'Solitary Man' directors are team players
EmptyTwo heads may be better than one, but when it comes to directing movies it's an unusual combination.
Case in point: "Solitary Man," directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien and starring Michael Douglas, opening May 21 in New York and L.A. via Anchor Bay Films.
Koppelman & Levien got the DGA's blessing to work as a directing team because they'd previously paired up for the 2001 comedy "Knockaround Guys."
When they shot "Guys" in Canada they were members of the Directors Guild of Canada, which doesn't have a prohibition against team directors.
"In order to join the DGA as a team you have to have directed before as a team and you have to really be a bona fide team," Koppelman explained.
What with co-directing "Guys" and the pilot for their 2005 cable series "Tilt," Koppelman & Levien were home free with the DGA.
They work together "seamlessly," Levien pointed out.
Koppelman: "Since we were 14 we've been like brothers. We grew up watching movies together, reading the same books, listening to the same music. As a result, each of us built our individual aesthetic in conversation with the other guy. So in a way we built this shared perspective."
"We're not selling the idea that everybody should go work as a team," Levien emphasized. "It's just something that works for us.
"Solitary" started out with Koppelman writing 20 pages in 2007 and asking Levien if they should work on it together.
Levien to Koppelman: "I think you have the tone and voice of this, so you should finish it and then we'll talk about how to make it."
It's the story of once successful car dealer Ben Kalmen (Douglas), whose bad choices and ceaseless womanizing have cost him his business. Now he's on the verge of a comeback, but his old bad habits are resurfacing.
Also starring are Mary-Louise Parker, Jenna Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots with Susan Sarandon and Danny DeVito.
Koppelman & Levien showed the finished script to Steven Soderbergh (for whom they wrote "Oceans Thirteen") and Paul Schiff ("My Cousin Vinnie"), the film's producers with Nu Image/Millennium Films' Avi Lerner and Moshe Diamant.
"Michael Douglas was always our first choice," Koppelman said. "Steven immediately felt Michael was the right guy for it and gave it to Michael."
It helped that Soderbergh had directed Douglas in "Traffic." Douglas signed on in mid-March '08 after drinks with Koppelman & Levien.
"At our first meeting, he was dressed in all black, which is how the character was described," Koppelman recalled. "He just seemed to understand the DNA of this character."
Why would an A-List star like Douglas -- who just helped jumpstart the Cannes Film Festival in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps" -- want to do a small indie film?
"That's for him to say," Koppelman replies. "But my guess is that something must have been resonant in this character's journey for him."
They started shooting in November '08 with a budget Levien puts "well under $15 million -- just barely enough to get that thing on film."
To make it work they shot entirely in New York to take advantage of tax rebates.
What about the scenes shot at a small New England college?
Well, Koppelman's alma mater Tufts University outside Boston could have worked nicely, but their shoestring budget only got them as far as Fordham University in the Bronx. Koppelman knew the location because he got his law degree there.
"We just found a campus we could double for New England," said Levien, who's a University of Michigan alum.
How do they work together while co-directing?
"We approach all aspects of the job in a joint manner," Levien told me. "We plan the approach towards the shoot. We are in rehearsals together. We almost always see eye to eye on the way things unfold. When we're shooting a scene, 99% of the time it's the exact same takes that we've chosen."
Their biggest challenge, Koppelman observed, "was that we had 26 days to shoot the movie. It's a dialogue heavy film and the actors are doing the heavy lifting on this one. There are no effects and not a lot of action."
What made the difference, he adds, was that Douglas "was completely off-book from the time of rehearsal. Word of that kind of thing spreads like wildfire on a production so every actor knew when they were getting in make up that Michael was on it. So everybody was on it the whole time."
Douglas also was the key to bringing in DeVito to play the small but key role of an old friend to Douglas' car dealer character.
"Michael made a personal call to him because they go back as long as the characters go back," Levien said. "They go back to their post-college days when they were young actors in New York. They were roommates. When Michael was producing 'Cuckoo's Nest' he gave Danny his first big great role."
For "Solitary," he reminded, "we needed characters that could fall back into that rhythm where you'd know they hadn't seen each other for a long time and in a way that would be totally natural and they'd seem like great old friends."
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