INTERVIEW: Man of the Year, Steven Soderbergh Traffics in Success
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 1.3.01) --You don't get a better or busier year in this business than Steven Soderbergh got in Y2K. While "Erin Brockovich" was breaking 100 million dollars at the box office, Soderbergh's 1999 release "The Limey" was still winning critical acclaim (with five 2000 Independent Spirit Award nominations). He was also beginning production on his tenth feature film, "Traffic," an astutely interlaced story about drug trafficking, which starred newlyweds Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and which he also shot much of handheld himself. "Traffic" went on to win a Best Picture nod from the New York Film Critics Circle, and Soderbergh received multiple awards and nominations from citywide and national critics associations all the way to the Hollywood Foreign Press (with two Golden Globe directing noms for "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich"). Last year also saw the publication of his second book, "Getting Away With It: Or: the Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw," which includes his own musings on his work, and conversations with British director Richard Lester ("A Hard Day's Night"). Lucky bastard? That, and a lot of skill.
But success has not spoiled Steven Soderbergh. He remains the same humble, self-doubting, and talented director that made "sex, lies, and videotape" in 1988 and consequently, "independent film" a household phrase. With each film, Soderbergh continues to take on new challenges, whether the fractured timeline of "The Limey," the push-up bras of Julia Roberts, or the jigsaw puzzle of story and tone in "Traffic," he continues to evolve as one of our most accomplished contemporary directors.
Before the release of "Traffic" and right in the middle of prep for "Ocean's 11" -- Soderbergh's adaptation of the 1960 Rat Pack classic -- the studio-indie hybrid spoke extensively with indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman about chasing the story, working as a D.P./director, shooting beneath a helicopter, and "controlled anarchy."
indieWIRE: So last night I saw "A Hard Day's Night" in preparation for talking with you and it occurred to me that "Traffic" is influenced by it, with the same sort of documentary feel. Would you agree?
Steven Soderbergh: There's the reportage aspect of the aesthetic, yes. . . . All of the Lester stuff is and is informing what I'm up to lately, along with a handful of other people. Always Godard. Anybody who is doing anything interesting is ripping off Godard in some way. For this film, I spent a lot of time analyzing "Battle of Algiers" and "Z" -- both of which have that great feeling of things that are caught, instead of staged, which is what we were after. I just wanted that sensation of chasing the story, this sense that it may outrun us if we don't move quickly enough. And there's a lot of that in Lester's films, especially those from the 1960s.
iW: This documentary approach that infuses "Traffic" is helped by having you being behind the camera. Which leads me to the question: were you insane? It must just have been relentless working as director of photography and director.
Soderbergh: It is. But it's so satisfying. Because you're getting what you want all day. I certainly underestimated the restorative value of being able to leave the set for 5 minutes, which you cannot do when you are your own cinematographer. Literally. I couldn't go to the bathroom until lunchtime. Because I had to sit there and make sure things we're going. Or we were shooting. Most of our day was spent shooting. The lion's share of the film is shot with available light, so we showed up early, ready to shoot. But in this case, it felt so organic that it didn't really feel like I was doing another job. It felt very much like when I was making my short films. It was a very stripped down crew. It was really just: Let's show up and shoot.
My production sound-mixer who I've known since I was 13 and was one of the college students that I was hanging out with and making films with when I was growing up, sent me an e-mail when it was all done, saying, "This was the closest to what I imagined it could be like when we were making our own films and imagined making bigger films." This one, I felt like we finally captured . . . we transplanted that sense of work and play that we had in Baton Rouge 20 years ago on to this large-scale production. That was a nice note to get, because I had felt it too, because I think it translates. I know the actors like it.
iW: How many people did you have on your crew?
Soderbergh: There was me, a second-camera operator, the gaffer, the key-grip, even the grip and electric departments were only 3 deep each, so it was a pretty tight group. There's no video assists; none of that shit.
iW: That's a bold decision, especially when now everyone is relying on stuff like the video assist.
Soderbergh: "The Underneath" was the last time I used it. I threw it out. It was making me passive. Actors hate it. And it slows you down. I was willing to live with these accidents or things not being exactly the way I might do them, by not being able to see the monitor when I wasn't operating. To me, it was a trade-off that was always worth it. Starting on "The Limey," I started operating. I shot and operated "Schizopolis," but that doesn't count. In the case of "Traffic," the other operator [Gary Jay] is somebody I've worked with before who is extraordinary. He's a guy that Michael Mann won't make a movie without. He's just unbelievably great. And I would often give him what I would consider the trickier stuff. He was usually on the longer lens, which by definition requires more decisions. And I would usually give it to him, because he's so gifted. He's been doing features for many years, but he came out of documentaries. So his sense of composition within a realistic aesthetic is really pronounced. So I felt like we had the "A" team. We were, in basketball terms, what you would call a running team. And we had to be, considering the length of the script and the scale of the movie; it was a short schedule.
iW: So you have this joke, this is your $45 million dollar Dogma movie. Were you paying attention to the other Dogma movies by Von Trier, and the others?
Soderbergh: Since "Schizopolis" was shot in 1995 and not sort of finished until later, clearly, I had a similar turn. I don't know Von Trier; I've never talked to him. But I certainly felt that I was becoming a formalist and that's a real dead end. So I felt the need to break radically from that way of working, and clearly he did, too. Because his earlier films were machined to the point of insanity, unbelievable precision. Obviously, he just felt like that goes nowhere. Some of the films are more interesting than others, but I like what they're trying to do. I thought "Celebration" was fucking great, because it's done with an attempt to get at something. And it just fit in with my revisiting Richard Lester and trying to re-insert a sense of play in the films. And I think the films I've made since have been more fun to sit through.
iW: And more fun to make?
Soderbergh: That shouldn't matter. If that meant anything then "Cannonball Run" would be a great movie, because I'm sure it was fun to make.
iW: In hearing about the production of this movie, it did occur to me and let me ask you: was this your most difficult undertaking?
Soderbergh: Yeah, creatively and physically, it was the most demanding thing that we'd attempted. But it was not the most self-imposed pressure. "Out of Sight" was the most pressure I've felt under. Again, all self-imposed. There wasn't a sword hanging over my head. I felt that if I failed creatively to make an interesting movie out of "Out of Sight," then I was going to be in big career trouble. It was a conscious attempt on my part to enter a side of the business that was off-limits to me, because I had marginalized myself. And I knew if I failed, I was fucked. It was balanced by the fact that I loved the material and I knew what to do with the material. But to block that out on the set every day and basically make decisions as though I was making "Schizopolis" and knowing if I failed that I was completely screwed, it's the equivalent of, "Be funny, Goddamn it!" So it was intense for me. I don't think anybody would have said they noticed that. But I got up every morning with knots in my stomach.
iW: And with "Traffic"?
Soderbergh: It just felt like it's going to be hard, it's going to call upon everything we have, every day, but I know what to do with this, it's the right time to make this movie. We've got a terrific screenplay, we've got a great cast, and when you have opportunities like this, you should take advantage of them and make the movie you want to make and don't look back. I wanted it to be good and I was concerned that it be good, but it was not like "Out of Sight."
PLEASE READ PART II OF THE INTERVIEW AT: