Brian Koppelman, BILLIONS showrunner, makes the most of his hiatus

51 minutes · June 20, 2019

Even when he’s on hiatus from BILLIONS, it’s impossible to keep up with Brian Koppelman. As the Co-Creator of Showtime’s hit series set in the high altitude of New York’s financial enclaves, and host of his podcast, The Moment, the prolific reader, writer, and tweeter can opine knowledgably on just about everything. Join us as we dive into his just-wrapped fourth season, how his writers’ room gets ready for its fifth, and how he’s turned New York into the perfect film set to explore his passions and curiosities.

Announcer 1 (00:03):

From the library of the New York Stock Exchange at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in New York City, you're Inside the ICE House, our podcast from Intercontinental Exchange on markets, leadership, and vision, and global business, the dream drivers that have made the NYSE an indispensable institution of global growth for over for 225 years. Each week, we feature stories of those who hatch plans, create jobs, and harness the engine of capitalism right here, right now at the NYSE and at ICE's 12 exchanges and 6 clearing houses around the world. And now, welcome Inside the ICE House. Here's your host, Josh King, of Intercontinental Exchange.

Josh King (00:46):

By now, our listeners know I live in New York City and work here at the New York Stock Exchange. On weekends. I'll take a long run along the East River here in Lower Manhattan. My wife and I have two kids in the West Village. And a few Saturdays ago, I dragged them to a documentary at the Angelika Film Center. Film was called Echo In The Canyon, and I rewarded their patience with their dad's love of the 1960's California music scene with an ice cream at Morgenstern's Finest, the current rage of the New York dessert scene. We tried to get into Una Pizza Napoletana before the show, no dice there. That place is more overrun than the feeding trough of an Arkansas chicken farm, as Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat might say. Well, actually, Jeffcoat might be a lot more profane and a good deal funnier than that.

Josh King (01:37):

So, why am I telling you all this? The fourth season of Billions just wrapped up on Showtime and those places I mentioned, the NYSE, East River Park, Morgenstern's, Una Pizza Napoletana, they became the sets and the drama we've come to love, focused on hedge fund billionaire, Bobby Axelrod, and his longtime nemesis and this season his frenemy, former US attorney for the Southern district and now State Attorney General Chuck Rhoades. Fictional characters. Real-life backdrops. A West Wing for the modern age that 4.5 million viewers like me are irresistibly absorbed in every week. It's appointment television, even in an age of video on demand.

Josh King (02:20):

A few weeks ago, Showtime, which is part of CBS, and that's NYSE ticker symbol CBS, announced their order for a fifth season of Billions in 2020. And then last week, as the season finale was about to air, Showtime announced that it had secured the services of the show's creators, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, in what's known in the industry as an overall deal to develop new series for the network.

Josh King (02:48):

What's made Billions work so well for so long? By tapping into the zeitgeist of the New York City financial community and the social fabric of this city and the Tristate area that both surrounds and services it. We'll get into all of that and, if he'll tell us, what an overall deal at Showtime might bring to our screens in years hence. That's all with Brian Koppelman, the co-creator, executive producer, and showrunner of Billions, right after this.

Announcer 2 (03:18):

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Josh King (03:52):

I was late to Brian Koppelman. My many friends, who count him as a friend, think the world of him. I heard him on Bill Simmons' podcasts and loved that banter. And sure, I enjoyed Rounders just like the next guy who's a way too easy mark at my friend Michael [Schlein's 00:04:08] poker table. But you get to be a certain age and you spend less time in theaters and more time in front of the tube, first on network with shows like West Wing and then watching premium cable, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and you ask, "What's the next big thing?" For me and my wife. It's been Billions, four great seasons and counting, but that's not all.

Josh King (04:31):

And New York is a walking city, a subway city. And with Bluetooth headphones in my ears, I binge on The Moment, which is Brian's long-running podcast, diving deep into back episodes because really they're timeless; and Brian's existence on Twitter where he'll be hanging out at all hours, chipping in views, answering questions, talking up meditation, and generally encouraging the creative spirit that resides inside all of us. In that way, Brian gives me therapy every day at no cost while I'm out walking the dog.

Josh King (05:06):

And now, he's here, Inside the ICE House, taking time out of his hiatus to share some of that therapy with you, our listeners. And let me warn you: there will be spoilers. So, for all those who haven't seen all of season four, now would be a good time to press pause and come back later when you know who the idiot is.

Josh King (05:27):

Welcome, Brian, to the library.

Brian Koppelman (05:29):

I'm so happy to be here, man. Whose books are these all?

Josh King (05:32):

These all belong to the New York Stock Exchange. If you weren't Marie Kondoing your house, you could have a lot of them on your shelves.

Brian Koppelman (05:37):

Well, I was going to who comes and reads them? Because these are amazing, old, incredible looks. And I'm a book freak, obviously, because what I do for a living. And I'm just totally... I want to grab a bunch of these really old books on investing and on banking and just see how they're written and the way people thought when they wrote these books.

Josh King (05:59):

Well, they've all got the Dewey Decimal System labels on them, Brian. So, you could remove them and borrow them as long as you return them in our drop-off shelf 24 hours a day.

Brian Koppelman (06:07):


Josh King (06:08):

You see, no business suit required at the New York Stock Exchange.

Brian Koppelman (06:11):

No, that's good to know. But if you ring the bell, you need to wear a suit.

Josh King (06:14):

That's right. That's right.

Brian Koppelman (06:15):


Josh King (06:15):

We generally-

Brian Koppelman (06:16):

That's fair.

Josh King (06:17):

... good about that rule.

Brian Koppelman (06:18):

That's fair.

