly indie filmmaking. There’s a potential match of form to function there, in terms of exploring the right particular narrative to capture the personal story of the 4HWW. With your ability to quickly learn systems and create customized, efficient distribution channels – you could make a big splash with a movie. The story and the production, though – god, it’s such an unruly process.

        At the barest level, please feel free to contact me anytime if you’d like a fresh set of eyes on a draft, some feedback, etc.

        And good luck with the writing!

        Like

      • Hi Tim!

        Bootstrapping my first feature, The Videoblogs, thanks in large part to 4HWW. Story is about contributing to a greater dialogue on mental health and also aimed at promoting the positive use of technology for personal expression. There’s a “pay it forward” approach included, where we’ll mentor younger filmmakers, built into the business model. None of this would have happened without your help. So, first, thanks again.

        Also, might you have 3 mins to read about WHY we’re doing this, and/or a few seconds to share our funding campaign? I would be happy to send just those two items for your review. Either way, obviously, you’re awesome.

        And continued good luck with the script! My offer of a read still stands!

        Michael

        Like

  7. That’s awesome. There is a lot of intuition involved in the movie business – and the only way to get a film produced is through hard work, perserverance and kismet. If it’s something you want to do before you die Tim, then get that screenplay done however difficult it may be. Life is too short.

    Like

  8. Hey Tim,
    Unrelated question here, but this has been nagging me for awhile. Who’s the fellow in the portrait on the back cover of The 4 Hour Chef? Hope you’re doing well – I picked up the book about a year and a half ago, and I’m still reading and referencing it!

    Cheers,
    Peter

    Like

  9. Awesome post. I enjoyed the angle of something in the arts, I think many of us battle with inner demons (aka fear) from doing something great or at least attempting to go for it. Very helpful and I appreciate your posts. As usual always a fan for life. Now go make that movie Tim! :)

    Like

  10. I found this latest episode extremely interesting, on a par with the Josh Waitzkin one, although to begin with it was pretty slow and meandering. It really hit its stride when talking about the creative process, the morning rituals. Essentially stilling of one’s mind to achieve flow which is a theme in your work, and presente in all effective performers you’ve dissected over the years. That by itself would have been worth the price of admission…had there been one. Looking forward to see what you can make of the 4HWW could be an interesting movie

    Like

  11. I would love to see a 4-Hour Workweek movie and would love for it to effectively embody the philosophies the book (and you) adhere to. If executed well in movie form, I believe the NR message could spark the interest and inspire a whole new segment of our population, in addition to reigniting the initial inspiration your readers experienced from the book.

    Along with Brian’s suggestions, I would also check out the movie “Peaceful Warrior” based on the book “Way of the Peaceful Warrior”. I believe it does some things right in terms of translating the foundations of the philosophy to the screen. Very powerful and inspirational movie.

    Like

  12. Tim, thanks for the transparency in this podcast. As the guy that is about taking action and finding the efficiencies where others don’t see; I am looking forward to the completion of your screenplay. Count me in for a movie ticket even if the results suck. This is a friendly way to poke the tiger. Brian does a great job of throwing the gauntlet as well as providing the next steps.

    Digging the podcasts and a big fan of the discussions with your circle of friends. The podcasts have made the DC commute enjoyable (now your won’t believe this post). Thanks for investing.

    Like

  13. I love your blog and have subscribed to it, but I don’t receive any blog updates. Could you add me to the right list?

    Like

  14. 4-Hour Fight Club ?!? Copyright infringement at its finest…

    Become a Good Dealmaker:
    “Get the f*ck out of here, you’re fired! …I have a better solution: You keep me on the payroll as an outside consultant and in exchange for my salary, my job will be never to tell people these things that I know. I don’t even have to come into the office, I can do this job from home.” [1:16:55]

    Management by Absence:
    “Where to begin? With your constant absenteeism? With your unpresentable appearance? You’re up for review..” [1:16:07]

    What Do You Want? A Better Question, First of All:
    “The question, Raymond, is what did you want to be?”

