For the last couple of years, Steven Soderbergh, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last few decades, started to talk about retirement. Initially dismissed as a joke, the ambiguity played up by the director, it’s become increasingly clear that Soderbergh is serious about the proposition. Fortunately, the prolific helmer is going out with a burst of activity: actioner “Haywire” opens this week, while three more films are on the way before he hangs up the viewfinder with stripper comedy/buddy film “Magic Mike,” the psychological thriller “The Side Effects” (just picked up by Open Road for distribution) and the Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
We sat down with Soderbergh for an extensive interview ahead of the release of “Haywire,” and in the second part (read part one here), the director tells us that he wants to retire so he doesn’t end up like Hitchcock at the end of his career, why “Magic Mike” is a comedy, not a drama, why he opted not to shoot his reality-horror thiller “Contagion” in 3D and much, much more. Check it out below, and come back before the end of the week for the full interview, including some fascinating insights into his working and creative process.
Having already appeared in “Haywire,” starring in “Magic Mike” and again appearing in “Side Effects” it feels like Channing Tatum is almost like your new Matt Damon.
Yeah I can’t imagine not making “Magic Mike,” now that we’re almost done and it was so much fun and I’m really happy with the movie and happy for him, because he’s great in the movie and it’s a great opportunity for him to…I mean he’s danced in movies before but this, this is a little different. I think god, what if he hadn’t said yes to “Haywire.” If I hadn’t have been fired [from “Moneyball“] I wouldn’t have made “Haywire,” then I wouldn’t have met Channing and I wouldn’t have made “Magic Mike.” Yeah, I’ve been lucky.
A friend of mine had a theory that the “Moneyball” experience, coming on the heels of the extremely tough “Che” shoot, was what sort of pinballed you into quote/unquote retirement.
I can understand from the outside that it might look that way, but I was planning this during the last ‘Ocean’s‘ film. Like Stalin I tend to work in five year plans, but with fewer deaths. And around the time of ‘Ocean’s,’ I started thinking, “Five years from now I want to be out,” or close to being out. It was at that point I started kicking things that I was developing that I felt that I probably might not get to. I started stripping stuff away.
Was that when Section Eight [Soderbergh’s production company with George Clooney] wound down?
Yeah right around, yeah that’s when it started, now that you mention it. I went to George, we were both like the work load was insane…
Didn’t you guys have one project left over that you said let’s not do this?
We only had one or two. That never got very far, we never got a script out of it, we were going to do that with [‘Ocean’s’ producer] Jerry Weintraub. It was around then that I started feeling like, “hmm, maybe I’m full up.”
We’ve heard this retirement conversation and the reasons why, which seem perfectly logical, and at the same time it’s fascinating to watch the ease with which you take on new projects during that time period.
I’m still going to hit my out mark [ed. note: his last scheduled film for now, “Behind the Candelabra”]
The ease and the speed with which you go “yeah, that sounds good, let’s do this project” and then you’re up and running. For someone who says I’m having problems conceiving new ways to tackle films, you’re still conceiving a lot.
I feel like it would be abnormal, given the amount of work over the last couple of decades, for a person not to be able to do that. Do you know what I mean? Paying attention and, and constantly recalibrating and analyzing what’s happened before and error correcting. I feel you ought to be…I’m fascinated by filmmakers as their careers go on, their shoots are longer and longer and the movies go further and further over budget. I feel like shouldn’t it be going the other way? I could shoot “Sex Lies & Videotape” in like 13 days now, not 30, and have it not suffer at all, because I’m just better. I just have had more experience.
Are you a post mortem guy?
Well up to a point, you know. Once it’s sort of done and the response to it is, is sort of finished, you know I’ll, I’ll just look at it and go “okay, how successful were we in executing the idea as originally envisioned? What was the response to it?” On a creative level and a commercial level, what would I do differently? Sometimes it’s a lot, and sometimes I wouldn’t do anything differently. And I’m just sorry people didn’t dig it.
And you’re shooting “The Bitter Pill” soon?