Josh King (06:18):

But you've got enough partners and enough cast members that we could go several seasons and not touch the bottom barrel, even without you on that podium.

Brian Koppelman (06:24):

It's true. And it's a great honor. And both times... actually, I did come the first time and wore a suit. And the second time, I was on my way, but I was sick. And what an incredible honor. And what a blast for everybody to get to do that, to actually... it makes the world of the show... anytime we can touch something that is something that the characters in the show would really do, it helps a tremendous amount. So, getting to come here and do that once and then having the whole team do it the second time, really a great thing.

Josh King (06:50):

I mean, Amanda must have read this. The David Costabile GQ story about how much he enjoyed being in the scrum of all the traders in character as Wags. And they were just ripping off his clothes.

Brian Koppelman (07:01):

Yeah, no, it's awesome.

Josh King (07:02):

Brian, you're a sports writer. You did the 30 for 30 on Jimmy Connors. Let's talk a little bit about athletes playing through injury. Here's part of the intro of game five of the NBA finals on Monday night.

Mike Breen (07:14):

The first four games, the Raptors were dominant, and lead three games to one on. But all of a sudden, Golden State has a new edition. Kevin Durant will play and Kevin Durant will start.

Doris Burke (07:24):

Not only will he start, but according to Steve Kerr, Kevin Durant will not have any minutes restrictions whatsoever.

Josh King (07:30):

Brian, what was going on with the Golden State Warriors and Kevin Durant's decision to play?

Brian Koppelman (07:35):

Well, okay, I'm not an expert on this, but I-

Josh King (07:37):

But you've had some opinion that you've expressed.

Brian Koppelman (07:39):

Well, I immediately go back to Willis Reed. There's this incredible tradition of athletes doing this, knowing it will cause them future pain, knowing that they might put themselves at terrible risk. I remember Willis McGahee, when he blew out his knee right before he was going to be the number-one or number-two draft in the NFL draft. Willis Reed famously comes out. He can't walk. He hits two shots. Four points is all he scored in that game. The Knicks win their first championship in 1970. Athletes are lauded for this kind of sacrifice. I think what you're...

Brian Koppelman (08:14):

And so, I completely understand why KD... and I not only understand it, I mean, I'm in awe of that kind of commitment. And I'm not just saying that because I hope he hears it and then comes and plays for the Knicks, knowing that New Yorkers understand him. Though, that's partially why I'm saying it.

Brian Koppelman (08:32):

But I think what you're asking about is the inherent conflict in a team's doctor. And if you're doing this as a way to get a window into the way we think about conflicts of interest on our show, I'll say, look, anytime someone is giving you counsel anywhere in life, it's useful, before you just take that counsel, to try and divine whose interest that person is serving or what interests, it could be not a person, first before you decide how you want to follow it.

Brian Koppelman (09:05):

But KD is incredibly smart and has a ton of agency. I know him a little. I've spent two days with him. I don't know him well. But he's somebody who clearly has a lot of personal agency. Rich Kleiman is a brilliant guy who manages KD's career. So, I can't say that they just blindly took somebody's advice. I think he wanted to contribute.

Brian Koppelman (09:28):

But this story out of Golden State, what Kerr said... and by the way, Kerr is a hero to me. I admire the hell out of him. But when he said, nobody expected that injury could occur, nobody even thought it was possible, that an Achilles could follow a blown-out calf, I think what I said on Twitter that you're reacting to is that I was playing tennis. I thought it was like five years ago, but my wife told me it was like 10 years ago, but I blew out my calf. And as soon as I went to the doctor and got the x-rays, the doc said, "You should be really careful and not try to do this too soon because this often leads to an Achilles tear. And that it if you don't rehab your calf correctly and if you try to get back into action too quickly, you could tear your Achilles. And that's a much more severe injury." The guy I went to is a great doc, like, a famous New York doc, deals with a lot of the teams. But if I'm getting... I'm not a professional athlete. I'm just some schnook who lives in New York City. If I'm able to quickly know that my Achilles is in jeopardy, you would think that someone whose body is that valuable would be getting at least the same level of advice. And so, I was suspicious of that story.

Josh King (10:43):

I was not going to use that as a segue into conflicts of interest in the show. I've got other ways to do that. But I was going to use it as a segue to Mike Wagner's also an athlete who likes to play injured. He's drugged at the consulates of foreign governments. He gets plastered with Wendy Rhoades to console her about maybe losing her medical license. His pride is wounded after he dresses in drag on an ill-fated, attempt to join Kappa Beta Phi.

David Costabile (11:06):

Michael Wagner. Maybe it's just under Wags. I'm a neophyte.

Speaker 1 (11:15):

Not seeing it.

David Costabile (11:17):

I have the invitation right here.

Michael Kostroff (11:19):

Say, "Gorgonzola." Oh, you're going to look pretty on page six.

David Costabile (11:24):

Nussfaur, you sent this.

Michael Kostroff (11:27):

For you to endure the humiliation, Wagner, not of wearing a dress, but of being an interloper, a trespasser, a buttinsky, a social climber who has to watch the ladder pulled up right in front of your grasping, outstretched arms.

Josh King (11:44):

Wagner uttered like, "Newman." The guy is a glutton for punishment. What drives the man?

Brian Koppelman (11:50):

First of all, David Costabile, who you mentioned earlier is just such an incredible actor and brings a humanity to Wags because if we met the real-life Wags, I'm not sure we would be all that charmed by him.

Brian Koppelman (12:03):

Wags is an incredibly loyal person. While we're making the show, I don't talk that much about what drives the characters in a forum that the actors might hear. I want the actors to be able to interpret it and ask questions. And I don't want to lead them.

