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  M.   November 07, 2013

Nearly 17 years ago, Brian Koppelman and David Levien huddled in their New York City office and put together the script for the movie that changed poker history forever. “Rounders” wasn’t anywhere close to being a box office smash, and the pre-boom poker world feared the movie would have a lasting negative impact on the game itself, but time proved all of that wrong.

Four years ago the screenwriting tandem were bouncing other ideas off of each other in hopes of finding another gem. Between the release of “Rounders” in 1998 and the early months of 2009, Koppelman and Levien had penned the scripts for “Knockaround Guys,” “Walking Tall,” “Ocean’s Thirteen” and the ESPN drama “TILT.”

Around the same time, the UltimateBet and Absolute Poker scandals were getting some mainstream attention. The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” had done a story on the scandal that saw “malicious code” inserted into the poker software by a “rogue employee” take the blame for the superuser scandals that rocked the sites. That gave Levien and Koppelman the spark they needed to get writing.

On Oct. 4, “Runner Runner” hits theaters across the United States with Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake cast as the stars. BLUFF talked with Levien and Koppelman about the movie, about working with Timberlake and Affleck and yes, we even asked about the long-rumored “Rounders” sequel.

BLUFF: The first trailer for “Runner Runner” made its way online early in the summer, so we know a little bit about the movie, but can you give us a quick synopsis?

Koppelman: “Runner Runner” is set in the business of online gambling. It’s in Costa Rica and the two main characters are Ivan Block, played by Ben Affleck, who owns and runs an online gambling empire and Justin Timberlake, who plays a character called Richie Furst. Richie is a master’s student at Princeton, he’s an affiliate for a bunch of different (gambling) sites and early on in the movie, he believes he was cheated while playing poker and decides to go to Costa Rica and try to confront Block and tell him that he was cheated on his site. The two of them end up playing a cat and mouse game. Richie starts working for the site and it goes from there.

BLUFF: In the trailer, we see Timberlake’s character playing online poker though. Is this more about online poker or online gambling?

Levien: There’s really almost no poker playing in the movie. There’s a scene of Richie playing online, but it’s not about the strategy or anything, you just see that he’s doing it and then it’s really just a thriller set against the backdrop of the business.

BLUFF: You guys probably saw a little bit of the feedback when the trailer came out. There was some negative reaction from within our community that the movie was going to showcase the shady side of the business rather than having a positive impact on it.

Koppelman: I love the question. Go to TwoPlusTwo and go look at what people said about “Rounders” when it first came out. You can even see Howard (Lederer) talk about it in the “All In” documentary. Everybody thought that because it showed cheating, it was going to be harmful to the game. But I think since then, everybody has seen that, in fact, it was the opposite. It brought millions and millions of dollars and players into poker. Chris Moneymaker, saw “Rounders” and decided he wanted to play poker.

The poker and gambling worlds are always on the lookout for a supposed negative portrayal and the deleterious effect that can have, but the truth is if you shine a light on these worlds what happens is more people become interested, engaged and participate and that is what “Runner Runner” will do for the gambling community in the same way that “Rounders” did.

BLUFF: “Rounders” is pretty important to the poker community, can “Runner Runner” meet that lofty expectation that our group now has for this movie. Do you care if the poker community hates this movie or loves this movie?

Levien: It would be a shame if any community hates the movie, if hardcore poker players are looking for a sports movie kind of showdown over a poker table or online, that’s not what the movie is delivering. It’s a thriller set in this world. If people liked “The Firm” or “Wall Street,” then maybe they’ll like this movie.

Koppelman: That’s why I started by saying it’s not a sequel in any way to “Rounders.” The poker community as it existed at the time was very split on “Rounders” in the beginning and only over time did they come to love it. We certainly don’t want people thinking this is going to be “Rounders 2” in any way. It’s really not. It’s a thriller and it’s not a movie that goes in to the minutia of gameplay and it’s not a movie that brings you into the psychology of a gambler — it’s a business movie.

BLUFF: So where did the inspiration for “Runner Runner” come from?

Koppelman: Well we sit here in our office, kicking ideas back and forth all the time and we’re always looking for worlds to set stories in and the rise of online gambling, this giant industry that had these incredibly, almost like Wild West characters, guys who could reinvent themselves by going to all these different places that were outside of U.S. jurisdiction, who decided they could outsmart, outwit and outfigure the U.S. government — that was fascinating to us.

Levien: We love movies about the birth of Vegas, like “Bugsy” and “Casino” and stuff like that, but that terrain has really been mined, so in a way, even though this is like “virtual Vegas,” for us, fictionally, we felt that we could create a Wild West scenario where there was this huge prize that was to be grabbed and all kinds of players trying to get it.

