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Meet Steven Soderbergh, an actor’s director
In his 1998 film Out of Sight, director Steven Soderbergh helped George Clooney evoke an effortless comic style that recalled Cary Grant in His Girl Friday or Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse.
And in his most recent film, Traffic, Soderbergh facilitates a visibly pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones’ transition to a modern-day Lady Macbeth.
The new movie, based loosely on Traffik, a miniseries that aired in Britain and tracked drug trafficking from Pakistan through Europe into Britain, focuses on the drug trade on the U.S.-Mexican border.
The film’s detailed examination of the drug war weaves together multiple story lines. In one, Zeta-Jones evolves from a socialite whiling away afternoons at a private golf club into a lioness ready to step far out of legal boundaries to save her husband who has been arrested for drug dealing and smuggling.
Michael Douglas, now Zeta-Jones’ real-life husband, stars in the movie as Robert Wakefield, a conservative Ohio state Supreme Court judge who gets appointed as U.S. drug czar. Busy maneuvering among politicians in Washington, he fails even to notice that his own daughter is toying with illegal narcotics.
Soderbergh’s Traffic, to be released in U.S. cinemas on Jan. 12, has garnered advance praise and a Golden Globe nomination for best dramatic movie of 2000, along with his film Erin Brockovich that was released earlier this year.
“He (Soderbergh) puts up the canvas and you get those actors and everybody gets a stroke,” Luis Guzman, who was directed by Soderbergh in Traffic, 1998’s Out of Sight and 1999’s The Limey, told Reuters.
For his part, Soderbergh, who also won two Golden Globe nominations for best director, told Reuters in an interview: “I love actors who bring a lot to the table. There are some interesting possibilities you never thought of. They have interesting ideas. I want to hear them all.”
Traffic, his 10th film as a director, also had him serving as a cinematographer. As with all of his films, the latest is not similar to anything Soderbergh has directed in the past, either in its imagery or in its pacing.
In fact, it would be difficult to guess that Traffic was directed by the same person who directed the playful Out of Sight or the sexual Olympics of sex, lies and videotape and who borrowed a little from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon for his storytelling style in The Limey.
“Balance Between Design and Life”
“I try to strike a balance between design and life,” he said.
Sequences in Mexico were shot in sepia tone to achieve a grittiness and signal a shift in story lines to audiences. “In this case there were three story lines. We’d move back and forth quickly. It was important that they are distinct,” he said.
In his production notes he says he looked to tell a story but did not want the final result to look slick or polished.
He told Reuters that, while filming Traffic, he was watching early William Friedkin films such as The French Connection to see how certain atmospheres were generated. “You immerse yourself in different genres each time,” he said.
Also, he said, “the script takes shape and I don’t start thinking about images. That comes later. In the beginning I see faces and I have a sense of what the emotion is.”
This may explain why actors such as Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich are allowed to develop memorable characters.
Roberts conjures up a clumsy, brassy single mother who juggles babysitters while she takes on a power company involved with polluting a community’s water. Her performance won her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a dramatic film.
In Out of Sight, which was developed from an Elmore Leonard crime novel, Soderbergh recalled, he sought to ensure - through writing and directing - that Clooney brought across “the best, most interesting performance.”
“It does not mean you’re flattering them (actors). It is the most interesting version of him people can see,” Soderbergh said. When it comes to the performance of Zeta-Jones, who is visibly pregnant in Traffic, he remarked: “That you don’t see often: her total lack of self-consciousness. I think everyone feels it (her pregnancy) was a fortuitous occurrence.”
Soderbergh likened the Welsh actress to Ava Gardner, saying “she can be glamorous when she wants, and she can be a human, life-sized character and still be compelling.”
Soderbergh likes to work quickly, which is why he was also the cinematographer on Traffic. But this preference to be lithe also allows actors to come across fresh in their role.
“I try to spend time with them… not rehearsing with them. I want to get a sense of how they want to be spoken to. Some people want to talk a lot (about their roles), some don’t.”
Soderbergh, who is in pre-production of a remake of Ocean’s Eleven slated to star Clooney and Roberts, admits the pace on his sets is fast and he looks to eliminate distractions, allowing actors to slip more readily into their roles.
“It is very fast on the set. There are not a lot of takes. You don’t have time to intellectualize,” he said. “Then you can see the wheels turning, see the artifice. You don’t want them (actors) to think. You want them to be.”
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