The Creators of Showtime's 'Billions' Want to Make You Rich
Long-time writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien talk real-life hedge funders, saying "fuck," and the long development of their new Paul Giamatti-starring show.
Showtime’s new Wall Street-centric drama Billions is now two weeks into its 10-episode run, and busy getting more technical with stock talk and dropping more F-bombs than The Big Short.
The show details a brewing cold war between U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and multi-billionaire Tommy “Axe” Axelrod — CEO of the fictional Connecticut-based hedge fund Axe Capital. With fishy dealings of Axelrod’s floating to the surface and the SEC pushing him to crack down, Chuck has to decide how to take down Axe, his most fierce, headstrong, and well-well-protected opponent. Chuck also has to figure out how to protect his wife — and dominatrix — Wendy (Maggie Siff), who has been an in-house “performance coach” at Axe’s fund for the past 15 years.
The showrunners of the hardboiled series — NYC-area writers and directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien — are making the biggest television statement in their 20—lus-year careers as writing partners. The team behind Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen spoke to Inverse about the joys and challenges of making an engaging, high-octane show when most of the action takes place on stock tickers and bank statements.
Tell me about the initial spark of inspiration for the series, and the process of getting it to come to fruition.
David Levien: We’ve been really interested in Wall Street for a long time, and places of commerce in the American landscape. We were interested in how people do battle through business and vent their aggression — how personalities come out in the business world. We loved the movie Wall Street growing up, and we were fascinated by the idea of [“[boiler rooms(http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/04/080604.asp)].”].” We grew up on Long Island when that was all happening. Then, through Brian ultimately living in Manhattan, and me living in Greenwich, Connecticonnecticut, we were exposed to the hedge fund thing — seeing this phenomenon where people living by their wits were having a big influence on the culture.
Brian Koppelman: At the same time, we had been working on a show dealing with the United States Attorney’s Office. That position was also something we’d become fascinated by because the person sitting in that seat is something like a king, in the same way that a hedge fund manager, who is a billionaire, is like a nation-state. When we — along with [co-creator, author, and New York Times financial columnist] Andrew Ross Sorkin — put the two elements together, we realized this could make one really compelling television series.
What was one of the most instructive moments in your research?
DL: Learning the way these people self-mythologize. When you’re with them, it’s the way they tell their stories — the way they start to make themselves the hero in their narrative — that was telling. We all do that, but the way they do it… they talk like things are predestined to happen. They spin out long tales about why they feel a certain way about a business transaction; they’ll starting talking about “taking a massive amount of territory” or something. It becomes a story that’s as heroic as the greatest military tale.
You find that on both sides of this. These people are really gifted in using words to explain things that might otherwise seem too complex. They can do it in a way that sweeps you along. And so you learn that, yes, these people can become as verbal as we try to make them on the show — in many ways, it’s like that in real life.
So much of the tension and the ramping-up is based on fairly technical financial explanations. Generally, what are the challenges of a show like this that is so much based in dialogue?
BK: You use the word “fuck” a lot. That seems to really just, like, be the lubricant that helps things go down smoothly. [laughs]
DL: We love movies like Sweet Smell of Success and Glengarry Glen Ross where you can build the drama that way. We like to carve out certain breaks obviously, but we wanted to try to do this with very verbal characters. We feel like the audience is really smart and sophisticated: They don’t have to know every aspect of making a trade or how to prosecute a case to follow along and understand what’s at stake for the characters, and when any one of them might be winning or losing in a moment.
Tell me about the punchy — sometimes shocking — one-liners on the show; Axe’s right-hand man, Wags (Breaking Bad’s David Costabile), especially, fires off a lot.
DL: I’ve been thinking about his Catherine the Great line a lot [in the second episode]. I know we had that line in a notebook for, like, seven years after we sat down with a hedge fund guy. I think it was when we sat down to one of these morning meetings, like the ones you see on the show. Whether or not that exact language was deployed — and it probably wasn’t quite as colorful — that was absolutely the spirit. It’s these things that some people might use many more words to say. We wanted a sense of economy in communication to convey an entire attitude and point of view — the way in which somebody tries to exhort somebody else to action. So, rather than four paragraphs of dialogue: “You see an opportunity like that again, you grab it like its a horse cock and you’re Catherine the Great.”
Tell me about the character of Chuck. What do you think motivates him? How did you theorize the divide between his commandeering work personaa and his home life, where he wants to be subjugated?
DL: Chuck, as a U.S. attorney, has tremendous power and influence over many, many people. We wanted to show that this wasn’t just a guy who just puts it on when he walks into the office. We also wanted to explore the flip side of that, which is him needing to release the pressure valve. It’s often the case that some of these guys want to be in a position where they are being dominated. They want to have responsibility lifted from them — to be powerless.
Chuck and Wendy’s relationship is an an immediately compelling relationship in the pilot. Why do they let themselves get into this situation, with Chuck leading the charge against Wendy’s company, and him misleading her? We get the impression that Axelrod has been on Chuck and [SEC agent] Spyros’ (Stephen Kunken) radar for some time.
BK: There isn’t really a conflict of interest until Spyros walks into Chuck’s office in the pilot. Look at Ted Cruz and his wife; look at Chris Christie and his. Chris Christie’s wife worked for a bank while he was in Chuck’s same job. You can’t anticipate these conflicts ahead of time. Now, what you might think the normal course of action would be is that the person working for the hedge fund or the bank would leave. We’re asking the question: Why is it her responsibility to leave? She was at Axe Capital long before she met her husband. In the second half of the season, though, it all really does come to a head.
Tell me about the show’s side characters. How did you decide what types of characters you wanted to focus on, among so many possibilities in these organizations? What purpose did you want these storylines to serve?
DL: Both of these guys are at the head of organizations of hundreds of people. They have to keep their own kingdoms in order, and be ready to do battle. We created a core, recognizable bunch in each office to illustrate how this works. We wanted to show people along the whole continuum — to give you a little window into the hurdles different people have to get over, depending on what league they’re in.
The tension between [U.S. Attorney’s Office employees] Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad) and Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) is particularly interesting.
DL: Through our research we did learn that there were a lot of interoffice romances — and hookups that maybe weren’t so heavy on the romance — between U.S. Assistant Attorneys and FBI agents. These people are dedicated and they work extremely long hours, so they don’t have time to go out and cultivate big social lives. They don’t even have time to go to bars and try to hook up. There are these other bright, attractive people around, and more often than not these hookups occur. Obviously, the line between Rashad and Connerty is a little bit more compelling and fraught because he’s her superior in the workplace.
What was the biggest adjustment in terms of moving from cinema to TV?
BK: A movie works in a linear way, so that you write a script, you have pre-production, you have shoots, reshoots, and then you edit. Here, you’re prepping and outlining for the next episode while cutting the last one. Keeping it all in our head — and the sheer amount of decisions the two of us have to make creatively — it’s a lot. You have to keep yourself present and available in that way. So I’ve gone on an all-Soylent diet. No, I’m just kidding… but I should. Everyone should get to a place where they don’t need food.
What can viewers look forward to for the rest of the season?
DL: If people like the world they are exposed to in just the pilot of the show, then rest assured, it keeps deepening, and its hold on you becomes stronger and stronger.
Watch the show, and you’ll become a billionaire.