Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
In the course of my prolonged post graduate education (and adolescence) I have been privileged to discourse with countless accomplished, talented, creative and socially conscious people—some a number of times. I may have lost count, but the conversation (my fourth or fifth)that follows with Michael Lewis, author of Flash Boys, Money Ball,The Blind Side, Coach and more, fills in the gaps between Lewis’s published endeavors. At this writing he is awaiting the green light on a series for Showtime (which we discuss) and just started the reporting on what may not be his next book. Not to mention his dedication to the upbringing of his children…
My teenaged jock son (baseball, football), Cuba, joined our table at Boston’s Four Seasons and so in addition to an update on the frequency trading issues (Flash Boys), the talk turns to the awful NCAA, the commodification and monetization of kid sports and our kids performance arts, The Peaky Blinders, the golden age of TV, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and whither goeth the NFL and the sport of football.
After spending four or five hours with Michael Lewis, I continue to be impressed by his reportorial skills and narrative talents and abiding decency, which is good reason to make this chat part of an ongoing, unfinished skein that may yet continue…
Robert Birnbaum: Okay, we’re rolling. This is the 26th of March. My son Cuba is in attendance. He will inherit the business (laughs).
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s all yours.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Thank you.
MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba]Everything before you, the signed books and the microphone.[to RB] I’m sure you have a library.
Robert Birnbaum: I have a 100 cubic feet storage space —most of which is filled with signed 1st editions,art work and my photo archive.
MICHAEL LEWIS: They will have some value someday.
Robert Birnbaum: Maybe.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Hopefully.
Robert Birnbaum: I remember when the man who was the director of the Toronto the International Festival of Authors was canned, after years of his service. And the organization tried to reclaim his[signed] book collection.
Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis
Robert Birnbaum: Okay, so is this a victory lap for Flash Boys?
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s the paperback tour. I think the war is still being fought. That’s the problem, and you can see that this war is for trying to establish fairness in the market … these guys [I write about ]in the book, it’s going to take years for them to get big enough.
Robert Birnbaum: Really?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think so. They’ll become a public exchange in the fall. I just made a bet with someone, and I took the over.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re talking about Brad—
MICHAEL LEWIS: —Katsuyama. There’s such inertia in the financial markets, and the regulators seem inclined to help them a bit but not that much.
Robert Birnbaum: I thought a big problem was that it’s hard to regulate technology.
MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s right. That would be the real risk — that the regulators try to regulate the technology and it ends up screwing up the system in some new, other way. What could be done is the current economic model of the exchanges and the dark pools could totally be challenged. They could ban a payment for order flow. They could ban the maker/ taker model on the exchanges, the bribes and the kickbacks.
Robert Birnbaum: So simply stated, the litigation would be a mistake, right?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think that’s right, but the market itself, it’s just got lots of inertia. People who work at giant, mutual funds don’t want to tick off their banker by saying, “We’re not going to send you stock market orders anymore because that dark pool is fleecing us’. You would think it’d be easy.
Robert Birnbaum: So they’ll accept that?
MICHAEL LEWIS: They accept it as part of the packages of services. If you are a big bank with Morgan Stanley and they’re covering your firm in various ways, the equity business you give them is a way of paying them for a whole bunch of other services that they’re charging you for.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re saying it’s sort of a ‘tribute’, a hidden cost?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Commissions are already a tribute, but no one wants to get into it with a Wall Street firm because if you’re the person…
Robert Birnbaum: …They’re too big to fail and what else?
MICHAEL LEWIS:They’re too big to fail, and you’re one person, even if you’re a big person inside the giant mutual fund. You don’t want to be identified as the troublemaker in the market.
Robert Birnbaum: Like Brad Katsuyama.
MICHAEL LEWIS: You don’t want to be that because your career is unlikely to be at one firm. You’re going to be out in the job market again. You’re going to be one of those rabble-rousers. It’s just that people are very reluctant on Wall Street to pick fights, and when it happens, it’s so extraordinary. This is why BILL Ackman gets into it with Carl Icahn. It’s very strange.
Robert Birnbaum: How would you rank the litigation, the findings and such that’ve happened since the book came out?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve never had anything like this happen before.
Robert Birnbaum: In terms of effectiveness…
MICHAEL LEWIS: Maybe do it this way—what do I think the most important regulation, legal action that’s happened and what’s the least? I think the most important are the lawsuits brought by the New York Attorney General against the Barclay’s dark pool and probably will be followed up against other bank dark pools. Second, and this sounds, maybe a little loopy, but this class action suit that Michael Lewis, the big tobacco guy, is bringing against the exchanges, I think could be very interesting.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s still in process. How long does it take to litigate cases like this?
MICHAEL LEWIS: A long time. How long did the tobacco lawsuit take. So it’s slow moving, but I think that could be a big deal. The fines that the SEC have lobbied against various high-frequency traders for market manipulation are also really useful because you start to be able to see what’s going on so there’s transparency now.
