David Levien on set of Showtime’s “Billions.” Photo credit: Jeff Neumann
Today we offer a heartfelt tip of the fedora to our guest blogger David Levien. David, in addition to writing one of my favorite detective series — the Frank Behr books — is also the creative genius behind BILLIONS, the brilliant and addicting Showtime series which has just wrapped up its first season and has been renewed for a second. David graciously took time out of an impossibly busy schedule to offer some important suggestions and advice to writers new and seasoned, and will be intermittently available to answer questions and comments throughout the day. David, thank you! — Joe Hartlaub
You sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and scrabble around the bedside table for pen and paper before the spark of a brand new idea forming in your mind blows away on the wind. Or you’re jogging, driving, taking a shower when it comes. You scratch out the initial thoughts in a desperate rush before they vanish—maybe it’s the beginning or maybe the end that has come to you first. You probably don’t even tell anyone about it for a while, because you don’t want to chase away this fragile dragonfly of a thought that’s landed on your desk, and when you do talk, it’s likely only to a trusted friend, colleague, editor or agent. Then you set about writing it, for yourself, on spec. You build it out because you have to, it’s what you do, with no guaranteed reward.
Only when it’s done, standing sturdy and complete, bearing all that you could bring to it, do you share the piece, be it novel or screenplay or teleplay or whatever the métier, with the marketplace, with the world. That’s the way it’s supposed to go anyway. But sometimes, if you’ve been fortunate enough to build a career, a name, daresay a brand, opportunities come along. A money offer is made for you to write someone else’s idea, or a project based on other source material. Sometimes you take that fledgling idea of your own out, as a proposal or a pitch, and the meetings go well and a buyer comes aboard early. What a glorious state of affairs! They’ve bought in before you’ve even done the bulk of the work. There won’t be any sweat equity on this one, there won’t be any risk that you’ve wasted your time. No, you’re on their dime, they have a vested interest…but.
But along with that money, with that deal, with that contract comes outside input. Hey, they’re your partners, they’re invested, so why shouldn’t they have some say? They dug it enough to buy in the first place. You’re reasonable. You’re collaborative. You’re living for a time on their largesse. You listen. A few of those ideas may creep in. But your piece is still weak, vulnerable, its structure and tone yet to be fully formed. The doctors advise not to take a baby outside into the world for at least the first month, until the immune system gets up and running, because the risk of contamination is too great. The same goes for your project.
Sometimes, when the work doesn’t turn out as well as it was supposed to, you go back and do a post-mortem, and with dismay you see that it was one of those seemingly benign outside creative suggestions that turned virulent and blighted the whole enterprise. You try to find your way back to the original intention, but the helix of creation is too complex to reverse engineer. Your idea was a gift in the first place and because you wanted to or had to, you sold it to the highest bidder, and it’s not pure anymore. And neither are you. For that moment you’ve been bought and paid for. You tell yourself: that’s not going to happen next time.
If you’ve managed to build a career of any length you may look back and realize the ones that really work, the ones that made you, were the ones you wrote on spec, just for yourself, the way they were meant to be. I can certainly look back and see it that way. There have been some successes that were commissioned. “Runaway Jury” and “Ocean’s 13,” were work-for-hires and turned out well. But the ones that live closest to my heart, my private investigator character Frank Behr—he was created and the first book written on spec although later books in the series were written under multi-book deals, including my latest, Signature Kill, out now in paperback—my first movie “Rounders,” and even my television show “Billions,” (both written with filmmaking partner Brian Koppelman) were created with no outside interference. The eventual buyers who came to the table wanted them as they were. Writing it on spec is the most elemental way for a writer to work, and even though it can sometimes become a luxury or a hardship to work for free, the reward outweighs the risk by plenty. You know best, so be unreasonable, and treat yourself, force yourself, trick yourself, spoil yourself but do yourself the favor and write it on spec.
“You build it out because you have to, it’s what you do, with no guaranteed reward.”
Thank you for the post, David!
Thanks! Feel free to hit me with questions or comments, related to this post or not. Take care.
Thanks, David, for the post.
I like the way you describe the process of fleshing out your idea (architectural – building) before sharing it with the world.
