8th February: Side Effects released (US)
15th March: Side Effects released (UK)
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LET THEM ALL TALK
Photos | Official website
Photos | Official website
NEW & UPCOMING DVDS
Now available from Amazon.com:
Now available from Amazon.co.uk:
DVDs that include an audio commentary track from Steven:
Clean, Shaven - Criterion Collection
The Graduate (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
The Third Man - Criterion Collection
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steven Soderbergh - Traffic
By Ray Pride
(Roughcut, December, 2000)
Taglines to sell movies are
often feats of clever wordplay, but seldom have they encapsulated the
temperament of a movie as the one for the great new thriller, Traffic:
"No one gets away clean."
Traffic, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Stephen
Gaghan, is a singular movie in a culture that produces stories of
individual triumph, but seldom of communal effort. With more than a
hundred speaking roles and a running time under two and a half hours,
Traffic endeavors, with splendid success, to orchestrate several
distinct story lines that convey the enormity of the drug trade and its
effects on our fellow Americans - and Mexicans. One strand, in authentic,
slangy Mexican Spanish (with notably different, less profane and idiomatic
English translations) follows the struggles of a pair of Tijuana cops,
Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro, in a smoldering, minimalist
performance) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas; very good). They work under
Mexicoís crime-fighting General Salazar (Tomas Milian), whose corruption
knows few bounds. Are they opportunists or dogged heroes? The clues we get
to their moral conflict alternate with the story of conservative,
upstanding Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael
Douglas, excellent in a role that was once Harrison Fordís), who is named
the new anti-drug czar. The enormity of the problem is starting to sink in
just as he discovers that his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika
Christensen, a touching portrait of vulnerability) is increasingly
addicted through her freebasing experiments with boyfriend Seth Abrahms (Topher
Grace, smart and cocky). In San Diego, undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon
(Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) assemble a case against
mid-level drug trafficker Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). Cheadle and
Guzmanís byplay is often hilarious, and Ferrerís performance is right in
every way you could want. Ruiz wants immunity, and cuts a deal to testify
against drug baron Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who lives in ritzy La
Jolla with his unwitting and pregnant wife Helena (a delicate Catherine
Zeta-Jones, who turns steely when it is time to protect her family). When
Carlos is arrested, Helena learns the depths of her complicity from lawyer
Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid).
Sound complicated and demanding? Not in the least. Traffic is
nimble, serious drama, and refined craft from a director at the top of his
game. To start with, Soderbergh, working as his own cinematographer and
camera operator, is less auteur than simply an intent eye. Each section is
shot largely in available light and color-coded: a dusty yellow for
Mexico; a cool, fish tank blue for Ohio; a biting backlight for La Jolla.
As information is parceled out, our eye instantly knows what part of the
intricate landscape weíve landed in. Witty, sharp, and clear-headed about
the greatest intoxication that drugs provide - money and power - Traffic
is easily one of the two or three best American movies of the year.
About Soderberghís run-and-gun, pared-down production style that enabled
this intimate epic to be made for under $60 million, Michael Douglas says,
"Because heís hand-held, rather than us having to have our marks move for
the camera, he just slides over. So for actors, youíre left with this
incredible freedom of really feeling like youíre in a real environment,
not aware of having [to perform]."
Douglas describes it as "a safe acting envelope, a bubble." He says, "By
having a smaller crew and not as much lighting involved, as actors, you
then really have just the joy of acting. Youíre not having to fight your
concentration with people all behind you. And secondly, he loves actors
and he trusts them." Soderbergh, who played the lead in his own
experimental comedy, Schizopolis, gets the empathy nod from all his
actors. Del Toro calls him "the director Iíve learned the most from, in
every way about filmmaking, and about how you behave around a set in some
ways, how to make everybody around you better. Heís a gifted dude."
And Douglas was charged-up by the rapid shooting speed and its effect on
the work of non-actors in the film: "I have a number of scenes in this
picture with non-actors. They were federal agents and they werenít
scripted. A lot of íem were improvised. And I was amazed at how good a lot
of these federal agents were, and then I realized of course most of them
had been working undercover most of their lives, which is probably the
toughest acting there is. So a camera was not scaring these guys. The
speed is great for certain types of actors. If youíre like me, youíve done
your homeworkÖ you know, we got it first, second takes. Steven never did
more than, like, three takes, so thereís an energy that happens. He has
civilized hours in finishing his work - you donít have that fatigue
factor. You really feel regenerated."
