It was hard to envisage as positive a Cannes response to a U.S. competition film as that which greeted the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” the other day, but if such a thing is possible, it may well have happened today, for Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” (our review here). Immediately after the press screening stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, writer Richard LaGravanese, Producer Jerry Weintraub and director Steven Soderbergh spoke to press, turning up some choice anecdotes and opinions in the process. Here are our 10 favorite moments.
1. The team recounts their personal memories of Liberace
Michael Douglas: I met him once when I was 12 years old in Palm Springs. We were at a crossroads and this car stops, I think it was a Rolls Royce convertible, and it was a great Palm Springs day and between the gold on his neck and rings, the light was bouncing off him. He had a great smile, not a hair out of place (now I know why) and he was charming. I talked to my father Kirk who knew him well and everybody says he was a wonderful host, generous, gracious.
Richard La Gravanese: The women in my family loved him very much and they were the ones who told me the story about how Sonja Henie broke his heart and that’s why he was single. They believed that completely. They had no idea that he was gay.
Matt Damon: I remember him being a presence throughout the 70s…but he was less of a presence in my life than he was in my mother’s. they would sit around and they would watch him. My grandmother was an excellent piano player and she absolutely loved watching him play — whenever he was on they would stop everything to watch.
Steven Soderbergh: I remember watching my parents watch him, because at 7 or 8 I didn’t know what to make of him, he seemed very enthusiastic, and very arresting person to look at visually because of the outfits. I just remember being fascinated by how fascinated my parents were. But from that point until I talked to Michael on the set of “Traffic” about the idea of playing him, I literally don’t think I ever thought of him again.
2. Douglas remembers Soderbergh’s first mention of Liberace, and breaks down momentarily talking about the film’s timing.
Michael Douglas: [when Soderbergh mentioned Liberace on the set of “Traffic”] I thought he was messing with me. I was playing the drug czar! I saw this pensive look on Steven’s face and he said “you ever thought about Liberace?” I said “What does that have to do with…” And I got a little paranoid about it for a moment, and yes, Steven remembers I tried a little take-off on [Liberace-style] “Thank you very much” and forgot about it. And then seven years later Steven found the outlet through this book, “Behind the Candelabra.”
… for me this has a [Douglas chokes up a little bit] sorry — because it was right after my cancer and this beautiful gift was handed to me, and I’m eternally grateful to Steven and Matt and Jerry for waiting for me.
3. Douglas was apprehensive about mimicking Liberace’s physicality.
“This is the first time I’ve played a character that people knew who he was, so I had a lot of trepidation. [Liberace] was a big Polack, big, broad-chested… you know one of his thighs was the size of two of mine. But I attacked it initially vocally, trying to get the voice right… we started off with a piano teacher, and I said “this is not going to work” [so I practiced from exiting footage]… and then we were really blessed with the hair and makeup — really talented people. Different looks required different appliances, but I thought they did an excellent, excellent job and then one day it all comes together.”
4. A new edit-as-you-go system allowed everyone instant access to a cut of the day’s footage.
Matt Damon: Just to talk about process for one second, I’ve worked with directors before who cut in camera, which is an incredible thing. Spielberg does it, the Coen Brothers, George Clooney does it, Clint Eastwood does it. Steven took it to a different level this time which was because of technology. We all had access to a website where… I’d get home [from the set] in time to have dinner with my kids and I’d put them to bed and by the time I came downstairs I’d get on my iPad.. and I would look at what we shot that day completely cut together.
The best description of filmmaking I’ve ever heard was from Steven twelve years ago he said: “directing is like making a giant mosaic from an inch and half away.” This new way of giving all of us access to the movie… we could gauge our performances. This process was really a gift to all of us.
5. They are now philosophical about the initial reaction to the script from major studios.
Douglas: I don’t think the problem with the studio was because of the gay issue, it’s just they don’t like to be bothered with smaller pictures. And therefore cable has become an access point.
