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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.
What is special about the year of the Rabbit?
As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.
What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?
There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.
New South Wales
Darling Harbour Fireworks When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.
Dragon Boat Races When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.
Lion Dances When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.
Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.
Auntie Philter When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.
Lunar New Year Festival When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.
BriAsia Festival When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.
Chinatown Adelaide Street Party When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.
Crown Perth When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.