‘Super Pumped’ creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Beth Schacter on telling story of Uber

Greed was good in the 1980s and it’s even better now.  At least for Travis Kalanick. The CEO of Uber from 2010 to 2017 resigned from the rideshare company because of reports of a toxic corporate culture that ignored reports of sexual harassment. Even though he ended up resigning, Kalanick strategically sold most of his shares in the company adding some $2.5 billion to his personal coffers.

Two years later, New York Times journalist Mike Isaac wrote the acclaimed book “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” which examined the company from its founding to going public in 2019. And on Feb. 27, Showtime premiered its new limited series of the same name starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Kalanick. “Super Pumped” is a perfect description for Gordon-Levitt’s performance.

The showrunners of “Super Pumped” — Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Beth Schacter — recently took part in a Zoom interview with the Washington Post’s Technology editor Christina Passariello. (The trio are best known for “Billions,” the long-running Showtime series set in the world of hedge funds.)

Koppelman knew as soon as he read Isaac’s book, this was a story that need to be amplified and told for a wider and bigger audience. “As the book was constructed, it lent itself to being crafted as a drama. This is a story of what happened when the revolutionaries become the fascists in a way. It felt like a story for our time. From the moment we read the book, this was a story we were determined to tell because it’s also just an incredible ride, very entertaining and absurd with a capital ‘A.’”

The series opens with Kalanick discovering a way to make more money for Uber. “We thought it was important that people understood the footing they were on and the way they should look at these characters right from the start,” said Levien.  “The idea of these people who are running the company, not necessarily on the up and up, but being so bent on their achieving their goals of growth and domination of this sector they are willing to cut corners. That’s why in the first scene, they are talking about a safe ride fee that they are going to institute and charge all riders. That wasn’t going to result in any safety. It was just going to result in profit.”

They also wanted the viewers to fall under Kalanick’s charismatic spell. “One thing we wanted to establish early on is his effectiveness running this company,” noted Levien. “He got hundreds and thousands of people to follow him, to enlist in his vision. It was amazing. So, we needed to set that table, if you will. It’s only later that they realize they might have signed on for things that weren’t as they appeared in the beginning.”

Schacter said they didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating if Kalanick was hero or anti-hero. “We don’t really think of it that way,” she offered. “What we think of it more is that he is someone who was determined to change the word and did change the world. What we really wanted to ask ourselves is what is the cost of disruption, of this kind of disruption, and a successful disruption. Unlike some other tech disruptors, Travis was incredibly successful. We all have Uber in our pocket. So, we’re really asking what’s the cost of that and what happens when someone sees opportunity and wills in entire sector into being. And when he finishes the process and gets to the top, what does it do to him? What does it to do the people around him?”

The series also attracted the attention of Quentin Tarantino who narrates the series. Koppelman related that about 18 months ago, they received a note from the Oscar-winning auteur praising  “Billions.” “When he sent us that note, we thanked him and kind of filed it away,” said Koppelman.  ‘As we were writing this and realized we wanted his voice in the show, I wrote him in an email. I asked him to come on my podcast…I also described this show to him and asked him if he could narrate.” Tarantino immediately wrote back saying yes to do the podcast and also the narration.

“I will say at the moment that he first walked into a studio to record with us, it was a pretty high water make of our career that’s had a lot of incredibly lucky and amazing moments. I would put that really right up near the very tippy-top of it. Wouldn’t you Dave?’” ‘Absolutely,” replied Levien. “It was surreal. It was incredible The only people that were as shocked as us about the experience were the engineers who were recording it.They were just freaked out about that.”

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