DJ Levien is the author of two novels -- Wormwood (1999) and Swagbelly (2003). Along with filmmaking partner Brian Koppelman, he has written several screenplays, including Rounders and Runaway Jury. In 2002, he teamed with Koppelman to write and direct the feature film Knockaround Guys. The pair also produced Interview with the Assassin. DJ's writing has appeared in Details, Esquire, Premiere and The Los Angeles Times, among others.
Levien's new novel, Swagbelly, details the plight of Elliot Grubman, a Jewish pornographer worth $100 million who struggles to attain respectability in the midst of numerous social barriers and family complications.
DJ Levien graduated from the University of Michigan and lives in Connecticut with his wife and young son.
In an Identity Theory interview, Richard Price said that if he didn't write screenplays, he couldn't afford to write books. He also said of trying to write books and screenplays simultaneously, "It's like trying to play baseball and softball. It seems deceptively dissimilar. You are going to break something." As a screenwriter and novelist, what are your thoughts on this? Do you view movies as a way to support your novel writing?
I love "Ladies Man" by Richard Price...So far I have not been one of the rare few who can make a real living as a novelist. I have been fortunate to make a living writing movies, so it is fair to say that one affords me the other. Though they are both storytelling, fiction writing and screenwriting are indeed different animals. Writing fiction is a most solitary pursuit. The entire universe must live on the page, and I am, irrespective of editorial suggestions, the final arbiter. Filmmaking, and the writing portion by extension, is a more communal outing. Hundreds of people must come together to bring the final effort to screen. The script is a blueprint of the visuals, of the tone, of the acting to come. In my case, as I write scripts with partner Brian Koppelman, the collaboration begins right at the start. The reality is that the producers, studio, and the audience to some degree, has real say in certain aspects of the final product. Doing both--writing novels and making films--fulfill different aspects of my creative voice. One thing they have in common, though, is that true satisfaction is fleeting, nearly impossible to grasp. There is a divide between the intention, the vision at the start, and the limitations of the finished work. I believe this is the case in writing, or art, of any kind.
Of your works that I have seen and read (Rounders, Knockaround Guys, Swagbelly), I've definitely noticed a certain feel, recurring themes of awkward familial relationships and of course this conflict between the straight life and the underworld life. I'm interested in how your style came to be. What books and/or movies had an overriding effect on your development as a writer? Is there a movie you watch all the time for inspiration?
This is an apt distillation. I'm drawn to sub-cultures that have a code, custom, and language of their own. Whether it is underground poker, organized crime, the porn business, law, or soldiering, I am interested in the rules of these insular worlds, and how they mesh and gnash with the greater outside world. Uncomfortable familial relationships, and conflict filled non-family relationships, are a micro version of the same thing. Characters marked by core beliefs that jibe with their environment, and the struggle over which will win out, are common to my favorite work. Books by Hemingway, James Salter, Paul Bowles, Cormac McCarthy, and films by the Coen brothers, Scorcese, and Coppola have influenced and inspired me. There are many others of course, but these seem most clear in regard to the first part of the question.
A number of people have compared you to Philip Roth. How does that sit with you?
It sits very well with me. And I'm sure Phil can rest easy now too. Philip Roth has been a big influence on me. When I first read his work in college, in addition to being fascinated, moved, and laughing my ass off, I appreciated his boldness, his willingness to drop the formality of subject and language that so much other literature I'd been exposed to seemed to demand. He instead treated the everyday, the sexual, the perverse as literary topics, and invested them with importance that seemed truly modern, and had real resonance for me.
You dabble in a lot of different areas, as a prose writer and screenwriter and director and producer - and also as a father and a husband. And I would imagine living in Connecticut, working in Hollywood, and traveling to places like Montana for research requires a lot of time away from home. What keeps you balanced?
