Hired Gun – Steven Soderbergh

Hired Gun – Steven Soderbergh – Interview

Gavin Smith

He used to be everybody’s favorite indie maverick. Now he’s Hollywood’s favorite … Steven Soderbergh follows up his box-office smash Erin Brockovich with Traffic, an epic multi-character docudrama about the war on drugs.

“The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw.” That’s the subtitle to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s new book Getting Away With It (Faber & Faber), and it sums up a career that stands on its head Fitzgerald’s line about there being no second acts in American lives.

The book consists of Soderbergh’s interview with director Richard Lester on his life as a filmmaker, oddly interspersed with the younger director’s own journal entries from 1996 and 1997, the “wilderness years” of his career. This was the interval between the unveiling of Schizopolis and the start of production on Out of Sight. Soderbergh had stalled as an independent filmmaker and had yet to establish himself as Hollywood’s smartest, most unassuming in-demand director for hire.

Soderbergh hit the ground running in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape, which met with delirious acclaim at both Sundance and Cannes, and effectively marked the kickoff of the Nineties independent film boom. The world appeared to be his oyster. But over the course of three more films, each one intriguing, idiosyncratic, and accomplished, each one a box-office no-show, he receded further and further from the limelight. Soderbergh seemed to have taken on a strange role: American cinema’s most interesting underachiever. Finally, he went into self-imposed exile, chucked the baggage of a career that no longer added up, and assembled a small crew of friends to make the determinedly, defiantly unclassifiable Schizopolis, featuring himself in the lead role. This satire of the inauthenticity and sexual intrigue of middle-class suburban life and corporate culture (partly parodying the likewise Baton Rouge-set sex, lies, and videotape) represented a personal breakthrough. Soderbergh had suddenly decided to stop making sense, and even if some of its comic conceits seem strained, there’s a giddy feeling of breakdown and liberation in Schizopolis.

It was Soderbergh’s degree zero, and the beginning of his creative reinvention. A year later, he was hired to direct Out of Sight, his first studio picture and a critic’s fave. While it wasn’t quite a financial success, this sexy, self-assured Elmore Leonard adaptation clinched Soderbergh’s role as a kind of up-to-the-minute Don Siegel. He quickly followed up less than a year later with the low-budget independent succes d’estime The Limey.

Buffering one film with another, he cemented his new-found A-list status with Erin Brockovich. As fully realized as Out of Sight, this populist crowd-pleaser exemplified Soderbergh’s ability to make himself at home while playing by Hollywood’s rules, accommodating and maximizing a top movie star’s potential but also creating a film of genuine integrity. (Brockovich’s unemphatic insistence on the economic struggles of ordinary working people is a perfect instance of Soderbergh’s essentially sympathetic sensibility.) At the same time, his streamlined, independent-style “run-and-gun” approach to production (working fast and loose, staying mobile, shooting with two handheld cameras, using available light) offers a persuasive alternative to the lumbering inefficiency of Hollywood’s customary practice. Soderbergh’s films are light on their feet but they never succumb to fbrced energy: he’s equally at home with the structural and stylistic risk-taking of The Limey — with its memory-fractured time lines a la Point Blank, which can be traced back to his 1995 film The Underneath — or for that matter his Richard Lester book.

Featuring multiple narratives and harsh, bracingly deglamorized visual textures, his new film, Traffic, is constructed in the latter mode. Based on Traffik, a five-part 1989 British TV miniseries, the film’s complex storyline links together the drug war’s front lines, home front, and halls of policy-making, and follows three protagonists. In the first plot strand a Mexican state cop (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner (Jacob Vargas) are drawn into a feud between two powerful drug cartels. In the second, a newly appointed Washington drug czar (Michael Douglas) is simultaneously confronted with the enormity of the task facing him and the fact that his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) has become a junkie. In the third story, the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of an arrested San Diego drug smuggler (Steven Bauer) is forced to take charge of her husband’s multimillion-dollar business and out-wit the cops in charge of the case (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman). Pushing the run-and-gun approach to new extremes, Soderbergh served as his own DP, and jokes that Traffic is a $49 million Dogma film. The film’s directness and matter-of-fact approach to character and situation bring new life to perhaps over-familiar material, grounding it in recognizable human events and exchanges: a group of Cincinnati private-school kids experimenting with drugs; Catherine Zeta-Jones chatting with friends at a San Diego golf club; Michael Douglas gradually segueing from cautious confidence to weary, rattled defeat; Benicio Del Toro’s soulful, self-contained cop quietly watching a Little League baseball game, somewhere between hope and regret.

