Steven Soderbergh: The Complete Playlist Interview

Anyone who’s heard him at a Q&A, been present for one of his lectures, or even listened to a commentary knows one thing about Steven Soderbergh – he’s a great conversationalist. Some filmmakers can barely talk about their own work, but a discussion with Soderbergh won’t just involve him talking candidly about his own process and films, but also anything that happens to come up.

We were lucky enough to sit down with the filmmaker a few weeks ago in support of his excellent actioner “Haywire,” which opened on Friday, and our conversation ended up going on for forty-five minutes. So, while we’ve run edited highlights of the discussion over the last couple of days, we thought there might be some interest in the full version, so below, you can find the complete transcript of our interview with Soderbergh, with some material that wasn’t included in earlier pieces. The director’s cut, as it were. And furthermore, you can also listen to the interview via the Soundcloud player, or download it if you like. “Haywire” is in theaters now.

You seem to be busier than ever at the moment; “Contagion” last September, “Haywire” in January, “Magic Mike” in the Summer, and “The Bitter Pill”…
It’s not supposed to come out until March. But you never know.

You have a lot on the go, that’s the way you like it?
Yeah for now, until I don’t [laughs].

What is that? Is that keeping busy or your metabolism that seems to be a lot faster?
I get better results when I work quickly. I’m prone to overthink things if I’m allowed to and at a certain point in my career, I decided I need to, I need to treat it more like a sport. I need to be reacting to things quickly, and sort of make decisions and then move on. People are why do you have to stop, why don’t you slow down? It doesn’t work that way for me I don’t have gears, I just have on and off. It also keeps me from getting not bored. When you get stuck, or you reach a point where you’re working on something and it’s kind of lost its lustre, for the moment, the ability to jump over to something else for a few hours or a day or whatever, it always helps. You come back and you may have discovered something that helps you.

You could be editing a script, developing a project and making lateral creative moves?
Yeah I’m playing hooky with other work, so it ends up all coming together. But you have to know when to really, exclusively focus on something in order to move it to the next step. Sometimes it means the writer and I need to lock ourselves in a room for three days, and get a new draft. And it also means in this day and age, I tell this to young filmmakers whenever I give this sort of pseudo lecture, I say “Look, you need to create time in which you are not interrupted and people can’t reach you.” There are times when I need two or three hours where nobody can reach me, I’m not textable. Maybe that’s a generational thing. My daughter can do homework with the TV and the iPod on.

People watch movies while they’re writing.
Yeah exactly. But for me, for certain things, I need to be isolated.

It strikes me that you’re very self aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and then you can go “this is the time for this, and this is the time for that.”
Yeah a lot of it’s trial and error, and a lot of it’s instinctual. You know, ‘I feel like I want to jump onto this other thing for a minute.’ All I can say is it’s worked better then the other method, the first four films, which were much more deliberate, and I think the work really suffered. I was becoming a formalist. I was polishing stuff. When I did the Yes concert (Soderbergh’s first directing job, 1985’s “Yes: 9012 Live“) way back when, they had an expression for that: polishing the vase while the house falls down. I could recognize that in myself, I was fixing little things and not seeing that there were larger problems, you know? I’m not a perfectionist, and I never have been, but there are times when, when on films that are working well, in the attempt to fix something small that’s not quite right, you can really screw up something that works. You start pulling at the thread and suddenly stuff that worked isn’t working anymore. Over the years, I’ve developed a good ability to keep seeing the film as though I’m seeing it for the first time. This can be difficult for the producers or the studio, because sometimes I’ll generate four new cuts in a week, and to expect them to sit down and watch it end to end, and have them be able to look at it as if it’s the first time they’re seeing it.

Are they drastically different?
Sometimes yeah, but sometimes they’re different enough in ways that only become obvious as the film goes on. They can’t sit there and watch a movie four times in six days but I can. And I love editing, it’s fun for me to go “God, if you take this one scene and cut it in half, and push it to the last act, suddenly it’s different.”

That kind of deconstruction happened on “The Limey,” right?
Well god, well that was a complete reimagining. I mean we just rebuilt it in the editing room.

From scratch?
Yeah that was the most drastic editing situation I’ve ever been in. That was scary, it was scary, I wasn’t sure if we were going to figure that out and it took a while to figure it out.

