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.
Yesterday, we ran the first part of our whopping 45 minute (per his request) interview with the director in anticipation of the film’s release, in which he discussed 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.
In this second installment, Soderbergh reveals which genre he wishes he had tackled, why he chose not to return to “Magic Mike 2,” his take on the cut he saw of Paul Schrader’s Hollywood satire “The Canyons,” and details on his upcoming move to Broadway with his “Side Effects” star Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Going back to the film at hand, I want to talk to you about genres. Is there any one you wish you tackled?
I didn’t get to make my sports movie.
Or a western.
I didn’t want to make a western. I could’ve, just horses scare the shit out of me. Literally, they terrify me. They’re so big and so strong that the idea of being around them all day is not going to happen. What else? I didn’t get to make the musical [“Cleopatra”] but I think we’re going to do that on stage so I’ll get that out of my system. I don’t think there are many others that I missed. I never… “Out of Sight” strangely is the closest thing to a rom-com that I would probably ever get.
“Magic Mike,” somewhat.
That’s another weird… You could put it in that category, it’s definitely out on the edge. But, you know… I got to do “Haywire” which was really fun. I did a science fiction movie. I’ve done period. There wasn’t a lot that I wanted to make that I didn’t get to make. Two or three, really. That’s a pretty good ratio.
“Magic Mike 2” appears to be in the works, according to Tatum is saying.
Well, I think they should do it. There were some really good ideas that we get into in the first one that we absolutely could make a good movie around. But that’s gonna be their problem.
Do you think Channing could make a good director for that?
He’s been teasing the press with the possibility.
Well, nobody knows that world better than he does. I think paying very close attention to the process as a whole from the writing to the directing to the cutting, he was a real producer on that movie. He wasn’t a “give me credit,” we were all… me, Nick [Wechsler], Reid [Carolin], Channing and Greg [Jacobs]. Nothing happened without all of us talking and being in the room and hashing it out. I think they should do it. I really do. There’s some good stuff left. But to me, it’s a case of ‘been there, done that.’
So why make the two sequels to “Ocean’s Eleven”?
If you were a young aspiring filmmaker looking to immerse yourself in theories of movement and cutting patterns you could do a lot worse than to turn the sound off and watch those end to end because we put a lot of thought into how they were built. I studied other people who made technically pleasing films to see if I could figure out how they were looking at things. There’s some sort of math involved in constructing chronological images.
When I started the first one I watched all of Fincher’s stuff, all of [Steven] Spielberg’s stuff, all of [John] McTiernan’s stuff. He’s sort of underrated as a stager of action. He knows what he’s doing. And [James] Cameron. People like that, just analyzing how they were looking at these scenes. All that I learned went into those movies. I was really happy with them as visual pieces. And “U.N.C.L.E.” was another opportunity to use that aesthetic and it just didn’t happen.
About the “Cleopatra” stage musical you mentioned briefly earlier; like “Behind the Candelabra,” it was originally conceived as a feature film project. What convinced you that it would translate well to the stage?
The vibe of it is very much like “Tommy” which was a stage piece before it was a film piece, so we should go back and do it on stage. It’s a real rock and roll musical, very poppy. It’s just going to be interesting in terms of Broadway. It’ll be interesting to see where we end up. When I think of Broadway — because I go to shows pretty regularly, and I look around at some of the audiences — I wonder if really loud guitars are gonna work in this room, with this crowd. Should I put a warning up outside the door? If you don’t like loud guitars you should just turn around and leave. That’s what it’s gonna be. So it’ll be interesting.
What gives you the confidence that you can pull something like this off? Theater is a whole new arena.
I don’t know! What I like about the theater is I get to see it all on it’s feet before it’s done. When you’re doing a play you literally get to see the finished thing before anybody comes in and you have time to fix it. In that regard it’s not like a movie. I really like that about it. We need to put it up on it’s feet and see if it’ll work. But based on some other things I’ve seen I don’t know why it wouldn’t. It’s fun and the music’s good and Catherine will be awesome in it. She’s an interesting character. So we’ll see. It’s good to be scared like that. It’s good to have that pocket of fear, like, oh this might not work.
Now you were approached to edit Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ Hollywood satire “The Canyons” by a producer who was unhappy with Schrader’s early cut. Schrader refused your help and the film’s since been turned down by both SXSW and Sundance. What did you make of what you saw?
I don’t know if what I saw was final. I really like what they did. I like the way they did it. I think it’s fascinating and there’s a spectacular sex scene it. The big controversial sex scene is fantastic. I never wanted that to go beyond Paul. When that sort of came out I just went, “Oh god.” I don’t want people viewing the movie through that lens, you know? That’s not what I was hoping for. Hopefully people will just go see it and that’ll become a non-issue.
I’m really glad they said, “Let’s just go do this. Let’s get this guy and let’s cast her.” That’s my whole thing. Don’t wait for permission. When young filmmakers come up and are like, “What do I do?” Don’t wait for permission. And now the good news is, Fincher says with technology, there are no more excuses anymore. They don’t even need to come up to us and ask us “What should we do?” They can just go do it.
What would you have carved out of the material had you actually done it?