I met with Soderbergh recently in Los Angeles, where he was finishing up post-production on Traffic and preparing for his next project, a remake of Ocean’s 11. The 37-year-old director and I discussed his graceful transition from amateur to pro.

The basic stories of two of Traffic’s plotlines are essentially the same as in the original miniseries, only compressed. Why did you replace the original’s third plotline about the poppy grower in Pakistan with the Mexico story?

In terms of throughline, the two stories that [screen-writer] Steve Gaghan and I kept are very similar, but if you went back and watched the series now you’d realize the amount of work that went into rewriting those characters, revoicing them for the States, and incorporating things that have been going on here in terms of policy and day-to-day events. We talked about whether we wanted to go back to where the drugs are made and follow that throughline as it was in the original series, but at the end of the day when you’re talking about this issue in the States, since 65 per, cent of the drugs that come into this country are coming through Mexico, the story that you have to tell is the story of our relationship with Mexico. All of us were more interested in how complicated that relationship is, and how this issue of the certification of Mexico as a partner in the drug war is a somewhat hollow exercise. If we were to decide not to certify them, I don’t know what it would change. In theory the people we don’t certify as a partner in the war on drugs are then subjected to economic sanctions, but with NAFTA in place that’s never going to happen. It’s a Gordian knot that nobody’s been able to unravel.

Why did you want to do a movie about drugs?

I certainly didn’t want to make something that pronounced, This is what we should do. There are three major social issues that this country is struggling with: education, poverty, and drugs. Two of them we talk about, and one of them we don’t. I know people who’ve had problems with drugs and I also know people who don’t, in that they are recreational users, and their lives for some reason haven’t seemed to fall apart. We know what the issue is with people who can’t turn off the switch. I know why we can’t have a frank discussion with our policymakers — if you’re in the government or in law enforcement you cannot acknowledge that drugs are anything but inherently evil and morally wrong. Here’s what I hoped people would come away with. It’s as simple as this: when it’s your kid, it’s a health-care issue; when it’s somebody else’s kid, it’s a criminal issue. That gap in the way that we think, to me, is what the film’s about.

What unifies the three storylines and their protagonists’ experiences?

Each of the stories is about control — which, when you’re talking about the drug problem, is the central issue, on a personal level and on a larger societal level. Gaghan and I would remind ourselves every time we went through the script that the issue of control was our Rosetta stone.

What you were going for in terms of the film’s look?

The whole movie should feel as though we showed up and shot and that there was no design. By the end of the film, the more real it feels and the less it feels like a Hollywood movie, the more the audience will connect with it. Eventually it should become a given, and they will hopefully go more with the idea that this is happening in front of them, that this was caught instead of staged.

In practice, did that mean that you worked with a smaller crew, without lights, etc.?

We didn’t work with a lot of lights, but we worked with them more than you might think seeing the film. Because of practical issues that you couldn’t control, like weather, I had to create the non-look. But there were also entire interior sequences in which there were absolutely no lights used other than whatever practicals were in the room. For me, it was an opportunity to do stuff it’s hard to get cameramen to do. And that’s not a knock. I’m just saying I wanted to go to extremes.

What did you do to differentiate the three different story-lines visually?

We wanted to make it easier for the audience to know where they are. As soon as you cut to another story, before you even see a character, you know where you are. It’s also partially driven by the desire to give an emotional overlay to each of the stories. In San Diego the idea was to contrast the idyllic visual scheme with the rotten underpinnings of Helena and Karl’s story. So for those scenes we were flashing the negative ten percent, which reduces the contrast and makes the highlights blossom, and using diffusion filters to give it a very desaturated, bright, soft look. And then on the East Coast we wanted a little bit more of a spare feeling, so we were shooting tungsten-balanced film in daylight without doing any color correction, which gives you a very cold, monochromatic look. Mexico was shot using extreme overexposure and printing down, adjusting the shutter angle to 45 degrees to give it a very strobey look, and using “tobacco” filters, which give you a very yellowish-brown feel. We then printed those scenes on Ektachrome, which required a number of additional printing steps, so that it would be seven generations down from the original negative. Originally we were going to do the whole film that way.

Why did you decide to shoot the film yourself which entailed having to go to the trouble of qualifying as cinematographer?

Because the conversations on the set — “I want to do this,” “Are you sure you really want to do that?” — would have taken up hours.

Haven’t you worked with a DP who trusts you implicitly at this point?

