knockguys Interview

Writers-directors Levien, Koppelman were inspired by mob kid acquaintances when writing their new film

Writers-directors Levien, Koppelman were inspired by mob kid acquaintances when writing their new film

Back in 1998 when screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman were doing press for their first film, "Rounders," they had a tendency to get bored with the same old questions and started making up stories that exaggerated how they met while growing up on Long Island and going to rival high schools.

One of the tall tales had each of them as members in rival cover bands as teenagers, and when the story is quoted back to them, the two look at each other and start laughing.

"No, that's not true," chuckles Koppelman, a gregarious semi-suburban dad in his late 30s with early shades of gray in his hair, moustache and small patch of beard under his bottom lip. "I think we might have just said that. We were joking around."

But the two decide they'd rather perpetuate the myth.

"No wait," say Levien, who is a few years younger and a bit more serious (at least on the surface) as he sits forward on the couch in his San Francisco hotel room to assert himself into the conversation. He riffs, "I had this great Richenbacher bass, and Dave stole the Richenbacher bass to fill in for his bass player."

Together they decide that the "true story" is that they were about to fight over the guitar, "but then we both started quoting lines from 'The Warriors,' trying to be tough," Koppelman ad-libs, "and we became friends."

So I play along: "You started writing songs, and that turned into writing screenplays!"

Koppelman points at me excitedly. "There you go!"

"Are you guys going to remember this so you can maintain the illusion?" I ask. Levien says he will even if Koppelman doesn't.

Sorry, guys. I've blown your cover. This conversation was just too funny to keep to myself.

Levien and Koppelman are in town to talk about their latest project -- and their mutual directorial debut -- "Knockaround Guys," a mobster movie about the sons of mobsters trying to prove themselves to their pops. The movie stars Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green and Andrew Davoli as privileged Generation X mafia scions who are frustrated with being seen as nothing more than errand boys by their fathers (Dennis Hopper is Pepper's dad and John Malkovich is his soft-spoken but spooky right-hand man).

Matty (Pepper) has a plan for his crew to earn some respect by delivering $500,000 cross-country for the Family. But when Matty enlists a paranoid, recovering cokehead buddy who is a pilot (Green) to fly the money and save time, things go wrong. He panics when he comes face-to-face with a local sheriff (Tom Noonan, "The Pledge," "Manhunter") while refueling at a remote Montana airport -- and lets the bag of money out of his sight.

The recovery of said bag and the ton of bricks that come down on the guys in the process is the crux of the film.

Q: So, the origins of this story -- I understand you knew some people who were the inspiration.

David Levien: We did. We grew up knowing some kids of some wiseguys and were fascinated by the lifestyle they were able to live at a young age. They drove Ferraris to school, and Maseratis. But we ran into them again later in life and saw that in their mid-20s that sense of entitlement they had was being chipped away at. The expectations that they were going to have some kind of easy set-up were being frustrated, and we thought it would be interesting to write about them.

Q: These guys (in the movie), their father's names are a monkey on their backs -- an 800-lb. gorilla on their backs, really. How do you two feel about living up to your own fathers? Like, Brian, I know your dad was very successful in the music biz, co-founding SBK records.

Brian Koppelman: Well, my dad has been enormously successful...

DL: I think every guy feels that to some degree, whether their father is super-successful, or whether their father isn't successful, or whether their father is a criminal. It just depends which way it's gonna twist the kid, but every kid has to reckon with it.

BK: I've been pretty concerned in my life only with living up to what my dad has been as a father, not the career stuff as much. My dad was really an involved father. So I'm really conscious of trying to be for my kids what my dad has always been for me, which is really supportive, and giving the right kind of counsel and setting a good example.

DL: And obviously it's dramatized in the movie. Matty (the central character played by Barry Pepper) is a kid who really has to become a killer in a way to even exist in his father's eyes. That's just sort of the hyper version of what so many young people trying to figure out their lives might face.

Q: I know you guys have a couple other unproduced screenplays out there. What's more frustrating, not being able to sell a screenplay or selling one that never gets made?

DL: Well, we've never had the experience of not selling one. That would have to be worse! The most frustrating thing for us is this script "Guido's All American," because it's really good. I feel very close to that script and that story. We were very young in Hollywood when we sold that script to the wrong studio for it. It's a small movie and it just doesn't make sense for Warner Bros. If I were Warner Bros., I don't know that I'd figure how to make it either. But I wish we could have that back because I'd love to be able to make that movie.

BK: But at the time we sold that, it was right after "Rounders" and it enabled us to be full-time screenwriters. So if we were looking back now having not sold it, it might be much more frustrating. That might have kept us from actually being full-time at this, and moving on to our next project, which was "Knockaround Guys."

Q: Do the rights return to you at any point?

BK: After another year or two, I think we get that right.

Q: Well, how about the frustration of having your finished film sit on a shelf for a year and a half?

BK: You know, it was in January they told us they were going to put it out now, so the last nine months have only been filled with impatience, not the frustration of not knowing. It was frustrating to read rumors. But there's nothing you can do about that kind of thing.

Q: I know NewLine has been trying to make it up to everyone whose films were put on the back burner while they threw all their money into "Lord of the Rings." They're sending people on PA tours like this and really trying to give the films a punch.

DL: Well, I don't know if they're trying to make it up to us -- doing this to salve our feelings or anything like that. I think they've always felt -- and I know (producer) Bob Shaye has always felt -- that it's a good movie. He's always been a fan of the movie. They want it to win. They made marketing decisions based on what they had to do at the time.

Q: I'll bet you guys are glad "Lord of the Rings" was a success, because if it had tanked, your movie would probably be sitting on a shelf.

DL: Almost as glad as Peter Jackson!

Q: Now, there was something of a silver lining in the delay, because you now have Vin Diesel, post-"XXX."

BK: It's true, man!

DL: He's a phenomenon now.

Q: He is. And he's a good actor. I hope he doesn't just go and make action movies from now on.

DL: He'll have the choice, I think. We think he gives a good performance in our movie, and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to play a regular-scale person, not a larger-than-life guy that bullets will bounce off of, like in "XXX." Maybe he'll do a little of both.

BK: In those other movies, he's not asked to play a human being really. In our movie, and in "Boiler Room," he's asked to play a human being, and he really can, which separates him from most action stars.

Q: And on the subject of actors, I loved John Malkovich. Most of the time he's doing The Malkovich Thing, and he's great at The Malkovich Thing. But here he's got this other layer; he's this methodic, composed, insidiously reptilian mobster with a Brooklyn accent.

BK: Each time you see any Malkovich performance, it gets better. There are so many layers to it -- subtle layers. There's tons of subtle stuff all the time with John. He's working on so many different levels and there's so much going on in his eyes. And I think he chose really wisely the way he was going to approach the character. Most actors in mob movies are imitating (Robert) DeNiro or Joe Pesci, and John is just going to the root of it, like, what would a guy like me be like in the mob? We love his performance in the film. To have John, and Dennis Hopper and Tom Noonan in the movie, that was just really exciting for us.

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