Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman), a screenwriter, novelist, director, producer, and host of The Moment podcast. Prior to his hit show Billions, which he co-created and executive produced (and co-wrote on spec), he was best known as the co-writer of Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen, as well as a producer of The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones. He has also directed films, such as Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss show where it is my privilege, pleasure, and obligation to deconstruct world-class performers of all different types. And my guest today was in fact, I believe the 10th ever guest on this podcast, and I had to have him back. He was so nice, we had to do it twice. Brian Koppelman on Twitter @briankoppelman, B-R-I-A-N K-O-P-P-E-L-M-A-N is a screenwriter, novelist, director, and producer. He is prolific. Prior to his hit show Billions, which he co-created and executive produced and co-wrote on spec, he was best known as the co-writer of Rounders and Oceans 13 as well as the producer of The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones. He has directed films such as Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas. Brian also hosts the very popular The Moment podcast. Brian, welcome back to the show.
Brian Koppelman: It’s such a pleasure, Tim. Always so happy to talk to you, man.
Tim Ferriss: And you are also, I would consider, aside from being a friend, a mentor of sorts. I have sent drafts of various things to you for feedback and you are a real master of your craft and I appreciate your help when I need the help. And I recall just as a quick personal anecdote, when I sent you a draft of one of my blog posts — I can’t recall which blog post it was exactly — but you said: “I will give you feedback because I believe you actually want feedback,” or something along those lines.
Brian Koppelman: It was the first one because — first of all, this is great and it’s something that I’m really eager to talk about, which is the importance of connection, but also how to expand your reach. Because you know, Tim, you asked me a question last night because — and I think I like to declare this kind of thing on a pod — I mean you and I are friends. Like we’ve been in touch for a long time and we text and talk and like we can lean on each other for stuff. And last night you said, “Hey, let’s try to not just ramble since we — you know, the danger of having someone you’re friends with on a podcast is it can ramble and suddenly just be for the two of you.” So, but I was thinking about the last 10 years, because that is a great sort of prompt you gave me.
You said, “Think about between 2010 and 2020.” And one thing that occurred to me is it’s super important to me to expand my world. And because that’s the way that I learn and grow. But in order to expand my world — and you do the same thing — a key thing is to improve myself so that I have something to offer as I try to expand my world. So that by doing work on myself, by trying to grow, by trying to read more and learn more, I then am prepared to engage when I reach out to somebody I admire. So you might say I’ve been a mentor of sorts to you, obviously, even though you’re younger than I am, you’ve been a mentor to me in various areas too. And part of that is because each of us are trying in whatever way to do the work on our own so that when we meet again, we’re meeting as versions of ourselves that are in a place of momentum, not inertia.
Now sometimes you’re in a place of inertia and if you’ve built real relationships, you can then go to somebody and say, “Hey, I’m stuck. Help me figure out why I’m stuck. Help me figure out how to move forward.” But for me, I’ve realized that can’t be the only place that I’m in. And the reason that I’ve come to know that is, as you have, I’ve spent years feeling stuck at various points in my life and so tried to find ways to unstick myself, expand my world so that I can have helpers to help me unstick myself. And when you sent me — it was your first of these new blog posts — and you’d sent a note, I think, to a few of your friends.
Tim Ferriss: I think it was single ply. It might’ve been Where in Your Life Are You Still Using Single Ply?
Brian Koppelman: That’s correct. It was. And it was you said, “I’m doing this new thing where I’m going to start blogging more in a certain way,” and you were like, “Would you be willing to give me notes?” And I remember where I was, I was actually heading to the airport in L.A. coming back to New York. And I knew you were coming to me as a professional, that you were a professional, and I would define that as somebody who just — whether you’re making money on it or not, it didn’t matter; that’s not what I mean by professional — and I’m using more sets, Godin’s definition of it, which is you are taking this work seriously. You are trying to communicate, for other people, something. You were trying, on the page, to figure out your strongly held belief, and then to share that with other people.
And I could tell what you wanted was a gut check. “Am I communicating cleanly enough? Am I entertaining enough to get the message across?” And when I receive something like that from a fellow professional, it’s an honor, man. You feel like, what a joy to be able to — because then you know, I knew I would give you feedback, I knew you would be able to throw out the stuff that didn’t apply, but I knew you’d be able to take — ’cause I gave you some harsh notes. I was like, “You can cut this section.” An amateur or even someone who gets paid to do this work, but who isn’t in a professional mindset defaults to instead of hearing the notes they asked for as from a peer or a mentor or someone trying to help, they make that note as though it came from the teacher who hated them the most or the parent who they could never please. And so they react emotionally instead of from a place of professionalism and quality check.
And so, yes, I was in the middle of it. I mean, I was so busy when you sent me that thing, meaning I was on a trip that was a 24-hour trip to California. We were in the middle of making the show. I had gone out there for a specific — to do Bill Simmons’ three podcasts in two days with Bill while still writing Billions and you sent me that thing and I thought, “Oh, well this is really a valuable thing to do, because Tim is actually in the middle of trying to grow.” Right? You said, “I’m trying to reshape the way I think about my posts,” and I was like, “Well, this is great. I’m so fucking proud and happy for Tim and I know — this is the key — I know my efforts won’t be wasted. I know if I dig into this as though I wrote the piece, Tim is going to react to it in kind,” and that is exactly what I’m talking about — about expanding your world and growing — and it’s the kind of thing, although you’ve written many books and I’ve done the things that I’ve done, I believe we would have interacted in the exact same way in the moments before our professional successes happened. And I think that’s part of why we were able to manifest and have some professional success because of that desire to get the work right. Does that make sense to you? Does that track?
Tim Ferriss: It makes perfect sense and you are also — not to turn this into like a whatever, whatever it might be — but you are, and I think this is really important to underscore for folks who perhaps want to explore different creative paths and whether that be professionally in the paid sense or not. As you said, the professional mindset is one I think you reflect insomuch as you take feedback extremely well and unemotionally, as does Seth Godin, who you mentioned earlier. And I really find that to be a hallmark of someone who can make a lot of progress in terms of their creative endeavors or otherwise.
Brian Koppelman: But let’s take a second and slow down. This is such a crucial point and it’s one that I’ve given a tremendous amount of thought to because I don’t take feedback well in the instant it’s given. So what happens privately — and I think it’s like when you watch an Olympic athlete perform, even though part of your brain knows all the years of practice, all you really think is “Geez, Michael Johnson’s fast.” So here’s what I’d say. When I get feedback sometimes, my initial reaction might actually be all the things I just said to avoid. My initial reaction might be rage, might be sadness, might be self-pity, might be wanting to beat myself up. And I’m not exaggerating. I might have 12 really bad hours where I go through a range of purely emotional responses where what I want to say to the person giving me the feedback is: “Go fuck yourself.”
But when I was younger, I did say “Go fuck yourself.” Now, what I — and by the way, we all have bad days where we could say the wrong thing — but what I now know, because I’ve trained myself to notice it through meditation and journaling, is “Okay, this is you shaking off the bad reaction to the feedback. You’re not going to do anything with that material or that approach until you’ve shaken this emotional response off enough that you have intellectual clarity. And then you can look at the feedback and say, ‘Okay, these three things make a lot of sense. I know what to do with them. That fourth thing, I see what that means. I can address it a different way. And this bundle of things over here, while that’s really the person giving me the notes issues, I don’t think that makes it better.'” But until I can get to that place, I won’t even deal with it.
