What do you know about Mark Zuckerberg? What about the origins of Facebook? Or the Winklevoss twins? Odds are you first learned about them from “The Social Network.” And that film was based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires,” written by Ben Mezrich, who – in a remarkable bit of savvy – sold the movie rights before he even finished the book.
This is Mezrich’s specialty: sniffing out the big stories that seep into the zeitgeist. He pulled the same trick with blackjack (“Bringing Down the House,” later adapted into the movie “21”), UFOs, wooly mammoths and, most recently, bitcoin.
This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2020 Year in Review – a collection of op-eds, essays and interviews about the year in crypto and beyond. This interview with Ben Mezrich, author of “Bitcoin Billionaires,” has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Mezrich returned to the world of the Winklevii with “Bitcoin Billionaires,” the book that introduced the story of the Bitcoin system (through the prism of the Winklevoss twins) to a new mainstream audience. And as 2020 draws to a close, Mezrich seems to have caught a bit of crypto fever, relishing his role as a Bitcoin Bull. “Bitcoin 20K! Now everyone who ever bought bitcoin and held has made money,” he tweets, noting that “Ain’t nobody talkin’ bout tulips anymore.”
The author’s influence goes beyond Twitter. In early 2020, in what feels like 37 years ago, Mezrich worked as a writer on Season 5 of “Billions,” helping the show nail its crypto arc and nudging the storyline further to the mainstream. From the way Mezrich gushes online about bitcoin, you’d assume a good chunk of his assets are pegged to BTC and that he’s on the cusp of buying Lambos.
The exact amount of his holdings?
“I don’t own any bitcoin,” Mezrich tells me in our wide-ranging conversation. “I’m sure my book inspired a lot of people to buy it. And a lot of people are going to get a lot richer than I am because they read my book. And I’m happy for them.”
Mezrich is not into bitcoin to get rich but to help tell its story. And this he does well. From his pandemic-getaway home in Vermont, he explains how the Winklevoss twins are misunderstood, why “mining is one massive mind-f**k,” shares some behind-the-scenes nuggets from the writing room of “Billions,” teases that Armie Hammer might reprise his role in a movie or TV adaptation of “Bitcoin Billionaires,” and floats the possibility of a sequel to “The Social Network.”
Let’s start with the twins.
How’d you first get involved in the world of crypto?
Ben Mezrich: So when I wrote “Accidental Billionaires,” that started as a random email in the middle of the night, from a friend of Eduardo Saverin’s. It was just: ‘My best friend founded Facebook, and no one’s ever heard of him.’ And when I started writing that book, I reached out to the Winklevoss twins. When I first met them, they were the bad guys, or at least that’s how I viewed them. They were the big jocks, dressed up in skeleton costumes, chasing the Karate Kid around the gym. But the Winklevoss twins were incredible sources, and I stayed in touch with them.
They actually came to the movie premiere. Even though they didn’t love everything about their portrayal, at least their story was being told. So we got along very well. I thought they were very honest people, but I really only saw them in one light. I knew nothing about Bitcoin [the blockchain]. People over the years have said, “You should write about Bitcoin,” but I’d never been interested in writing about it because, honestly, it just sounded like math. I hate that word “blockchain.” And I didn’t really know the story. Then, years later, my wife saw a headline that the Winklevoss twins are the first bitcoin billionaires. [In an article from The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper.]
And that’s a total curveball, right?
Mezrich: I thought, “Wow, that’s strange.” Because I assumed you’d never hear from these guys again. And then I see them as billionaires suddenly in their own right. And I thought, “Okay, now that makes bitcoin interesting to me.”
How have your thoughts on the Winklevoss twins changed?
Mezrich: It was sort of looking at them again in a totally different light. Not that they aren’t these big Olympic athletes who were the cool kids on campus. All of that is still true. But they’re not one-sided. These are guys who definitely understood something about revolutions, and understood something about starting a business and entrepreneurship and building something.
And it wasn’t an accident that they had stumbled into bitcoin. Because a lot of people stumbled into bitcoin. Every one of us had heard about bitcoin, but we’re not all billionaires. What’s crazy about bitcoin is that every one of us could be a billionaire right now, because we all could have once afforded 200,000 bitcoin when it was just [worth] pennies.
What were your first impressions of the crypto space?
Mezrich: The first thing you kind of have to get through is the question of whether this is a scam. Whether this is a scheme. Or tulips. Or a bubble. And when I first got into the story, bitcoin had fallen from its height of $20,000 down to $3,000.
