Interview: Director Steven Soderbergh of 'Side Effects,' Pt. 1 of 3
As he leaves the big screen behind, one of America's greatest directors offers his exit interview ...
Stepping into the room to talk to Steven Soderbergh, the director-editor-cinematographer-producer is calm and serene -- possibly because his latest, "Side Effects," is ostensibly his last film to be released on the big screen. We spoke with Soderbergh just after Sundance, and before even speaking, he wanted to talk about Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" -- and pretty much everything else once the interview started. In part one of this three-part interview, we talked about "Side Effects," "Contagion," the way old Hollywood might be abandoning new talent, shooting on (and working with) digital video and his vision of what his take on 'Star Wars" would look like ...
MSN Movies: When I went to the press screening of "Side Effects" there was a great sign on the door saying, "No one will be admitted after the film has begun." That is, I'm sure, your note. And how much of that is legitimate request, and how much of that is just a little tip of the hat to "Psycho" and Hitchcock?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, both. I mean, that's actually something we do whenever we have screenings for friends. For instance we start on time, and if they're late then they don't get to come in, so we have to add something on the door to explain that. But in this case, the real trick -- as was the case in "Psycho" -- is can you keep the plot a secret and convince people to go without really telling them why they should go? The best case scenario is people coming in cold. Then you have the most fun.
Right. And I had not seen the trailer before I saw the film.
And then I saw the trailer and went, "Boy, I'm really glad I hadn’t seen that trailer." Is that something where, even for you, what winds up in the trailer is beyond your control?
No, not at all. I mean that was, again, that's the fine line of you've got to get people to show up, but what do you ... you can't just say, "Trust me," you know? You've got to have something. And so there were a lot of cuts in that trailer, and that's sort of where we ended up. That's about as far as we could go. The good news is, look, there are three or four moments where you kind of have to restart the movie and reassess everything that's happened. So I'm not so concerned if one thing comes out that it'll ruin the whole movie for people. But to be honest, so far people have been pretty cool about it. I mean the movie comes out in two weeks, and people have been pretty cool about not giving away the store.
Not blowing the gaff.
Yeah. And as I've explained, if you have a readership, if people are reading because you have a voice that is specific and they like reading you, why would you betray your readers by ruining a movie for them? They're not going to like you for that. They're not going to appreciate you doing that to them. So everybody seems to kind of get it.
Mr. Burns, I mean this is the third time you guys have worked together on a script, and he always makes these movies that aren't quite what they look like. Is that the number one reason why you keep going back to work with him?
Yeah. He's just one of these people that just kind of has ideas pouring off of him all the time. And so even when we're ... in addition to having good sort of macro ideas, good movie ideas, he's also someone ...I insist that he's on the set all the time because I'll say, for instance on "The Informant!" I would say, "I might need another piece of voiceover for this section." And he'll go, "Okay." And he comes back in 10 minutes with three variations, three completely crazy digressions that all go off in really interesting ways. He's just very facile, and he also I think has a real gift in this case for ... he sort of found a social issue and then used it as this Trojan horse to hide a thriller inside of. And I just thought that was a really good idea. He had the script for years and was going to do it himself, and I was begging him to let me have it.
And eventually he caved in and said, "Oh, okay."
Yeah. When "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." blew up, which he wrote for me, I said, "Look, I thought I wanted to work with you in the spring. I'm asking for the last time. Will you let me have 'Side Effects'?" He said, "Yeah."
Is it so wrong that in "Contagion" halfway through I was kind of hoping you and Mr. Burns were in fact going to end the entire world? Like I was just sitting in my chair going, "Time of the Wolf, baby!"
You know, I get that. I get that. And certainly, you know we killed a lot of people.
(Laughs) I know, I know.
We did kill a lot of people. But we killed kids, too.
But that was a tricky one because Scott and I had a list of things that we refused to do because we were on the one hand making an Irwin Allen movie, but on the other hand there were certain clichés that exist in that genre that we wanted to avoid like showing the President, or helicopter shots looking down on the city, or showing a bunch of extras who we've never met dying...
... or showing a cityscape of a city where we've never been to and none of our characters have ever been to. We wanted to make it feel ... in a weird sort of way, we wanted it to feel really intimate and not overwhelm it with too much globetrotting. So in this case the good news was we were actually really happy with the kind of pillars of this genre and very much wanted to indulge ourselves and use as many of them as we could come up with. And Scott, who told me he was terrible in math in school, really got the math of it right. It's a pretty immaculately constructed piece. Like it's not one of those things you go back and watch a second time. It just completely unravels. Like he was really diligent about everything kind of working in both directions.
