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Steven Soderbergh Unleashed
By Chris Gore
(Film Threat, March 25, 2001)

He proved independent films could be a commercial success with his very first feature sex, lies and videotape. He embarked on risky projects with Kafka, Gray’s Anatomy and The Underneath. He redefined crime films with Out of Sight and The Limey. He took time out to make Schizopolis, a little experimental movie he made for fun. And now he just won the Oscar for Best Director for Traffic. And he readily admits that he’s still learning about making movies. Steven also reveals information about his next two projects, the George Clooney caper flick Ocean’s Eleven and a remake of the sci-fi classic Solaris.

The Georgia-born director began making films at the age of 13 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he grew up. Right after graduating from high school he traveled to Los Angeles and worked as a freelance editor. Soderbergh gained attention when he garnered a Grammy nomination for a documentary about the rock group Yes called 9012 Live. His debut feature, sex, lies & videotape, fueled moviegoers explosive interest in independent films and its success influenced the decade of indies that followed its release. sex won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 and went on to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes. His forays into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking have resulted in some damn cool movies like Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich. Even his somewhat self-indulgent, yet hilarious and experimental Schizopolis is a load of fun considering it was made for less than the Julia Roberts’ lingerie budget on Brockovich.

His latest project is Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of the Frank Sinatra caper flick. Soderbergh is also at work on a script for his first science fiction film, a remake of the Russian sci-fi classic Solaris (Soderbergh secured the rights from James Cameron’s company). He’s also at the center of this year’s Oscar race with two films (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) nominated in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories. [This interview was conducted before the Oscar nominations were revealed, though we discuss the possibility of being nominated for two movies.] I received a letter years ago from Soderbergh, which contained a flurry of colorful language and insults along with a check for a full run of Film Threat back issues. In fact, during our conversation, he brings up the note on his computer. Nice to know he’s still a Film Threat fan and long time reader. Soderbergh spoke to me from his Los Angeles home to discuss his beginnings and the future of his unique career…

You recently had all of your early Super 8 films transferred to video. What did you learn after watching those movies?
It was motivated by the fact that my mentor died awhile back unexpectedly. It made me want to look at all the material I'd worked on during the period I knew him and that he had worked on. There was a group that sort of came up together, and worked together. I called everyone and pulled all the films together and made decent copies, because none of us had decent copies of them. We're still in the process of fixing all the sound, but just watching them was really fascinating. I was inspired in a way, because they were so full of ideas and you need to be reminded. When you're starting out you try anything and everything, and it's good to make sure that you stay in touch with that. It's a trick of the mind to work on a large scale movie and still make creative decisions as if you were making a Super 8 movie with your friends. I think you have to do that and you have to block out all the things that might keep you from doing that.

Who was your mentor?
His name was Michael McCallum, he was a documentary filmmaker. He was teaching at Louisiana State University, I was going to high school on the LSU campus and I hooked up with him and a bunch of his students, some of whom still work with me. My production sound mixer, Paul Edford, was in Michael's class, I met him when I was 13, and we've been working together ever since.

Isn't it fair to say, as a filmmaker you are still experimenting?
Yeah, I'm still trying to find ways to push myself, and some of those ways are not necessarily apparent to people who watch movies, some of them are. Ocean’s Eleven, which we're prepping now, on the surface, would seem to be just a big, glittering, star-driven, heist movie. Which it is, but it is going to require some skills on my part, which I haven't really developed yet [laughs], to pull it off properly. So I'm very anxious about it, it's actually going to be one of the harder tasks that I've set for myself in my career. On the surface it would just seem to be something that people would say, "Oh, it's just a big wind-up toy. What's so tough about that?"

What are some of your favorite films that you've seen this year?
I haven't seen a lot, unfortunately, because we've been swamped. I loved Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. I usually don't like those sorts of things, those revisionist Shakespeare movies. This one, I thought, was extremely well thought out. I found all the ideas to be organic and was really impressed by it. I saw a film under circumstances that, to me, signaled the death of the independent movement. Because I knew before I saw the film that everyone in town had seen it and declined to distribute it, which was Chris Nolan's Memento. It'll be coming out in March. The company that made it decided to form their own distribution arm in order to release it. It's absolutely brilliant. And I watched it and came out of there thinking, "That's it. When a movie this good can't get released, then, it's over."