Yeah, April… I’m watching stuff to get a feel for…I’ve been watching like the early [William] Friedkin stuff, “Sorcerer” I’m a big fan of, I wish there was a better version of it on DVD, it’s so shitty. I’ve been watching “Fatal Attraction” a lot, which is a really well made movie. Trying to determine what’s the line here, do I want to….because it’s a thriller. It would kind of indicate maybe something more subjective, but I haven’t done any hand held stuff in a long time. I’m trying to decide, is it time to go back to that? If you watch say “Chinatown,” there’s no one better then Polanski about knowing precisely when to put the camera on the shoulder and when not. “Chinatown” is like a perfectly modulated piece of filmmaking. You’d think in a period film shot anamorphic, well you don’t want to be throwing the camera…but they’re isolated, very important instances where he goes handheld and it’s exactly the right thing to do. So I’m trying to decide, you know, well maybe there’s a version of this where for certain things you go like that, but you’re adhering to your rules about movement and lens length, so that it’s disguised and it doesn’t feel like a weird choice. So I don’t know, that’s what I’m working on now.
Do you do that for all of your films, like the rules? I’m curious about “Magic Mike” and those rules, form overall. I think a lot of people think it’s this NC-17 type thing but it strikes me that it’s probably something different from that.
They’ll be surprised at how um,… I don’t know what the right word is.
Are you having fun for the musical choices for stripping?
Oh yeah, god yeah, we’ve got some good stuff. It’s tricky because music’s expensive and we couldn’t afford to pack the movie with huge iconic songs, we have a few very choice iconic songs that you’ve got to have. But I think…there’s a sweetness to it that I think will surprise people. It’s not…the humor in it is not mean.
I think you brought up “Saturday Night Fever” as a touchstone, which has humor and is an entertaining drama.
Yeah, although there’s a rape scene in it, a gang rape scene, we don’t have anything that terrible. So it’s not a dark movie I guess is the point, at all.
It’s not a comedy though.
Yeah, it is. It’s a buddy movie in a way. It’s just weird buddy movie in which people are not wearing their clothes.
But I’m assuming the humor is not like the humor of “The Informant!” which is pretty specific?
No, it’s more…it’s funny in the way that Altman movies are funny, you know what I mean? Because it’s, it’s very…it has that feel to it, there’s a lot of like backstage stuff. You know the good news is for me there was a lot of scenes where you just go wow, I haven’t seen that before. Which is what essentially I’m always looking for. That was part of the appeal or idea when Channing said he was developing it. You know you’re always looking for a world, a new world. and I just hadn’t seen this, that’s why I thought it was a good idea. So it’s like “The Bitter Pill,” a thriller, I haven’t really done that.
To some it would seem like you’re ticking off genres. But I guess “Contagion” is a horror in some sense.
Yeah that’s the way I looked at it, that was my version of a horror movie.
Which is very different from your traditional horror.
Yeah, but it was, we joked about it, but it was true, it’s an Irwin Allen movie. I can’t do Westerns, I’m terrified of horses, which is unfortunate.
Two which elluded you: Westerns and musicals.
Well, [the musical] almost happened, I might do “Cleo” [an aborted musical version of “Anthony & Cleopatra,” with Hugh Jackman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with music from Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices] onstage. It’s too bad I don’t like Westerns because Scott Frank has an original western that he’s written that’s spectacularly good, like great.
And you don’t like Western films?
I just don’t want to make one.
But you enjoy like a John Ford or an Anthony Mann film?
Yeah but the idea of being out there around a bunch of horses, I can’t do it.
I guess you’re looking for new tools and elements to keep yourself on your toes, one of the things that strikes me that you didn’t get to do that you almost did, almost twice was 3D.
Yeah, although that’s not a genre. “Cleo” would have really been the one. Because that was such a stylized piece. It’s a Ken Russell movie and it really leant itself to going crazy with the 3D shit. So it would have been really fun.
There was talk that you might have done Contagion in 3D.
I did some tests, yeah.
Isn’t Peter Jackson using the same cameras that you would have done?
He’s using the Epic, I’m sure.
So you did tests and it didn’t work?
I was worried about these two sort of go-to shots if you’re making a drama. You know a contemporary drama, not “Hugo.” That the over the shoulder and the clean single were distracting to me in this context.
