INTERVIEW: Man of the Year, Steven Soderbergh Traffics in Success
by Anthony Kaufman
iW: There’s a couple stylistic things I wanted to ask you about. First, my favorite shot of the movie — and I was reminded of it while watching “A Hard Day’s Night” — is the helicopter shot. There’s this interesting change of perspective and I wanted to ask you about how it came about?
Soderbergh: There’s two shots I like a lot, the one [helicopter shot] going over the presidential palace and then the upside-down shot of it landing. I was operating the one in the nose of the helicopter — the one of it landing was a remote head, because you cannot get underneath a helicopter. Because I asked! I think the reason they hopefully stick out in a good way is two-fold. It’s probably the only undiluted lyrical passage in the whole film. For a minute the movie stops and is abstract for a second. And the score [by Cliff Martinez] is great there. And the second is that it’s the first time that the camera is not eye-level. The whole movie the camera is at eye-level, purposefully so, so it really stands out. Technically speaking, [regarding] the upside-down shot, I knew I wanted it to be upside-down, because I was trying to hide the fact that we were shooting it in Los Angeles. So the initial plan was that the camera would just tilt up and the helicopter would just drop right on the camera. But on the second take, I told Gary Jay, the other operator who knows how to operate a geared head, try to follow the nose. Whatever he did, it totally worked, but it wasn’t what we thought he was going to do. He ended up confused halfway through and ended up going the opposite way of the way he thought he was going, but he went with it anyway, but then we saw it on the [remote] monitor and it was great! It was an accident. Those are literally two of four shots in the whole film that, I think, are not handheld.
iW: Were there any other miracle accidents, which always make a movie great. It feels like “Traffic” would be open to that.
Soderbergh: Lots of little ones, whether its dialogue here or there, or near the end of the movie when Don Cheadle is thrown out of the house — the way he hits that guy in the chest — that was in the moment, that was not planned. You could tell the guy was not happy. Just that whole scene was a really good example of something on paper I was concerned about, because it read strangely. I knew it had to be there, but I was just a little worried about it, until I saw Don do it. And he totally made it. A lot of the stuff he was saying was just off the cuff. I’ve become a fan of not rehearsing stuff. And as soon as I saw a take, I knew it was going to be okay. He found a way in and that was my way in. And that’s what you hope for everyday. You cast people that can do that.
iW: You don’t like rehearsing stuff? When did that happen?
Soderbergh: I don’t know. Because I used to be totally the opposite. I used to rehearse the shit to the point of exhaustion.
iW: Do you think it has to do with your post-“Underneath” shift?
Soderbergh: Yeah, a lot of it. And a lot of it is believing that life isn’t ordered. And that nailing stuff down beforehand is not as interesting.
iW: In the press notes, you speak of a “controlled anarchy”?
Soderbergh: Exactly. What you’re hoping for is a series of orchestrated accidents. It’s scarier in a way, because you’re not sure if something good is going to happen, but you just have to believe that the parachute will open. And it usually it does, if you’ve put the right group together. For me, it’s just a much more satisfying way of working. But again, it’s a radical shift from the way I started.
iW: I just mentioned this post-“Underneath” idea. How do you feel about your career being categorized that way?
Soderbergh: Oh, that’s the way I feel about it. I haven’t seen my earlier films in awhile, but my sense is that they are just not as much fun to sit through. I would rather sit through “Out of Sight” then the first four films. Just personally. If I had to leave one of them on the coffee table behind for you to watch, it would not be one of the first four. I was starting out. I was trying to figure out what the Hell I should be doing. I’m glad I spent the time trying to figure it out.
iW: Now people are comparing you to people like John Ford and Howard Hawks. You’re making movies really quickly, you’re making them within the studio system, and you’re making them in your own way. What’s your reaction to that?
Soderbergh: That’s sort of the way the business has worked out. It’s not surprising when you consider the independent movement, or whatever you want to call it, has been swallowed up by the studios, so it seems inevitable that I’d be some sort of hybrid. But you also have to, at some point, acknowledge what your capabilities are and what your limitations are. And if I turn out to be somebody who’s better suited to making the kinds of films I’ve been making lately than art-house movies, then whatever. If you can’t hit the 3-point shot, you should stop shooting 3-point shots, and learn how to drive the lane. So I’m just trying to play to my strengths. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to make stuff like “The Limey” or “Son of Schizopolis,” it just means I’m playing to my strengths.
iW: Are the elements in “Traffic” that you’re less confident about?
Soderbergh: There’s one aspect of every movie that scares you, or should, anyway. And consistency of tone was the issue in “Traffic.” Because there are three different stories and so many characters, everyone had to feel like they were in the same movie. And that was the trick. And I was going totally on instinct there. It wasn’t until we got into the editing room that I would know whether we were successful. But that was the big pocket of fear: of suddenly having an actor or scene that felt like it was from another film.
iW: There was something about tone, I read, where you talked about the difference between a “cold movie” and a “warm movie” and that you prefer the latter. But I feel that “Traffic” is a cold movie.
