“There was [a script] we wrote that I knew was a movie. It was mind-boggling to me that it wasn’t a movie.” That is how screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Rounders) described an original script he co-wrote with his lifelong best friend David Levien. Comedian Jay Mohr was pressing him to talk about any un-produced scripts that he wished had made it, earlier this month on the conversational comedy podcast “Mohr Stories.” Koppelman said he “couldn’t talk about that one” but it was finally shooting this summer with two stars, restoring his faith in the system.
Koppelman was talking about Runner, Runner, another drama set in the world of high-stakes gambling, and the stars are Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake. Shooting starts in Puerto Rico this June with Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) at the helm, Variety announced two weeks later.
*Update: Koppelman and Levien began writing it in August 2010 and turned in a first draft by January 2011. 15 months later, Runner, Runner was greenlit. Wow.
Koppelman celebrated the announcement on Twitter and it’s clear in the podcast this is a movie he’s passionate about. His first produced script, with Levien, was Rounders, based on the two years he spent chasing poker stardom in the ’90s. “When all the pros were switching from backgammon,” Koppelman told Mohr, before recalling poker stories that inspired the script.
Runner, Runner, pulled off the proverbial dusty shelf and polished, acknowledges the rise of online gambling and the strict regulations in recent years that have forced those operations off shore. It’s not a sequel or prequel to Rounders in the traditional sense, meaning we won’t see the continued grind of NYC poker “rounder” Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) or witness his early days with his scam-artist friend Worm (Edward Norton). If Rounders is about the players and their “bad beats,” Runner, Runner is about the side that always wins. The House. The rake.
Sources say Affleck will play an online gambling czar named Ivan, a young “Teddy KGB” with a speedboat, reminiscent of Affleck’s fantastic character in 2000′s Boiler Room. Timberlake will play an online gambler putting himself through school who proves himself to Affleck’s character and scores a job in an international gambling racket. There’s still room for a female lead, a sexy love interest who works for Ivan. Let’s hope they don’t cast Timberlake’s fiance, Jessica Biel, and really Gigli this whole thing. Sorry. I know Gigli is a sore subject. For everyone.
Rounders, released in 1998, was a game changer. For me, it’s one of the reasons I write about movies. For the poker world, the movie told the brutal story of underground gambling, broadened the appeal of the World Series of Poker, and galvanized a new interest in the game. Enough interest that when ESPN began broadcasting the World Series of Poker in 2003, with card cams and a “featured table,” millions of people watched the first online poker qualifier, Chris Moneymaker, win the $2.5 million prize. Moneymaker’s win ushered in a new generation of poker “grinders,” only now they were playing multiple games at home on their computers, like Timberlake’s protagonist character at first.
The movie and Moneymaker’s WSOP also motivated a rotating ring of high-stakes games played by Hollywood A-listers, according to Mark Ebner‘s recent in-depth report. Spider-Man star Tobey Maguire frequents the tables, which have a buy-in of $100,000, and he cleared $4 million on a single night recently, Ebner learned. Leonardo DiCaprio, Maguire’s co-star in The Great Gatsby, plays too, as well as Rounders star Damon and Runner, Runner star Affleck, who is described as “a good f*cking player” in the report. It also describes how the seasoned players prey on the friendly amateurs, like house game attendees Michael Bay, Megan Fox, Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey, Jr., and the late Steve Jobs. In poker, the pros target the weak and chop up the pot later, a process called “whip-sawing.” In the Rounders script, Koppelman and Levien wrote, “You don’t see piranhas eating each other, do you?”
Ebner’s report also describes a high-level “organizer” in L.A., known only as Jeremiah. He had a sexy cohort, Molly “The Poker Madam” Bloom, an “event planner” who allegedly arranged house games, including Maguire’s, and accepted tips for services rendered. These are major “players,” like Ivan and his sexy femme fatale sidekick in the movie, except Ivan is plugged in to an international market that spans well beyond poker.
The “Mohr Stories” podcast is definitely worth a listen. Koppelman trades witty barbs with Mohr throughout, talks about spending time around gamblers, the four weeks he and Levien spent on Walking Tall, and, presciently, how incredibly old Dick Clark looked and sounded.