Steven Soderbergh has tried his hand in many things over the years including a relationship drama, coming-of-age tales, crime capers, retro post-war noir, Spanish-language epics, and most recently, a disaster movie. But one thing he’d never really taken on before? The action movie. There had been some slick set pieces in the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, but nothing else that really qualifies. Until now, that is. Friday sees the release of “Haywire,” the director’s first full-on actioner, and the first of four films set to be released ahead of his hiatus from filmmaking.
The project reunites Soderbergh with Lem Dobbs, the writer on “Kafka” and “The Limey,” for a film starring MMA fighter Gina Carano, in her first film appearance, as a black-ops agent betrayed by her colleagues who is forced to go on the run as she plots her revenge. We caught up with the director a couple of weeks ago for a fascinating, wide-ranging conversation, and below you’ll find the first part, which focuses on “Haywire,” including his approach to shooting fight scenes, how it would have compared to his aborted version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” and David Holmes‘ score on the project. Check back over the next few days to read the rest, which will cover everything from his upcoming break from filmmaking to the projects that have fallen by the wayside over the years.
You’ve mentioned that you saw Gina on TV, and you thought why not build a movie around her. Formerly you haven’t done an action picture. Did some of the elements in the Ocean’s films or “Out of Sight” inform some of these things? You’ve never really done fight scenes.
Yeah, there have been little bursts of activity but nothing in which action was front and center. Those are movies that if the little action beats didn’t work the movie would suffer a little but it wouldn’t be fatal. It would be fatal here. So I had my little rulebook of what I would do and what I wouldn’t do. How I wanted to shoot them.
I can’t imagine doing another one, another action movie, because I feel like this represents how I’d like to do it, and to do it again, I don’t know what else I would bring to it. It’s probably just because my brain doesn’t work this way. Matt [Damon] was describing a rig that Neill Blomkamp built for some of the fight stuff in “Elysium” that sounded really cool. When he described it to me I thought, god that’s a great idea. I bet that’s going to be really neat. Now I don’t want to steal that because it’s something Neil thought of and built, this proprietary rig with these multiple cameras on it. I feel like unless I could think of something like that, I don’t know what I would do if somebody said would you like to do another action film?
Maybe the subject matter would play a part. There was a moment, very briefly, where I was talking to Todd Wagner at 2929 about a movie about Korea, because my Dad fought in Korea. There hasn’t in a long time been anything…it’s an interesting conflict and I wanted to model it along the lines of Elem Kilmov‘s film, “Come and See.” He stopped making films after he made it, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. You can be sure that Steven Spielberg saw it before he went and did “Schindler’s List.” It’s unbelievable. It follows this sort of young kid through these events in the second world war, and it’s stunning. And I wanted to do something along those lines where it was kind of, where it had an abstract, episodic surreal quality. Visually it was a very interesting war. It didn’t go anywhere, but for a few months I was thinking about it and reading a lot about it and, and that was at least a context in which visually there was action stuff in it but it wasn’t like this. I thought oh there are a couple of things, there are a couple of ideas for large scale sequences that I’d like to try. Because I like things to be real, and so the possibility of going and doing a big scale, non-CG war movie I thought could be kind of interesting. And again I’d be going sort of in the opposite direction of, say, the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” which is fantastic. He’s done that, I would have to go the other way and do something less kinetic.
Which is kind of what you did here. It makes me think of two points. One, your action style is antithetical to most of the action going on today, especially Bourne films. Two, you kind of almost did another action film with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Was that part of the reason why you thought–
Yeah, with that we had a couple of sequences that I thought conceptually were interesting and weren’t necessarily…there was only one hand to hand thing and there was an element in it that made it different than what we were doing in “Haywire.” Then the other action stuff had interesting ideas in it, that were not sort of straight forward, they all had some kind of weird thing going on. But it was also, I mean it was a real spy movie. Scott [Z. Burns, the writer of this and “Contagion“] wrote it so it was dense, it was smart, it was funny. I really like the Harry Palmer films a lot, so there was a lot of that in that. “The Ipcress File,” “Funeral in Berlin” and “Billion-Dollar Brain.” “Funeral in Berlin” I really liked a lot. Scott and I talked about that a lot. We were watching those as we were working on the script.