So like, we went through this process — and I’ll talk about this more later — with COVID and went to leave New York City. You and I had three or four conversations and I had to get to a place where I could take my emotional response out to get to my pure intellectual response. And that process, the more one can learn to accelerate the process so that if — I’ve had this experience — someone will call me, someone I know and they’ll say, “Will you look at this cut of something I’ve just shot?” Or “Will you look at this thing I’ve just written?” Or “Will you listen to this song because you don’t have a –” I made records for a long time as a producer and A&R person, right? And they will want feedback. And so the thing I said to you, I now have learned to say to somebody, “Describe the kind of feedback you want. Is this finished?” If it’s finished — Penn Jillette said this to me once — he said, “If you tell me it’s finished, all I’m going to say to you is ‘Congratulations,’ because you can’t do anything about it, and I don’t want to –” and this is important, right? But I said, “Is this finished?” If they say — because if I show you something and it’s finished — a finished movie that I’ve just made, but it’s not out yet — honestly, what is your feedback? Really, all I need at that point is a pat on the back for accomplishing something, right? But if somebody should — the first thing I say to somebody is, “What kind of feedback are you looking for?” Now you preempted that because your initial note, you said, “I want harsh feedback.” That’s great. So I’ll say to somebody, “Do you want the kind of feedback I will give to a peer? Because the feedback I give to a peer has very little positive in it, not a lot of praise.”
Right? Because we don’t need that. If I send my friend Craig Mazin, the great creator of Chernobyl on HBO, if I send Craig — if I’m going to waste Craig’s time and ask him to read a script — I don’t need him to also spend a half a page of response to me telling me what I’ve done well. What I need him to do is tell me where the thing has fallen short, right? So I will say that to somebody: “Are you prepared for that?” If you are, I will give you those notes. But you have to be willing to do something with them. So before you ask for feedback, you have to get yourself in a mindset that is open to taking action based on the feedback.
This is in any area of life except if your partner asks you if they look good. If they ask you if the sweater fits them well, they are not asking for this kind of feedback! So I just want to be clear about that. That is an entirely different feedback loop that you have to figure out for yourself — because the answer can wildly vary the response. But this is one of the keys, I think, to becoming successful in any area of the arts, but I would expand it to in any area of business. How to ask for feedback and how you respond to that feedback when it’s given. That’s something I spent a lot of time thinking about and it’s something that I think all of us should think about because it’s an incredible shortcut to growth, because if you take the feedback the right way, you don’t only improve the thing you’re working on then, you improve the next five things you’re working on because that feedback has led you to understand how to iterate the next thing.
Tim Ferriss: That makes perfect sense to me. And I want to jump back to a few things you mentioned and then ask a followup question. You mentioned meditation and journaling. We don’t have to go into great depth with that because we spoke about it in our first conversation on this podcast, but transcendental meditation and Morning Pages à la Julia Cameron are both arrows in your quiver. I want to talk about the initial response to feedback. So if you have the, say up to 12 hours of rage, denial, sadness, whatever it might be, in the moment, if someone delivers that feedback to you, not in writing but verbally or on the phone, are you responding like the ice skater in the Olympics who falls down and just steps back up and has a huge shit-eating grin on your face and you sort of play nice until you get off the phone? Is there something you say to get off of the phone so you can buy yourself time and a clean exit so you can experience your emotions?
Brian Koppelman: That’s a great thing to think about, because what that really is is a great aspiration, right? And it’s important to keep that aspiration in mind. Now I have a creative partner, David Levien, and so when I think we’re going to have a call with somebody who’s going to give us feedback and I’m concerned that my emotions are too engaged, sometimes I will say to David, “Hey, man, I think you should do most of the talking on this phone call because I can feel myself amped up.” So part of that is taking stock of your — look, a lot of success in interpersonal relationships involves understanding your own complicity in how the engagement is going to turn out. So a lot of growing up is learning to shift the responsibility from the other to the self. That doesn’t mean, “Oh, I’m responsible for my own success.”
What it means is, instead of saying, “That dick treated me poorly and it made me feel a certain way,” before the interaction, I try to prepare myself so that I’m going to react in the right way in the moment because I’ve learned to know myself probably through the meditation and journaling — also, honestly, through the relationship I have with my wife. We celebrate our 29th anniversary in two days and she’s also a writer and filmmaker and we talk about this stuff all the time and have, and we’re very good at being honest with one another. And so Amy will, as the British like to — she’s not British, but as the Brits say, you know, she’ll pick me up on that stuff and to help teach me. But I can be a total asshole if I’m not ahead of time prepared to have those conversations.
I often say, people who listen to my podcast have, they’re listening to the most understanding version of me, the me trying to be that ice skater where I’m so outwardly directed on being there to listen to the other person. I’m incredibly patient. I’m fully engaged in their journey. I’ve taken myself out of it and I try really hard to be that person in all the interactions that I have. But as you know, that hour that you’re doing this, you are able to manifest it. It’s really hard to manifest it at the end of a long day when you failed during the day, because we all fail during our day sometimes, when you’ve had to manage four flame-ups on set that happened for a variety of reasons.
A director that you’re — for me, in my life making our show, there could be an issue with a director, a cut, I could have given notes on a cut, the editor could have done what I wanted, I got the cut back, I made four different mistakes. The cuts are taking a step backwards, not a step forwards. And then I have a notes call at 7:00 at night and I’ve had a day where I’ve felt like I’ve been in the ring with Mike Tyson and someone says the wrong thing and I could absolutely tell somebody, somebody I respect, like, value, I could absolutely in the way that I take their note, make them feel shitty and ruin their night. And I’ve really worked hard not to do that.
But you know what? I will say one thing I’ve learned is if I do that, if someone gives me feedback and I think it’s stupid — let’s say it’s actually a bad note because I’m — and it’s a note that I know won’t help and I know why and it’s something I’ve thought of before. Dave and I have gone down that road. And if I do react by saying just a curt, “No, that’s not going to work,” which is, by the way, the worst I’ll be. I never would call someone — I would never actively insult somebody, but as you know, we pick up on when someone’s condescending.
And so let’s say I’m — and this is something I think few of us do and we should do much more frequently. Let’s say I am a little bit of a dick, and I’m like, “No, that’s not going to work. Nope. Sorry.” 10 minutes later I’ll fucking pick up the phone and I’ll call and I’ll go, “Listen, I reacted. I know how I reacted. I know that that probably made you feel bad. Sorry that I reacted that way. I’ve had a weird day today and I’m going to take those notes and think about them and tomorrow I’ll respond.” And I am so willing to own my behavior. And that’s something that I’ve learned too. Again, I want to be super clear because I don’t want to paint myself worse than I am.
I’m really close to the guy that I am on the podcast. And as I say, would never insult anybody. But I’ve become much more aware. Again, we all have a responsibility, if we can, to protect the feelings of those that we’re interacting with. We can be truthful without being an asshole. We can be constructive and corrective without making someone else feel worse. And so if I can find a way to not leave somebody that I’ve engaged with feeling worse, I’m going to do it. Sometimes it’s impossible. David and I run a writers’ room. Sometimes we have to say no to 10 ideas in a row from the same person. Nobody feels good hearing their 10th idea rejected no matter how much you take the time to listen to it and make them feel better. So sometimes in all of our interactions we’re going to, no matter what we do, leave other people feeling a little bit worse. But where you can fix that, it’s incredibly worth it to fix it.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s something that I’ve tried to work on a lot in the last handful of years since I’ve definitely thrown some Molotov cocktails unnecessarily into the mix. I remember a few years ago, I was doing my first handful of experiments with extended fasting, and I realized after the fact that if you’re doing a long fast, on day two is not when you should be sending a lot of very nuanced emails. And as one of my employees put it at the time, he woke up and checked his inbox and said, “Holy shit, you guys were throwing haymakers,” and that took a lot of cleanup. But the cleanup — you’re not always going to be your best self, so you do — it behooves one, at least it behooves me, to become a practitioner of the art of cleanup. I wanted to ask you about being stuck. You mentioned that you’ve been stuck many times in your life. Could you tell a story of one time when you were stuck and —
Brian Koppelman: Oh, sure. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: — how you got to the other side?