Robert Birnbaum: Where does that money go, the fines that the SEC collects?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I asked this question yesterday, and I couldn’t get a straight answer. I asked the question of someone… people at MSNBC had calculated all the fines paid by banks as a result of the financial crisis to the Justice Department, and it comes to 82 billion dollars. That’s a piece of change, right?
Robert Birnbaum:Wow. You could buy a fighter plane with that, right? You can burn …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Someone had something for that. Sometimes the money is restored to victims, but most of the time it goes into the general treasury.
Robert Birnbaum: It wouldn’t go to the regulatory agency, like the SEC?
MICHAEL LEWIS: You would think it would be … I don’t think the SEC gets to keep it, and if they did, they’d be self-funded. They wouldn’t need Congress, so I doubt Congress would let them do it. It would actually be an interesting innovation, a way to free the SEC to do its job if it was allowed to keep the ..
Robert Birnbaum: It might incentivize them. Do you feel like you’ve become more of a crusader since you started writing?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t mean to be, but I really do inevitably. I think it’s more that I stumble upon things that obviously need to be crusaded against, but the motive hasn’t changed.
Robert Birnbaum: Its because they end up being interesting stories, right?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. The motive hasn’t changed. I think what has happened is I look for stories that I think are worthy, really long form and it just so happened the financial crisis has yielded a couple of stories.
Robert Birnbaum:You’ve said, I think, that Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving, so are you done there?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Very cynically— the financial crisis has been very good to me, right? The last thing I want is for them to resolve all this. I don’t have any interest in writing another financial book right now. I’ve got a few other projects that I really want to do, and none of them are …
Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t started the next book?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve been writing a TV show. I started the next thing in the sense that I’ve started reporting. I haven’t started writing it.
Robert Birnbaum: Are you still doing long articles as the first step to writing a book?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Sometimes I do do that, but in this case, I’m not doing that but I haven’t started writing another book. Again,[my] children [see Lewis’s Home Game] slow me down a bit.
The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
Robert Birnbaum: I was hoping that somehow after you wrote The Blind Side that you would take on the NCAA.
MICHAEL LEWIS:I did write a little op-ed for the Times arguing they should pay players.
Robert Birnbaum: Where do you see all that going? Is somebody going to take on NCAA?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Here’s the problem with that. I never take on anybody really, right? If there was a Brad Katsuyama inside college football and he was a really interesting character, it’s conceivable there would be a narrative that would undermine the NCAA.
Robert Birnbaum: What about the Northwestern quarterback who started, I think he started union or was a ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: And there’s Ed O’Bannon, the the former UCLA basketball player. I’m totally on the side of the agitators here. I mean, the NCAA is a grotesque institution right now. If you think about it, actually back away from it, it’s even worse than just pure economic exploitation because in the case of football, it’s exploitation while these kids play a sport that’s probably going to damage them in the long term. And there’s this wall that is put up between poor black kids and the rich white boosters. If you took it down, at the very least there would be some social relationships developed that the kids, after their football careers were over, could go to and lean on, and they’d start to develop … they’d have jobs in the summer and all the rest and would develop careers. I was thinking about what the solution here. In a perfect world, I’d actually say open up pay for players. Let them capture their market value, but something so crude as that is not going to happen. What I could imagine happening is a movement to create trust funds or that they could be tapped when they were 40. Big, fat very fat, pensions so that if you were going to essentially tax the future of these kids by one, not allowing them an education because they just play football all the time and, two, damaging their brains while they play, set aside the money down the road so they’re taken care of. You don’t have to pay them right away, but have a fancy pension plan.
Robert Birnbaum: For all the talk of the student athlete, the NCAA doesn’t seem to really care about the players.
MICHAEL LEWIS: No. On an individual level, I’m sure there’s plenty [who do]. I’m sure coaches care about the ..
Robert Birnbaum: Mark Emmert. The head of the NCAA. He doesn’t strike me as being concerned about the athletes… it’s so hypocritical. It’s so duplicitous.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, it is. I would love to know if you just open it up and let the kids get paid what would happen to coaches’ pay. I’m sure it would decline, right? I’m sure it would decline, but by how much, I don’t know. Imagine a world where you say there are none of these rules anymore. If Alabama wants to be number one in the nation, you’ve got to buy the team. How much money would come into it? It would obviously cost the NCAA a lot of money and would probably cost the coaches who are being paid some money.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re assuming there’s a finite amount of money that they can take in, that any particular school could take it.
MICHAEL LEWIS: It would be interesting to price the athletes. I mean, this is an exercise, right, because it’s hard pricing an 18 year old. I guess the football players are more predictable than, say, baseball players are at that age, but even then, there’s lots of uncertainty. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to decide what the star high school quarterback is worth in college football.
