You don’t see too many protagonist like Ben Kaleman in Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s latest film Solitary Man. For some, he’ll be considered a slimy and perhaps somewhat misogynistic creep getting what he deserves. For others, he’ll be a sympathetic and understandable man trying to figure out where everything went wrong.
That’s one of the (many) great things about Solitary Man. The film doesn’t spell everything out and Ben Kalmen isn’t your typical leading man. Even though one has to put a little trust into Douglas, he is nothing but fantastic as Kalmen. If you’ve felt Douglas hasn’t been at the top of his game for the past few years, you’ll be happy to know he delivers one of his best performances yet in Solitary Man.
Even with Douglas’s performance, much of the credit goes to writer/directors Koppelman and Levien. If you’ve seen some of their previous works such as The Girlfriend Experience, The Illusionist, and Rounders you know to expect a film of similar caliber with Solitary Man.
Here’s what both Brian Koppleman and David Levien had to say about their latest film in my lengthy chat with them.
First off, why are you guys in New York and not of course L.A.?
Brian Koppelman: We are in New York because we’re both from here. We never really wanted to go chase the movie business and go live in Los Angeles. We both lived there at various times, but there’s something about New York with the energy and the reality that you see everyday when you live here. It’s just inspiring.
Is that why you set most of your films in New York?
Brian Koppelman: I don’t know if it’s a conscience choice, but certainly by growing up here we’re more aware of New York and New York characters. That’s certainly why Solitary Man is set in New York. It reflects a world that we saw and see in a very direct way.
From day one did you guys know you wanted to make Solitary Man independently and not sell it to a studio? I’d imagine a lot of changes would have to be made if you went that route.
David Levien: We knew from day one we wanted to hang onto the project, direct it, and have more control over it. We didn’t see it as something that would do well in the studio system for exactly the reasons you said.
Brian Koppelman: When you said we’d have to make a lot of changes, what do you think they would’ve been?
Mostly with Ben Kalmen. He’s not the most standard protagonist.
David Levien: I think the movie would’ve gone more into the direction of It’s Complicated and that’s something we didn’t want to do.
Or even something like Up in the Air. I love that movie, but you could argue it sugar coats certain aspects.
Brian Koppelman: My sense about Up in the Air was that’s the movie that they wanted to make. I don’t think they made compromises for the studio.
David Levien: I think it had a commercial sensibility and the book lent itself in that direction. There’s a little redemption in the book, but the movie is different. We certainly didn’t want to get in a situation where anyone else could steer this other than us, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Schiff. They of course were our producers.
You just brought up the redemption change in Up in the Air and there’s certainly a little redemption in Solitary Man, but surprisingly not in the overly upbeat way.
Brian Koppelman: Well, it’s a different type. Let me say this, I’m really glad that you see that there’s some. I certainly think the moment where he goes to Jesse Eisenberg is a clear moment where he’s trying to gain some understanding, when he goes to return the shirt. The point that you’re trying to make is that with a studio you really would have to highlight all of that. It was very important to us that any redemption with Ben Kalmen was very incremental. With big movies a lot of the time the changes have to be much larger and more obvious. I remember a long time ago in a different life I had the chance to have a conversation with Amy Mann. She said the first time she played a huge show she was playing before Hall and Oates and someone told her, “When you play your guitar, just don’t play. Make sure they can really see you strumming it and make sure you bring your hands up high and low enough for the guy in the back row.” What I took away from that story was her view of, “All I wanted to do was to play the guitar and feel the music.” That distancing thing can happen when you change your original vision. That’s what we try not to do.
Well, could you compare say working on Knockaround Guys where you did work with a studio and did have notes and maybe had to make compromises?
David Levien: Well, Knockaround Guys was a good studio experience. They had notes, but that was largely the movie we wanted to make. That wasn’t a question of somebody dictating the way it had to be.
Brian Koppelman: But we did have to go through a testing process and make changes as a result of that on Knockaround Guys.
Would you say that was for better or worse?
David Levien: Not to the detriment of the film. It afforded us a chance to work on it longer, but the movie is not hugely different from our first script. There’s some differences, but that’s basically the movie we set out to make.
Brian Koppelman: The reason we did Solitary Man independently wasn’t a reaction to the way we’ve worked before, but it was just so obvious when you read the script that if we wanted to tell this story we would have to find a way to tell it independently. Knockaround Guys by its concept is more of a studio picture, because it’s about wise-guys.
An easier sell, basically.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah.