Brian Koppelman (12:23):

I will say that we're constantly asking ourselves the question of what drives people like this. What makes the pursuit of this particular kind of money, power, influence so alluring to a subset of people? Some people realize, at a certain point, they have enough and turn their attention to other interests. These are people seemingly incapable of not competing, incapable of leaving the game.

Brian Koppelman (12:59):

So, Wags is certainly a loyal person. Axe means the world to him. Being in the game means a lot to him. Winning means a lot to him. But I think this season we saw Wags' own sense of the impermanence of our time here. And I think that that's a hint to part of his psychology.

Josh King (13:25):

I mean, we talked briefly about this visit that he and Toby Leonard Moore and Kelly AuCoin had, along with David, to the New York Stock Exchange, talked about how he was mobbed. And a show could last a year, a show could last five years, a show could last nine years, but I've never seen a person occupy their role, at least when they're in public, in real life, since Steve Schirripa was Bobby Bacala. I mean, the guy just occupies that care character when the public calls for him to be that person.

Brian Koppelman (13:59):

Well, if he's going to be here, he's going to make everybody feel good. I mean, Costi and I went to college together. And he was the best actor at Tufts, following Hank Azaria and Oliver Platt, who were a couple classes ahead of me. And I'm ahead of Costi by a year. But he's just an incredibly soulful, beautiful person, and very different from Wags. But Costi would always want to make an interaction really great for the fan. And so, if he's in a room with traders, I mean, he's going to play it up for the traders.

Josh King (14:36):

A few weeks after Costi was here playing it up for the traders, Maggie Siff was here with Rachel Syme of The New Yorker. She looked like she could fill Stacey Cunningham's shoes as president of the NYSE. And when she got in the building, the first time with the reporter, she was immediately asking me, "Well, why aren't there more women on the floor?" Have you found that from you the time that you first cast this person to all of the scenes she's had to play, all the scripts she's had to read, that she has become much deeper immersed and thoughtful about the issues that occupy this industry?

Brian Koppelman (15:09):

I mean, I think, no. Maggie's from the... look, you're talking about a brilliant person. You're talking about somebody who tested into Bronx Science. And if you're a New York person, you understand that means she's in the top 1% or 2% of intelligence, as intelligence is tested on that kind of standardized test, at a time when not that many women were even wanting to go there. And Maggie dives all the way in. She is hyperfocused, she's incredibly empathetic, and has always had many questions about how Wendy Rhoades would fit into these different circumstances. That's just a part of the way that Maggie Siff approaches all this, that she has an incredible seriousness of purpose. She's also great. I mean, being in an elevator with Maggie Siff and Rachel Syme, that is a lot of IQ. Those two people are both brilliant.

Josh King (15:59):

It was such a wrenching season for her. Every episode brought new challenges until the final one. I think the most brutal image of the whole season for me, based on sort of the way I think about life, is that lone moment in the Brooklyn townhouse. Chuck has come home after one of those later nights and sees the warm cherry pie on the kitchen island. Maggie is nowhere to be found. And he grabs his kitchen implements and is about to dive into it, as only Chuck can, before the real estate broker comes in. The way that Paul Giamatti gets into his method, did that pie have to be actually warmed to attract his nose?

Brian Koppelman (16:42):

No. Also, it was an apple pie, but everybody... it's great because it's whatever pie you would most want to be there. It's like the Rorschach pie. Whatever you think it would be. If you need it to be a warm cherry pie, then it was. It happened to be an apple pie.

Brian Koppelman (17:01):

No. I mean, these actors, they're so... I mean, you're talking about some of the best actors in the world, some of the best actors ever to be on television. And no. Paul could play it... if I put one of these dusty, old books there and said, "That's a pie," Paul could play that if he had to. And I was like, "We're going to CGI the pie in later," he'd be like, "Okay. No problem."

Josh King (17:19):

So congratulations on the wrapping of the fourth season.

Brian Koppelman (17:22):


Josh King (17:22):

How does the weight that you felt during the season and the corresponding lifting of that weight when the work is over compare to three seasons prior?

Brian Koppelman (17:30):

No, I mean, it's always... I'm a totally different person during the season and not in the season. So, between seasons three and four, David and I had about three days off. So, we finished season three and then we... so, you finish the shooting, so everybody gets to go home, but David and I have to finish editing and mixing with editors and mixers. We have to finish the entire post-production process. And so, between seasons three and four, Showtime asked us if we could get our show ready sooner. They had reasons that they wanted it on the air when they did. And we said, "Yeah, but we are going to need two months after season four, or we can't... we have to find a way to get away and let our brains begin to just imagine again and experience other things and just take long walks and swim." Like, literally just do anything other than write Billions.

Brian Koppelman (18:23):

And the second that the season is written, each time the two of us can breathe. We feel such a heavy obligation to make it the very strongest version of the show that we can come up with. And that really starts with making sure that the scripts are great, and that we're going to give these actors stuff that they really want to play, and that we know we have these devoted fans. There are shows with a bigger audience, but there are not many shows with a more devoted audience of people who watch the show 3, 4, 5 times and pick up on every line and every reference and care deeply. So, we feel this tremendous... it's not pressure because both of us are so grateful we get to do this, but it feels like a duty and an obligation to serve all these people. So, the moment it's written, we're both able to sort of exhale and say, "Okay. Well, we've done that part." Then we have to make sure that we realize that vision that we've laid out when we're shooting and cutting it, but then we're able to chill out.

