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Interview | Steven Soderbergh, Part 1: 'Side Effects,' 'Behind the Candelabra' and His Friendship With David Fincher

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire February 5, 2013 at 12:28PM

Well, the time has come. This Friday sees Steven Soderbergh cap off what has been an incredibly prolific and eclectic career of making movies with the release of "Side Effects," his supposed last film to open theatrically starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law and his "Magic Mike" muse Channing Tatum.
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Steven Soderbergh at the premiere of "Side Effects" in NYC.
The Cinema Society Steven Soderbergh at the premiere of "Side Effects" in NYC.

The time has come. This Friday sees Steven Soderbergh capping off what's been an incredibly prolific and eclectic filmmaking career with the release of "Side Effects," his supposed last movie to open theatrically, starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law and the director's "Magic Mike" muse Channing Tatum.

Since announcing his early retirement from his day job in 2011, the Academy Award-winner has churned out everything from an action film ("Haywire") to a male stripper pic ("Magic Mike") to his take on an old school all-star disaster film ("Contagion"). "Side Effects" shares a slew of similarities to "Contagion," given writer Scott Z. Burns' involvement, that of its star Jude Law and its harsh depiction of the pharmaceutical industry, but it also marks Soderbergh's first attempt at crafting a Hitchcockian thriller with twists upon twists that critics are struggling to shy away from.

READ MORE: Steven Soderbergh on 'Haywire,' 'Magic Mike' and Why He's Given Up on 'Serious Movies'

Mara leads the film, in her first role since bagging an Oscar nomination for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," as Emily Hawkins, a troubled woman reunited with her husband (Tatum) following his stint behind bars. Rather than leave her in great spirits, his return ups her anxiety. Enter Law as a doctor who prescribes her some mysterious new meds that have some unfortunate side effects.

In anticipation of the film's release, Soderbergh sat down with Indiewire for a whopping 45 minutes (per his request) to discuss his imminent Hollywood departure, his friendship with fellow Mara admirer David Fincher, his upcoming HBO biopic "Behind the Candelabra," and whether he'd ever consider showrunning a TV series. (This marks part one of our interview; part two will go live on Indiewire tomorrow.)

It's hard to talk about this movie without giving away some major spoilers. I made my screening on time, but the film's distributor Open Road Films has reportedly turned away latecomers, since the first major twist plays such a key part to the rest of the film. Did you request that of Open Road?

"Side Effects."
Open Road "Side Effects."

We do that all the time when we do friends’ screenings because we’re very anal about time starting, and we decided in this case to keep going with that idea, because if you miss the beginning you miss a lot. We don’t live in the world of Alfred Hitchcock where people would actually enforce that in a real theater. It’s tricky. Even saying, "There are all these twists," gets people primed to look for twists.

Let’s put it this way: when we were in the brief period of trying to set the movie up there was one studio we met with on a Friday who said, “This is a slam dunk, we want to do it.” Then on Monday morning they called and said “We’re not doing it.” And we said, why? They said they’re marketing department said they don’t know how to sell it. So far people have been really cool about it. They understand if they have a readership, why would they want to betray their readers by ruining a movie for them? So far, considering we’re a week out, I’ve been really impressed that people have kept it under wraps.

A spoiler alert only does so much.

It’s true. The good news is there are a couple of different turns so it’s not like we only have one bullet in the chamber. But there’s no question if you could somehow come in cold, then that’s the best.

Do you remember the trailer for “What Lies Beneath,” by any chance?

No, what did they do?

It gave away the entire twist.

Well, it didn’t hurt them.

No, it didn’t hurt them at all.

We didn’t want to do that. But trailers are kinda doing that now. That’s the other problem. That’s become a real lost art. They just compress the entire movie into two minutes and 20 seconds. I’m baffled by that. I remember when we were doing “Out of Sight,” we were having trouble with the trailer and I happened to go see a movie that had a trailer for “Buffalo ’66” on it, and the trailer for that movie is spectacular, really cool... weird. I gave it to the trailer company and said, "Well, I know you can’t do this exactly but can you do something that feels like this," and they did and it was great and what we ended up using. It became the international trailer.

