Honor Roll is a daily series running throughout December that features new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-person stories of some of the year's most notable cinematic voices. Today, we're re-running an interview with Steven Soderbergh, who released the surprise summer smash "Magic Mike" shortly after seeing his action film "Haywire" open wide.
For a director who claims to be nearing retirement, Academy Award-winner Steven Soderbergh shows no signs of slowing down. His action spy thriller "Haywire," starring MMA superstar Gina Carano (who Indiewire profiled) opens this Friday; "Magic Mike," his all-star male stripper comedy is opening this summer; and he's set to shoot two films this year — the thriller "The Side Effects" and his long-in-the-works Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra"; — and last September saw him release his answer to the disaster movie, "Contagion."
Indiewire caught up with Soderbergh in New York to discuss working with Carano on "Haywire," the buzz surrounding "Magic Mike" and why he's still set on retiring soon.
Thanks for supplying moviegoers with something of value during the doldrums of January.
Oh, good! People seem to like the movie, which is interesting. I think internally for a while there were a lot of questions as to whether or not the things that we worked on making it distinctive would work in our favor or not. So far they’ve seemed to work in our favor with people who watch films for a living. How that’s going to translate, I don’t know.
How was she?
Great! Really easygoing and rather charming, which was pretty disarming given what you have her do in this film.
No, exactly. I saw her fight, then I looked up some interviews with her. She just had a great vibe. That’s what really convinced me that this was worth pursuing. You’re dealing with a cage fighter… you never know what you’re going to get. But she seemed pretty normal, sincere.
How did you first learn of Gina? Are you a big MMA fan?
No, not at all. I mean, I’ll watch boxing occasionally, but MMA I wasn’t watching. CBS was doing this Friday night fights thing for a while and she was on one of those. That’s where I saw her for the first time.
How early in the development of “Haywire” did you know you wanted Mallory played by someone with Gina’s abilities?
Oh — well, no. If she had said no when I went to see her, then the movie wouldn’t exist. It was not an idea before her – she was the idea.
What inspired that idea initially?
Well, I’d be trying to find an opportunity to make a spy movie sort of like this. Something that was more like the '60s spy movies that I like. But that was kind of a nascent idea that wasn’t going anywhere. When I saw her, I thought I could put these two things together. And it would be great to see a woman do this, who could really do it. That could be our contribution to these kind of movies. That, shit, she can break people in half… she can run like a gazelle.
Did you gauge her on-camera acting abilities just from watching her in those specials?
Yeah. I just thought if we can get her relaxed and she can stay herself, then we’ll be okay. Look, she knows what to do with her body. And she knew what to do with her eyes. So I felt we were going to be fine.
It was probably terrifying for her.
What was your first meeting with her like? How did you sell her on it?
I wanted to talk more about her. So I asked her about her family and her upbringing. I just wanted a sense of her. If I’m going to spend anywhere from 18 months plus with this person, I need to know – from a quality of life standpoint – was is it going to be pleasant or not? I sort of walked her through how we like to work, what would be involved. What I needed was her permission to go and pitch the concept, which was her in a movie with A-list actors around her.
Even at that point, she had enough of a following to make them feel like her and this movie could work.
You have a tendency to work with big name actors, but you managed to mine a solid performance from former porn star Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience.” Did that give you the confidence that you could pull this off?
Well, I’ve been doing this for a while. I mean I’ve been working since “Traffic” with real people who aren’t actors. I like it. I think they have a quality that’s refreshing. But you have to be careful. You have to make sure you’ve sort of reverse engineered everything to play to who they are and what they are. If you try to push them out of that, you’re not going to get a good result. Even in the case of Gina, I didn’t try to make her do things that I felt would make her have to act. I wanted her to behave like herself. I’m sure she would tell you, if she didn’t already, it was interesting to watch the flippant dynamic between watching her in a dialogue scene with an actor and sort of being the one having to really deliver… and then going into an action scene where she feels in control.
I look at and I go, she belongs in a movie.
She talked about an acting technique that you had her do by always keeping her busy, even during the quieter scenes.
Look, it’s always great if you can find things for them to do. I’m always trying to figure out a way to keep the conversation about what’s being done as opposed to what you’re supposed to be feeling. If you can ground it in some sort of physicality, I feel that everything seems to flow the way it should. So, you know, in the scene with Michael Douglas on the tarmac, I said, "Just keep moving. Keep circling him until this point." So I knew that if we could solve that part of it for her, that she’d relax a little bit.
That’s scary for someone who’s never done that before, to do a scene with Michael Douglas. It’s scary for a professional. The good news was, it was so fucking cold that day that I think she was too cold to be nervous. I don’t know how much she was analyzing her performance as we went. I think for her the whole thing was so huge and so new, that just getting through a day felt good. I never really talked to her about it.
