Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien take us behind-the-scenes of Michael Douglas' Solitary Man
Since premiering this summer in limited release, the Independent drama Solitary Man has done nothing but garner praise for its leading man Michael Douglas. Centered on his blazing white-hot performance as Ben Kalmen, the movie tells the relatable tale of a successful car dealer who has lost his entire business and his wife, who happens to be his best friend in the world. Surrounded by supporting players Danny DeVito, Susan Sarandon, Jesse Eisenberg, and Mary-Louise Parker, co-directors Brian Koppelman (who wrote the screenplay) and David Levien have crafted one of the finest pieces of adult cinema seen this year. Solitary Man arrives on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, September 7th. To help celebrate this release, we caught up with both Brian Koppelman and David Levien to discuss the movie and its strong place in 2010's best of line-up.
Here is our conversation:
The commentary included on this DVD does a great job of exploring every bit of behind-the-scenes minutia that you could possibly think of. Is there anything left to say about Solitary Man that you haven't already covered at this point?
Brian Koppelman: I will say this: I think the most important thing for you to do is go out and buy the DVD so that you can hear the commentary. I agree with you! Yes. All of the information you need is there. There are also all of the buried secret codes that we put in the commentary, that are the secrets to your life and the lives of your loved ones. If you buy the DVD, you will live to be two hundred and twelve years old.
Douglas McGrath is such a great moderator. Did you know when you invited him to take part in this experience that he would lead such a rousing conversation between the two of you?
David Levien: We had a general idea. We had known Douglas McGrath personally before casting him in the movie. And we always found him to be such a delightful and araldite presence. That is why we cast him as the Dean, because a Dean should be those things. We had a feeling that this commentary would be the perfect thing for all of us to do together, and we certainly feel happy about it.
As this movie is coming out on DVD, I have read a lot of reviews wondering whether Michael Douglas is very good at playing this type of character, or if its part of his own personality. After having worked with him on Solitary Man, would you say that Michael has anything in common with Ben Kalmen personality-wise? Or is he just a really great actor who knows how to play this particular type of role?
Brian Koppelman: Look, Michael Douglas did understand this character immediately. The first meeting we had with him, it was clear that he knew this character inside and out. But as a guy, when you interact with him, he is nothing like Ben Kalmen. Michael is such a big-hearted guy. He is always interested in you. Whatever demons Michael has publicly explored, they are done, now, it seems. However he has tapped into this, it wasn't like he ever came up to us and said, "This reminds me of X, Y, or Z." This is a guy who is a great, legendary screen presence. An added bit of fun is taking what we know from the tabloids and layering it on top of that. Though, I am not sure how much validity that really has.
Danny De Vito and Michael Douglas have such a rich history on film together, how important was it for you guys to get them together in this particular project?
David Levien: The part called for someone to be Ben Kalmen's old, great friend who basically chose the other path. We needed a guy that gave you that warm feeling the moment you saw him on screen. The character is not in the movie for a tremendous amount of time, but he is impactful. We need to feel that chemistry and we needed to feel the warmth from this character right off the bat. There are only a few guys that can bring that, and Danny DeVito is one of them. So there was no chemistry building, and none of that ground work had to be done. Because the minute you saw him, you got a big smile on your face. You realized these two guys had history. It worked. When the idea was floated that Danny DeVito play the part, Michael just jumped to it. He said, "I'll call him right now.
You mention that there was no chemistry building between Danny and Michael before shooting their scenes. I don't know if Michael had ever met Jesse Eisenberg before shooting, but there had to be some level of chemistry building there, between those two guys.
Brian Koppelman: We had one afternoon of rehearsal with the two guys. I have to say, it happened instantly. They were working together, and Jesse Eisenberg left the room for a minute. And Michael said, "Wow, that kid is so alive and present!" Michael was so thrilled. Actors always talk about other actors having presence. Meaning that they are very in the moment. They are there and they are listening. Jesse is very good at that. For Michael, that is all he needed to fly. And it happened very quickly.
In the commentary, you make a joke about working with Jesse and how difficult he was on set. Of course, you were teasing him. But Jesse does have a very dry sense of humor. Was it ever hard to judge when he was making a joke? Or did you fall into the trap of taking everything he said too seriously?
David Levien: He did say we were brilliant filmmakers and great friends. Maybe he was just having us on.
Brian, you wrote the screenplay by yourself on this one. Why was there not that collaboration in the writing process this time around? And do you think that affected the way you guys worked together on set, as opposed to how you worked on your past films?
Brian Koppelman: What happened was that I finally learned how to type.
David Levien: Here's what happened. Brian had this thing really, clearly in his head. He showed me the beginning pages, and it seemed that his voice was very clear. I suggested that he run with it. When he finished it, it was very evolved. It didn't need a lot of work. He was very generous about opening up the creative process. We always had it in mind that we were going to direct it together. He was just nice enough to do the heavy lifting on this one, in the beginning.