Brian Koppelman: Absolutely, man. There are a few of them, and in various different ways. And I think it’s important to talk about it not just in terms of the arts, because momentum and inertia are these counter forces. You could probably define the terms better than I could in terms of what they exactly mean. Also, everyone could just Google it on your phone. But I can even look at it in terms of, so certainly in terms of writing. I’ve been stuck and spent a lot of my life stuck before I became somebody who did this stuff for a living. But you know, Tim, I mean two months ago I was 250 pounds, and that was — and today I’m 230. Now, 230 for six feet is still too big, but I can’t tell you the difference between being 250 and 230 in terms of the ability to move around, and also the momentum of moving in the correct direction.
And I was so stuck at where I was, and it was an awful feedback loop. Because at 250 you can’t sleep well. So you can’t sleep well, so your discipline is less, so you have a headache all the time. And I felt helpless to change it even with someone like you on my speed dial where I could ask you, because I had to find a way to make an internal change. And I’ll tell you actually what it was. I say 250, but it really was stepping on the scale and being 249.4. And I hadn’t stepped on the scale in a while intentionally, because when you’re someone who wrestles with weight, you kind of instinctively avoid the scale sometimes. But I was journaling, and in my journal I remember writing about not sleeping well, knowing that I probably had sleep apnea from being too fat.
I’m someone who loves playing sports. I’m an exercise fiend with sports in particular. I wasn’t playing sports because my knees and ankles hurt too much because I was so big, and I was like, “You have to get on the scale.” And I got on the scale, and I saw that I was 249.4. And I just sat down on the edge of my bed, and I just said, “Brian, if you go over 250, there’s a real chance you’re going to be one of these assholes who hits 300 pounds.” And the thought of that — and even that’s an artificial line, the 250. The thought of it, Tim, was so painful to me, and the picturing myself at 300 pounds. And right around that time, so about a year and a half ago, I lost a lifelong friend to opioid addiction, a late-in-life opioid addiction.
This is someone who was like a brother to me. David and I dedicated the first episode of last season’s Billions to this person. His name’s Dennis Shields. And Dennis was someone who had never had a drink, and then in his 40s went for back surgery, became addicted to opioids, and was dead by 50. And his daughter had posted right around when I got on the scale, like within a day, his daughter had posted something about missing her dad. And I looked at the picture of — and it was a picture of Dennis, and I looked at the picture of Dennis, and I read Tyler’s post, Tyler’s the daughter, who’s like a niece to me. And I read Tyler’s post, and then I thought about my kids, and then I thought about the fact that I was 249.4.
And I was absolutely trapped and stuck, and had been stuck. And I just right then made the decision and called a couple of my friends, and I did a few different things. One, I went and found a — and so I took steps, right? I read a book. I wrote you or called you, and I said to you, “Where do you think I should start?” And you said, “Slow carb.” I said, “Should I do keto or slow carb?” And you said, “Here are the reasons I think for you, slow carb right now.” I got rid of the carbs, and I started seeing a food addiction therapist. I took these steps, and immediately just began to get a momentum. So the first couple of days of not eating carbs, very difficult. Also, the failure that I’d had over and over again was just on my mind.
That self criticism, right? You know of, “Well, this isn’t going to work because it’s failed in the past.” So I was hearing that voice. But I then, because I journal and because I meditate, and because of this thing I started with, which is trying to expand my world, I made a decision a bunch of years ago that a lot of the stuff we keep very private, I don’t want to keep very private anymore. I want to be able to fail in public or succeed in public, to live as I am, to be as calm and comfortable in my skin as I can be, meaning to try to have very little difference between the public and private version of who I am. Which meant that I could tell people in my life I was struggling with this. They knew. They could see that I should get bigger size pants, right?
But by engaging in that conversation with people, and by then taking the step of saying “Okay.” So I called this food addiction person who someone I know had gone to. She’s a nutritionist and food addiction specialist. And I’m not going to say her name now. She doesn’t want me to until we’re done with this because it’s a therapeutic practice. But she said to me, “We’re going to have to talk once a week, and you’re going to have to commit to once a week for a year, and because you’re going to have these ups and downs and you’re going to have to — this has to be important enough to you that you make a verbal commitment to me.” And I made that commitment.
Because I was so stuck, I needed a force of momentum. And that once-a-week check-in, I knew it was going to be momentum because one week was going to become two, it was going to become four, it was going to become six. And Tim, I lost at least a pound a week every week, and it’s been steady and constant. And more than that, I feel better about myself. So I now have this momentum in that area where I was stuck for honestly a year and a half, I was stuck at just gaining weight, knowing it, going to bed, disliking myself. Now that feeling, which you can get, I had that feeling when I was a blocked writer. I’ve had that feeling at various times in my life where I would go to bed at night knowing the things I had hoped to accomplish that day, I didn’t accomplish.
And in fact, not only didn’t I accomplish them, but I went backwards. As soon as I really started dealing with the food, meaning tracking every single thing — I take a picture of every single thing that I eat now. Literally, if I take a bite of one slice of an orange, I take a picture of it, and I record it, and I share it with the person that I see. And each time I do something like that, I am creating this momentum, and I’m fighting inertia. I’m moving myself forward toward the goal.
And it’s really hard at the beginning. But then the amazing thing about momentum, and I’m sure you can understand why this is the case scientifically in a way I don’t, but the power of momentum is so great that it stops being hard. In fact, it just starts being the way that you live. And that’s what I found with journaling, and that’s what I found with meditation, and that’s what we find when we start exercising. And that’s what I find when I start eating better.
Tim Ferriss: I would love to ask you about the — I have so many followup questions. This is —
Brian Koppelman: Please, do it.
Tim Ferriss: This is fertile territory. First of all, I’m extremely sorry about your friend and the opioid addiction and —
Brian Koppelman: Thanks.
Tim Ferriss: — premature death. I don’t know if you knew that —
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, it’s the worst.
Tim Ferriss: It’s the worst. Yeah. I don’t know if you knew this, Brian, but my best friend from childhood, almost identical story. Never did any drugs, had a hangover from alcohol. He did drink. And a friend of his who was already an opioid addict gave him a synthetic opioid — well, Fentanyl, very powerful — and said, “This will help with your headache.” Took a nap, never woke up. And that was just a few years ago, and my aunt also died of Percocet and alcohol about a year and a half ago. So dangerous, dangerous things. Topic for another time perhaps.
Brian Koppelman: Well, it’s actually, no, it’s worth spending one minute on it. Let’s spend one minute on it, because — so I had to get a root canal two days ago, or half of a root canal, because the emergency part was just getting the nerves out. I can finish the root canal in a month. They said they can. So I swear to you, the worst pain I’ve ever been in by a factor of any factor you want. The kind of writhing around on the ground pain before I went to — so I had to go to the dentist. It was so bad I couldn’t live. It was really that bad. But the first thing I said in the very first — so I found this dentist, I texted with him — and the first thing I said is, “I don’t want Vicodin, and I don’t want Percocet. I need to be out of this pain without taking either of those things.”
