Based on a book by Mike Isaacs, Super Pumped tells the story of the definite rise and sort of fall of Uber founder Travis Kalanick (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt) , a tech innovator whose conviction defined the rideshare era despite numerous weighty charges about a toxic culture at the company. It’s a fascinating portrait of ambition, confidence, hubris, and, well, the frivolity of consequences when you’re talking about Gods and money monsters who move a thousand feet over our heads and cash out with billion-dollar parachutes.
If you watch the show and don’t feel a mix of outrage and envy, then good on you. For me, I couldn’t help but wonder how far I could get with less scruples and more confidence. Similar to how I’ve felt watching a lot of these recent shows that focus on tech and shows similarly centered around people who can talk their way into power and out of trouble. Is that the secret sauce that makes these shows so watchable? Is it something else? Following Sunday’s season finale of the planned anthology series from the minds behind Billions (Facebook is next), we wanted to talk money, morality, misunderstood Pearl Jam lyrics, and more with producer David Levien and showrunner Beth Schacter.
What’s the sort of breakdown between… okay, we want to show what Travis loses, but again, at the end, you see Travis gains a lot too. From a financial standpoint and from a power standpoint. What’s the level of thought as far as showing the downfall, the climb, and then concern about not wanting this guy to seem like a rockstar or somebody who people should try to emulate?
David Levien: We had sort of a vague awareness of the company, obviously, in the writer’s room, everybody had used it. We sort of knew that it had gone public and that he had left and that there were some issues. But the thing really started with Mike Isaac’s book. He gave the book to Brian and then Brian gave it to me and then Beth read it. And we thought that he rendered this incredible story of the inner workings of this company that was in all our lives, but we didn’t know about how it got there and what happened.
The incidents and anecdotes in his book were so fascinating that we didn’t have to calculate a ton of the rest of it. Though, by reading it over and over, you start to realize that there’s this phenomenon happening where this group of rebels think they’re going to unseat the entrenched power in an industry, in this case, the taxi and livery industry. And then they do it only to rise to power and then conduct themselves in the same ways or worse corruption-wise, than the prior group. And that could be happening in other industries. And I think maybe people are just aware of how powerful and unchecked these startups are. And maybe it’s just something that’s rising in the collective unconscious, or in the conscious now.
Did we feel like a responsibility, that we weren’t going to lionize these people… or the reverse? I’d say that we go about it in a way where we want to understand them. And we don’t feel like it’s our job to judge them and we want the audience to be able to, and we’ve had this experience before, as viewers. If you watch The Wolf of Wall Street, he doesn’t editorialize a lot about the ills of this guy. He shows his behavior and a segment of the audience never really understands that it’s a huge cautionary tale or a negative portrayal or anything like that. They just think he’s awesome. A lot of other people realize they have this emotional reaction at the end that they’ve watched something sort of toxic.
And for us, we felt like we wanted to put it out there and it’s for the audience to decide how they feel about this. And the fact that society gives a lot of financial reward to these people… And he was a charismatic guy who was able to enlist hundreds and thousands of people in his vision of the way this company should run. So that part had to come across and then the rest of it happened. So we wanted to render that, but the way people add it up at the end has to be to the viewer.
I don’t mean just for this show, but in general, culturally is that a concern that we are trying to understand… I put it as like, you’re in a room with a tiger who’s going to attack you. Do you need to understand the motivation or do you need to try and protect yourself? We see that a lot of the time with the way that we kind of analyze and over-analyze conspiracy theorists, or deep conservative thinking or some of the profiles that the New York Times gets dunked on for. Is that a worry? The over-analysis of the things that might be hurting us?
Beth Schacter: It’s so funny because I just read a review that was like… “Why won’t they humanize Travis?” And then I read another review, which is, “Why do they keep humanizing Travis?” The thing is, we just have to tell the story as storytellers in a way that we find satisfying. It’s the audience that’s doing all this work of, “I don’t want to understand him. I do want to lionize him. I do want to understand him, now felt guilty because he’s a bad man. And I have empathy for a bad human.” Audiences need to sit with complicated emotions. And I think for us more, we are interested in writing complicated people who are both human and can be kind, but also can do great damage. Those are our favorite heroes and anti-heroes and characters and film and TV that we love and consume. So I think yes, as a culture, we probably need to stop worrying quite so much that we understand things that are truly evil, but as artists, no, we want to keep understanding them and getting inside their brains and humanizing them. Also because actors have to act them. And there’s really nothing fun about… I’m sure Joe, would’ve been like, “Cool, it’s a robot.”
It is interesting, I feel like there was a split at some point where storytelling stopped moralizing so explicitly and sort of went more into the gray and I wonder why that is. I wonder if it was just more content, more freedom to tell those stories.
