EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview — which includes an exclusive video clip from “Che” — is the latest in a daily December series featuring interviews and profiles of some of the year’s best filmmakers, writers, actors and actresses.
Steven Soderbergh is a one-man cinematic insurrection, defying convention, expectation and the powers-to-be. Consider what he’s managed to do in the last eight years since winning the Best Director Oscar for “Traffic“: Launch a series of madcap star-studded box-office juggernauts infused with the spirit of The Rat Pack and Alain Resnais (the “Ocean” films); remake Andrei Tarkovsky‘s “Solaris“; go back to basics with a quasi-surrealist American suburban DV nightmare (“Bubble“); shoot a glossy Hollywood black-and-white subversion of 1940s post-war noir (“The Good German“), and most recently, create a two-part docu-like chronicle of “Che” Guevera‘s revolutionary campaigns, with nary a close-up or conventional catharsis.
If that weren’t enough, next on Soderbergh’s plate is a 3-D musical about Cleopatra, “Cleo,” which he hopes to start shooting in April. Warner Bros is putting up money for U.S. rights, but they’re currently looking for an international partner. “I think it’s going to come together,” says Soderbergh, “but the timing isn’t good for us, because we were literally going out when the stock market crashed.” He’s currently mixing “The Informant,” a comic political thriller starring Matt Damon, working on a cut of “The Girlfriend Experience,” his second experimental DV effort with HDNet, and going through mountains of archival footage for a documentary about Spalding Gray.
If Soderbergh were an actual political revolutionary, he might resemble the relentlessly committed, calculated and adventurous individual at the center of his latest epic. Since premiering in Cannes, the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, “Che” has been hailed as both a masterpiece and misguided; either way, it’s one of the most ambitious films in Soderbergh’s career–a “frustrating” one, he acknowledges–and a fascinating, beautifully rendered reinvention of the bio-pic. On December 12, the film will be released for one week in New York and Los Angeles as a single 257-minute film with intermission. The opening week’s sales will likely determine whether other major markets see the full version together or as two separate parts. [“Che” will be released in theatres nationwide in two parts on Jan. 9th, and debut on VOD starting Jan. 21, 2009.]
In his New York production office, Soderbergh recently spoke with indieWIRE about video-on-demand, the RED digital camera, landscape photography and the benefits of being nice.
indieWIRE: What do you attribute to your current prolific output?
Steven Soderbergh: Fear of death, there’s that. Also just recognizing that if you’re fortunate enough to be in a position where people are inclined to say yes that you should be able to take advantage of that when you can. And also a sense of nearing a point where I can kind of see the end of it, you know?
iW: The end of it, the death thing?
Soderbergh: Of stopping.
iW: Well, it’s amazing what you’ve gotten away with, on a major scale, from “Che” to “Good German” to “Solaris.” Even the “Ocean’s” films are pretty experimental. But on each of the films, you’ve been able to convince someone that they have a commercial element?
Soderbergh: Well, I’m trying to be smart about it. “Cleo” is a conscious attempt to do something off-center with a more commercial core. It’s a musical with a female protagonist and the music is very melodic and accessible. Because in looking at what happened to “The Good German,” my mistake was factoring in critical support, which that movie had to have. I can’t make that mistake again, because you can’t count on it. “Cleo,” to me, is a movie that has enough elements in it to attract an audience that it can survive not being supported critically. And when you’re going down this path, that’s important.
iW: Both “Che” and “Girlfriend” are being made available though video-on-demand. What do you think that says about the industry and yourself, having gone to these companies, IFC Films and HDNet?
Soderbergh: I’m one of these people who thinks you can’t put the genie back into the bottle: This technology exists and you have to figure out how to use it to your advantage. When you’re dealing with a movie that can’t justify the expense of a wide release, this is a really efficient way to get to millions of people. “Che” will be an interesting experience, because it will be one of the highest profile movies to go out this way. I’m anxious to find out whether that model can work, because if it can, that opens up some avenues not just for me, but others, as well. If IFC makes money, it gives them the confidence to keep going after stuff.
iW: Can you go back to the place where you decided to make “Che” into two separate movies? That seems like an enormous risk, both creatively and commercially.