And then the second thing, of course, is the Silk Road stuff, and where Bitcoin came from. The people who were into Bitcoin originally were outsiders … fringe people. The people who understood it first were not mainstream people. So one of the things when I started researching was, “What is Bitcoin? What is it supposed to be? And the people who were into it at first, are they going to be the people who will take it to that next place?”
What was intriguing about the Winklevoss twins is that they came into it from a very different perspective from the people who started it – the Roger Vers of the world. They had a very different perception of what Bitcoin is supposed to be. And that conflict feeds the whole book.
You seem like quite the bitcoin bull. You’re optimistic about the space?
Mezrich: I don’t own bitcoin. I have missed out again and again and again. If I had taken my book advance in bitcoin I would be retired right now. [Laughs.] I would have had made six times my money. And I kick myself every day because I don’t have any bitcoin.
I never would have guessed that!
Mezrich: As a writer, my goal is not to make money on bitcoin, my goal is to tell the story of bitcoin. And I think, at first, that really was something I did purposefully. I am a big believer in where bitcoin is going, and I love the fact that people are going to get wealthy off of it. And I think that we should be happy when people take a risk and succeed because it’s inspiring. People were willing to take a risk, and they were smart enough to look at it the way other people didn’t. And everyone was telling them they were wrong. I love that. I love that Silicon Valley didn’t get it. And I love that the mainstream economic world just didn’t understand it.
I didn’t buy any Facebook stock either, and I was in on that story before the IPO. I’ve written a lot of stories that have made a lot of other people rich while I stay in Vermont and watch them get rich. If some hedge fund was smart enough to just hire me, I could sit in a room and tell them what they should invest in.
They should totally hire you!
Mezrich: They should! You should tell them that. Tell them in your article I’m available. Just put me up in an office and I’ll give you a couple of ideas.
You’re kind of like the “anti-quant,” you’re like the “qualt” for extremely qualitative analysis.
The qualts are the guys who come in, think of book ideas, and that’s where you put your money.
Mezrich: It’s really true. I mean, listen, I was in on DraftKings before DraftKings appeared. I wrote a book called “Straight Flush” about the online gambling world. I wrote a book called “Woolly” about the woolly mammoth coming back to life, and it’s all about genetic engineering. I mean, I’ve been on the verge of a lot of these stories because I’m looking for revolutions every time. It’s cool to see these things happen. And it’s neat that with bitcoin, I’m actually able to watch in real time. Right now it appears to be finding this mainstream voice, which is amazing.
What’s your process for finding story ideas?
Mezrich: Most of my main stories have come to me just luckily and randomly. Someone calling or emailing or messaging me on Twitter, just finding me and pitching me a story. That’s where a good three-quarters of my stories have come from. I’m also always on the lookout. But it’s really tricky. I can’t just write a good story. It needs to be big enough that everyone in the world is going to want to read it, that Hollywood is going to want to make a big movie about it.
Every book I’ve ever written, I’ve sold the movie rights before I sold the book rights. For every project I do, I write a treatment, I sell the Hollywood rights and then I write the book. And I won’t write a book if I don’t think it can be this huge international movie or whatever. So the stories have to be big. They have to be woolly mammoth big.
See also: Jeff Wilser – Addicted to Crypto?
What stories have you tried to get but it didn’t quite work out?
Mezrich: I’ve tried to get to [Tesla CEO] Elon Musk because I’m fascinated by someone who breaks all the rules and changes everything. I think that’s a story that I would obviously want to write, and I think I’d be the right person to write it. But I haven’t heard back from him.
I don’t know what the next thing will be but I always have my eyes open. When someone pitches me a story, I have a checklist in my head of what I’m looking for. And one of the important things is having access. So when people just tell me, “Oh, you should write about this, or you write about that,” that’s kind of useless, because I’m not going to throw my hat in the ring with 100 other journalists and chase someone down the street.
What do you mean exactly?
Mezrich: That’s not the kind of writer I am. I have to have specific, unique access to the story. Like Eduardo coming to me to tell the Facebook story, or the Winklevoss twins willing to tell me their story. I need that because I’m not a journalist. I’m not a newspaperman. I have friends who are very good newspapermen, and what they do is something I can’t do. I can’t track things down. I can’t chase people down. It’s not what I do. I’m the person who translates someone’s story into a book and a movie.
I love that self-awareness. What else is on that checklist of yours when you’re looking for a good story?
