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Channing Tatum on First-Time Filmmaker Frustrations and How Soderbergh Talked Him Into ‘Magic Mike 3’

Tatum and Reid Carolin explain how Soderbergh informed their filmmaking philosophy and why they're giving a certain stripper character one last dance.

Channing Tatum Dog

“Dog”

Channing Tatum has a new movie in theaters. That in itself is something of an event, given that the last time the “Magic Mike” stripper extraordinaire starred in a somewhat prominent movie was “Logan Lucky” in 2017, which came one year after the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” For the most part, Tatum has been fairly quiet, doing only a handful of voiceover work and taking on some bit parts. With “Dog,” however, the movie star who broke out with “Step Up” and “Stop-Loss” before carrying tentpoles like “21 Jump Street” is showing a different impulse behind the camera.

Tatum co-directed “Dog” with his longtime writing and producing partner Reid Carolin, and the pair have made a surprisingly touching and thoughtful look at a broken man rediscovering himself through an unlikely canine connection. Tatum plays U.S. army ranger Briggs, who’s tasked with driving a military working dog from Washington to Arizona so it can attend its handler’s funeral.

A washed-up guy with PTSD, Briggs is a fascinating contradiction who wrestles with his softer side as his growing animal bond forces him to open up, even as he knows that the army expects to euthanize the animal upon its return. The blend of silliness and military malaise suggests “K9” meets “The Last Detail,” and it’s an intriguing new chapter for Tatum and Carolin as their Free Association production company churns along. The pair were previously attached to direct “Gambit,” a project that fell apart years ago, and Tatum recently said that experience left him so bummed out he wasn’t sure about his next move. Now, he’s found it.

Outside of “Dog,” the pair are currently writing a third “Magic Mike” movie and producing “Pussy Island,” the directorial debut of Tatum’s partner Zoe Kravitz. Over Zoom, Tatum and Carolin spoke about their filmmaking philosophy with “Dog” and why Tatum decided to give the “Magic Mike” universe one more whirl — even after he swore it off.

IndieWire: There was definitely a bad studio comedy version of this movie that you seemed to actively avoid in the way this story unfolds.

Reid Carolin: We were definitely dancing with convention every step of the way and knowingly so, which is always a hard dance to do, but we hoped we could add something specific in terms of giving it a little bit more soul. 

Chan, the last time you played a veteran was “Stop-Loss.” How did that inform your interest in this opportunity?

Channing Tatum: “Stop-Loss” wasn’t something we pulled from in terms of what we wanted to do. It was more in terms of the soldiers that we met on “Stop-Loss.” As an actor, you get to work with a lot of different directors. Through the years, you’re like, “Oh, I like that, if I ever get to sit in the big chair, I’m going to try to do it like that.” I’ve gotten to work with some of my top 10, maybe the top three or four of them, between Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, and Tarantino. It’s wild. I get to really watch masters play. But when you sit in the seat, you end up having to do it your own way. You have the best-laid plans and it never goes exactly how you think. You end up just kind of doing the best you can possibly do.

So how did those experiences help you?

Tatum: I wouldn’t sit here and say, “Well, we did this like Soderbergh and that like Tarantino.” Really and truly, you have a story and go, OK, we’re going to set the dominoes up and just chase it.” It’s a pseudo-controlled avalanche. It’s hard for me to even talk about directing because I really don’t think I even truly got what it is to direct. Reid really directed this thing. Because I wasn’t in the scenes, I couldn’t be back in the monitors with him picking things apart. I was directing the dog while Reid and Tom Sigel [cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel] were in the back pulling the strings. I was just trying not to get bit in the face. 

Carolin: I would give you a little more credit than that, but it’s true. Because we did the Steven Soderbergh way of doing the film where we went with a low budget and a very short schedule, we had to work really fast. But Chan would come to the monitors and watch the takes after every session. 

Tatum: Which cuts your day in half. To watch one take, much less talk about it…I don’t know how actors have been in big movies they’ve directed. I’ve talked now to a few actors about to direct their movies and I’m just like, “Bro, or girl, you just need twice the amount the time you think you need, if not more.” I don’t mean a few extra days. Or just don’t be in it at all if you get funding for it. 

