Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
It was a line of billions where Bobby Axelrod is making a speech to all of our capital and he says in the great expanse of time, we're already dead and. That's something that I believe, right, if you look at the great expanse of time, we're not even a dot. The dot is already over. It's already in the past. And so we may as well be super connected to the fact that we're here and alive right now. Hello and welcome.
I'm Shane Parrish, and you're listening to the Knowledge Project, a podcast dedicated to mastering the best what other people have already figured out. This podcast and our website, F-stop Blog helps you better understand yourself and the world around you by exploring the methods, ideas and mental models from some of the most incredible people in the world. If you enjoy this podcast, you've created a premium program that brings you even more. You'll get ad free versions of the show, early access to episodes, transcripts and so much more.
If you want to learn more now, head on over to stop blogs, podcast or check the show notes for a link. Today, I'm talking with writer and director Brian Koppelman, who's the creator of the Showtime show Billions and whose film credits include Rounder's Ocean's Thirteen and told her, we talk about the writing process, pushing through fear, living a meaningful life, meditation and so much more. Brian's ability to hone in on what really matters will have you thinking about your life differently.
It's time to listen and learn. The Knowledge Project is sponsored by Medlab for a decade, Medlab has helped some of the world's top companies and entrepreneurs build products that millions of people use every day. You probably didn't realize that at the time, but odds are you've used an app that they've helped design or build apps like Slack, Coinbase, Facebook Messenger, Oculus, Lonely Planet and many more Medlab ones to bring their unique design philosophy to your project. Let them take your brainstorm and turn it into the next billion dollar app from ideas sketched on the back of a napkin to a final ship product.
Check them out at Medlab Dutko. That's Medlab Dutko. And when you get in touch, tell them Shane sent you. This episode is brought to you by Mud Water, Mud Water's masala chai based coffee alternative that improves your focus. The form medicinal mushrooms that are in mud water give you the benefits of coffee, but avoid the dreaded caffeine crash if you have trouble sleeping at night or can't remember the last time you dreamt TriMet water as your new morning ritual instead of coffee.
We drink this stuff everyday in the office and everyone who stops by raves about it. I mean, what's not to love? It tastes like chai and chocolate. If you want to try it, go to midwater dotcom and enter the code furnham at the checkout for ten dollars off. That's Moodies W.T.. Ah Dotcom and enter the code Furnham, F.R. and A.M.. This episode is also brought to you by 80-20. 80-20 is a new agency focused on helping great companies move faster without code.
The team at 80-20 can build your next app or website in a matter of days, not months. Better yet, they can do it at a fraction of the cost. You walk away with a well-designed, custom tailored solution that you could tweak and maintain all by yourself without the need to hire expensive developers. So if you've got an app or website idea or you're just ready for a change of pace from your current agency, let the team at 80-20 show you how no code can accelerate your business.
Check them out at 80-20. Don't think that eight zero two zero dot AI and C. Brian, so glad to get to talk to you. It's a thrill and this will be great. This is unlike any other podcast I've ever done. Normally, one of the people that does the most intense research, but we decided to do this like 45 minutes ago. So we're just going to have to skip all this.
Yeah, I wondered because I know how research have you are and all the stuff that you do, how you know, you're when whenever I read a post of yours, I feel not just a substantial brain behind it, but I feel that you've worked on your point of view. And and I wondered how you were going to research in this compressed period of time, because I'm a podcast or two and I find it really hard, unless I'm quite familiar with someone's work to do it on on short notice.
But you did tell me before this that you watch my show and you might know some of my stuff, so maybe it won't be as difficult. We'll figure it out as we go to listen. These are these are interesting times and they demand new ways to attack things.
I totally agree. I love billions. Huge fan. So I guess one of the things that did strike me, I did a little bit of Googling before is that you're a big fan of meditation. How did that get started?
I am. I practiced transcendental meditation. I meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. Well, I've long tried to find ways to outsmart the part of my brain that wants me to give in to doubt and fear in all areas of my life. Right. The part of my brain that makes it hard to sit down and do the work because it tells me that probably am not as good as I hope I'll be. And I'll never be able to capture the feeling I have on the page or when I shoot it, the part of my brain that could keep me up at night with fears, particularly at a time like this.
And so a long time ago when I was 30, I'm fifty three now, a long time ago when I was 30 and I was in an acute stage of writer's block and really feeling like I wasn't going to be able to ever access the part of myself that was the most alive and do work that mattered to me. I found morning pages as described by Julia Cameron in the artist's way, and that worked not only as a solution to my writer's block, but kind of as a sob for many of these kind of issues.
But over time and that continued to work. And I do that every day. But over time I found myself jousting more frequently with the physical manifestations of anxiety than I would have liked and started searching. And the more books I read, the more people I spoke to. It seemed meditation was an answer. I'd always been worried about whether I'd be able to. I read David Lynch's book Catching the Big Fish, and he talks about the way in which meditation just calmed those voices and enabled him to do his work.