David Levien: And that was a time when there more huge studios that had indie sensibilities, but they’ve been weeded out.
Brian Koppelman: If you look at it, Rounders was made with a studio. Obviously a small studio, but still a studio. The end of the Rounders is only marginally more traditional than the end of this movie. In most movies guys that have to make that type of choice don’t take the choice that Mike McDermott makes at the end of that movie. You’re not ending on that shot of him in a cab with a look on his face. It’s certainly different when you go make a movie like Ocean’s Thirteen because then you know you’re just making something for pure entertainment.
Since Knockaround Guys how much do you think you’ve changed behind the camera? I know it’s hard to pinpoint specifics, but I’m wondering if anything stood out the second time around?
David Levien: Well, the thing that makes you most ready to direct your first movie is directing your first movie. Probably anybody who’s gone through that experience and gotten the chance to do it again will most likely do a better job the second time. The fact that we already directed one feature, a pilot to a TV show, and that we’ve been involved in many more movies since then we’re more experienced. We had the experience of being on a couple of Soderbergh movies as well.
Trust me, I know your guy’s filmography pretty well.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, but what he means is that by being on a set with Soderbergh it was…
David Levien: A big learning experience on how to use the camera and how to tell your story in a much more organic way.
Brian Koppelman: They were movies that we had written, but the key was that Steven invited us to be on set all the time. As did John Dahl on Rounders. We got to really be hands-on and watch a guy who we really think is a master. We tried to really watch with our eyes open.
One thing that is different from your other films though with Solitary Man is that it isn’t very genre specific. Was that a conscious decision or is that something you guys have never thought about?
David Levien: Again, it wasn’t a thing where we deliberately said, “Lets not do a genre now.” It was that the story Brian came up with in a crystalized way and it seemed like he had an extreme handle on the voice of it. It seemed like a good idea that he should finish it on his own. Clearly, it doesn’t apply to the typical genres but that was sort of just a coincidence of the fact that it was just a story told organically.
Brian Koppelman: What Dave is saying is true. The idea just came to me to tell this specific story. During the writing I never thought it was going to be challenging or difficult, but I was just really entertained by the voice of this character and the situation he was in. After that, I just hoped others would be entertained too.
How would you guys label the film though? It’s difficult to throw it into just one specific genre.
David Levien: Maybe a dramatic comedy.
Brian Koppelman: It’s very hard to. I wouldn’t necessarily. Some people have called it more of a foreign movie, in a way. There’s films with similarities. Someone said All That Jazz with the music.
David, you said dramatic comedy and that’s usually a very difficult tone to get. The first thirty minutes are very comedic and then it really shifts gears. I’d imagine that transition was difficult.
David Levien: That was intentional. We wanted to try to use the comedy in the first half an hour to pull the audience in much in a way that Ben Kalmen does to the people around him or just like a good salesman does. We wanted to strip back on the humor after that. People felt a little caught off by that. Anyone who’s had the experience of having someone in their life that’s really charismatic, charming, and funny you sort of get that feeling of losing your exact barrings for quite a while and then you realize who they really are. Sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re not-so-great.
Brian Koppelman: When you talked about us having a handle on the tone you’re so right in that there were definitely conversations about taking big laughs out as the movie progresses. Like, there’s that scene on the porch where Imogen Poots’s character reveals a truth to her mother. There’s a moment in that scene before she comes out talking to Michael and where she says, “I got two things off my list: the spy thing and the daddy thing,” and Michael says “The daddy thing.” There’s a cut of the movie where we pop in close to Michael’s face where he says that and it becomes a comedic moment. For the sake of the movie, we decided to stay in that two-shot which is more of an objective shot. The moment doesn’t play as comedic. It may take a view viewings where you look closely and notice you may chuckle seeing that look on his face. We trusted the audience to be engaged in the story and to stay there instead of not just to try and go for easy laughs.
So would you say the right tone is something you really find in post-production?
Brian Koppelman: The whole aesthetic we shot the movie with was that we were going to play the one liners and all of that, but we did cover ourselves in spots and shot coverage if it was a long scene. In the editing room we tried all different sorts of things and then we found the tone and voice.
David, you mentioned earlier how Kalmen obviously is a smooth talker similar to plenty of your other characters. Why is that?
David Levien: (laughs) That’s a very good observation. Ever since we were kids we were drawn to movies that were dialog intensive where you could watch them over and over where they reveal more about them, like Diner. Something about that just seeped in.