"Probably, I would say, one of the top five filmmakers that we have right
now," Del Toro says. "Put him up there." For those curious about how he
does it, heís also articulate and no-bull about the work.
Rough Cut: How can you work so fast? Weíve gotten three ambitious films
in under two years from you: The Limey, Erin Brockovich, and this
Steven Soderbergh: Iíve been using the same crew, for the most part.
Itís pretty easy. We have meetings about the next film while weíre
shooting the current one. Itís not hard. Plus, I find if you decide not to
get involved in the social aspects of the film business, you have so much
time on your hands! Literally. Ya know, "I canít go to that screening.
Sorry, I canít make that dinner party. SorryÖ that premiere, just canít."
If you bail on all that stuff, youíve got all this free time.
RC: Are you aware of scale and money when youíre making the movies?
Thereís no difference. The problems that you face on Schizopolis
are the same ones you face on Out of Sight. Youíre still showing up
every day trying to figure out, can it be better? You just have more
people standing around. Itís the same psychic pressure. It doesnít change.
RC: But donít you shift your approachÖ?
No, you donít, thatís the trick. Thatís the trick of the mind that you
have to get yourself into, is to make the same decisions youíve made on
Schizopolis on Traffic. Even though thereís more money and more
at stake, you have to block that out and go strictly on your instinct
about whatís creatively best for this. You have to train yourself to do
RC: Letís try
another way of asking it. Emotionally, theyíre such different films. Do
you get attached in different ways?
Oh, Iím attached to all of them, or I wouldnít do it. You, you, they
press different buttons in you, but youíre as invested in all of themÖ
otherwise you wouldnít spend two years of your life trying to get it
together. I donít understand how people do that.
RC: Does shooting fast help? You did The Limey pretty quickly.
We did. That was a super-fast one. Super-fast.
RC: You were talking about having fewer people stand around on a
smaller-budget film. Besides peeling away the dinner parties, do you try
to peel away extraneous crew? Was that part of your inclination to become
your own cameraman on larger-budget features?
Opportunity, really, and an understanding that the smaller, sort-of
self-generated films will always be there. But when you get sent a script
like Out of Sight or Oceanís Eleven and that unusual
confluence of a good piece of material that you think you know how to do
well, that you think you can put actors in who will do a great job, and
that might get seen, ya know, youíve got to jump at that stuff. That stuff
canít wait. When I got sent Oceanís Eleven and I read it, I called
over to Lorenzo Bonaventura and said, "I want in," because I knew the next
person who read it was going to say yes. Those things donít come along
that often, and that is a harder group of planets to line up than a
Schizopolis or a Limey, which I can do basically any time,
anywhere, and which I will continue to do. But you canít just let things
like that slip by, or youíll have a whole career of making Schizopolis
and then youíre screwed.
RC: I was more thinking about the simplified way of productionÖ
Yeah, but we apply that to everything, even Oceanís, which is
not going to be a cheap movie to make. Iím still shooting it myself. Itís
going to be a hybrid aesthetic between something thatís rough and
something a little more polished, but I still hate having people standing
around who donít have anything to do. Luckily, with a couple of
exceptions, we wonít have to have a lot of people standing around.
Actually, thereíll be more people standing around in front of the camera
than behind it!
Why do you hate the standing-around part?
It infects the vibe of a set somehow. I remember I was at some Academy
panel once, and I was talking about that. Lynn Redgrave was in the
audience. She said, "I want to speak to that. As an actor, you can have a
boom guy hanging off a chandelier with a microphone six inches from my
face, and it doesnít bug me. But seeing somebody standing off to the side
of the set, doing nothing, with their arms folded, completely throws me."
And itís really that. Anyone whoís there and not working is an energy
vampire. It has an effect. My desire is just to strip it down as much as
you can and get rid of all that video village crap. Also, you just move
RC: Is a
movie more about telling a good story or about being creative
Could you talk about the importance of using the different shooting styles
for the different passages of Traffic?
Oh, just to help people orient themselves. As soon as I cut to one of
the new storiesÖ you know, where you are before you even see a character.