After “Magic Mike,” Soderbergh made a big deal out of how studios overspend on P&A budgets higher than production costs. How did that impact you?

MAGIC MIKE, from left: Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash, Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, 2012. ph: Claudette Barius/©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

“Magic Mike”

©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Tatum: We’ve been in an interesting time even before the streamers took over. On “Magic Mike 2,” we spent $70-plus million trying to sell it and only spent $14 million to make it. If that doesn’t tell you right now where we’re at… you can put lipstick on a piece of shit and people might go to it. It doesn’t mean you actually made something good. It just means the lipstick was really, really pretty and it was the loudest lipstick in the run of all the lipsticks out there. I was even frustrated on this movie when we did this Draft Kings promotion. They had like 15 cameras shooting just one run of me and the dog. Where was all this shit when we were doing our action stuff and we only had, like, one camera on an RC car. And the car broke, of course. It’s really frustrating as a filmmaker. We didn’t have to go make the $1 million indie movie with the one handheld camera we have. We got lucky that I’m an actor that can go out and raise money. I’m trying not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but it is really frustrating when we want to shoot a really cool action scene — the bite scene in the hotel — and you get what you get, but the next thing you know, to sell the movie, all the toys come out. You’ve got drones, cranes, people on motorcycles. 

Carolin: If you believe it’s a director’s medium, it certainly dilutes the idea of cinema straight from the artists who build it from the ground up, rather than a corporate entity. It’s just so interesting how we’re judging films on that standard. It’s just so interesting that that is the standard of what a major movie is. From the experience of just purely creating something, it’s a better experience, hands down. 

Tatum: It’s a bigger bet to make a Marvel or Star Wars movie. These massive commercial films don’t get made unless there’s an infinite amount of market research that knows exactly how many people even know the title name, because they’re a lot of money. You don’t usually have original movies that cost over $200 million. They have to be preexisting IP. It’s something nobody knows and you’re going to have to spend maybe four times the amount of the original money just to make sure people know what it is. So if you start at the place of knowing what Spider-Man is, you just have to tell people what kind of Spider-Man you’re making, what the spin is. 

“Magic Mike” was one of the most successful original IP wins of the past 10 years. 

Carolin: There’s no way we’d be doing a third movie just because it pays. There’s no way we’d do a third movie just because someone called us up and said they’d pay. We had this weird idea in our minds that makes it a completely different film from the first or second one, in terms of genre and everything else about it. We have total artistic say in it. We’re exploring territory that we always wanted to explore in a film. “Magic Mike” gives us the ability to do it. That’s what fun about having the franchise you own. 

Tatum: We put our money where our mouth was. I think Soderbergh knew at least we’d make our money back on the first one. We knew at least that we’d break even because we didn’t spend that much money on it. I don’t think any of us had any idea of what was going to happen. 

Chan, you said before that you were done with this character, so what did it take to convince you to jump back in with “Magic Mike’s Last Dance”? 

Tatum: It was actually Reid and Soderbergh. In my opinion, we had chewed up all the meat on the bone, story-wise. Pun intended, I guess. They’re essentially movies about guys made for women. We didn’t plan on making a second one. Then all of our ancillary characters were so good and fun that we felt like, “Let’s do another movie and give those characters more real estate that we didn’t have before.” Once we did that, we felt like there was no other story. Let’s just like get out of jail. I actually like the second movie more than the first one. It’s more fun and I think more of what people expected the first film to be. I obviously love that one, too. What we learned in the live show was really interesting, too. I didn’t want to make a live show because I was like, “I know this world, it’s kind of dark and weird.” Our whole idea was that we could change that, revolution that in terms of what that experience could be for women. We went out and actually made it with women. It was an education. What we made is today my favorite thing that we’ve made in our careers. If you ever have time in Vegas, please, go. 

At the opening of the show in Berlin, Reid and Soderbergh were talking and they said, “There’s another movie here. We should look at it.” Reid got on the old keys and started typing. 

It’s not an old man movie with everyone in makeup, right?

