8th February: Side Effects released (US)
15th March: Side Effects released (UK)
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Released: 8th February (US)
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NEW & UPCOMING DVDS
Now available from Amazon.com:
Now available from Amazon.co.uk:
DVDs that include an audio commentary track from Steven:
Clean, Shaven - Criterion Collection
The Graduate (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
The Third Man - Criterion Collection
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steven Soderbergh Unleashed
By Chris Gore
(Film Threat, March 25, 2001)
He proved independent films
could be a commercial success with his very first feature sex, lies and
videotape. He embarked on risky projects with Kafka, Gray’s Anatomy
and The Underneath. He redefined crime films with Out of Sight
and The Limey. He took time out to make Schizopolis, a
little experimental movie he made for fun. And now he just won the Oscar
for Best Director for Traffic. And he readily admits that he’s
still learning about making movies. Steven also reveals information about
his next two projects, the George Clooney caper flick Ocean’s Eleven
and a remake of the sci-fi classic Solaris.
The Georgia-born director began making films
at the age of 13 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he grew up. Right after
graduating from high school he traveled to Los Angeles and worked as a
freelance editor. Soderbergh gained attention when he garnered a Grammy
nomination for a documentary about the rock group Yes called
9012 Live. His debut feature, sex, lies & videotape, fueled
moviegoers explosive interest in independent films and its success
influenced the decade of indies that followed its release. sex won
top honors at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 and went on to win the
Palm d’Or at Cannes. His forays into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking have
resulted in some damn cool movies like Out of Sight and Erin
Brockovich. Even his somewhat self-indulgent, yet hilarious and
experimental Schizopolis is a load of fun considering it was made
for less than the Julia Roberts’ lingerie budget on Brockovich.
His latest project is Ocean’s Eleven,
a remake of the Frank Sinatra caper flick. Soderbergh is also at work on a
script for his first science fiction film, a remake of the Russian sci-fi
classic Solaris (Soderbergh secured the rights from James Cameron’s
company). He’s also at the center of this year’s Oscar race with two films
(Traffic, Erin Brockovich) nominated in both the Best Picture and
Best Director categories. [This interview was conducted before the Oscar
nominations were revealed, though we discuss the possibility of being
nominated for two movies.] I received a letter years ago from Soderbergh,
which contained a flurry of colorful language and insults along with a
check for a full run of Film Threat back issues. In fact, during
our conversation, he brings up the note on his computer. Nice to know he’s
still a Film Threat fan and long time reader. Soderbergh spoke to
me from his Los Angeles home to discuss his beginnings and the future of
his unique career…
You recently had all of your early Super 8 films transferred to video.
What did you learn after watching those movies?
It was motivated by the fact that my mentor died awhile back unexpectedly.
It made me want to look at all the material I'd worked on during the
period I knew him and that he had worked on. There was a group that sort
of came up together, and worked together. I called everyone and pulled all
the films together and made decent copies, because none of us had decent
copies of them. We're still in the process of fixing all the sound, but
just watching them was really fascinating. I was inspired in a way,
because they were so full of ideas and you need to be reminded. When
you're starting out you try anything and everything, and it's good to make
sure that you stay in touch with that. It's a trick of the mind to work on
a large scale movie and still make creative decisions as if you were
making a Super 8 movie with your friends. I think you have to do that and
you have to block out all the things that might keep you from doing that.
Who was your mentor?
His name was Michael McCallum, he was a documentary filmmaker. He was
teaching at Louisiana State University, I was going to high school on the
LSU campus and I hooked up with him and a bunch of his students, some of
whom still work with me. My production sound mixer, Paul Edford, was in
Michael's class, I met him when I was 13, and we've been working together
fair to say, as a filmmaker you are still experimenting?
Yeah, I'm still trying to find ways to push myself, and some of those
ways are not necessarily apparent to people who watch movies, some of them
are. Ocean’s Eleven, which we're prepping now, on the surface,
would seem to be just a big, glittering, star-driven, heist movie. Which
it is, but it is going to require some skills on my part, which I haven't
really developed yet [laughs], to pull it off properly. So I'm very
anxious about it, it's actually going to be one of the harder tasks that
I've set for myself in my career. On the surface it would just seem to be
something that people would say, "Oh, it's just a big wind-up toy. What's
so tough about that?"
What are some of your favorite films that you've seen this year?
I haven't seen a lot, unfortunately, because we've been swamped. I
loved Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. I usually don't like those sorts
of things, those revisionist Shakespeare movies. This one, I thought, was
extremely well thought out. I found all the ideas to be organic and was
really impressed by it. I saw a film under circumstances that, to me,
signaled the death of the independent movement. Because I knew before I
saw the film that everyone in town had seen it and declined to distribute
it, which was Chris Nolan's Memento. It'll be coming out in March.