And the reason is — and I’ve taken those things. Some people have the gene for it. My gene is for addiction to pizza and donuts. I don’t have the gene for addiction to opioids, but I still don’t want to fuck with those things. I want to find a way to deal with this without it. And I’ll have a drink. I have no issues in that area. But I think those substances are so powerful in ways you don’t understand that some percentage of the population, they’re just built to be addicted to them. And those things should be prescribed unbelievably rarely, and they’re still prescribed way too frequently.
After the root canal, the doctor gave me a prescription for Tylenol 3, which is Tylenol with Codeine. It’s far, far less powerful than the synthetic opioids. I took one Tylenol 3 and I threw the bottle out. And there were 12 pills.
Literally my friend Dennis, really and truly, we would go to dinner, and he was a state champ wrestler in high school, and we would go to dinner. Our whole lives, he would order four ginger ales. Everyone else would be drinking, he’d have four ginger ales. And he was not a drug or alcohol guy. He really didn’t drink. And then the opioids started, and there was nothing anybody could do. He was dead in two years. So that stuff is so powerful, and I miss the guy every fucking day of my life. So yeah, it’s never a mistake to tell people to be careful with opioids.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You should be very, very careful. You don’t know also, in advance, what your molecular kryptonite is going to be. So you may say, “I’ve never been addicted to anything,” and I know a lot of people have become addicts starting with that type of overconfidence. That’s also why I’m so involved with, say, opioid dependence studies at places like Johns Hopkins and looking at psychedelic compounds for treatment of addiction. But I want to talk about your check-ins. So we’ve been talking about creating positive momentum in behavioral change. What is the nature of the weekly check-in? What is the format? What does that look like?
Brian Koppelman: Well, until this, it was an in-person check-in. I would go, like a therapy session, right? So I would go to her office. So even if I was — now, this all created an import to it, right? Because I don’t — this is also very useful, I think. It is amazing how much more time you have than you think you do. Time’s finite. This is not a cliche, right? It’s the most valuable thing that we have. But one of the things is, I committed that I was going to go, in person, to see this therapist once a week.
So that might mean being at a rehearsal on set in Brooklyn, getting in a car, being driven to the city, going to the therapist in Manhattan, spending 45 minutes talking about — I’ll tell you what we’re talking about, talking about the food that I ate that week, what I was feeling like around eating the food, in the beginning what it felt like not to eat the things that I was dependent on, right? For me, not eating sugar and flour, because her insight is that sugar and flour, for people who are food addicts in a certain way, sugar and flour are these real triggers.
So eliminating sugar and flour completely from my diet, that’s a huge change, and so figuring out how that felt. So part of the check-in is, “All right, were you angry this week, or did you feel deprived? When did you feel deprived? Did you want to eat something wrong?” And then also, Tim, getting the volume of food also under control. Because as you know, one starts with the idea — I loved in the slow-carb thing, your initial one pager, and then once someone buys into that, it’s like, “Well, okay, but now let me just give you a few more ways that we ought to be thinking about this.”
So it’s the same kind of thing. It’s like — no, but that’s really important, right? Because what you’re doing is, it’s all about momentum, Tim. It’s like, okay, you do these five things, you’re going to actually improve. This is going to be better. Now, if I’ve now gotten you engaged, let me tell you how to really amp this up. And so she did the same thing, right? It was, “Let’s eliminate flour and sugar.” And then we did three weeks of that and it was great. And then she said, “Well, now we have to talk about volume.” And I was like, “What? You’re changing the rules on me. What do you mean volume?” And she said, “Well.” I mean, you know, right? She’s like, “Well, you know.”
Tim Ferriss: “You ate a gallon tub of almonds yesterday. Let’s talk about that.” Yeah!
Brian Koppelman: Right. “So we’ve got to talk about volume now.” I mean, so then it’s like, “Yeah, listen. Maybe the right amount of a steak is six ounces, not 12 ounces.” And I’m like, “Well, what do you mean? A New York strip steak is 16. If I’m eating 12, it’s a win.” But the process of that conversation and of changing a core belief, right? A core belief I had. All right, we’ll get granular because everyone cares about this food thing. And I’ll expose myself because that’s part of the thing. So I immediately was like, “Okay, if I’m not having flour or sugar, so no ketchup. By the way, eliminating ketchup’s a huge thing, and I highly advise people to eliminate ketchup if they want to lose weight, because you will just eat less.
But I would get a turkey burger for lunch, right? So I said, “Well if I’m not getting a turkey burger, let’s say, I’m going to get two turkey patties.” And I really couldn’t — with a salad, a big salad and two turkey patties. And I really, I swear to you Tim, I couldn’t believe that I could just eat one turkey patty. I was like, “That seems ridiculous. One turkey patty for lunch?” And she said, “Okay, well what if you try it tomorrow, and just see if this belief — if you’re certain that you’re going to be so hungry, order two turkey burgers, save one for later or the next day, put it in the fridge, have one and see how you are an hour later.” And I’ll tell you, I had certain core beliefs about the amount of food I had to eat. And of course it turned out not to be true. Now —
Tim Ferriss: Turkey burger dogma!
Brian Koppelman: And I’m loath to even talk about this, because I know, like an alcoholic, I could backslide at any moment. I will say that I’ve been in this quarantine now for three weeks, and I’ve been eating perfectly. And I’m so glad that I started this 10 weeks ago, because I know if I hadn’t, the momentum the other way would be, I would be pounding peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I would be eating, figuring out ways to get pizza, and I would be obsessed with food during this. And instead I’ve been able to just be completely responsible about it, which means my mindset is able to be calm, which means I’m able to go to bed at night feeling like I don’t have to hate myself. And going to bed at night feeling like you don’t have to hate yourself is the greatest gift you can give to yourself.
And so the ways to do that are contributing — you know them, we’ve talked about them before, but they’re all valid, right? It’s finding a way to do for others, being responsible for your own behavior so that you’re not a dick to other people, and not letting yourself down on your core values. And so this for me is a huge area that I’m able to handle in that way. And I’m really grateful that I found this person who’s been helping me, and that in my journaling and meditation, I wasn’t able to hide from myself to get full circle.
The reason I do The Morning Pages originally was to become a creative person, meaning to work, to be able to live a professional life from my most creative place because I felt that was the way I was going to feel right. But now these things serve as ways to keep myself honest. There’s no way you can meditate for 20 minutes twice a day and journal in the morning and not check in with yourself. So I had enough days of being mad enough that I made myself get on the scale that I saw that I was 0.6 pounds away from being 250, and in that instant it was like, I had to take action.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned, I think it was maybe a few years ago, that you decided to close the gap, if there was one, between your public life and your private life, to share more of the things that we tend to feel we cannot share. What led to that? What catalyzed that? How did that come to be?
Brian Koppelman: Well, I think it has to do with — well, one, it has to do with the podcast, and then being on so many podcasts, right? It has to do with wanting to connect as deeply as I can when I’m connecting with people. And I would prefer that if someone knows me, they know who I really am. Now there are certain things, it’s harder and harder. There’s a fine line between putting on Instagram the nice car you might be driving. That’s not what I’m talking about, right? I’m not talking about putting in your face success or anything like that, but what I am talking about is allowing my own insecurities, allowing the way in which I grapple with my own insecurity or my own fear or my own anxiety or my own imposter complex, should that surface, that if I can grapple with that publicly, it’s a service to other people. I often think about Francis Ford Coppola making The Godfather. And I think about that because I think The Godfather 2 is the greatest movie ever made. I think The Godfather is the most important, probably, in American cinema. And I think about the fact that he was wracked with doubt throughout. When we watch The Godfather, we see a masterpiece, but what we don’t see is all the days that Coppola thought it was going to be a failure. That he was a failure. That the dialogue that was written the day before didn’t work. All that stuff that’s not there makes The Godfather seem not only like a masterpiece but makes it seem as though it showed up fully formed.
