Billionaire Boys’ Club

Last winter, as terminal cancer tightened its grip on my father and his perambulations began to shrink from town to yard to house, I happened to glance at his appointment book. It was lying open on a countertop, and its once-busy pages were blank—except for a single word: Billions.

Billions is a Showtime drama set partly in the world around us—the moneyed precincts of Fairfield County. It stars Damian Lewis as the shady yet appealing hedge fund mogul Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as the principled yet unappealing U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who pursues Axelrod with a zeal that gradually devolves into seething obsession. This cat-and-mouse game is deliciously complicated by a woman in the middle: Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), devoted wife to Chuck and loyal soldier to Bobby, who, as Axe Capital’s in-house shrink, wires Bobby’s carnivores for maximum spoils. She shuttles between the two worlds—Axe’s in Westport and Chuck’s in Manhattan—needed and yet mistrusted in both.

Since my father’s TV druthers ran to the chaste historical (he loved John Adams, also starring Giamatti, and Downton Abbey), I can only presume he missed Billions’ opening scene. Let’s just say it involves a bare-chested Chuck lying bound and gagged on the floor and a leather-clad Wendy standing over him with a burning cigarette and a full bladder. What were we in for here? Finer souls, if they persevered, reaped a rich narrative reward. “Billions twists and turns with impressive dexterity,” The New York Times noted. “Hell, it’s fun,” said The Guardian. Some critics observed a depth beyond the addictive plotline. “I can’t stop watching Billions, which, under its lurid surface, is smartly paced and frank—even thoughtful—about the disconcerting fantasies it provokes,” The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum wrote. Those fantasies concern “a deeply American longing for a sort of wealth that doubles as the ultimate masculinity, a power reverie that is hyper-visible this miserable election year.”

November’s result stunningly confirmed Nussbaum’s insight.

My own attraction to Billions began with its creators, the screenwriting team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien. (They teamed up with a third creator, financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, who’d been devising a similar project.) Some years ago, Koppelman, Levien and their respective wives, Amy and Melissa, rented a summer place on Stanwich Road. The Koppelmans went back to Manhattan, but the Leviens put down roots in Greenwich. I interviewed Levien for this magazine in 2008, on the publication of his suspense novel City of the Sun, the first in a quartet featuring the brooding private eye Frank Behr. Thereafter I’d see him at Greenwich Library, where he sometimes works, creating lines that might be read by thousands or heard by millions.

Koppelman and Levien met as teenagers growing up on Long Island and bonded over their passion for books, movies and music. Their film tastes ran to intelligent guy ensembles—Barry Levinson’s Diner, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Later, as aspiring writers, Koppelman stumbled into an intriguing if somewhat menacing subculture: illicit poker clubs. Returning to his New York apartment very early one morning, he called Levien and said, “I just lost seven hundred and fifty dollars. But I think I found a world we need to write a movie about.”

Their screenplay, Rounders (1998), written in a closet-sized room in the basement of Koppelman’s apartment building, was swiftly picked up by the hottest studio going, Miramax Films, and made into a film starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich. Now regarded as a cult classic, Rounders vaulted Koppelman and Levien from talented nobodies to Hollywood A-listers. They went on to write Runaway Jury (2003, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Rachel Weisz) and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Al Pacino)—both earning good reviews and the latter grossing more than $300 million.

Not content to be mere screenwriters, Koppelman and Levien have also produced and directed films. In 2006 they produced The Illusionist (Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, and once again, Paul Giamatti), an enchanting film about a master magician in fin de siècle Vienna. Here the Greenwich tie thickens: The Illusionist was written and directed by Neil Burger, a town native and Brunswick School graduate; the trio’s fruitful collaboration continued in Billions, for which Burger directed the pilot and second episode of Season 1.