As a newbie to the writing scene, it’s interesting to read about the dilemma of having someone interested in your idea before you’ve finished the “building.” I’ll be happy to just have someone want to buy the building when it’s ready for the grand opening.
Thanks for your ideas. I look forward to exploring the Frank Behr series.
I freaking LOVE “Billions.” The writing is so amazing (especially the second-to-last episode, when Chuck is wandering around town looking for anyone who will listen to him, that one is an Emmy winner… sometimes I go back and listen to the exchanges for nuances… and the acting as good as it gets. Anytime you land Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti for a project, that’s a dream shot. So hat’s off on this, and your amazing career.
On that note… I would say that your post today is more fuel for the dream than applicable peer-to-peer advice. Because few of us here (if any, I don’t think Aaron Sorkin is reading KZ, though I could be wrong) are your peers, you live and work on a mountain peak so high that we can and do only imagine (this from a guy who has published six well-reviewed novels… I’m still standing at the base of the mountain next to the public restrooms squinting into the blazing light coming from the top). Writing on spec isn’t a luxury, it’s LIFE for most of us. Your message isn’t lost on that count, though, we need to get it right, let it season and percolate; the craft we study down here is the path leading up that mountain.
Thanks for the peek behind the curtain of what could be. And thanks for “Billions,” I’m sincere when I say, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen on television, Sorkin’s stuff (which is amazing) included.
Thanks, Larry, appreciate the kind words on Billions. I do understand what you’re saying. You’d be surprised what can happen though–some young producers offered my partner and I $2,000 to write Rounders after hearing the idea (for which they’d control it). And I had one article in Ring magazine to my credit at that point. We felt the money would have made us ‘real’ writers, legitimized us. But somehow we found the will to pass and to go it on our own, and write the script on our own, and it turned into the movie that made our career. Keep at it.
Congratulations, David, for succeeding in an impossibly tough profession — and having the courage to follow your dream. Good post.
Thanks for the encouragement, David! Guess I’m on the right track and need to keep going (building my series until I can write the pilot). Questions: For your TV series “Billions,” did you just write the pilot? Or did you have more episodes, or the whole first season, written? Or simply mapped out the arc of the first (or more) seasons? Do you know how the series will end (whenever that may be)?
Also, you and your partner have a track record. Do you have any advice for a new writer with few, small credits to get her foot in the door to pitch a series?
How did you get to pitch “Billions”? (I supposed you have an agent.) And who, if it’s not bad manners to ask, did you pitch it to?
Didn’t realize I had so many questions. Thanks for answers and article!
It’s a bit unorthodox to write a TV pilot on spec–most shows come to be from established writers selling pitches and getting commissioned to write the script. In your situation, in order for the show to come to fruition, it’s likely you’d have to partner with an experienced producer or show runner with a track record. So if you have a script instead of just an idea, it has a much better chance of withstanding outside influence and turning out how you envision it. Along with a pilot episode it’s good to have a fairly detailed sense of the midpoint and endpoint of the first season, along with more general thoughts on seasons 2, 3 and beyond. You will also want to have many examples of episodes that would work (not the whole thing, just the basic idea). We had a relationship with Showtime, but if you go into meetings very prepared, relationships and trust can be built quickly.
Thank you, David. That’s very helpful information. So many places are looking for new, original content now. I had a meeting with one regarding a feature script, and he mentioned they are looking for series. I just discovered another looking for new content. Both of these are family / faith friendly networks. I’m hoping to jump on that wave. Thanks again. You’ve given me good direction to go.
I was just thinking about Runaway Jury. I like what you did with that.
Do you realize that you wrote almost all of this blog post in second person?
(Remember, you can’t run from who you are.)
Thanks, Augustina. Yes, I realize. It was the best way for me to get my thoughts on the matter down. I hope it applies to writers regardless of the stage of career, the advice applies to pretty much any outside distraction.
To jump in for a moment…thank you so much, David, for guest blogging today and for your additional comments, which provided a peek behind the curtain with respect to getting a project to visual form. We’ll all look forward to the next season of BILLIONS, and, if possible, to more installments in the Behr canon as well.
My pleasure, Joe, thanks for having me.
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