Shrek Forever After may have earned the top spot on the box office chart last weekend, but it was the indie Solitary Man that actually drew in the most dollars per screen. The film stars Michael Douglas as Ben Kalman, an aging auto industry titan whose enviable life has been destroyed by his own self-destructive behavior, and earned close to $24,000 per theater in its debut on four screens in New York and Los Angeles this past weekend. Douglas, as our reviewer Lisa Schwarzbaum attests, is at his finest since last decade’s Wonder Boys. It helps that he’s supported by a thoughtfully assembled supporting cast that include Jenna Fischer, Mary Louise Parker, and Jesse Eisenberg.
The movie comes from longtime collaborators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who grew up on movies together on the North Shore of Long Island. The two wrote Rounders, Runaway Jury, and Oceans Thirteen together and produced The Illusionist, among other projects. Perhaps because they were surrounded by those Ben Kalman characters in their childhood, they’ve been able to craft a story in Solitary Man that makes you sympathize with those once mighty lions and their inevitable fall from supremacy. We spent a few minutes with the duo, uncovering their motivations for the unique take on a familiar character and how they’ve sustained a career together for close to three decades.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on creating a character that’s so relatable. I think all of us know a Ben Kalman.
KOPPELMAN: Thank you. At all these festivals, someone comes up to us and says that’s my father-in-law or that’s my father, and it’s the most satisfying thing to hear. Even when we are away from New York, we hear that. We knew we were making a movie that was very specific to New York, but it’s great to see that it plays other places, that it plays everywhere.
LEVIEN: We were in Dallas and some woman came up to us crying, and said ‘How did you get my Dad up on screen like that.’
Was he a character you knew personally? How did Ben Kalman come to be?
KOPPELMAN: We grew up on the North Shore of Long Island around many successful businessmen. They were either friends of our fathers or our schoolmates’ dads and when we young, 12-14, and these guys were in their 40s, they seemed like gods to us, like they had all the answers. They had these giant modern houses, access to anything they wanted, and when they walked into restaurants, everyone noticed them. When you are a kid, it looks amazing. As we got older and they got older, many of them blew up their lives. They lost the house or alienated the kids or through business fraud were indicted or went to jail. We had been talking about doing something on that for a long time, and then one day I was at a park in New York and I saw a guy tell his grown daughter not to call him Dad in public because it made it too hard to pick up young girls. Having seen that, I ran home and started writing, and that became the first scene of the movie.
Brian, you wrote the script but the two of you directed together. You previously directed Knockaround Guys together. How do you split the duties?
LEVIEN As directors, we don’t divide the duties, we share in it all. We both make all the casting decisions. We both talk to the camera and we both talk to the actors.
KOPPELMAN: We’ve been like brothers since we were 14 years old, so when we met on a teen tour. When we were kids, we were obsessed with movies. We’d trade our favorite bands, share books, and we’ve formed a shared aesthetic and learned how to communicate creatively so when we’re on set or meeting with department heads of a film crew, we’re able to speak with one voice. We’re very comfortable in that way.
Your opening gross was certainly impressive. D you have a sense of who your audience is for this film?
KOPPELMAN: I don’t think we’re qualified to answer that, but if you look at the reviews, what is interesting to us is it’s not just Lisa in EW or A.O. Scott in the New York Times, but a lot of film geek websites like Ain’t It Cool News, Cinematical, Salon, and The Playlist, they all wrote really in-depth, interesting reviews of the movie. We originally thought it would have a more limited appeal, but it seems that since everyone knows a Ben Kalman, people seem to walk out saying, “I understand something about that type of guy.”
It’s an amazing role for Michael Douglas. Was he immediately on board or did you guys have to do the hard sell yourselves?
KOPPELMAN: Doesn’t he just crush it?
LEVIEN: Steven Soderbergh, who’s one of the producers, he thought the script was great and thought Michael was perfect for it. He sent it to Michael and we heard back right away that Michael really liked it. We sat down in L.A. with him and he right away said he was game to do it and he never wavered from that. We put it together immediately.
Was there any direct discussion with Douglas on what this role meant to him at this stage in his career?
LEVIEN: It felt to us that he connected with this part on a deep level, but we never had any psychological discussions equating anything with the specifics of his life. It was just never something we did. He was obviously very locked into the role so we never had to find psychological ways to connect him to it. He did that work on his own or didn’t need to.
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