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Soderbergh's Traffic Jams Awards Season
By Ellen A. Kim
(Hollywood.com, December 3, 2000)

If everything goes as predicted, Julia Roberts will owe her Oscar nomination to him. George Clooney owes his movie credibility to him. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are among the A-listers clamoring to work with him.

He's only done some 10 films, but Steven Soderbergh is currently at the top of his game, having just won directing awards from the first critics' lists of the awards season: the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle, the L.A. Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. With dueling Golden Globe nods to boot, Academy Award nominations are within his grasp. But the only dilemma is: For which film should he win?
Erin Brockovich was the first out of the gate, winning across-the-board raves and a best actress lock for Roberts. But Traffic, a gritty drama that explores three different intertwining stories about the drug war, will likely have many members of its ensemble cast duking it out for the best supporting categories (Benicio del Toro has already won a critics' prize and a Globe nod; Catherine Zeta-Jones has also received a supporting nomination.)

Soderbergh, 37, assembled his cast for Traffic while he was still editing Erin Brockovich. Because he was aiming for a specific gritty look, he decided to shoot the entire film himself. And even if Brockovich was a generously financed studio picture and his past efforts (sex, lies & videotape, Schizopolis) have been independent, Traffic falls somewhere in between.

"There's no difference… the problems that you face on Schizopolis are the same ones that you face in Out of Sight," Soderbergh says. "You just have more people standing around. But it's the same psychic pressure. … That's the trick of the mind you have to get yourself into, is to make the same decisions you made on Schizopolis on Traffic, even though there's more money, more at stake. You block that out and go strictly on your instinct about what's creatively best for this."

One of Soderbergh's brilliant instincts was to cast Michael Douglas as a newly appointed drug czar in one of the film's three storylines, and approach his wife, Zeta-Jones, to star in a separate one - even writing her real-life pregnancy into her character.

"I called him and said, 'Look, I have some confidential stuff to tell you: I'm pregnant but I still want to do the movie. How do you feel about me doing it pregnant?' It took him, like, a few hours to think it over. And he got back to me and said, 'I think we can use it’," says Zeta-Jones, who discovers her wealth is the result of her husband (Steven Bauer)'s drug dealings and takes over his business while he is in jail. "And I said, 'Absolutely - I think it would really give her a vulnerability and heighten the stakes for her’."

It's just one example of what Soderbergh does best: work well with his actors, which the director says puts him ahead of some other directors.

"I've always liked actors, and I've always gotten along with them," he says simply. "I empathize with a specific brand of exposure that's involved with being on camera. It's intense. So I think a comfortable actor is a good actor, so I try and make sure they're OK, and when they're in the zone, I leave them alone. I don't get in their way."

Says Don Cheadle, who previously worked with Soderbergh on Out of Sight: "[He's got] talent pouring out of his ears. He's one of the great directors out there today. He has no ego about it; whoever's got the best answer in the room is the person he wants to hear from. He's confident and he makes you feel confident."

It might be why Cheadle, along with Clooney, Roberts, Pitt and Damon have taken big pay cuts to jump on to Soderbergh's remake of Ocean’s Eleven, the 1960 heist film that coined the term "The Brat Pack." Set to start filming in February, Ocean's may be Soderbergh's highest-profile project yet - but hearing about his directing style, it might still feel like an indie.

"[It's] not going to be a cheap movie to make," Soderbergh acknowledges. "[But] I'm still shooting it myself, there's still gonna be a lot of natural light. It's gonna be a hybrid aesthetic between something that's rough and something a little more polished. But I still hate having people standing around that don't have anything to do. … Actually we'll have more people standing in front of the camera than behind it."

Soderbergh also feels no need to apologize about what could be perceived as "going mainstream."

"The smaller, self-generated films will always be there," he reasons. "But when you get sent a script like Out of Sight or Ocean’s Eleven and you have that confluence of a good piece of material that you think you know how to do well, that you can put actors in and have them do a great job, and that might get seen, you gotta jump at that stuff. That stuff can't wait.

"When I got sent Ocean’s Eleven and I read it… I said 'I want in' 'cause I knew the next person that read it would say yes. … It's a harder group of planets to line up than a Schizopolis or a Limey. Which I can do basically anytime, anywhere, which I will continue to do. But you can't just let things like that slip by or you'll have a whole career of making Schizopolis - and you're screwed."

Judging from his résumé, Soderbergh's far from that. But you won't see him shooting the breeze about his accolades, either.

When told that Del Toro had earlier declared him "one of the top five filmmakers we have right now," Soderbergh shrugs and says, "We'll see what happens in five years."

 


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