You may think you have nothing in common with the people who create and produce movies and TV shows, but you're wrong.
Along with Andrew Ross Sorkin, co-creators, writers and executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien basically did what every entrepreneur does: They had an idea, found people who believed in that idea... and then executed at an incredibly high level.
For that reason, and because it's my favorite show (sorry, Peaky Blinders), I talked with Brian and David about how they turned their idea into a successful reality -- so successful that Billions was just renewed for a third season.
You had the idea for the show. How did you pitch it?
Brian: We didn't pitch it. You said people who launch a show have an entrepreneurial spirit, and you're right.
One of the first things we had to decide is whether to go with conventional wisdom or try a different strategy. In the past we had set up pitches where we came up with an idea, worked up a pitch, and sold the idea to a network.
You can certainly do it that way, and you can get paid for your time to develop the idea... but then you give up a lot of control, and you lose much of your ability to determine if the project ever gets made.
So if you pitch an idea, and a network is interested, you get money up front to flesh it out.
Brian: Basically, yes. But with Billions, we knew this was a strong idea, with a clear point of view, that could be executed very differently from the rest of the market... so we wrote it on spec. We spent four months where we weren't getting paid to write the first episode in the hope that we could flip the leverage paradigm. Our goal was to be able to say, "We have the script and we have the outline for the first season -- so if you want it, you have to agree to certain things."
The risk was that no one would buy it, but we were willing to take that risk because we really believed in what we were doing .
David: Instead of pitching the idea first, we wrote the first episode, sent the script out to a few networks, and then had meetings after they read the script.
That's an unconventional approach, but it was an easy decision for us because we believed so strongly in what we wanted to do.
What was the response?
He responded very quickly. He said, "I want to buy the show... and I want to make the show."
Brian: We got incredibly lucky having Showtime as our partner.
A couple of years before Billions, we had a series that Showtime was interested in. That's when we first met David. For a variety of reasons we went with someone else ... but we never forgot how David had said, "I'll make your show, and I'll do it right. I'll be a good partner." It was sincere. It felt right.
Then that show didn't get made, and we thought, "We should have sold it to him."
So when we went into the meeting with David and his team, our agents didn't like it but we looked at him and said, "If you want this, we will do it with you because we made a mistake not going with you last time. We know you understand the work and the point of view."
I'm not surprised your agents didn't like that. Way to give up all your negotiating power.
Brian: (Laughs.) I know, but that's how we felt. And David just said, "Yes, let's do this together."
From that moment on, we've been true partners.
Showtime has a very flat structure. We basically talk to three people on the creative side. They're all very empowered, they communicate well with each other and with the network... there's a tremendous amount of faith and trust on both sides. There's no conflict in our relationship -- at all.
David: What Brian is referring to is unusual for TV. One, you would be surprised how often a network will buy a show but never make it. As creative people we always want to see our ideas come to life, so that can be really frustrating.
Then there is often a committee effect with television: There's a studio, a network, there are layers and layers of notes and feedback... it's hard to maintain an undistilled version of the show you set out to make.
With Billions, we knew Showtime would make it. And it's just the two of us talking to three executives -- that's as streamlined as it ever gets in the entertainment industry.
Having so few people involved on the creative side has to help in terms of ensuring everyone involved -- cast, crew, etc -- really understands what you're trying to do.
Brian: A huge part of our job is checking in with our cast to make sure that everyone understands the show we're all making. The fact we all feel we're making the same show makes those conversations easy to have.
We're also experienced enough that we chose actors we knew were open and adventurous and creative and gifted... people who love diving in and having those conversations. That's the easiest and most straightforward part of making the show.
Part of our job is to give the cast each script two weeks before we shoot. They read it and get back to us with questions they might have. Then we do a table read with the whole cast to hear the script out loud. Afterwards we huddle with our writers to make changes, give the new script back to the cast as quickly as we can... there's constant communication.
David: That open channel really helps. When you work with talented people, you want to hear what they have to say. After all, we're making the show together.
When you've had an idea in the past and you felt you weren't getting anywhere, how did you persevere?
Brian: You don't go into this line of work if you're not willing to deal with rejection.
In 1996 we wrote our first script, Rounders. It was rejected by every single agency in Hollywood.
I wrote down what every person said. One said it was overwritten. Another said it was underwritten. I still don't know what either of those terms mean. (Laughs.) Another said they didn't "believe" it.