Tatum: The only one I said I’d actually do — before we decided on this version — was the “Grumpy Old Men” version when we’re like 70. When we’re 70, I want to get the team back together, for sure. 

Carolin: I love that. I actually think we should do a period “Downton Abbey” version that’s what it would’ve been like 300 years ago. I guess “Magic Mike” is sort of like a contemporary “Downton Abbey.” 

How does your first-look deal with MGM/UA inform the work you want to do as producers?

Carolin: It’s really based on the types of relationships we have with the studio. We’ve known Mike De Luca and Pamela Adby for years. It’s easy for deals to look great but not be productive for the people that are in them because you get taken hold of relationships where you feel like you owe somebody something. But we just knew our view was aligned with their own and our vision of who we are as creators. We’re making Zoe Kravitz’s directorial debut with them and I think that’s a real sign of faith in our partnership. I’d keep working with them for the rest of my career. 

Tatum: We’ve had a couple of first-looks. Universal was incredible. We started our first-look journey with Sony and they were the first studio team to give me a shot as an actor. Once you establish this relationship as an actor and not as a director who’s going to be really creating, what they really want you do is develop commercial movies, moneymakers. And we’re kind of a mixed bag. “Magic Mike,” for example…

Carolin: A lot of people passed on that movie. Most people, actually. 

Tatum: They were like, “No, we don’t want a weird, dark, stripper movie.” 

Carolin: They thought it’d be like “The Girlfriend Experience.”

Tatum: Then Warners came and saw the dancing there and knew how to solve this. That’s how we sold that movie. 

Carolin: That was Sue Kroll. 

Tatum: Yeah. I gave her a lap dance. [laughs] She’s a hilarious person. Now, with UA, they really backed us as creators and we’re very receptive. At the jump we’ve been like, “Look guys, we are going to give you the commercial movies, the big action movies and comedies.” But where we’re at in our careers, we want to make this little “Dog” movie and let that be our first thing we do with you guys. I really thank Mike and Pam for that because they really do care about stories. That job is hard, man. It’s really, really hard. Everyone’s looking at you for money. You will replaced in that seat unless you make money. I think they’re doing a very good job of art and commerce. 

Carolin: They’re making movies like that. We’re praying for that group over there and just hope to god that the transition with Amazon goes well.

Chan, you’ve been asked a lot about how you’re back to acting more after a pretty long hiatus. Now that people know you’re getting into the swing of things, how are you evaluating your options and what compels you to say no to certain offers?

Tatum: I think I’ve been pretty clear about what I do want to do. I took myself off the market a few years ago. I literally had my reps tell the studios that I was taking some time. There were a bunch of reasons, but one of the largest reasons that I haven’t talked about as much is that Reid and I really wanted to do direct. If I just kept taking jobs and that was never going to happen. We really needed to lick our wounds from the “Gambit” situation and figure out what we were going to do. If I had just kept on being on sets for other movies we never would’ve started directing anything. You have to be all in and be there 100 percent of the time. You have to be ready to go. That was one of the two biggest reasons. 

How do you think people see you now?

Tatum: They always see you as your last, greatest thing. I’m in “Lost City,” which is going to be a broad “Romancing the Stone” type of thing and they aren’t making movies like that. Talk about an original that’s so broad and popcorn. But you know, it’s definitely more of the “dumb guy being funny” sort of thing. I think I’ve proved that I play the dumb guy pretty well now. I think I get a pass for that a good amount. But I don’t really find that I’m getting pigeonholed too much. I think people get now that you have to have something sort of not down the middle to land our attention. If it’s a good idea, we kind of move away from it, but we’re like, “Everybody’s got that idea, there are 10 other people trying to make that same movie.” So if it’s a bad idea or a really hard movie to make, our ears perk up. If we can make a bad idea work, we’ve really done something that couldn’t be made anywhere else. 

You’ve said you weren’t sure if you’ll direct again. Why is that? 

Tatum: If I do, it’s going to be something I’m not in, that’s for sure. It’ll be the same combo. You’ll get me in front of the camera doing my dumb stuff and just listening to my buddy.

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