In 2010 Koppelman and Levien made Solitary Man, starring Michael Douglas, from Koppelman’s screenplay about a successful jerk of a New York car dealer who falls on hard times. The film advances their career-long scrutiny of the American male, who in the Koppelman-Levien worldview is something of a wolf: clever, ruthless, a bit of a con. It’s also one of their best films. But Solitary Man illustrates the trouble of grown-up films about lifelike people: They tend to get lost at the multiplex, and there aren’t enough art houses to pull them through. (The film cost $15 million to make and earned only about $5 million back.)

Television, though, is another matter.

TELLING THE “RIGHT” STORY
We’re in the middle of a TV golden age, an age in which dramas can unfold with the richness of a nineteenth- century novel. Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Three Musketeers, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamozov all came serially, in magazines, before they were books: They were the Mad Men and the Breaking Bad of their day.

Koppelman and Levien are Billions’ “showrunners”—the creative impresarios behind everything from conception to final production. One day last November they were filming an episode of Billions’ second season (which begins February 19) at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle. As I drove up, Damian Lewis was standing on the front steps: tall, red-haired, instantly recognizable from his starring roles in Band of Brothers, Homeland and Wolf Hall. I followed bundles of electrical cable to a neon-lighted bowling alley in the basement, where Lewis’ character, Bobby Axelrod, had just met with a trader he’d fired in Season 1.

Koppelman and Levien took up seats at a bar alongside the alley—the former, age fifty, with large, soulful Russian eyes and a wintry beard (he had let it grow from its customary close trim); the latter, forty-eight, with full dark hair and a chiseled jawline. “We always felt that, at some point, we’d have an idea that would benefit by being told in chapters—in hours over the course of seasons,” Levien says. “That we’d have a character or a scenario that couldn’t wrap up in two hours.”

“There was this agent who used to say to us all the time, ‘When are you guys going to make the auteur play in television?’” Koppelman says. “Well, we didn’t have that story.”

But they’d been thinking about hedge funds for years. In a country fascinated by great wealth, the hedge fund chiefs were the new Astors, the new Vanderbilts, the new Rockefellers. Roughly a decade ago, Koppelman says, “somebody came to us to do a movie set in Wall Street boiler rooms. And we looked at each other and said, no, the story to tell, when we can figure our how to tell it, is the hedge fund story.”

“We’d also been working on shows about U.S. attorneys,” Levien adds. “They and the hedge fund guys lived in the same world.”

Indeed they did. Vanity Fair and The Wall Street Journal claimed that Billions is based on federal prosecutor Preet Bharara’s aggressive pursuit of Greenwich hedge fund savant Steven A. Cohen. Bharara is the true-life occupant of Chuck Rhoades’ office—U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York—and Cohen was a big-fish target of Bharara’s relentless probes into insider trading. Bharara did snag a couple of smaller fish at Cohen’s SAC Capital, but evidence against Cohen himself proved to be thin at best; even a wiretap yielded nothing. Still, to be in federal crosshairs is to be in real danger. Whether one is innocent or guilty, the feds almost always win. Cohen expelled the danger by settling and agreeing to handle only his own money for a couple of years.

Is Bobby Axelrod supposed to “be” Steve Cohen? Does Preet Bharara equal Chuck Rhoades? No, say Koppelman and Levien. Even if the true story suggested a framework for Billions, to draw precise linkages misses the point of its being fiction. “Look, we certainly do read the newspapers, but it’s reductive to think that we just took the latest news story,” Levien explains. “These characters, this battle that these two men in our show are engaged in, is a battle from time immemorial. It’s kings and nation-states at war.”

“We really like Preet,” Koppelman adds by way of contrast with the obnoxious if compulsively watchable Chuck. “Preet’s motivation and Chuck’s motivation are quite different. They really are different people.”

Koppelman and Levien are known for their scrupulous research. Whether the milieu is backroom poker, glitzy casinos or a call girl’s New York, the feel of their work is authentic, the dialogue alive. For Billions, they had to get the prosecutor’s world nailed down cold—they dined with Bharara and toured his Manhattan offices, among other things—but also the billionaire’s. Though billionaires tend to be elusive, secretive creatures, Koppelman and Levien did spend time with a number of them. “There was a certain level of reserve at the outset,” Levien remarks. “But once they trusted that you were not trying to regurgitate the facts of their life for your show, they were pretty generous about sharing their anecdotes.” He smiles. “I’d say a little bit less so before the show hit.”