Robert Birnbaum: You might have to step back and figure out what is the whole university system worth today?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, our university system is much more complicated than the European, right? It exists for all sorts of reasons other than to educate people.
Robert Birnbaum: I just read that Tennessee is making its schools tuition-free — free college educations. The state of Tennessee …and Germany and Chile are also making college free.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I didn’t see that.
Robert Birnbaum: It seems to me that kids’ sports – I’ve become more aware because of my son – kids’ sports are big business, big money, and a lot of that money is made distinctly against the interests of the kids.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah.
Michael Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]
Robert Birnbaum [to Cuba]: How much was your baseball program, the fee for one year? $4,000? [this does not include equipment, travel and other incidentals][
Cuba Birnbaum: They raised it to $5,000.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Where is this?
Robert Birnbaum: Near us.
MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba] So which sports do you play?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play baseball and football.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Okay. Which is your better sport?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: I’d say now football is.
MICHAEL LEWIS: What position?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play offensive tackle and defensive tackle.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Okay.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: I just got voted a captain so …I’m excited.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Good team?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Last year, 9 and 2.
Robert Birnbaum: They were beaten by the Catholic school teams.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. Catholic conference team.
Robert Birnbaum: Those guys are always like Alabama, the Catholic schools[they can recruit].
CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s crazy.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Do you have ambition to play in college?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: I do, yes. I have a big ambition. I’m definitely looking out there.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Is there a chance you’ll be recruited to play in college?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: I believe so, yeah. With my size projectability, I think I definitely have a shot. I need to start reaching out to schools, though. I’m doing a lot of camps in the summer, so I’m excited for that.
MICHAEL LEWIS: How big are you? What do you list at?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Right now 6’2″, 265.
Robert Birnbaum: I try to put my arms around him, and I can’t … he’s pretty big. The reason I mentioned that baseball program is because now somebody is paying $5,000 a year. What’s the parent’s expectations? What do the people who have that program tell the parents? Of course, they tell the parents the kid’s got a lot of talent. He’s really good and he’s got a shot at Division 1 or something like that.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve seen a slightly scaled down version of that in my girls’ softball a lot, and some sad things happen. Well, parents get too involved. It’s supposed to be fun. That’s the obvious problem, but beyond that, the kids start to get professional at a very young age and so when they’re on a team, they’re not actually teammates. They’re not rooting for each other. They’re rooting against each other because they want the playing time. They want to be the star, and there’s too much at stake.
Robert Birnbaum: The fun is being drained out of it. Now young kids are having pro sports aspirations.
Down in the Caribbean, a lot of these kids start playing seriously at8 or 9, 10,are funneled into academies. And they’re already in debt before they hit the age of 16 when they are eligible to be drafted by MLB.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, its also like now math, where you peak very young in life, and so it is a naturally tendency for the market to creep down to the children and professionalize it. Probably music is like this, too, right? Really gifted …
Robert Birnbaum: And tennis.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah, but I was thinking about things other than sports. It isn’t just sports where kids’ lives get disrupted by professionalism.
Robert Birnbaum: Chess.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Chess, yeah.
Robert Birnbaum: Dancing, ballet, gymnastics.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Music.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Have you seen Whiplash?
Robert Birnbaum: No.
MICHAEL LEWIS: So Whiplash is the musical equivalent of what we’re discussing. It’s like Juilliard. It’s kids playing until their hands bleed, and the joy is being drained. Sometimes when you hear kids talk about, who are really gifted, say, pianists when they’re really young, they sound a bit like really gifted football players or softball players. The joy gets beaten out of it. It’s something that’s started as that joy and, through the professionalization of it, it becomes something else.
Robert Birnbaum: Well, all this stuff has become commodified.
MICHAEL LEWIS: True. It’s been made to pay in extraordinary ways, right? And the winners do so well, it encourages lots of people to try for it.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and of course, lots of disappointment. Your writing career started because of your ignorance of the financial world, right?
Robert Birnbaum: The basic core of your writing has always been about interesting people and them solving problems. I can’t [at the moment remember why you wrote Moneyball *. What was the spur for that?
MICHAEL LEWIS:The original spur had nothing to do with the book. It was when free agency came to baseball in a big way.
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Robert Birnbaum: Curt Flood or Andy Messersmith…
MICHAEL LEWIS: I always think of Andy Messersmith, right, but actually it was in the mid-90s, we moved to California. I started to watch the Oakland A’s and noticed at one point that the left fielder was being paid 6 million bucks and the right fielder was being paid 200 million, and my first thought was, “I want to write a piece about whether the right fielder’s pissed off when the left fielder drops the ball.”
But it’s a piece of a class warfare about baseball and I started watching the money, on the field. That led naturally to seeing the discrepancies between the payrolls. Which then led to just idling. I thought it was going to be a magazine piece, and I would call Billy Beane, “Can you explain to me how you compete against 6 times the money?” His answer was so interesting, I started to hang around. Books all go that way. It starts with something … it doesn’t ever start as a book. It starts as a question, and then the question, the answer to the question is so interesting that I want to come back and ask more questions. At some point, I’ve got so many questions, I see this is going to take some time to unravel.
