While The Big Short, the dark comedic movie about the 2008 financial crisis, is packing theaters, Showtime is releasing its own star-studded series about Wall Street titans, circa 2015. Debuting Jan. 17, Billions focuses on the battle between a hedge fund billionaire and the U.S. Attorney determined to take him down.
Like many Wall Street movies, including The Wolf of Wall Street and, of course, Oliver Stone’s classic “Greed is Good” Wall Street, the show has plenty of debauchery. The U.S. attorney named Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti, has a thing for kinky S&M play. And there’s no shortage of ostentatious wealth—the billionaire Bobby Axelrod (played by “Homeland’s” Damian Lewis) buys a $63 million Hamptons house…just because he can.
But what Showtime hopes will make it a favorite of Wall Streeters is its authenticity. (The fact that Giamatti’s character is deeply flawed certainly won’t hurt, either.) The co-creators David Levien and Brian Koppelman went out of their way to immerse themselves in the world. Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of Too Big to Fail, a book about the financial crisis which became a HBO film, is a Billions executive producer; he introduced the show creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders) to Preet Bharara, Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney, among others. “It was really important to us that we got the language right, the clothes right,” and “capture the world” accurately, Levien said in an interview.
Indeed, the show seems to be ripped from the headlines or at least inspired by them. For instance, Bharara for years has targeted Steve Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, calling Cohen’s fund “a veritable magnet for market cheaters.” Just recently, Cohen, without admitting wrong-doing, made an insider trader settlement that bars him from managing outside investors’ money for two years, which was less than prosecutors originally were hoping for. In Billions, an early episode shows Axelrod considering a similar settlement with the U.S. Attorney.
Koppelman and Levien, however, say their show is trying to get at something deeper. “Hedger fund managers and U.S. attorneys are like nation states or oligarchs in a way,” says Koppelman. “They’re like Shakespearean kings, with unchecked, unfettered power…We’re interested in the mindset—who are these people and how do they attain these positions of success and what do they do with it?”
The long-time writing partners had for years been fascinated in “men in commerce and the way people work out their grievances and aggressions in commerce,” Levien said. Levien lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, known as the “hedge fund capital of the world,” and Koppelman lives in Manhattan and counts as a friend a top trader. After the 2008 crash, Koppelman and Levien watched the cases that got prosecuted, and the ones that didn’t, and began to think about a story involving a U.S. attorney and hedge fund manager.
In 2014, they teamed up with Andrew Ross Sorkin, who helped flesh out the characters for the pilot and offered introductions. The two writers began conducting interviews with people working at hedge funds and prosecutors’ offices. It was important to Levien and Koppelman that the show accurately portray the nuances, so, for instance, Axelrod wears jeans and fleece, rather than Armani suits. The creators also vetted central plot points, such as a conflict of interest that emerges in the show—the U.S. attorney’s wife works for Axelrod. (They noted that while presidential candidate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was U.S. Attorney, his wife worked for a hedge fund.)
One of the more controversial points that Billions makes is that there is a moral equivalence between the ruthless hedge fund manager and the U.S. attorney. “Prosecutorial ambition is really compelling because they’re there for the public good, but they also always seem to serve their own good,” Koppelman says, noting how many U.S. attorneys and attorney generals, from Rudolph Guiliani to Eliot Spitzer and Christie have used the position as a springboard to higher office. “When you talk to these guys, they trumpet their amazing records, but you quickly realize they aren’t assigned these cases. They choose what to prosecute,” based on what they think they can win. “That’s not technically justice. That’s winning. And winning for your own ends is a lot like what the other guy is doing.”
Interestingly, Showtime has been marketing this show heavily to the financial world, Adweek notes. Koppelman and Levien spoke about their series at the Greenwich Film Festival, and Goldman Sachs (GS) is due to screen the pilot and hold a panel discussion on Jan. 14 event at Goldman’s New York office. It will be livestreamed to 22 offices around the country. Showtime also is sponsoring access to the Wall Street Journal, taking down the paywall on Jan. 15, according to Adweek.
So far, the show has gotten some good early reviews, with Variety calling it “shamelessly entertaining.” The creators seem most pleased so far at the reception they’ve gotten from their Wall Street contacts. “I just got a text from someone who said he loves how we got the world right,” Koppelman says, adding that the only complaint they’ve heard so far was from people “who thought they’d been left out” of the series.