I'm a big admirer of Lynch's. I was concerned about trends on meditation, about the sort of legacy of the cult of personality, parts of it from the 60s, but the more I looked into it. The more I spoke to people, the more it seemed that the the tool of of this practice of meditation would be useful. And so I went and I took lessons and learned how to meditate. And I've been doing it for close to ten years now.
You said you do it twice a day. When do you normally do it? So I wake up the first thing in the morning, I make coffee, I meditate, and then I do morning pages. That's my routine every day of my life. And then in the afternoon, somewhere between three and seven, I'll do the second meditation and it's 20 minutes each time the afternoon when I'd say I do five out of the seven days a week. There are times that I miss it because we're shooting the show and I haven't planned my day well enough, but I'm much better off.
The people around me are better off if I make it a point to do it. You mentioned sort of part of your routine and is there anything else in that routine? Before I ask you, what mortgages are you?
Well, those are the those are the main things. I take each part of that, the coffee I take seriously, the meditation and the morning pages and then I pre billions every morning included a long walk to a couple miles to my office in the making of this. And then I would walk home at the end of the day. Once we started making the show, it became much harder to do the walk in the morning. So I still do cardio exercise, but I have to figure out how to get it in every day.
I can't necessarily add that in or I just have to get up at three forty five every day, which I'm not quite able to do. What does it mean to take coffee seriously? Well, it means grinding the beans freshly in the morning. I'm not obsessively crazy about it, but I love the smell of coffee when you're when you grind it. So I usually will grind it in the morning. And I used to only do French press, but now for some reason I'm in the phase of making drip coffee.
But I, I will, I will grind it right that I want to grind, that I want the kitchen smelling of coffee and then I want to make the coffee taps me on the morning pages.
So I imagine you've had other guests in your seventy nine or eighty episodes here who do them. Morning pages are a technique. I've seen versions of it in various sort of creativity classes, but Julia Cameron really codified the way that I do it in her seminal book, The Artist's Way. And the way Cameron describes them is the way that I do them. Exactly. That is three long hand pages. You must use paint or pencil. You just keep your pen going.
You don't try to write. You're just you're not you're not crafting sentences. You're not thinking about paragraphs. All you're doing is moving your pen across the page until you fill three pages. And it has this incredibly magical effect. It for me anyway. It tips whatever is in my subconscious onto the page. It frees me from whatever is stopping me from being productive. Doesn't happen immediately. But after after a month of doing this every day, even three weeks, you will find that not only is it easier to produce work, but you're just slightly lighter in the way you move through the world.
It's I, I would have bought Cameron's book for one hundred people. Maybe 20 of those people actually took the time to do the book.
Of those, more than half ended up publishing work that they'd been unable to produce before that would do you write about the same thing every day or is it just literally like stream of consciousness, whatever it is, you know, it's stream of consciousness and and there are people, business leaders who do it and educators who do it and and artists who do it.
It no, it's whatever is on your mind. But I will say this shame you might find yourself writing about the same thing for three or four days in a row, and that thing might then teach you something about something you need to deal with in your life. And you reveal a lot about yourself. You reveal yourself. How did you overcome fear? You mentioned fear earlier. What were you scared of? Well, listen, we we all have these existential fears, right?
All these fears or some kind of a replacement for the idea that we're here for a short time. It's the human condition. But then these fears manifest in different ways and. People who want to do what I do and who feel that somewhere in them there's an artistic impulse, or even if you're somebody who works in an office and you know that if you work from the most creative part of yourself, that means you're going to take risks. That means you might put an idea forth that hasn't been thought of in your firm before.
You might get laughed at. Your idea might not. You might reveal to yourself when you finally manifest that. Oh, crap, this wasn't actually a good idea and the fear of not being special, of not being good enough is can be crippling to people. And the truth is, what I've discovered is that's all just stuff. It's what Steven Pressfield in his book War of Art calls resistance. But to me. As soon as I get past it and start doing the work, I remember that the result, the external result doesn't matter at all.
I've been cured so many times of whatever was ailing me just by the doing of the work, by engaging with this question inside of me, by getting in these times, I'm never going to talk about a writer or an artist being brave. But there is something of an internal fortitude that when you find a way to engage it, you just come out the other side a better figure. You've come out the other side, a better version of yourself.
And look, these are fears all of us have, all of us or most of us anyway. And when I guess not all of us, but most of us are afraid of exposing that part of ourselves that we hold most dear for fear that it will be rejected. But the artist has a duty to risk that and it's a duty to risk it so that you're you're able to be better for me. What I finally realized, Shane. Was that if I allowed these creative impulses to die, it would be like a real death and like any form of death, it would be toxic and this toxicity would ooze out of me onto those that I loved.
It would make me a worse father, a worse husband, a worse friend for the bitterness and jealousy that I would allow to grow in me. And I realized that as soon as I allowed myself to do the work, all that stuff went away. It dissipated. And I knew after Amy and I had our first child that if I wanted to be the kind of father I wanted to be and this is twenty three years ago, if I wanted to be twenty four, the kind of father I wanted to be, if I wanted to tell my children that they should chase their dreams, then I had to or I'd be a liar and I'd become bitter.