Soderbergh: …the sense was [from the studios] “we’re not convinced that there’s an audience for this film except for people who are gay” … it was a risky proposition. And to be fair, seeing the film and seeing how emotional it is it’s hard to plook at a piece of paper and to imagine these performances. I understand to some extent…Looking back, this all worked out the way it was supposed to work out. the bottom line is, we all just wanted to make this movie, and we got to. I’m not complaining. I’m very happy.
6. Douglas and Damon talk about their frequent kissing and sex scenes
Douglas: … The security of having worked with Steven before and knowing Matt, it was just like, “you’ve read the script, let’s get it on! What flavor lip balm would you like me to wear?” And it was a gas.
Damon: In terms of being in bed with Michael Douglas I now have things in common with Sharon Stone and Glenn Close, Demi Moore … we can all go out trade stories…No, you know those scenes are highly technical and really comes down to choreography. I think the stuff that was actually more difficult and that we had to put more thought in to was the way two people are in a room together when they’re in a long-term relationship, and they’re deeply intimate or deeply connected… and those things for me were way more intimate.
7. Soderbergh talks about the film’s relevance to the gay marriage debate.
Soderbergh: Coincidentally we’re connected at this moment to a cultural sequence of events that seems timely and relevant. But I always try to think, 50 years from now what are we going to think of our attitudes now? 50 years ago we didn’t have the civil rights act. I’m hoping we’ll look back and wonder why this was even a debate.
But really [that issue] that was not on my mind when I was making the film, or for the 13 years that we were contemplating it. We were just focused on the relationship and making it as believable as possible.
8. Damon’s Brazilian Spray Tan Story
Soderbergh: When Matt told me the story of his Brazilian spray tan, I just felt that the world really needed to see this and so I was looking for opportunities…Give the people what they want and they’ll show up.
Damon: …I explained to him in this parking lot in West Hollywood about this Brazilian tan line that I had to get to make some of the outfits not show a tan line. I said “It’s the wrongest thing you’ve ever seen, what if by the end of that scene I drop the robe and get into bed and you see the brazilian tan line. And Steven just looked at me for a long and then goes ”Oh, I know where to put the camera.” I’m really proud of that scene…I did warn the crew though I said “Listen this is not something you can un-see. You’re all welcome to look but you can’t un-ring that bell, so I’m just warning you it will be seared into your memory.”
9. Soderbergh on the strength of current U.S. Television
Soderbergh: There has been a gradual migration of an audience who likes a certain kind of material to television.There’s a lot of great TV being made in the States right now… In terms of cultural real estate, TV is taking control of the conversation that used to be the exclusive domain of the movies. Whether this is a cyclical or secular change I don’t know, but I think it’s a second golden age of TV in the States right now. Binging is the new black – you saw what happened with “House of Cards.” It’s an interesting new model if you’re someone who likes your stories to go narrow and deep, it’s a novel on screen, so I think it’s exciting.
10. Soderbergh talking about taking a break and the full-circle vibe to his 24 year career.
Soderbergh: ..as far as this being my swansong, I don’t know. It was 24 years ago, we were here with ‘Sex, Lies,’ I had hair at that point… I am absolutely taking a break — I don’t know how extended it’s gonna be. I can’t say that if this were the last movie I made I’d be unhappy, I’m really, really proud of the film.
I feel like there’s a connection on the one hand to my first film, because at the end of the day it’s really about two people in a room, and that’s what my first film was about. And at the same time stylistically it’s a progression. If you’d flashed me forward and shown me this film I’d have been able to recognize there was a lot of experience that resulted in a kind of simplicity and directness in the filmmaking that I think would have made me very happy. It’s been a nice run.
“Behind the Candelabra” will show stateside on HBO this Sunday, May 26th, and will roll out theatrically abroad thereafter. Which sadly means that under current rules, it’s not eligible for the 2014 Oscars, at which we can’t help but feel it would ride high, especially for Douglas.