I have, but part of it is that if the DP were anyone else, it would have been very hard for me to convince the people paying for the movie not to fire them, really. What the fuck is this guy doing? But if it’s me, they assume there’s a methodology there that’s going to pay off. Are they going to call me and say, You’ve got to fire yourself? I’ve worked with some very good cameramen, and obviously I’ve learned a lot. I watched what they were doing very closely.

Will you go back to working with a DP in the future?

I don’t think so. It would be hard for me and for whoever I hired. It’s a compromise in a way. There are numerous cameramen who are better than I am, and the opportunity to learn from them is lost. On the other hand, the speed with which I feel we are able to work and the intimacy it provides are worth it.

Did the success of sex, lies, and videotape become an albatross around your neck?

Nothing but good came from that. It bought me so many opportunities to go out and try a lot of different stuff and see what stuck. It bought me a lot of failure because people kept thinking, Maybe with this one, he’ll find the audience again. When things go right it’s hard to figure out why, but when things go wrong it’s really easy. Even though those movies didn’t find audiences and a couple of them just don’t work at all, I learned a lot. I’m very comfortable with failure. I’m very comfortable being the guy who disappoints people. It played right into my idea of myself. I find comfort in how not upsetting it was to have people go, Wow, what happened to that guy, what is he doing? Why is he making that shit? I really like not being watched. What’s happened lately has been much more odd. The great thing about the business is how Darwinian it is. We have to swim or die — if you are found wanting over a period of time, you’ve either got to change what you’re doing or find something else to do.

Did Schizopolis in some sense represent a final break with the independent film world?

I wasn’t sure how to react to the lack of interest. I knew it was an odd movie, but it wasn’t like we were asking for money; we just wanted somebody to put it out. I didn’t realize how much the independent film world was shifting in that period, 1996-97. It’s totally shifted to the point where I don’t even know what you call that stuff anymore. When a film like Chris Nolan’s Memento cannot get picked up, to me independent film is over. It’s dead.

During this transitional period, why did you get involved in so many side projects — rewriting Mimic and Nightshift, directing a play, working on the Richard Lester book, and executive-producing The Daytrippers (96) and Pleasantville (98)?

It seemed like the way to go at the time. I guess I didn’t feel confident enough to be searching in a big public way. I was very content at the time to toil in obscurity on things that I thought might point me in certain directions or teach me certain things — not knowing what that would be. I was trying to figure out what I should be doing. I don’t consider myself to be particularly gifted in the way that other filmmakers are gifted. I’m not the guy who hits .360 and is a 20-game winner and strikes out 15 guys a game. I’m more like a good utility player, who, when he’s given the odd opportunity, delivers in a way that makes you think he’s integral to the team when in fact he’s just really good at making it seem that way — good morale booster, solid hitter, solid fielder, but not exceptional. That’s what I’m good at. I look at other filmmakers and see skills in them that I wish I had but I know that I don’t. I feel like I have to work really hard to keep myself afloat, doing what I do. But I find it pleasurable.

So in the most positive sense of the term you’ve become a consummate director for hire.

Right. And so when I got sent Out of Sight, one of the reasons I was so aggressive about pursuing it was I felt, This is the movie where I can now put to use what I’ve just been through in the last two years. I would have ruined that film if I had made it right after The Underneath. It would just have been turgid.

And in each film since, your stock has risen higher.

Let’s put it this way. It’s pretty clear to me that working as a director for hire agrees with me. I like it. The films that have come out of that, I personally like better than the ones that didn’t. However, that other stuff will need to come out occasionally. My m.o. is gonna be, when that happens, to do it for $250,000 instead of $10 million. Which I can do without a problem. I literally have the equipment and I can go do that anytime — and I will. I just want to be good at something. I helped get a lot of things kickstarted because I came in and said, Hey, there’s a good movie there, can I get in? If that ends up being my strength, then fine. I could compose a personal ad: “Experienced director, responsible with money, ready to bring his vision to your material, call …”

How would you define the director’s job?

To me the director’s job is to leave it in better shape than you found it, literally. I’m not being glib. It’s easy to do the opposite, and I’ve done the opposite — I’ve been my own worst enemy at times. Sometimes it means taking a very cold look at what you’re doing and whether you’re putting yourself ahead of the material.

How’s Ocean’s 11 shaping up?

I love caper films. One of the great things coming off of Erin and Traffic is that it’s a film of no importance whatsoever. It’s just a big windup toy and when that stuff’s done well, I love it. The cast is George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Alan Arkin. It’s a scary film in terms of scale, and we will have to work very hard in order to not disappoint people. We’ve got a terrific script and we’re putting a great cast together but if this movie is smug, we’re fucked. We’ve got to make sure everybody knows we’ve got to go to work. And I’ve really got my radar up for when I feel someone is coasting, and I’m going to be on them. We’ve got to earn this. It’s not a slam-dunk. No movie is.