Robert Birnbaum: So you’re normally not inclined to write a book, right?
MICHAEL LEWIS: The things that started … the things that were conceived as books, “Liar’s Poker”, “The New New Thing”, “Moneyball”, “The Blind Side”, “Big Short”, “Flash Boys” and that’s it. The rest could be the collections of magazine pieces or little magazine pieces that were tossed between hard covers, and even those that were conceived as books, I think it’s fair to say that all of them with the exception of “Flash Boys” and maybe “The Big Short” – because I could afford to do it now – were started as little magazine pieces. They just got out of control.
Robert Birnbaum: You couldn’t stop?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Couldn’t stop. I have to spend so much time investing in the subject before I’m comfortable saying I want to write a book about it. It wouldn’t make any sense to go in thinking it’s a book. It’s always you’ve got to go in with small ambitions.
Robert Birnbaum: The Heisenberg Principle says something about the observer changing what is observed by observing. Years ago, people didn’t know who you were. I suppose exponentially “Moneyball” put you …
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s changed. It’d definitely changed.
Robert Birnbaum: Right. When you talk to people now, do you feel like …
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m changing what I’m watching?
Robert Birnbaum: Well, they’re changing themselves because of you.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Ah. Yes. The answer is yes, and the way to get around the problem is to spend so much time with them that your presence becomes normal. The first 10 hours of interviews are not all that useful in getting the character. Sometimes you get a lot of information, but if you move into their lives, eventually they surrender.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s like the photographer shooting blanks the first few minutes
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just like that. I try to make my presence so normal that they just forget what it’s all about, and it takes long enough that there’s no way … it’s really hard if I’m with them for a year for them to … things happen. The kind of person who I’ve tended to write about is intelligent enough to realize that’s going to happen, so they just give up and they give up very quickly.
Robert Birnbaum: Most of the time when I talk to people, it’s an hour, hour and a half, and maybe the first half hour is just back and forth. It’s like a cop interrogating someone. At the 5th hour, the guy is not going to give up anything, but by the 20th hour, he’s going give up whatever you want…
MICHAEL LEWIS: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was just thinking about this because I’ve done several episodes of Charlie Rose in the last year, — the 25th anniversary of “Liar’s Poker” came out, the hardback, “Flash Boys”, paperback. I realized when I was sitting there talking to him two days ago that I had actually just completely forgotten I was on television. I was talking to him as I would talk to you in a private situation. Afterwards, I thought, “What the hell did I just say?” How is that going to play? It was very odd.
Robert Birnbaum: Thomas Jefferson, I think he said, “If you never tell a lie, you don’t need a memory.”
MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true. It’s true.
Robert Birnbaum: But we all need to shade some things and maybe not reveal other things.
MICHAEL LEWIS: No. It was more … I was talking about friends. I was talking about other people, and I just didn’t … without a filter.
Robert Birnbaum: He [Charlie Rose] did an interview* with Henri Cartier Bresson. He went to France for it, and Bresson is an incredibly charming old man — it was a great interview. Rose was never more attentive and sensitive to his subject than I saw him then.
MICHAEL LEWIS: He’s got a gift for making people comfortable, and it brings out … you know what it reminds me of? There are interviewers who think that the way you get things out of people is to needle them and the interviewers who realize it’s the opposite. I’m more like Charlie Rose when I talk to people. Do you know the Traveler’s Tale? It was a kid’s story, I think, but the story was about a man who was walking through the landscape with a cloak and the sun and the north wind challenge each other to see who can get him to remove the cloak. The north wind blows and blows, and he just holds the cloak more tightly around him. The sun comes along and makes it nice and gentle, and he removes it voluntarily. This is my approach. I’d rather be the sun.
Robert Birnbaum: The sun?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. I’d rather get people to remove their cloaks voluntarily.
Robert Birnbaum: Who actually does decent interviews these days in the mainstream media?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Jon Stewart.
Robert Birnbaum: You’d expect, given some of his guests, you expect a little more persistence [he did hold reporter Judith Miller’s feet to the fire]… His great moment, I thought, was when he was on Crossfire and he just let those guys have it. Colbert is the same thing. I don’t know if John Oliver actually interviews people, …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Did you see his show on NCAA sports?
Robert Birnbaum: Yes. That was great. That was really great.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Fantastic.
Robert Birnbaum: He did a show on the US drone program that was also really convincing. Chilling and funny at the same time—the effect is to see the absurdity .
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s important journalism. It’s actually important journalism.
Robert Birnbaum: Which I think is an evolutionary step from the Colbert/Stewart thing which are still comedic.
MICHAEL LEWIS: It is still funny, though.
