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The Master: Steven Soderbergh
Three years ago, after nearly a decade of confounding movie pundits by following the precocious phenomenon sex, lies, and videotape with such off-centre and commercially disappointing fare as Kafka, King O The Hill, Gray's Anatomy and Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh came roaring back with Out Of Sight, a crime caper fuelled by the palpable sexual chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.
Last year, Soderbergh cemented his position in the pantheon of contemporary film-making talent with another double-barrelled success: Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Each film earned more than $100 million at the box office, and pulled down five Oscar nominations apiece. The Atlanta-born Soderbergh, nominated for both films, won Best Director for Traffic, while Brockovich star Julia Roberts took home Best Actress. Suddenly, all over Hollywood, it was welcome back Soderbergh.
But where do you turn when Hollywood gives you carte blanche? Refusing to be pigeonholed, the director opted for Ocean's Eleven, a big budget but highly Soderberghian take on the 1960 Las Vegas casino caper which, in place of Rat Pack hipsters Frank, Dean and Sammy, features such contemporary icons of postmodern cool as George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. The cast alone raises expectation to an almost impossible level, and who isn't curious to see whether Soderbergh can pull off a large-scale escapist flick without sacrificing his outsider, humanistic sensibility?
But before anyone can yell sell-out, he's already shooting a low-budget film titled, appropriately enough considering his refusal to be typecast, The Art Of Negotiating A Turn, and come spring, he plans to remake Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 science-fiction masterpiece Solaris. Meanwhile, there's the production company Section Eight that he runs with George Clooney, and he's also joined director's Spike Jonze and David Fincher in a new production partnership. He's quite busy, then.
You said you were thinking of casting Luke and Owen Wilson in the roles that eventually went to Casey Affleck and Scott Caan in Ocean's Eleven. The press speculated about such others as Bruce Willis, Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. What's true and what's fiction?
There were a lot of people in the mix. I don't think Cameron's name came up because I wanted Julia from the get-go. We talked for a while to Bruce Willis. Just as on Traffic, you get who you're supposed to get. We talked to Ralph Fiennes to play the heavy, but now I look at the movie and think: "I love Andy Garcia in this. He's not afraid to play the role." And yes, we talked to the Wilson brothers, but Scott and Casey Affleck kill me. I mean, those two guys were a TV series.
The cast looks so comfortable together that you really would like to just hang out with them...
The truth is that they're having a good time, and they're all people who are truly cool to hang out with. But before we started, I said to everyone, "Show up ready to work. If you think you're just going to walk through this, you're mistaken. If anybody gets smug, we're dead."
It must have been a bonus that Clooney and Pitt hit it off so well together...
I had this feeling about George and Brad because they have similar attitudes about themselves and about work. They're unpretentious, they're self-deprecating and never want to appear as the cliché of the self-obsessed actor. They both like to laugh. They first met when we were doing the final sound mix for Erin Brockovich. We talked about what we were thinking and Brad said: "Sounds like fun, count me in." Later, I went to Brad's house and he said: "I don't want to rewrite or anything, but I'm trying to figure out the dynamic between my character and George's and I want to float this one idea - that Danny Ocean is the guy with the big plan in his head, the vision, but he's terrible with details. I'm the guy who remembers everything." He talked about wanting to overlap dialogue with George, to know what his character's going to say before he's finished saying it. I said: "Perfect. We can play off that dynamic constantly." His ideas were good and smart. He also came up with the idea that he should be eating all the time - Brad is like that. He's one of those people who can eat constantly and just look the same.
Another reason to resent him bitterly. What do you think of Pitt now having worked with him?
Like anybody who's worked with him, I've become a huge fan. At some point, it's got to be a burden being the coolest guy on the planet, but he wears it so well. I have enormous affection and respect for him. He's a really good actor. When you look like that, it's hard to get people to pay attention to what you're actually doing. I don't know anyone else in his position that's taken the chances he has.
There's a funny scene in which the plot requires him to disguise himself as a doctor...
That happened on the set when I said: "I don't know any doctor on call at a casino who looks like you. We've got to do something." Our hair person said: "I've got the wig Mike Myers uses when he rehearses Austin Powers." There are a lot of people who would not put that thing on, but Brad couldn't get enough of it. He put on the wig and glasses and just disappeared. He kept walking around the casino with them on.
You've worked with George Clooney before, and have now formed a company with him. What's the connection between you two?
