Interview

Matt Thrift

Illustration

Robert Manning

Steven Soderbergh: ‘There’s no new oxygen in this system’

The American director discusses his long-awaited return to feature filmmaking with Logan Lucky.

It’s been four years since Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, slamming the door on his way out with an impassioned cri de coeur on the state of the industry at the San Francisco Film Festival. In the event, it turned out to be more of a working-vacation, what with his 2013 TV movie, Behind the Candelabra, and two seasons of The Knick released in the interim. Now he’s back on the big screen with Logan Lucky, one of his best films to date, bringing with it a new fight against the system with the film’s experimental distribution model. We sat down for a long chat with American cinema’s most restless workaholic, the original Sundance Kid.

LWLies: You’ve spoken a lot recently about your new distribution model. It’s still early days, of course, but what are your thoughts after Logan Lucky’s opening weekend in the US?

Soderbergh: It’s been interesting. As I’ve been trying to describe to people, you can’t use the studio metric to judge how the film performed because it just doesn’t apply at all. We were in profit as soon as the movie opened. We have a couple of weeks of playability left to see what the final result is gonna be, where there aren’t really any big releases that are going up against it. I’m curious, given the strength of the reviews and the exit polls, to see what’s going to happen and whether or not word-of-mouth will push us downfield a little further. What we haven’t been able to determine, and it’s the biggest question mark, is why what we thought would be the core audience for this movie – the rural, southern audience – didn’t show up. In fact, West Virginia was near to the bottom of all the states for our box office. I can’t figure out why that is. We targeted this audience very directly and repeatedly, and they did not show up. We can’t figure out why. I don’t know if there’s just a deep suspicion of what they perceive to be a Hollywood movie trying to portray their lifestyle. It’s very strange.

It seems like it’s really hard these days to get eyes in front of a movie for grown-ups. There’s a really pervasive sense of cultural infantilism in commercial cinema. Do you think audiences are to blame for that, or is it the studios?

It’s a good question and a difficult thing to unpack, because for decades now I’ve had conversations with the National Association of Theater Owners – the NATO that actually does things – and the MPAA in which, anecdotally, they’ve repeatedly said, ‘We’re getting complaints from people about the fact that you don’t make enough family-oriented movies, there’s too much bad language, there’s too much sex…’ The violence they don’t have as much of a problem with, obviously. This is something that’s been a refrain that I’ve been listening to since I started making movies. So, if we’re to take that as true, then the performance of Logan Lucky is inexplicable, because this is a movie that’s got three swear words in it, it’s got no guns, nobody dies, there’s no sex, the only violence in it is intended as a distraction, as part of the plot. This would appear to be everything that those people are saying that they’re not getting enough of, and yet they didn’t show up. So you wonder, is this just another example of America saying one thing and doing another? Of saying our values are X but our values are actually Y? I really don’t know what’s happening here.

Could it not just come down to a question of awareness for those people?

Here’s the thing: our campaign was not focussed on big city audiences. We went after the audience that isn’t courted so much, that’s sort of in the middle of the country. We really ignored New York and LA, we just decided that’s not our audience, in our minds. And yet, over the weekend, 25 out of the top 30 grossing screens were in New York and LA, because those crowds are review-driven and they read the reviews and they went. It’s all part of this larger experiment, we’ll see how the next couple of weeks play out. Like I said, there was no version of this in which we lose, ever, it was just a matter of how big can we win? We’ll see what happens. I’ve got something else in the holster that I’m gonna put through this same model, and we’ll see what happens on that one.

This is Unsane, the one you don’t really want to talk about yet?

Yeah, it’s the film that supposedly doesn’t exist.

When you were talking to Richard Lester about Sex, Lies, and Videotape for your book, you put the success of that film down to audiences not having any alternatives at the time. That interview was in 1996, and you said to him elsewhere that you didn’t think things had ever been as bad as they were then. How do you think the current climate compares to then?