Brian Koppelman (19:26):

And this time, I've made sure to sort of not check my calendar every day, not book other kinds of meetings. I think, in life, it's super important to remain in touch with yourself somehow. All of us could fill our calendars. All of us can be on social media all the time. All of us can get into that game of, not being proud of being busy, but of kind of giving in to being busy. And then just accepting that as the status quo. And I have found that protecting some time that's unscheduled and where you just take the demands off of yourself if you can, if you're lucky enough to be able to do that, it pays huge dividends down the road. And so, that's the mode that I'm in right now.

Josh King (20:20):

Is there any downside to this? And I asked David a version of this question, but I'm curious what you would say. And you talked about the shooting and the cutting N T post and all that work getting wrapped up and then this process over 12 weeks with the one week off for the Game of Thrones finale. And I can set my watch to those Sunday afternoons when you advertise the beginning of Ask Me Anything. And sometimes you're at a restaurant and you'll say, "I'm eating here at the bar alone. And anything on your mind in Twitterland?" And your 88,000 or so followers will chime in all this interesting stuff. And so, the way David said was, like, unlike a movie or a book release, when it's a couple weeks of big release, you've got at least 12 to 14 weeks of your fans all over you, so interested in asking you questions and your answers. There must be this euphoria of putting it all away, but is there a loss of people tuning out for a year?

Brian Koppelman (21:27):

No, no. I'm sure that Dave and I will both feel a sense of... well, there's a couple answers to this. I'm sure Dave and I will feel a sense, whenever it ends, of loss. This has been the central thing in our lives. But an advantage of having as long a career as we have had and a career filled with success and failure, is that we've been able to see... Like, our first movie, Rounders, people are still reacting to it. If I need that kind of interaction, it's available to me.

Brian Koppelman (22:04):

But it's really important to think of, for me anyway, to think of the social media engagements, [inaudible 00:22:10] think of my podcast, which is I'm really trying hard not to do that stuff for my own benefit, not to do it for a way that is just about the endorphins and the ego hit. Of course, all of us like praise, all of us are happy if people enjoy the work that we do, but when I'm doing those Ask Me Anythings, sure, it's fun for me to do that, but I am really trying to keep myself in a place where it's about being there for the people who are into it. And I think if you keep that perspective, the time away from it doesn't cause harm, doesn't cause need.

Brian Koppelman (22:56):

And, again, I think part of that is I'm 53. Dave and I have written movies that have been incredibly successful. We've written movies that have failed. We've directed movies we're really proud of, that were well-reviewed, but weren't commercial successes. I've lived enough of this, that none of it is a surprise. The reaction stuff is not a surprise to me, nor is my own processing of it. You know, Amy and I didn't go out and buy a bigger apartment. We've lived in the same place for 16 years. I could, but we like the life-

Josh King (23:28):

You certainly didn't go out and buy suits.

Brian Koppelman (23:29):

No. No suits. No. In fact, I'm wearing a Becky Lynch t-shirt, who is going to be on the podcast next week, I think. And we just recorded it.

Josh King (23:38):

I had Big Show right in the seat that you're sitting in.

Brian Koppelman (23:40):

That's awesome. Was he, like, up to here?

Josh King (23:43):

He barely fit in the chair.

Brian Koppelman (23:45):

Yeah. I can't imagine that he would really. That guy's massive.

Josh King (23:48):

[crosstalk 00:23:48].

Brian Koppelman (23:48):

Sorry. Which is all to say, I'm not really that affected by any of that stuff. I enjoy it. I'm happy to engage with people, but I don't need it in that way. So, I'm very happy.

Brian Koppelman (24:02):

I love it when the season's going and it's super exciting, but it's a relief not to have next week there being an episode. It's a lot. The way that it gears up, it requires a lot of attention and I'm fine to not do it. Last year, after the end of the season, I didn't do one of those Ask Me Anythings for like six months after the season.

Josh King (24:26):

And I get that lack of affect. That lack of affect comes through whenever you tune into a Moment podcast because it's clear, you've read a book or two, you've immersed yourself in the lives of those people, you're a whole lot more interested in them than you are in yourself.

Josh King (24:41):

But before we cast season four into the Showtime archives, I just want to do a quick spin through some of the highlights that I felt through because we're going to put this up in a couple days and people are still kind of processing things that they saw.

Josh King (24:56):

Let's start with Chickentown. Episode 3. Your homage to Chinatown and the vehicle that allowed Kelly AuCoin's ascension really to a series regular and more screen time. Let's hear a little clip from it.

Damian Lewis (25:07):


Damian Lewis (25:15):

Bill. Bill. What are you about to do?

Kelly AuCoin (25:20):

What I always do for you: whatever I have to.

David Costabile (25:23):

Yes. But specifically, what are you about to do right now?

Damian Lewis (25:27):

What's in the bag, Bill? What's in the bag?

Kelly AuCoin (25:30):

A capon with a case of H5N1B. Just enough to freeze transport on a few hundred thousand infected birds. Prices will skyrocket.

Josh King (25:41):

H5N1B. Brian, how did you get smart on poultry to write that episode?

Brian Koppelman (25:46):

We have a writer's room, Dave and I. And one of the writers told us about various chicken indices and the ways in which they're forecast, you know, the amount of chickens is forecast. And we all just loved it. And then as soon as it came up, one of us, either Dave or me said, "Atlantic City." We had to use the Springsteen song. And then the whole thing just flowed from there. That episode, the first draft was written by Lenore Zion, who's a credited writer on the episode. Did a great job.

Brian Koppelman (26:21):

By the way, Kelly AuCoin became a regular on the show at the end of last season. We made him a regular because his work each season had just been so good. And each season we gave him a little bit more to do, and he always rose to the task. So, we were thrilled to make him part of the regular cast of the show. And he really delivered this year.

Josh King (26:41):

A Proper Sendoff. Episode 5. I could watch David Strathairn forever, but Chuck sent him six feet under in style.