The company that made it decided to form their own distribution arm in
order to release it. It's absolutely brilliant. And I watched it and came
out of there thinking, "That's it. When a movie this good can't get
released, then, it's over."
Independent film is going through an
evolution, a downturn. The media seems to want to continue to represent
only the Horatio Alger success stories, but the reality is that these guys
are filing for bankruptcy and indie filmmakers are struggling. What advice
would you give to young filmmaker's starting out?
I've always been of the attitude that I'd rather see a movie in 4,000
theaters by Todd Haynes than some hack. So, I hope there's a middle ground
to be had as there was in the 70's. Movies that were being made by studios
with stars in them were being made by really interesting directors. That
would be a great thing. I think everyone would benefit. I think there'll
always be a place for arthouse cinema, but I don't think it will ever
again seem as important and vital as it may have a few years ago.
Do you have any specific advice? You
yourself came from independent film.
I came from it, because it was my only option. I lived in Louisiana. I
didn't know anybody in the film business. My only way in was to make
shorts, and to try and make something that was so cheap that somebody
would give me money to make it. That was my way in. Nobody at Columbia
Pictures was going to hand me a movie. So, I was just doing what I felt I
had to do to get my foot in the door, and had I grown up under different
circumstances and known different people maybe I would have started out
you ever see yourself making a big action movie, or branching into a genre
that you haven't explored yet?
Well, Ocean’s Eleven is as close to that as I'll ever get.
It's, I hope in the best way, a big piece of Hollywood entertainment with
a lot of activity in it. It's a great script, and we've got a really good
cast put together. But I'm also working on Solaris, which is
science fiction. That'll be different.
Is that the remake of the Russian film?
fantastic. That's something you're working on right now, development?
No, I'm writing it. What's interesting about it is it's not a hardware
science fiction movie, it's a psychological drama that happens to be set
in space, and that's what's interesting to me about it. I'm interested in
science fiction, but only in the conceptual side of it.
There are hardly any real science fiction
movies made today. They're all about the hardware or selling action
Exactly, and my whole pitch to James Cameron's company, because they
owned the rights, and it was something I was interested in for awhile, and
I said if we do our jobs right it’s a combination of 2001 and
Last Tango in Paris. They said "Oh that sounds good."
I'm excited by it. It's the first thing that I've wanted to write in a
long time. I had been writing Son of Schizopolis and I put that
aside to work on this.
What's your earliest memory of going to the movies?
1968, drive-in theater in Pennsylvania, Planet of the Apes. My
father put his hand over my face at the beginning when they find one of
their cryogenic capsules had a crack in it and there's that skeleton
there. I remember his hand coming up over my face, because he didn't want
me to see that. That's my first memory of seeing a movie.
That's a true science fiction movie in the
sense that the filmmakers were toying with real social ideas.
It's funny, I was just leafing through this Pauline Kael book I have
in my office, and I breezing through it and landed on this Planet of
the Apes review, which she really liked a lot. 2001 was due to
open any day, but she basically said this is the best science fiction
movie ever made. [Pause. Steven is actually reading the book.] She said
it's kind of arched sometimes, but it's fun, and alive, and it has ideas
in it. I just remember reading it and thinking, "Gee, Pauline Kael likes
Planet of the Apes."
Is there a film that you saw that was kind
of an epiphany movie. You saw it and said, "I want to be a filmmaker."
Certainly when I saw Jaws in 1975, and it so freaked me out
that I wanted to know who made this, who was responsible for taking my
head off in this manner? And luckily this book, The Jaws Log that
Carl Gottlieb wrote, was released simultaneously with the film and I
bought it. I just read it compulsively and reread it and became fascinated
with the idea of how movies were made. That was sort of the germ of it.
The following year, when we moved to
Louisiana, I fell in with these filmmakers, because I happened to be going
to high school on the LSU campus. As soon as I got my hands on some
equipment I thought, "This is fun."
Do you collect movies? What's on your
Not as many as some people. Lem Dobbs, the writer, nobody can touch
him. I think he has everything. Certainly every obscure movie I've ever
called to ask him about he said, "Yeah, I got it." I have a pretty good
collection, not indiscriminate though. I don't buy everything, I buy shit
that I like.
your home entertainment system like?
It's pretty straight-forward. I don't have a big sound system or
anything. It's pretty simple. I have a decent size screen, but you
wouldn't look at what I've got and think I was in the film business.
What do you think about DVD?
I love it.
of your films have gotten great treatment.
