‘The Knockaround Guys’
(Writer/Directors - Brian Koppelman & David Levien)
'Let's Get Ready To Rumble'
’The Knockaround Guys’ is the story of four sons (Vin Diesel, Seth Green, Barry Pepper, Andrew Davoli) of well-known Brooklyn gangsters (Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich) who feel like they're not getting a chance to do real gangster work. Tired of being mere errand boys, they convince their crime lord elders to finally give them a shot at the big time. Of course, they have trouble. A bag of cash is lost in Montana, and while the four try to retrieve it before their cover is blown, a corrupt sheriff decides to take the boys down. It's not long before the big guns (literally and figuratively) are flying out west to clean up the mess the boys have made !
Writers/Producers/Directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien first met, as teenagers, at JFK International Airport and instantly became friends. A Tufts University graduate, Koppelman went on to develop a career in the music business and earned a law degree from Fordham University at night.
Levien graduated from the University of Michigan, where he published short stories in the undergraduate magazine. After graduation, he spent three years in Los Angeles, where he worked in the film business and began writing screenplays and fiction, including the novel ‘Wormwood’, published in 1999 by Hyperion-Miramax.
Koppelman and Levien had conspired for years about writing and directing movies together. In October of 1996, they began writing the screenplay ’Rounders.’ In the interest of creating a script that was as authentic as it was entertaining, Koppelman and Levien entered the dangerous world of underground poker halls – thorough research has become a trademark for the pair ! And with their new movie, ’Knockaround Guys’ ensconced in the very same ‘Mob-infested’ world, both Koppelman and Levien have once more brought forth a tale of more depth and culture than your average cheesy Hollywood tales.
Chatting to both the guys recently, I first wondered about just where the term ‘Knockaround guys’ had originated ? (Brian Koppelman) ”We both grew up on Long Island in a suburb of Manhattan and ‘wiseguys’ have been around for as long as we can both remember. So, we grew up surrounded by sons and daughters of connected guys and made guys and we saw the way they were looked upon with a mixture of revulsion and attraction. They were living this incredibly intense life and as these guys grew up and entered their twenties we saw how these guys had to figure out what they were gonna do.”
So you invented the name ‘knockaround guys’ ? (David Levien) ”No, that’s a real term,” he quickly corrects. ”It’s like ‘wiseguy’ or ‘made’ guy. It’s the same thing.”
(BK) ”It’s a term we heard from two gamblers that we met during the course of researching ‘Rounders’ and it’s a term they used that’s not widely used.”
This movie was filmed in 1999 and originally set for release on Jan 12th ’01. So was the huge delay down to having to shoot a new ending as reported ? (BK) ”We did do some little re-shooting, but the delay had nothing to do with that. It was delayed to studio politics.”
(DL) ”First of all, in January we got the call that the movie was coming out, but then they told us that we’re going to be putting the movie out but we’re gonna be putting it out in October (2002) after ‘xXx.’ So for us, we weren’t gonna say no we want it to come out in February ! So that was the real problem there.”
(BK) ”New Line had a lot of questions that they had to have answered, that were answered by ‘Lord of the Rings.’ It’s like not our story to tell, but if you look at where New Line was before ‘Lord of the Rings’ came out and look at what happened to all the movies that were slated to come out right before that that weren’t sequels or huge, obvious commercial blockbusters you’ll see a pattern. Ours is a smaller, prime movie and once ‘Lord of the Rings’ was successful and they knew they were going to be an appealing entity they called us and told us that they were gonna be putting the movie out on a lot of screens, but that they were gonna promote it but wait until ‘xXx.’ And, it’s frustrating to have to wait once you’ve finished something, but it made sense. I mean, if I’m done and I have this little movie with Vin (Diesel) in it, I’m obviously gonna wait and put it out when he becomes a big star !”
How much did the movie cost to make ? (BK) ”It’s a $13 million dollar movie,” he smiles.
(DL) ”It’s a ‘smaller’ kind of movie, not just on a budget scale, but on a pyrotechnic level. It’s much more closer to a Coen Brothers movie than it is to an all out action movie. It deals with things like likeable characters facing their grisly ends, but that’s the kind of thing that may potentially be too intense for like the 12 year-old kids that go to the movies five times on the weekend !”
So having chosen an, at the time, unknown to-a-point Vin Diesel, right about now you would seem to have a trump cinematic card in your hand ! (DL) ”Yeah, well now we’ve got him in every shot with explosions everywhere,” he laughs. ”Now he carries around a thermonuclear bow and arrow,” he continues to joke.
(BK) ”It would be great for people just to come see the film and be interested in it, without just coming for Vin though.”