Josh King (26:47):

And then you foreshadowed the finale with the way that Bobby sent John Rice out to sea. This device that you have of getting people out of their comfort zone or out of their control environment, leaving the phones in the back of the SUV, getting out onto Bobby's boat because they can have some real bro time together. In fact, it's all part of the plot.

Brian Koppelman (27:10):

Well, yeah. We're going to use any... I mean, Levien likes to say we're a snout-to-tail operation, and he's right. We will use every part of the pig. And so, any storytelling device, we are going to take advantage of.

Brian Koppelman (27:22):

There are various ways in which we sort of foreshadowed the end of the season. And we're always doing that too. The sites that write about the show will often point out that if there's some casual little look between two characters or there's something said that you don't quite... if you think about season two, when Chuck is out with Ira and these two women, Tyga and another one, it's the first time you hear Ice Juice mentioned. Ira says something about, "I have these gift cards to Ice Juice." And then that doesn't play out until Episode 11 of the show of that season. And so, we're always looking to reward... like, the casual viewer can come in and just watch it and it's entertaining and fun, but the more you bring to it and the more you're in, the more we're going to try to give you little treats along the way, little Easter eggs along the way, little things to pick up on to make it all add up for you at the end that will reward your paying super close attention.

Josh King (28:23):

Maximum Recreational Depth. That was Episode 6. You're using Clancy Brown and Danny Strong at a urinal to unleash Hard Bob on Doug Taylor's dream of a business venture. We have the best urinal in town right around the corner. And April looked at it for potential for shooting that scene, but it wasn't enough room for the camera. But the Hard Bob character was one of my greatest memories of [inaudible 00:28:49] this summer.

Brian Koppelman (28:50):

Chelcie Ross is an incredible actor. And I mean, that's one of those great things. David and I came up with the character, Hard Bob Beaufort, 10 years ago. We just were sitting in this old office we used to have, which was atop of a bridge club. We had the top floor of this really old bridge club in Manhattan. And we would, one of us, we just started riffing one day on this.... at the time, in our minds, he was probably a Texas oil man, but we just had this idea of a guy named Hard Bob, who brook no bullshit.

Brian Koppelman (29:19):

And when we were writing this episode, we were sitting with Adam Pearlman who's our lieutenant on the show, a co-executive producer of the show. And we were talking about Hard Bob Beaufort. And we realized, oh, we could use this character and take the character, instead of writing a whole thing about him, and put him in the middle of this. And it was incredibly satisfying to have Chelcie... and then immediately, that day said, "The only guy who can play this is Chelcie Ross." And then we went out and got him to do it, which was super exciting.

Josh King (29:48):

And then there was Fight Night. Episode 8. A not-so-pivotal scene filmed right here at the New York Stock Exchange, but it got Stacey her first theatrical line. So, we were all giddy about that. But did you channel Sylvester Stallone when you were writing the boxing scenes?

David Costabile (30:03):


Rich Eisen (30:03):

That's not legal.

Speaker 2 (30:06):

I'm going to be honest well you, Rich, this is probably one of pussiest fights I've ever seen in my life.

Bob Menery (30:11):

They stopped fighting before the bell. And now, Mafee's vomiting.

Jocko Willink (30:16):

You got to keep going right now.

Speaker 3 (30:16):

You got to keep going right now.

Jocko Willink (30:16):

Let's go. Right now.

Speaker 4 (30:16):

Keep going.

Speaker 3 (30:16):

You got to keep going.

Speaker 4 (30:16):

Let's go, baby.

Jocko Willink (30:24):

You got to get up and...

Bob Menery (30:27):

That's the Bald Bull charge from Mike Tyson's Punchout.

Josh King (30:32):

I mean, might as well be Rocky 34.

Brian Koppelman (30:34):

Big props to Rich Eisen and Bob Menery who commentated-

Josh King (30:37):

Rich is great.

Brian Koppelman (30:37):

... on that stuff. Both those guys killed it for us.

Josh King (30:39):

And then there was this finale, Extreme Sandbox. Let's start with the extreme sandbox itself. Bobby gets a lot done by luring his targets out of town.

Paul Giamatti (30:47):

Off to?

Maggie Siff (30:50):

Day trip with Rebecca. State changer or something.

Paul Giamatti (30:54):

Good. Yeah. You let those shoulders drop.

Maggie Siff (30:59):

I don't think they'll drop until the exact terms of my suspension have been announced and probably not until it's all over.

Paul Giamatti (31:06):

While you're gone, I will be hard at it trying to get those terms relaxed or done away. Would've been easier ahead of time, but there must be a lever out there.

Josh King (31:15):

Let those shoulders drop. The helicopter brings them out to the extreme sandbox. You've got Mark Cuban in a cameo. And you've filmed some great scenes there. Having Mark bring this idea into the show, what was the thought about bringing that device into the show?

Brian Koppelman (31:28):

Well, Mark and I first met at a basketball camp for adults, like, 18 years ago and have been friendly ever since. And Mark has been a great counselor to Dave and me about billionaires and about the psychology of billionaires and about the psychology of the business world. Each season, we sit down with Mark or we get on the phone and we sort of talk about the state of play. And we do that with a bunch of different people, but Mark's one of the most valuable because he's an insider and an outsider of the world. He's wealthy... he's as wealthy or wealthier than a lot of these people, but he doesn't make his money in the way that they do. Yet, he interacts with them all the time. So, he has great insight into the way billionaires in the hedge fund and private equity space and VC space live.