And a bitter father is not really the ideal version of fatherhood that I had.
I want to hear more about living your dreams and sort of like you mentioned earlier, anxiety. Walk me through how you how you convinced yourself to live your dreams. Like, is there is that just diving into the work or is there is there more to it?
Well. As I say, for me, it was an acute moment, right? It was an acute moment when I I realized. Fatherhood is really important to me. I'm going to be bad at it and that quickly I was able to shift what I saw, that there was a chance that by doing this work, I would free myself. And I'll say it happened so quickly. As soon as David and I started writing our first movie. But we had no contacts.
We had no thought that we could sell it or that we'd make a movie out of it. But the moment I was waking up earlier, going into a room, generating pages. I started walking straighter. I started, as I say, moving more lightly through the world, and I have found that whenever I talk about this, I get hundreds of letters from people who realize that they're in the same bind I was in and that they hear this quiet voice and they've been scared to let it out.
And as to the root of where the fear comes from, I don't know. I think it's primal. But I do know that if you can somehow manifest it, you will feel better long before the world recognizes it. So living my dream, I don't translate that into when I got to make the movies. I really translate that into when I started to be able to identify myself as a writer, as a creative person, so that as long as I decided I made a decision that as long as I wrote every day I was a writer, I didn't need someone else to say it.
I needed to do that work. And if I did it, I could tell it to myself and if I could tell it to myself. I was that thing that became part of your identity? Yes. I didn't quit my job. I say one thing that I think is crucial is I think sometimes sort of taking huge, drastic action that's external to the actual project or external to the actual mission is dramatic and it feels great in the moment. But it turns out to be another way of self sabotage.
Right. I must quit my job in order that I may paint. Well, that's not true. Well, you need to do if you want to paint this paint. I remember saying to my dad, a businessman and a successful businessman who worked closely with artist but wasn't one. I remember saying get screwing up the courage and saying, you know, Dad, I real. And I figured we'd be having a conversation over the last hours. You know, I said, I just have to tell you, I really think I need to, you know, boy, how can I say this?
You I think I need to be a writer. And he just looked at me and said, well, son, if you want to write. Right. And as you know, a simple idea is that it's totally true. It's like, well, you don't need to do anything except write. So I got up earlier. I literally just got up an hour earlier and you'd be amazed what you can do if you get up an hour earlier. I'm going to use writing as an example, but anything you want to do applies to this one page a day.
Even if you take off. Sunday's is three hundred and whatever, ten about three hundred and ten pages in a year, one page that you can write a page and a half hour. So that many pages is a novel that's three screenplays. It's an endless amount of short stories. And you can apply that sort of anything that you are interested in doing. You have a A game in your mind code a little bit every day. Right. You want to be someone who figures out how to choreograph modern dance, work in it for a half hour a day, record yourself doing your thing.
Like to me, we can all find a half hour. There's there's nobody who can't wake up a half hour earlier.
I see a lot of people who their dream is right in front of them. They know exactly what they want in life, be a relationship, an opportunity, a project that they want to work on, that they're trying to work on this thing. But then they start like negative self talk and they sort of convince themselves they can't do it. Sure. Talk to me a little bit about your response to that. How do you think about that? Well, I think that a lot of that is like.
Result thinking, well, I think about it this way. One, you have to calculate less. You have to calculate less if you the more you try to game this stuff out, the more it becomes clear the odds are against you and you can't win. But most folks have accomplished something great. We're kind of just unrelenting in their. Belief, forget their belief, unrelenting in their determination to do it and. Momentum is an incredibly powerful tool, as is inertia, an incredibly powerful force, right.
So I just think commit to doing something for a few days. And then commit to doing it the next day and then suddenly you have this kind of momentum that. Thrusts you forward. That's beautiful, talk to me a little bit about the writing process. How do you go from IDEA? To fully finished movie or show, I'll back up a little bit. I'd say anyone who really is interested in this stuff. The way you figure this question you're asking me out is by watching movies and then reading the screenplays or watching television shows and reading the plays and with the Internet, it's really easy to get access to those things.
So I start David and I, my partner is my lifelong best friend. We do all this stuff together and. We usually start with a world that fascinates us, and so you'll go, OK, well, this world of. Hedge fund operatives and the United States attorney's. This seems like a big, fascinating, very specific world with insular language and customs that would be fun to dive into. And from there, we'll start to do research to see if it is a world that we find as fascinating as we think we find it.
Which means reading a bunch of stuff, doing first person interviews with people, using whatever connections we have. So if I know somebody who knows someone who works at a hedge fund to get to go visit the hedge fund or meet the US attorneys, spend a lot of time doing that so that we feel like we can get our arms around what the world is. And then it's time to figure out who the characters are. So you have a lot of conversations about the kinds of people who are drawn to this world.