Among hedge fund billionaires they consulted who don’t mind being named were Jim Chanos, founder of Kynikos Associates, and Marc Lasry, founder of Avenue Capital Group and co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. “Lasry said something brilliant to us,” says Koppelman. “Lasry said, ‘A lot of people are good at the numbers, and some people are good at being able to tell a story—but if you can do both those things, if you’re incredible at the math and if you can tell a story about what you’re doing—that will set you apart in the hedge fund world.’” He pauses. “Of course, if you’re all storytelling ability and no math, you’re just a humpy screenwriter for the rest of your life, like the two of us.”

A billionaire’s lifestyle is hard for regular folk to comprehend. “Usually when you’re watching a billionaire portrayed in media,” Levien says, “you’re seeing somebody who’s living like a multimillionaire. There are so many levels and layers to the billionaire lifestyle that you can’t even see. You see the biggest house in the world, and it’s really just one of twenty houses that billionaire has.”

Koppelman and Levien dined out with one man who showed them the billionaire’s crasser side. “This hedge fund billionaire knew we would be paying, and at the last minute he changed the restaurant to this very expensive restaurant—fine,” Levien begins. “Then when they offered us wine, he said, ‘I’ll have what I usually have,’ and they brought over something incredible. And then again.”

“He ordered these, like, two-thousand-dollar bottles of wine,” Koppleman says with a groan.

“Then the check came, and it was something astronomical,” Levien continues. “He was just showing us, ‘I can beat you in this exchange. I’m gonna watch you guys in pain as you reach for this check.’”

Bobby Axelrod can be just like that. “What’s the point of having f**k-you money if you never say f**k you?” he asks.

But you root for him despite his darkest deeds. Raised in working-class Queens, he’s a scrapper who married the neighborhood catch, Lara (Malin Akerman). Their marriage seems a close and loving partnership. But ambition burns in them with the brightness of the up-from-nothing wealthy, and they have contempt for the “old” money crowd and their affectations. In one scene, Bobby takes vindictive pleasure in humiliating a down-on-its-luck blue-blood family for whom he used to caddy. Still we suspect that his own two sons, raised in luxury, will be more like them than him—the old cycle repeating itself.

Bobby’s great secret is that he built his wealth upon the ashes of 9/11. He’d been out of his Twin Towers office that day—working out a severance package with his then-hedge fund. Then the planes strike, and his first thought is to short vulnerable stocks to the tune of $750 million. With that dubious (but not illegal) bounty, he restarts the firm as Axe Capital. We first see Bobby as “a man of the people”—his preferred self-image—donning a hoodie and cramming pizza into his mouth at his favorite joint. We see him next at Axe Capital, taking a wide stance above the trading floor, master of all he surveys.

As for the other kingdom: Chuck Rhoades is the son of wealthy powerbroker Charles Rhoades Sr., whose various forms of corruption, from philandering to influence peddling, Chuck despises. (Chuck’s own sense of propriety extends to his and Wendy’s indulgence in the city’s shadowy S&M scene, where strict codes of fidelity apply.) He has put away his share of Wall Streeters, and done so lustily, as though striking a blow against his father. But he demurs when an SEC agent tries to serve up the high-flying, philanthropically generous Bobby Axelrod. “A good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull,” he says, his 81-0 record in financial cases clearly in mind. “You wait until he’s been stuck a few times.”

The SEC agent needles Chuck with the suggestion that he’s loath to bring down his wife’s boss—but the viewer suspects otherwise. Chuck would love to bring him down; then he would no longer have to resent her success and her cozy allegiance to “Bobby F**king Axelrod.”

