Super Pumped (with Brian Koppelman and Joseph GordonLevitt)

Summary Notes


In this special episode of "Acquired," hosts Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal are joined by the creative forces behind Showtime's "Super Pumped" series, Brian Koppelman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Koppelman, known for his work on "Billions" and "Rounders," and Gordon-Levitt, who portrays Uber's Travis Kalanick, delve into the complexities of adapting the real-life tech saga for television. They discuss the importance of authenticity, the challenges of playing a controversial figure, and the broader implications of Silicon Valley's grow-at-all-costs mentality. The conversation also touches on the personal bonds formed during production and the intrinsic motivation driving artists, contrasting it with the outcome-focused nature of business. With candid insights and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the episode explores the intersection of creativity, storytelling, and the moral quandaries of disruptive innovation.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Acquired Podcast Special Episode

  • The podcast Acquired focuses on great technology companies and the stories behind them.
  • Ben Gilbert is the co-founder and managing director of Pioneer Square Labs and PSL Ventures.
  • David Rosenthal is an angel investor based in San Francisco.
  • The episode discusses the Showtime series "Super Pumped," which is based on the events leading up to Uber's IPO.

"Welcome to this special episode of Acquired, the podcast about great technology companies and the stories and playbooks behind them. I'm Ben Gilbert, and I'm the co founder and managing director of Seattle based Pioneer Square Labs and our venture fund, PSL Ventures." "And I'm David Rosenthal. And I am an angel investor based in San Francisco."

The quotes introduce the hosts and the theme of the podcast episode, which is to discuss the intersection of technology companies and entertainment, focusing on the Showtime series "Super Pumped."

Uber's Story and its Cultural Impact

  • Uber's story leading up to its IPO is being adapted into a Showtime series titled "Super Pumped."
  • The narrative of Uber has become a part of pop culture and entertainment.
  • The series is created by Brian Koppelman and stars Joe Gordon-Levitt.

"Well, for listeners who don't know the events of Uber, leading all the way up through their IPO and the implosion around that and the just insane story that all of that was is coming out as a Showtime series on February 27 called Super Pumped, I have to say it's a little bit surreal..."

The quote reflects on the significance of Uber's story and how it has transcended into mainstream media, emphasizing the cultural relevance of technology companies.

The Creation of "Super Pumped"

  • Brian Koppelman is one of the executive producers, writers, and showrunners for "Super Pumped."
  • Joe Gordon-Levitt stars as Travis Kalanick in the series.
  • The series brings the world of venture and startups into the realm of entertainment.

"And on top of that, there is no world that I would have thought we would have found ourselves in where there are guests unacquired to talk about it. And so we're ludicrously fortunate today for that to be the case."

This quote highlights the unique opportunity to discuss the making of "Super Pumped" on the podcast, bridging the gap between the tech industry and entertainment.

The Role of Pilot as a Sponsor

  • Pilot is a company that provides accounting, tax, and bookkeeping services for startups and growth companies.
  • They are now the largest startup-focused accounting firm in the US.
  • Pilot allows companies to focus on their core product and customers by handling financial operations.

"Our next sponsor for this episode is one of our favorite companies and longtime acquired partner pilot for startups and growth companies of all kinds."

The quote introduces Pilot as a sponsor, setting the stage for a discussion on how startups can benefit from outsourcing non-core operations like accounting.

The Significance of the Ethereum Episode

  • Joe Gordon-Levitt mentions that the Acquired podcast's Ethereum episode changed his mind about the merits of web3.
  • The episode helped him see the importance of web3 for the future.

"And I'll earn some instant credibility, perhaps by saying when I listened to your Ethereum episode, it really did change my mind about what web three is."

This quote illustrates the impact of the Acquired podcast's content on listeners, even those already involved in the tech industry, showcasing its educational value.

The Creative Process Behind "Super Pumped"

  • Joe Gordon-Levitt and Brian Koppelman discuss their collaboration on "Super Pumped."
  • The script's engaging dialogue and the relevance of the Uber story in the cultural context were key factors in their decision to work on the project.
  • The series explores themes of disruption, revolution, and the cost of innovation.

"Uber serves as an excellent example of a larger trend that I think needs to be talked about, which is what happens when the modus operandi is profits, above all, shareholder value, up before everything."

The quote delves into the thematic exploration of "Super Pumped," highlighting the moral and ethical questions raised by the story of Uber and its broader implications for society.