Brian Koppelman: We’re also just fascinated by those type of guys and the world where they could talk themselves in and out of any situation. Just like Dave said, Diner and those type of characters were very engaging to us.
David Levien: We were interested in filling the air with these big moments because that would really counterpoint when the guy didn’t have an audience or ran out of steam. The silence would creep in and you’d have to deal with it.
Brian Koppelman: It’s funny, when Elvis Mitchell interviewed us he pointed the same thing out that you just pointed out about these characters. But I’d say that we don’t conscientiously walk around with an awareness of the characters we’ve written before, who’ve we’ve created, or their effect. We’re just trying to tell a story and you don’t do that type self-examination until when you’re doing these type of interviews. You just try to tell a story that’s compelling to you and try to make it in a way where it’s compelling to everyone else. It’s only later until you realize that there’s a pattern of how characters have a certain similarity. I can’t tell you why. It’s fascinating to us, but it’s clear you’re right. It’s just not conscience.
David Levien: Like we don’t sit there and say, “This is where there should be a one-page speech.”
Brian Koppelman: I guess when you watch Diner and Stripes hundreds of times the idea of a couple of guys and the way they communicate with each other just seeps in.
Well, I was going to ask about this but it’s obvious that it wasn’t intentional now. But reading really deep into the film I felt like it was you guys saying those old smooth talkers you wrote before are going to hit a roadblock at one point like Ben Kalmen with the way they live life.
David Levien: You mean, using Ben Kalmen to show where those guys are going to end up?
That’s kind of how I saw it.
David Levien: Well, you’re not wrong. At some point most hustlers don’t ride off into the sunset. If a character has got some hustling in him he could end up in a place where he’d have fewer and fewer options where he’d get boxed-in.
Brian Koppelman: I think even in the movies that you’re talking about where characters talk like that I think there’s foreshadowing in those movies that things probably aren’t going to continue all that well for them. Guys like Ben Kalmen are fascinating to us. We grew up watching guys like that. When we watched them they really started to blow up their lives. That type of character is very much from life or even more so in movies.
What about isolation? That’s something that applies to a lot of your characters and the same definitely goes for Kalmen.
Brian Koppelman: Again, I think that’s a part of the human condition that we all fight against, right? Another one of our favorite characters is Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters. I think someone like that would also continue into this situation. If you look at him he has plenty of those type of moments. The guy is always talking and trying to define his space, but then in the moments they’re alone the sound is all sucked out. He’s revealed to be isolated and different.
He’s just putting up a fake wall.
Brian Koppelman: Well, does he know it’s fake? I don’t know. That’s for you to say more than me. I’m saying there’s a difference when Kalmen is alone and that’s even why we show him with his shirt off.
What was the decision behind having Kalmen’s family– especially his daughter– knowing what type of guy he is? In most films like this that character’s family of friends are oblivious to it.
David Levien: Well, she didn’t really know about it for very long until it started to affect her child. At certain points in life you start to figure things out about your family.
Are you guys surprised though, even because of that idea, that people seem to be really connecting with Ben Kalmen?
Brian Koppelman: Yes, it’s been amazing how almost every time we screen the film someone comes up to us and says, “That’s my dad up there!”
David Levien: Yeah, we like the fact it plays outside of New York.
I took my father to it and even he got choked up by it.
Brian Koppelman: Oh, that’s nice to hear.
(laughs) Yeah, you like to hear how he was crying.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. This woman came up to us in Dallas who was a middle aged and very sweet who was just weeping. She came up to us saying how she understood more about her own father now. I told her you may think I’m horrible, but you’re making me smile that you’re crying (laughs).
Where did the idea of him being a car salesman or dealership owner come from? That seems so perfect considering that’s one profession really tied to the idea of being a huckster.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, I was just trying to think of something very American and something that he could be. I remember just writing and giving him that dealership just thinking how much that made sense.
The really funny thing about Kalmen though is that he is, in a weird way, a little heroic. You never really see him give up on anything.
David Levien: I always liked that he was sort of buoyant in the face of his ever diminishing success. He was just sort of sticking to it and kept taking this attitude that he was going to turn-it-around. There’s something very American about that and it’s also very endearing.
So, you guys think Ben Kalmen represents America?
Brian Koppelman: I wouldn’t go that far. I would never say something like that about our own work. I think he is a type that you do find in America.
David Levien: Yeah, self-made.
When it comes to his womanizing it’s funny that you never really see him in the act of swaying woman. He buys them a drink and all, but you never see him pitch them. What was the idea behind that?