"Out of Sight"
"Out of Sight"

The testing has gotten to the point where if you do anything outside of the box the scores drop and everyone gets upset. And it’s hard to argue with someone who’s spending 20+ million dollars to open your movie to go with this trailer that you like that’s testing 20 points lower because you just think it’s better. In that situation I’m willing to be an asshole when it comes to the movie itself, but at the end of the day I have to look at that and go, I’m not sure. Maybe they’re right. It’s one part of the business that I feel is not as aggressive in figuring out the new paradigm. Everyone seems to be resigned to the fact that if you’re going to put a movie out in a certain number of theaters you can’t even get out of bed for less than 20 or 25 million dollars. That just seems insane to me.

READ MORE: Steven Soderbergh Calls 'The Canyons' "Fascinating" and Hints at a "Spectacular Sex Scene"

What’s interesting about the HBO model is it’s a subscription situation so it’s a different way. The accounting’s completely different because there’s no recoupment. It’s subscriber-based, it’s already paid for. In our case that means if the movie gets released overseas we get cut in right at the gross point. So that could be interesting.

Scott Burns said, "Well, the old cliché is you make the movie three times, you write it, you shoot it, you cut it." He said the other day that "I think we need to add that the fourth time is when you sell it." You’ve got to rewrite it into some version that you can sell, and that can be really tricky. He has good ideas because he came out of advertising. So we’ll know in nine days.

I love the fact that you released a second trailer for "Side Effects" that was a full minute shorter than the first. That’s kind of unheard of.

The first trailer I showed them that tested horribly lasted under 90 seconds. I felt if we go any longer we’re going to have to start showing stuff we don’t want to show. There’s no law that says they have to be 2:20. Everybody, they’re all working hard. It’s their money on the line too. It’s strange.

I’m sure it’s gonna do fine.

I hope you’re right. What’s scary is that they know noon the Friday it opens, they can tell you the number. You get the call going either we’re going to be fine, at lunchtime Friday, or sorry.

"Side Effects"
Open Road "Side Effects"

Do you see this as a companion piece of sorts to “Contagion?”

They’re cousins. I don’t know if they’re siblings, but they’re cousins. Certainly it’s kind of a flip side of pharma or drugs that are being produced on a mass level.

Obviously in the case of “Contagion” you’re focusing primarily on the CDC and they’re a non-profit organization. Their job is not to develop drugs to serve non-lethal diseases. They’re the virus police. In this case you’re dealing with multi-billion dollar corporations who are either trying to solve a problem that’s widespread or, I wonder sometimes, trying to create the sense that it’s a widespread problem. There’s a big difference between sadness, which is an ordinary response to a certain set of circumstances, and depression, which is a debilitating syndrome. There are some amount of depressed people, and then there are a whole lot of people who at some time in their life are sad.

READ MORE: Steven Soderbergh's 'Side Effects' Shows He's Ready For a Break

That’s a bigger business -- if you want to be part of the war on sadness, you’ve got a lot more soldiers. It’s an interesting issue. Then you add the fact that literally everyone’s physiology is different. Everyone reacts differently to these drugs. Everyone reacts differently to combinations of drugs. How your body reacts over a long period of time and whether or not your dosage needs to be adjusted and whether or not that will affect your side effects. You can’t ask for to more complex things to be interacting with than a chemical made in a lab and your body. It really does require an intermediary like a doctor, hopefully a good one, to navigate that interaction. And as we know there are really good doctors and then there are doctors who are not so good.

So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater. This wasn’t viewed as some sort of exopose of that business. But it’s fun when it’s rooted in some reality. It makes the thriller more interesting if you walk out going, yeah, we all know somebody who’s on something. I’m gonna be on a beta blocker tonight for sure!

"When we were doing Liberace I was much more in the mode of looking around and thinking 'that’ll be the last time I x.' I didn’t think that way at all on 'Side Effects.'"

The film’s been in development with Scott for 10 years. How long have you been attached to it?