Then, through a twist of fate, Miramax and Harvey Weinstein bought the script, and the day after he did all those same agencies called and said they wanted to represent us. Since I had all the notes from their initial rejections, each time I would read that person what he had said about the script. And they would make excuses: "My assistant read it, not me." "I hired a guy to read it." Okay....
When you get rejections from gatekeepers, you go through a process. First you wait for the emotional sting of rejection to pass. Then you evaluate what was said and measure it against the work itself. If what was said is valid, work to address it, and then keep moving forward.
You do get over the emotional sting. Maybe it lasts a day, maybe a week, but in this business you learn that you're going to get rejected. If nothing else, it's easier for people to say no than yes.
You also know when you've done something worthwhile. With Billions, we knew it would get made because we knew it had a tone and characters and internal unity that set it apart. That wasn't a judgment from wishful thinking, that was a judgment from having done this for twenty years -- and learning the difference.
So if one person said no, that didn't matter, because we knew someone would buy it. Sure, we could have been wrong, but you can't be in this business if you expect to fail.
Who do you see as your audience? People in the business probably love the "inside baseball" stuff, while other viewers might not. And how do you deal with feedback?
David: While we've gotten amazing feedback, we didn't set out with a certain audience in mind. We trusted that if we told the story, with certain truths we had found in these worlds, that it would be interesting. We knew at least some groups of people would find it interesting.
It's been rewarding to see that Wall Street loves the show, that hedge funds love the show... but what's great is that our fans come from all parts of life.
As far as feedback, we definitely care. But we were also really lucky to have the first season in the can before the show began to air. That made us immune to outside comments. (Laughs.) There was no way to get into chasing reviews or comments.
We made it free from outside commentary, and then when it aired we were able to hear what people thought without feeling like we needed to immediately react to change the show.
You've just been renewed for a third season. Sometimes product companies that know they'll have another release tend to hold things back. Kind of like the second album syndrome: A musician spends ten years coming up with the ten songs on her first album... and now she has months to come up with ten more. How much do you try to hold back?
Brian: We hold to what Matt Weiner (Mad Men) and David Chase (Sopranos) say: "You do all the ideas." You put everything you have into each season, and have faith that your subconscious will do a lot of work between seasons.
That means at the beginning of a new season we don't know exactly what we'll do. We have some ideas...but then it really helps that we're very, very locked into these characters.
David and I took a month off for vacation, and we came back really chomping at the bit to tell these stories. They're on our minds all the time.
The "Scrumpets" episode really rang true for me; I was hired to help turn around a company where the owners were using it as an ATM machine. And I've met some traders. You somehow manage to maintain accuracy while still being entertaining.
David: That's a balance we're always trying to strike. There are no points given out for absolute verisimilitude. We have to do things like compress the time certain events would actually take. Legal proceedings take a long time in real life; we wouldn't get very far in the show if we were strict about that sense of time.
So what we try to do is start from a place of reality, and keep that kernel of truth... and then take as much license as we we can without ruining the story.
One thing I really enjoy is that sometimes I find myself rooting for Axe, and other times for Chuck.
David: That was our intention. We didn't want to write something straightforward with an obvious villain and an obvious good guy. We wanted complex, 360-degree people. And we don't judge. Neither character is always right or always wrong. They're human.
Our goal is for the audience to hopefully lean one way, and then catch themselves and lean the other way.
That only works with actors who know who to play well-rounded characters, and who not only bring their charisma and skill to the part... but are also unafraid to show vulnerability and sometimes come across less than positive.
Damien and Paul -- everyone on the cast -- they're game to go there.
What is the hardest thing about what you do?
David: Trying to write twelve great shows. Past that, it's the long hours, being away from your family, leaving before dawn and getting home really late, working hard so we don't let this amazing cast down... that's the real pressure. We have all these incredibly talented people that we don't want to let them down.
What's the best part?
Don't forget Wags...
(Laughs.) David Constable is brilliant.
Having these actors take our ideas and our words and elevate them... it's just remarkable.
And it's fun to carry little secrets around. We shoot an episode, we help edit it... we know what is going to happen. Then I get to walk around thinking, "I can't wait until people see this..."
David: We get a huge kick out of having an idea, writing it, and then watching great performers do what we wrote -- and make it even better.
It doesn't get better than that.