Brian Koppelman | Making Billions (Episode 487)

Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) was a blocked writer until he was 30. Now, he’s the showrunner, co-creator, and executive producer of Billions on Showtime and the host of Slate’s The Moment podcast. How did he turn things around? He’s here to discuss this and share his Hollywood stories with us on The Art of Charm.

“The armchair quarterback is easy to filter out; just look and see what kind of work they’re producing.” -Brian Koppelman

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Law school is an expensive (but not completely useless) place to learn life lessons.
  • How do you know when you’ve done work of “undeniable” quality — in the absolute sense?
  • The line between being an artist and being delusional is very thin.
  • If you want to be a screenwriter, read a thousand screenplays.
  • We focus so much on the hustle that sometimes we forget to focus on the work.
  • And so much more…


Do you have a way to access the most creative part of yourself? Do you acknowledge your secret dream and chase it with rigor, or do you neglect that dream and let it turn toxic inside of you?

On episode 487 of The Art of Charm, Brian Koppelman tells us how he turned around his writer’s block at age 30 and got himself out of the toxic slump to co-create Rounders and Ocean’s 13 and become the showrunner, co-creator, and executive producer of Showtime’s Billions and host of Slate’s The Moment podcast. (As an added bonus, Gabriel Mizrahi joins us, too!)

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More About This Show

Like Jordan, Brian Koppelman — showrunner, co-creator, and executive producer of Billions on Showtime and the host of Slate’s The Moment podcast — is a non-practicing lawyer. And even though he doesn’t use his law degree, he realizes things might be a little different if he hadn’t gone to law school.

“Getting a law degree has come in handy,” says Brian. “My wife and I were talking about…the fact that I never used it professionally, and I never was a lawyer for a day in my life. But she said to me, ‘That character in Rounders [Abe Petrovsky, as played by Martin Landau] never would have shown up if you hadn’t met that professor at law school.’

“And so, right from the beginning of the fact that we set the main character as a law school student at night as I was and gave him a professor very similar to the professor I had — a guy who used to stay up all night drinking gin — no matter what, it paid dividends. It also paid dividends in a system of thought that I find really valuable and it taught me how to write on deadline and other skills that I think are really valuable. And it gave me a contact base.”

But you don’t have to go to law school (for his part, Jordan would recommend against it unless you like paying off years of debt) to learn valuable life lessons. Sometimes you’ve just got to approach your work from an artistic perspective where, as Brian says, “the line between being an artist and being delusional is very thin.”

He explains how there’s a discipline to knowing when your work is “undeniable” — that is, so good that you know it, even if the people who are in the market to buy it are a little slow to realize it. Conviction in the quality of what you create is important, because that’s what’s going to tide you over in the interim. “The world will find you if you don’t give up,” says Brian.

But the skill that goes into creating work of this quality takes hard work. “If you want to be a screenwriter,” Brian says, “read a thousand screenplays.” Practice. Do the reps. Understand yourself and your process, and you’ll understand the time it takes between the conception of a creative idea, the time you write it down, and how long you should wait to show it to someone else.

“Let’s say the first 24 to 36 hours after I write a scene,” explains Brian, “you can’t talk to me about that scene. Because that scene is…perfect, man! It’s the greatest, funniest, most important scene ever written. In those first 24 hours, if you try to get me to change a line, I might punch you in the face! But I know that about myself, so I won’t show it to you until it’s 48 hours or 68 hours from now when I’m ready to look at it and go, ‘Oh, you know what? One line of that scene is useful; the rest is garbage.’

“Because I know that to get the work done, I have to basically put myself in a state of hypnosis that prevents me from really evaluating its quality right away. And I know that that effect lasts for about 24 hours. So I don’t try to revise or look at it or judge it for that period of time. I hope that by the time I come back to it, I’m cool enough to be able to look at it fairly.”

Everyone has a different process, but developing this process is part of understanding the difference between what you throw away and what you keep. Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm to better understand how Brian arrives at this “undeniable” work, how he feels about people who teach screenwriting but don’t actually write for the screen themselves, what goes into authentically bringing the real world (and all of its rich details) to movies and television, and so much more.


If you enjoyed this session with Brian Koppelman, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out on Twitter:

Click here to thank Brian Koppelman on Twitter!

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Jordan Harbinger - author of 952 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.


in Best Of, Lifestyle, Podcast