Yes, most of them. I think Universal is planning to remaster and put
out on DVD King of the Hill next year. Which will be nice. They put
out The Underneath, but they didn't remaster it, which is
unfortunate. Although I didn't like the movie that much, so I didn't care.
I know Paramount has the video rights to Kafka and they're
considering remastering that. Which, again, it's not creatively a very
successful movie, but you like the idea of just being able to line them
all up on the shelf. We're still waiting for Fox-Lorber to put out the
Traffic is an amazing examination of the drug war in America.
What are your personal thoughts on this issue?
My thoughts are more complicated now than when I started on this two and a
half years ago. I'm not very hopeful, however there are things that can be
done that I hope we will do. Some of those things are conceptual, and the
main one getting people to consider drug addiction as a health care issue
instead of a criminal issue. That would be a big step. In California they
just passed prop 36, which Barbara Boxer had gotten on the ballot. It
means that non-violent drug users, the first two times they get picked up,
can demand rehab instead of being sent to prison. That's great. That's a
big first step, but there are so many people on both sides of this issue
for whom continuing the drug war is an appealing idea. I'm not very
optimistic. I'm very concerned about what we're trying to do in Colombia
right now, sending three billion dollars over there ostensibly to assist
the battle against the drug cartels. The idea that all of the money and
resources will be used only for that reason, I think is naïve.
How did you get cameos from real
politicians like Senator Orin Hatch?
We sent them letters, and offered to send them the script, and told
them what the film was about. And that we were trying to present as even
handed an account of this issue as we could, and we would love for them to
take part. The people who were able to come we made sure that we shot
them. All that stuff with the real people was improvised.
Tell me about the performances of the
actors in Traffic, across the board, phenomenal. Benicio Del Toro,
they're talking about Oscar nominations for him.
He's great. We got very fortunate in terms of timing, because we only
had a month to put the cast together. We had trouble getting the
financing, and the movie was greenlit three weeks before we started
shooting. Deborah Zane, the casting director, had, on the basis of the
script, over 130 speaking parts to fill. So, it became a combination of
people we had in mind initially, people that we'd worked with before and
people that we'd always wanted to work with. We went down the list, and
shot from the hip, and didn't agonize. We just started casting people left
and right. A couple of them were just sort of favors, like Albert Finney
basically came in and did two days of work as a favor. We got lucky.
Was Catherine Zeta Jones really pregnant
during filming? How do you direct an actress who's pregnant?
Well, when it's Catherine it's really easy. She was more emotionally
stable than two thirds of the crew. Never flagged in her energy and
enthusiasm, if she weren't so obviously pregnant you would have thought
she was her regular self. That was, again, a very fortuitous development.
We offered her the part and she said, "I want to do it, but I've got to
tell you that I've just learned that I'm pregnant and I would be between
five and six months pregnant when you're due to shoot my section of the
film.” I said, "That's great."
It added so many more layers to her
It did, and it also shows that she's serious about her job. She
doesn't want to spend her whole career being a glamour puss.
It's almost one of those
fortunate accidents that directors talk about sometimes.
Oh yeah, it definitely was, because none of us had ever considered
that as an option. If everybody didn't know that she was really pregnant,
it would be really cheesy to make that character pregnant. It would be too
obvious a ploy. Yeah, we got very lucky.
You work with a lot of the
same actors, Don Cheadle, George Clooney again. You keep coming back to
some of the same people. Can you tell me why that is?
Part of it's just comfort. It's one less thing to worry about in a
way. Part of it is, when you're dealing with actors that have something in
them that you respond to. Don is going to be in Ocean’s Eleven
also, and I'm always looking for a place to put Louie Guzma, and George,
you know I think is a really unique movie star right now. There's no one
quite like him out there in his age range.
George Clooney apparently is a lot of fun
to work with has a rep as a master of playing practical jokes.
Yeah, he's a great hang. Ocean’s Eleven is a great part and
he'll be great in the part.
Has he ever played any jokes on you?
Yes, I played one on him, I couldn't avoid it really. When we were
shooting out at the site he was announced as the sexiest man alive by
People Magazine for that year. So the next morning when he showed up on
set 300 of the crew had on t-shirts with the sexiest man alive on them. He
sort of looked at me a smiled and said, “OK.” Then, like two weeks later,
I found the wallet of the gaffer on the street in Miami where we were
shooting. I was standing right next to the car where George and Ving
Rhames were sitting in, and I said, "Geezus, I found Dwight's wallet
sitting on the sidewalk here. I wonder what we should do with it. Maybe we
should do something with it." And he says, "No, you don't want to do that.