Mezrich: The first thing is the elevator pitch. With “Bringing Down the House,” it was the perfect one-sentence: “Six MIT kids who took Vegas for millions.” You can’t get better than that. It literally was a true story about six brilliant math kids, who took down Las Vegas. Beautiful. And so for every book, I’m looking for that. I need to have that one-sentence. It’s got to be that simple.
Second, it has to be big. Vegas. Wooly Mammoth. Facebook. Bitcoin. It has to be something that everyone in the world has heard of, but they don’t already know the story.
And the next thing is you have to have access to the story that no one else can have. Those are the main things.
What are some stories that you almost wrote, but it didn’t work out for whatever reason?
Mezrich: I’ve been pitched so many amazing stories over the years. I’m trying to think of the famous ones. [Pauses. Thinks.] Charlie Sheen’s people came to me. And I thought about that. And then my wife was like, “You can’t spend a year with Charlie Sheen.”
Smart lady. Let’s talk about “Billions” and its crypto arc. How’d you get involved?
Mezrich: It was over Twitter, to be honest with you. So I knew Brian Koppelman and David Levine, who make the show. Not personally. We had kind of known about each other, but never really met. And then Brian called me up to talk about “Bitcoin Billionaires.” He was intrigued and wanted to know what the movie situation was, all that kind of stuff. So we were just chatting about that, and he asked if I’d ever written for television before. And I was a huge “Billions” fan.
Amazing. What was it like working in the writer’s room?
Mezrich: It’s really cool. Part of what I think I was there for – and why it worked so well – was that I live with these people. I’m not just a writer from LA. I know billionaires. I know private jets. I know that world because that’s what I’ve been writing about, and been involved with, for the past 20 years.
The show did a good job translating some blockchain and mining concepts. How’d you crack that?
Mezrich: I had some great connections to real people [in the blockchain space] that I met through the twins and others. So we were able to work with consultants who really knew what they were doing to try and put together a mining rig, or a multi-mining rig. It needed to look as real as we can make it. “Billions” is an incredible show in that it works so hard to get the details right.
What were some of the toughest crypto concepts to translate to a broad audience?
Mezrich: Well, it’s the mining. Mining is one massive mindf**k. I mean, we all know that. To try and explain mining to my mother is physically impossible. It’s just not gonna happen, right?
Mezrich: Like, I’m too old to understand mining. If you’re over the age of 40, it’s very hard to understand what the hell is going on, right?
Mezrich: And no matter how many times you explain it, it still doesn’t really translate. And so that was tricky. And also the word “blockchain.” What is “the blockchain?” Good God. I mean, that word is thrown about in every industry now. And I guarantee you, 80% of people are using it incorrectly. It’s just not an easy concept, and it never will be.
And there’s another reason why I am so impressed by people who are into Bitcoin, and into it early. They were understanding very complicated things. The way I understand Bitcoin is actually quite simple: peer-to-peer, electronic money, nobody in between. It’s a simple, simple concept. But then as I did my book tour, people would be asking me questions that just had nothing to do with that. About nodes, right? Nodes. What the hell is a node? All of these things that, obviously, I should understand, but that’s not part of my story.
That must be a constant dilemma, how technical to get in stories?
Mezrich: When I wrote the Facebook story, it was very similar. You could get very complicated in writing that story. That’s never been my goal. I never wanted to have Mark Zuckerberg sitting in front of a computer, other than looking at a simple screen and coding. Similarly, I never wanted to have the Winklevoss twins or Charlie Shrem or Roger Ver or anyone talking about nodes, because it’s going to kill your audience.
Any plans to return to “Billions”?
Mezrich: So, Season Five got split in half. It got interrupted by COVID-19. I don’t know when that’s going to start filming again, but I think I’m technically a consulting producer on the second half as well, because those episodes were already written. But I’d be happy to write for the show any time Brian and David wanted me to. I just had such a wonderful experience.
What are you working on now?
Mezrich: I wrote a serialized novella in the Boston Globe in May, it was like a “Da Vinci Code”-style thriller.
This is “The Mechanic,” right?
Mezrich: Yeah. And it was very successful; we had hundreds of thousands of readers. It was an incredible experience where I literally wrote a chapter, handed it in and it was in the newspaper the next day. I wrote the book in basically two weeks. It was a really crazy experience and I ended up selling the book. It’s actually going to be two books: one coming out next fall and one the following year. And then I sold the movie to Spielberg, to Amblin [Amblin Entertainment], and I’m writing the screenplay.
