She talked about an acting technique that you had her do by always keeping her busy, even during the quieter scenes.
Steven Soderbergh on the set of "Haywire"
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.
"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."
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.
Benicio del Toro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che." Image courtesy of IFC Films.
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.