Fascination with Characters

  • The characters discussed are captivating and invigorate the audience with their stories and moral dilemmas.
  • Bill Gurley's moral quandary is highlighted, involving the choice between maintaining his reputation or taking action that could harm the business he's invested in.
  • The moral and life questions surrounding the characters, including Travis Kalanick (TK) and Ariana, are considered compelling and worth exploring.

"And then lastly, and to this audience I'll say this, which won't mean that much to that many people, but I know Bill Gurley. And I know Bill Gurley separate from this. And I like Bill Gurley."

This quote indicates the speaker's personal connection to Bill Gurley and sets up the context for Gurley's moral dilemma, which is a significant aspect of the narrative.

"So there's all these amazing moral questions and life questions for TK, many for Ariana. And then Gurley has his own really challenging question."

The speaker is emphasizing the complexity of the characters' situations and the difficult decisions they face, which are central to the narrative.

Bill Gurley as a Central Figure

  • Bill Gurley is recognized as a prominent venture capitalist and a surprising choice as a main character in a story.
  • The unexpected role of a venture capitalist in a narrative reflects the cultural fascination with decisive, risk-taking individuals.

"Bill Gurley is a giant, literally a giant among venture capitalists. But that a venture capitalist would be a primary character on a show the likes of which you all would create."

The quote acknowledges Bill Gurley's stature in the venture capital world and the novelty of his prominent role in a narrative focused on business and entrepreneurship.

Artistic Integrity and Source Material

  • The approach to storytelling involves separating personal knowledge from the source material to maintain artistic integrity.
  • Conversations with Bill Gurley were not used for the show, and the story was based solely on Mike Isaac's book.

"We didn't talk to the people in the show for the show, meaning I told Bill, because I'm responsible person in that way. I said to Bill, Mike, Isaac sent me his book, we're going to go tell this story."

The speaker is clarifying the ethical approach taken in the storytelling process, ensuring that personal interactions do not influence the narrative, which is solely based on the book by Mike Isaac.

The Actor's Perspective

  • The actor's responsibility is to humanize the character, portraying them as more than just headlines or controversial actions.
  • The actor sought to understand the personal side of Travis Kalanick, including the positive aspects that might not be apparent in the media or the book.
  • The goal is to create a complex character that the audience can both love and be critical of.

"I wanted to know not just what happened, but how it felt to have a conversation with them or be in the room with them, what was actually like personally."

This quote reflects the actor's desire to deeply understand the character of Travis Kalanick, aiming to deliver a nuanced and human portrayal.

The Influence of Fiction on Real Behavior

  • There is concern about the potential impact of portraying certain characters on inspiring negative behavior in audiences.
  • The show aims to be a cautionary tale rather than a glorification of unethical actions.
  • The storytelling shifts perspective to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the consequences of the characters' actions.

"How can we make sure that we don't inspire a new generation of young entrepreneurs to be assholes?"

The actor expresses concern about the influence of the portrayal on the audience, emphasizing the intention to prevent the glorification of negative traits in entrepreneurs.

Art, Business, and Societal Impact

  • The conversation touches on the continuum between art and business and the transformation of artistic vision into commercial ventures.
  • The discussion considers the societal implications of elevating individuals who provide services like Uber, while also acknowledging the potential harm to others.
  • The importance of empathy for those affected by business decisions, such as Uber drivers, is highlighted.

"We're trying to shine a light on what it means to be that kind of fucking guy. And what we're saying is a society, when we prop up people who have incredible verbal acuity and great math skills and the ability to galvanize in a way that serves us because we all take Ubers, but in a way that serves that individual more, and that does a disservice to huge swaths of people that we're not thinking about as we get into the back of the uber."

The speaker is discussing the moral and societal questions raised by the show, focusing on the impact of glorifying certain types of successful individuals and the potential negative effects on others.

The Role of Artists and Entertainers

  • Artists are seen as individuals who provoke emotions and raise questions without necessarily providing answers.
  • The distinction between the roles of artists and those in business, such as investors and entrepreneurs, is discussed.
  • The conversation explores the idea that business people provide concrete solutions and value, whereas artists evoke feelings and provoke thought.

"I really like your framework of artists. Jobs are to make you feel and to ask the important questions, but not provide the answers."

This quote highlights the perceived role of artists in society, which contrasts with the more solution-oriented roles of business professionals.

Apocryphal vs. Real Stories in Filmmaking

  • The filmmakers successfully played with the audience's perception by presenting an apocryphal story as real before revealing the truth.
  • This technique demonstrates a clever way to adapt a book to the screen, especially when internal dialogue is hard to convey visually.
  • The medium of film allows for a richer canvas to innovate storytelling techniques.