Living outside of Los Angeles, although difficult to pull off at times, has huge benefits for a writer/filmmaker. Living in CT, working in Manhattan everyday, allows me to focus on the work more. All day long I'm dealing with people whose only contact with the entertainment business is going to the movies, and occasionally reading a book. The effect of the entertainment business on those living in L.A. is intense. It can have a warping effect. It becomes difficult to not get caught up with the dealmaking you encounter on the front page of Variety, in the restaurants all around you, walking down the street--well no one even walks down the street, you end up driving around and talking to your agent on the phone a lot in L.A. The thing that allows me to keep it together when I'm on location is my family. For years my wife, and now my son who just turned one, have been able to travel with me. Spending whatever down time I have, which isn't much during production, keeps me sane.
How long did it take you to write Swagbelly?
Years. I'm fast at writing a draft, but there is no substitute for time when all is said and done. I wrote a first draft in six or nine months. Then I wrote several other things before coming back and working for many more months. I did this a few times over. By the time the book was published it had taken years. I'd like to envision a different, faster way, but sadly I can't.
In Swagbelly, Elliot Grubman is a pornographer who is ostracized for his Judaism and the fact that he peddles smut. Which do you think is a bigger stigma for him - his religion or his occupation?
I can't size his stigma. One is either marked by something or not. You're either inside the main or outside. If you're locked out of a warm house during a snowstorm it doesn't matter if you're a mile away or stuck right outside the door. There is practically a sub-culture of rich and famous pornographers in the public eye today, men who seem to really embrace their profession. My idea for Elliot was 'what if there was a man, a pornographer, who had some shame over doing that which defined him?' As a young man who grew up poor, a Jew, he felt like he was at the fringes of society, and maybe he didn't think his choice of profession would bother him, only to mature and realize he was wrong.
Fox's highly publicized (but rarely watched) drama, Skin, was a lot like Swagbelly in the sense that it also featured a rich Jewish pornographer as the seeming protagonist. Did you watch it? If so, how would you compare Elliot Grubman to the pornographer in Skin?
I'm sorry, I didn't get a chance to see Skin. I meant to, and was interested, but it came and went pretty quickly. Obviously this was the problem with the show for Fox.
As the internet expands and more and more developing countries get wired - and as we continue to have books like Swagbelly and shows like Skin - pornography will becoming an increasingly larger part of culture. Do you think as a result of this, the porno industry will eventually be viewed as more respectable - or will the town whore always be just the town whore, so to speak?
Envisioning a town in which the town whore has a storefront right next to the lawyer, the doctor, and the dry goods merchant is disturbing. Can the whole world be like the red light district in Amsterdam? I don't think so and I hope not. I don't have a moral problem with porn made by and for consenting adults, although I do have sympathy for those who end up in it by way of unhappy upbringings. But the idea that it is kept in separate racks, in private rooms, in the cordoned off section--I'm for that. It's part of the whole thing. Who even wants it in the cappuccino bar of the book and video store?
One of the Swagbelly reviews mentioned Jack Nicholson as an ideal actor to play Elliot Grubman. Do you agree with that matchup? How would you cast the characters in this book?
Jack Nicholson would be great. There are several others who would do well with the role. I don't want to cast it here, one day I'd like to cast it for real.
I haven't seen Runaway Jury, but a number of people have mentioned that the filmmakers changed Grisham's villain from Big Tobacco to the gun lobby. As one of the screenwriters, can you give some insight on why that change was made?
The movie came out well, you should go check it out. The change to the gun lobby was made before I was aboard, but I was a fan of the change. First of all, The Insider dealt with the power and sinister nature of the tobacco lobby. Secondly, and more problematic, verdicts against Big Tobacco had already been issued. The key to the scam in the film working was choosing a lobby that has not previously been ruled against. One that would be facing the can of worms being opened for the first time. Gunmakers haven't been ruled against yet, but it's within the realm of possibility, so it worked for the movie. One can envision that they might be willing to go to some lengths to protect their business.
Do you have a hand in any movies coming out soon? Is there another book in the works that you want to talk about?
I've written on a few movies that are in production, but until credits are determined, and until I've seen them, it's not something to mention. I am in the midst of another book too, but I don't like talking about them until they're finished. What a pain in the ass, right? One project that I'm excited about is a script that Brian and I literally just finished--The Storm Returns. It's a mythic urban war movie that we are on board to direct. The studio hasn't even read it yet, but we're hoping they want to make it.
Thanks a lot.
Photo by Ethan Hill