I loved the editing on that picture. I heard you tried to push it even further but then had to dial back.
Yeah we backed off a little bit. But it was a real count to ten you know moment of “don’t panic, don’t give up” but it was scary.

That’s obviously written by Lem, and you had your famous little battles….
Things went a little smoother on this. To the point where we decided not to do a commentary because if we can’t top the other one why do it? [note: the pair’s commentary on “The Limey” is a candid must-listen.]

I guess the reason why is because you deconstructed the last one so much that it probably changed…
I think it was a combination of things, it might have been that. Lem’s certainly not someone who’s opposed to a new approach. There was probably a lot of residual frustration from “Kafka,” which neither of us were happy with. It was just a good opportunity for Lem to vent about things in general about movies. I knew that’s what was going to happen, and I wanted it to happen… you know, we need more of those.

But you don’t do them anymore, or you haven’t in a while.
You can’t do them alone. that’s the big problem, and I haven’t done them lately because, I guess I’m tired of talking about it. If you and I sit down, it’s designed to be a sort of digressive, wide-ranging conversation. You’re so restricted when you’re doing one of these commentaries. You can’t really go too far afield. And that’s frustrating for me. And I’ve gotten to the point where I hate calling somebody up and saying, “will you come talk about me with me?” It just seems gross. I love doing it with other people. Like that’s been really fun.

Yeah, “The Third Man” and others have been great.
I always learn something, it’s fun to do it with another director, because then I can ask them questions and, and I get something out of it. So…maybe that will be my new career.You’ve mentioned that you saw Gina on TV, and you thought why not build a movie around her. Formerly you haven’t done an action picture. Did some of the elements in the Ocean’s films or “Out of Sight” inform some of these things? You’ve never really done fight scenes.
Yeah, there have been little bursts of activity but nothing in which action was front and center. Those are movies that if the little action beats didn’t work the movie would suffer a little but it wouldn’t be fatal. It would be fatal here. So I had my little rulebook of what I would do and what I wouldn’t do. How I wanted to shoot them.

I can’t imagine doing another one, another action movie, because I feel like this represents how I’d like to do it, and to do it again, I don’t know what else I would bring to it. It’s probably just because my brain doesn’t work this way. Matt [Damon] was describing a rig that Neill Blomkamp built for some of the fight stuff in “Elysium” that sounded really cool. When he described it to me I thought, god that’s a great idea. I bet that’s going to be really neat. Now I don’t want to steal that because it’s something Neil thought of and built, this proprietary rig with these multiple cameras on it. I feel like unless I could think of something like that, I don’t know what I would do if somebody said would you like to do another action film?

Maybe the subject matter would play a part. There was a moment, very briefly, where I was talking to Todd Wagner at 2929 about a movie about Korea, because my Dad fought in Korea. There hasn’t in a long time been anything…it’s an interesting conflict and I wanted to model it along the lines of Elem Kilmov‘s film, “Come and See.” He stopped making films after he made it, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. You can be sure that Steven Spielberg saw it before he went and did “Schindler’s List.” It’s unbelievable. It follows this sort of young kid through these events in the second world war, and it’s stunning. And I wanted to do something along those lines where it was kind of, where it had an abstract, episodic surreal quality. Visually it was a very interesting war. It didn’t go anywhere, but for a few months I was thinking about it and reading a lot about it and, and that was at least a context in which visually there was action stuff in it but it wasn’t like this. I thought oh there are a couple of things, there are a couple of ideas for large scale sequences that I’d like to try. Because I like things to be real, and so the possibility of going and doing a big scale, non-CG war movie I thought could be kind of interesting. And again I’d be going sort of in the opposite direction of, say, the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” which is fantastic. He’s done that, I would have to go the other way and do something less kinetic.

