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‘Super Pumped’: Why the Creators of ‘Billions’ Wanted to Tackle the Story of Uber in Their New Limited Series

Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Beth Schacter take TheWrap inside their new Showtime anthology

The story of how the new Showtime anthology series “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” came to be begins on Twitter, where co-creator and co-showrunner Brian Koppelman has curated a community of over 130,000 followers.

“Mike Isaac sent the manuscript to me on Twitter,” Koppelman told TheWrap during a Zoom interview earlier in February. “I got maybe 100 pages in and I said to [co-creator/co-showrunner David] Levien, ‘You’ve got to read this too.’”

Published in 2019, Isaac’s book “Super Pumped” serves as the basis for the first season of the new series and chronicles the rise and fall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who ran the company until he was removed as CEO in 2017 following numerous accounts of cultivating a toxic workplace culture full of sexual harassment and brash business decisions.

When asked why the “Billions” co-creators gravitated towards the story of Uber, Koppelman pointed to the ubiquitous nature of the company. “It was just so obvious that this was an incredible story that said so much about our times, and that seemed important and also incredibly entertaining, and that combination doesn’t show up that often,” Koppelman said. “And when I say important, what I mean by that is Uber and companies like Uber are a fact in our lives now. They’re part of the infrastructure. They’re almost like a utility. We never think about how that came to be.”

The story of how Uber came to be is a fascinating tale about the current state of business in America. “What was immediately apparent from Mike’s book to us was it was a story about what happens when the revolutionaries unseat the fascists and then become the fascists,” Koppelman added. “And because the taxi and limousine commissions were largely kind of crooked, fascistic-entrenched power, they did need to be removed. But it does seem that at this moment in time when that happens, something even worse shows up and that was fascinating. Especially because of how ubiquitous Uber is.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt fills the role of Kalanick in the series, and he was their first choice for the role. “We finished the script; the next day we sent it to Joe’s agent and he read it immediately… by Sunday, we were talking to Joe and he signed on,” Levien revealed, adding that Gordon-Levitt was the only person who read for the role.

Finding the right actor to play Kalanick’s mentor and investor Bill Gurley was similarly quick. Their first choice, Kyle Chandler, signed on right away.

Kyle Chandler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Kyle Chandler and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick in Super Pumped: The Battle of Uber (Raymond Liu/Showtime)

And when it came to casting Ariana Huffington, who doesn’t appear until later in the season, Uma Thurman was their top choice, but the “Kill Bill” actress wanted to make sure Koppelman, Levien and co-showrunner Beth Schacter approved of her take on the Greek-American political and business figure. “She did this thing I’ve never seen another actor do,” Koppelman said of Thurman. “She called us up and she said, ‘Can we get on one more Zoom?’ And we said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I want you to see what I would do and make sure that you guys really want it.’ And she’s like, ‘Let me show you Arianna.’  And so she did.”

But while Thurman’s performance as Huffington is perhaps the most colorful in the series, there’s another surprise performer key to telling the story who appears with gusto: Quentin Tarantino. The filmmaker serves as the narrator for the show, guiding viewers through their introduction to Kalanick, Uber and the business world. So how did this Oscar-winning director end up narrating a limited series about the rise and fall of Uber? As it turns out, Tarantino is a huge “Billions” fan.

“We had found out and then he wrote to us that he’d become a really big ‘Billions’ watcher and fan,” Koppelman explained. “He watches very closely and is very engaged with every reference and every character’s journey. So that’s why we thought maybe it was possible that he’d do it because we felt like he liked our work to some extent or was engaging with it. And then when people ask why Quentin Tarantino, I mean, the only answer I can come up with is because he said yes.”

Levien added that Tarantino showed up “enthusiastic and game,” noting that recording narration with the filmmaker was one of the most fun things they’ve ever done in their career.

But while “Super Pumped” is entertaining, it also confronts some harsh truths about the business and tech worlds, specifically as it relates to harassment and questionable business practices. When asked how truthful the show is compared to what really happened, the producers said they used Isaac’s heavily fact-checked book as their guide.

“The book was heavily vetted and fact-checked,” Levien maintained. “So for us, we were able to count on that because everything was double sourced and then fact-checked. And in fact, when we spoke to people who were subjects in the book later, they all had admitted that it had been fact-checked and they’d signed off on it. So, that gave us a measure of surety that we were dealing with.”

One of the subjects in the book they did not contact is Kalanick himself. “We never spoke to Travis Kalanick or communicated with him in any way,” Koppelman said. “But there were other figures in the periphery of the book who we did speak to and they all said that. And then we would ask Mike Isaac to produce sometimes his source if we had further questions, and he would go back to his notes or he would actually have the source show up in the writer’s room.” Isaac was also in the writer’s room to answer questions and serve as a sounding board.

All of this is important to keep in mind, as many of the events portrayed in “Super Pumped” are hard to believe — such as a scene in which a new feature called “Safe Rides” is brainstormed not as a safety feature, but as a way to upcharge customers.

Super Pumped
Showtime

When it came to deciding what to include from the book and what not to include in the seven-episode series, Schacter – who currently serves as the showrunner on “Billions” – said a lot of it was instinctual. “We were just going like, yeah, that hit hard. We should probably do that… You just sort of go by what really hits you in the gut or the chest, wherever you get hit.”

The hits come fast and hard as the series progresses, and Kalanick’s journey veers into tragedy territory — but his story won’t be the last one told on “Super Pumped.” Showtime has already renewed the series for a second season, the subject of which will be Facebook based on Isaac’s forthcoming book.

But when it comes to future “Super Pumped” stories, the producers don’t plan on being boxed in by only telling tech stories. The intention is to use “Super Pumped” as an umbrella to tell “really compelling business stories that have some resonance in our time right now, even if the story isn’t right now,” Levien explained. And that could mean throwing back to an even earlier time period.

For now, though, the focus is Kalanick and his meteoric rise and fall at Uber.

“Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” premieres on Showtime Feb. 27 at 10 pm ET/PT.

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