And a large part of my life is about disambiguating that stuff, is about looking at that stuff and saying, “Well how did that come to be?” And so part of that is if we could’ve followed Coppola when he was making it, if Coppola was on Twitter then, because people have a lot of different thoughts about Twitter, but to me Twitter is the most amazing creation. It’s the icing on the cake of, well the internet, because it allows us to get right inside of all these different processes. We can reverse engineer by looking at somebody who accomplished something, we can track what the process was that got them there. And so I want to be able to say to people, “You’re watching Billions now and if it’s your favorite show, damn that makes me so happy.” But if you go through my Twitter feed, you will be able to see how hard it was to get to a place where we were able to make that show.
And I’m really happy about that, that that’s there for people, that they can see when I felt lost, that they can see when I felt like it might go a different way, or when I felt like a failure before that. The movie Runner Runner, which was a terrible disaster. When that movie bombed, how I felt. They can look at the Vines that I did where I was making these six-second Vines. 60 million loops on those things, Tim, because I was talking to people about the creative process and giving themselves permission and I was really talking to myself about that. And I found through doing that, a few things happened. One, I started getting letters from people about how, in seeing what I was going through, it allowed them to go through something similar without beating themselves up.
And look, more than anybody, you understand how seeing that stuff drives you forward to do more of it. And so, I feel like the more I’m just who I am — also, dude, faking it’s hard and sucky and the more you can just be like, “Hey, this is who I am.” I mean, that’s why I do this thing in the morning. I know you’re going to ask me about it, but I do this thing in the morning over this where I name the first cup of coffee of the day The Royale because I feel like the first coffee of the day is such a special thing that it deserves a special name. And so —
Tim Ferriss: And over this, we’re talking about quarantine, or self-isolation.
Brian Koppelman: Yes. Yes. So I had named it The Royale a long time ago and then a friend of mine —
Tim Ferriss: That was just for yourself, you named it The Royale?
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, I named it The Royale for myself. And then I would talk about it on the podcast online and other people really liked it and started talking to me about it. And then a friend of mine named Tom Kretchmar, who’s a great guy, he said, “I bet you people” — he was having coffee and he sent me a picture and he said, “This is me with my Royale.” And he said, “I bet you people would want to share their pictures of them drinking their first coffee of the day.” So I quote tweeted Tom and I posted my own picture of me having The Royale in the morning. And I said something about us all being isolated and this is a way to connect. Let’s have our first coffee of the day together. And hundreds of people started posting their responses to me.
They would either message me pictures, send them on Instagram or post them on Twitter. I started re-tweeting them, and suddenly all these people started telling — and I’ll say this is one of those examples. The first couple of days of it, I got super self-conscious. I lost probably 300 followers because I was just tweeting picture after picture of somebody drinking their coffee with the subject “Royale.” And so I did, I flaked off like hundreds of followers. It doesn’t matter. I did it. But I noticed it. I’m again, living honestly. You notice if you lose 500 followers or 300 followers. You’re like, “Oh, what the fuck?” Maybe I shouldn’t do — but then I just thought, “No I want to do this,” and these people who were sending me these pictures because then they started —
So then like two, three days later I started getting all these tweets from people saying, “Hey, I haven’t posted my picture but I want you to know I go to bed at night thinking about the pictures I’m going to see in the morning and it makes me feel less alone.” Now if even just one person had said that to me, it’d be worth losing hundreds of followers because that is one of the ways I think about the world. Like holy shit, if doing something stupid and simple can actually make somebody alone in Kansas City feel even two percent better for one hour, what a fucking powerful thing that is. That is honestly what fires me up. Then dude, so many people started telling me that and sending me emails. So I just decided if I lose 10,000 followers, but the 100,000 people who are there are getting something out of it, I’m doing it.
And then someone else said, “Hey, you should make a mug” — someone actually designed it. So this is one of those things — I had nothing to do with it. Someone on Twitter said, “There should be a mug with your face on it that says ‘The Royale,’ that we can have our coffee and then give it to your favorite charity.” And I tweeted like, “Well that sounds fun.” And then some other dude goes, “How’s this design?” And he just designed it and sent it to me. And so then I made the mugs and you can get a mug at theroyalebk.com, just The Royale, T-H-E-R-O-Y-A-L-E-B-K.com, and all proceeds go to my favorite charity, which is The Food Bank of New York, which is The Food Bank that feeds every food pantry in the city. And for a long time what I would do is when I would go to dinner in New York, because going out to dinner is expensive, I would try, whenever I could, I would try to give the same amount to The Food Bank.
It’s a great charity. I love them. I’ve spent time with them. I know that they’re the real deal. And so now all these people have ordered these mugs. And so that’s one of those things where I named it “The Royale” because to me it was special. I talked about it. Someone else responded. And then through this openness, as you’ve experienced many times with your stuff, but through this openness, suddenly I had nothing to do with it. My community of people came up with the idea to share the mugs, to share our pictures, came up with the idea that I should have a mug and then came up with the design of the mug. And that’s for me the reward of this idea of trying to live without being self-conscious, just trying to live as close to who you are in public.
It also allows you to create real relationships with people online. Again, thinking about between 2010 and 2020 that the things that have changed the most and this idea of trying to expand my world by talking about my enthusiasms, by talking about what I care about. People from those worlds have reached out to me so that when I was a kid, man I was such a big NBA fan that it was the most important thing to me. And now I have many friends who are running NBA teams or on NBA teams and that all happened just from doing the work that I do, being on Twitter, talking about it, connecting in a real way with people.
And I think one tangible thing, and this is going to sound crazy and this is true, is everyone makes fun of — not everyone. That’s not true. It’s kind of hip in some communities to make fun of people on Twitter who have blue check marks. But I do think if in your area of the world, if within whatever you do, you can find a way to make a goal for yourself to be somebody that Twitter verifies, it’s one of the biggest value adds that you can have in the world. It may not be fair, but we have to accept that it’s real. So I’m willing to say that it’s not fair, but it is a gigantic advantage. It enables you to surf Twitter in the way that the best board and lessons from the best surfer would give you because it immediately allows people of note to notice you. And so even though that’s a weird goal to have, I actually think it’s worth having it as a goal.
Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about, so I want to mention a few things. One, behind the scenes, and that is a story from my own experience with you and in observing you, and that is you have maybe we call it facilitated serendipity. So you have these moments of serendipity where someone designs a mug for The Royale, and I really encourage people to see this hilarious mug at theroyalebk.com, check it out. That’s for Brian Koppelman, not Burger King, by the way. And so people should just check that out. But that was facilitated by you. Does that make sense? There was a lot of serendipity, and I can’t remember who first used this phrase, but the surface area upon which luck could stick was increased by certain actions you took.
Similarly with Billions and possibly other projects that you’ve worked on, you’ve been very proactive about reaching out to people you might want to get to know. And even before that, thinking about how you might, say integrate them, like Jocko Willink for instance, Deontay Wilder. And you are very proactive in using your craft as a vehicle for expanding your circle of friends and your circle of influences. So people who can —
Brian Koppelman: 100 percent. 100 percent. I’m so glad you brought this up. So Jocko, this is a great example of this. You write your first book. Because we didn’t talk about this on any of the podcasts. So you wrote your first book and you were writing your second book. And I read the first book and I loved it. I just thought it was just so smartly written and that your worldview was so fascinating. And I remember I wasn’t in a particularly hot time in my career. I mean we could both figure out what year it was. It was a long time ago now. But when did you write the second book? When did you write a second book?
