Adding more decadence to an already glamorous event, Steven Soderbergh’s fabulous (in all senses of the word) Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” premiered this morning at Cannes the way American audiences won’t be able to see it — on the big screen. The HBO production, which airs May 26 (it’s opening theatrically in other markets, including the UK and France), marks Soderbergh’s reported retirement from filmmaking. Judging by the rapturous response the film received at its first screening, we’re definitely not alone in saying this: Let’s hope he’s bluffing.
Adapted by Oscar-nominee Richard LaGravenese from Scott Thorson’s book of the same name, “Behind the Candelabra” centers on the tumultuous relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas in a performance that would earn him an Oscar nod — and probable win — if “Candelabra” weren’t an HBO film) and Thorson (played in an astonishing performance by Matt Damon), a handsome and much younger man who Liberace took on as his ‘personal assistant’ in 1977. What first starts out as a loving relationship soon devolves into something much odder as Liberace, appalled by his own decaying appearance, undergoes massive amounts of plastic surgery and requests Thorson to do the same in order to resemble himself at a younger age.
Immediately following the screening, press rushed to the film’s press conference where Soderbergh and co. talked about the making of the film. Below are the highlights.
Michael Douglas Had Actually Met Liberace
Michael Douglas: “I just met Lee [Liberace’s nickname] briefly once when I was 12 visiting my father in Palm Springs, where Lee also had a house. We were at a crossroads; his car stopped, I think he was in a Rolls-Royce. Between the gold on his rings and the car, the light was bouncing off him outside. He had a great smile, a lot of hair out place — now I know why. [laughs] I talked to my father Kirk, who knew him well. He really was the forefather to Elton John and Lady Gaga and some other people in terms of creating that style.”
Matt Damon: “Of course I’d heard of him. I remember him being a presence. Throughout the ’70s there would be specials on TV. He was less of a presence in my life than in my mother’s. My grandmother was an excellent piano player and she loved watching him play.”
Steven Soderbergh: “I remember watching my parents watch him. At seven or eight, I didn’t know what to make of him. He seemed very enthusiastic and arresting. I was fascinated by how fascinated my parents were by watching him.”
Michael Douglas Sees the Role as a Gift
Douglas: “For me this… [Douglas starts to cry]… it was right after my cancer. This beautiful gift was handed to me. I’m eternally grateful to Steven, Matt and Jerry [Weintraub, the producer].”
Steven Sodebergh Would Show Cut Scenes to Cast and Crew A Few Hours After They Were Shot
Damon: “For me it’s the seventh time I’ve worked with Steven. I wasn’t sure at first. I said to Steven when I started, ‘What is this thing?’ But I trust him completely. I really mean that. There is something that Steven did on this movie. I worked with directors before who cut in camera, which is an incredible thing. Because of technology Steven took it to a different level. We all had access to the website. We’d shoot a scene and I’d go home. At the end of day I’d get home in time to have dinner with kids. By the time I came downstairs there was the scene of what we shot that day completey cut together.
“Info is the best thing you can have as an actor, to get the film you’re in. What this did, this new way of giving us all the information — we all knew the movie we were making. If you’re playing a character like this who deteriorates incrementally, we could look back at a scene as it would appear in order to gauge our performances. As nervous as I was at the outset, my nerves were put at ease by this gift.”
Steven Soderbergh Had His First Cut Done Mere Days After Wrapping
Douglas: “We finished shooting on a Friday and on a Monday Steven had his first cut.”
Michael Douglas Doesn’t Think Studios Turned It Down Because of the Gay Content
Douglas: “I don’t think the problem with the film was because of the gay issue, it’s because they [the studios] don’t want to be bothered with smaller pictures. Therefore cable TV has become an access point. This was a wonderful combination of the two with HBO having it secured.”
Steven Soderbergh Doesn’t Blame the Studios
Soderbergh: “I think the feeling just was when we were going around four years ago, that the film might not appeal to many — like there wasn’t an audience for this film except for people who are gay. There was just a sense that it was a risky proposition. To be fair, seeing the film and seeing how emotional it is, it’s hard to look at a piece of paper and sort of imagine what this is going to be like. At end of day I’m supposed to be the person with imagination, so I can understand. At end of day it worked out how it’s supposed to work out. We got to make the movie. I’m not complaining; I’m very happy.”
Gay Rights Weren’t On Steven Soderbergh’s Mind When Making the Film
Soderbergh: “It certainly seems like coincidentally we’re connected at this moment to a cultural sequence of events that seems very timely. Whenever I think about these things, social issues, I always try to think, OK, 50 years from now, what are we going to think of our attitudes right now?’ When this issue comes up, of equal rights for gays, I always think, I’m hoping in 50 years we’re going to look back and wonder why this was even a debate.
“We’re getting there, it’s all moving in the right direction. But to be honest that was not on my mind when we were making this film. In making the film, the sociopolitical aspect of it was not on my mind. I was focused on this relationship and trying to make it believable and realistic as we could. We wanted to make something that was intimate.”
Steven Soderbergh Is Taking a Break, Not Retiring
Soderbergh: “I’m absolutely taking a break. I don’t know how extended it will be. I’m really, really proud of this film. There’s the connection on the one hand to my first film… At end of day it’s about two people in a room, which is what my first film was about. If you flashed me forward and showed me this film, the filmmaking would have have made me very happy. It’s been a nice run.”
Debbie Reynolds, Who Plays Liberace’s Mother, Knew Liberace Well
Soderbergh: “Our casting director suggested her. As it tuned out she knew Lee very well. They would hang out all the time, doing shows in Vegas at same time. She was very helpful about telling me about Lee and Scott and what she thought of Scott.”
Matt Damon Didn’t Talk to Scott Thorson to Prep for the Role
Damon: “I did not talk to Scott before. I talked to Steven about whether I should and we decided it would be better not to. We got everything we needed from his book. I think meeting him before I did it, 30 years after this happened, wouldn’t have been helpful.”
Matt Damon is Proud of His Brazilian Tan Line
Damon: “We were trying to do a scene where we wanted it to be a domestic argument. Steven staged it so that I get closer and closer to the bed. I explained to him about my Brazilian tan line and Steven said it would be great if I drop the robe [on the way to bed] so we can see it, saying, ‘Oh know where to put the camera…’ I’m really proud of that scene. Because I’ve worked with this crew seven times, I did warn every guy on this crew, ‘This is something you cant un-see. It will be seared into your memory.'”
There Was Never Any Plan to Release the Film in Theaters for Oscar Consideration
Sodberbergh: “No, there was no discussion about getting a theatrical release in the U.S.. Our attitude was more people will get to see it [this way].”