Entertainment

How Quentin Tarantino Helped Inspire the Disruptive Style of 'Super Pumped'

With an assist from the filmmaker, the 'Super Pumped' and 'Billions' showrunners found a new speed for their ambitiously disruptive tech-industry anthology.

Showtime
Showtime
Showtime

While the world of Silicon Valley tech startups can be cutthroat, it’s not exactly a Quentin Tarantino-style bloodbath. But when the writers behind Super Pumped first sat down to adapt New York Times reporter Mike Isaac’s 2019 book about the rise and fall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, they quickly realized they needed some pulp to go with their non-fiction. Played with perma-smirk charisma by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kalanick antagonizes the taxi cab industry, torments his competitors, and exhausts his own employees. To tell a story of a rule-breaker, Super Pumped needed to break some rules. “We said, ‘These people are disruptors so why don’t we be as disruptive as we want stylistically?'” remembers co-creator David Levien.

That maximalist approach encompasses voiceover narration from the genre-blending Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood auteur, fourth-wall breaking monologues from cast members, aggressive on-screen graphics, video game-parodying interludes, and a seemingly endless amount of Pearl Jam songs. On a filmmaking level, it’s noticeably different from the comparatively restrained formal style of Billions, the long-running Showtime series about New York City hedge fund mavericks Levien co-created with Koppelman and Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin. (In addition to actors like Kyle Chandler, Uma Thurman, Hank Azaria, and Fred Armisen, Super Pumped also boasts a number of familiar faces from the Billions-verse.) With Beth Schacter, an executive producer on Billions, Koppelman and Levien used every tool in their creative toolbox in making Super Pumped. The rhythmically precise rapid-fire dialogue of Billions is still present-along with the hyper-specific pop culture references-but the trio also introduced some new instruments into the mix.

“A lot of times what we talk about in the writers room is the idea that we’re prosecuting an idea,” explained Schacter. “We’re prosecuting the filmmaking style and asking, ‘Are we making this the fullest version of itself so you’re feeling all the momentum of Uber coming into being?'”

Taking a break from working on Billions and the already announced second season of Super Pumped, which will again draw on Isaac’s reporting to focus on the rivalry between Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Levien and Schacter hopped on Zoom to look under the hood of Super Pumped, breaking down the narration, the Wii-inspired gaming sequences, and grunge-heavy soundtrack.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

How Quentin Tarantino ended up as the narrator

When the voice of Quentin Tarantino pops up on the soundtrack in the first episode of Super Pumped, you might not recognize who it is. The writer-director (and occasional actor) has a recognizable voice, one he used to narrate his own western The Hateful Eight, but it’s not the first one you might associate with the Silicon Valley excesses of Uber. But, according to Levien, the Tarantino idea was floated by Koppelman early on in the process after they decided there should be a narrator-and once they had his distinct timbre in their heads, they had to make it happen.

Having known Tarantino for a little while, Koppelman fired off an email to the filmmaker, who also happens to be a Billions fan, asking if he would appear on an episode of his podcast The Moment to promote the novelization of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and to see if he would do the narration. He quickly said yes. “Brian was like, ‘You know you did say yes to both things, right? Not just some hour-long podcast,” says Levien. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I get it, I know what I said yes to, man.'”

Getting Tarantino in the booth did put a certain amount of pressure on the writers to raise the bar on the narration. “A day before the first session got booked we were like, ‘Wait a minute, he’s gonna come read this shit, it better poppin’,'” says Levien. “The narration pages started flying back and forth between Beth and Brian and me. ‘This better be entertaining for him.'”

Luckily, Tarantino didn’t have any notes about the scripts. He was just looking to have fun and deliver exactly what the writers were looking for. “He’s so amenable,” said Schacter. “He’s such a pro. He was like, ‘How do I make this great for you guys?’ The only feedback he had was about the lighting in the booth.”

On a meta-level, Tarantino’s presence also connects the show to his style of filmmaking, a type of tribute Koppelman has pointed out in interviews promoting the show. “When you talk about using film techniques, it was Quentin who broke these rules of filmmaking in America,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Plus, it’s not hard to imagine a Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs poster on Kalanick’s dorm room wall in college.

Showtime
Showtime
Showtime

Why certain scenes look like video games

Where the wealthy elites of Billions might meet across a poker table, the Silicon Valley schemers of Super Pumped are more likely to unwind over a game of Wii Tennis, a game Kalanick once claimed to hold the second-highest score in the world for. So, it makes sense that the writers would incorporate a little gameplay into their story, using a Grand Theft Auto-like sequence to dramatize Uber’s quest to conquer cities across America in its early days. The specifics of the world dictate the form it takes.

The idea came from the desire to constantly heighten the stakes of the material so the viewer feels each situation is as life-or-death as the characters do. In one scene, a tense confrontation in a boardroom gets made up with Street Fighter graphics. “We were like, ‘It’s not going to be boring. It’s going to be like Street Fighter,'” says Levien. “This is a death battle royale for these people in this world. We have to try to personify that.”

The video game sequences aren’t the only examples of the writers using animation and special effects to mess with the texture of what you see on screen. At key points, Kalanick’s lies are often presented via green screen, building to an intense interrogation-like sequence in Episode 5 where the CEO’s thoughts appear as a drop-down menu behind him during a confrontation with Apple CEO Tim Cook (Azaria). As Kalanick starts to crack under the pressure, the screen behind him flickers and malfunctions.

For the writers, these moments acknowledging the artifice and breaking the fourth aren’t just aesthetic flourishes. They’re not trying to be clever or look cool. Instead, the choices attempt to reflect the psychology of the characters. “Part of the reason it works is that the scaffolding underneath it has real emotional depth,” says Schacter. “I think that’s true of almost all of the things that feel disruptive in the show. They come from real emotional undergirding.”

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

What’s up with all the Pearl Jam songs?

Depending on your feelings about Eddie Vedder, when you first hear “Even Flow” in the first episode of Super Pumped your reaction will probably be, “Ah, nice! A Pearl Jam song!” or “Really, these guys?” Then another one pops up. And another. Eventually, you start to realize that every episode has at least one Pearl Jam track playing in it, providing an anthemic backdrop to Kalanick’s trials and tribulations, and it becomes clear that there has to be some larger logic at play. Seriously, why Pearl Jam?

If you’ve seen Billions, a show laced with surprising needle drops, it’s no surprise to learn that Levien and Schacter are fans of Pearl Jam. But the song selection also connects to the culture of Uber. “For some reason, a big part of the Pearl Jam fanbase is a little bro-y, or it was back in the day,” says Levien. “But Eddie is like this shaman and he’s often not saying what it sounds like he’s saying in the songs. That little misinterpretation was very entertaining to us.”

Schacter agrees, noting that the potential for tonal dissonance was part of the appeal. “Much like Rage Against the Machine, there’s a certain segment of the fanbase that misses what’s actually happening in the song, and something about that felt really right,” she says. “But also it felt like that music could have been pounding out of any of their iPods or iPhones at any given moment. That would be on their playlist.”

For Schacter, getting those details right is the most essential part of the process. “I think as writers we’re always looking for ways to wade really deep into cultures that are specific like this,” she says. “I guess I would say that both Billions and Super Pumped live in very specific cultures, but the cultures themselves are different, and the nuances and the subtleties really matter.”

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He’s on Twitter @danielvjackson.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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