Even with a trained actor, it’s dangerous to get them thinking too much. You don’t want them thinking, you want them doing.
She spoke a lot about the realism that you sought to bring to the project, not just in the fight scenes but to the overall tone. This is an aesthetic that's evident in all your films, even the high-concept ones like “Contagion” and “Solaris.” Why is that something you strive for in your work?
I just think that’s the first question we ask when we start something. What’s real? Let’s start with the world. Knowing that it’s a movie, we may have to recalibrate. But I want know in every instance what’s real, what would really be happening. Usually, that’s good enough. It’s not very often that you feel, "Oh, we got to tweak that."
I’m less prone to change things now that I would have been 10, 15 years ago. “Moneyball” is the perfect example of that. At the end of the day, part of my problem with that was my refusal to do something that didn’t happen. I wanted the movie to be absolutely accurate in every particular.
By incorporating the documentary footage…
Yeah. That was a sort of slow-motion car wreck when it finally landed on everyone just how rigorous I was being about that. There was a bit of a, "Well, wait a minute." And I get it. That was the only way I knew how to do it and it was the only way I wanted to do it. If that’s not the way it’s going to get done, then you should get rid of me.
The trick here was just trying to keep it from feeling like porn (laughs). Where you have this activity and then you have lulls. I wanted to keep people interested during the lulls. Look, it’s the trick on any action film. But I’ve certainly seen action films where people spend a lot of time on the action stuff and not a lot of time on anything else.
I spoke with “Atonement” director Joe Wright back before his action film “Hanna” came out. It marked his first stab at action. You’ve played around with action in some of your films, but never on this scale. He spoke of how the fear factor got him to take on the project. Would you say it was the same with you?
Yeah. I mean, it is scary. God knows in that genre you are really standing on the shoulders of a lot of people. There have been action movies for 100 years.
It’s also a genre that affords you the chance to really show off.
Yeah, that’s the thing. I didn’t want to insert myself between the audience and the movie. All of the choices were in aid of making you feel like it was really happening. I wasn’t trying to sort of wave my arms at people. I wanted you to feel like shit, that really looks like she’s hitting him, or she’s getting hit. Apart from my rules of no handheld, nothing so tight that you can’t tell what the hell you’re looking at, having people that can really do it allowed me to shoot looser shots and hold them longer. When we were doing a scene, since I don’t storyboard, we’d just start at the beginning and I’d hold the shot until as long as I could hold it.
Some early reviews of the film, while positive, label “Haywire” as a B-film, which I think is unfair. What do you make of that kind of response? The realism you talked about earlier doesn’t really tie into that reading of the film.
I mean, it’s a genre film. Somebody just sent me one of those books that just came out on Pauline Kael, who I didn’t always agree with but I was always interested in what she had to say. And, look, she was a big proponent, especially at a time when it was not fashionable in the '60s. She would say, "I’m getting a lot more out of these lowbrow movies that aren’t supposed to be taken seriously than I am these A-level important films. They just feel more alive." And I agree.
Maybe since “Che,” my interest in and appetite for “serious” movies, making them, has really dropped. I just feel like I want to have more fun as a filmmaker and I’d like to make things that are more fun for the audience. I don’t need to be taken anymore seriously that I am. I don’t have to prove my important-film bonafides anymore. And so, since “Che,” I’ve been looking for stuff that’s more fun. Even “Contagion” to me was a more "genre" movie. I mean, that’s my version of a disaster-horror movie. It’s how I would do it. The stuff I have coming up, since “Che,” I haven’t made what I would consider a serious movie by Academy standard. I have no interest in that.
So you're one to categorize a film by genre?
Yeah, sure. That can become a very facile exercise and one that doesn’t really take into account certain kinds of filmmakers. Pick any of the people that we think are very, very good, if they go and make something that’s a genre film, you know that it’s not going to be just that.
The only two categories I have are good and bad. No other categories exist for me in terms of scale, content or intent. The only thing that matters to me is whether it’s any good.
And look, there are times when that’s hard. It’s hard to root for assholes and sometimes it’s harder still to see something bad made my somebody who’s really great. I remember reading that unauthorized Led Zeppelin biography that came out in the '80s. I couldn’t listen to their music for a year after I read that book. Seriously, it was so disturbing. I took me a year to go, look, I don’t care.
If you’re looking for fair, you’re in the wrong universe. Going back to what you said about the kind of films you want to make post-"Che." Indiewire covered the talk you gave at Pratt University last year. When someone asked about your retirement plans, you said something along the lines of, "I’m not improving in a way that justifies me doing this for much longer."
I guess the point is, I’m not getting any better for it to matter to me.
Is that the reason why you’re doing this more accessible fare?
