Steven Soderbergh Says Safety Measures Will Make Up 15-20 Percent of Budgets

Soderbergh talked about a path forward for Hollywood productions in a recent New York Times interview.
Director Steven Soderbergh attends a premiere for "The Laundromat" on day five of the Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019, in Toronto. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Steven Soderbergh
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

As filmmakers are forced to adapt to these crazy times perhaps no director is more equipped to shift gears in a crisis than Steven Soderbergh. The Oscar-winning director’s career has found him careening from glue-and-tape indies to big-budget studio fare, digital video, streaming television, and experimental formats and release strategies with ease.

In a recent interview in The New York Times alongside filmmaker Amy Seimetz, who stars in his next film “Kill Switch” and just opened her own directorial effort “She Dies Tomorrow,” Soderbergh spoke about how necessary safety protocols on film sets amid COVID will dictate how Hollywood moves forward, especially in the budget department.

“We have an ability on a project to control how we move, where we move, how many people come with us — it’s something that can be manipulated to keep people safe,” Soderbergh said. “I think if we can withstand the economic surcharge that’s going to come with keeping a project safe — which I estimate is between 15 to 20 percent of the budget, depending on the project — and if we can scale this quickly enough, then I know we can keep people safe.”

Productions are already up and running in Texas, California, and Vancouver, among other select states and cities, but with enforced testing, personal protective equipment, and social-distancing guidelines. Soderbergh, meanwhile, is heading up a Directors Guild committee to determine a path ahead.

“If you follow these protocols we’re about to finish up with, I feel pretty confident saying that you’re not going to get sick at work,” Soderbergh said. “If you got sick on one of our projects it was during the 12 to 14 hours when I didn’t have you and I couldn’t control your behavior. That’s going to be the trick, is all of this downtime when you don’t know what people are up to.”

Soderbergh said the biggest challenge is corralling the necessary resources and keeping them flowing amid an economically stunted moment for the industry. “I think the biggest issue now is because of the resurgence [of the virus], how do we get access to the resources and the personnel that we need to run these protocols to keep a set safe?” he said. “It’s one thing to do one or two projects and see how it goes, but there’s a movement in the last two or three weeks to get lots of productions back up and running at the same time. That’s going to be tricky.”

IndieWire recently profiled several productions happening throughout North America and how they’re adapting to the current moment as confirmed cases continue to rise. In the case of one production in Texas, on the film “No More Goodbyes,” budget inflation due to COVID measures was as high as 30 percent, accounting for testing, PPE, and hotels for cast and crew, among other novel expenses. The necessary measures mean studios and financiers will need to up the till as a cost of doing business from now on.

As for Soderbergh’s “Kill Switch,” once it resumes filming, how the cast and crew will adjust remains an open question. But the director plans to publicize the experience as a learning tool for future productions. “I’ll tell you in eight weeks. A lot of this is all abstract until you get on set and actually see how this stuff works, and I intend to be very public in my experience of making that movie in order to educate people,” he told the Times. “I’m sure I’m going to learn a lot, and I’m sure a lot of the assumptions that we’re making will turn out to need adjustment. This is a living thing, and it’s going to have to evolve, but in what way won’t be clear until we get out there.”

Chris Lindahl contributed reporting.

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