"And, like, once it starts playing on screen on the Eiffel Tower, I was like, no way. These guys got duped. These guys can't get duped. They're, like, the most well researched. And then when it fades away and shows that, indeed, that was the apocryphal story, I was like, masterminds. So I just have to applaud you for that." "And necessarily, you have to get clever because reading a book is a completely different experience than watching it on screen."

The quotes reflect the innovative approach to storytelling in film, where the filmmakers took a well-researched story and presented it in a way that played with the audience's expectations. They highlight the necessity of adapting storytelling techniques when transitioning from a book to a visual medium.

Disruption in Storytelling

  • The story's theme of disruption allowed the creators to disrupt traditional forms of storytelling.
  • The creators took advantage of the story's content to break away from conventional filmmaking techniques.
  • They were not bound by the usual rules of cinematography, enabling them to present the story in a unique way.

"It allowed us to disrupt form in what we were doing, because we're taking advantage of the fact that the story we're telling is about disruption."

The quote emphasizes the connection between the content of the story and the form it takes in the film. By focusing on a story about disruption, the creators felt empowered to disrupt the traditional storytelling forms themselves.

Statsig as a Sponsor

  • Statsig is a feature management and experimentation platform for product teams.
  • The platform enables teams to ship features faster, automate A/B testing, and measure the impact of features on business metrics.
  • Statsig provides data-driven decision-making tools for product changes and feature rollouts.

"Statsig is a feature management and experimentation platform that helps product teams ship faster, automate a b testing, and see the impact every feature is having on the core business metrics."

The quote describes the purpose and capabilities of Statsig, highlighting its role in helping product teams improve their development process and make informed decisions based on data.

From Book to Screen Adaptation

  • The adaptation process began before the book was published.
  • The creators committed to adapting the book early on and maintained a strong partnership with the author.
  • The author was heavily involved in the writing process, providing insights and verifying details.

"Mike was in the writer's room every day. Mike was in the writer's room with us every single day."

The quote underscores the close collaboration between the author of the book and the creators of the screen adaptation, indicating a high level of involvement and commitment to authenticity in the storytelling process.

Filming Locations and Authenticity

  • The series was mostly filmed in Los Angeles, with only a few exterior shots in San Francisco.
  • Filming on location involves logistical challenges, but the creators strived for authenticity in representing the setting.

"It was really just a few days of exteriors in San Francisco, and the rest is in LA and mostly know the paramount lot in soundstages."

The quote provides insight into the practical aspects of filming a series set in a specific location. It reveals that while the series is set in San Francisco, the majority of filming took place in Los Angeles to manage production logistics.

Research and Fidelity in Historical Drama

  • Accurate representation of events was crucial in the adaptation, requiring extensive research and consultation.
  • The creators aimed to dramatize events without altering the core truths that affected real people.
  • The involvement of the author and sources ensured the credibility of depicted events.

"You're really trying to like, the Waverly dinner is the fifth like, we had to know what really happened and then make a gut call."

The quote highlights the meticulous research and careful consideration that went into dramatizing real-life events for the screen. The creators were committed to balancing the need for compelling storytelling with the responsibility of staying true to the facts.

Acting Challenges in Film Production

  • Actors face the challenge of invoking imagination in settings that lack reality, such as green screen environments.
  • The logistical complexities of a film set can make maintaining focus and imagination difficult for actors.
  • Acting requires a blend of creativity and the ability to navigate the practical demands of production.

"The hard part is kind of keeping your focus and your concentration and maintaining that more childlike spirit of imagination while having to contend with all this morass of logistical crap."

The quote reflects the difficulty actors face in maintaining their imaginative performance amidst the chaotic environment of a film set. It suggests that the true challenge lies in balancing the creative aspects of acting with the practical realities of production.

The Creative Process and Audience Reception

  • Creators can sometimes predict when a project may not meet expectations.
  • There is often a disconnect between the creators' perception of a project's quality and its reception by the audience.

"If you know it's bad, it's bad. If you know it's bad, it's fucking bad. Joe, that has to be your experience too, right?"

The quote captures the sentiment that creators often have an intuition about the quality of their work. It suggests that when creators are aware of shortcomings in their project, these issues are usually genuine and not easily resolved by surprise positive reception.

Experience with Unsuccessful Projects

  • Working on a project with the awareness of its potential failure is challenging.
  • Ben Gilbert inquired about the movie "Runner," which was known to be a poor film during its production.
  • Efforts were made by the team, including Ben and Justin, to improve the film, but it remained problematic.
  • Anticipating negative reviews and a low score on Rotten Tomatoes was difficult.