You're doing a lot of journaling about this. You're doing a lot of thinking about what would bring you into the world the right way, what are forces to set against one another. And so you start to really think about who these characters are, what made them, who they are. And then you start to think about. A story structure that would bring these forces into opposition because you need conflict sort of in every scene of a screenplay or teleplay, so you then start thinking about that and you begin to do character descriptions, which you'll write up, and then you'll start to outline a version of a story that might work.
Then you'll revise that outline. And then once you kind of are outlining it and revising it, we use index cards and really then start to take the outline and break it into beats, which are sort of the flow of scenes. And then you break that down into scenes themselves that kind of add up into the beats of a section of the thing. And at a certain point you have a completely beat it out outline with a lot of detail for every episode of billions, let's say an episode of billions.
The teleplay is 60 pages. The outline from which we worked is usually 20 pages. So you have a 20 page document that's every scene, a bunch of dialogue. And what the what's happening in the episode from now, you'll have sort of what the scenes are about and then you're just writing the dialogue. The most fun part of it is when you're actually taking that outline and turning it into scenes themselves. That's the part where your hands are going wild and you're sort of you're working from the freest part of you.
The outlining is the most arduous, really sort of grinding on story and how to make the story better and how to create conflict and not settling and second guessing. But once you have the outline, then you're free to sort of that's the part that's like jazz. Then you're free to improvise, then you're free to go because you have a base to return to and because, you know, you can always rewrite if the scene is it goes on out too far away from what you were thinking and it doesn't work.
You know how to rein it back in. Back to this outline.
That's fascinating. Do you notice gaps in the other line when you're trying to, like, actually fill it in?
Yes, but you don't notice that until you've really written all the scenes. So then you notice that in the outline phase. But once you're through the outline and you really grind on it. When you're writing the scenes, you'll write all the scenes, then when you put that back together, absolutely, you read the whole thing and you go, oh, this section here is boring or this section goes too fast or oh, these three scenes, we got to put something between them to create more tension.
But that's all the fun. I mean, that's all the most fun part of the thing.
Do you test these before you run them or is it just you guys test them? How do you give them to people to look over the script and be like, does this fellow does this make sense? Do you feel what we're trying to get you to feel? Yeah, sure. On billions. We have a writers room. How does a writer's room even work? Like, I pretend I'm a kid.
You know, David and I are the show runners. So we we run the writers room. We have a group of seven other people in the room with us. And we all talk through this outline stuff of the episodes. So we work together and get the outline into what we think is pretty good shape. We then share that outline with our whole writers room team. They give us notes. We then incorporate the notes that make sense to us. Then we share it with Showtime.
Then Showtime gives us their thoughts, their incredible partners. They leave it to us to make all the decisions, but their outlet, their questions are great because they haven't been in the writers room. So they don't know what we're planning. They know the arc of the season because we've told them that ahead of time, but they don't know what each episode is going to be. So they might get it and say, oh, this is great. We don't understand what happens there.
When X talks to Taylor, was academic playing a game or did he they'll ask questions that then allow us to refine what we're going to do. Then we don't turn the outline back in, but we take their questions. And bring those into when we breath the actual teleplay, does the economics at all impact how this story gets played out, the economics of the show? In any show, we'll show you have a budget, so you. So if you're the showrunner of a TV series, your responsibility is.
To tell the story that you want to tell within the amount of time with using the resources that you're given, so the beginning of the season, our line producer really deals with the finances. We'll talk to Showtime. We'll talk to us will together all figure out, well, this is what we think they'll say. This is what we feel like you guys should have this year. We'll talk it through and then we'll make the show for that amount.
I mean, that's part of the job right where we are in a business partnership with the financier. And they give us a tremendous amount of creative freedom. And our responsibility is to make a show that really works for us and our audience and it works for them financially, them being showtime financially. We take that obligation really seriously to them, you know, because they're entrusting us with this. You know, that's a real thing to showtime.
Have any say in how many seasons Cisco's for? Is that totally up to the creative process? No, if I guess no, I'd say it's by this point, five seasons in, it's a conversation, but they have ultimate authority. Tomorrow they could say we're done with billions. That's completely I mean, they're the financiers. They're putting up all the bread we could. If Dave and I wanted to want to stop, we could stop, obviously, and that would be that.
But we love making the show and we don't want to stop. And it certainly seems to us that Showtime doesn't want to stop either. I don't think you should stop. Just my hell of it. I mean, what's the difference between a show and a movie when you're writing and creating it in writing and creating it?
We don't really think of it very much differently. The businesses are different and on television now, you can make the kinds of stories that we like to make and that we've made throughout our career. They're harder to make in movies now. But I mean, look at this time right now, Shane, I don't know what the future of the movie business is. Who's going to a movie theater right now? Movies exist and streaming platforms now. So I think these things are all becoming one thing pretty quickly.
Just some stories tell better in two hours and some tell better in sixty or eighty or one hundred hours.