Which is kind of what you did here. It makes me think of two points. One, your action style is antithetical to most of the action going on today, especially Bourne films. Two, you kind of almost did another action film with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Was that part of the reason why you thought–
Yeah, with that we had a couple of sequences that I thought conceptually were interesting and weren’t necessarily…there was only one hand to hand thing and there was an element in it that made it different than what we were doing in “Haywire.” Then the other action stuff had interesting ideas in it, that were not sort of straight forward, they all had some kind of weird thing going on. But it was also, I mean it was a real spy movie. Scott [Z. Burns, the writer of this and “Contagion“] wrote it so it was dense, it was smart, it was funny. I really like the Harry Palmer films a lot, so there was a lot of that in that. “The Ipcress File,” “Funeral in Berlin” and “Billion-Dollar Brain.” “Funeral in Berlin” I really liked a lot. Scott and I talked about that a lot.  We were watching those as we were working on the script.

In the fight scenes, you just put the camera here, and you watch events unfold.
That was kind of the rule. Except for the Barcelona sequence, there isn’t any handheld in the movie. And even that, I tried to take the curse off the handheld by going off speed, so that it was still kind of smooth. But that was kind of the rule; the camera is not on your shoulder, and there’s never a shot that’s so tight that you don’t know what’s going on, or who you’re looking at, or why.

Is that because you want to do something different?
No that’s my taste. I can’t stand when I don’t know where I am.

Yeah. You know you look at people like Fincher or Spielberg or Cameron or McTiernan, who were the four people I was sort of looking at to prepare for this. No matter how fast they cut you know where you are.

Although disorientation has worked in the favor of some filmmakers. I mean, it’s been done now…
I guess since I do this for a living I can tell when somebody’s just bluffing. So when I feel like you’re doing this because you don’t have it, or because you don’t have an idea. Your idea is to make it go fast so that it seems like it’s energetic but it’s fake. It’s just like somebody’s speed rapping but the sentences have no structure. I feel like I can tell when that was a plan or that was not a plan.

Did you ever have interest in the Bourne films because of Matt? Maybe when Paul Greengrass left?
Well that’s a kind of unique situation because I think Paul and Matt are attached at the hip and this is…I would have ruined it, because if, for instance, I was going to come in and do a Bourne movie, this, the “Haywire” aesthetic, is what I would have chosen, and it would have disappointed a lot of people, because that’s not what they like. So it’s better that I went off and did this.

The music choice in this is really bold. The Lalo Schifrin thing that David Holmes is doing.
It felt like, again, there’s this sort of traditional sound lately for those kind of movies, and I just didn’t understand why. So David and I started talking, and I would send him temp stuff. We worked on it a lot. We had it kind of finished, and then because of this delay caused by the Relativity/Lionsgate conversation because Relativity bought Overture and they wanted to release it themselves, but Lionsgate had it, so there was this like six month negotiation in which we kept pushing our release date.

More time to work on it?
Yeah. So we’re sitting there, and when I realized we’ve got six or seven months to keep playing with this if we want, I called Dave and I said, “What about doing a horn pass?” Like that version of the movie didn’t have horns in it because it’s such a Schifrin sound, he said “Great!” And he got that together, and started sending me stuff, and I thought “God I’m so happy this got pushed.”

It’s so different.
It really was, and better. And that’s just purely luck, because we got stuck in this negotiation. When I hear the score it’s not like it’s discordant. So I knew the choice may not be down the middle, but it’s not like some John Cage thing, it’s nice music, it’s very pleasing to hear. So I wasn’t that worried about it. It needed to be bound to her in a way that you might not normally bind music to a character. I wanted it to feel like her, more than a movie of this type. At a certain point in the movie you go with it. “Yeah it’s different but it’s cool. It’s as cool as she is.”You have an eye for…you’ve always had these unknowns in your films, like Gina, but you’ve also had a good eye for up and coming people. I think a lot of people wouldn’t have expected Channing Tatum to be in this and or your next two films. What is it that you see in him that others didn’t?
I’m far from the first, he’s been around and I’d seen him and he’s just watchable, the guy’s just watchable. That’s really at the end of the day all it comes down to. I didn’t know if this would appeal to him or not. Relativity had a relationship with him already so when somebody said hey, why don’t we go to Channing, I said “great, I hope he says yes. The guy seems to be getting leads now, we’ll find out what his appetite is.” Fortunately, you know, he had a great attitude which is, there’s no downside to being in a good movie, no matter what the part is. And he liked Gina. He’s a fight fan and he knew who she was, and he thought how bad can it be? And I also think he probably in some way has the same attitude that I do, which is, anybody that’s paying attention and looks at the films that I’ve made knows that I do a lot of repeat business with actors. If you show up and we have a good experience, like I did with Chan, there’s a pretty good chance that something’s going to come up, like “Magic Mike” (which Tatum has co-written and produced). That’s the part of the business that I like, that kind of serendipity.