Independent film is going through an evolution, a downturn. The media seems to want to continue to represent only the Horatio Alger success stories, but the reality is that these guys are filing for bankruptcy and indie filmmakers are struggling. What advice would you give to young filmmaker's starting out?
I've always been of the attitude that I'd rather see a movie in 4,000 theaters by Todd Haynes than some hack. So, I hope there's a middle ground to be had as there was in the 70's. Movies that were being made by studios with stars in them were being made by really interesting directors. That would be a great thing. I think everyone would benefit. I think there'll always be a place for arthouse cinema, but I don't think it will ever again seem as important and vital as it may have a few years ago.

Do you have any specific advice? You yourself came from independent film.
I came from it, because it was my only option. I lived in Louisiana. I didn't know anybody in the film business. My only way in was to make shorts, and to try and make something that was so cheap that somebody would give me money to make it. That was my way in. Nobody at Columbia Pictures was going to hand me a movie. So, I was just doing what I felt I had to do to get my foot in the door, and had I grown up under different circumstances and known different people maybe I would have started out differently.

Could you ever see yourself making a big action movie, or branching into a genre that you haven't explored yet?
Well, Ocean’s Eleven is as close to that as I'll ever get. It's, I hope in the best way, a big piece of Hollywood entertainment with a lot of activity in it. It's a great script, and we've got a really good cast put together. But I'm also working on Solaris, which is science fiction. That'll be different.

Is that the remake of the Russian film?
Yes.

That's fantastic. That's something you're working on right now, development?
No, I'm writing it. What's interesting about it is it's not a hardware science fiction movie, it's a psychological drama that happens to be set in space, and that's what's interesting to me about it. I'm interested in science fiction, but only in the conceptual side of it.

There are hardly any real science fiction movies made today. They're all about the hardware or selling action figures.
Exactly, and my whole pitch to James Cameron's company, because they owned the rights, and it was something I was interested in for awhile, and I said if we do our jobs right it’s a combination of 2001 and Last Tango in Paris. They said "Oh that sounds good."

Amazing.
I'm excited by it. It's the first thing that I've wanted to write in a long time. I had been writing Son of Schizopolis and I put that aside to work on this.

What's your earliest memory of going to the movies?
1968, drive-in theater in Pennsylvania, Planet of the Apes. My father put his hand over my face at the beginning when they find one of their cryogenic capsules had a crack in it and there's that skeleton there. I remember his hand coming up over my face, because he didn't want me to see that. That's my first memory of seeing a movie.

That's a true science fiction movie in the sense that the filmmakers were toying with real social ideas.
It's funny, I was just leafing through this Pauline Kael book I have in my office, and I breezing through it and landed on this Planet of the Apes review, which she really liked a lot. 2001 was due to open any day, but she basically said this is the best science fiction movie ever made. [Pause. Steven is actually reading the book.] She said it's kind of arched sometimes, but it's fun, and alive, and it has ideas in it. I just remember reading it and thinking, "Gee, Pauline Kael likes Planet of the Apes."

Is there a film that you saw that was kind of an epiphany movie. You saw it and said, "I want to be a filmmaker."
Certainly when I saw Jaws in 1975, and it so freaked me out that I wanted to know who made this, who was responsible for taking my head off in this manner? And luckily this book, The Jaws Log that Carl Gottlieb wrote, was released simultaneously with the film and I bought it. I just read it compulsively and reread it and became fascinated with the idea of how movies were made. That was sort of the germ of it.

The following year, when we moved to Louisiana, I fell in with these filmmakers, because I happened to be going to high school on the LSU campus. As soon as I got my hands on some equipment I thought, "This is fun."

Do you collect movies? What's on your shelf?
Not as many as some people. Lem Dobbs, the writer, nobody can touch him. I think he has everything. Certainly every obscure movie I've ever called to ask him about he said, "Yeah, I got it." I have a pretty good collection, not indiscriminate though. I don't buy everything, I buy shit that I like.

What's your home entertainment system like?
It's pretty straight-forward. I don't have a big sound system or anything. It's pretty simple. I have a decent size screen, but you wouldn't look at what I've got and think I was in the film business.

What do you think about DVD?
I love it.