Mezrich: Oh, no pressure at all, writing a screenplay to Steven Spielberg! It’s a little terrifying, but I’m working on the screenplay for Amblin. The goal is for it to be a big feature movie and a big franchise book. And if it does what I hope it does, I hope to be writing a lot of these. I’m really fascinated by it – reinterpreting history in ways that people don’t realize “this is how things actually happened.”
What can you tell us about a possible “Bitcoin Billionaires” TV or movie?
Mezrich: It’s at Stampede. Greg Silverman, who is a wonderful producer – and who used to be one of the heads of Warner Brothers – is leading the project to make it. [The Winklevoss twins are also involved.] Hollywood got a little frozen by COVID-19. We were on track to get something going, and now everyone’s just waiting to see what the hell happens. I would love to see it being a big feature, but a lot of the greatest stories are being told in TV. So either way, it would be phenomenal and exciting.
Is there any talk of getting Armie Hammer to reprise his role as the Winklevoss twins? That would be incredible.
Mezrich: I would love to get Armie. I think the twins would love to see Armie do it. I think Armie is just a phenomenal actor, and he’s become iconic and that’s a part he was born to play. So I’d love to see it, and there’s not that many actors who can play the Winklevoss twins. You could get Thor, right? [Chris] Hemsworth? There are some guys who could maybe handle it, but Armie was phenomenal and I’d love to see that.
And if you get Armie, then it could be like the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe], where “The Social Network” and the “Bitcoin Billionaires” live in the same connected cinematic universe, right?
Mezrich: Yeah. That’s the way I’ve always seen this: That Facebook was the Avengers, and we could do a sequel to Facebook, which is kind of the “Avengers 2,” but meanwhile you tell the origin stories. We have the Winklevii. And then we do Sean Parker. I would love to do a Sean Parker story. Or a Sheryl Sandberg story.
[Beat.] I don’t know if Mark will let me do his story. He doesn’t like me so much. But there’s definitely a lot of stories to be told in that world. And I think there will be a sequel to “The Social Network.” I really do.
Mezrich: I know Aaron Sorkin wants to write it, I know Scott Rudin is interested in producing it. If they could get [David] Fincher into it, I think it would really happen.
You’re someone who helped bring the backstory of Facebook into the public eye, and now – especially in the wake of all the lawsuits and potential regulation – Facebook is seen very, very differently by the world. What has that been like for you?
Mezrich: I always say, I think we got Mark Zuckerberg exactly right and the Winklevoss twins exactly wrong. I really do think that this [the 2020 reality] is the Zuckerberg from “The Social Network.” This is what he was always going to be. He was a bit megalomaniacal, brilliant, but he wants Facebook to be in his image and how he believes the world should be, and everyone else can go screw themselves. And I think that he really and truly created the company in a way that he has that control and he has that power.
Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook chief operating officer] is supposed to be the adult in the room, and to some extent that’s what she was attempting to be, but I think they just got caught in thing after thing after thing and now they’re in a tricky situation. And I understand this is much more complicated than people want it to be. The idea of, Are you a publishing company? Do you have to edit content? Should you be editing content?
Right. There aren’t easy answers here.
Mezrich: But I definitely think that this is where Zuckerberg was always going to take the company. His goal was to dominate the world with it and to put us all on Facebook. And we’ve gotten there to some extent. So yeah, I’m not surprised by any of it.
Predictions on how this all shakes out?
Mezrich: I don’t believe you can break up a social network. I think social networks have to be monopolies. Because if everyone you know isn’t on Facebook, then you’re not going to go on Facebook. There’s no point to it if everyone’s not doing it. So if it’s not a monopoly, it’s just a failure. And similar with Twitter. If everyone shifts to Parler or whatever, then everyone’s on that one.
Mezrich: But I do think there needs to be some self-policing, if not outward policing. I really think that these places just become cesspools. They become something like out of “Mad Max,” especially Twitter. It’s just complete craziness and it brings out the absolute worst in people.
“Cesspool” is a good word. On a more positive note, for your next project, maybe something involving AI?
Mezrich: You know what? I agree with you. That would be cool. It’s the question of what story to tell that hasn’t been told. But if something happened in AI that I found out about … Like, if someone really made one [an AI person] and nobody realized it …
Exactly, like if we find out there’s some kind of public personality or celebrity that’s actually an AI bot?
Mezrich: That would be perfect. If you hear about that, send it my way.