Tim Ferriss: The second book, I would have been writing in 2008, probably last part of 2008, 2009. It was published in 2010. So the first book was The 4-Hour Workweek. That came out in 2007. And then 4-Hour Body came out in 2010.
Brian Koppelman: So this is before Body came out. So I wrote you a letter to somehow, and in the book you made it clear it was hard to reach you. And this is something that I always have done. So I was like, this guy, I think maybe there’s a movie or a TV show in his life, but more than that I thought I want to meet this guy, and I think that we would have a kinship of some sort. And so I wrote you a letter. And I don’t remember what it said, I could probably find it. But I wrote you a note. And I said, “Hey, I’d love to talk,” or I wrote it to your assistant, you had a virtual assistant or whatever. I wrote to wherever that was. And I didn’t just write in a note because I get, as you do every day, “Can I take you to coffee?” I did not write a “Can I take you to coffee?” note because a “Can I take you to coffee?” note is useless.
I wrote you a note that was sort of like, “Here’s who I am, here’s what I do, here’s what I got out of what you did. I think maybe there’s something in this in movies and if it’s not that story, there’s something.” And we set up a call and we got on the phone. And then you came through New York, right as you finished the book, the second book, and we went and had lunch together with Dave. So then you and I had a correspondence and friendship that began then before you had a podcast, before I had a podcast. We had connected. I wrote you, I wrote a note that was — I thought about the note that I wrote. That’s another thing. I didn’t just write you, “Hey, let’s have coffee.” I thought about, well, I read this guy’s book. I think we’d have a kinship. I’m going to write a note that might express that so that when he reads the note, he too might think there’s some value in this. Not in a transactional way strictly. Just like, “Oh, this might be an interesting person to meet.”
So then we met. Then years later when we had this idea to have Jocko on the show, it wasn’t that you and I just had that one meeting. We then stayed in touch, checked in with each other, hung out in different places, became friends. When I was interested in having Jocko on the show, I called you or wrote you and I was like, “Hey dude, I want to invite Jocko on the show. Will you connect us?” You connected us to Jocko. You connected me to Jocko. Then I got to know Jocko a little bit. Jocko comes on the show and this was huge. So this is the precursor and I want to point this out about momentum.
Right around that time, I had also through Twitter met someone who invited me to, I don’t want to give away the event, an event that involved athletic endeavor. It was three months away and I was worried that I was in such bad shape. And I sat there on the set talking to Jocko because Jocko was there. Jocko, one of the foremost authorities on a certain kind of physical fitness. And I explained to Jocko what I was going to have to do and Jocko said, “You should start doing these exercises and you should do this kind of cardio.” And so even though I was 250 and horrible, from that day, Tim, I’ve done exercise four to five days a week and haven’t stopped. From the day I sat with you and Jocko and stood with you and Jocko on set outside that boxing ring, I started doing those exercises because I picked Jocko Willink’s brain and I decided, “If I’m going to bother Jocko to tell me these things, I’m going to do them.”
And that’s another part of what you’re talking about, the serendipity. So it wasn’t serendipity, but I definitely put that stuff in motion, but I didn’t put it in motion so that Jocko Willink would give me an exercise plan. Do you know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: The long con! Yeah, for sure.
Brian Koppelman: But when I was standing there with Jocko Willink, I was then going to say to him, “Hey dude, look, I know I’m a fat fuck and I know I’m never going to do your thing. I’m never going to be you, but I have to go do this thing in three months. What would you suggest?” And he looked at me, and similarly to what I said to you, he’s like, “All right. You really want me to tell you?” He’s like, “Because I’ll tell you.”
Tim Ferriss: I remember that conversation very, very clearly. Yeah, yeah.
Brian Koppelman: Right? You were standing right there.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. He did say effectively the same thing that you said to me, in reviewing the blog post.
Brian Koppelman: Which is you’re going to do —
Tim Ferriss: He was like, “Do you really want feedback?”
Brian Koppelman: Like, “Are you going to do this? Yeah? If you really want me to tell you what to do, I’ll fucking tell you.” And I will say, I then have checked in with him at various times. So he doesn’t follow me on Twitter, but he checks in because once in a while somebody, because he was on my podcast, and once in a while he’ll tweet something about me keeping it going. And so like a month ago or two months ago, I was home and I really didn’t want to go work out and I was whining. Okay, this is what I mean about living who I really am. I just really wasn’t in the mood. And I just put it on Twitter like, “Oh, I’ve had a shit day. I’m tired as fuck. I don’t want to go exercise.” And somebody in Twitter @ mentioned Jocko. And they were like, “Jocko Willink, take a look at this.” So I saw that somebody did that and I immediately just put on my sweats and went out.
And then a day later Jocko wrote, “I’m watching,” with eyes on it. And then I got to write back, “I did it, I went to do the exercise.” And then Jocko texted me or something like, “Good man.” Well that’s all silly of course and unnecessary on one level, but on another level, the fact that I’m just willing to expose myself as being too lazy to go to the gym, but also, as you’re saying, that I took a whole bunch of actions ahead of that. So that in some weird way, Jocko Willink, the toughest, most fit, most uncompromising motherfucker in the world, is sort of loosely paying attention to whether I’m getting my reps in is the perfect combination of what you’re talking about: setting a thing in motion and then letting serendipity do its part. Is that a good example?
Tim Ferriss: It is. And that’s also why I asked about the check-in format with your, I suppose, food addiction therapists, because accountability works. You don’t have to rely purely on some internally generated willpower, which will have moments of frailty. It’s helpful to develop that. Discipline equals freedom, as Jocko would say, but that discipline can also be reinforced and cultivated through accountability. And I very, and you know this Brian, I very rarely would say what I’m about to say, but for those people who are interested, I mean The 4-Hour Body does cover how to engineer that kind of accountability, and I’m sure a bunch of it is available for free on the blog as well, tim.blog. But the accountability, the power of it is really hard to overstate.
Now you mentioned The Food Bank earlier, and that is a perfect segue to talk about process. But before we get to your process with the monologue, because I want to talk about the monologue, before we get there, do you have any favorite books or websites or documentaries that come to mind for you as showcasing the messiness of process? For instance, to buy some time, I remember seeing this documentary about Spielberg. I think it might’ve just been called Spielberg, actually. And they talked about A, how he effectively seemingly had a nervous breakdown/heart attack or had those multiple times in the making of — oh, no, that might’ve been Lucas. That was Lucas. Lucas was killing himself and hospitalized during Star Wars. And then Spielberg during Jaws created the iconic buoys/barrels on top of the water imagery for the shark because the goddamn animatronic shark they were going to use broke. That’s how —
Brian Koppelman: Right. Of course. No, I know. Yes.
Tim Ferriss: So do you have any favorite movies or documentaries or anything?
Brian Koppelman: There are three. The documentary about Apocalypse Now that Francis Ford Coppola’s wife made is amazing. You should find it and watch it because Apocalypse Now, which is clearly more and more of a masterpiece every year and incredible because it’s still an unfinished work — Coppola released I think the best version of it last year. Five years ago, he released another version of it, but the one from last year is really incredible and purports to be the final version. But that movie was impossible to get made and it is truly an artistic masterpiece and worth watching the documentary and the movie together.
I would say that Steven Soderbergh’s book about the making of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is spectacular for anyone interested in any of these things. He takes you through from its inception as an idea, starting with other ideas that he had, through the inception. I’m not sure it’s an easy book to find, but it is worth it. That’s a book that’s worth overpaying for. And he takes you through every day of production, post-production, Sundance, selling the film, and then the script for the film is in there. You could only read that book and you would be in great shape.