Having already appeared in “Haywire,” starring in “Magic Mike” and again appearing in “Side Effects” it feels like Channing Tatum is almost like your new Matt Damon.
Yeah I can’t imagine not making “Magic Mike,” now that we’re almost done and it was so much fun and I’m really happy with the movie and happy for him, because he’s great in the movie and it’s a great opportunity for him to…I mean he’s danced in movies before but this, this is a little different. I think god, what if he hadn’t said yes to “Haywire.” If I hadn’t have been fired [from “Moneyball“] I wouldn’t have made “Haywire,” then I wouldn’t have met Channing and I wouldn’t have made “Magic Mike.” Yeah, I’ve been lucky.

A friend of mine had a theory that the “Moneyball” experience, coming on the heels of the extremely tough “Che” shoot, was what sort of pinballed you into quote/unquote retirement.
I can understand from the outside that it might look that way, but I was planning this during the last ‘Ocean’s’ film. Like Stalin I tend to work in five year plans, but with fewer deaths. And around the time of ‘Ocean’s,’ I started thinking, “Five years from now I want to be out,” or close to being out. It was at that point I started kicking things that I was developing that I felt that I probably might not get to. I started stripping stuff away.

Was that when Section Eight [Soderbergh’s production company with George Clooney] wound down?
Yeah right around, yeah that’s when it started, now that you mention it. I went to George, we were both like the work load was insane…

Didn’t you guys have one project left over that you said let’s not do this?
We only had one or two. That never got very far, we never got a script out of it, we were going to do that with [‘Ocean’s’ producer] Jerry Weintraub. It was around then that I started feeling like, “hmm, maybe I’m full up.”

We’ve heard this retirement conversation and the reasons why, which seem perfectly logical, and at the same time it’s fascinating to watch the ease with which you take on new projects during that time period.
I’m still going to hit my out mark [ed. note: his last scheduled film for now, “Behind the Candelabra“]

The ease and the speed with which you go “yeah, that sounds good, let’s do this project” and then you’re up and running. For someone who says I’m having problems conceiving new ways to tackle films, you’re still conceiving a lot.
I feel like it would be abnormal, given the amount of work over the last couple of decades, for a person not to be able to do that. Do you know what I mean? Paying attention and, and constantly recalibrating and analyzing what’s happened before and error correcting. I feel you ought to be…I’m fascinated by filmmakers as their careers go on, their shoots are longer and longer and the movies go further and further over budget. I feel like shouldn’t it be going the other way? I could shoot “Sex Lies & Videotape” in like 13 days now, not 30, and have it not suffer at all, because I’m just better. I just have had more experience.

Are you a post mortem guy?
Well up to a point, you know. Once it’s sort of done and the response to it is, is sort of finished, you know I’ll, I’ll just look at it and go “okay, how successful were we in executing the idea as originally envisioned? What was the response to it?” On a creative level and a commercial level, what would I do differently? Sometimes it’s a lot, and sometimes I wouldn’t do anything differently. And I’m just sorry people didn’t dig it.

You’ve talked about breaking filmmaking into objective and subjective filmmaking, and it strikes me that ever since the Ocean films, a lot of the films have been objective filmmaking.
No. This I consider subjective, because the camera knows the outcome of the scene.

But it’s pretty subtle to most people.
True, because there aren’t any unmotivated movements in it, but they are the kind of moves that indicate a pre-knowledge of the content. As does “Magic Mike.”

“Contagion” is objective.
Yeah, right.

