Brian Koppelman and David Levien have been best friends since their early teens. Raised on Long Island, or "Strong Island," as they refer to it, the duo knew from a young age they had potential as business partners. "We grew up watching the same movies and reading the same books," Levien says.
In adulthood, Koppelman and Levien searched for their calling.
"We were talking about what would be the perfect thing to start on," Levien says. "Right around that time, Brian walked into a poker club and saw this incredibly colorful underground world in New York. It was pretty clear that was the topic to hit, so we started going to clubs every night for research. We'd wake up early in the morning before we would do our jobs and wrote scripts."
Koppelman and Levien wrote the gambling movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, in 1998. The film turned a $12 million budget into $22.9 million at the box office. In the decade and a half since Rounders, Koppelman and Levien wrote another gambling thriller, Ocean's Thirteen (2007), and a list of other high-profile films including Knockaround Guys (2001), Runaway Jury (2003), Walking Tall (2004) and Solitary Man (2009).
In their latest gambling film endeavor, the duo unveils Runner Runner, starring Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake and Gemma Arterton on Oct. 4.
Runner Runner is the story of Richie Furst (Timberlake), a Princeton student who loses his tuition money in a shady manner during an online poker game. Furst travels to Costa Rica to confront the man behind the virtual scandal, Ivan Block (Affleck). However, Block reels Furst onto his corrupt team, where he falls for Block's COO, Rebecca Shafran (Arterton).
The film also features Anthony Mackie, David Costabile, Sam Palladio, Oliver Cooper and Ben Schwartz.
Rounders took place in New York City and Ocean's Thirteen in Las Vegas. Runner Runner brings a virtual setting into the gambling fold.
"Some time in 2008 or 2009, we came to realize how big the online gaming world was and how unregulated it was," Koppelman says. "It just occurred to us it would be a great backdrop of which to set a crime thriller."
The main setting of Runner Runner is in Costa Rica, although filming was done in Puerto Rico. Levien is excited to show off a new gambling setting.
"Vegas has been told many times in movies. This was a fresher way to do it," he says.
After a decade and a half of telling gambling stories, Koppelman and Levien have learned something about gambling: the players are learning how to get better. Once upon a time, Americans needed to transport themselves to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to gamble. Thanks to the Internet, people have more practice.
"It made the player much stronger," Levien says of the web. "In poker, there are so many more hands per hour. It made people much better players much more quickly. In sports betting, it really took players away from the sports bookies. Players have so much more information and variety."
Although Koppelman and Levien are not pointing fingers at online poker sites and suggesting that they are corrupt, the movie's plot is not totally out of left field. The story is not from a specific example, but comes from real settings the writers have learned about.
"We just heard there were these huge amounts of money being made in these places," Koppelman says. "This was post-Wall Street crash. A lot of the young people who had been flooding into the hedge fund face–some people decided this was a hugely profitable direction to go. The amount of money that was involved was in these largely unregulated places like Costa Rica. It set up an exciting backdrop for this story."
Along with the plotline, hype for the film is high thanks to the inclusion of über-celebrities Affleck and Timberlake. Koppelman and Levien impressed the actors with the script and things fell into place.
"When Jennifer Killoran, a producer on the movie, reached out to Ben's people, he immediately perked up and said a gambling movie with you guys sounds great," Koppelman says. "I think you're incredibly lucky and happy when someone like Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake want to work with you. Once Ben and Justin were in, I think every actor in town wants to work with those guys."
Viewers will get to see a different side of Affleck than they may be used to viewing. The man who played Tony Mendez in Argo, pushed Will Hunting to reach his potential in Good Will Hunting and will soon play Batman portrays a dirty businessman in Runner Runner.
The writers believe he could handle the villain role, as many of his contemporaries have done before him.
"Great actors often work both sides of the street," Koppelman says, "If Tom Cruise can play a villain in Collateral and then go play Ethan Hunt [in Mission: Impossible], I don't see any reason in the world Ben Affleck can't do both."
Another pretty big name worked behind the scenes on Runner Runner: Leonardo DiCaprio. Killoran works as president of production for DiCaprio's production company, Appian Way. The connection brought Koppelman, Levien and DiCaprio into collaboration.
"[Killoran] said 'I love the idea, I'm going to pitch it to Leo tomorrow'," Koppelman says. "The next day, we were sitting with Leo, and we pitched to Leo the story."
Runner Runner hit theaters Oct. 4 with Affleck and Timberlake peaking in their respective careers. Affleck is one year fresh off Argo and Timberlake released his first studio albums in seven years, The "20/20 Experience" and "The 20/20 Experience 2 of 2," earlier in 2013.
"We just hope people dig it," Koppelman says. "We truly enjoy all this, having an idea, manifesting it as a screenplay, have it come together, collaborate with some incredible people like Ben and Justin, and you can't get into any expectations game. You're thinking about the next thing you're going to write and hope people enjoy it."
The next Koppelman/Levien work the world will see is a documentary for ESPN's "30 for 30" series examining Jimmy Connors' run to the 1991 U.S. Open semifinals as a 39-year-old.
"It's sort of become emblematic of the great U.S. Open battle," Levien says.
Connors' tournament is perhaps most remembered for the marathon five-set match that the five-time U.S. Open champion played against Aaron Krickstein.
"We have a pretty intense interview with Aaron," Koppelman says.
Outside of film, Koppelman is a regular contributor to Grantland.com and Levien is a novelist. Runner Runner is the eighth feature film written by the duo.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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