Robert Birnbaum: Absolutely.
MICHAEL LEWIS: My 8 year old doesn’t have any idea what the NCAA is or what is going on. He’s rolling with laughter as he’s watching the thing.
Robert Birnbaum: I wonder if there’s a critical mass of media that will affect them, affect the NCAA?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Oh, I think so.
Robert Birnbaum: I know that Joe Nocera at the Times is hammering them. Shelby … it wouldn’t be Shelby Foot, somebody in the Atlantic a couple of years ago wrote a scathing take down on the NCAA, and now some of the more articular players – Richard Sherman. Do you remember the guy at Houston, the runningback, Avery something talked about how they didn’t have enough food? He’s going, “My coach is driving an expensive car, an Infinity or something like that, and I’m here …” So we told the coach, we said, “Coach, we don’t have any food.” He went out and got us 50 McDonald’s burgers… Anyway … What would the critical mass be? The government’s not going to take them on
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, except the culture’s shifting on the subject. You can feel it just like you can feel the culture shifting on football. Generally, its to your detriment if you want to play, I think it’s this … we move slowly. You might have said exactly the same thing about smoking in the 1950s. You know this because you’re intelligent and on the edge. You know the studies that show there was a link between smoking and cancer. You’d be outraged that the big tobacco companies were able to rig the system and prevent change, then one day it all come collapsing down. I feel like that’s where the NCAA is headed. I feel that’s where football is headed, with concussions. Its not just concussions either. The thing about that sport is if you go and see a former professional football player at the age of 50, it is depressing. It’s not just their brains. It’s their knees. It’s their shoulders. You take such a beating. [to Cuba] With any luck, you won’t be good enough so you can only get so far.
Robert Birnbaum: I’m not a great fan. Cuba gets a lot out of it, and he’s good at it —so what are you going to do? And these kids, you tell them not to lead with their head, they lead with their head.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. They’re immortal. That’s the problem.
Robert Birnbaum: Right.
MICHAEL LEWIS: They think it.
Robert Birnbaum:He’s been lucky. You’ve had no serious injuries, right?
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Not a thing.
Robert Birnbaum: But also I have to say, to his credit, he’s not suicidal. He’s not one of these guys who gives up his body in every play. He’s the polite kid who pulls people up from the ground at he end of the play.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Sometimes. Sometimes.
Robert Birnbaum: If he likes them. I noticed the NFL now has a neutral trainer at games.
MICHAEL LEWIS: To evaluate the players.
Robert Birnbaum: Evaluate the players and make a decision.
MICHAEL LEWIS: They’ll do whatever they can do to …
Robert Birnbaum: To masquerade.
MICHAEL LEWIS: … to put lipstick on the pig.
Robert Birnbaum: Why do Americans like football so much? What happened? Is this just brainwashing over year to year after year after year, spectacle upon spectacle?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I mean, I plead guilty. I think it really works on TV.
Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff
Robert Birnbaum: Right. I like the game, too, and I liked it a lot more after I read Nick Dawidoff’s book on the Jets* — the year he spent with the Jets. Did you read that? It’s a terrific book.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I bet it is a terrific book. He’s a great writer.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and he seemed to do it with the right group, too. Ryan is actually a lively and likable subject, I think, from what I could tell in this book.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think there are a handful of football subjects I would love to go after… that aren’t polemical… Why do people like it so much? It’s simulated warfare with enough violence to make it plausible. You’re watching generals command armies. You’re watching armies fight.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s interesting. For fans, I think that’s the case. One of Cuba’s coaches stated that he didn’t buy that comparison, and I think maybe that’s okay to tell the players.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s giving respect to those who actually fight in actual war — not calling it warfare in that sense. We’re …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, in the olden times, you did give respect to your opponent in warfare.
Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right. They were more formality. There were more rules.
MICHAEL LEWIS: You’re obeying a chivalric code.
Robert Birnbaum: Now they have people that bite each other’s ears, break fingers.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Biting seems to be one thing that an athlete does, and his reputation never recovers. You don’t want to bite your opponent. There’s something about a guy biting that just disturbs people.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you think Mike Tyson’s suffered?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Birnbaum: Really? Well, look at him now. Interesting character, huh?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Mike Tyson?
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t looked that closely.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. He’s … a Broadway show. I’ve seen him speak.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Is he on Broadway now?
Robert Birnbaum: He had a Broadway show, I think.
MICHAEL LEWIS: He was good in The Hangover.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. The tiger. The tiger is my .
Robert Birnbaum: Did you see Boyhood?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, I did see it, and I thought it was extremely good. I still want so badly to know how Richard Linklater did that because how he plotted it, scripted it, whether he let the characters decide … there’s no way he could know where they were going to be or even if they were alive.
Robert Birnbaum: It was a total flier, right?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It was a total flier. Shocked that it didn’t get the Oscar.
Robert Birnbaum: I’m shocked that Citizenfour won an Oscar.
MICHAEL LEWIS: That it did? That’s interesting. Why?
Robert Birnbaum: First of all, it’s controversial. Second of all, because as a film, it’s pretty flat.
MICHAEL LEWIS: True, except the period when he’s actually in that hotel room.
Robert Birnbaum: Yes, there’s that tension.
MICHAEL LEWIS: There’s a real tension there when it’s actually happening. After that it goes flat.
Robert Birnbaum: I come away certainly from that thinking the guy’s a hero, and I think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize for what he did because he’s just blown open something that people were taking for granted. Maybe they’re still taking it for granted just like high-frequency trading still seems to be acceptable but people are looking at it. I think this NSA invasion of everything is starting to sink in.
MICHAEL LEWIS: One of the great things about that film is it totally undermined the public perception of Edward Snowden which was that he was a sneak.
Robert Birnbaum: And a traitor.
MICHAEL LEWIS: That he was a ne’er-do-well. That he wasn’t thinking when he did it.
Robert Birnbaum: And he had a character flaw, which is why he whistle blew. How did that happen? This big reversal about whistle blowers that are now treated like pariahs.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, it depends on the whistle blower, right? Whistle blowers have never, ever been extremely popular. My daughter right now who’s writing a paper for her 10th grade history project is writing about The Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg happens to live blocks away.
Robert Birnbaum: Did she get to talk to him?
MICHAEL LEWIS: She more than talked to him. She’s turned her project into a piece about Daniel Ellsberg.
Robert Birnbaum: Wow. Like you. She found a character.
MICHAEL LEWIS: She found a character. That’s right. Her history teacher said, “Actually, forget about the Pentagon Papers. If he’ll talk to you, go do it about him.” There’s even ambivalence about him now. He’s a hero in Berkeley. There are places where they’ll lynch him in America. We have an uncomfortable relationship with people who turn on institutions.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That film Michael Mann did on tobacco… The Insider, he lost almost everything, right?
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s not a good … usually being a whistle blower is not a good career move. It’s brave.
Robert Birnbaum: They are mostly viewed as turncoats.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Some subset of our population views blind loyalty as an admirable character trait, the capacity for it. Disloyalty, no matter what you’re being disloyal to, is a sin, but it’s funny. Even those people if you give them extreme cases – von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler – they’ll say, “Oh, that was great,” but when there’s more ambiguity to it, people fall back on their emotional, core response.
Robert Birnbaum: There’s a great novel by Justin Cartwright about the most famous plot to kill Hitler, and it involves Isaiah Berlin and some fictitious German. He really gets inside that story. I think it’s called
The Song Before it is Sung (2007)
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s an incredible story.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Didn’t they put Tom Cruise in the movie called Valkyrie ?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t know.
Robert Birnbaum: He plays a Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. (laughs) What’s the television production writing part of your life now?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m a failed screenwriter. That’s the sad truth.
Robert Birnbaum: Most screenwriters are failed screenwriters.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t given up. I’m on my 4th or 5th pilot, Commissioned. Two for CBS. One for TNT. One for HBO, so this is the 5th, for Showtime. I’m getting better. I’m starting to figure out how to rig the system in my favor, and I’m handing in the pilot next month. It’s done. It just needs some touching up, and I haven’t had time because I’ve been on tour. I think there’s a real shot this time.
Robert Birnbaum: You’re just the writer. You’re not producing, you’re not casting?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Produce and writing.
Robert Birnbaum: So if you’re producing ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ll help run the show if anything. That’s what I will do as a job, and I won’t write a book for a while. I’m that interested in it. I tell you, these are my ambitions. I would love to have a really great drama on the air and then use it as an excuse to write a play. I’ve always been interested in the theater, and I would love to do that. On the other hand, it’s nice to have things you still want to do, so maybe I should wait so I still have things I want to do. If I got to write a play right now, I wouldn’t have anything left.
Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) Well, something might come up. What are the great dramas that you think are on television now? Are there any for you?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Oh, my God. The ones that are … some have come and gone. Breaking Bad.
Robert Birnbaum: I never got that one, but I’m the only one.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Really?
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. The Wire?
MICHAEL LEWIS: The Wire and The Sopranos were the originals. The Wire especially.
The Wire was just a breathtaking achievement.
Robert Birnbaum: Dostoevskian, I think.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Or Dickensian or … it was a novel on the screen, and it showed what you could do. In the moment, when they’re creating that thing, it didn’t attract, in the beginning, that much attention or that much of an audience.
Robert Birnbaum: They weren’t almost going to do a 4th or 5th season.
MICHAEL LEWIS: But they’ll sell DVDs of that thing forever, and it’s nice that model now exists because it means that you can do that kind of quality work and not go whoring after eyeballs right away and find a home for it. It’s the golden age of television… Well, Homeland, I think Homeland is fantastic.