You’re documenting, you’re following events.  
Yeah exactly. “The Bitter Pill,” I’m still thinking about it. I’m trying to decide which one it should be right now. I’m watching stuff to get a feel for…I’ve been watching like the early [William] Friedkin stuff, “Sorcerer” I’m a big fan of, I wish there was a better version of it on DVD, it’s so shitty. I’ve been watching “Fatal Attraction” a lot, which is a really well made movie. Trying to determine what’s the line here, do I want to….because it’s a thriller. It would kind of indicate maybe something more subjective, but I haven’t done any hand held stuff in a long time. I’m trying to decide, is it time to go back to that? If you watch say “Chinatown,” there’s no one better then Polanski about knowing precisely when to put the camera on the shoulder and when not. “Chinatown” is like a perfectly modulated piece of filmmaking. You’d think in a period film shot anamorphic, well you don’t want to be throwing the camera…but they’re isolated, very important instances where he goes handheld and it’s exactly the right thing to do. So I’m trying to decide, you know, well maybe there’s a version of this where for certain things you go like that, but you’re adhering to your rules about movement and lens length, so that it’s disguised and it doesn’t feel like a weird choice. So I don’t know, that’s what I’m working on now.

Do you do that for all of your films, like the rules? I’m curious about “Magic Mike” and those rules, form overall. I think a lot of people think it’s this NC-17 type thing but it strikes me that it’s probably something different from that.
They’ll be surprised at how um,… I don’t know what the right word is.

Are you having fun for the musical choices for stripping?
Oh yeah, god yeah, we’ve got some good stuff. It’s tricky because music’s expensive and we couldn’t afford to pack the movie with huge iconic songs, we have a few very choice iconic songs that you’ve got to have. But I think…there’s a sweetness to it that I think will surprise people. It’s not…the humor in it is not mean.

I think you brought up “Saturday Night Fever” as a touchstone, which has humor and is an entertaining drama.
Yeah, although there’s a rape scene in it, a gang rape scene, we don’t have anything that terrible. So it’s not a dark movie I guess is the point, at all.

It’s not a comedy though.
Yeah, it is. It’s a buddy movie in a way. It’s just weird buddy movie in which people are not wearing their clothes.
But I’m assuming the humor is not like the humor of “The Informant!” which is pretty specific?
No, it’s more…it’s funny in the way that Altman movies are funny, you know what I mean? Because it’s, it’s very…it has that feel to it, there’s a lot of like backstage stuff. You know the good news is for me there was a lot of scenes where you just go wow, I haven’t seen that before. Which is what essentially I’m always looking for. That was part of the appeal or idea when Channing said he was developing it. You know you’re always looking for a world, a new world. and I just hadn’t seen this, that’s why I thought it was a good idea. So it’s like “The Bitter Pill,” a thriller, I haven’t really done that.
To some it would seem like you’re ticking off genres. But I guess “Contagion” is a horror in some sense.
Yeah that’s the way I looked at it, that was my version of a horror movie.

Which is very different from your traditional horror.
Yeah, but it was, we joked about it, but it was true, it’s an Irwin Allen movie. I can’t do Westerns, I’m terrified of horses, which is unfortunate.

Two which eluded you: Westerns and musicals.
Well, [the musical] almost happened, I might do “Cleo” [an aborted musical version of “Anthony & Cleopatra,” with Hugh Jackman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, with music from Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices] onstage. It’s too bad I don’t like Westerns because Scott Frank has an original western that he’s written that’s spectacularly good, like great.

And you don’t like Western films?
I just don’t want to make one.

But you enjoy like a John Ford or an Anthony Mann film?
Yeah but the idea of being out there around a bunch of horses, I can’t do it.

I guess you’re looking for new tools and elements to keep yourself on your toes, one of the things that strikes me that you didn’t get to do that you almost did, almost twice was 3D.
Yeah, although that’s not a genre. “Cleo” would have really been the one. Because that was such a stylized piece. It’s a Ken Russell movie and it really leant itself to going crazy with the 3D shit. So it would have been really fun.

There was talk that you might have done Contagion in 3D.
I did some tests, yeah.

Isn’t Peter Jackson using the same cameras that you would have done?
He’s using the Epic, I’m sure.

So you did tests and it didn’t work?
I was worried about these two sort of go-to shots if you’re making a drama. You know a contemporary drama, not “Hugo.” That the over the shoulder and the clean single were distracting to me in this context.

