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Traffic & Soderbergh Q & A
It’s too bad a lot of people are going to buy a ticket to see Traffic wondering already if it is going to be the best picture of the year. Honestly, it is a nearly flawless film and has some of the absolute best acting performances of the year (this movie really shows off Benicio Del Toro’s acting and proves that, with the right script, Michael Douglas can really, really turn it on) and the look of the movie is very, very cool.
That said, is it the best picture of the year? I’d hand Steven Soderbergh an Oscar for best director, sure, but the jury is still out on best picture. It may well end up winning.
Now, let’s move on to the meat.
Traffic is really three stories being told about the drug trade - one story follows the recently appointed American drug czar’s (Michael Douglas) trials and travails as he tries to keep his own teenage daughter (#3 in her class) from sinking further into drug abuse - another story concerns the wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of a San Diego drug lord who was oblivious to his business affairs until he is arrested. The third tells the story of the police/army/cartel dealings below the border in Mexico as you watch a cop from Tijuana (Benicio Del Toro) weave his way in and out of the system trying to do the right thing and not always knowing what side to play.
There is a lot going on in this movie. Miguel Ferrer plays the snitch who gets Zeta-Jones’ character’s husband in jail. Don Cheadle plays the cop who busted him along with Luis Guzman (yay!). Dennis Quaid plays one of her lawyers and Peter Reigert plays another. Topher Grace (the main dork in That 70’s Show) plays the boyfriend of the drug czar’s daughter who dances on the border of hardcore addiction and provides much needed (albeit ironic) comic relief. Amy Irving plays the long-suffering mother who has drug problems of her own in her past. And there are even more cameos by the likes of Senator Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer. And Salma Hayek. And Benjamin Bratt (the first thing I’ve liked him in). And Albert Finney.
There will be critics who compare this to The French Connection and all kinds of other drug movies, but as Soderbergh said in the Q & A following the screening, he wasn’t trying to make a movie about an addict and their dealer or, on the flipside of that, a movie simply about the drug problem on the border. What he succeeded in doing was making a wide-sweeping epic that covers so many bases that you’ll probably be surprised at how well he pulls it off.
I enjoyed Traffic and thought it was an amazing, epic film that was filled with well-drawn characters, a great score (Flea and Herbie Hancock contributed), and a stylish look like no other film out there. And yes, a really sharp script.
But enough about me.
Steven Soderbergh came up to talk about the movie accompanied by Howard Rodman, the novelist and screenwriter who adapted Joe Gould’s Secret and currently is on both Rollerball and Takedown as a writer, who acted as a moderator.
The first thing that Soderbergh said was, “this has got to be the most expensive film IFP/West has ever screened” referring to the Independent Features Project/West group that was screening the pic that night. Soderbergh admitted that the movie’s budget was $46 million and later, while discussing the various re-shots he had to do because of the tricky film stock he was using, also said that he has never once gone over budget on a film.
Soderbergh got comfortable and started off by talking about the party towards the beginning of the film where Michael Douglas’ character hits a D.C. party and starts hanging out for the first time with lobbyists and congressmen who want to get a piece of him. Soderbergh said that they simply sent out a bunch of invitations and “didn’t discriminate who we sent them to.” Of course, the big stars that showed up included Senator Orrin Hatch and Sen. Barbara Boxer and Soderbergh simply sent three cameras in and started shooting after telling people what they were to do. He added that everything was completely improvised and that “Orrin Hatch’s 10-minute monologue was fascinating. It was the highlight.” He wasn’t kidding.
Soderbergh went on to explain that the movie was in fact adapted from the British TV show that he’d seen on PBS in ’90 a year after it premiered. He knew how much he liked it, but he didn’t think about it as far as adapting it to film then. Years later, he wanted to make a movie about drugs, but not just “addicts and dealers” and was talking to Laura Bickford about it, who mentioned she had the rights to the show. That’s when they started reading because they wanted to attach a writer before they went out for money.