Brian Koppelman: Several things, actually. We just wanted to show the most compelling moments. When he was at the table with Richard Schiff that was more interesting than seeing him in the act of that. If we actually showed that it would be three hours later of a lot of beers until they got to bed. We just wanted to trust the audience to go with us to the next moment. Watching it with audiences they seem to get it. They’re not looking for that. It’s like that moment on the porch you could have a five minute scene with Mary-Louise Parker and Michael, but it felt like we understood everything that would be said there so lets cut to afterwards. Mary-Louise is so good that you can just see all of it.
Did you ever write scenes like that though? Filling in the blanks?
Brian Koppelman: Nope.
So there was never a scene of him you filmed of him winning a girl over?
David Levien: The scene before he takes Imogen Poots into his room was slightly different. It had a different end point.
Brian Koppelman: It was maybe just one paragraph that we cut, but that’s just regular cutting for time. But there was never a scene at the bar with the other woman or the porch scene with Mary-Louise and Michael. We always intentioned to move.
I definitely want to ask about the scene between Michael and Olivia Thirlby because that’s the only moment where your really feel hatred for Kalmen. What was the writing process of that scene and getting Thirlby? She was also uncredited, I believe.
Brian Koppelman: We knew we wanted Olivia Thirlby to come and do this movie with us. We just think she’s one of the best actresses around and we needed someone for that part who was going to really break your heart and who was going to be strong enough to stand there with Michael. Olivia does leads in movies so we met her, showed her the script, and asked her to do us a favor. We just asked her to come and do this for two days. We didn’t even have money to pay her and we asked her to just do this for scale. She read it, emailed us, and said she was in. I’m not sure her agents were happy about that, but she did it. As for writing the scene, we wanted the character to go as far as a guy like that would really go. You could write off a lot of his other behavior in a various ways, but there’s no way to excuse what he does there. We felt it was important to have a moment like that where we were saying to the audience it’s your choice whether you still want to hang with this guy or not.
It seems like most do though.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah. That’s pretty much a testament to Michael and how compelling he made this character.
Yeah, I don’t know if I should say this, but I haven’t seen him great like this in a while.
Brian Koppelman: You can say anything. We love him in everything, but of course you can. We think he connected very deeply to this role.
Well, you see a lot of Ben Kalmen types in life so it makes sense.
Brian Koppelman: Where’d you grow up?
I’m in DC.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, well in that town you’re going to see him (laughs).
David Levien: Definitely.
The ending Kalmen has is also a bit similar to your other films because it’s not completely wrapped up in a bow. What makes you guys want to end with ambiguity?
David Levien: Well, you know why. Sometimes it’s really fun to write Ocean’s Thirteen where you know how you wanna wrap it up: you want the good guys to win, the bad guys to lose, the funny joke to be payed off, and the sad guy to get a little something. In movies that are a little more grounded in reality the ending is usually not so neatly tied.
Brian Koppelman: Any other ending for this would’ve felt forced. This felt legit. I would say The Girlfriend Experience has a very closed ending too.
Why do you say that?
Brian Koppelman: Well, I think the moment in the jewelry store points you in a direction.
Couldn’t you say the same for Solitary Man as well?
David Levien: The last shot of Solitary Man is un-inflected. He doesn’t look either way and the camera is dead centered.
Brian Koppelman: You can decide what you think, but her engaged in that scene… To me, obviously Steven made those final decisions and I love that movie. I think he did an amazing job. To me, that scene at the end of The Girlfriend Experience tells you a lot. It shows the lies that Chelsea told herself and the trajectory that her life is probably going to go on. I think in a more clear way that our movie tells you. You don’t think so? You think they’re equally open ended?
Well, I see that ending a little different than you. I thought she was aware of her lies a bit.
Brian Koppelman: Right, where she could walk out of that jewelery store and make any decision she wanted to?
That’s how I always saw it.
Brian Koppelman: That’s true. That is totally true.
David Levien: She’s only like twenty-one years old or something too.
Brian Koppelman: Well David, you’d be in a better position to know what that character is going to do. Does your character go and meet her? Does he go and meet her later?
David Levien: No, my character doesn’t. Doesn’t that scene in the jewelry story come right off the heels of her having nothing booked on her blackberry? I’m trying to remember the final cut. It comes right after that she has something not work out. She has nothing booked, and then she has that final thing with that guy.
Not the biggest redemption, to say the least.
David Levien: No, not the biggest redemption.