Robert Birnbaum: Netflix stuff is getting interesting.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). House of Cards lost me the moment it became … it detached so far from whatever could happen.
Robert Birnbaum: I thought the 1st season was okay, but the 2nd season … it does have strong—it’s very strong casting.
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s beautifully performed.
Robert Birnbaum: Everybody looks good on screen— there is a 3rd season coming.
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s amazing what you can get away with if you have really talented actors. I was just watching … two nights ago, I went to a play in New York, The Audience, which is with Helen Mirren, a Queen Elizabeth thing.
Robert Birnbaum: She’s magnificent.
MICHAEL LEWIS: If you just read … I haven’t read the play. If you just read the play, you’d think, “This is going to be the most boring play ever produced. There could be nothing on paper that would be all that interesting,” and the performances are riveting. I mean, you’re totally captivated because of what the actor is doing.
Robert Birnbaum: I get that—I could never read Shakespeare, but I love watching the plays performed. I don’t get reading it. I guess I don’t have enough imagination to enliven the characters, but I love it. I love the drama. Netflix did that woman prison movie. Not bad.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Orange is the New Black? I have only seen a few of them, and it was really good.
Robert Birnbaum: Certainly an unexpected place to go. I don’t know if you’ve seen this one, Peaky Blinders?
MICHAEL LEWIS: What’s it called?
Robert Birnbaum: Peaky Blinders. This is about criminal gangs in Birmingham, England post World War I, and they’re all competing and one of them, the Peaky Blinders, is trying to get big enough to go to London.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Uh-huh.
Robert Birnbaum: They have Tom Hardy. Tom … is in this. Great actor. He just did this film called Locke where he does a movie entirely in a car. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one. Anyway, he plays a Jewish mobster. He’s like Fagan. He’s funny, and he’s also an Elmore. Leonard character He’s funny, but he’s …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Where did it air?
Robert Birnbaum: Netflix. They’ve done two seasons, and I think they’re doing a 3rd. Yeah. You’re right. It is the golden age of television, and I think it’s finally because whoever’s doing it is letting writers write.
MICHAEL LEWIS:The shows no longer require big audiences. They require passionate audiences, and that is the key.
Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right.
MICHAEL LEWIS: The people who are producing or creating, producing these things are paid to understand that. All I need is a passionate following.
Robert Birnbaum: They’re enlarging the shelf life of these shows . I think ‘hit; used to mean we’re grabbing the money and six months from now, no one will remember, but now these things all have a longer life. Is your stuff fictional or …
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s all fictional?
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional, but it’s drawn from …
Robert Birnbaum: Based on true stories? Or the ever popular “Inspired by a true story”?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Based on a true story. It’s actually not based on a true story. The characters are based on true characters. They’re characters pulled out of the 1920s on Wall Street. They’re some great characters. They’re characters who are worthy of being dramatized, and the situation rhymes with net (????). It’s a way of describing how the financial system first came to be, and there’s enough of an echo in that time with what’s happening now. You get at what’s happening now through that in a much more concrete, simpler way.
Robert Birnbaum: So you say you’re waiting for approval?
MICHAEL LEWIS: So Showtime hasn’t seen it. They’ve seen an outline with which they were very pleased, and the script will go in in the next couple of weeks and then we’ll wait and see.
Robert Birnbaum: You can do a lot more in a film version of something, of a story…
MICHAEL LEWIS: Each medium has its strengths, right? There are things that are hard to get across in film. There are things that are easier. I get a lot of pleasure out of figuring out how to do new things well, and it actually is informing the books and the magazine pieces because the storytelling that goes on in a script, it’s got to be so compressed. It’s so unforgiving, and everything has got to have a point and drive the story forward. That discipline is really useful to just have in the back of your mind when you’re writing something where you actually don’t have that constraint. I think I’m going to get better at keeping the reader because of it.
Robert Birnbaum: You just reminded me that now, these days, when I see the dog in the story in a film, I know something bad’s going to happen. I think these directors are including this as a cue … seriously. What’s the point of having a dog in the story unless something terrible could happen
MICHAEL LEWIS:Marley and Me.
Robert Birnbaum: Well, that was totally bad. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
MICHAEL LEWIS:Give me an example. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Robert Birnbaum: God, I just saw a movie [Mister Pip] and they shot the dog.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Where the dog got shot?
Robert Birnbaum: The dog got shot
MICHAEL LEWIS: Like Old Yeller. Actually, maybe you’re onto something here.
Robert Birnbaum Percival Everett* used a funny dog thing his Western send up In God’s Country the dog’s fate receives the most sympathy …
MICHAEL LEWIS: A sudden doom came over you.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and I think I’ve been set up like that before. You’re still doing magazines? Are you exclusive to Vanity Fair?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. I will write columns for Bloomberg, and I can imagine there might be some piece that Vanity Fair wouldn’t want that I’d have to go somewhere else.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you have to give it to them first?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t have to, but I like them.