Two more things. One is a book I read about once a year called Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, which brings you through each part of the process from a true master, one of the greats who ever did it. And then I’ve mentioned this book before, but I try to mention it every chance I get, and that book is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, who is my favorite living writer of fiction. But that book is not fiction. It is a book about running, but it is really a book about the discipline it takes to become great, and it’s all about process. It’s about the process of figuring out what the most useful breakfast you should have is if you want to write 10 pages and run 40 miles in a day, and it is a stunning short book that is incredibly easy to read, and it is the most empowering book I know of about trying to live as an artist.
Tim Ferriss: Incredible. All right. Taking a lot of notes here for myself. My goal is always to —
Brian Koppelman: Wait, have you not read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running?
Tim Ferriss: I have not. I’ve read I think Hard-Boiled Wonderland. I’ve read one of his —
Brian Koppelman: Oh, yeah, Hard-Boiled is a great book. That’s fiction and it’s great. His fiction’s amazing. Tim, you’ll freak out. There’s so much of you in that book, you’ll freak out. You got to read it. You freak out from it. You’ll blog about it. It’s so amazing what this guy did to turn himself into — because he was very late in life when he became a writer. It’s really, really worth reading. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I’m into it. I’m into it. I’m reading a really incredible novel right now, which is going to take me a little bit of time to get through. It’s Little, Big, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this novel. It’s Little, Big, and I’m blanking on the author’s name. I’m embarrassed.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, I haven’t read it. I have the book, but I haven’t read the book.
Tim Ferriss: It is one of those fiction books. It’s one of those novels that is so complex and the prose is so painstakingly beautiful and subtle and quite frankly difficult at points that you have to finish this book. You cannot put this book down for a month and just pick it back up, in part because there’s a very complicated family tree to keep track of. But once I finish that, then I will check out some more of Murakami.
Brian Koppelman: I’ve just had that experience reading Exhalation by Ted Chiang.
Tim Ferriss: So good.
Brian Koppelman: Chiang.
Tim Ferriss: Oh my God, yeah.
Brian Koppelman: I mean, the long novella in the middle of it is just one of the greatest feats of imagination, isn’t it? Just incredible. Incredible.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. If anyone is looking for — they vary tremendously in length — but if anyone was looking for an incredible collection of short stories that — we’re talking about fiction here — somewhere between, or a blend of science fiction and fantasy, Ted Chang, C-H-I-A-N-G, Exhalation is his latest collection, is just incredible. For those of you who may have seen Arrival, the movie, which is one of my favorite movies of the last many years, in part because the hero is a linguist who studies this sort of orthography-based alien language that ends up relating to the nature of time itself. That was based on one of his short stories in his previous collection. So that is a top recommendation. Let’s talk about a personal example of process, and tell us about the monologue, which is fucking amazing.
Brian Koppelman: Thanks.
Tim Ferriss: I just watched it this morning because it just came out. I mean, it was just put up.
Brian Koppelman: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: But could you just walk us through the origins and the process?
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, I’d love to, because it’s sort of a perfect encapsulation of all this stuff, and also something that would’ve been impossible 10 years ago. In 2010, the whole confluence of events would have been impossible and it also wasn’t the way that business even worked, where people were willing to sort of do this, right? I mean, Vincent is doing — so, what we’re talking about, sorry, let me set the table here, is that Vincent D’Onofrio, one of the world’s great actors, I mean, literally one of the greatest actors of our lifetime, Vincent D’Onofrio, during the coronavirus quarantine isolation time, has started posting monologues of himself reading some Shakespeare and some old classic plays, just little two and a half minute bursts. He’s just doing it to give people something to amuse themselves, to feel connection, and probably to do his work. This is the work that he was born to do and he loves doing it.
But the other day, and this was right when I was having this terrible tooth pain, which matters because when you’re doing the work that really matters to you, everything recedes, including pain. Vincent and I are not close friends or anything like that. We know each other professionally. We’ve always liked each other. We’ve always wanted to work together but have never quite been able to have it come together. He messaged me and he said, “Hey, I want to do something for The Food Bank. What I want to do is I’m going to ask three writers to write me a short monologue. I’m going to perform the monologue and encourage people to give to The Food Bank. I’m going to put the monologue up on Twitter.”
And the thing we haven’t talked about, Tim, and part of the thing of — we talked about it on the first podcast, so people should go back to it, is I really was a blocked writer for a very long time, and most of my life until I was 30 was filled with the disappointment of not being able to complete a creative assignment, not believing I really had it in me to pull something like that off. And so Vincent was like, “I would love to have this monologue from you in a day if I could, if you’re up for it.” So I instantly wrote him back and said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” I will tell you that I had no panic. I had no panic because of everything we’re talking about, this idea of process, this idea of being willing to live as openly as I can, because suddenly a word popped into my head, because you asked about process.
A word popped into my head. The word was reputation. The word popped into my head because I was thinking about Vincent. I was thinking about the way an actor can have a reputation as being a perfectionist or as being difficult. I was thinking about all of our reputations online, because I knew I was writing this for Twitter, right? I knew what I was writing this for had to be a contained two and a half minutes that, if you knew nothing going in, would be compelling. I knew Vincent would crush it. I had to do something that would turn Vincent on artistically and that would have some kind of throw, power, weight to it that would make you want to keep watching. I thought, “Well, even though…” and I thought, “Vincent doesn’t really address this stuff in life.” And by the way, I didn’t talk to him about any of this, right? We had no conversation. I didn’t say, “I’m going to write about reputation.”
So, the word popped into my head, suddenly I had three lines. I was in a car, so I got to the house that I’m in. I was just getting gas in the car. I got to the house, I immediately opened my laptop and I said to myself, “Just do it. Just write this thing. Go with it.” And, Tim, I just blasted out. At first I thought, “Do I say Vincent?” This is the way a writer thinks about this kind of thing, because I’m writing for an actor now. Right? So I realized it would be different if I wrote under the name of who spoke: Vincent or a man. And so I decided to write a man, so Vincent could make the choice about how close to him this was or not. Then I wrote this piece. I wrote this piece, it was like a page and a half, and I finished it. I worked on it, let’s say, for an hour and a half straight, and for an hour and a half I was just in it. The world, when I’m in that kind of a state, process-wise, the world disappears. Nothing else exists.
I’m just in this place that’s in between, that’s hyper-present but also kind of floating in the air and you’re kind of tethered to the page. So I wrote this page and a half, I reread it, I walked around, I took a mile and a half or two-mile walk. I came back, I looked at it again, I made a couple of changes of words. Then I sent it to my creative partner, David Levien, and I said, “Hey, D. Vincent asked me to do this thing. I wrote it. Everything is written by the two of us. Take a look at it, if you think you can make it better.” And I said, “And even if you don’t make it better, if you don’t feel like you have any ideas for it or you think it’s okay, I’ll just put both our names on it because everything’s from the two of us.”
He wrote back and he said, “No, you nailed this, dude. Don’t put my name on it. There’s no reason. You wrote it, do it.” Which I could do a long podcast about successful partnerships. But that whole thing of me sharing it with him first before anyone in the world saw it, him appreciating it, writing me back about it, telling me not to put his name on it, even though it would be my pleasure to do it, him wanting to give me that for myself. All that stuff was really beautiful, incredibly generous of Dave, because he could have totally just rewritten it, added six lines. It would have been written by the two of us, but he was like, “No, no, no. Come on, you did this thing. I’m not going to take partial credit for it.”