Brian Koppelman (32:22):

And then Mark was in seasons 2, 3, and then season 4. I think as long as we make the show, my guess is Mark will make an appearance each season. But he didn't bring up extreme sandbox. What happens is when we get the idea for what we want to have Mark do, we call him and we say, "Well, here's what we're thinking. And does it make sense to you?"

Brian Koppelman (32:40):

And extreme sandbox had come up in the room as a thing that they could... we didn't want Rebecca to take Wendy just to a spa. We didn't want to just cut to them, putting mud masks on their faces, you know, the kind of thing that a show might do with two female characters. We wanted them to do something that was much more like, no, no, no, these are two alpha businesspeople who happen to be women. So, what would be something different? Extreme sandbox came up.

Brian Koppelman (33:11):

David and I loved the idea of that as an episode title and idea, the idea of these people all living in extreme sandbox or treating their lives like that. So, it worked thematically for us and metaphorically for us. So, when we called Mark, we were like, "Hey, can you help us make this happen?" And then he hooked us up with the extreme sandbox person. And then that all happened that way.

Josh King (33:30):

So, you finish the season and part of the sort of unwinding or you being able to do things that touch other aspects of your creative interest, you are out to Bethpage Black, you write the story of the putting game for Sports Illustrated. How else are you going to spend your [inaudible 00:33:49]?

Brian Koppelman (33:49):

I'm hanging with Amy a lot. And as our kids come through town, they're 23 and 19 so they're not here all the time, but hanging with our children when we can. And I'm reading a lot. I'm reading and writing other stuff and watching stuff. I mean, I'm constantly trying to change and enhance the prism through which I look at the world and this stuff. So, for me, the ways I do that, it's by interacting with music that I love and books and movies and TV shows. So, I'm always doing that.

Brian Koppelman (34:21):

I'm catching up with my friends because for seven months a year, the only way that I can hang with my friends, if they come visit me on set, and they do, but that's 20 minutes of saying hello and then we're back to work. So, I'm trying to see my friends when I can.

Brian Koppelman (34:36):

And then the other thing I do for myself is I got really bad at golf again. I was good at golf for a while, and I'm trying to get good again. I hate everything about golf except playing golf.

Josh King (34:47):

Are you watching-

Brian Koppelman (34:47):

And professional golfers. I like to...

Josh King (34:48):

Are you watching Tiger out at Pebble Beach?

Brian Koppelman (34:50):

I try to watch every hole that guy plays.

Josh King (34:52):

So, all this work starts anew in July. The writer's room will reconvene. You've probably found or begun to assemble those that are going to spend all that time with you in that office as you crank out these 12 episodes. What are the first couple weeks like of blocking out a season?

Brian Koppelman (35:08):

Sure. The first thing, David and I will usually have a couple of thematic ideas about the season. We'll start talking to the room about that, getting their opinions. And we'll try to come up with a idea that's just for us, sort of a sentence about what the theme of the year is. And then we try to test the story ideas against that theme, the character ideas against that theme. And that theme comes from the characters, comes from where we think the characters are and where they need to go. So, the first few weeks are very open, very blue sky, let's just figure out all the possibilities. And then we start honing it.

Josh King (35:48):

When we come back with Brian Koppelman, his life beyond Billions: teaching, reading, coaching, meditating, reporting, podcasting. That's right after this.

Announcer 2 (35:57):

And now a word from Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Company. NYSE ticker: LEVI.

Chip Bergh (36:05):

There's no other brand in the world like Levi's. We're here today because of the dedication of the 15,000 employees that we have around the world. Growth is being driven across the company. Men's, women's, tops, bottoms, outerwear. Virtually every country in the world grew last year. Being associated with an institution that goes back further than Levi's is special. This is where this company deserves to be.

Josh King (36:35):

Back now with Brian Koppelman, co-creator, executive producer and showrunner of Billions on Showtime. Before the break, Brian and I did a little proctology on season four, but as I mentioned in the introduction, making 12 episodes of a great show every year is really kind of the tip of the iceberg of what I appreciate about Brian.

Josh King (36:52):

Brian, on Bob Dylan's birthday a few weeks ago, you re-upped an old post of yours from 2017.

Brian Koppelman (36:58):

Oh yeah.

Josh King (36:59):

Oh Mercy and Me. You're at Elektra Records and you're exposed to this song.

Bob Dylan (37:29):


Josh King (37:31):

Brian, you can set the scene for us in that rented Mustang convertible from many years prior, but I was struck more by the thought of you driving with Amy to pick up your son at the airport and needing "to put on the perfect album." What kind of parent gives that much thought to the album that they're going to have in the car when they pick up their kid at the airport?

Brian Koppelman (37:54):

A parent connected with their kids, maybe? Well, music's just always been really important to the four of us. And we had all been in separate places for a long time. And the four of us are very close. And the times that we all get to be together are very special. And yeah. And Amy and I were driving and we were picking him up, Sammy up, and then Anna was going to come in after that.

Brian Koppelman (38:16):

So, I will say, that album... it's funny. Earlier today, I watched the Martin Scorsese, the new Bob Dylan movie, which is called Rolling Thunder Revue, which is incredible. And I was thinking about the fact that Dylan may very well be the great artist of our lifetime. And you can make the argument for Miles Davis or Jasper John. There are many, I'm sure, many other people in the conversation, but for me anyway Dylan's the person. And yeah, if you go to my blog, I don't update it very frequently, but if you go to my blog at briankoppelman.com, I tell this story about being one of five people in the world who had Dylan's Oh Mercy album at the time, who'd heard that album.