Robert Birnbaum Your were friendly with Adam Moss at the New York Times. He is gone, right?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I did stuff with Adam and my editor there was Gerry Marzorati who then took over for Adam.
Robert Birnbaum: They redesigned it didn’t they?
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s funny. There was a time pre-internet or even when the internet was in its early days when that magazine felt like the center of the universe. If you put something there, everybody you knew saw it, and now it feels like no matter where you put something, because it’s on the web everybody’s going to see it. Placement means much less than it used to. A lot of the value of that magazine has been undermined, I think, by the internet.
Robert Birnbaum: I do have a digital subscription to the Times and so when I look at the thing I just see so little to read that I want to read.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think they’ve changed their minds about this – but they basically abandoned their commitment to long format. They shortened the articles. They shortened the magazine. They didn’t trust the attention span of the reader, and that was a huge error because that’s all they had. They can’t compete with the internet. If you want a distracted reader, you’re never going to beat the internet, but they could run a 10,000 word piece and make it big and say this is important and demand you turn off everything and read it. People did, and that was very, very valuable and they should never have walked away from it.
Robert Birnbaum: Well, I think the magazine is now designed for the net. It’s not designed for print.
MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s true.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s not designed to be held.
MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s a sad thing. Have we missed any medium that you’re not in? Books, magazines, television.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m not really in television. I’m trying.
Robert Birnbaum: Well, I’d say you were in. You’re spending your time doing it. You’re in.
MICHAEL LEWIS: On Monday, the film for “The Big Short” starts shooting in New Orleans. I think it’s going to be really good, but I don’t have anything to do with it.
Robert Birnbaum: They just optioned it and that was it?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Paramount bought it with Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt’s in it, but the only reason it’s happening is this fellow, Adam McKay, who’s Will Ferrell’s writer and partner in crime on the Funny or Die website got obsessed with it. He wrote this spectacular script, and he’s attracted all this talent to it.
Robert Birnbaum: So they showed it to you? They showed you the script?
MICHAEL LEWIS: They did. It’s not a broad comedy like he’s done before. It’s different. It’s very powerful. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun.
Robert Birnbaum: Well, there are comedies that have punchlines and jokes and there are comedies that are comedic because the situations are comedic. As a New Orleansian, I meant to ask you, have you watched Treme?
MICHAEL LEWIS:Yes, the first couple of episodes.
Robert Birnbaum: What do you think?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Didn’t do it for me. My wife really likes it and swears that I would, if I sat down with the whole thing and tried to watch it in a gulp, I’d care about it and I may one day, but it felt … so often when people come from the outside in New Orleans, they notice the stuff that’s picturesque, picaresque and are drawn to it, and they direct it at the expense of getting at the actual soul of the place. They think that’s the soul of the place, and he isn’t that far off but it felt like very much an outsider’s take.
Robert Birnbaum: Did you watch Spike Lee’s movie on Katrina?
MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It seemed crazy, I thought. I don’t think the government tried to blow up the levees.
Robert Birnbaum: He’s does leave you with that impression.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Anybody who I think is being honest about New Orleans now would say the city is in so much better shape now than it was before the storm, so much better shape. There’s still problems, but it’s a vibrant place with a future instead of a charming place with a past.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s sort of like knocking down all the old projects. In Chicago, they knocked down a bunch of old housing projects. That had to be done.
MICHAEL LEWIS: You couldn’t have done it. You couldn’t have replaced the school system with a charter school system. You couldn’t have upgraded the healthcare system.
Robert Birnbaum: The charter school initiatives are taking a beating, a lot of bad examples of corruption and …
MICHAEL LEWIS: There are a lot of bad examples. There’s no way it could be worse than what was there before in that case, and I know because my mother helped create one of them, two of them. I’ve spent some time in these places, and there was no public school – well, maybe there was one, but for very gifted kids – but they’re basically so much better than before …
Robert Birnbaum: When do you have to leave for the airport?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I have to go now.
Robert Birnbaum: Thank you.
MICHAEL LEWIS: All right, Robert.
Robert Birnbaum:I hope it isn’t 10 years until the next time.
MICHAEL LEWIS: No, no. It won’t be. It really won’t be. Good to see you.
Robert Birnbaum: Good to see you.
MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks for making the time for me.
Robert Birnbaum: Oh, absolutely.
MICHAEL LEWIS: It was a pleasure as always.
Robert Birnbaum: I feel the same way.
MICHAEL LEWIS: [To Cuba] If you ever get your bell rung, get yourself out of the game.
CUBA BIRNBAUM: All right.
* My [2nd]and most recent conversation with Nick Dawidoff here
* My conversation with Percival Everett here.
* One of my conversations with Michael Lewis here.
*Charlie Rose interview with Henri Cartier Bresson here