That's really interesting. I mean, one of the things when I thought about that question was I would think that going into a movie, sort of like, you know, the arc, you know, how it ends varies with a show that's multiple seasons. You might not really know how it ends. You're sort of exploring it as you go.
You ought to know, though, something about how it ends. I find it's hard to tell a story. If I don't have some idea of where these characters are going to end up, it is true that for a movie you absolutely have to know and for a television series, you don't absolutely have to know it, but it's useful to know it. And look, David and I are trained. Our training really is in movies. So we do think in terms of story, in terms of beginnings, middles and ends.
And we absolutely had a few possible endings for the series in mind pretty early on. And we definitely knew how. The first couple seasons are going to end, and I'll tell you, we cannot start writing a season of the show without knowing how the season ends. You have to be able to plant stuff. You have to be able to set the characters off on their. Quest, knowing the way in which that quest is going to resolve, what do you know as a professional storyteller about the cornerstones of a good story that we don't know or we can't see?
Well, I think you do know, actually. I think people get bound up when they have to. If you have to go make a speech, if one has to make a speech and knows that they want to tell a story in that speech, they might get really nervous because suddenly they have to write. And some teacher told them that there was a form they had to adhere to and that was unnatural for them. But if I put you in a coffee shop or a bar and you had to sit down with somebody and it was important for you to make them laugh or for you to keep them engaged.
And I said, Shane, tell them a story that, you know, people always react to. You would tell them that story and that story would have an inciting incident. The moment that it comes alive, it would have a beginning, a middle and an end. The middle of it would probably build to some sort of a climax. There would be some sort of a resolution. And that's all the same stuff that's happening. When we're telling a story professionally, I guess we're probably better at recognizing or more practice, not even better at recognizing the stuff that gets in the way of that.
But we all know how to do all of this stuff. It's all just about getting comfortable with it. Doesn't mean everybody has. I'm not being falsely humble. That doesn't mean everybody has the same utility with language that I have. That utility with language is hard won. It comes from years of reading and writing and thinking about language. So now at a certain stage in my life, that's something that I have a great deal of control over. But that's really just sort of like a tool that that I'm using.
Anybody, all of us pretty much know how to keep someone else interested if it really matters to us in the right kind of story now, maybe it has to be the right audience. Like, you know, people go on dates all the time and sometimes just sit across the table from somebody and it just flows. You're just able to connect on a wavelength and tell the story. So and someone else could sit there in the same story, might fall flat.
That doesn't mean don't know how to tell it. It just means that wasn't the right audience for the story. So finding figuring out how to get on the wavelength of an audience is again, that's also something that all of us do in life. I've I'm just a professional about that.
Knowing how to do it in a fictional context, is there a difference between somebody who started in movies and then writes TV shows and somebody started in TV shows and then writes movies?
The reason a few different ways. One is the television writing is a career path and that people can come up through writing rooms. You can get a job as a writers room assistant if you're in a writing program in college potentially, or a film program, film, a TV program. And then if you're in a writer's room, you can kind of learn what that means to contribute ideas in a writer's room and work your way up a system. And you can not count on that progression happening.
But it's a progression that can happen. And it's a it is a career path. Being a movie writer, you really have to survive by your wits. There's nothing holding you in place. There's nothing there's sort of no safety harness. You're just floating out there trying to come up with the next good idea, trying to get hired, trying to sell the next spec script. I think it forces you to become an original storyteller in a way that being a TV writer coming up through the system does not.
And I think it gives it gives you an edge when it comes to being in TV coming from this other world. What are you so interested of in the world of hedge funds, which is the power dynamic between ultra wealthy people and sort of the people that are supposed to regulate them?
It's the fact that. Walking among us. Were these nation states, but I mean billionaires. Yes, yes, effective nations said they are.
Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, these are people with armada of ships and fleets of aircraft and people who will walk around them with armaments. And there's sort of nothing that they can't accomplish in a way that they want to. I mean, you would just look at the United States presidential campaign in the way billionaires, although they didn't win the way billionaires are able to influence the process. And so we look at these nation states and we looked at these people in law enforcement, these United States attorneys who.
We're like kings because they have this tremendous amount of discretion as far as what they're going to prosecute, when and how, and we looked at these as immovable forces we could set against one another. And then it would allow us to have a really almost a Shakespearean type of construct to tell the story. But we've been fascinated by hedge funds for a very, very long time. David and I started trying to write about them eight years before billions ever happened and almost did a project about them at HBO.
And at the last minute didn't happen because of the financial crash of 2008. And so it had long held our fascination that there were these people with this kind of outsized power and influence that most Americans weren't really aware of. And we were also interested in why people with great wealth were held in such fascination. Why? This is long before Trump was president, even running for president. But why these characteristics like verbal acuity, a kind of thin, facile intellect and a kind of raw charisma?
We're standing in for real qualities of character like generosity, empathy, kindness, true intelligence, and why that first batch of characteristics seemed to capture the imagination of so much of the populace. We noticed it and we wanted to put figures on the screen who would embody some of that and see whether people would be able to get past just merely rooting for them to understanding that. They ought to look at them with a bit more of a jaundiced eye. One of the things I love about billiards is that.