You had the kind of smaller movie that it felt like it felt intimate, but you also had a whole like world in peril.
You read about things like the original ending of "Deep Impact" being changed, you know, going from the asteroid hits the Earth and everybody dies to an asteroid hits the Earth and Tea Leoni dies.
You think "There's a big difference between all of humanity and Tea Leoni. "
Do you feel like you just don’t get to do those kinds of feel-bad movies at a certain level?
Oh yeah, no question. In commercial terms, you just can't really do that anymore. Like the audiences just won't let you. I noticed that in the last 10 years or so. I don’t know if that's a post 9/11 thing that people just feel like I don’t want you to do that to me; I get enough of that in the world. I don’t know, but yeah you can't make "On the Beach" anymore and end it like that.
You know? I mean you can, but you better make it for a million dollars.
Right. And the good news is you kind of can.
Yeah, yeah. These days you can. And so there have been some. God, did you ever see Luc Besson's first film "Le Dernier Combat"?
Yeah, "The Last Combat."
Yeah, which is fantastic, which he made for nothing, and it's beautiful and great. It's kind of that world, but he did it on a dime.
"The Quiet Earth."
Yeah, that's a really good movie.
That great New Zealand movie.
I wish somebody -- or maybe somebody's made one lately and I haven't seen it, but I miss those kind of one person left movies. There used to be a lot of them where there'd be the one guy and then halfway through the movie like one other person would show up.
Yeah, you go back to "The World, the Flesh and the Devil."
The thing is that we're getting two one-guy left movies this summer ...and they both look like they cost 200 million dollars, with Will Smith and Tom Cruise.
Yeah. In the past couple years, digital video has given, an explosion of movies but not necessarily an explosion of movie-making.
In that hitting record is not an aesthetic. Setting the camera up and putting it somewhere is not an aesthetic. What's the one thing you've learned about how to best shoot with video?
Leave all the lights on the truck.
Leave all the lights on the truck?
Just go with what's in the room?
Yeah, I mean it looks its best when you're working sort of at the toe of the sensor, at the very sort of low-end part of the sensor. That's when it looks at its best. So that means yeah, in addition to the fact that I literally tried to not take a light off the truck. But I'm also shooting ... I'm using neutral density filters so that I'm shooting at the widest aperture at the shallowest depth of field possible because in many ways there's too much resolution. It's too sharp, and I find it's kind of unnatural and not flattering for actors. So I'm actually using lenses that aren't the sharpest lenses available, and I shoot them wide open because it gives it a much more velvety feel.
You back it down a little bit.
Yeah, yeah. But again, it's a tool. You know, look what Shane (Carruth, director of "Upstream Color") did, you know? That's what you can do, but you need to have that kind of talent. So I see a lot of stuff that looks terrible, but I saw a lot of film that looked terrible, too.
So it's really a great tool for somebody who knows how to use it. I mean God, when I think of how if I'd had this stuff sooner the movies would've been better, it's just really frustrating.
Does it make you think, "If I'd been able to do 'Kafka' with this, budget would've been reduced by x, time would've been increased by y, and maybe it would've been a slightly better equation"?
The key for me with the new technologies (is) the ability to cut two hours after I've shot something, work on it that night, make a call if necessary, you know: "We've got to do this again," or "I need something extra." Or when I think of the fact that my first three features I literally didn't start cutting until we wrapped, it just makes me insane because now I cut every night as we go, and we're able to course correct and calibrate while we're shooting. And it's just a better product.
Is it also the fact that you can keep your concerns of the moment, like it can be top of mind for you? Like that day you're able to go back and look at it as opposed to like waiting?
Yeah, absolutely. Another perfect example is the hotel suite fight in "Haywire." That was two days of shooting scheduled for two days of shooting. Basically the first day we were halfway, a little more than halfway done. I was able to cut that night and determine that even just in that section that we'd shot there were two more angles that I thought were critical that I needed and then one angle that I had that I felt the action wasn't the way it needed to be. It could be better. So just that alone...
Instead of eight weeks later.