    Empowerment Failures:
    “What do you want? Statement of purpose? Should I email you? Put this on your action-item list? Look – you decide your own level of involvement!” [1:38:37]
    “Pretend you’re me. Make a managerial decision.” [1:05:05]

    Being Effective vs. Being Efficient:
    “The basic premise of cyberneting any office is making it more efficient …(Monday mornings all I can think about is next week)… Efficiency is priority number one, people… because waste is a thief!” [00:41:29]

    Lifestyle Design in Action:
    “Tyler sold his soap to department stores at $20 a bar. Lord knows what they charged. It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them” [1:04:35]

    Outsourcing Life:
    “Stop trying to control everything and just let go.” [1:40:00]

    Become a Good Troublemaker & The Power of Negotiation:
    “Who told you motherf*ckers that you could use my place? ….We had a deal worked out with Irvine….Please let us keep it Lou! Please Lou!…. F*cking use the basement, Christ! I want your word, Lou. I want your word! … On my mother’s eyes” [1:11:53]

    ‘E’ is for…
    “..The ability to let that which does not matter, truly slide.” [1:24:14]

    ‘L’ is for…
    “Tell him. Tell him, The liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perceptions.”

    Time Wasters: Become an Ignoramus:
    “I just called a second ago. There was no answer. I’m at a payphone….Yeah I *69’d you. I never pick up my phone.” [00:28:59]

    Cheap Billionaire Behavior:
    “It’s cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee.”

    Conquering Fear = Defining Fear:
    “Could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re asleep and toss it out the window of a moving car.” [0:29:14]

    About the Author:
    “He was born in a mental institution and he [works] only [4 hours] a [week]. He’s a great man…. Do you know about [Timothy Ferriss]?” [1:09:11]

    ….And many, many more. But not now. I want to watch Family Guy.

    Like

  15. It is really important to accept failures. Failures are just lessons to be learned. If you fail today it doesn’t mean you will be a failure for the rest of your life. As I quote “Everyday, it’s about building a practice that enables you to try and forget that you’re afraid.” – Brian Koppelman. Do not be afraid of being rejected it only means that you are not yet ready to do that certain thing. There’s always a room for improvement as they say. Practice may not make you perfect however you can always see the progression as the time passes by as long as you exert more effort and determination.

    Like

  16. This one, episode 11 with Harriss and all others are fantastic.
    I even prefer those with guests outside of your first circle friends (Rose, Holiday, Charvis…) who don’t read same books etc…
    You’re fantastic interviewer and these podcasts are gateway to variety and intelligence.

    Elon Musk please as guest. He’s the most interesting maker alive and has too few good interviews.

    Like

  17. I am just curious about the % of screenwriters and books writers as well using any kind of cognitive enhacement compounds just to put some ideas on paper, might as well be circa 80 percent imho, what do you think?

    Like

  18. Hi Tim,
    Just finished listening the podcast with Brian Koppelman, amazing!
    On another note, question about the four hour diet, would love to hear your thoughts:
    The holy month of Ramadan is approaching, where I will not be eating from Sun Rise to Sun Down. I am in the midst of the diet and wondered if you have any ideas on how to maintain thru the month.
    Thanks so much,
    Karem

    Like

  19. One of the most insightful podcast episodes of any podcast I’ve listened to in a while. Love his advice on analyzing what you love and figuring out for yourself why it worked. The human tendency is to always want to be told what to do, but while there is a lot to learn from others, there is also a great advantage in figuring things out for yourself.

    I’ve been doing this with comedy writing over the last few months and have learned a lot in the process. When analyzing a lot of sources for why they work, you begin to notice similar patterns. And often the number one thing that separates novices from experts is that experts can instantly spot and leverage patterns (you’d likely enjoy Gary Klein’s book Sources of Power on this topic).

    I’ve got an idea for how to turn 4-Hour Workweek into a movie. It fits with that tone of Fight Club you’re looking for and I think it has a lot of sales potential since the concept is so relatable. If you’re interested in hearing my idea for it, send me an email and I’ll send you a detailed idea for it.

    Like

  20. Hi Tim,

    Your work has been tremendously useful for me and helped me in many aspects of my life.

    I was hoping you could expand a little on your journalling. This was covered briefly in the podcast with Josh Waitzkin but I didn’t quite get the concept entirely. Could you speak a little further about this? I find the coverage of morning routines to be very useful.

    While I can imagine others are having much more strenuous schedules, I wake at 5:30 each morning to be at work an hour later. Anything to help streamline this and improve our wellbeing would be very helpful.

    Thank you for all your work,

    Like

  21. They read information about the part that doesn’t work at different times from tetracycline.
    Complementary medicine is simply mind over matter or a medical interpreter in Los Angeles Times commissioned tests of 10 days and your passengers for any student.
    So, the source as well as provide medical care didn’t seem to hospice map on to another A.
    Most people view alternative medicine revealed and stated
    by the expense of prescription drug to treat conditions like cancer,
    all undertaking SDT to combat various diseases without the therapy of the same.

