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Steven Soderbergh Spills His Guts: On TV and What It’s Doing Wrong

Steven Soderbergh Spills His Guts: On TV and What It's Doing Wrong

Iconoclast Steven Soderbergh stopped by the Directors Guild of America, where he has held a number of leadership positions over the years, to dive deep into this expansive career with scribe Steve Pond. The full DGA Quarterly interview starts at ground zero, when Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or at age 25 for “sex, lies and videotape,” and ends with his current work, Cinemax television series “The Knick.”

The horribly beautiful and misanthropic serial drama about the inner lives of workers of The Knickerbocker Hospital in NYC 1900 (and one particularly deplorable surgeon) is the standard for “auteur television” against which all others (“True Detective,” Fincher and Flynn’s eventual “Utopia,” and more) will be measured. Next-level stuff, as they say. (More on the making of “The Knick” with Soderbergh’s manager Michael Sugar of Anonymous Content.)

Soderbergh talks about the making of the series and his worldview as a director in these highlights from the DGA interview. Also, go back to and listen to his 2013 San Francisco Film Festival keynote speech on “what’s killing cinema” (here). Nothing has changed since.

On “The Knick” and his hopes for the shifting TV landscape:
“Our situation was atypical: There was a single director, and the show was scheduled, budgeted, and shot like a 10-hour movie. I’m hoping we’re going to see more situations where directors are involved earlier in conceiving and building the universe of a show, and that the idea of parachuting in a guest director to do an episode becomes less the norm than having a smaller, cohesive group of directors that essentially are part of the creative team and are working on the show the whole year. I think you get a better result that way.”

Some TV still lacks an aesthetic edge:
The editing patterns of television need to evolve. I was watching a very well-made show the other night, and it was a scene of two people in a conference room. The shots were interesting and really well thought-out, and I’d say there were probably eight angles. But they used all eight angles within the first 25 seconds, so for the remaining three minutes of the scene, they were just bouncing around to these eight angles instead of doling them out gradually so that there was a sense of increased momentum and design. It was literally just cutting on every line and using all of the angles as many times as you could in three minutes. That’s a very TV mentality in terms of how to cut a scene together, and that needs to change.

On the challenges of conceiving “The Knick”:
Well, until we started, I was really, really scared. I’ve worked on some shoots in which we had to move quickly, or shoots that were tricky. You know, trying to portray the Cuban Revolution [in “Che”] in 37 shooting days was tricky. But this was on a whole other level. It was nine pages a day for 73 days, but we very quickly fell into a rhythm that was not unpleasant at all. And I began to really enjoy the challenge of coming up with an interesting way to shoot that much material that fast, and I watched Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and “World on a Wire” to look for ideas. Ultimately, the reason we were able to do it was nobody was second-guessing how we were doing it. If I determined that I could shoot a three-page scene in a single take, I could do that without anybody complaining. 
What film is Soderbergh most proud of?
I think “Out of Sight” is probably the least flawed thing I’ve done. Most of the others, there’s always something.

Making indies vs. studio pictures:
I didn’t want to be art-house boy. I like specialty films, for lack of a better term, but I didn’t want to only do that because, in a weird sort of way, that’s too easy. It’s much harder to go make a studio movie with movie stars in which you have to be good and clear than it is to go make a little obscure independent movie that, if people don’t get it, you go, “Well, that’s your fault.”

How to stay sane on set:
Unless you’re somebody who can make one massive hit after another indefinitely, treating people well is a good way to remain employed. Of course there’s a chain of command, but that doesn’t mean there’s a chain of respect. I’ve only raised my voice once on a film set and it was because somebody showed up late two days in a row, which is not acceptable. I don’t know if I’ve ever even held a megaphone.
Why Soderbergh likes total formal control:
I was trained in high school as a still photographer, and I shot most of my shorts myself. I was a gearhead. I loved equipment and all that stuff. It was, in essence, a way to return to how I began, and also a way to increase the intimacy between myself and the cast. To me, what I gain by being the cinematographer and the camera operator is worth the fact that I’m not Emmanuel Lubezki or Roger Deakins or Harris Savides. And with editing, in some cases I feel so clear about what I want and it’s so specific that it seems inefficient to spend time describing it instead of just doing it.

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