A little over four years ago he started sending me drafts to read as a friend. I’ve been watching from the sidelines for a while. It was a year ago, November, that “U.N.C.L.E.” blew up and I called him and said I want us to be working together in April. I asked, "Would you consider me doing this?" And he thought about it and said, yeah. He’s got at least two other great scripts that I’ve read that he’s going to do. I think he felt like, you know, I’ve got a pocket full of watches, I’ll just pick another one. And I’m glad he did because we had a great time on it. I really wanted to have it be a trilogy.

Did the fact that this marks your last film to open in theaters weigh on your mind when making/conceiving it?

No, not at all. I just wanted to do something fun. When we were doing Liberace I was much more in the mode of looking around and thinking “that’ll be the last time I x.” I didn’t think that way at all on “Side Effects.”

Blake Lively was originally slated to play Rooney's part. What happened to her casting?

That was such a mess. We had one set of financing that I thought was solid, then it wasn’t solid, then in the midst of putting it back together she fell out. I had a movie that was starting in three and a half months. We were scrambling. And I knew Rooney from David. I made the call. It was a clusterfuck. There were a lot of people working at cross purposes very intensely for a 72 hour period of time with a lot of smoke and dust and when everything settled literally over the course of three or four days we had different financing and a different actress. It wasn’t a creative issue, let’s put it that way.

It all worked out.

Yeah, those things happen. I don’t think any of us looked back. We just had to get this thing on the rails quickly. Like I said, I knew Rooney through Fincher and I thought this would be a great, if this is the next thing people see her do after “Tattoo” this’ll be interesting because it’s so different.

"Ain't Them Bodies Saints"
IFC Films "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"

Have you seen “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?”

No, how is it?

She's great it it. Very subdued but powerful.

I know she had a good time doing it. She has a lot of range. There’s even more for us to see out of her. The question is will there be parts written that allow her to stretch. She just wants to be engaged, she doesn’t care about the money. I think she is protecting her image, that she looks at herself that way. She just want to do things that she’s interested in. I hope she finds things.

Can we talk about you and David Fincher? I find your friendship or whatever you have so fascinating because you two, to me, share so many aesthetic similarities as filmmakers. You recently admitted to Vulture that you're a huge fan of his work. How long have you guys known each other?

We’ve known each other a long time; 20 years. We met on the Fox lot. He was working on “Alien 3" -- I think he was in post. I don’t know why I was over there. “Kafka” had come out a couple of months before. He almost did one of these episodes of “Fallen Angels,” this Showtime anthology that I did two episodes for. He was gonna do one the first year, but had to drop out because “Seven” got greenlit and he had to jump in right away. So we had a little bit of interaction then. And we would run into each other and have conversations every once in a while.

I would invite him to screenings and stuff, then a few years ago he bought a building in L.A. to work out of. I started renting editing rooms there and we started spending more time together and talking at greater length about work and the business.

We're both very opinionated but I think are interested in getting similar things. It’s fun. There are a handful of directors who I know reasonably well. Directors don’t typically hang out together, so when you find one that you can, because it’s such an isolating job, it can be really calming to talk to somebody who’s going through similar issues even if they’re self-inflicted and it doesn’t have anything to do with external forces -- you’re just hitting the wall of your own abilities and your own frustrations. It’s nice to commiserate.


"House of Cards"
Netflix "House of Cards"

Did he try to dissuade you from leaving the business or encourage you to move to TV? I know you’re a big fan of “House of Cards” and have seen a few episodes.

I am. No. I’ve known him well enough and long enough that he’s been aware of this long term plan of mine for a long time -- ever since I’ve started thinking about it. I’m certainly intrigued by this model. We had a “Side Effects” screening at Lincoln Center last night. “House of Cards” had a premiere at Lincoln Center so we left our Q&A and went over to the “House of Cards” party and I talked to the two people writing Netflix about how this works and what they have in mind. It’s a pretty interesting thing. As they were pointing out, you don’t even have to think of this in terms of 12 one-hour episodes. You can have one episode that’s 30 minutes and one that’s 70. There are no rules. So that got me thinking, oh, I don’t have to put it in a box. It can take any form that you want and that’s what they’re interested in. Like HBO, the interesting thing about the subscription model is it’s about buzz. It’s about drawing people to you because you’ve got cool shit. You’ve got this guaranteed revenue stream. It certainly doesn’t hurt.