Koppelman: Certainly, knowing about the UB and Absolute scandals, gave us this idea that no matter what the people in the industry said there’s no way that they could really promise that there was no cheating, no collusion, no funny business going on. So you have a giant industry like this with a possibility of institutionalized criminal activity. We figured we better get there before somebody else does. We figured the whole world would want to make movies about this. Then, because we are somewhat expert, in the world of gambling and poker and have spent time thinking about it and studying it, it just made sense for us to do it.

BLUFF: You mentioned UB and Absolute Poker, there are obviously some parallels between that and what we see in the trailer, how much did that impact the storyline?

Koppelman: Only really the notion, having seen the “60 Minutes” report, just the notion someone could put a trap door in and someone could look at hands, just the kernel of the idea. That was it really. The idea that someone could look at the hand as it was being played and it wasn’t as locked down and secure all the time as the industry was selling. Also the various stories about execs, who were in places where there was no extradition or accidentally coming back to the U.S. and getting into the crosshairs of the Justice Department and that was something let us know there was some good stakes we could play with.

BLUFF: So how long have you guys been working on this idea?

Levien: We started kicking around ideas in early 2009 and we actually kind of outlined it for ourselves. We pitched it and sold it as an idea. A little bit later, a month or two — mid-2009, and we wrote a script, which took us a while. The script then went through the Hollywood channels, and moved studios and all that stuff took a couple of years and then finally landed at its new place, New Regency, when the guy who bought it (for Paramount) took over New Regency, he brought it there. And that’s when the movie started.

BLUFF: Once the script was completed and it was greenlit as a movie, what was the next step? Do you guys just pass it off to the director and he has his way with it?

Koppelman: Certainly the director (Brad Furman) has a huge impact in terms of the movie that gets made, but in terms of casting of the movie we all work together. We had a relationship with Ben (Affleck) and so along with the other producers she reached out to Justin and Ben sat down with them separately and all talked about the movie and then the movie moves in to production, then the director takes over and goes and shoots the movie.

BLUFF: So when you guys wrote the script, were Ben and Justin what you guys in mind for those characters?

Koppelman: No, we didn’t have anybody in mind. They were our first choices. The idea of Ben playing that part immediately seemed incredible to all of us. Because you need somebody incredibly smart and charismatic to pull off being the impresario that some of the people that ran these sites are. The fact that in his real life Ben’s a guy who is a very high-level poker player, has spent some time in casinos, is a plus. And then for the character of Richie, you need a younger guy who’s also charismatic and a leader and who you’d believe could go in and charm Ben’s character, so Justin seemed perfect to do that.

BLUFF: What were they like to work with?

Koppelman: They were great to work with. They were consummate professionals — just total pros. They worked so hard, totally positive energy. It’s so inspiring when you see actors who can take the material and make it their own and really embody characters that you write. That’s why we do what we do. The ability to see this stuff that’s just fictional in your imagination really given life by actors who take their jobs as seriously as we take our jobs and who always make what you thought of better and stronger and more alive.

BLUFF: When you guys were doing the research on the industry and the business side of this was there anything that really surprised you?

Koppelman: What was stunning was just the amount of money that was rolling into these places. And I think we’re stunned that the U.S. government hasn’t figured out a way to just tax and approve it. It’s crazy to me that it’s illegal. It should be regulated and legalized.

BLUFF: So who’s the inspiration for the character played by Ben Affleck, Ivan Block?

Koppelman: Ivan Block’s a fictional character, completely. It’s as much as the guys who ran brick and mortar casinos as the guys who ran online casinos.

BLUFF: Now, we’re contractually obligated to ask you guys about the “Rounders” sequel. You’ve mentioned that “Runner Runner” isn’t “Rounders 2” — but what do you think it will take to get Mike McDermott, Worm and Teddy KGB back on the big screen?

Koppelman: We understand why people want “Rounders 2” and we want to deliver “Rounders 2” and we’ll call it “Rounders 2.” We have not given up hope that we can get that movie made at some point. If your readers want to see “Rounders 2,” they should write to the Weinstein Company and Miramax, they should tweet and they should email and they should Facebook and they should show those people that there’s a real audience for “Rounders 2.” The actors know it, we know it, everybody knows it and the studios don’t quite know it. “Runner Runner” is a thriller set against the business of online gambling. It’s closer to “Wall Street” or “The Firm” as movies than it is to “Rounders” or “Hard Eight.” It’s a movie with bigger commercial aspirations.