Brian Koppelman (38:58):

I was at Elektra Records. And I was 23 years old. I was given this album with these very specific conditions. This woman, Carole Childs, who was an important music business executive, who was also Bob's girlfriend at the time, she was helping him make the album, she gave it to me and said they were struggling trying to figure out the sequence. She really didn't need my advice at all. In fact, the album was perfectly sequenced, as I say at the end of this story, but she gave me these conditions. She was like, "I'll give you this album, but you can't tell anybody you have it. You can't share it with anybody. Nobody else can listen to it. And you have to give it back to me tomorrow morning."

Brian Koppelman (39:31):

I had a roommate. And I didn't want to listen to it on a Walkman with shitty speakers. There was no iTunes. There were no iPhones. So, I got in this rented Mustang convertible and I drove from LA to Santa Barbara and back over and over. I did it like three times during the night basically. And I just drove with the top down at night, listening to Oh Mercy. And it's one of the sort of great nights of my life.

Josh King (39:56):

And you have re-upped that experience and have sort of similar thoughts about the quality of the new Bruce Springsteen album.

Brian Koppelman (40:01):

Yeah. That just fell into... somebody just sent that to me. Someone who was part of that just said, "Hey, give this to you early," but I didn't have to go driving anywhere alone. Amy and I have been listening to it a lot. It's an incredible album. I mean, by the time this podcast is out, the album will be out. I think it's the best album Springsteen's made since Magic.

Josh King (40:21):

I'm looking at my iPhone and I've scrolled all the way back to February 4th, 2014, the very first episode of The Moment with Seth Meyers. I listened to a little bit of the intro and your first couple questions with Seth. But you look at the first four episodes: Myers, Mario Batali, Marc Maron, Chuck Klosterman. I mean, that's an all-star team right there, although so much has happened to Batali since.

Josh King (40:45):

But the moment that you conceived of The Moment, as I said, it's free therapy for everyone out there with a creative streak. I know what goes into producing podcasts and being well prepared for your guests. And yet, you turn out these at a feverish clip, despite what I bet is being in the middle of your writing and production of the season, in addition to the off season.

Brian Koppelman (41:03):

I love having these conversations. And I only have guests on the show if I'm fascinated by their work or their lives. And so, it's easy to prepare because I'm already an enthusiast. I've spent most of my life, as I said earlier, listening, reading, watching, and engaging with this kind of material. And so, I'm usually ready when I have somebody coming in, but I do prepare, and it's worth it. It's worth putting the time in to be able to engage creative heroes in the way that I want to.

Josh King (41:37):

Your characters have experimented with all sorts of self-improvement techniques. Wags' hugging therapy this season comes to mind. But simple meditation hasn't seemed to work for any of them. And yet, it seems to work so well for you. Why?

Brian Koppelman (41:50):

Well, I'm not sure it hasn't worked for them. I mean, they're successful on the terms they want to be, or at least Axe is, and he's the one we see meditating the most.

Brian Koppelman (41:57):

I practice transcendental meditation. For me, it's invaluable. The practice of taking 20 minutes twice a day to tune out the distractions and to just allow yourself to breathe and allow yourself to get out of your anxious mind is a real gift. I love it. I can't imagine not doing it. And I think it stokes both my personal growth and my creative growth. And it's something I recommend people check out.

Josh King (42:33):

How'd you get turned onto it originally?

Brian Koppelman (42:35):

Well, I had a lot of anxiety and I was trying to figure out a way to deal with it. And I'd read a few books that... I'd read a few memoirs where the person writing the book mentioned meditation as a key. And then a few of them mentioned transcendental meditation. And then I called one of them. I'm not going to say who. And I said, "Hey, is this a real thing?" And I had read David Lynch's book, Catching the Big Fish, which I just loved. And I called somebody and I said, "Is this a real thing?" And they said, "Yeah. I'm going to hook you up with Bob Roth," who runs the David Lynch Foundation. And so, Bob taught me to meditate. I went and met with Bob. Came back. I told Levien. Levien said, "I want to do that too." And so, the next day, the two of us met with Bob. And then the two of us learned to meditate over the next week together. And both of us have been doing it since.

Josh King (43:27):

One thing, Brian, to shut everything down and reflect the way you do twice a day, meditating. It's another to get up in the morning and do the work. Across all of your mediums, you evangelize the discipline of doing the work: practice, journaling, morning pages. When did you discover how to discipline yourself like this?

Brian Koppelman (43:44):

Well, I will say I was... all this stuff comes out of necessity. I was a blocked writer. Meaning, I was 30. I wasn't able to do this work. I knew I should. I knew I wanted to. Somehow I couldn't make myself do it.

Brian Koppelman (43:57):

And I really had the clear thought that if I wanted to be the kind of father that I wanted to be, I would have to change myself, that I would have to not become bitter. You've heard me say this before on the podcast, but in case people in the audience haven't, what occurred to me was that anytime you allow a block to win, something inside of you dies. And like any other kind of death, toxicity flows from that. And the toxicity has to leach out. And it would leach out onto the people that I loved, I felt. And I didn't want that to happen. And so, I needed to find a way to change the part of myself that was too perfectionist or that was too worried about being judged, the part of myself that felt like a fraud. I had to say, "Listen, just find a way."

Brian Koppelman (44:41):

So, it doesn't really require discipline because this practice that I have makes me feel... doing it makes me feel free. Doing it makes me feel released from all these feelings of self-doubt, self-loathing, fear that we all carry around with us. And so, I found that doing morning pages, which is three long-hand pages the way Julia Cameron describes in The Artist's Way, meditating, taking long walks, those things just point me in the right direction to do the work that I want to do.

Brian Koppelman (45:14):

And then very quickly, for me, very quickly after I started doing that stuff, really good things started happening in my life. And so, I associate this stuff with a lot of positivity.

