Premiering strongly at TIFF at in 2009 and released into theaters earlier this year, Brian Koppelman and David Levien‘s sophomore directorial effort, “Solitary Man” has quietly been building steam. The film earned strong reviews from critics and saw its initial two screen opening weekend eventually expanded into over one hundred and fifty theaters across the country. The picture stars Michael Douglas as a former used car sales magnate who slowly watches his life self-destruct due to his ill-conceived and misguided romantic and business indiscretions. It all begins with a routine heart check-up that seems irregular that leads the main character Ben down a brutally selfish path of self-immolation. It’s also funny, mature and intelligent look at an irredeemable man trying to find some redemption in his life with few easy answers.
Of course, the studios have pretty much washed their hands of intelligent dramas and though it boasts an incredible ensemble cast led by Michael Douglas (giving one of the best performances of his career) and rounded out by Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer, Imogen Poots, Mary-Louise Parker, Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito and an uncredited Olivia Thirlby, longtime screenwriters/directors Koppelman and Leviene faced the same constraints and hurdles any independent filmmaker must work with to get the film made. As awards season talk heats up around Michael Douglas for his turn in the film, we spoke to Koppelman and Leviene about the film and the challenges they faced in mounting the picture.
“The money for independent films with ambiguous endings….it’s not like they’re lining up to throw that money at you,” Brian Koppelman said about the financing of the film. And he’s right. With the major studios staking their futures on big budget tentpoles, putting together the pieces for dramas requires tenacity, skill and a little bit of luck. But put it together they did and even with the starry cast make no mistake that this was a production that wrung the most out of every dollar it could. “Basically it was as indie as you could get if you weren’t making it with your father-in-law’s credit card out in the suburbs of Long Island or something.”
When it came to casting the film, Koppelman and Levien had an assist from Steven Soderbergh (they penned the scripts for “Ocean’s 13” and “The Girlfriend Experience“) who helped them secure Michael Douglas for the leading role. However, getting the rest of the cast would require some creativity, some sacrifice and a lot of goodwill from the players involved.
“It was the kind of movie where we wanted to cast Jesse Eisenberg. The financiers didn’t know who he was….so they [wanted to] offer him scale,” Koppelman says. “We said that’s kind of an insulting thing to offer Jesse Eisenberg. So Dave and I we just paid ourselves out our own pocket and offered Jesse double scale and said, ‘Look, we’re paying this ourselves.’ And he responded to script and wanted to work with Michael so he came and did it.”
And that willingness to do what it takes to get the right people in the right roles was evident even during the audition process for the film. “[For example] Imogen Poots, she put herself on tape in England, we thought she would be perfect but we needed to see her in person. They refused to fly her in from England, so we flew her in on our own dime so she could audition.”
However, Koppelman and Levien would experience their greatest combination of luck and generosity from Olivia Thirlby. The duo have nothing but the kindest words and highest praise for the excellent young actress and credit her with helping to truly anchor one of the film’s smaller, but important, sequences. “We had met Olivia for the part Imogen ended up playing. Olivia was going to play the part but then she got cast in ‘Farragut North‘ on Broadway. And she said, ‘Can you guys push the movie by a month’ but we couldn’t because of Michael’s schedule. She is such a stand up person and she really is so honorable. She said, ‘I’ve known these guys at the play for a long time, I really chased it, I really want to go do the play.’ And we said, ‘Go do the play, but, will you do us a favor and come play this small crucial part in the movie.’ And on the phone with no agents, no anything, she said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ And you never know if people are really going to keep their word. And a month later when we went to her agent to put it together [they said], ‘There’s no chance she’s going to do that. That’s ridiculous.’ And we sent Olivia email and said, ‘Jesse’s playing Cheston, it’s with Michael, we’d love it if you want to come and do this’ and she wrote back immediately and said, ‘Just tell me when to show up, I’ll be there.’ And it’s just such a classy, elegant thing for her to do. And beyond that, I think it’s such a crucial moment in the movie, and she delivers and just gives a fantastic performance.”
And it’s that spirit of all collaboration between the cast and making the most of their limited time together — the film was in shot 26 days with only a couple of days of rehearsal — that helped Koppelman and Levien create something that continues to be talked about well into the fall. And while you can always expect the unexpected when a film goes from the being on the page to being made in front of cameras, in watching Douglas over the course of the shoot, the filmmakers were aware it was no ordinary performance. “Even while we were making the movie, whether or not we thought the movie was going to come out exactly the way wanted while we were shooting it, we were aware it was one of those situations were an actor was in a role that was totally right and that something special was happening,” Levien said.
And that magic is being recognized. The film has been met with critical plaudits and is building an audience by word of mouth, and even fellow filmmakers have sent Koppelman and Levien their accolades. “It’s more than rewarding to hear all this….and we’ve gotten emails from James Mangold, Ed Burns — James Toback tweeted about it — when filmmakers you admire respond to a film that’s super rewarding for sure.”
If you missed “Solitary Man” during its theatrical run, not to worry. You can catch up with it now on DVD and BluRay via Anchor Bay. You can read our review of the film here.