In that style of film?
In that style, yeah. I mean, it surprised me, I didn’t anticipate it until I saw it. The over the shoulder is kind of annoying because there’s this blob in your lap on one side of the screen, and the clean single just looks like they’ve been cut out and pasted onto a background. But it’s an interesting tool, maybe. If I’d had more time… it was a tight schedule and if it weren’t so tight I might have gone “alright.” But I could tell I would have had to rethink every shot. If you’re going to create shots with depth that aren’t distracting and annoying, you’ve really got to spend time getting all of the elements right. I just knew this was a run’n’gun movie in terms of the schedule, I knew there was no fucking way. It was not the one to experiment on.

Going back to the retirement thing, do you find it interesting that some people are like, “this cannot be happening, this is a lie, he’s going to renege”?
Yeah I think it’s amusing, because a  couple of months into it it’s just going to become such a non story. I find it amusing that people keep asking about it. I know three months after it’s started nobody’s going to give a shit. The world will move on and the business will move on and nobody will care. That’s why I think it’s funny when people bring it up. Let’s see if you’re still calling six months after I get out.

People are just projecting I guess. Anybody that works with me and anybody that’s around me understands. The point is it doesn’t feel like a choice anymore than the work decisions I’ve made over the last ten or twelve years have felt like a choice. This is just something that has to be done. I have to slough this skin off and grow a new one. I’m really pleased with the work that I’ve been doing lately, I’m happy with what we’ve got coming. I feel like I’ll be leaving at a time where I was still able to see the ball and hit the ball. I would never want to be one of those filmmakers that people go “God, that last group of films, there was a big fall off.” They’re going to say it anyway, but I don’t want to feel that.

Right, but even “Frenzy” is a pretty good Hitchcock film.
But it’s the last good Hitchcock film, and that’s on the heels of a couple of bad ones, you know, and then an underrated one. I really liked  “Marnie” more then most people. “Torn Curtain,” a couple of good things in it. But “Topaz” is fucking unwatchable, as is “Family Plot.” But there are a combination of reasons for that. I read about artists a lot and about filmmakers and try to figure out, well what happened. Why were John Huston and Luis Buñuel the only people that made really good movies right up until they died? I read this Hitchcock biography that came out a few years ago and was fascinated and saddened to hear that he wanted, after “Marnie” and “The Birds,” he wanted to come to New York…when he saw what was happening in Europe, what Antonionini was doing, the permissiveness that was starting to take hold. He wanted to come to New York and shoot a black-and-white movie that had real violence in it. Prepped it, was ready to do it and [Universal chief Lew] Wasserman talked him out of it. Just said basically don’t do that, you’ll fuck up your brand. He had this really hardcore fucked-up movie that he wanted to come and do on the cheap and the people that were part of the cottage industry that he had created all talked him out of it. I just thought, god, how horribly sad that we didn’t get to see that.[editor’s note: he’s talking about Hitchock’s unmade “Kalidiescope,” by the way].

You have no brand.
No, my brand is no brand. Absolutely, it’s an anti-brand.

Is that by design?
No, it’s just my taste, I’m just restless.

When you’re making a film, do you think “What kind of filmmaker do I need to be to make this one”?
Yeah, I try and disappear and rebuild myself as the right filmmaker for this piece. Just based on what I like to see. I think it’s dangerous to be a brand, people get tired of brands, they switch brands. Brand loyalty is you know hard to come by. And frankly there’s only two, maybe three directors that the public really knows by now, and will, if not show up, at least express a real interest in going to see their stuff. And so I think this whole idea of promoting yourself as a separate entity apart from the picture, I just don’t get it.

Different from most filmmaker’s choices.
It’s a lot harder to be coming up now then when I came up. I can understand a young filmmaker really trying to figure out how do I distinguish myself? There’s so many fucking movies and so many young filmmakers. How do you…now it’s not even enough anymore that the movie’s good. So I get it, but the problem is there’s a real price to pay for that later. If you move into the world of referring to yourself in the third person, and start using words like first, best, only, then you’re going to pay for that at some point.

“The Bitter Pill,” you’re shooting that soon?
Yeah April.

Channing’s going to be in that right?
I hope so.

Here’s the audio. It’s a pretty good conversation I think. Just note, it sort of starts and ends abruptly. We begin talking about “The Bitter Pill” release date and by the end my recorder cut off. If you enjoy this sort of thing, let us know and maybe we’ll do it again.

The Playlist – Steven Soderbergh Interview – January 2012 by The Playlist

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