Josh King (45:26):

Here, Brian, is a clip from a film that drove our obsessions when we were kids.

Aubrey Woods (45:33):

... listen, Wonka's got a new one today.

Speaker 5 (45:35):

What is it?

Aubrey Woods (45:37):

This is called a Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar.

Speaker 5 (45:40):

Scrumdiddlyumptious Bar? How does he do it?

Aubrey Woods (45:43):

My dear boy. Do you ask a fish how it swims?

Speaker 5 (45:44):


Aubrey Woods (45:45):

Or a bird how it flies?

Speaker 5 (45:46):


Aubrey Woods (45:47):

No, siree, you don't. They do it because they were born to do it, just like Willy Wonka was born to be a candy man and you look like you were born to be a Wonkaer. (singing).

Josh King (46:07):

I mean, the ability to just summon the things from, and I'm the same age as you, from when we were growing up and the things that made us happy, the things that made us terrified, the things that made us fascinated and curious and put a smile on our face or just inspired us toward creativity. When you tweet out, and you didn't tweet out that clip of the movie, but this was what you said. You said, "Name a candy bar or candy type of thing you've had that was Willy-Wonka level, where you just went, 'Whoa, that's Willy-Wonka level for its originality and mind-blowing deliciousness.'" What's going on? You just get that creative idea as you're taking one of these long walks?

Brian Koppelman (46:53):

I don't know exactly why I asked that question the way that I did, but I felt like I would get some really good answers. And I wanted to see. It's always great to get a window into the pristine things for people. And so, I felt like that would give me some sort of window.

Brian Koppelman (47:10):

A lot of this stuff is not intellectual. When I work or when I do any of this stuff, I get an instinct or an idea or a thought, and I've learned not to question it too much. And so, something like that, yeah, maybe that means I'll throw a Marathon Bar in the show at some point, or maybe that one doesn't end up doing something for me. But what's possible is somebody else read that, they then went and saw other tweets of mine. I referenced this book, Candyfreak by Steve Almond. Maybe they go read Candyfreak. Maybe that light's a fire for them. I'm just putting this stuff out there. And wherever it goes, hopefully it goes to a good place. And I'm happy with that.

Brian Koppelman (47:53):

Once in a while, like when we referenced what Rush albums are the best albums on the show, I'll put something out there for a purpose, which is I want to get the answer right. Som I wanted to know what two different types of Rush fans would think. I knew what I thought, but you wanted to get answers. And so, I got a thousand answers to this question: what are the four best Rush albums? And there, I was just trying to be very careful and respectful of Rush fandom because Rush... as I said, that day, I've seen Rush seven times in concert. I've watched both documentaries multiple times. I know the albums by heart, but I'm not really a Rush fan compared to Rush fans. Rush fans are way, way more serious than I am. So, I just wanted to get the answer right for when Taylor and Axe were going to discuss it.

Josh King (48:41):

Well, keep putting that stuff out there, even though you're on hiatus. We don't want to lose connection with you. I don't think you will, but just keep the flow going.

Brian Koppelman (48:49):

No, I stay on Twitter. I love Twitter. If you hear on the podcast, about a week ago, I had Cal Newport on. He wrote this great book sort of saying nobody should be on Twitter. And he and I had I think a really good conversation about the pros and continues. And for all of its problems, I think, for me anyway, Twitter's a big pro.

Josh King (49:08):

As we wrap up, I teased this at the opening of the show, but with your overall deal tucked into your pocket, what are you going to do with it? I mean, a spinoff with Stephen Kunkenas as Spyros heading out to Hollywood and launching Compliance Corner Films?

Brian Koppelman (49:21):

Watch this space.

Josh King (49:23):

Thanks so much. Remember Tom Cruise is older today than Wilford Brimley was in Cocoon. Brian Koppelman, thanks so much for joining us Inside the ICE House.

Brian Koppelman (49:31):

Dude, I think we're older than Wilford Brimley was in Cocoon.

Josh King (49:31):

We are.

Brian Koppelman (49:34):

It's really sad. Just sad.

Josh King (49:36):

Thanks for [crosstalk 00:49:37].

Brian Koppelman (49:36):

Thanks, man.

Josh King (49:37):

All right.

Brian Koppelman (49:37):

This was great.

Josh King (49:38):

That's our conversation for this week. Our guest was Brian Koppelman, co-creator, executive producer, and showrunner of Billions on Showtime.

Josh King (49:47):

If you like what you heard, please rate us on iTunes so other folks know where to find us. And if you've got a comment or a question you'd like one of our experts to tackle on a future show, email us at [email protected] or tweet at us at @icehousepodcast.

Josh King (50:03):

Our show is produced by Theresa DeLuca and Pete Asch, with production assistance from Steve [Romanchuk 00:50:09] and Ian Wolff. I'm Josh King, your host, signing off from the Library of the New York Stock Exchange. Thanks for listening. Talk to you next week.

Announcer 1 (50:16):

Information contained in this podcast was obtained in part from publicly available sources and not independently-verified. Neither ICE nor its affiliates make any representations or warranties, expressed or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the information and do not sponsor, approve, or endorse any of the content herein, all of which is presented solely for informational and educational purposes. Nothing herein constitutes an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy any security, or a recommendation of any security or trading practice. Some portions of the preceding conversation may have been edited for the purpose of length or clarity.

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Information contained in this podcast was obtained in part from publicly available sources, and not independently verified. Neither ICE nor its affiliates make any representations or warranties, express or implied, as to the accuracy or completeness of the information and do not sponsor, approve, or endorse any of the content herein, all of which is presented solely for informational and educational purposes. Nothing herein constitutes an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy any security, or a recommendation of any security or trading practice.