"I knew it was a horrible movie every day that I was working on it, and we couldn't get it better. And Ben and us tried our best, and Justin tried our best, and it was just one of those things."

This quote illustrates the speaker's awareness of the film's quality issues during production and the unsuccessful attempts to improve it, highlighting the challenge of working on a project destined to fail.

Balancing Personal Taste and Audience Appeal

  • Creating content that aligns with personal taste versus audience expectations is a delicate balance.
  • The show "Mr. Corman" was not renewed despite being a personal favorite and a product of individual taste.
  • The speaker values the opportunity to create unique content without pandering to commercial interests.
  • The challenge lies in creating something personally satisfying that also resonates with a broad audience.

"And truth is, I don't like a lot of stuff that's on tv. And I got to hand it to apple that they let me make something that was very particular."

This quote emphasizes the speaker's appreciation for being able to create content that reflects personal taste, even though it may not align with mainstream preferences, highlighting the creative freedom granted by the platform.

The Unpredictability of Success in Entertainment

  • Initial reception does not always predict long-term success.
  • The speaker's first movie received poor reviews but later became a classic.
  • The importance of resilience and focusing on the ability to continue creating is highlighted.
  • Success in the entertainment industry can be unpredictable and reviews may not reflect future popularity.

"But now it's obviously a movie that people not only like but are obsessed with. And it did hundreds of millions on dvd later, and it's a movie. I get asked to do a sequel to every day of my life."

The quote illustrates how a project's initial failure can contrast with its eventual success and cultural impact, demonstrating the unpredictable nature of the entertainment industry.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation in Art

  • The value of intrinsic motivation in creative work is emphasized.
  • Extrinsic factors such as reviews and popularity should not dictate the creative process.
  • True artistry involves delving into oneself and expressing a unique voice.
  • The focus should be on personal fulfillment rather than external validation.

"All you can do is just go as deep as you possibly can into yourself and see if you can dig down deep enough where you can honestly say, I'm not paying attention to anybody else or anybody's perspective or opinion. I'm just here with myself because that's where your unique voice is."

This quote encourages artists to prioritize their inner voice and personal exploration over external feedback, emphasizing the importance of intrinsic motivation in the creative process.

The Power of Authentic Expression

  • Authenticity in artistic expression can resonate deeply with audiences.
  • The speaker admires actors who can convey personal and private emotions in a way that moves others.
  • True artistic expression reflects parts of the human experience that are universally relatable.

"What someone like Joe could do is go deep enough to express with his face and his body and his voice, something that's so particular and personal and private to him."

The quote highlights the profound impact of an actor's ability to authentically express personal emotions, which can create a deep connection with the audience.

Crusoe's Innovative Approach to AI and Energy

  • Crusoe is a clean compute cloud provider that specializes in AI workloads.
  • They partner with Nvidia and utilize clean energy sources for their data centers.
  • Crusoe's location at stranded energy sites allows for cost-effective and environmentally friendly operations.
  • The company offers better performance per dollar than traditional cloud providers due to their unique energy approach.

"Crusoe's data centers are nothing but racks and racks of a because Crusoe's cloud is purpose built for AI and run on wasted, stranded or clean energy, they can provide significantly better performance per dollar than traditional cloud providers."

This quote explains Crusoe's business model, which leverages unused or clean energy to power AI workloads, providing both environmental and economic advantages.

Recommendations and Personal Interests

  • The speakers share personal recommendations and interests with listeners.
  • They discuss various media, including podcasts, books, and music performances.
  • The recommendations reflect the speakers' tastes and connect with the themes of creativity and authenticity discussed earlier.

"For people who don't realize how insanely multi talented Joe is, open up YouTube and search for the cure, Katy Perry, Jimmy Fallon."

This quote is a recommendation highlighting the diverse talents of one of the speakers, encouraging listeners to explore content that showcases these abilities.

Reflection on Art, Commerce, and Systemic Change

  • The conversation touches on the intersection of art, commerce, and systemic issues.
  • The need for systemic change to address unsustainable economic growth is discussed.
  • The speakers consider the broader implications of their work and the industry's direction.

"Grow or die. Grow or die. Grow or die. And by the way, that was a phrase that's the name of episode one, grow or die."

The quote reflects on the unsustainable nature of the current economic system and the necessity for change, which is a recurring theme in the broader conversation about art and commerce.

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