All of your films have gotten great treatment.
Yes, most of them. I think Universal is planning to remaster and put out on DVD King of the Hill next year. Which will be nice. They put out The Underneath, but they didn't remaster it, which is unfortunate. Although I didn't like the movie that much, so I didn't care. I know Paramount has the video rights to Kafka and they're considering remastering that. Which, again, it's not creatively a very successful movie, but you like the idea of just being able to line them all up on the shelf. We're still waiting for Fox-Lorber to put out the Schizopolis DVD.

Traffic is an amazing examination of the drug war in America. What are your personal thoughts on this issue?
My thoughts are more complicated now than when I started on this two and a half years ago. I'm not very hopeful, however there are things that can be done that I hope we will do. Some of those things are conceptual, and the main one getting people to consider drug addiction as a health care issue instead of a criminal issue. That would be a big step. In California they just passed prop 36, which Barbara Boxer had gotten on the ballot. It means that non-violent drug users, the first two times they get picked up, can demand rehab instead of being sent to prison. That's great. That's a big first step, but there are so many people on both sides of this issue for whom continuing the drug war is an appealing idea. I'm not very optimistic. I'm very concerned about what we're trying to do in Colombia right now, sending three billion dollars over there ostensibly to assist the battle against the drug cartels. The idea that all of the money and resources will be used only for that reason, I think is naïve.

How did you get cameos from real politicians like Senator Orin Hatch?
We sent them letters, and offered to send them the script, and told them what the film was about. And that we were trying to present as even handed an account of this issue as we could, and we would love for them to take part. The people who were able to come we made sure that we shot them. All that stuff with the real people was improvised.

Tell me about the performances of the actors in Traffic, across the board, phenomenal. Benicio Del Toro, they're talking about Oscar nominations for him.
He's great. We got very fortunate in terms of timing, because we only had a month to put the cast together. We had trouble getting the financing, and the movie was greenlit three weeks before we started shooting. Deborah Zane, the casting director, had, on the basis of the script, over 130 speaking parts to fill. So, it became a combination of people we had in mind initially, people that we'd worked with before and people that we'd always wanted to work with. We went down the list, and shot from the hip, and didn't agonize. We just started casting people left and right. A couple of them were just sort of favors, like Albert Finney basically came in and did two days of work as a favor. We got lucky.

Was Catherine Zeta Jones really pregnant during filming? How do you direct an actress who's pregnant?
Well, when it's Catherine it's really easy. She was more emotionally stable than two thirds of the crew. Never flagged in her energy and enthusiasm, if she weren't so obviously pregnant you would have thought she was her regular self. That was, again, a very fortuitous development. We offered her the part and she said, "I want to do it, but I've got to tell you that I've just learned that I'm pregnant and I would be between five and six months pregnant when you're due to shoot my section of the film.” I said, "That's great."

It added so many more layers to her character.
It did, and it also shows that she's serious about her job. She doesn't want to spend her whole career being a glamour puss.

It's almost one of those fortunate accidents that directors talk about sometimes.
Oh yeah, it definitely was, because none of us had ever considered that as an option. If everybody didn't know that she was really pregnant, it would be really cheesy to make that character pregnant. It would be too obvious a ploy. Yeah, we got very lucky.

You work with a lot of the same actors, Don Cheadle, George Clooney again. You keep coming back to some of the same people. Can you tell me why that is?
Part of it's just comfort. It's one less thing to worry about in a way. Part of it is, when you're dealing with actors that have something in them that you respond to. Don is going to be in Ocean’s Eleven also, and I'm always looking for a place to put Louie Guzma, and George, you know I think is a really unique movie star right now. There's no one quite like him out there in his age range.

George Clooney apparently is a lot of fun to work with has a rep as a master of playing practical jokes.
Yeah, he's a great hang. Ocean’s Eleven is a great part and he'll be great in the part.