Gavin Smith is the editor of FILM COMMENT.


sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

I wish it wasn’t so controlled and was one more layer of distance to it, because I think it would be funnier and I think I would have loosened up a little bit. It’s just a little self-serious for my taste. But that earnestness results in an emotional proximity to the characters that I don’t often have.

Kafka (1991)

A huge missed opportunity. Absolutely heartbreaking to watch now. There was a really interesting idea there, and [screenwriter] Lem [Dobbs] and I could really make something compelling and interesting and fun now. And I’m haunted by the fact that I may never get to work in black -and-white again. It should have been something and I just wasn’t there yet. I hadn’t made enough movies.

King of the Hill (1993)

I consciously wanted to do something a little warmer. Kafka played to some inherent weaknesses on my part, a tendency to be kind of cold and overly analytical, and for Kafka that was like a hat on a hat. It works better with material like this, which, if you’re not careful, could, become very sentimental. But editing my own films was affecting my decision-making. I was very insecure about the film’s length, and a couple of days before we locked it I made some cuts that I think hurt the nmvie, a series of nice character things about the father and the mother and their relationship. At the end of the day, who gives a shit if the movie was three minutes longer?

The Underneath (1995)

The ought to be a worldwide cultural taskforce that just stops you when you have ideas like combining The Red Desert with an armored car heist movie. They come to your hotel room and go, We’re sorry but this is a waste of money and time. I was really adrift. I wanted to work and the idea of remaking Criss Cross presented itself. It followed a period where I was attached to do Quiz Show and I got a call saying, You’re not on it anymore. At the time, Redford was executive-producing King of the Hill, which he later took his name off. It was an odd phone call to get, and then the next day, Bob’s the man. But it was the best things that ever happened to me because if I had made Quiz Show, the tiny voice that was screaming at me to start over again and shake it up might have been extinguished. Making the Underneath took the gag off that child.

Schizopolis (1996)

An admittedly extreme reaction to having been a very controlled filmmaker up to that point. For all its slapdash energy, at the same time it was an abstract representation of what happens when communication in a marriage breaks down. I was trying to determine if you could get at certain feelings and certain emotions by abstracting them. If I had in mind at some later date trying to take normal material and give it a little spin, this was a good way to test myself. It involved asking myself questions at every stage — am I missing some sort of oblique, deflected way of doing this that would be more interesting and less on the nose? With Schizopolis there’s no nose.

Gray’s Anatomy (1996)

One of things I didn’t have in Schizopolis was certain resources to try out some visual abstractions, and Gray’s Anatomy was a really great opportunity for Elliot Davis and I to sit down and do nothing but visual abstractions. It was a very fertile time for me. I remember really feeling loose, and ideas seemed to be at hand, and I had a sense that this would pay off in some way.

Out of Sight (1998)

Creatively speaking, it all just started with me seeing George Clooney on TV and instantly thinking. That guy’s a movie star. So there was something not surprising about the fact that I got mentioned for a movie that he was already attached to. I thought, This is a great part for him, he’s gonna happen, and I want to be around for that. When you’re sent something and read it, either you can see it while you read it, or you can’t. I saw it and I knew exactly what that movie should feel like, what it should look like, how it should move, how the performances should be pitched. I knew the tone, and when you’re dealing with Elmore Leonard, tone is everything. I read it and I said, I know what to do with this, I hope I get the fucking job — because I was not the first choice, I got it because everyone else said no, frankly.

The Limey (1999)

There were a couple of ideas about deconstructing narrative that I hadn’t gotten out of my system with Out of Sight. The original script was aggressively linear. There’s some flashing back and forth in the revised script, but not as much as I knew would have been in the film, because it would be unreadable. We hadn’t done any work on the script, but we had Terence Stamp, and we went to Artisan in June of ’98, and we delivered the final film in March of ’99. You should be able to crank out a movie in nine months, what the fuck! Film stocks are better, lights are smaller and cooler, you can budget and schedule a whole movie on your own computer — why should this take so long?

Erin Brockovich (2000)

When Jersey Films pitched me the idea, I literally said, “That just sounds awful. That sounds like the kind of movie I wouldn’t go to see in a million years, why would you even think I would want to do that?” During post on The Limey, there were periods when I thought, I’ve made a mistake, this is not going to cut together and I regretted having decided to tell that story that way. On one of those days, I picked up the script and read it and again thought, I know what to do with this, and it’s what I want to do right now.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group