Did that change your perspective on set? In terms of what Brian was thinking when he actually wrote the screenplay to where you wanted to take it as a director?
David Levien: The script did a good job of setting up the scenes. I understood everything immediately. I don't recall any instances where we saw things diametrically. Reading the script, and responding to the script, it was just, from a taste standpoint...I was on board, and together, we had an understanding about how we wanted to bring this forth. I think our relationship goes back so many years. We are always so open. I think he made a good shift of gears as a writer, to a director, where you can't be too precious about it, and you have to look at it objectively. Where you have to do something different with the material than what the writer did. When we were in that process, it all seemed to work rather well.
So, Brian, you can find that disconnect between the material in being both a writer and a director?
David Levien: That is what I was suggesting. Brian did that, it was kind of key. Because, when you write something, you have certain things in mind. And you have certain aspirations. But when you go to direct it, you are doing something else with the material. Something else comes through in the end. Something else happens when it comes alive. You have to be prepared to deal with what it actually is once you are filming it.
Brian Koppelman: You can't be so wed to the ideas that you have. There is a really key shot in the movie, where Ben Kalmen is looking at the Kalmen library. The library is refereed to a lot in the screenplay. We were scouting one day. And David came up with this moment. If I was closed off to other ways to represent this character, we wouldn't have found that particular moment, and we wouldn't be able to find new ways to represent this character.
How important did you feel the locations were to the actual story being told on screen? And how different do you feel this story would have been if you hadn't shot it in New York City?
Brian Koppelman: They were important, and that is why we are thrilled that you didn't notice the fact that we shot it in Tuscaloosa. We felt Tuscaloosa did a very good job of standing in for Manhattan. We were able to shoot there for ten cents on the dollar.
David Levien: No. Obviously New York is a huge character in this movie. Even in the subtle variations between the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. All of that stuff is important. And we were able to find our locations in the very place that Brian wrote the scenes. It was a great luxury to actually shoot in New York.
You bring up a great point in the commentary, where you talk about letting a scene go on without cutting away from dialogue. Have you found that audiences are still sophisticated enough to want that in their storytelling?
David Levien: That is a great question. We had never put this story in front of a big audience until we were at the Toronto Film Festival. There were 800 people in that theater, and we wondered the same thing. We watched the movie play, and when you watch the film with an audience, they do get the jokes. They hang in there. We opened in one Art House theater in New York City. Yes, it was an Art House theater, but we were number one in that theater for eight weeks because of word of mouth. It seemed to us that people really wanted that type of thing. I think its one of the reasons The Kids Are All Right works so well, too. I think there is an audience out there that really wants to get lost in these types of stories.
It is true, and it seems that real movie fans, not just critics, have embraced these few films this summer over the bigger, hyped event pictures. Do you think that opens up more of a market place for these types of movies? Or do you think we'll always see that struggle to get smarter movies into more theaters?
Brian Koppelman: We are moving away from the style-making part of that question to the place Indie movies have in the marketplace. You ask a question that is on the minds of a lot of the filmmakers that make these types of movies. Would we have liked it to have been on two thousand or three thousand screens? That would have been great. But the reality is, when we were making this movie, we didn't know if it would go direct to DVD, or if it would get any screenings. When this thing came out on two screens, and then ended up playing on over two hundred, to us, that was a big win. It played in all of the major market places across the country, and it did well everywhere. It was great to see the movie translate beyond New York. It was great to see that there was this audience out there across the country. Looking at the way most movies played this summer, no matter how big the tent poles played, there is always going to be a place for more intimate films.
Both your film and the Julianne Moore movie came out in the midst of some pretty big releases. Yet those other films were pretty big disappointments, while your films continued to garner great word of mouth. Aside from audiences, do you think producers are going to ever realize that there is a bigger market place for this type of project in the summertime?
David Levien: You're getting into where our reality and our wishful thinking collide. I sure hope so, but I have no idea, man.
Are you still working on Rounders 2? Do you think that film will actually happen in the near future?
Brian Koppelman: All of us would get together and make that movie if we thought we could do the original justice. We won't do it if we can't. David and I have not come up with a story that feels true enough to us to take it to Matt Damon, Edward Norton, and John Malkovich. We don't know yet how to say, "Alright, here's the movie." They have all repeatedly told us and the media that as soon as we do that, they want to go and make the movie. But the movie is too important to too many people to fuck around with it. We are continuing to move on with our other movies. But, if one of us woke up with the central idea for a sequel, I think we'd love to spend the time to try and solve it. We just haven't solved it yet.
Solitary Man comes to DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, September 7th.