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Top Cop Steve Soderbergh Drives Traffic
Bring up America’s so-called “war on drugs” and you’ll likely get strong positive and negative reactions.
But Traffic - the new film about that war starring Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones - seems to garner nothing but raves.
Critics love it, it’s a Golden Globe nominee for best dramatic picture, the New York Film Critics Circle calls it the year’s best picture and it’s a front runner for an Oscar nomination.
Even higher praise is being heaped on Traffic director Steven Soderbergh. He’s a strong Oscar contender and four critics groups have already chosen him as the best director of 2000 for his work on Traffic and Erin Brockovich.
Soderbergh first gained notoriety when his 1989 film sex, lies and videotape won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Soderbergh followed up with a string of lesser-known films (Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath) before striking gold with 1998’s Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Out of Sight won praise for its style and strong performances and Soderbergh followed up with The Limey in 1999 and Erin Brockovich which were also acclaimed for their natural acting and realistic treatment.
Zap2it.com recently caught up with Soderbergh and the Traffic cast, who praise Soderbergh’s style and the bond he creates with actors.
“He’s a great guy. He really is. And there is no ego."
That’s how Traffic star Catherine Zeta-Jones describes Soderbergh in her native, lilting Welsh accent - an accent that Soderbergh encouraged Zeta-Jones to use and not disguise. Soderbergh also allowed her to play the part of a drug kingpin’s naïve wife while pregnant in real life - a detail not called for in the script.
Those decisions helped, says Zeta-Jones, “For me it was really liberating to not be trying to hide a pregnancy, but just to open up to being pregnant and also to use my own accent. It just freed me up.”
Zeta-Jones’ new husband, Michael Douglas, also appreciates Soderbergh’s filmmaking decisions. Douglas plays the new anti-drug czar of the United States in Traffic. Looking every bit the movie star in casual slacks and blue silk button down shirt, Douglas exudes filmmaking experience when he praises Soderbergh’s shooting style, which calls for a smaller crew and encourages improvisation.
“It creates a safe acting envelope and bubble. By having a smaller crew there’s not as much lighting involved,” Douglas says. “As actors you then really have just the joy of acting. You’re not having to fight your concentration with people all behind you and all of that.”
Co-star Don Cheadle agrees with Douglas. Cheadle plays a drug enforcement agent trying to bust Zeta-Jones’ husband. He calls Soderbergh “one of the great talents out there today,” and praises the director’s approach, saying, “He trusts his actors and casts people he likes and trusts and then lets them work.”
Soderbergh acknowledges his comfort with and empathy for actors.
“I like actors which puts me ahead of a lot of other directors. I’ve always gotten along well with them and I respect them and I empathize with the specific brand of exposure involved with being on camera,” the director insists. “ I’m telling you man, it’s intense, it’s really intense.”
Meeting Soderbergh, you might think he’s a bit intense himself. Dressed simply in a black jacket over a T-shirt, Soderbergh projects intelligence and self-assuredness from behind his tortoise shell glasses. This is a man who knows what he wants and has thought things out, including his filmmaking style.
“My desire is to strip it down as much as you can and get rid of all that video village crap and also you just move faster,” says Soderbergh. In addition to being faster, Soderbergh feels this benefits the entire cast and crew. Why? Simple, he says: “Anyone there who is not working is an energy vampire.”
Soderbergh’s actors appreciate that vibe. Benicio Del Toro, who plays a Mexican cop in Traffic, says Soderbergh is, “the director I’ve learned the most from” calling him “one of the top five filmmakers we have right now.” Chin in hand and speaking easily in a quiet growl of a voice, Del Toro adds, “I’d love to work with him again.”
Considering the strong reaction to Traffic and Soderbergh’s growing Hollywood clout, it seems likely that Del Toro may get that chance again soon.
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