Or even film two days later, whatever. Like the ability that night to sit down and make sure that we got it before we left was that's huge.
Would it be so wrong on behalf of the audience to request the idea that you find three really good directors and give them 10 million dollars each , along with Ms. Carano, and just keep making "Haywire" films?
Well, you know, I would love to be in a position to give some young filmmakers 10 million dollars 'cause that's where I think the business is really falling down. The lack of sort of vision on the part of people who pay for movies and sort of identifying talent and just going, "You know what? Here's a number at which we can't get hurt." And we should just give Shane Carruth 10 million dollars, and let him go make something. You'll be able to sell it 'cause it'll be awesome. And there are lots of people, like Barry Jenkins the other year made "Medicine for Melancholy," which I thought was a terrific...
That great Wyatt Cenac performance ...
Yeah, and I'm like give that guy 10 million bucks and let him go do something like this. That's kind of the motto. That's kind of what we tried to do at Section Eight. We were trying to bring in young filmmakers and match them to material that would be elevated by their involvement. I don’t understand why that's not happening. Why they're not sort of developing talent and creating relationships ... 'cause it's really horses. It's not races. You should be identifying filmmakers that you think are good and basically doing the sort of Clint (Eastwood) model, which is "Look if we can keep the economics of this thing sort of clean we can make 3 movies over five years that you're interested in, and we'll figure it out." That's how you do it.
And part of that is the Brazil-ification of the movie business where every movie has to cost 200 million dollars or 200 dollars.
Is part of that just ... Greg Tate did a great interview with George Clinton, and George Clinton signed to Sony when they had Michael Jackson. And George Clinton said, "I can completely understand why they would rather have one (expletive) selling 30 million records than 30 (expletives) selling one million records, 'cause you just get to spend more time golfing." Is the desire to spend more time golfing kind of harming Hollywood?
I don’t think it's that, in the sense that nobody that I've met in sort what we think of as traditional Hollywood is doing anything but working their asses off. What I see is a lot of, as my wife says sometimes, the difference between working hard and working smart, and that's what I'm not seeing. I'm seeing a lot of people working hard at stuff that they shouldn’t be working hard at and that the things that they could be working a lot less hard if they were working smarter, and it's just frustrating. The solutions are pretty obvious to me, and I just think nobody wants to be first.
And that kind of came to a hand this week. And like that news story which I thought was kind of at first was an Onion story or practical joke of, "Hey, the guy who revitalized Star Trek? We're hiring him to revitalize Star Wars." At what point does that kind of thinking ... does it ever become self-defeating? Or is it just the desire to keep taking the safe bet?
I don’t know. I don’t know who made the decision. I don’t know how involved Lucas is. I don’t know how involved Disney is. I don’t know how involved Kathleen Kennedy is. Like I don't know what their process was. I do know that every filmmaker on the planet would like to make a Star Wars movie or make let's say, make the new Star Wars movie. Everybody I know grew up on those movies, and everybody I know is like, "I want a chance to make my 'Empire Strikes Back.'"
But I mean Lucas was given 10 million dollars, and Fox thought it was going to be a horrible flop. He wasn't given 100 million dollars and told "We're remaking 'Buck Rogers.' I mean, are we kind of losing those seeds of newness...
Well I think, you know, I would hope that, as you were saying, there were technological aspects of the Star Wars movies that were arresting and compelling. But it was the ideas in them that people really sparked to. And I think you're right. There's just a lot of vertical thinking that it really just keep throwing money out and it'll solve itself. And that's never been my experience.
Right. What would the Steven Soderbergh Star Wars movie look like? Would it just be a lot of talking?
(Laughs) Exactly. Yeah.
It'd be in a robot factory...
Two people in a room that's circling a planet, you know? It's certainly interesting to imagine. For instance, remember when they were going to do "Jedi" there were all these rumors that for a while Lucas was talking to David Lynch.
Well, you know, we got to see I think some of what that might've looked like in "Dune," which has things in it that are unbelievable. He'd be the first to tell you that's a flawed movie, in that there are a lot of reasons for that. But some of the stuff in that movie is as beautiful as anything I've ever seen, like just crazy.
And some great conceptual stuff.
Yeah. Just his ability to imagine a world in incredible detail is pretty unparalleled. And there are things in that movie that I just think are just jaw-dropping and cool.
(Part two of this three-part interview will be posted tomorrow.)