Soderbergh on Directing Traffic
By Jon Silberg
(Directors World, February 8, 2001)
Steven Soderbergh followed up
the extremely successful Erin Brockovich with a sweeping epic based on BBC
Traffic combines a number of narratives held together by the theme
of drug trafficking. Though the film's ensemble cast includes Michael
Douglas, Benicio Del Toro and Catherine Zeta-Jones - and despite the
budget in the neighborhood of $50 million - Soderbergh said he maintained
the same level of independence and creative control that he's had on all
of his films, from the crowd-pleasing Brockovich and Out of
Sight to more personal projects such as sex, lies and videotape
and Kafka. Soderbergh puts a personal stamp on all aspects of his
productions, going so far as to take on the role of cinematographer and
A-camera operator on Traffic.
What was it that interested you in adapting this BBC mini-series? Was
it the subject matter of drug trafficking or the dramatic potential or
A little bit of both. I've been interested in making a movie about this
issue for a long time - as long as it didn't become a screed. Part of the
genius of the original series was the three separate narratives, which
gave you an upstairs-downstairs view of a pretty complicated problem.
Was there ever a concern about cutting back and forth between stories
that barely intersect or did you decide that that's how the material had
to be presented?
Well, the only thing more dangerous than not having the stories
intersect is having them intersect in a way that feels lame. There were a
couple of occasions in which you got this sense that the characters were
crossing paths but we didn't want to force it. I felt like the audience
could intuit the impact that one story had on another. There are enough
unifying elements to keep you feeling like the world of the film has a
design to it.
of Traffic - especially the Mexican parts - has a kind of a
"documentary" feel. I mean did you cover a lot of action all sorts of ways
and figure it out in post like you were really doing a documentary, or
were you pretty clear on how you were going to cover the action when you
I was reasonably clear how things would be blocked. The only times we
hauled out more than two cameras was when we were doing some sort of
action sequence. The shoot-out at the storage facility at the beginning
and the car blowing up - that was about it for using many cameras. Other
than that it was just an A and a B camera running all the time. I was in
charge of the cinematography and I operated the A camera.
What made you decide to take on those responsibilities?
I don't know. I think I'd been moving in that direction for a while
and had worked with some very good cinematographers and kept my eyes open.
Because of the run-and-gun style that I was after it seemed like if I was
ever going to make the leap, this was the movie to make it on. And you
know a good 50 to 60% of this film is shot on available light. There isn't
a shot where the film wasn't pushed. A lot of the film was 5289 pushed to
EI 1200. It didn't involve a lot of elaborate lighting set-ups.
Most of the film was hand-held, wasn't it?
Almost all of it. We used Panavision's Millennium XL, which is an
excellent camera. It's incredibly compact.
Each storyline has a unique look. What did you do to get each of those
For the Mexican sections we were shooting 5289 through a tobacco
filter and overexposing it quite a bit. All of it was shot at a 45-degree
shutter angle too. Then we took it to Cinesite (Hollywood) and digitized
it using the Philips DataCine. We tweaked the digital version and
desaturated it a little and then filmed it out to Ektachrome to add a lot
of contrast. Then we struck a negative from that. For the sections in
Washington, DC, we shot the 89 again without the 85 filter so it had this
kind of cold blue feel to it. And for the San Diego sections, we shot on
5279, which is much less contrasty than the 89. Then, to further reduce
contrast, we flashed the film and put a lot of diffusion on the lens.
What made you choose to use such different methods within the film?
Oh, just to give it a different feeling. You know, it was just a
gimmick really, but I wanted to make sure that when we cut from one story
to the other that the audience knows immediately where they are.
I imagine shooting handheld gave you some freedom about how to frame a
shot. Did you try to cut down on the use of booms and microphones for
audio? Did you use a lot of wireless microphones on actors' clothes?
No. Sometimes we would, but I try to avoid wirelesses microphones
whenever possible because they just don't sound as good. We had a great
production mixer, Paul Ledford - who I've worked with many times now - and
a couple of really good boom operators and I explained when we started
that it wasn't about perfection; it was about energy and emotion.
Everybody knew that they just had to roll with it.
Did you take advantage of the sound mixing capabilities of the Avid
Oh, yeah, it was great. We did a lot of work in ProTools during the
picture editing. And we used a great deal of it in the final mix directly
from the ProTools workstations.
Does that help you with the picture cutting - to be working with more
than just production sound?
It helps because you can experiment with everything at once and then,
things that you like are sort of done and you don't end up duplicating
labor down the road. You've got your sound files ready to take to the mix.
Where did you do your sound mix?
At Swelltone Laboratories in New Orleans. Larry Blake mixes all my
stuff and he's part owner of Swelltone. We went there because we were
lashing together four ProTools workstations with other automation and
mixing right out of the original edit sessions onto a hard drive. It's
still hard to find mixing stage in L.A. that can do that.
We used the original files that the sound editors worked with and
saved all the automation and eq and we just plugged all that into the
mixing board. It's definitely the future of movie audio and I think people
will be ready to do it soon, but we couldn't find a place available that
was willing to sort of tear up the way they were used to working and let
us come in and implement this technology. They just said, "Look that's not
the way we do it." They're used to having a couple of workstations
standing by but this was the entire movie being mixed top to bottom out of
the original edit sessions with the eq and the automation that was done
for the temp mixes. We never duplicated any labor. Anything that I liked
from the temp mix was in the movie without being touched.
One of the interesting things we did do in the mix - I don't think anybody
will necessarily notice this - was, with the exception of the music, the
entire movie is in mono. We decided to do that late in the game. Larry
said, "I think it's weird with the aesthetic of the movie to have these
wide stereo background and effects tracks." He said, "We ought to dump
everything into the center channel to give it the documentary feel that
you're going after." And I said, "I think you're right." So everything
except for the music is nailed to the center.
Your next film (Ocean's Eleven) is about to start shooting,
The first week of February.
And are you shooting it and operating again yourself?
Yes I am.
the Millennium XL again?
you paying homage to the kind of late-60s style of the original?
No. It's set present day and I hope it'll have a new feeling to it.
But it's too early to talk about it. I'm still working out exactly how I'm
going to do it.