Bobby lives in a mansion on the Connecticut coast, possibly Belle Haven by the look of the aerial shot; but he’s mildly contemplating buying an $83 million beach palace in the Hamptons. When, through back channels, Chuck Rhoades warns him against buying the house, Bobby naturally buys it at once—an act of colossally conspicuous consumption that dents his folk-hero image. The bull had been stuck, and Chuck begins his pursuit. (Not all the plot points in Billions are fully credible, but it doesn’t matter. They’re juicy and they speed the story along.)

By the end of the season, the war between Chuck and Bobby has proved engrossingly ruinous. The two are last seen in the deserted shell of Axe Capital—the building has been stripped to the rivets in a paranoid search for listening devices that probably aren’t there. Axe’s kingdom looks like a wasteland. Chuck, however, has been the bigger loser. In his obsession, he has slipped from his cherished ideals and pursued Bobby by any means at his disposal, including raiding secret files on Wendy’s computer. In the spectacular finale, Wendy walks away from her husband—and then from Axe Capital. “We both lost her,” Bobby says. “Well, then maybe you have a sliver of my pain,” Chuck replies.

Koppelman says, “From the very beginning, we said to ourselves, ‘Wendy’s gonna win the first season.’”

In the final scene, Chuck leaves Axe Capital bereft, but with a warning for Bobby: “The only enemy more dangerous than a man with unlimited resources is one with nothing to lose,” he says. “And that is what you are looking at.”

Koppelman and Levien felt in their bones they’d created a very fine show. “I was dead certain,” Koppelman says. “Dead certain when we wrote the script for the pilot that the pilot would get made and become a series. I knew it—I just knew these characters had never existed before, I knew we’d done what we really wanted to do, that we had manifested this world in a way that it would be very hard for it not to turn into something. I knew we couldn’t be stopped getting it made.”

But would it be a winner? That’s a more elusive thing. Many a well-wrought series fails to earn a second season. “Making a show about this subsection of the world, we weren’t sure if people outside these zip codes were going to grab onto it,” Levien says. “You’re never positive the audience is going to come and watch. But it happened so quickly. It was absolutely amazing for us to see that it didn’t just play on the coasts, but had a broad demographic, across genders, ages, races.”

Billions does tap into American Dreaming, but in a complicated way—the dream is fraught with peril. The “hedge fund space” in particular, esoteric, difficult to understand, always seems to be getting caught up in new legislation, some of it sound, some of it arbitrary, depending on whom you ask. “We found there’s a ton of legal gray area,” Levien says, “and that’s good for our storytelling. Dealing with stark cases of right and wrong, black and white, can get a little boring.”

On set, the pair will sometimes look at each other in wonder at the journey they’ve been on; even a brief glance can contain their whole shared history. “It’s just funny to us,” Koppelman says. “When I look at Dave, I’m still sixteen and he’s still fourteen. You think when you’re a kid, ‘Someday I’m gonna shed this skin.’ But you don’t really shed it. You’re all the things you’ve ever been at the same time.” He mentions that in their teen years on Long Island they listened incessantly to LL Cool J’s first album, Radio. “And around the time of the third episode airing, LL Cool J sends us an email saying, ‘This is my favorite show. Bobby Axelrod is the best character,’ and all this stuff. And we looked at each other like, ‘How the hell do we have an email from LL Cool J?’”

“But we feel the responsibility of it all, too,” Levien adds, surrounded by world-class actors, a massive crew and a flotilla of equipment trucks. “We have to deliver, we have to do our best, for the actors, for the audience. But sometimes we’re doing a scene and we just shake our heads. It’s like, ‘Look at this. We had this idea—and here we are.’”

So what happens next? How will Chuck try to bring Bobby Axelrod down? How will Axe counter? How will Wendy fit into the picture? Koppelman and Levien decline to offer even a tease about the forthcoming season. But my father, evidently still a fan despite having died in November, revealed a thing or two in that impish way the spirits have—elbowing my muse aside to whisper in my ear. Here, I’ll tell you … Oh, no. We’re out of room. I guess you’ll just have to watch and see for yourself.

 

 

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