You don’t think she could get it at some point though?
Brian Koppelman: Maybe, but again, that’s why it’s open-ended because that’s my answer is maybe. Just go back to Diner, which I wasn’t even conscience about at all, but you can’t get any more open-ended than that ending. Many of the movies that continue to resonate to us, like The Graduate, are movies that don’t land so hard on a final verdict.
I would partially disagree on the ending of The Graduate though.
Brian Koppelman: Why?
Because it was really hinted at that they were going to become just like their parents and Mike Nichols has even talked about that.
Brian Koppelman: Well, from a deconstruction standpoint what he says doesn’t matter as much as what you see.
It’s kind of like the ending of Blade Runner. Just because Ridley Scott says he’s a replicant doesn’t mean he is one.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah.
David Levien: Sure, it may be that. There’s also that thought that the moment where he captures their faces was not intended. The way he cut was that he just kept rolling on their faces. I think it’s still open-ended in a way, but I’d say this is more open-ended. I love that movie. I mean, it’s a masterpiece.
Well, what’s your interpretation on the ending of Solitary Man then? It doesn’t matter the intent, but what do you like to think Kalmen does?
David Levien: No. We can’t answer that.
Brian Koppelman: No, we can’t. It’s really yours to say and not ours. I think he makes a decision on the bench and after that happens he stands up. I will tell you something that most people don’t know is that the blonde that walks by him is Brooklyn Decker. Do you know Brooklyn Decker?
Brian Koppelman: Oh, she was the Sports Illustrated cover girl. She was even in that whole online speculation about who was going to replace Megan Fox in Transformers. She was one of the three girls. We only shot her from the neck down because we wanted that moment to have a certain effect. Just a little unknown fact that she’s in the movie. If you don’t know who Brooklyn Decker then that has less impact for you.
I didn’t even notice that you didn’t show her face in the shot.
David Levien: Good.
Again, you guys obviously can’t talk too much about the ending. But to me, it really makes the movie itself very hopeful and not as depressing as some say.
David Levien: Well, you’re really a sensitive viewer in a really good way. We think there’s something hopeful in the ending, because Ben has gained some understanding about himself. With that, he gains self-knowledge about himself.
The ending is what really matters for most movies. People call a movie like Slumdog Millionaire really depressing, but it ends with a dance sequence and in the most upbeat way possible. Solitary Man definitely has a sense of hope to it.
Brian Koppelman: Right. Well, I’m glad that you felt that there was something hopeful about it. We certainly didn’t set out to make a movie that was just depressing. Ben is an entertaining guy. It’s hard for us to talk about that stuff, but it’s great for us to hear other people talk about it. It’s just hard for us…
You just don’t wanna ruin anyone’s interpretation.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, what anyone else feels is great. It really is. Whatever anyone takes from it is valid.
You briefly mentioned earlier the writing process on Ocean’s Thirteen. Could you compare say working on a script for a film of that magnitude compared to say something like Solitary Man?
Brian Kopppelman: Well, in that we were collaborating with Steven who is a director very close to us. We were just more conscious of making that more funny whenever we could. Other than that, we were just trying to tell the story and it was just that the scale was different. You already know who those characters are, who those actors are, but we’re throwing ourselves into it the exact same way. It’s just a different target.
Well, I also mean in a sense that it was a big summer movie where there are more people in the room with an opinion.
Brian Koppelman: Not with Steven Soderbergh and Jerry Weintraub, really. Those guys and George [Clooney] are able, through the success they’ve had, to have more of a say.
I’d like to end on The Girlfriend Experience and ask if you guys were at all surprised by how divisive that film was? It’s a great movie, but it really was polarizing.
Brian Koppelman: We weren’t surprised at all. I think Steven knew that movie was going to be polarizing. We all together cast a porn star in the lead in a country where people are very polarized about the place that porn stars have.
David Levien: We all did that together. We found Sasha Grey for him and I’d say we all knew it was going to be polarizing.
Brian Koppelman: I honestly thought this movie was going to be even more polarizing.
Why do you think that?
David Levien: The stuff you were asking about, the central character.
And it’s also not so black and white.
David Levien: Yeah.
Brian Koppelman: That’s true.
Well thanks so much for your time guys. You’ve been more than charitable.
Brian Koppelman: You asked very thoughtful questions.
Thank you and best of luck with the movie.
David Levien: Really appreciated.
Brian Koppelman: Thank you so much.
Solitary Man is now in theaters and will be further expanding in the following weeks.