There's a lot of points where it's really hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Yes. And I found myself rooting for Bobby and Chuck at different points.
Yeah, well, for sure, because the other thing we realized was a lot of these prosecutors, we looked around at people like Giuliani and Chris Christie, and we saw that there were people using these positions of the public interest for their own personal good. So, yes, they would do things that were for the public good, but at the same time, they were serving their own career ambitions.
And when you notice that and you notice that these people would go from a position like for the public good to running for office and they would campaign on things they did when they were in those offices, it made us see that those people, although those are the traditional heroes of television series, that one ought to look at them sometimes with a bit of a jaundiced eye, too. And we want wanted to put this whole thing of power, money and influence and the legal system on display so that viewers would be forced while rooting for these people, while laughing at the funny lines while noticing their charisma and power and fearsome intellect.
They would also have to ask themselves where the moral culpability lies and where we are all culpable in allowing all this to take place. How do you feel that you. And I don't mean this in any negative way, but how do you feel in creating a character who's a billionaire and, you know, borderline skirts the law that people root for?
You've made him so likable and Damian Lewis makes him incredibly likable. He's phenomenal. The answer to your question is.
Why are why were Mark Cuban and Donald Trump the two most popular reality stars now on the front? Mark's a friend of mine and I really like Mark, and I think he's a good person, but. Why are those why were those figures? The subject of so much fascination and adulation, it would do us no good to make a mustache twirling villain out of acts, the way to raise the question for people is fracks to have as much personal charisma, charm, intelligence, verbal acuity, self-justification, self mythologising as possible, but then show him doing absolutely terrible things that we all believe people in power would do.
So that you have to ask yourself. Why am I rooting for this guy? Who should I really be rooting for? What does it mean that I'm rooting for him? What does it say about our culture? What does it make me ask myself about where I'm placing my loyalties? How should I act differently in my regular life? Now, look, we're primarily trying to allow you to be entertained, to have a good time watching our show, to laugh.
But we definitely want these questions to linger. And it's much more effective to talk to us anyway to create a guy who would fool you in life on the show. I'd rather someone who would fool you in the real world because maybe in watching it and asking yourself that question, you won't be fooled as easily in the real world. Next time we hear in our country, put somebody in office who's utterly incapable of managing this pandemic, utterly disinterested in managing this pandemic, except as to the way in which the pandemic Redounds has judgment on him.
He has no empathy and no critical thinking skills in this area. But what he was a guy who portrayed himself as rich and sat on a gold throne and Americans were fooled. And so I have an obligation to put an even better version of that guy on television or various versions of that guy. Right. Acts is way smarter than Trump and way more personally engaging. But you have to put people like that on TV so that so that the audience will be forced to ask themselves the question.
It's a good way to put it. Can you take me behind the scenes a little bit into your favorite scene and walk me through it or a scene? I want to ask you to pick your favorite child?
Yeah, it's more just I can't look at the show that way. You know, I'm so in it when I'm making it, I can tell you that there are episodes that I think are particularly special, you know, where different themes rise to the top. I'm always interested in what other people respond to. And I think when the show's finished, it'll be easier for me to sort of catalog things in the way that you're that you're asking for.
That makes sense is like what keeps you from being a perfectionist. Like, how do you know when enough is enough? Because you sound like the type of person who and I'm just guessing so correct me if I'm wrong, is tends towards perfectionism.
Well, the like we do of a time, there's time pressure that's. But yeah, we're crazy perfectionist. David and I will work on a lot of the show, meaning editing the episodes, I mean right up until the last moment that we can before they take it out of our hands. Well, I would say this to being a perfectionist in this regard is useful, but we do have to deliver the show by a date certain each time so that that is a guard rail against sort of insanity.
What keeps you going, like with all the success you've had? Like what keeps you motivated to wake up in the morning and just. Sure. Keep going after this work.
Makes the work, makes me feel it does make me feel alive. You know, it's the same reason I do my podcast. The moment is I made the decision when I was 30 that I was going to follow my curiosity and the things that fascinated me. And as long as I'm doing that, I feel like a version of myself that I want to spend time with. For me, I think that in anybody's career, you've got to take care of your family.
You have to make money. I'm not a Pollyanna ish idealist in that way, but if you can find a way to do work that makes you feel fulfilled, it's really easy. A part of keeping at it becomes much easier. Listen, it's a hard business. My business. It requires a tremendous amount of commitment, a lot of time. But the rewards are outsized to gain the rewards in terms of. People telling me. How much they did the thing, you know, the sort of feedback I get, the financial rewards, I mean, all of it is outsized to especially considering I just love doing it.
So what keeps me going is, is all of it, man. I mean, it's much harder to ask somebody who's riding in the back of a garbage truck every day. What keeps them going, which is, of course, what keeps them going, is the need to put food on the table and take care of their family and the sense of a job well done and all that other stuff. But someone who has the opportunity to do what I do, who wouldn't want to keep going, I have a hard time relating to.