In that style of film?
In that style, yeah. I mean, it surprised me, I didn’t anticipate it until I saw it. The over the shoulder is kind of annoying because there’s this blob in your lap on one side of the screen, and the clean single just looks like they’ve been cut out and pasted onto a background. But it’s an interesting tool, maybe. If I’d had more time… it was a tight schedule and if it weren’t so tight I might have gone “alright.” But I could tell I would have had to rethink every shot. If you’re going to create shots with depth that aren’t distracting and annoying, you’ve really got to spend time getting all of the elements right. I just knew this was a run’n’gun movie in terms of the schedule, I knew there was no fucking way. It was not the one to experiment on.
Going back to the retirement thing, do you find it interesting that some people are like, “this cannot be happening, this is a lie, he’s going to renege”?
Yeah I think it’s amusing, because a couple of months into it it’s just going to become such a non story. I find it amusing that people keep asking about it. I know three months after it’s started nobody’s going to give a shit. The world will move on and the business will move on and nobody will care. That’s why I think it’s funny when people bring it up. Let’s see if you’re still calling six months after I get out.
People are just projecting I guess. Anybody that works with me and anybody that’s around me understands. The point is it doesn’t feel like a choice anymore than the work decisions I’ve made over the last ten or twelve years have felt like a choice. This is just something that has to be done. I have to slough this skin off and grow a new one. I’m really pleased with the work that I’ve been doing lately, I’m happy with what we’ve got coming. I feel like I’ll be leaving at a time where I was still able to see the ball and hit the ball. I would never want to be one of those filmmakers that people go “God, that last group of films, there was a big fall off.” They’re going to say it anyway, but I don’t want to feel that.
Right, but even “Frenzy” is a pretty good Hitchcock film.
But it’s the last good Hitchcock film, and that’s on the heels of a couple of bad ones, you know, and then an underrated one. I really liked “Marnie” more then most people. “Torn Curtain,” a couple of good things in it. But “Topaz” is fucking unwatchable, as is “Family Plot.” But there are a combination of reasons for that. I read about artists a lot and about filmmakers and try to figure out, well what happened. Why were John Huston and Luis Buñuel the only people that made really good movies right up until they died? I read this Hitchcock biography that came out a few years ago and was fascinated and saddened to hear that he wanted, after “Marnie” and “The Birds,” he wanted to come to New York…when he saw what was happening in Europe, what Antonionini was doing, the permissiveness that was starting to take hold. He wanted to come to New York and shoot a black-and-white movie that had real violence in it. Prepped it, was ready to do it and Lew Wasserman talked him out of it. Just said basically don’t do that, you’ll fuck up your brand. He had this really hardcore fucked-up movie that he wanted to come and do on the cheap and the people that were part of the cottage industry that he had created all talked him out of it. I just thought, god, how horribly sad that we didn’t get to see that.
You have no brand.
No, my brand is no brand. Absolutely, it’s an anti-brand.
Is that by design?
No, it’s just my taste, I’m just restless.
When you’re making a film, do you think “What kind of filmmaker do I need to be to make this one”?
Yeah, I try and disappear and rebuild myself as the right filmmaker for this piece. Just based on what I like to see. I think it’s dangerous to be a brand, people get tired of brands, they switch brands. Brand loyalty is you know hard to come by. And frankly there’s only two, maybe three directors that the public really knows by now, and will, if not show up, at least express a real interest in going to see their stuff. And so I think this whole idea of promoting yourself as a separate entity apart from the picture, I just don’t get it.
Different from most filmmaker’s choices.
It’s a lot harder to be coming up now then when I came up. I can understand a young filmmaker really trying to figure out how do I distinguish myself? There’s so many fucking movies and so many young filmmakers. How do you…now it’s not even enough anymore that the movie’s good. So I get it, but the problem is there’s a real price to pay for that later. If you move into the world of referring to yourself in the third person, and start using words like first, best, only, then you’re going to pay for that at some point.
“Haywire” opens on Friday, January 20th, while “Magic Mike” will follow on June 29th, with “The Bitter Pill” coming next Spring.