That’s when they found Stephen Gaghan because of a script called Havoc that he’d written about high school gang kids at Pacific Palisades High School. Soderbergh really got into the guy’s voice and especially the way he wrote for the kids, so they decided that they had to meet him. When they met him, however, it turned out that he was already writing a drug movie for Edward Zwick’s company (Bedford Falls). However, he’d spent a year and a half researching the drug movie and hadn’t been able to really create a protagonist that would be exposed to everything he wanted to expose them to. Adapting Traffik was a solution. Gaghan was really behind the project because of the idea of multiple narratives and took the idea back to Zwick, who agreed to combine the projects.
Next up, Soderbergh talked about the much-heralded failed development period at Fox. He said that he can understand what happened in retrospect as first off, Fox 2000 honcho Laura Ziskin was fired before the first draft was even turned in and Bill Mechanic was in a difficult spot with the studio at the time and the idea of a 165-page screenplay, one-third of which was in Spanish, with no real good guys or bad guys on a $46 million budget just wasn’t going to fly.
Then USA Films stepped in and solved everything.
Concerning casting, Soderbergh said that there were really three types of people they went after. People they “thought of” including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, etc. People he’d worked with before like Albert Finney, Luis Guzman, Don Cheadle, etc. And finally, people he wanted to work with like Steven Bauer. He admitted feeling sorry for his casting person (Debra Zane) as they didn’t have much time between being green-lit and going into production, so she had about a month to cast 135 speaking parts in 9 cities.
The issue of Soderbergh-as-cinematographer came up and the first thing he said about it was that he did it as “something to fall back on when I lose it.” Of course, he went on to say, he shot his own short films and shot Schizopolis and this movie seemed to be the one to make the leap on, because he wanted to do a whole “run and gun” kind of thing on it to move fast through the three different “looks” of the three different narratives, which is why he ran with a barebones crew.
He cited as an example that the lighting was pretty screwed up in one section as the windows were 12 stops over-exposed (I have no idea what that means) and the gaffer would come up and mention it. Soderbergh would then nod and they’d do the shot. If there had been a cinematographer, it would be a long conversation mainly because the guy would want to work again some day. Soderbergh added that he would “trade not being a world class cinematographer for momentum.”
The issue of indie versus studio came up in a major way and Soderbergh outlined some of his fights against the studios stating specifically that “it’s not the studio’s job to be forward thinking” and that’s why he worked the way he did. He said that he was glad that USA was pretty open on Traffic and embraced them with “open arms” as he mentioned there were certain films he wasn’t able to get made, but merely jumped off of those to prevent getting bitter because he really wanted to keep working.
When asked about the indie movement as a whole, Soderbergh said, “the halcyon days of independent film is coming to an end” as he saw a movie he really liked - Chris Nolan’s Memento, and knew that every distributor, big or small, passed on the movie. He spoke a little about being lucky to come “out of the gate as a writer/director” with sex, lies…, though he has drifted from writing as he “hates writing.”
Soderbergh got into it a little about the studios and said that some of his survival comes because he doesn’t “take personally certain aspects of the business that could easily be taken personally.” He said when people start attacking his work, he simply pulls a “rope-a-dope” and takes it on the chin, nods, plays along, and then just comes up with a reason why he didn’t incorporate people’s suggestion after lock picture.
As for the shooting, he said that there were only 4 shots in the entire movie that weren’t hand-held and then began talking about a great helicopter pilot who worked on the shoot and how they were all worried about a shot over the governmental palace they were set to do, but knew the local government weren’t down with that. The pilot merely flew them over and later Soderbergh found out that if you just do something like that, it usually takes them a week to realize you did anything wrong. Soderbergh added that he could write a whole movie about their pilot.
As the evening ebbed to a close, Soderbergh was asked about how well he works with actors and he gave his extremely quotable (and oft-quoted) statement that he genuinely likes actors and that he goes out of his way to make them comfortable. He said that he sees his job from the day he first meets with the actors to the first day of shooting is to provide an “ever-tightening velvet-lined chute” that would lead them to the set and make it easy for them to “tell the truth” because a “comfortable actor is a good actor.”
Fun, fun. There was a reception afterwards, but I didn’t stay. The movie was coolsville and I’m sure everyone will be seeing it review or no, but hopefully you’ve learned a lot about Soderbergh’s take on the pic from this article.
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