But you are that dream for a lot of people like you're financially successful, you're really successful in terms of recognition and creating something people value. And then you get to a point where you can you could walk away and sell off into the sunset, but you keep going. And I love that.
Well, I think it's really important to say that a career, a long career in Hollywood has a lot of ups and downs. I mean, and in twenty thirteen, I thought I was drummed out of the business. David and I wrote a movie that completely bombed at the box office was a disaster on Rotten Tomatoes. We were involved in a high profile project that was going to be on HBO and it never happened. We got fired from it before it even begun.
And we had a movie agent call us and basically tell us it's possible that our career was over and it was out of that, that we started writing billions. And so I had those conversations with my wife in 2013, my wife, Amy Compliment as a filmmaker, too. And I remember having a conversation about whether we'd have to sell our apartment and downsize and how we were going to look at our we were not living extravagantly. We've never lived extravagantly.
And I remember really feeling like this might come to a crashing halt. And then I remembered being 30 and I remembered the only way to gain control of this is to control the stuff. But I can handle, which means showing up again and starting to write again. And so that was twenty thirteen and by twenty fifteen we were in production on the pilot of billions and able to sort of shift into this other gear. And so I never take it for granted that it's going to continue.
I'm responsible about the money. Amy and I are responsible about the financial part of it so that I won't be in a position where I have to sell my apartment ever again, I hope. But I have absolutely been right up against it because of my commitment to this particular career. And, you know, the whims of a town like Hollywood can absolutely go any which way. So one has to love this work enough to withstand it.
But that put a lot of strain on your relationship with Amy. Now, that's the luckiest thing in my life, is that like we married, we each married the right person for us. So, no, we were in it together. We're really lucky in that way. We were too young to make a rational decision. Shane, like I was twenty five and Amy was twenty two when I had just turned twenty six when we got married like I know I was twenty five and then I turned twenty six I guess twenty days later.
But we, we just happened to pick the right person and we just fit and we have incredibly we take a lot of people's favorite episode of my podcast is the one that Amy was on and it was when her movie I Smile Back was coming out and we had a great convo about all this stuff. And I would say it's a real great peek into a functional marriage that has withstood whatever disappointments from the outside by sort of being together.
That's amazing. It's really good to hear. It's so lucky. She's super lucky. What have you learned? I would say maybe in the last twenty years, sort of living a meaningful life?
Well, it's something I think about a lot. This is where you get into trouble talking about the stuff, but I think it's because it's nothing novel, right? It's a life that involves. Doing work you think is meaningful, being good to as many people as you possibly can, contributing in whatever ways you can. In a societal way and. I try to do all that stuff the best I can. I mean, for Amy and me, raising our kids was the single most meaningful thing by far.
It's the thing that gave our lives meaning that and doing work that we cared about. I mean, that takes care of a huge a huge part of it. Right. And then trying to be there for as many people as you can in whatever way you can. Again, that stuff is it's basic and I think in different phases of your life, you can do. Different parts of it, you can do more of it. You mentioned being there for other people.
Are you there for yourself? In what ways do you need to put your own mask on first to power? Are you to be there for other people?
Say more about that. What do you mean your own mask?
How do you take care of yourself? To give you the strength and energy to take care of other people?
Well, I think that goes back to like the stuff we talked about, like meditation on morning pages and exercise. I mean, these things which are hard to force yourself to do. They are they sound like just received wisdom or something. But the thing is that they work. I guess the only other thing is like the way the Tibetans talk about it, contemplate your death. That makes a lot of things very clear to right. If you really try to understand the concept of death, it does help clarify a lot about the concept of life and how you should live.
But it's mostly. Simple things, I mean. Well, one thing for me is what eating well, if I eat while eating and sleeping, those things are really important. Eating well and sleeping well, meaning not eating too much like sugar and flour.
Talk to me more about the death. How do you talk to yourself about this often? Is it spontaneous? Is it like scheduled?
Is it again, if you go back to the pod, I guess maybe we talk about it a lot on there. It's just having an understanding of the finite nature of life. And a lot of it comes from reading. Right? If you read a lot, which I do, you come to see that the theme of when I talk about the human condition before I write the fact. There's this great singer songwriter named Slaid Cleaves Slide Cleaves, who has a song called Cry, where he says Everything you love will be taken away.
And if you walk through life with the knowledge of that, that everything you love is going to be gone someday. For me, it makes me love harder. It makes me aware of how fortunate I am to be present in this moment. Talking to you here, knowing that the people I love are breathing and living and thriving. And it makes me want to be more expansive, more giving and more connected, because it was a line of billions where Bobby Axelrod is making a speech to his whole.
All of our capital, and he says in the great expanse of time, we're already dead and. That's something that I believe, right, if you look at the great expanse of time, we're not even a dot. The dot is already over. It's already in the past. And so we may as well be super connected to the fact that we're here and alive right now.