It wasn’t really that. It was more just riding around the block. But it either hit them the wrong way or, I don’t know, I’m wrong. All of which is possible. Or both. It’s something that I have done for other people and it’s something that other people have done for me. So for me to have had that discussion wasn’t unusual at all. I have had other directors sit in my editing room and go through my movie with me, a lot. And I have sat in the editing room with other director friends at their request and walked through their movie. That’s a very normal occurrence in the circle of directors that I’m friends with.
I’ve had huge solves come from friends for free who’ve come to a screening and said, “I think you’ve got a problem. Do you want to sit down and go through it?” And I’ve said, “Yeah! Let’s go!” They’re willing to roll up their sleeves, not just say “I think you’re in trouble,” and then walk away. They’ll come in, and these are the best people at this kind of shit, and they’ll go, “I think you’re missing a scene. Here’s what I think it would be.” And they’ll sit down and start writing it. I was just behaving the way I normally behave with a friend.
It just happened to make the press runs.
Which like I said, was unfortunate. It’s not that interesting of a story at the end of the day.
Are there any specific instances you can recall when somebody came in at the last minute to offer advice that in turn completely changed the movie?
There have been a couple. I had a friend come in on “Contagion” to look at the movie. We were having trouble finding the shape. It was resisting all of our attempts to structure it properly. And he said, “Let me make a suggestion that you go home today and do a 90-minute cut and see what survives. And if it works at all then sit down and write some new material to make that work.”
And that’s what we did. We did a 90-minute cut, the movie suddenly popped, we did a couple of days of shooting to bridge some cuts that we had made. So we shot eight minutes of new material to make that 90-minute version work and then we were fine. That’s a big idea to throw at somebody, but that’s what it needed. I think our mistake was thinking that the problems were incremental when in fact we needed to hack some limbs off this thing and then restitch like a new limb.
Again, that was an example of a smart friend coming in, looking at the movie, and having a very blunt conversation. I had another friend on another movie, a director, basically grab me by the lapels after a screening and going, “You need to throw that entire score out. It’s killing you.” And this was a finished score. It’s putting the audience in the wrong headspace. And he was right. And that was a tough call, man.
Was that “The Good German?”
[nods] That was a hard call to make. It was the right call, but again, I invite those people because they’ll say that. And if they’re not gonna say it somebody else will say it later when it’s too late. Again, that’s the SOP for me and my friends. So that’s how this all happened. I forgot I wasn’t in my house.
Well, even if you stop making films hopefully your artistic input can live on via other people’s work.
I’ve still got enough friends who invite me to early screenings and it is fun. It’s fun to fix things. It’s so different. There’s always something to do — no matter how many movies, I’ve never not done reshoots. Even on “sex, lies.” So I’m always assuming there are going to be some solves in post that we’re going to have to figure out, and when it’s your friends you know that it’s coming from a different place. Unlike when somebody’s financing a movie, they’re not coming from a place of anxiety. They’re rooting for you. They want you to win. And they’re trying to help you win as opposed to being like, “Oh my God, this movie’s scaring me.” So it’s a very different context in which to have a creative discussion. It’s much more open, and like I said, they have no concern about how the result is going to play out, they’re just trying to help you make the best version of what it is. They’ll just sit there and go, “I really think you should consider x, y, and z. Because I don’t understand what’s going on here and I think you’re confusing people.” And that’s helpful.
You have test screenings and those are helpful in a macro level. The movie’s too long, I have a problem with some of the music, I didn’t understand that they were brothers — that kind of stuff. But in terms of the micro solves, like how are you actually going to address that, I’ve never gotten anything out of a test audience that was useful or that I didn’t get out of one of my friends. That’s a necessary evil. It’s only been a couple movies that I just never previewed because I knew there was no point.
The funny thing is “Magic Mike” didn’t score well at all. If you had a studio financed movie and you got that score there would be a lot of, “So, what are we going to do about this?” conversations. And to Warner Bros.’s credit they didn’t. Because the movie played, it wasn’t that! The movie played great. But the scores would come back and we’d go, “What the fuck is this?” And Danny Fellman goes, “I heard how the movie played, I’m ignoring these. I don’t what the explanation is. I don’t know if they’re embarrassed because they’re sitting next to someone and they don’t want to give it… I don’t know. But I’m literally ignoring this. I just don’t believe them.” It’s nice when you have people who can look at it for what it is, as a tool as opposed to a hammer to beat up on a filmmaker. I thought that was interesting.
I’ve made a point of that, whenever I’m talking to other filmmakers who are going through the preview process and telling them we didn’t score well. It’s not all about that. And there are a lot of movies that score well that tank.
That experience might serve you very well on Broadway.
Yeah! And what’s great about that is you really get to see the whole thing done, overall, and you can just stay at it until you fix it. The question at that point just becomes resources: do you have enough resources to keep fixing it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to workshop it to not be in a situation where we’ve produced the whole thing and put it up somewhere and people just reject it. Even with my film experience I feel confident. I’m not gonna pull the trigger on the big money until I feel like this thing’s in really good shape. So we’ll see if that’ll be the case. That’s a year away.