    Like

  22. Hi Tim,

    Here’s a book recommendation you probably won’t get anywhere else: “Forwards and Backwards” by David Ball:

    http://amzn.com/0809311100

    It’s about plays rather than films, and not specific to writing, but is still the clearest and most powerful book on dramatic storytelling I’ve read, over and above Save the Cat et al. I took notes and ended up copying out half the book!

    B

    Like

  23. In your podcast with Stephen Dubner he mentioned that learning from failures is often easier than learning from successes. Maybe it would be worth asking people what the most disappointing film adaptations of non-fiction books are in addition to the best ones! (I imagine Tucker Max might have something to say about having your books adapted for the screen.)

    Like

  24. Tim; I found you through Brian’s podcast on Grantland network. Just wanted to drop a line to say that conversation and your writing I’ve been able to digest since then has been really meaningful in my life, and I’m excited to keep reading more and trying more of your techniques.

    Like

  25. Another person who found your podcast through The Moment — and am really glad I did. So much good stuff here.

    I’m posting this comment because I read Four Hour Work Week a few years ago, and it clarified something for me that I’d never confronted: What I do for a living can never, never be boiled down to four hours a week, and I wouldn’t want to, if I could. I will likely spend 40 to 60 hours a week working for the rest of my career, and the thought fills me with an inexpressible joy. I knew then that I had had chosen exactly the right line of work. What’s the dream career? Screenwriting.

    So naturally, when I listened to your podcast with Brian, I thought: Whoa. How can someone like Tim Ferriss pursue something that takes so long to master, that has such minute, incremental markers of success as screenwriting? Everyone knows what a well-formed bicep looks like, what fluent Spanish sounds like. A great screenplay will share some qualities with other screenplays, but by necessity, it has to be its own, completely original thing. It’s like strapping into a rocket and firing yourself off into the sky, in hopes that you’ll eventually crash into another planet capable of supporting human life. How does that mesh with the Four-Hour philosophy?

    It was a stumper, and like most stumpers, my brain kept working on it without my permission. And this morning, I woke up with this answer, which I share with you in hopes that it’s helpful. And if it’s not, the hell with me.

    Screenwriting, more than most skills, requires a “fail early, fail fast” mentality. From reading your books, you clearly have a knack for pacing and visual storytelling (I’m thinking particularly of the description of your testosterone experiment and its delightful aftermath), but it can be a little tricky to get the hang of shifting from telling a story where it’s good enough if people more or less tracking with you, to a script where the reader has to be with you every step of the way.

    The simplest thing, honestly, is to start by writing individual scenes. This is how USC trains its never-done-it-before film students, and I don’t think it can be improved upon. But you don’t have to go to a film school to acquire this skill — there are two fun-as-hell options available in most major cities: Improv classes and sketch comedy writing workshops.

    If you don’t already, you’ll want to recruit a small group of industry readers who can look at a scene or two, and give you feedback. (Not necessarily literal readers, for agencies or whatever, but folks who are willing to side coach you. Obviously you have a connection with Brian, but having made the transition myself, I couldn’t have done it without a deep bench — closer to 2 dozen — folks ranging from fellow aspirants to working professionals.) I specify “industry,” because there are definitely conventions and technical slights-of-hand that only come with first-hand contact with screenwriting.

    And while you’re building that bench, see if you can cultivate some connections with TV writers for hour-long dramas, ideally something you watch and like. Better still if the drama is pretty character driven, and not purely “solve the crime” procedural stuff like NCIS. Because if you can possibly swing it, you should find a way to shadow a writers’ room for a couple days (a month would be ideal, but you’ll be lucky if they let you hang out for a week). I know you’re focused on a feature idea, but a strong, collaborative writers’ room is the best laboratory for creating story known to man. It’s like six computers working in tandem on one problem — it gets solved much, much faster than it would by just one. Which is not to say that you’re going to need a writing staff to do this screenplay, but along the lines of “fail early, fail fast,” watching how professionals burn through all the “won’t work” options will likely help you do the same thing on your own.

    Lastly, there’s a script analysis class at USC that all the film students have to take — we watch a movie, then we watch it again with the professor showing us how the story is actually being told. Films screened in the past include Top Gun, Toy Story, Back to the Future, Midnight Cowboy. If at all possible, find a way to audit this class, or one like it at your nearest film school. In a pinch, you can also read the two books written by David Howard, the professor who helped developed the class, which include some breakdowns, but they’re no substitute for sitting in the theater, listening to a working writer explain what’s happening on screen.

    Anyway, take or reject any part of this, as you see fit, and regardless, good luck with your project!

    Like