It's somebody's wallet, ya know, that's serious shit." So he said, "Give
it to me, I'll give it to him," and I said, “Alright.” So, a day or two
goes by and I go up to Dwight and I say, "Did you get your wallet?" and he
just looks at me like what are you talking about. I said, "I found your
wallet on the street and gave it to George." And he says, "I don't know
what you're talking about, I lost my wallet, why didn't you just give it
to me? I don't have it." He really got me wound up about it, now how did
he do this? Somehow it worked out, somehow George had orchestrated, and
gotten me convinced, that not only had Dwight not gotten his wallet, but
that he somehow had misplaced it. The bottom line was, I mobilized like
half the crew to tear the set apart looking for Dwight's wallet, and this
went on for three hours. While we were trying to shoot I had half the crew
trying to find Dwight's wallet, and this just went on and on. Finally
Dwight walked up and said, "You know, I've had my wallet the whole time.
George gave it to me the minute you had walked away, and this was all
orchestrated to make you look like an idiot." [laughs] He had me going. He
knows how to tell everybody what role to play and what performance to
pitch, and really had me going.
What is it about the heist-crime genre
that appeals to you?
It doesn't really make any sense, does it? I grew up in a suburban
subdivision and I've made several crime films, and I can't figure out why.
Certainly, I was never exposed to that stuff, ever.
Have you ever committed a petty crime?
[Both laugh] Oh sure, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was
eleven, but it lasted six months and I got bored with it and moved on. I
think it's probably because genre films are a great place to hide. You can
sort of be playing on two levels. The audience is there to see a film of a
certain type, and take pleasure in the satisfaction that specific genre
can provide. Meanwhile, you can indulge in some of your personal
preoccupations without it becoming too pretentious or boring. So, I guess
maybe that's why.
What do you think of the Frank Sinatra original?
I think it's a film that's more notorious than it is good.
How will your version differ?
In every way basically, except for the title and that there's a
character named Danny Ocean who's putting a crew together to know over
several casinos. Everything else about it is different, literally. I don't
know what else to say. I mean, it's just a big heist movie, but why he's
doing the heist and how it's done and the gallery of characters has been
the challenges, and this applies to Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven,
of filming a movie with such a big ensemble cast? You mentioned Traffic
had 130 speaking parts.
The final version of the film has about 115, but the script was 165
pages. So there was some material that obviously didn't make it into the
final version. In the case of Traffic, the biggest challenge was
making sure that everyone was performing in the same movie. When you have
that many characters and you're shooting in such a fragmented way in so
many different cities, there's a danger that you'll have a scene where
people will seem to be acting in a different film. That was the thing that
was most worried about. It wasn't until three weeks into editing that I
felt that we'd been successful in keeping everybody in the same film.
That, to me, is always the mark of an
accomplished director, if they can achieve the correct tone for the film.
Well, that was the trick. My concern was, “I hope the tones match,
because if they don't we're in huge trouble. We're already asking so much
of the audience, that if I can't at least keep the tone consistent then
I'm going to be in trouble.”
Can you tell me any more about Solaris?
Right now you've just secured the rights and you're writing it.
I'm using both the film and the book that it's based on. Also, again,
there are several preoccupations of my own that I'm laying in. It's funny,
I always knew I'd be interested in doing that project, and as I said in
pitching myself to Cameron, and John Landau and Ray Sankini as partners.
It wasn't until I actually got into writing it that I realized exactly why
I was so interested in it. It's turned out to be an opportunity to address
some subjects that I've wanted to write about, but A. didn't know that I
wanted to write about them, and B. didn't know how to write about them.
This is the perfect vehicle for all of them. So, it's been pretty
won quite a few awards throughout your career. What's your opinion of
that? Do awards matter to you?
Oh, they're absolutely fun to get, but they don't make you any better
at your job.
a chance you could have two films nominated for best picture this year,
Traffic and Erin Brockovich…
We'll see. What can I say? It's hard to comment on something that
hasn't happened. I sort of take them for what they are, which is terrific
door prizes. Again, it doesn’t make you any better at your job. I remember
the first week of January in '99, and Out of Sight won picture,
director, screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics, which was
a really great thing. It happened to happen at a time when I was in
absolute agony when I heard that The Limey was just not going to
cut together. So, the following day I was getting these calls from friends
saying, “Congratulations” and “It's really great,” and I'm freaking out
because the movie that I'm working on doesn't seem to be coming together.
Now it turned out that a couple of weeks later we kind of unlocked it, and
it did come together, but at the moment it just made me understand that
this is really nice, but I would trade it for a flash of divine
inspiration in a heartbeat.