I was asking so much, so many characters, so much information, I thought,
at least if they know where we are, Iím helping a little bit. Plus, the
three places felt very different to me. My impressions of Mexico were
different from La Jolla and different from Ohio in winter.
RC: Youíve talked about whether drugs should be legalized, and you were
concerned if they were more available, how that might affect your
daughter. Has making this movie answered some of those questions for you?
Yeah. Legalization is not going to happen anytime, I donít think, in
our lifetimes, for a variety of reasons, a lot of them just practical. It
would be a violation of every international trade agreement we have. The
United States would become an enormous drug lab. Thereíd be people pouring
in from all over the world to buy drugs here, to take to their countries
to sell illegally. So weíd be ostracized by every other country of the
world. So thatís not going to work. You have to say, what if everybody in
the world legalized all at onceÖ well, you know the odds of that
happening. So what I came away from this process with is, all right, letís
talk about realistic stuff. Letís talk about stuff that maybe you can get
across. Prop. 36, finding a way to look at this as a health-care issue and
not a criminal issue. Find something other than filling up prisons with
nonviolent users, most of them nonwhite. There are little things that we
can do to make a big impact. Everybody in law enforcement will tell you,
education and treatment work. Money and resources put into that problem
have a concrete effect in a way that very few other notions do. That would
be a good thing. Itís not a very sexy approach; itís a lot sexier to send
Belljet Rangers to Colombia. But it works.
RC: How significant was it to have the Mexican portions in authentic
It was brief. I had a five-minute conversation with USA about it. I
explained why I thought it was important. I just said, "If these people
donít speak Spanish, the movie has no integrity. You just canít expect
anybody to take it seriously. Plus, part of the point of the movie is the
impenetrability of another culture. The way that Mexicans speak to other
Mexicans is very different from the way they speak to Americans. Thatís
the point." They said, "Okay, okay, we get it."
RC: How about directing Spanish-language performances?
Well, I had followed the levels of translation pretty closely, because
the dialogue originated in English, and then I would read all the various
translations. We had several people going through to make sure they were
accurate. We had a dialogue person on the set with us at all times with
headphones. The truthÖ Iíve taken a couple of years of junior-high
Spanish. Itís through repetition and context that you begin to understand
what was being said. Fortunately, I was dealing with a group of actors who
were great, who were very concerned about it sounding right. I was letting
them be a little bit loose so it would feel natural.
RC: All the actors on this show are gushing with praise for you as a
director, saying youíre one of the best directors we have today. How aware
are you of this reputation?
Yeah, in five years, weíll see what happens. Five years ago, they
werenít saying that. All this stuff isÖ I mean, thatís great. I like
actors, which puts me ahead of a lot of other directors!
RC: What are you doing to get this kind of praise?
Iím doing the same thing I always did. Iíve always liked actors, and
Iíve always gotten on really well with them. I respect them, and I
empathize with the specific brand of exposure thatís involved with being
on camera. I tell you, man, itís intense. I think a comfortable actor is a
good actor, so I try to make sure that theyíre okay. When theyíre in the
zone, I leave them alone, I donít get in their way. I try to be very
sensitive to when theyíre having a problem and get in there quickly and
figure out what it is. In my experience, if youíve cast properly and an
actor is having a problem, it means thereís a problem with the text, that
theyíre being asked to do something thatís inherentlyÖ Theyíre going all
on instinct and emotion, and if theyíre having trouble, if it isnít
apparent before you start shooting, itís usually apparent within the first
or second take. That normally means, because theyíre so well-tuned, they
may not be able to articulate it, but it means thereís a text problem. For
some reason, theyíre being asked to go from A to D, and they havenít been
provided with the stepping stones to get there. You have to sit down and
figure it out. You sit down and you say, "I see whatís going on. Youíre
being asked to do something, the blocks that you need to get there havenít
been provided. So letís figure out how to get you those blocks, or maybe
land you someplace else."
RC: You put the characters in a swimming pool, the way you do here when
Benicioís Mexican policeman doesnít trust the U.S. feds, and they take a
meeting in a hotel swimming pool.
There are lots of things like that. Benicio is really great that way.