Soderbergh: I don’t. By design, it had to be a dispassionate movie in that it’s trying to show you a lot of things without editorializing, but I also think, ultimately, it’s also a very emotional movie by the time it lands. I hope it sneaks up on you. You’ve been watching things happen for a long time, and then in the last 10 or 15 minutes, it starts to settle. So I think you’re right, the first 2 hours and 5 minutes of the movie, you could call it “cold,” in the sense that it’s staring at things. And then my hope is that it would then shift to warm and fuzzy mode.
iW: What happened with getting “Traffic” produced. It stated at Fox, then went to USA Films, and I imagine you shopped it around to some studios before?
Soderbergh: Well, it was at Fox. What happened wasn’t really surprising in that it was at Fox 2000, initially. But the person who was championing the project at Fox 2000 was gone by the time the first draft was ready. And the one person at Fox who was really, really passionate about it, Bill Mechanic, we now know, in retrospect, was not in a great spot to be green-lighting a movie like “Traffic.” Bill understood it, and got what the movie was about, but as we now know, it was a bad time for him and he was on the verge of leaving the company. We showed it to every studio in town and everybody said no.
iW: Why do you think they said no, besides the obvious. . .
Soderbergh: Besides the budget, the subject, the length, and the fact that there were no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, I don’t know. From the get go, USA was saying, “We want in.” And we were just testing the waters, and it turned out that they were the only people who wanted it.
iW: I also wanted to ask you about working with Universal over the years. They have helped you out a lot with your films, from both sides of your career?
Soderbergh: That’s an interesting story in that I’ve made four films for them. And the first two [“King of the Hill” and “The Underneath”] were absolute money-losers. But I had a very good relationship and experience with Casey Silver, who was running the studio. And in spite of my track record, he was the one who called me and said, I want to send you this script, “Out of Sight.” They’re talking to a lot of different people and you’re not anywhere near the top of the list, but you could be, if you decided to pursue this, because I think you’d really be right for it. And he really backed me and got me that gig. And even though that film didn’t make its money back, it was viewed as a good thing for the studio to have done that year. It was something they were very proud of. And then when Casey got fired for making movies like “Out of Sight,” there was enough residual goodwill to carry over to “Erin [Brockovich].” And that turned out to be the film that paid back Universal for my other three movies that didn’t make their money. So I was really happy about that, because they really had been supportive and totally left me alone to make these things. And I don’t like losing people money. I feel bad when millions of dollars are lost. I was just relieved when “Erin” performed the way it did, because I thought, we’re even, they invested in me heavily, I’ve paid them back. Also, bear in mind, they were responsible for “Schizopolis.” They pre-bought video rights for enough money to make the movie, and then I paid them back when I sold it. Not many studios can lay claim to that, nor would want to, even. But I’ve never had a “directing deal.” I have this producing thing going on with [George] Clooney now at Warner Brothers, but I was very specific about not having directing language in it, because I don’t want to be obligated as a director to anybody.
iW: You recently spoke about personal films, and you had said “Traffic” or “Erin Brockovich” are personal to you as much as say, “Schizopolis”; how is that?
Soderbergh: People’s definitions of “personal” when it comes to art are very odd, and to me exhibits a lack of understanding of what artistic process is. Because I invest equally in all of these things. I don’t necessarily think that “that really happened to me” is a criteria for whether something’s good or interesting. So for the past few years, I’ve been more compelled by other peoples’ stories than my own. That’s just an outgrowth of my getting older. And I still make them the way they ought to be made and they still involve my interests and preoccupations, but they’re just not about me.
iW: What was your entry point for “Traffic”?
Soderbergh: I was interested in drugs. And not just dealers and addicts. There’s actually a brief passage in the Lester book, from 1995 or 1996, where I said, “I’ve been thinking about drugs lately, what role do they play in our culture and what do we do about them.” It was clearly something that I was curious about. Because most people have had some exposure to them or know someone who’s had some trouble. But I didn’t know what form it would take, so I just filed it away. But it was very much something that I wanted to make a movie about.
iW: What about “Ocean’s 11”?
Soderbergh: I’m prepping right now. It’s a big one, physically big. Technically complicated on a level that I’ve never attempted before. I think it’s going to be a hybrid of a slightly slicker aesthetic. More dollys, wideframes, I’m going to shoot Super-35. So a quotient of theatricality that I’ve moved away from, but still a very loose feel to it, still working with a lot of available light, still moving very quickly. I’m convinced that there’s still an interesting mixture between these two very different aesthetics. I’m excited. I’m terrified. It’s going to be very challenging, almost more than anything I’ve ever done. It’s got me really anxious. It’s just too complicated to not show up and know exactly what you’re doing all day. It’s a struggle. Because I tend to want to go, “We’ll just get there. We’ll figure it out.” It’s the kind of stuff that David Fincher can do in his sleep, but I don’t think that way. I just don’t think in three dimensions like that. Now I’m trying to train myself to think that way.