It's also empowering to help you go after what you want. Yes. Right. To live your dreams.
Well, to help you focus on what that means. What do you what you want? I think a lot of people don't even consciously think about it. And then unconsciously, they just sort of go about it like, what do I want today, what I want today? And then they wake up. Yes. And you're at the end of your life, you sort of realize that, oh, these things that really matter to me at this point I didn't see earlier.
Sure. Shame. That's the gift of the morning pages and meditation. Do you meditate? Do you do any of that stuff?
I do. I'm not as ritualistic as it is. I want to be a part of it. I have to do it before bed. Yeah, that's great too. But sometimes I'm so exhausted I just fall asleep, right? Yeah.
I just think, like, those things allow you to check in and allow you not to get in a situation where, like you said, you're just chasing sort of short term. Yeah. Endorphin hits. But and look, all of us chase short term endorphin and sometimes all of us go through periods of time where we are going after the thin pleasures than the thicker, deeper, richer pleasures. So you can't hold yourself out to a standard that's impossible to achieve either.
It's not that I'm not also fall prey to those other things we all do. Right. I'm not a Tibetan monk. I'm not sitting out in the woods. I'm engaged in the material world. But I just try to also have an awareness of what? That means and of what's important at a deeper level, and I think times like this, like what we're all going through as a society right now with covid-19 the coronavirus, with social distancing, it's a great time to practice getting in touch with that stuff.
It's a great time. And I'll say the work that I've done personally really pays off in a time like this because I'm able and again, it doesn't mean I never freak out, doesn't mean I never get anxious. Of course I do. I'm a human being. But it does mean that I have certain tools. I'm stoked to be prepared to deal with it.
I want to talk about two things for we brought this up that was beautiful. I want to go into failure. You mentioned you had a box office failure. I think it was 2013. How did you think about that? Did you think of it? That is like, you know, a certain percentage of movies are going to fail. Just happened to be one. Or did you walk away from that going like. Oh, like I failed. I need to do something different.
Like how did you how did you think of it, that situation every now that that was a really brutal I mean, that was a brutal blow.
Part of that was that in the making of that, it was a very difficult, fraught filming process or process, if you'd prefer. And it was I knew the movie was going to be bad.
And so I was waiting and waiting for it to be released, knowing it was terrible. And I did really get a call from a film agent basically saying, your career is might be over, you might not be hirable unless you find a way to write yourself out of this. And so it was cataclysmic, man, and it required all those resources. I started meditating a couple of years before. That was incredibly helpful, but. It was jarring.
I walked I used to walk across Central Park to go to my office and on a normal day crossing the park would take twenty five minutes. And I'd say in the shadow of that movie coming out, I was walking so slowly it would take me like an hour and 20 minutes to get through the park because I was just so beat up and miserable. But then you start to do things. I started my podcast in the shadow of that. I started making these vines that were called Six Seconds Screenwriting Lessons, where I was talking to people about giving themselves permission to do this creative work.
And I was really, really talking to myself and trying to remind myself that I didn't need some authority figure to tell me I was hireable, that I had a career. You know, these are lessons we have to relearn over and over again. Then they're not there. I wish for some symbol that once you made a distinction for yourself, you were able to just hew to it. But the truth is, we get knocked off course by life's events.
And if we don't remind ourselves of first principles consciously, we can just drift. So you have to remind yourself of first principles and then you have to lock down again and then you have to move forward.
I love that. Talk to me about reading your book reader. What are you reading now?
I'm reading a wonderful book right now that's not out yet. It's about ostensibly about Tiger Woods, but it's about a lot more than that's written by this guy named Michael Bamberger, who's a great writer. Bamberger wrote this incredible book about Mike Tramlines making a lady in the water. And this book is about how Tiger put himself back together to win the Masters. And it's just a beautiful book. And then I just asked Twitter for a bunch of book recommendations.
And I think the next book I'm going to read is a novel called Ohio, but I'm forgetting the author's name right now. Are you mostly reading fiction? I rotate. I rotate between nonfiction and fiction.
What appeals to the most of it? The Tiger Woods story is that the comeback after failure is it? And what draws you into that story as a person?
Well, we could have a whole podcast on Tiger Woods, but Tiger is sort of an obsession of mine. He's my father always saying my my favorite sports team is the next. Tiger Woods is my second favorite sports team. And I do find the fact that. He was able. To marshal those resources one more time in that way, it was just stunning. Well, my my son was like two when Tiger won the first Masters, and it's just been a it's something that ties my father who's aiding me and my son all together.
When Tiger's playing well, we're all talking to each other. We're all connected. I mean, it's a great magic sport.
This is a great way to end this. Thank you so much, Brian. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you, Shane. Thanks for doing what you do, man. I look forward to this coming out.
You can find show notes on this episode, as well as every other episode at F-stop blog slash podcast, if you find this episode valuable, shared on social media and leave a review to support the podcast, go to F-stop logged membership and join our learning community.
You'll get hand edited transcripts of all the podcasts and so much more. Thank you for listening.