In an early version of the script, the way they get Frankie Flowers [a gay
assassin working for one of the Mexican drug cartels] was this elaborate
kidnapping thing. With a van and all this kind of crap. I remember talking
to Benicio, saying, "Thatís so clunky. I donít want to shoot that. Itís
going to take forever and itís just a tiny thing. Yet itís going to be
this big hassle." Benicio says, "Heís gay, right." I say, "Yeah." And he
says, "Why wouldnít I just figure out where he hangs out, go there, and
pose as somebody who wants to pick him up; then you just cut to him in the
car with the blindfold on, and you donít see any of it." I said, "Thatís a
great idea!" Thatís the great thing about Benicio, he thinks about the
movie; itís not about making himself look better. He has great movie
ideas. He understands how cinema works. It was the same thing with the
swimming pool. In an early version of the script, they take him downtown.
They had this room in this warehouse with all these tape decks and stuff,
and thatís where he freaked out and said, "Iím really uncomfortable."
Again, weíre sitting there thinking, "Wow, thatís a lot of shoe leather,
itís really clunky." Benicio said, "Well, Iíve been talking to some people
I know, DEA people, other people, and they all agree the swimming pool is
the way to go if you want to make sure youíre not being recorded."
RC: Did you find it a little weird that Benicio knows DEAs?
Uh, no. Nothing surprises me about Benicio.
RC: How do you make speeches work in a social drama without becoming
speechifying? Miguel Ferrer, as the busted low-man-on-the-totem-pole makes
salient, but funny points about the drug war, and Topher Graceís preppie
brat has a great one to Michael as well.
The key is to have the speeches given by a character within a context that
is not normal. So you have Topher Grace, whom you wanna slap silly, you
just want to belt him so much, and heís sitting in a car with the drug
czar of the United States of America outside a crack dealerís house
lecturing him on something that heís actually right about. So you have to
spin it so that itís not coming at you, itís coming at you in an oblique
RC: And you
have comedy undercutting, too, like cop Don Cheadle telling Miguel heís
not on Larry King.
Right. That was an improv by Don. So itís the same with Miguel. Hereís
a guy whoís a drug dealer, not a good guy, but who actually has a very
well-articulated overview of this problem. Which is not normally where
those speeches come from.
RC: The movieís a really dense feat of storytelling. What length did
you whittle it down from?
The first cut was 3 hours and 10 minutes without credits. The current
version is 2:27, itís a 7-minute crawl. So I look at the movie as 2:20.
RC: So what did you lose?
Oh, lots of stuff. Everybody got cut. Whether they got their entire
sequences cut or they had a sequence reduced varied from person to person.
Catherine had more whole sequences cut than anybody else. It was a long
script. At a certain point, [writer Stephen] Gaghan and I were struggling
so hard with what to keep in and to leave out, I said, "Weíll just shoot
it." So we went into production with a 165-page screenplay.
RC: Is this the version you want? Is there a DVD "real" version?
Iíve been lucky. All of my films have been the directorís cut. Iíve
never been in that situation. However, like Erin, we will be
putting some of the stuff that got cut in a separate supplement and talk
about why they got cut.
RC: What was the very last thing you cut and why?
Well, there were lots of trims. Iím trying to think of the last thing
I cut cut. The ending used to go on for a while. [He describes a few
spoilers.] It was just redundant. You know whatís going to happen.
RC: Is that what you did when you worked for Showtime, just cut
things and cut things?
RC: Did you
learn that ruthlessness there?
Itís so hard. What Iíve been doing the last couple of movies, which
helps, is that literally a couple times a week, I make a tape of the movie
and watch it in its entirety. And when you do that two or three times a
week, you become the worst possible audience member, because youíre so
sick of watching it that you begin to get really ruthless about it. You
know that when you really dread a certain sequence coming up, somethingís
wrong. Either it shouldnít be there, or itís not being set up properly. I
found it to be a really good way to preempt somebody going, "Aghh, I canít
just bear it anymore." Believe me, I donít like sitting down and attacking
it, but I would force myself to sit through the thing and make notes.
Invariably, there would be little things, little redundancies. Then,
screening the film, you get a sense of what the audience will fill in for
you. For instance, the scene where Michaelís daughter is in the bathroom,
that scene used to go on longer. There was a lot of explanation and
conversation between the two of them. And I thought, ya know, itís so much
better if when he throws [her works] on the ground, and then the next time
you see her, sheís in rehab. The audience fills in all the blanks, the "I
donít want to go, blah blah blah." The whole process is about
understanding when you can do that, when you can have the audience do the
work for you.