Has he ever played any jokes on you?
Yes, I played one on him, I couldn't avoid it really. When we were shooting out at the site he was announced as the sexiest man alive by People Magazine for that year. So the next morning when he showed up on set 300 of the crew had on t-shirts with the sexiest man alive on them. He sort of looked at me a smiled and said, “OK.” Then, like two weeks later, I found the wallet of the gaffer on the street in Miami where we were shooting. I was standing right next to the car where George and Ving Rhames were sitting in, and I said, "Geezus, I found Dwight's wallet sitting on the sidewalk here. I wonder what we should do with it. Maybe we should do something with it." And he says, "No, you don't want to do that. It's somebody's wallet, ya know, that's serious shit." So he said, "Give it to me, I'll give it to him," and I said, “Alright.” So, a day or two goes by and I go up to Dwight and I say, "Did you get your wallet?" and he just looks at me like what are you talking about. I said, "I found your wallet on the street and gave it to George." And he says, "I don't know what you're talking about, I lost my wallet, why didn't you just give it to me? I don't have it." He really got me wound up about it, now how did he do this? Somehow it worked out, somehow George had orchestrated, and gotten me convinced, that not only had Dwight not gotten his wallet, but that he somehow had misplaced it. The bottom line was, I mobilized like half the crew to tear the set apart looking for Dwight's wallet, and this went on for three hours. While we were trying to shoot I had half the crew trying to find Dwight's wallet, and this just went on and on. Finally Dwight walked up and said, "You know, I've had my wallet the whole time. George gave it to me the minute you had walked away, and this was all orchestrated to make you look like an idiot." [laughs] He had me going. He knows how to tell everybody what role to play and what performance to pitch, and really had me going.

What is it about the heist-crime genre that appeals to you?
It doesn't really make any sense, does it? I grew up in a suburban subdivision and I've made several crime films, and I can't figure out why. Certainly, I was never exposed to that stuff, ever.

Have you ever committed a petty crime?
[Both laugh] Oh sure, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was eleven, but it lasted six months and I got bored with it and moved on. I think it's probably because genre films are a great place to hide. You can sort of be playing on two levels. The audience is there to see a film of a certain type, and take pleasure in the satisfaction that specific genre can provide. Meanwhile, you can indulge in some of your personal preoccupations without it becoming too pretentious or boring. So, I guess maybe that's why.

What do you think of the Frank Sinatra original?
I think it's a film that's more notorious than it is good.

How will your version differ?
In every way basically, except for the title and that there's a character named Danny Ocean who's putting a crew together to know over several casinos. Everything else about it is different, literally. I don't know what else to say. I mean, it's just a big heist movie, but why he's doing the heist and how it's done and the gallery of characters has been rethought.

What are the challenges, and this applies to Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven, of filming a movie with such a big ensemble cast? You mentioned Traffic had 130 speaking parts.
The final version of the film has about 115, but the script was 165 pages. So there was some material that obviously didn't make it into the final version. In the case of Traffic, the biggest challenge was making sure that everyone was performing in the same movie. When you have that many characters and you're shooting in such a fragmented way in so many different cities, there's a danger that you'll have a scene where people will seem to be acting in a different film. That was the thing that was most worried about. It wasn't until three weeks into editing that I felt that we'd been successful in keeping everybody in the same film.

That, to me, is always the mark of an accomplished director, if they can achieve the correct tone for the film.
Well, that was the trick. My concern was, “I hope the tones match, because if they don't we're in huge trouble. We're already asking so much of the audience, that if I can't at least keep the tone consistent then I'm going to be in trouble.”

Can you tell me any more about Solaris? Right now you've just secured the rights and you're writing it.
I'm using both the film and the book that it's based on. Also, again, there are several preoccupations of my own that I'm laying in. It's funny, I always knew I'd be interested in doing that project, and as I said in pitching myself to Cameron, and John Landau and Ray Sankini as partners. It wasn't until I actually got into writing it that I realized exactly why I was so interested in it. It's turned out to be an opportunity to address some subjects that I've wanted to write about, but A. didn't know that I wanted to write about them, and B. didn't know how to write about them. This is the perfect vehicle for all of them. So, it's been pretty interesting.

You've won quite a few awards throughout your career. What's your opinion of that? Do awards matter to you?
Oh, they're absolutely fun to get, but they don't make you any better at your job.

There's a chance you could have two films nominated for best picture this year, Traffic and Erin Brockovich
We'll see. What can I say? It's hard to comment on something that hasn't happened. I sort of take them for what they are, which is terrific door prizes. Again, it doesn’t make you any better at your job. I remember the first week of January in '99, and Out of Sight won picture, director, screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics, which was a really great thing. It happened to happen at a time when I was in absolute agony when I heard that The Limey was just not going to cut together. So, the following day I was getting these calls from friends saying, “Congratulations” and “It's really great,” and I'm freaking out because the movie that I'm working on doesn't seem to be coming together. Now it turned out that a couple of weeks later we kind of unlocked it, and it did come together, but at the moment it just made me understand that this is really nice, but I would trade it for a flash of divine inspiration in a heartbeat.

 


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