Showtime's 'Billions' Producers Dish on Getting Their Ultimate Musical Guest Stars -- Metallica
On Feb. 7’s episode of Showtime’s new financial drama Billions, wildly successful hedge fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis) takes his buddies on his private jet to see Metallica in concert in Quebec.
The choice of band, who appear in one scene backstage and then performing, is no coincidence. Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who created the series with Andrew Ross Sorkin, are life-long Metallica fans and the two, who also serve as the show’s executive producers, wrote the episode with Metallica in mind.
As viewers will see, despite the concert, the day does not go well for “Axe,” but it was a career highlight for Koppelman and Levien. “Even if Axe had a difficult time, it was one of the best days of our lives,” Koppelman says. “We’re with our actors shooting Metallica play “Master of Puppets.” David and I don’t high-five each other very often, but we did then.”
Koppelman and Levien tell Billboard how the episode, which airs at 10 p.m. on Sunday, came about.
How did the premise of going to a Metallica concert develop?
Koppelman: We had heard stories about hedge funders taking their old friends on private planes to see their favorite band and it felt like Metallica just represented something great for guys of this age because it’s a band that appeals to blue collar listeners, but the band also appeals to the smartest, most highly educated people. It’s a great cross section and they’re authentic, so it makes sense “Axe” would love them.
Levien: The character in our show represents this new breed of billionaire: they’re self-made and have made it to that level in their early 40s. They’re still young in their taste, there’s nothing to stop them from living out every young rock fan’s dreams.
Did you already know the band?
Koppelman: When I was 22, I went to work at Elektra and Michael Alago, who had signed Metallica, had just left. I got assigned to be their A&R guy, which was a huge thrill. I just pinch hit for a year. I got to be backstage with them and at soundcheck. I’ve been friends with [Metallica’s managers] Cliff [Burnstein] and Peter [Mensch] since 1989.
Levien: Brian brought his all-access pass from when he was their A&R guy to when we shot the scenes. He showed it to [Metallica’s] James [Hetfield] and Lars [Ulrich]. They loved it.
Koppelman: We wrote the scenes into the script and took it to Cliff and Peter. They called us a week later and said, “We’re in.”
Did you tape at their actual show in Quebec? Metallica was shutting down an arena there in September.
Koppelman: They did two shows: the last night in the old arena and the first night in the new arena. We went to the new arena, Centre Videotron.
Levien: The band couldn’t have been more generous with their time. They have a warm-up room where they practice and lock in together as a band before they play. They allowed us to have [Axe] have access to that so it seems like he’s in the inner circle and, by extension, our crew was in there. That scene was shot maybe 40 minutes before they went on stage.
Koppelman: We got there in the morning, shot our scenes in the arena [with the cast], the backstage scene, and then shot Metallica during the concert. We’d already shot the rest of the episode so we just left a hole for those scenes.
Brian, as a former A&R executive, do you pick the music for the show? The episode opens with Andrew Bird’s song, “Oh No,” and has a character singing Ratt’s “Round And Round.”
Koppelman: David and I are charged with making sure the whole thing feels right so we work with a music supervisor, Jim Black, but I’ve been picking music to play for Dave since I was 14. The Andrew Bird song, I’ve been walking around with that for three or four years waiting to deploy it. That scene originally had a David Allan Coe song,“You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and Dave looked at me like, “Is there a better idea?” The moment I played “Oh No” for Dave, he was like, “That’s the one.” It’s one of my favorite parts of getting to do this.
Axe and another character debate the best song on Metallica’s masterpiece, Ride the Lightning. What say you?
Koppelman: That’s a perfect album. There’s no making a choice. It’s one of the greatest hard rock albums ever made.