Soderbergh: It seemed to be the only way to solve a series of creative problems that had ground the project to a halt. We had one screenplay that had four timelines and was kind of unreadable and you couldn’t go into any kind of depth. It felt like a coming attraction to a bigger film. So my decision at that point was instead of eliminating the storylines, let’s cut it in half and expand. I felt like we’re not doing justice to Bolivia; we’re not doing justice to Cuba. And once we said that, the problems became more manageable. Luckily, the people that we already did deals with were happy to renegotiate for two films instead of one. We didn’t get a lot of resistance.
We were just in France doing publicity and there was a two-part movie that Vincent Cassell did about a famous French gangster [Jean-Francois Richet’ “Public Enemy”]. They also made two movies, the first one did great, and the second one opened bigger than the first one. It’s obviously in the air; this can be done. It just depends on the subject matter, if people believe the subject matter justifies it.
An exclusive scene from Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” (Clip courtesy IFC Films)
iW: In conceiving the two films, you employed some very interesting stylistic contrasts. For instance, the first film is widescreen, the second 1.85 ratio. You’ve also said the first movie was sort of meant to feel like a classic war film. Can you talk about the contexts and influences for both parts?
Soderbergh: The two parts mimic the voice of the two diaries that they’re based on. The Cuban reminiscences were obviously written after the fact, with a certain hindsight and perspective and a tone that comes from being victorious. So I wanted the style of the movie to reflect that. Nobody is in the dark about the result of the Cuban revolution. In the case of Bolivia, the diaries were contemporaneous, and they’re very isolated and have no perspective, at all. It’s a much more tense read, because the outcome is totally unclear. So the style and vibe is much more forbidding. The colors are not very vibrant; the framing isn’t as clean. I was thinking about early William Friedkin stuff.
iW: In talking about the actual look, there are so many crystal clear images of nature in the film. I almost felt like I could touch the leaves at one point. This leads me to two questions, about working with the new hi-def digital camera, the RED, and also, it makes me think of Terrence Malick, because I know he was involved early on in the project. Was he in the back of your mind?
Soderbergh: Of course, he’s in the back of anybody’s mind. He’s one of those filmmakers who has significant influence. The fact that he was literally involved makes that presence more significance.
One of the reasons that I was so hopped up to get the RED ready in time for shooting was that I knew how much of a contribution that detail would make to the movie, not just in the foliage, but in the costumes and the makeup and everything. Initially, we were going to shoot part two in Super 16 and part one in Super 16 anamorphic. It would have been interesting, but it wouldn’t have had the feel that the movies have now. The scale would feel smaller, because of the lack of detail. It’s not a contest in resolution. I knew that it would make the movies feel bigger and I really needed that. Plus, the ease of working with them. You’re literally recording on flashcards, so you’re not hauling film magazines up a ravine and the cameras were small and easy to use. I was able to get more and better shots because of it. For me, it was a great case of good luck that they showed up two days before we started shooting, which was kind of scary.
iW: You’ve said that the RED gives a certain “emotionality,” which is funny, because the common complaint about digital is that it’s cold, with less emotion? Can you elaborate?
Soderbergh: Because it sees light in a beautiful way. I don’t know how they made that censor, but the way it sees light is totally unique. All of these shots in the jungle, you’d think we wrapped people in soft cycloramas in order to get the fill light, but it’s all available light. As a result, I find it very rich, very emotional-looking.
iW: Do you feel this is a film of landscapes, in a way?
Soderbergh: Yes, absolutely, the physical environment is so crucial. In talking to people in doing research, the physicality of what they were doing really hits you. When you realize they slept outdoors for two years, that’s a hard thing to do. So that sense of constantly being enveloped was important.
iW: You practically became a landscape photographer for this film. I can’t think of anything in your other films that comes close to it?
Soderbergh: You start to see some aspects of it in some of the “Ocean” films. And in “Bubble.” I’m starting to back up a bit and play things a little looser. That’s an aspect of [Michelangelo] Antonioni that I always loved: his sense of physical space and how people occupy it. You watch “Red Desert” or “Blow Up” and there are staggering sequences that give you a real sense of being there. There’s a little bit of it in “The Informant” and there’s a lot of it in “Girlfriend Experience,” so there are a lot of tableaus where people are moving within the frame. This is probably just a phase I’m going through that I’ll work my way through.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot more about looking at things in terms of a canvas. During “Che,” I kept seeing things that looked like those paintings that used to be made to describe an event, like Goya. I began to really be enamored of arranging people within what I imagined to be one of those canvases. There are a couple shots in the film that I have that nice quality. After a battle in part 1, Aleida is laying on the table and Che is working on him and another doctor comes in, and you’re looking at that composition and it looks like one of those classical paintings. That was fun and appropriate and as far from the language of television and bad films as you could get.