In the fight scenes, you just put the camera here, and you watch events unfold.
That was kind of the rule. Except for the Barcelona sequence, there isn’t any handheld in the movie. And even that, I tried to take the curse off the handheld by going off speed, so that it was still kind of smooth. But that was kind of the rule; the camera is not on your shoulder, and there’s never a shot that’s so tight that you don’t know what’s going on, or who you’re looking at, or why.
Is that because you want to do something different?
No that’s my taste. I can’t stand when I don’t know where I am.
Yeah. You know you look at people like Fincher or Spielberg or Cameron or McTiernan, who were the four people I was sort of looking at to prepare for this. No matter how fast they cut you know where you are.
Although disorientation has worked in the favor of some filmmakers. I mean, it’s been done now…
I guess since I do this for a living I can tell when somebody’s just bluffing. So when I feel like you’re doing this because you don’t have it, or because you don’t have an idea. Your idea is to make it go fast so that it seems like it’s energetic but it’s fake. It’s just like somebody’s speed rapping but the sentences have no structure. I feel like I can tell when that was a plan or that was not a plan.
Did you ever have interest in the Bourne films because of Matt? Maybe when Paul Greengrass left?
Well that’s a kind of unique situation because I think Paul and Matt are attached at the hip and this is…I would have ruined it, because if, for instance, I was going to come in and do a Bourne movie, this, the “Haywire” aesthetic, is what I would have chosen, and it would have disappointed a lot of people, because that’s not what they like. So it’s better that I went off and did this.
The music choice in this is really bold. The Lalo Schifrin thing that David Holmes is doing.
It felt like, again, there’s this sort of traditional sound lately for those kind of movies, and I just didn’t understand why. So David and I started talking, and I would send him temp stuff. We worked on it a lot. We had it kind of finished, and then because of this delay caused by the Relativity/Lionsgate conversation because Relativity bought Overture and they wanted to release it themselves, but Lionsgate had it, so there was this like six month negotiation in which we kept pushing our release date.
More time to work on it?
Yeah. So we’re sitting there, and when I realized we’ve got six or seven months to keep playing with this if we want, I called Dave and I said, ‘What about doing a horn pass?’ Like that version of the movie didn’t have horns in it because it’s such a Schifrin sound, he said ‘Great!’ And he got that together, and started sending me stuff, and I thought ‘God I’m so happy this got pushed.’
It’s so different.
It really was, and better. And that’s just purely luck, because we got stuck in this negotiation. When I hear the score it’s not like it’s discordant. So I knew the choice may not be down the middle, but it’s not like some John Cage thing, it’s nice music, it’s very pleasing to hear. So I wasn’t that worried about it. It needed to be bound to her in a way that you might not normally bind music to a character. I wanted it to feel like her, more than a movie of this type. At a certain point in the movie you go with it. ‘Yeah it’s different but it’s cool. It’s as cool as she is.’
You have an eye for…you’ve always had these unknowns in your films, like Gina, but you’ve also had a good eye for up and coming people. I think a lot of people wouldn’t have expected Channing Tatum to be in this and or your next two films. What is it that you see in him that others didn’t?
I’m far from the first, he’s been around and I’d seen him and he’s just watchable, the guy’s just watchable. That’s really at the end of the day all it comes down to. I didn’t know if this would appeal to him or not. Relativity had a relationship with him already so when somebody said hey, why don’t we go to Channing, I said ‘great, I hope he says yes. The guy seems to be getting leads now, we’ll find out what his appetite is.’ Fortunately, you know, he had a great attitude which is, there’s no downside to being in a good movie, no matter what the part is. And he liked Gina. He’s a fight fan and he knew who she was, and he thought how bad can it be? And I also think he probably in some way has the same attitude that I do, which is, anybody that’s paying attention and looks at the films that I’ve made knows that I do a lot of repeat business with actors. If you show up and we have a good experience, like I did with Chan, there’s a pretty good chance that something’s going to come up, like “Magic Mike” (which Tatum has co-written and produced). That’s the part of the business that I like, that kind of serendipity.
Come back tomorrow for more on his next film with Tatum, “Magic Mike,” as well as Soderbergh’s views on his retirement, among other things. “Haywire” is in theaters from Friday, January 20th.