I was telling David, you’re so fucking lucky, man. The last three days all of the stories have been about how the last quarter for Netflix just blew up. They’re in the news and now this thing’s dropping. It’s really good timing for everybody. So I’m keeping an eye on that. I’ll be curious to hear whether or not their site crashes tomorrow. Which it might. I think David’s right. Binging is kind of the new black. It’s how people want to watch their shows.

It’s how I watch my shows.

They DVR the whole season, wait, and watch the whole thing in a week. I like the idea of that. It’s like reading a book.

How do you watch your TV?

A little of both. I have some destination stuff and then I’ll record a few things and sort of hold onto them. But the good news is I watch a lot of true crime, which is my wife’s influence. And so there’s tons of that. "Dateline"... I watch a lot of ID TV because they’ve got all the "Dateline"s. I like true crime a lot.

"Behind the Candelabra"
Vanity Fair "Behind the Candelabra"

“Behind the Candelabra” initially started as a film project, before moving over to HBO. Did you feel any freer working for HBO than you had with film studios?

I don’t know if anybody else would’ve necessarily been intrusive given the scale of the movie and the quality of the script and Michael [Douglas] and Matt [Damon], but...

You couldn’t find funding.

No, and I was gonna say what was refreshing about it was the complete lack of anxiety about what it was. That was the real difference. I wasn’t dealing with people who were afraid to embrace what it needed to be. Everything about it that was an issue with the film people that we talked to was a plus to them. That was the biggest difference. It was nice that they let us do what we were going to do, but they made it clear that they weren’t interested in getting in the way. They were around a lot, and I encouraged them to be around. I kept them very involved in every sort of iteration of my thinking and the film’s condition. It was a nice way to go out.

What were the issues? Was it solely the gay content?

That’s what I took away. Was that “we don’t know how to sell this. It’s just too gay.”

How do you react to that? That to me just seems so absurd given the success of movies like “Brokeback,” and “Magic Mike” obviously pandered hugely...

Yeah, I don’t know. I just said, really? It doesn’t seem like a difficult sell at all to me. First of all, you’re going to be able to cut the best trailer of all time. Literally, it’s going to be the best trailer of all time. This thing is just such eye candy and it’s funny. It’s a fun ride, and the two of them are great. I was baffled by the whole thing. But you end up where you’re supposed to end up. If that’s really how they felt then you can make an argument that more people will see it through HBO than would’ve seen it theatrically. Maybe that’s what they were worried about.

"Magic Mike"
Warner Bros. "Magic Mike"

In the TV realm, what would it take to entice you to come on as a showrunner or exec producer?

I don’t know. It would have to be something that I felt that I could bring something specific and positive to it, you know? That it could really benefit from my involvement as opposed to a lot of other people's. I still have this John Barthes novel that I’ve adapted into 12 one-hour episodes. If I can figure out how I want to do that, what the sort of gimmick is, that could be something that I end up mounting. I have that in my back pocket. But I don’t wanna...

Here’s the problem, I get calls a lot now with “Just do this pilot... when it goes you make all this money!” There’s an issue there for me for two reasons. One is, I don’t wanna just do the pilot and have my name on it, and have my name on as an executive producer and then have nothing to do with it. If my name’s on it I need to be involved, and the problem is I don’t want to be involved. That’s what I walked away from. There’s kind a catch-22 there.

The other thing is, I’m personally not sure about how I feel about taking a pilot job away from someone who makes a living in TV. I don’t need that on my resume. And there are other people who could, who this is what they do, they direct TV. That makes me a little anxious that I’m just stealing a job from a lifer. But if it was something I originated, if it was something I came up with, that wouldn’t exist if I didn’t exist, that’s different. I’m just talking about going head to head with somebody on an open assignment. I just feel like that’s not cool.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 where Soderbergh discusses his involvement with "The Canyons," what genre he wish he tackled and his move to Broadway.

This article is related to: Steven Soderbergh, Interviews, Interviews, Side Effects, Behind the Candelabra , Magic Mike, Rooney Mara, The Bitter Pill, Television, TV Interviews