Interview, Pt. 1: Director Steven Soderbergh of 'Magic Mike'
'There are much more horrible things going on in the world than male stripping ...'
The mail from Warner Bros. Publicity explained that Mr. Soderbergh only conducts 45-minute-long interviews, and politely asked if that was okay. Considering that Soderbergh has made not only this Friday's "Magic Mike," starring Channing Tatum and about the world of male dancing but also "Out of Sight," "Traffic," "Che," "Erin Brockovich," "Sex, Lies and Videotape," "The Girlfriend Experience," "Contagion" and too many other great films to name, it was made clear that talking to him for 45 minutes would not be a problem or concern for this corespondent.
We spoke with Soderbergh in L.A.; part one of this three-part interview covers Soderbergh's nods to the '70s in "Magic Mike" as well as the aesthetics of stripping, what's changed in the world of TV vs. the world of movies and what, exactly, is wrong with people taking their clothes off for other people who want to pay them to do it?
This movie starts with a seventies WB logo. Was that important? I know that’s your call, but is that important or is it just something you do for fun?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, both. I wanted a way of connecting directly to that era of great American films. That, combined with my huge love of anything Saul Bass. I started the process, which I knew wasn’t going to be simple, of trying to get the use of that logo, which I'd tried to get before for the "Ocean's" films. I wasn't able to. It just kept getting kicked back way up. You must know this as well as anyone -- when you're dealing with a really well known successful powerful company, you get this sense that, the really powerful people; you don't even know who they are. I know who Jeff Bewkes (Time Warner CEO) is. I know those names that are in the paper, but you find out about these super powerful people that nobody knows that are never in the paper, and they are deciding everything. This thing would just disappear. This question would disappear, and I would get a "No," and I would say, "Well, who said no?" and they would say, "Corporate."
On this one, because I figured for a while as we've all been talking about it ad nauseam, this might be the last Warner Brothers movie I make for a long time, so this time I finally enlisted Jeff Robinov (WB Pictures President). I just explained, "Look, it’s a cool thing to do. It’s a cool karmic thing to do. It's not going to damage Warner Bros in any way. There'll be one out of twenty people that write about movies will even notice this, but that's fine." He kept pushing, and he finally convinced them to let me do it. It gives me so much pleasure to see it, because I think "Barry Lyndon," you know?
I know that when you were making "Traffic" you talked a lot about "All The President's Men" as something you looked at to go, "Okay, I can get that feel." Was there anything you looked at like that from the seventies for "Magic Mike"?
I was thinking in terms of tone; I thought about "Shampoo." I thought about Hal Ashby a lot, because he was so generous to his characters. He's probably like the least mean-spirited of successful directors. I loved how much room he gave everyone; Altman too. I would think about that a lot, and I would remind myself that this is a movie. Meaning if I want to do a long scene in one take, then I'm allowed to do that. This isn't television. You don't need to see everything or you don't need to cut on every line. I feel like in movies now, I see less of the things that make something a movie than I used to, like choices, directorial choices.
Like compositions, or the sense of a composed film?
Composition and cutting. Something in which choices are made on set, as opposed to "Let's hose it down and we'll figure it out later." Stuff that when I started watching movies for something other than entertainment, I really noticed and I wanted to emulate. My heroes who were building on what they saw their heroes doing, were trying things and being ambitious and fearless. I just feel like a lot of that is being lost, with some exceptions. In general I feel like the grammar of American cinemas has gotten really watered down.
Because there's this idea that a movie is just a really large piece of television.
That's the weird thing is now I'm seeing better television than I am movies. Some of the better shows are shooting the way movies used to shoot. There's this weird migration that’s going on both in terms of the aesthetics and the audiences. I feel like a lot of the audience, like me, that used to go to movies for certain things is not finding them in the movies, and is now starting to watch long-form TV. It's an interesting time.
I always think the "TV is better than movies argument" culturally is a bit unfair, because sixty hours to construct a narrative -- whether "Seinfeld" or "The Wire" or "The Sopranos" -- that's something a filmmaker would kill for, who just doesn't get that kind of kind of canvas.
What I'm seeing is people not even taking advantage of what you can do in a movie. Here's a good example: A movie is something in which people don't talk for long periods of time. That's something that TV doesn't do, and it's something that movies should do and often don't. What I find in movies now is you're told everything instead of being shown something. One of the things I was most proud of in "Haywire" is half of that movie doesn't have any dialogue. It’s a ninety-two minute movie and forty-two minutes of it are just images. That's what a movie is supposed to be. That's something that only a movie can do, and I don't see much of it anymore. I just see people talking.
One thing I noticed that was really nice about Ms. Horn's performance is that you would watch her in her scenes and her performance level was that of someone who was actively listening to what the other person was saying and thinking about it, and thinking about what they were going to be saying, and not just "Now, it is time for my next line, because he's done speaking." It was really interesting to see that in play in a film, because it's so rare.
Especially in a female character.
Especially in that. The first thing you see of the club in the film is the misspelled 'Xquisite' banner. How much fun was it to explore the strip club aesthetics and decor?
It's pretty good, because there's kind of no wrong answer and that's what was fun about it. There was a lot of discussion with Howard Cummings, the production designer, obviously about the club and everything that involved the club, because you were often in a situation of having to forget about what you like. You're in a space and you go, "That is the worst wall color I've ever seen in my life, and don't touch it." I couldn't stay in a space that had this wall color if I wasn't making this movie. It's so horrid. You had to unwind your personal tastes and kind of remove them, in terms of the lighting, in terms of the stuff -- there's stuff that goes on in that club that no self-respecting cinematographer would allow. My attitude was like, "This is where we're at. It's ugly. That's it. It's got to be there."
I always joke that I dislike gentleman's clubs, because they involve two things I don't understand: sex and money. Is it also just about the horrible aesthetics of that world that makes it so weirdly repellent yet fascinating?
Yeah, I guess. It's so funny to just step back and look at from a distance and think that there are enough people that need to be entertained this way to sustain this business. It's compelling enough that for a couple of nights a week you can get a hundred and twenty-five women in a space and have them throw cash. It's weird.
In an abdominal muscle-based economy.
You're just like, "Wow. Ten thousand years of civilization has landed here." But, on the other hand, I am also a firm believer (that) I have no desire to judge or legislate somebody else's good time. If that’s something you like to do, (if) that's a consensual situation, go for it. There are worse ways. There are much more horrible things going on in the world than that.
Mr. Tatum, he sort of gave you the pitch and also functioned as a strip-sultant. How much did you learn from him?
Well, everything. What I really wanted to know was what were the good parts of it? What was fun about it and then what wasn't fun about it. I wanted it to have some sort of undertow, so that it wasn't totally disposable, and he talked about it. He said, "Look, the dark side of it was the drugs." The sorority house scene is loosely based on something that happened to him where he and another guy were performing for a group of girls and some of their boyfriends found out and showed up and stuff got crazy, you know? I thought that was interesting.
Sexual energy is very powerful and, like electricity, tends to leap across spaces and light things up. I thought, okay, well here's an aspect of that that's kind of interesting. You've got these guys in a separate room that’s kind of like this powder keg. This wouldn't have happened if this kid wasn't so stupid and giving this girl ecstasy. Then things would've been cool. He didn't because he's a nineteen year old and he's stupid, so here we are. I was looking for stuff like that. The extent to which Mike really -- (Tatum) said, "Look, everybody who's doing it has something else going on." No one wants to admit this is their primary source of income or it's their real occupation. Everybody's kind of "Yeah, I got my yoga shop. I got my thing." They're all entrepreneurs, which I thought was hilarious. I thought, well then, again, there's no wrong answer. Any of these guys talking about anything seriously is going to be funny, just because they're in a kitchen in the back of a club and they're wearing a thong. By definition, anything they say that doesn't involve that is funny.
("Magic Mike" opens this weekend; Part 2 of this 3-part interview will appear tomorrow.)