(DL) ”Yeah, but Vin Diesel fans are gonna like the film and I think they’re gonna be happy with what they see. It’s a great performance and he does some really cool s**t in the movie.”
Yet, surprisingly, he’s not the main character. That casting went to the relatively-unknown Barry Pepper ! (DL)”When we were casting the movie there’s a temptation in Hollywood – which is one school of thought – which is like let’s have the biggest name we can get for a role. We said, and maybe it’s gonna be to our ill, we said let’s get the best actor we can get for the role and so we read tons of guys and met lots of people and in came Barry and really blew us away. He’s the right combination of toughness and venerability and he just seemed like the guy who was gonna be the character. That’s why we cast him.”
(BK) ”To New Line’s credit they looked at this from the beginning as an ensemble so to put the right pieces of the ensemble together they were willing to go forward with it. People like Barry and Vin, Seth and Malkovich, and Hop they were guys that all had a profile that was just beginning … you knew someone was gonna pop and it could have been Barry, but it could have been any of them. It just turned out to be Vin.”
You seemed to have a lot of fun creating the nicknames for your characters: ie: ‘Marbles’ and ‘Chains’ ! (BK) ”Benny Chains was a real name; nickname that we’d heard and so just decided to use.”
(DL) ”One of Malkovich’s hoodlums character names is ‘Freddie The Watch,’ but we never had the screen time to work in the guys nicknames and how they got them. Another one of Malkovich’s henchmen is called ‘Billy Clueless’ – even though he’s totally not clueless ! They’re things we’ve either made up or speak of.”
(BK) ”Johnny Marbles was originally gonna be named ‘Mumbles,’ and then we realized that ‘Mumbles’ was a name that was in like two movies: it was in ‘Sleepers’ and it was in ‘Dick Tracy’ (‘Mumble) and so we were like, ‘Well it can’t be ‘Mumbles.’ So, you know, you try as writers to just come up with something else that could possibly fit. Like here, one of us said ‘Marbles’ and the other guy said, ‘OK, that’s it’ !”
Tell me more about the new project ‘The Runaway Jury’ for Regency Films (BK) ”Yeah, we’re just written the draft and they’re making the movie. We have nothing really to with this one. We just wrote the script.”
And ‘The First Family’ ? (BK) ”That we wrote as a ‘specs script’ and sold to Bel Aire. We write it, they bought it and now we’ll see if they make it !”
Any newer projects than these two ? (BK) ”We’ve just flown back from the set of ‘Bad Boys 2’ where we did about a week and a half of writing on that. We got called in to rewrite thirteen scenes and so we were happy to help. It was a great thing for us to do.”
(DL) ”There’s a guy at (Jerry) Bruckheimer’s company who we’ve been in touch with, and whose been a fan of ours since we just got in the business. And from time to time he’s just called over the years and said can you do this and that to this movie, but almost all times we’ve been too busy to do it, but this time we could do it.”
(BK) ”I guess there were certain things that they weren’t quite sold on in the script and they wanted our opinion. So, they sent us the script and we told them what we would do. They flew us down to Miami, we sat in on rehearsals with those guys (Will Smith, Martin Lawrence) , wrote thirteen scenes in a week and that was that.”
Is there anything you guys don’t do together ? (DL) ”Well, I don’t play basketball. Hardly at all,” he laughs. ”And he constantly plays.”
(BK) ”That’s one answer, but another one is that Dave’s about to have a child and I had absolutely nothing to do with that,” they both laugh.
Brian, is your father still the Chairman and CEO of EMI Records and what’s the full story behind YOU discovering the wonderful Tracy Chapman for HIM ?! (BK) ”No, he’s not now, but yes he was. When I was in college, because my Dad was in the record business, when I was thirteen I started promoting concerts at little clubs and I managed bands and even produced songs on albums. And at college, I became very active politically and at around that time when we were in school there was a big movement across colleges to get the colleges investment funds out of South African investments. It was a way to exert economic pressure on the government there by making … well, what happened was students all over the country were taking over administration buildings trying to force the boards to divest the many funds that were invested in South Africa. And I was very active in trying to do that at my school by organizing an off-campus boycott protesting the fact that they were still investing.
Some one told me there was this folk singer that I should get to come and play and I – I was a sophomore and she was a senior – walked into this little coffee house on-campus called ‘Cappachino’ and she walked up on stage. She played ‘Talking About A Revolution’ and ten other songs and there’s probably only five moments like that in my life: Seeing my kids born, meeting my wife, and seeing Tracy was just one of those things. I didn’t know, ‘cause you couldn’t know all of the things that would happen with her, but what I knew was that I could help her become the big success that she deserved to be. She wouldn’t give me a demo tape for the longest time because she didn’t have them, but for copyright purposes she had recorded some songs for the Tufts radio station and so I went there and I had a friend of mine distract the DJ while I stole the cart and copied it in the back studio ! I then took the two songs, one of which was ‘Talking About A Revolution’ home and played it for my Dad and once he’d agreed with me, Tracy said that everything was fine, that we could keep the demos and she then signed for the record label and we did the album.”
