Since their debut film “Rounders” (1998) shed light on the underground poker world in New York, screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien have been the go-to guys in Hollywood for movies about money, greed, and power.
They have written movies from the George Clooney caper “Ocean’s Thirteen” to the Ben Affleck-Justin Timberlake thriller “Runner Runner” about the dark side of offshore gambling, while creating the short-lived ESPN drama “Tilt.”
For their latest venture into television, the duo have moved to the world of hedge funds and the people in government who try to regulate them in the new Showtime series “Billions” (premiering on Sunday).
Starring Paul Giamatti as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes and Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) as hedge-fund bigwig Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, the show follows the mental chess game between the two and their factions as Axe continues to dominate, perhaps in not the most legal of ways, while Chuck waits to catch him, and uses questionable methods to get what he wants.
As with seemingly all great TV shows, there’s after-hours domestic turmoil, including subplots involving 9/11 and S&M.
“We have long been fascinated with the state of commerce in the American story — it’s something that has interested us since we were much younger and watched movies like ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,'” Levien told Business Insider.
The two began talking about the project and researching around 2007. Then the idea evolved after the events of 9/11 and the financial collapse in 2008. Finally, by 2013, the two got an idea from their agent to connect with another client: New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Koppelman and Levien admit they took the meeting with trepidation, as one of their big rules is to never let an outsider come into the work they’re developing, but they softened to the idea once they heard Sorkin’s interest.
“We saw the show in a similar way,” Koppelman said. “And it was clear to us that Andrew would have a point of view on this material and a kind of access to the world that would be very hard to come by otherwise, so it became very simple to break our rule.”
Now part of a trio, Koppelman and Levien, through Sorkin’s contacts, began to shadow people in hedge funds as well as federal prosecutors.
A big takeaway for them: People on Wall Street talk about going through 9/11 a lot.
“We would sit with people and almost everybody had some take on how their life, their company, their perspective was changed by 9/11,” Koppelman said.
Levien added: “If you’re going to do a story about people who have gone through our recent history here on Wall Street, there are going to be certain events that they would have to contend with. One was the crash, but such a huge thing was what happened on 9/11.”
In the first episode, we find that Axe has created an education fund in memory of those in his firm who died in the terrorist attacks. In fact, he’s the only one who was away from the office that morning, saving his life but also showing the audience how untouchable Axe is.
On the other side, while U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades struggles with pressure from the media to be tough on white-collar crime, he also has pressure at home, like the fact that his wife works as a shrink at Axe’s company. Rhoades also has an S&M fetish, which leads to a revealing twist by the end of the pilot.
“We thought it was a great opening for the character and for the series to start in that way,” Levien said of a scene featuring Rhoades tied up and gagged.
This mix of authentic financial backdrop and titillating subplots defines the allure of “Billions.” Naturally, it caught Showtime’s attention, which snatched up the show quickly. The cable network is offering the pilot episode for free, and it’s quickly picking up steam on social media as one of the must-see new shows of 2016.
But Koppelman and Levien admit there is a little luck involved in all the anticipation, noting that with Oscar nominee “The Big Short” doing well in theatres, audiences are primed to be fascinated in a story like “Billions.”
“It just raises people’s consciousness that there are interesting stories out there in the business world,” Levien said. “Finance touches everyone’s life in a certain way and when you get behind it, you can see what makes these people in the industry tick.”
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