Damon, Clooney talk future of franchise

At the Cannes press conference for “Ocean’s Thirteen,” Matt Damon admitted to feeling like “a bit of a prostitute for putting out two No. 3’s in one year.”

But while Damon has no intention of playing Jason Bourne a fourth time, he says he’d happily come back to the “Ocean’s” series. And with the series’ third installment earning better reviews than the second, a fourth iteration is now looking viable.

The rarely achieved trick on sequels is to improve on the original with fresh twists while keeping the experience comfortably familiar. With the “Ocean’s” franchise, the screenwriting challenge is to create a plausible narrative jammed with juicy bits of funny business for some 15 characters. In “Thirteen,” helmer Steven Soderbergh and scribes Brian Koppelman and David Levien return the series to its Vegas roots while upping the ante.

Soderbergh and George Clooney’s innovation with the “Ocean’s” franchise — persuading their hefty ensemble that they’d make more money with a thin slice of the backend than their usual gigantic upfront salaries — means that the cast can relax and enjoy making the movie because no one has to carry an inflated tentpole.

But “Ocean’s Twelve” left some moviegoers and critics feeling the stars were having more fun on the lavishly exotic European locations than auds were watching the movie. The script by George Nolfi was originally written as a heist thriller that had nothing to do with the “Ocean’s” series; Soderbergh jerry-rigged it to fit his “Ocean’s” needs, weaving in romantic subplots for love interests Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as well as incorporating villains Andy Garcia and French star Vincent Cassell.

Looking to return to the Vegas milieu for “Thirteen,” Soderbergh found a pair of likeminded screenwriters in New York-based Koppelman and Levien, who had worked with Damon on their first script, 1998’s poker-centered “Rounders.” The three pow-wowed at a Manhattan sandwich shop in 2005, with the scribes toting a copy of David Maurer’s book “The Big Con: The Story of a Confidence Man” for inspiration and pitching a gambler’s fantasy for the pic’s hook: What if you could flip all the odds at a casino?

While Soderbergh was shooting “The Good German,” the writers flew out to L.A. once a week to go over ideas. Soderbergh encouraged them to pack their first pass of the script with everything they could think of for each character.

Koppelman and Levien’s first draft ran more than 180 pages. Then Soderbergh and Clooney gave them notes — and crossed out reams of script pages. “Let’s return to the spirit of ‘Eleven,’ ” Clooney told the screenwriters, “and not do what we did last time.”

The writers stayed on through production, delivering “endless drafts” and praying to keep in their favorite bits, says Koppelman. “Steven’s the quarterback over the script process,” says Levien. “That makes you free to pursue these whimsical ideas. We didn’t get too precious about it.”

The crucial task: coming up with a reason for why these guys have to get back together. Clooney pushed for the guys to rally behind the wronged Reuben (Elliot Gould), who gives up his lust for life after getting screwed in a deal by Al Pacino as Vegas’ top casino boss. “Hooking into something that matters was key to getting people to take the ride,” Levien says. “It’s about camaraderie, the way the ‘Ocean’s’ crew are there for each other.”

Koppelman and Levien customized the Vegas kingpin role for Pacino. “Who else could stand up when all those guys go against him and not have it be a layup?” Levien says. “He’s one of the few guys with enough swagger and heft.”

Best friends since high school, the screenwriters wrote “Rounders” after Koppelman lost $750 in an underground poker club. And they know something about male bonding.

This time around, the “Ocean’s” universe excludes Roberts and Zeta-Jones. Although Ellen Barkin does a delightful turn as a Pacino lieutenant who gets involved with Damon, the core scenes are between Clooney and Pitt. In one hilarious bit, Pitt catches Clooney choking up as he watches “Oprah.” As Pitt starts to make fun of him, he starts to mist up, too.

In real life, Koppelman is the unabashed Oprah nut, and Levien the macho male who became emotionally engaged. They crafted such a good payoff that it made the final cut. And even Winfrey agreed to play along with the gag. “Something about that huge philanthropic drive behind her shows dovetailed with the Robin Hood-y vibe these guys have,” Levien says.

As for the film itself, as far Clooney is concerned, “It’s the one we should have made last time.”

Surfing the tube

Getting ahead in Hollywood often comes down to who you know and who’s willing to grant a favor.

Producer Zvi Howard Rosenman, for example, is listed as an exec producer on HBO’s new series, “John From Cincinnati” — and it all goes back to Ari Emanuel.

Back in 1985, when Rosenman was running Sandollar Prods., Emanuel was a young Intertalent agent on the rise. Impressed with him at a meeting, Rosenman took him out to breakfast at Hugo’s. “I smelled that he was going places,” he recalls. “And we both spoke Hebrew.”

Five months later, Rosenman ran into Emanuel at a Manhattan deli and whisked him off to spend the day with him. “I was going to teach him how to network and schmooze,” Rosenman says. He took him to see “Goodfellas.” He introduced him to Henry Kissinger and Princess Caroline of Monaco. He told chum Barry Diller that the young agent was “the next Mike Ovitz.”

Cut to 2005. After a stint running the motion picture arm of Brillstein/Grey Entertainment, Rosenman was ready to move into television.

Emanuel called him out of the blue. “Guess where I am,” he said. He was back at the deli. “I realized that day,” he told Rosenman, “that I could be an agent because of guys like you who made me feel confident. It’s payback time now.”

For two decades, Rosenman had hung out with photographer-filmmaker Bruce Weber, who introduced him to surfing greats Buzzy Kerbox, Sean Thompson, Matt Archibald, Laird Hamilton and the Fletcher family: Herbie, Dibi, Christian and Nathan.

During summer 2005, after Rosenman and producer-director Peter Spears watched the Italian epic drama “Best of Youth,” they came up with the idea of a TV series about a dynastic surfing family who dominate Oahu’s famous surf spot, the Pipeline. On Sept. 28, 2005, they met with Endeavor chairman Emanuel (who is a surfer) along with Herbie and Dibi Fletcher.

Emanuel took the pitch to HBO programming czar Carolyn Strauss, who knew Kem Nunn (“Imperial Beach”), a surfing writer who had also scripted an episode of David Milch’s “Deadwood.”

Strauss swiftly came back to Rosenman: Milch had a script for a series about a spiritual stranger who interrupts life in a small town, she told him. He wanted to transpose that screenplay to the surfing world.

“The good news is David Milch wants to make your series,” she said. “The bad news: he’s not going to listen to your notes. This is Milch’s creative vision.”

Rosenman played ball. “David Milch took a good idea,” he says, “and turned it into a great idea.”

Rosenman now has four TV series and several features in the works. IFC Films will release John Dahl’s black comedy “You Kill Me,” starring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman who joins AA, on June 22.

“Content dictates form,” says Rosenman. “TV, indies, mobisodes, I don’t care. I’m a spielmeister. Ari Emanuel came through for me.”

To see Anne Thompson’s blog, go to www.ThompsonOnHollywood.com

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