Back to the movie and who was the most troublesome of all the actors throughout the shoot ? (BK) ”Tom Noonan,” he fires out instantaneously. ”He played the Sheriff and Noonan’s a real method actor and he was that Sheriff whilst on the set. He was just very hard-driving person.”
(DL) ”There were times when I had to coax him out of his trailer like a stubborn Mule,” he laughs.
With regard the role of the Sheriff, I could honestly see Clint Eastwood in the role ! ”Clint’s not big on the supporting role. Noonan though, for us, is the perfect representative of like the iconic long, tall, bad-ass Mid-Western Sheriff.”
Any other bad-ass Sheriff’s in movies that come to mind that you loved ? (BK) ”I have to say that other than Tom my other favorite Sheriff over the years – well, you have to say Hackman in ‘Unforgiven’ - but it would be John Cleese in ‘Silverado.’”
Who was the most fun on the set ? (DL) ”Seth Green’s very funny, but Malkovich would be the one. On set the guy is so funny. Malkovich has such a droll wit and no one is safe.”
Were any practical jokes played on the set ? (DL) ”No, and I don’t know why they didn’t,” he answers whilst turning to face his partner.
(BK) ”Yeah, I don’t know. Was it that it was just a boring set,” he sarcastically shrugs his shoulders and laughs.
(DL) ”Everybody got along really well, but there was none of that like ‘you take your clothes off (and I’ll take mine off’) kinda stuff, you know.”
(BK) ”Basically, they’re all young guys so I think no one was thinking about how to get one over on someone else. I think they were more like, ‘What waitress is working that bar ?!”
Who suffered the worst injury on the set ? (BK) ”Kevin Gage,” he fires out unstoppably. ”Kevin plays the guy in the movie that Vin beats up.”
(DL) ”First of all Kevin had a bad back and during that fight scene it tended to add more injury to injury because one of Vin’s knees to his face actually connected !”
Why should people go see this movie above all others currently playing ? (BK) ”Well, lots of people liked the movie ‘Rounders,’ so if you liked the movie ‘Rounders’ you’ll really like this movie too. It’s even more personal and all things said, it has one of the most iconic fight scenes in movies in the past ten years or more ! I actually believe that that scene (Diesel Vs. Gage) will be played for a long time,” he says with a straight, sincere face.
(DL) ”I disagree completely,” he laughs sarcastically. ”They’ve gotta go see this movie because first of all, it’s a bad-ass-guy movie, but women love this movie too ! Even more than guys and that’s the great thing. I mean, if a guy brings his girlfriend because it’s his turn to pick the movie she’s gonna be leaving the movie liking it more than he did ! It’s got humor, it’s got some dramatic stuff …”
(BK) ”… and it’s got Vin in a tank top,” he chips in laughing.
(DL) ”But it’s also got him wearing stuff over the tank top this time.”
Looking at the movie now is there anything that you would have changed ? (BK) ”As a director, we would have changed almost everything,” he answers in a serious tone.
(DL) ”Basically, everything is the answer,” he reiterates. ”Every little thing. There would probably a lot of things that wouldn’t even make it if we did it again. It would be a whole different movie ! But, at this point in the process all you see are the little flaws in a thing that was a limitation and that you couldn’t get right on the day because of time or something that you wish you knew then what you know having done it. It’s maddening.”
What ‘extras’ can we expect on the DVD ? (BK) ”Our commentaries with all our thoughts.”
(DL) ”You get some banter, you get some deleted scenes. Yeah, we did it back two weeks ago !” he admits. ”They want to have it all done by the date of release.
Describe the movie in three words (BK) ”Bad-Ass Tough Guys.”
(DL) ”Classic guy movie.”
If you could have made any film in history, which one would it have been ? (DL) ”’The Godfather,’ he replies adamantly.
(BK) ”It’s hard not to answer that and not say, ‘The Godfather’ as it’s probably the movie that made us want to do this. It was ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Stripes,’” he laughs. ”’The Godfather’ and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and movies like that were what began my obsession with movies and I learnt every word to ‘Godfather’ and I could still pretty much recite it ! But, over the last couple of years I would have to say, ‘Almost Famous.’”
(DL) ”What about ‘The Big Lebowski’ ?” he proffers.
(BK) ”Oh yeah, ‘Lebowksi’ also. That’s the best f**king movie, I agree. ‘Lebowski’ is the tops !”
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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