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When it comes to directors who work on a varied scale, no filmmaker plays second fiddle to Steven Soderbergh. The shape-shifting anti-auteur has gone from directing enormous blockbusters (the Ocean's series) to films that are budgeted in six figures (Bubble). Likewise, his writers are working in a similar realm of variance. Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the writing team behind Ocean's Thirteen and Soderbergh's TFF '09 entry, The Girlfriend Experience, were on hand Monday to talk about the writer experience, shuffling from an enormous-budget work to something much, much smaller.
Moderating the discussion was film critic Glen Kenny, best known as the head film critic for Premiere back in the day. Kenny has a supporting role in the new film, as, incidentally, a man who "reviews" prostitutes. Kenny began the discussion by asking about Rounders, the first film that Koppelman and Levien produced—did the writers feel the need to expand the scope of the film, when they realized what a large budget ($14 million) it would be made for? "Not really," explained Levien. "We didn't feel the need to expand it. To do that comes much later, if it comes at all." Koppelman pointed out that the budget expansion came more from director John Dahl. "We wanted to have all the poker scenes in these tiny, tiny rooms with just a few flourescent lights," Koppelman explained. "But John turned it into something else, by setting the poker scenes in this huge space. That's a difference in terms of budget."
The writers also briefly touched upon their work as script doctors, when asked. "We worked on Bad Boys 2 for a week, and it was already towards the end of the shoot," Levien explained. "We were in the room with Michael Bay and Martin Lawrence, and Will Smith walked in the room, and he was like, 'He'll take care of the action,' and he pointed at Michael, 'and we'll take care of the funny,' and he pointed at himself and Martin. 'We just need you guys to take care of the characters.' But they were almost finished shooting, so it's like, what do you guys want us to do?"
The writers explained that they met Soderbergh as potential candidates to write Ocean's Thirteen. By the end of the meeting, during which they had thrown many ideas around, Soderbergh told them he wanted them to write it. "Steven is totally game for whatever," Koppelman said. "There were no constraints on what we could do, he was up for anything." "With Ocean's," Levien added, "Steven would give us these visual ideas, little shots that he had in mind but didn't know what to do with, and we would try to work them into the story. But writing the film was difficult in the sense that they had covered a lot of avenues in the earlier two films, so it was tricky to find new places to take it. We kind of felt like we were the only ones who could screw it up." Koppelman added that it was easy to work with such enormous stars. "The spirit in which they make those movies is great. None of the actors threw their star weight around."
When asked how they came to write The Girlfriend Experience, the writers had an amusing anecdote. "We were spending the weekend at a hotel in New York, helping Steven rewrite the script of a friend of his," Levien explained, "when Steven came back up from the hotel bar, and said, 'There are a lot of professional women down there.' We had both read a lot of articles about this new thing—the phrase 'the girlfriend experience' was out there—and he thought it was a fascinating thing. These are young girls, and they don't look at all like the stereotype. It was fascinating to us." "That night," Koppelman chimed in, "Steven said, 'Let's make a movie about this,' so we started outlining. There was never a script, just an outline. We must have interviewed 40 or 50 women, and if you really ask a lot of questions, and sit there with your laptop, they eventually tell you all different kinds of stuff: their worst night, their best night, etc. We did that over the course of years."