So, I sent it back to Vincent. He immediately wrote me back and said how pleased he was with it. But then he said, “Hey, but I think this won’t fit in the two — we only have 2:20 because I don’t want to put it on YouTube, I want it on Twitter. I’m limited by 2:20. Can you cut it? If you can’t, do you want me to try to figure out how to cut it?” So, this is one of those notes things, right? I really liked what I’d written. I really thought it could work. Now he’s saying, “Will you cut it?” I immediately said, “Of course I can cut it,” because you can always make cuts. You can always cut to make something better. So then I started cutting it, but I’ll tell you what else I did. I wrote two additional monologues that night.
So I cut down the monologue, sent it back to Vincent, and then I thought, “You know, I want to give this guy real choice.” So then I wrote two more monologues. I spent four hours, knowing that in all likelihood they would be for nothing. Right? They’re not going to be for Billions because they’re very specific things for Vincent D’Onofrio. But as a professional, I wanted to give — once I decided I was in this with Vincent, I wanted to give him the option to like, “Hey man, I don’t want –” So I wrote him two more monologues and I sent them. By the time I’d sent them, he had recorded the version of the real thing that he was going to post. He sent it to me. He’s like, “I’m really happy with this. Do you like it?” I loved it and I said, “I can’t wait for you to post it. This seems great.”
So it was an amazing process, but here’s the thing. There’s nothing professional about it on one level. Vincent’s not getting paid, I’m not getting paid. I’m someone who’s under contract to Showtime. I make shows for Showtime or CBS only. Vincent’s on his show on Starz — or on Epix, I think, is Godfather of Harlem. Vincent’s in his movies. Years ago, there’s no way that this could have come together, but because we’re both on social media, we both put ourselves out there, we were able to do this thing, and now we put the thing into the world and got to have a day of watching Vincent D’Onofrio, an actor I’ve wanted to work with for over 20 years, I got to see him do this monologue that I wrote for him. I got to see people show me their receipts of money they gave to The Food Bank. It was an amazing thing that Vincent also thought of The Food Bank, which is my charity. On his own, that’s his charity that he loves too. And so it was this great — I guess this is exactly what you’re talking about. Somehow this fits into what you’re talking about, where it was serendipitous, but also all the groundwork had been laid, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely. And for people who want to see it, they can see it if they go to Vincent’s Twitter account, so that would be @vincentdonofrio, which if you want a mnemonic, is like do no frio. Right? Vincent D’Onofrio. And if you don’t recognize that name, you will recognize his face and voice. Certainly early, early on, although he probably had many, many, many years prior to this, people may have seen him in, for instance, Full Metal Jacket as Private Pyle, who had had quite a memorable role in that film, and so much more. He’s just spectacular.
I was really, really impressed with the monologue and wanted to ask you about the process, and I also want to ask you, when you put together your first draft, did you do that by hand, on computer? If computer, what kind of app? And then when you made the changes you made, you said, “I changed a few words.” Yeah, go ahead. And then when you made your changes, do you remember what any of those changes were? Might be too micro, but I’m curious. So Final Draft is how you draft it?
Brian Koppelman: Yeah. Yes. Final Draft, I go to Final — yes. I open Final Draft. And, in fact, someone yesterday asked me if I would post it. I want to let it live this way for a week or so. Meaning, let Vincent’s interpretation of it be the thing that’s out there in the world. But then next week I’ll probably put it up on my blog, like the script itself, so you can see what it looks like when someone writes a monologue for an actor. I think that might be useful to people, so I’m going to put that up. But, yes, Tim, when I went back to it, I think there were just some phrases that I felt were lazy, or often what’ll happen is I’ll find I use — this is a particular quirk. If the same word is used a few times in a piece, I want it to be used really for a purpose.
I don’t like how it sounds if a word is repeated without there being a real clear reason for it to be repeated. So, often I’ll go through and just try to spot where I’ve sort of fallen into cliche or repeated myself, and so I probably went through and cut some of that stuff. Then often when I go through something a second time, I’ll be able to find where the breaks in it are, where the natural moments. So, in it, when Vincent kind of interrupts himself, it’s written that way, you’ll see when I post it. Then I probably added a line of description just to give the actor something to think about in that space. You know? And that’s just from years and years and years of writing for actors now. Right? I’ve been writing for actors for 25 years. The first blow at it is the artistic inspiration, and then each draft after is the sort of craft.
Tim Ferriss: We’ve covered a lot of ground, my friend. This is fantastic.
Brian Koppelman: Good.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah. I’m having fun. I have tons of tons of notes. I’m going to have to pick up Murakami also.
Brian Koppelman: I have to say one thing lastly, which is I know you don’t like praise, but if you cut this out of the podcast, I’ll be mad at you, which is you, I’m just going to say it quickly, I just want people to know that you are who you say you are, that the person you are on the podcast, even if you don’t quite live as publicly as I do, I will say you called me when I was wrestling with the COVID question. I was in New York City and I was trying to decide what to do, because I was very early on it, I posted a list January 31st of all the smart scientists on Twitter. I told people this was going to be a problem, but I had an emotional problem with leaving New York because I was making the show there; I love New York City. There were all sorts of ways I was trying to bargain with myself.
You called me twice and you were like, “Brian,” you basically called and you were like, “Here’s what I’m seeing. Here’s the problems.” I thought you were calling me to calm me down and you were calling me to do the opposite. And I said, “Well, dude, make sure when you really feel it’s the the time I got to get out, you tell me,” and you go, “This is that. This is the call. I’m making the call to you.” I was like, “Definitely tell me when it’s bad,” and you go, “It’s bad.” It was great, and then you posted it. This is the thing. You didn’t hoard that or keep it to yourself. You posted it that night or the next morning was when you released your post to people about the seatbelt. So you are in real life who you purport to be in this stuff. You’re on top of things. You’re taking the actions that you want people to take, and you were a good friend to me, and I really, I appreciate it. Sorry, I’ve said the nice thing, now we can move on. We can be done.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you, Brian. I really appreciate that. Yeah. What a journey. We find ourselves in exciting times and it’s going to be okay.
Brian Koppelman: Oh, I know, I know. The old Yiddish curse, right? That’s an old Yiddish curse. “May you live in interesting times” is an old Yiddish curse. It is.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I believe it. I believe it.
Brian Koppelman: So, listen, Tim, thank you so much for, for this. I love talking to you, and some of the talking on a podcast, you do get to get to very deep and real and directed stuff. So, this was very valuable to me. I did have to go see the dentist three days ago, so my quarantine was broken, so I may reach out to you to help fix me up if I somehow caught it.
Tim Ferriss: I will do my best to not lie to you.
Brian Koppelman: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. I will not improvise. I will fully explain the limits, the parameters, past which I’m deep in the ignorance pool, but happy to help anytime.
Brian Koppelman: Well, you can reach out to — here’s the thing. If I really am in that state, I will ask you to reach out to Peter Attia for me, and you will do it.
Tim Ferriss: I will, I will. I am happy to help my friends.
Brian Koppelman: All right. Thanks, dude.
Tim Ferriss: All right, Brian. Awesome to hear your voice. People can find you @briankoppelman on Twitter, The Moment podcast. Anything else you’d like to mention?
Brian Koppelman: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Of course the royalebk.com
Brian Koppelman: I want to see people drinking their coffee in the morning. Let’s have coffee together, The Royale, and go to theroyalebk.com. The money goes straight to The Food Bank.
Tim Ferriss: Awesome. And for everybody listening, you can find links to everything we’ve talked about, the docs, the books, the this, that and the other thing in the show notes as per usual at tim.blog/podcast, and thank you for tuning in. Thank you, Brian.
Brian Koppelman: Bye, Tim. Great talking to you.
Tim Ferriss: Bye.
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