It’s a combination of things. It’s feeling out of sync with everything that’s going on this business at every level. I could probably deal with that if I really felt that I was evolving into something better. Like I said, I’m better now than I was when I started. I’m better than I was five years ago… but at stuff that’s superficial – craft. You know, filtering, problem solving… that stuff I’m better at. But in terms of making something that’s just off the chart, I’m not. That’s not a shift or change that’s going to take place incrementally. It requires some form of amputation. So I just need to stop for a while.
How do you gauge what you’re talking about – whether you have that possibility to achieve greatness ?
Well, I guess I haven’t done anything that I haven’t seen before. I want to do something I haven’t seen before. I don’t know what that is, but I know I’m not doing it.
And you’ll feel it when you do?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s really what it comes down to. Like I said, it’s not just about, "Oh, I’ll put the camera here instead of there." I’m talking about a completely new way of thinking about how a movie works. That’s what I want to see. So I've just got to go off for a while and see if I can figure out what that is.
What filmmakers have you seen in the past decade who have done just that — wowed you?
Well, it’s hard to say because I see movies but I don’t see everything. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff being done outside of this country that’s great. Some of the most recent Godard films are really extraordinary. “Notre Musique” I thought was really something. He was getting at something there that I wasn’t sure you could get at in a movie. The ending was really something. The problem is, who’s the audience for that? Maybe that’s part of the problem; maybe I’m just kind of gradually backing my way out of the room because the kind of thing I’m talking about is not a sort of mass audience thing. Maybe I'll just have to work at a different scale over a different time period.
Certainly there’s a lot of stuff in the Malick film ["The Tree of Life"] that I thought was really extraordinary. Like, stuff that you can’t put on paper.
And that was done on a whole other level that the Godard film, budget wise.
Yeah, so that was inspiring. I know from a directorial standpoint how difficult that is to go in and get. But he was certainly getting at things that are really difficult things to put across. It’s a feeling, it’s not a story idea. That sequence where those kids go off and they’re kind of marauding, breaking shit around the neighborhood, just the way that felt was so evocative. I remember that. Him getting caught up in that energy, I just thought that was a great, great sequence.
But that’s for him. The reason Malick is Malick is because he doesn’t imitate anyone else. So if you want to be Malick, by definition, you can’t imitate him. You have to be your own version of an original. But I’m not that and I may never be that. I’m a synthesizer, I’m not an originator. If I can’t come to terms with that, then I may face the decision of, "I guess that was it."
But you have your own style.
Yeah, but it’s just built on other stuff. It’s all built on something that I’ve seen or liked, whether it’s a movie, painting or piece of theater.
Spike Jonze, I think, is an originator. I don’t know where this came from. I know Spike, I’ve never grilled him about this. It just seems to come right out of his unconscious, his nine year-old head. I love his stuff. Just the ideas and the way of doing it… his video work is unbelievable. That’s not built on anything else to me. He’s just an original.
I can start blaming him. It’s his fault. If I can’t be him, then I quit.
Moving on from this sad topic, let's talk about your future projects, of which there are many.
Well, we’re almost done with “Magic Mike” and we’ll be starting “The Side Effects” in early April.
About “Magic Mike,” you’ve never been involved in a project that has erupted quite the way this one has on the blogosphere. What’s that whole experience been like?
It’s great because it validates and vindicates exactly what I thought when Channing [Tatum] told me the idea. That’s just one of the best movie ideas that I’ve ever heard. The fact that it’s blowing up without us having really done anything.
Well, the casting…
Yeah, but it’s great. I’m really having fun with it.
Was the casting doctored in a way to rally up hype around the project?
No. Look, we were looking for the right people who had some buzz behind them. They also had to be able to do what we needed them to do and willing to do what we needed them to do. But I mean, we got really lucky. All these guys were great and have brought something specific to the movie. There’s nothing like shared potential humiliation to bond. These guys bonded very quickly. As soon as they started rehearsing these numbers, you rally around each other because it’s so embarrassing. Except for Chan, because he’d been through it before. But watching them all do it for the first time in front of 120 women was awesome. It’s kind of a binary thing. It’s terrifying then once you’ve done it, you’re in. You've just got to jump off the cliff.
What is about you and Channing? In addition to “Haywire" and “Magic Mike," he's starring in “Side Effects.” He’s like your Leo.
It’s a combination of things. I think he’s talented. I think he’s got a lot there that people are going to see, he just needs the opportunities.
A lot of which seem untapped. He was great in “Stop-Loss,” but not a lot of people turned out for that film.
I think he’s fearless. He has nothing to protect. No part of him would ever think, “Do people want to see me do that?” He just doesn’t give a shit. And he’s fun, he’s a great hang. He understands scenes and he understands movies. I think he’s going to have a big year.