I like what he does, and he trusts me, I think. George and I are so alike. We have no patience for drama. We have no interest in people who are not sincere and don't care about what they're doing. That makes it easier to work together.
Is there anything that annoys you about your great-looking, talented friend and colleague?
When somebody said: "Why are you going into a production partnership with George?" I said: "He's agreed to give me 25 per cent of his hairline over the next 18 months." George actually has a descending hairline. He has to shave it back to keep it from growing into his eyes. Unfair? Tell me about it.
You said that Brad Pitt's looks make him easy to underestimate. The same could be said about other members of your cast. Julia Roberts plays the Clooney character's ex-wife with an unexpected edge, a weary sadness...
Julia and I really talked about that aspect. I wanted to try something risky with her, something that might turn audiences off. I told her: "You haven't gotten over what happened between you and Danny Ocean, and you've dealt with it by emotionally cauterising yourself. Until the very end of the movie, I want you to be justifiably angry and hurt." She said: "I think I'm coming across as too hard," but she found a place where she's firing off those lines and not being a bitch about it. It'll be interesting to see whether audiences sit with it.
It is, by design, a cool man's movie. What was that like for Julia?
She was in heaven.
She was filming this when she very publicly broke up with her boyfriend Benjamin Bratt. Were you aware of what was going on?
She was keeping very much to herself. She's literally the only girl in the whole movie, surrounded by all these guys. When I sent her the script, she said: "Are you kidding? This is going to be a blast." The guys being who they were, she fitted right in. She'd worked with Brad (on The Mexican) and also with Matt when he was, like, two (on Mystic Pizza). In fact, a lot of the shooting was me working over here, and 15 feet away, there would be this circle around Carl Reiner, the ringleader, with Julia, George and the rest of them, and I'd have to go: "All right, knock it off. Can we get back to work?"
It seems like a very old fashioned Hollywood movie. Is that what you were going for?
The whole movie is inherently theatrical, and the last 10 minutes shift into a Forties studio movie mode. Julia does a long walk across the casino floor - I thought she was spectacular - and that whole sequence is one of my favourite things in the movie. It wasn't there at first. I showed the movie to Warners eight days after we wrapped. What made it hard to shoot made it easier to cut - that is, very linear. We were cutting as we went because we thought there was going to be a strike. We were watching it and I felt there was a beat missing.
You mean an emotional beat where her character shifts from her allegiance from one man to another?
Right. I knew it wasn't a dialogue thing, it was a matter of watching her downshift and realise that the man she wants is still nearby, and she has to find him. So, we'd finished shooting and I told Julia: "I just need this one shot." She showed up to find us waiting with 250 feet of dolly track. We did seven or eight takes, including one where the dolly grip fell and Julia stepped right over him without missing a beat. When we finished, he said: "That was so much fun," because it was pure cinematic acting. It's rare to see a character think very much anymore in movies.
With the ongoing aftershock of the events of September 11, do you have any trepidation about the release of this movie, in which there are explosions and blackouts of an entire city and a teaser poster campaign that features a huge red number 11?
I didn't know what to say when that whole thing about the poster came up. We decided to do nothing. I don't know how far to extend the idea of erasing anything which has any association with that event.
What about the movie you're shooting now, which is said to be linked somehow with sex, lies, and videotape and stars Julia Roberts, David Duchovny and Catherine Keener?
In the middle of making Ocean's Eleven, I thought how I really wanted to make a small movie. All the actors seem very intrigued by the idea of driving to the set and showing up ready to be on camera. They're going through their closets and picking out their wardrobe. The plan is to strip away the usual machinery of film-making, so it's an 18-day shoot, costing about $2million. We deliver the print in February and release it on March 8.
You have an Oscar gracing your mantelpiece, but how good do you think you are?
It has to do with knowing your capabilities and not shying away from or being embarrassed by the things you do well. There are certain things I think I don't do well. I'm not an artist in the sense of Kieslowski or Bergman. I'm not an artist like Tarkovsky, whose film Solaris I'm going to ruin. Solaris is going to be as close a run at a serious film as I will ever have made. I'm realising that what I seem to have a knack for is being a craftsman who's able to make artful entertainment. Doing commercial pieces or genre material in such a way that it doesn't insult or alienate the audience.
But there's a built-in trap there...
I've seen it. I have to be careful not to become complacent. That's why the subject matters and the styles keep changing. I still feel like I'm learnng. I still feel that I have better work in front of me.
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