Levien: That happened a long, long time ago.
Oh, yeah. Of course.
Levien: Having somebody moralizing at you is very tiresome.
Schacter: I mean, it’s the genius of gangster movies, which is like, here’s this movie where this guy or woman… People are just breaking the law and shooting motherf*ckers and stealing and you’re going to cheer for them. And then you’re going to have to sit with that. You’re going to have to sit with fact that you just cheered.
Levien: If you try to tell a story of a bad person who loses because of it and that’s… In certain cases, that’s not going to be very realistic. It’s just not going to have any resonance to the life experiences people are having. Maybe your question might be why are certain ambiguous people given such outsized rewards for what they’re doing?
I watch this show and I think to myself, if I was born with no scruples and had more confidence, how far could it get me?
Levien: Well, financially, very far I suppose. You sound like you’re lamenting the fact that society’s gone off the rails and there’s very little we can do about that. We’re not going to disagree with you loudly.
Schacter: But it does make for good television and storytelling. I mean, to be honest, we can’t do very much because our skillset is this.
Levien: We’re not legislators currently.
This is more… We’re just kind of chatting by the fire as culture burns, not looking to get you guys to throw water on the fire. The fire’s too big at this point. There isn’t really much any of us can do other than just say, “Damn, that’s a big fire.”
Levien: It’s become a fireside chat.
Maybe it’s not so much that there’s been a split where it’s less moralizing in storytelling. Maybe it’s just that in real life, we’re becoming more and more aware of the ways that these people are doing bad things and still winning. And maybe that’s what it is.
Levien: One experience we had in the writer’s room of this show is we realized that we were doing a show about disruptors. So that allowed us to use storytelling methods and filmmaking methods that were very disruptive and unconventional. And one of them became the ability to let other characters besides the mainframe characters take over the show and show their experience. So we did that and that was very cool because in our world of entertainment, it’d be very hard to make the Uber show from the point of view of one driver. So you give somebody like that the stage and it’s like a little bit of a Trojan horse thing.
The end speech with Joe’s character is so tremendous. Just the spite he has for people who don’t do all the things that he does. What was the thought process behind putting that as a button to the whole show?
Levien: Well, yeah, I mean, obviously that wasn’t in Mike’s book, some monologue like that, but we felt like a lot of other people had broken the fourth wall and spoken to the camera. And at the end of the day, we were like, “Well, we should take a shot at having Travis do it.” And it sort of survived all of the drafts and the shooting and the editing and made it there because it just seemed like it made sense at the end of the show to let him give a version of where he was coming from. Our characterization of Travis.
Yeah. 100%. I think it’s tremendous. It’s a great piece of writing and it really just ties everything together perfectly. It feels very much what you would think Travis would say. With that, this character and this person. Do you think he learned anything from this experience?
Levien: [Laughs] Absolutely. To not have board oversight in his next venture. And he had a lot more capital and the ability to dictate the terms of how he wanted it the next time. And we do understand… I don’t know, I guess that’s it, we don’t have research into how his new company runs, but it seems like it’s very streamlined and it’s working financially.
Schacter: I don’t think a lot of people like Travis see themselves as the architect of their own demise.
What was the idea behind the affiliation with Pearl Jam?
Levien: Well, we felt that there was just something right about Pearl Jam sonically, and about the way that their music is so embraced by bro culture while they sort of might potentially misunderstand some of the lyrics and just get with the anthemic music part of it. So we thought it was really fitting in that way. And we realized that we wanted to have their music in every episode. So we went to the band and talked about more of like a music partnership in that way. And they were game for it. And whenever we put those drops in it just works so great. We were just thrilled with it. We love it. But even when you’re hearing a driving rock song from them, what Eddie Vedder is saying is often something very different and nuanced than… He’s like a shaman.
I don’t even want to think about how the words to “Worldwide Suicide” are hitting a tech bro, and what they’re envisioning the meaning of it being.
Schacter: It’s Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machine. Those are the two, where I’m always like, “You know what these songs are?” And I was like, “Oh no, no, you don’t, it’s fine.” And it’s just, great. That’s Eddie [Vedder] and Tom [Morello]. I love it because it’s such… They’re singing words that are prosecuting their actual existence. How can you not love that?
With the continuation of the show… You mentioned Travis’s new company. Down the road would you want to ever re-explore if he gives you a reason to? Even if he’s staying completely above board, I imagine it’s a very interesting story about what happens after all of this. Has that been a thought at all down the road?
Levien: We haven’t gone that far down the road yet. I mean, everything is game. I mean, that’s a great question. That’s hilarious. He’d be like, “You got to be kidding me.”
Schacter: Yeah. I hope that he does not do enough that creates another season of television.
The complete first season of ‘Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber’ is available to stream via Showtime.