There was a real freedom in not having time to cover anything. It meant you had to find two good shots and that was it. And that’s a great disciple, because frankly, there usually is only about two shots. Once you go beyond that, you’re really just covering your ass. And since I didn’t do that, because I didn’t have time, I set the scene up quickly as possible, and there’s hardly a scene in the film that didn’t have two cameras running and that was all there was. Sometimes, I’d set up dueling masters, or one master and a close-up from an extremely different angle. And that was good for me.
iW: That was always how you had conceived it, yes? It seems from the very beginning that you were set to avoid any cliches of the bio-pic?
Soderbergh: It really depends on personal taste and how you define character, and how you define emotion. I think these are really emotional movies, but not in ways that are typical. We’re just trying as best we can to show you a bunch of stuff that he did. And I find what he did to be pretty intense. So they are emotional to me. Even things that are very small conjure up much bigger ideas, like Che yelling at the guards for not knowing where their replacements are, and really chewing them out. We never see Che’s face in that moment, just drop back to a distant over the shoulder. But his body language tells you everything you need to know. I imagine what it’s like to be yelled at by Che. One of the guys who got out of Bolivia alive told us that Tanya used to cry listening to Che berate people. That kind of stuff is very compelling to me. How people define emotion lately seems to be strictly about whether or not you get people to cry, and that’s not how I define it.
iW: There’s a moment I like in the first movie where the dispassionate voice-over subverts the war film thrills. It seems to accurately portray Che’s view of battle.
Soderbergh: Yes, it’s not glamorous. He views it as necessary, but there’s no part of him that indulges in the romantic rollicking adventure of it. He talks about the inevitable adrenaline rush and it allowed him to literally breathe better. And the fact that he felt comfortable and calm in those situations. He’s just so unsentimental, rigorously usentimental about the good stuff and the bad stuff. And I liked that about him, that he was dispassionate in that way.
iW: And the film reflects that same spirit… So the asthma was such a gift for you as a filmmaker?
Soderbergh: Yeah, it’s a great Achilles’ heel. That’s a hard thing to do. Benicio worked intensely on trying to get that right. We rehearsed that and spent a long time getting that sound, that desperate sound. His diligence there really paid off.
iW: Did you have time to direct much on set?
Soderbergh: No. But I told everybody that was going to be the case and they would have to take care of themselves. And they did. Even for Benicio. But he and I had been talking for years, so that wasn’t a problem. But for some people, initially, even though I warned them, it was a little disorienting for them to be left to their own devices. Catalina [Sandino Moreno] was one of the people I took aside and said, you’re going to get thrown in the deep end here, and I want you to know that I’m aware that we’re doing that, and if I didn’t think you could take it, I wouldn’t have hired you. And whenever you feel out of sorts, just remind yourself what these people actually went through.
iW: At a recent Q&A after a screening of “Schizopolis,” I was taken by a response you gave to an audience member, who worked in film, who said he was mistreated on set. Your response to him was pretty passionate, and I was wondering, with your leadership role in the Directors Guild and producing other filmmakers’ work, whether you felt some responsibility for how things work in the industry, and how people are treated?
Soderbergh: I was lucky in that the people that I was mentored by or the people I started hanging out with who were making films when I was a teenager had a very egalitarian ethos, and believed that creating an atmosphere that was calm was the best way to get stuff out of people. And I’ve seen the results of that. There are just so many reasons to be fair in the way that you treat people. The results on a micro level are better and the results on a macro level are better. Everything is better if you create an environment in which people walk away thinking they’d like to have that experience again. That’s a very important currency to have when you’re not on the top of the world. It’s interesting to hear from actors and crewmembers that most people seem to feel or act that way. I’m still surprised to hear from famous, triple A-list actors about how they’ve been spoken to by their directors and I can’t believe it.
So, to me, within the context of a movie, the power given to a director necessitates that you act fairly. It’s so easy to make an actor feel uncomfortable. It’s just not fair. Selfishly, there are times when I know I’m going to need something extra from people and if I haven’t banked any goodwill they’re not going to help me. For actors, my goal is that they feel like they’ve been taken somewhere and landed without even knowing that they were on a trip. For the crews, it’s that they were appreciated and to bring whatever they had–their ideas and the energy–on the set.