'Billions' on American Kings | WBEZ
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Showtime's "Billions" pits wealth against power

This Sunday, Showtime will debut a brand new series about the fast-paced world of high-stakes investing. It's a drama called "Billions."

Brian Koppelman and David Levien are the creators and executive producers of the show and they have been friends since they were teenagers. Here's Koppelman on meeting Levien: 

“It was a student bus trip, but I think we were the only students who read a book the entire time. Maybe that sounds like I’m bragging, but at the time, it just made us somebody nobody else wanted to talk to.”  

Years later, Koppelman was a lawyer and Levien a bartender when they decided to write their first script. They had been captivated by the world of underground poker, and the result was "Rounders." Since then the duo has gone on to co-write a dozen movies including "Ocean's Thirteen," "Solitary Man" and "Runaway Jury," but their new Showtime series "Billions" is their first foray into television.They were toying around with a story set in the world of hedge funds when an agent introduced them to New York Times reporter and author of “Too Big to Fail” Andrew Ross Sorkin. Koppleman on working with Andrew Sorkin: 

Andrew was working on a similar idea and (the agent) said you guys should meet and he put us in a room together. And what we realized was that his level of access and his vantage point was really valuable. We’d been researching for years and had met some of the hedge fund billionaires, but through Andrew we met them in an entirely different way. We got to have dinners and go to the offices of the people on the covers of all the financial magazines. And, because they knew we would never say who they were and we would never use anything they said against them, they told us everything.

"Billions" is a contemporary story about a hedge fund investor named Bobby Axelrod whose monumental success draws the eye of district attorney Chuck Rhoades. Damian Lewis of "Homeland" and "Band of Brothers" plays Axelrod, and Rhoades is played by Paul Giamatti.  Here's Levien: 

The financial world and specifically the hedge fund world has so much influence over everybody’s life, but a lot of people don’t understand why and how or who the players are, so for us it became a story about these characters who were living in this influential world, but trying to just resolve their own issues and pursue their daily life while pursing this giant career that affects millions and billions of dollars worth of commerce.

Koppelman on billionares:  

We’ve been long fascinated by billionaires, by what it means to be a self-made billionaire, because to us they’re American kings, they’re oligarchs. And a huge question to us is what kind of person needs a billion dollars. What kind of person actually has the drive, anger, need, emptiness...or what are the noble reasons? We just didn’t understand it. So we would sit with these people and what we are really trying to figure out is why can some portfolio manager earn $8 million a year and like the rest of us, sane people, think that’s more than they know what to do with, and then they’re reporting to- some fella to whom $8 million is failure. And we couldn’t understand it. Is it insanity? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

Koppelman and Levien say the show is meant to represent America's complicated relationship with wealth and success. Here's what Koppelman had to say:

What we hope to do is highlight the inner conflict that we all have and the societal conflict. We watch the circus that is the political process and hear the grandstanding. You look at a figure like Trump, whatever one thinks of him, and if you’re us then you have to say, ‘Ok, this is America looking at a billionaire. It’s America looking at it- an unabashed capitalist.’ We all know how he has made his money, the way he looks at the world, and how could we possibly on our show answer a question that is literally being answered right now on the grandest scale possible.

"Billions" premieres Sunday, January 17 on Showtime and the pilot is available now on the Showtime Anytime app. 

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