It’s hard to say where this is all gonna go. I mean, four years ago I was saying that it didn’t seem sustainable to me, and yet here we are. Right when you feel like maybe it’s crested, some other giant spectacle opens and makes enough money that everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to figuring out what the next spectacle is. I don’t think there’s any scenario in which studios go back to making the kinds of movies that I wanna make. Y’know, adult-driven, non-spectacles that are original screenplays and don’t necessarily have franchise potential.

You had a pretty good run at that with Section Eight though, right? Ocean’s Eleven, Solaris, The Good German… you even smuggled through a deconstructive masterpiece with Ocean’s Twelve.

Well, that’s as close to a superhero comic book movie as I can get. I just think their model is built on these kinds of movies. There’ll always be an exception, whether it’s a couple of slots at the end of year that they give to serious movies to try and get some awards, or if David Fincher wants to make Gone Girl, yeah, they’re gonna do that. But it’s really not the space they want to be in. And that’s fine, they should do what they wanna do, and they should do what they’re good at. I just think that for some filmmakers, that’s not a very conducive atmosphere to making things.

When the studios crashed in the ’60s, you couldn’t hide the scale of some of these disasters. When Darling Lili failed, they lost every penny. There was no ancillary life for a movie, they just lost their shirts. Now, with these put-deals and vertical integration within the company, you can kind of mask the scale of the disaster. You don’t get punished for your mistakes the way you used to back then. There have been a couple of films in the last year to 18 months that are $200m write-downs! It used to be people would get fired for that, and now they don’t, so there’s no turnover in ideology at these studios. Nobody’s going anywhere, nobody gets punished for making a mistake on that scale. And I think that’s part of the problem, there’s no new oxygen in this system.

There’s a sad moment at the end of the making of Che, where you’re being interviewed and you ask yourself if it was all worth it, putting so much effort into making something serious on that scale, given the film’s commercial reception. Do you still feel the same way?

It certainly cured me of my desire to make anything that serious again, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that I’ve stopped taking the job seriously, I guess I just think that genre has become a better vehicle to express some things that I’m interested in than drama. Since Che, all of the projects that I’ve worked on you could put down as genre films of one type or another. I just feel more free, I guess, when I’m not having to worry about whether this is important or serious, or landing a certain way.

Logan Lucky is serious, though, politically at least. Not just its economic concerns, but in terms of its humanism, it’s just so generous. That feels as important today as anything more superficially ‘serious’ or dramatic.

And that’s what I liked about the script, that it took its time with the characters and they all had the opportunity to upend the stereotype that was laid out to set the table. All comedies are built on stereotypes, and the trick is to flip them at a certain point, so that by the end of the movie you feel differently about the characters than you did at the beginning. But certainly, this movie had a sort of undertow that the Ocean’s movies don’t really have. For me those were fantasy films, and Logan Lucky is much more earth-bound. There’s no real equivalent in the Ocean’s movies of Jimmy’s relationship with his daughter. The politics didn’t really need to be discussed overtly, because these people know, ‘It doesn’t matter who the president is, whether it’s a democrat or a republican, nobody is gonna help us. We’re forgotten. Nobody cares.’ And it’s true, so you didn’t really need to say it.

Read our review of Logan Lucky

What’s strange is that the script was written in fall 2014 and we shot it late summer 2016, and none of us could imagine the landscape that we’d be in in 2017. For a while I thought it was really interesting that West Virginia and coal miners are now part of a public conversation that wasn’t taking place when the film was written. It’s an example of things circling that then land, and that’s what artists are good at, taking things that are in the air that isn’t quite central and then distilling it and putting it out for people right when it’s in the public consciousness. Whether or not it turned out to be almost too topical remains to be seen. I’m also curious to see what happens outside of the US. When one of our foreign distributors saw the film, they were kind of alarmed. They’d read the script, obviously, but in the making of the film, I’d really kind of doubled-down on the cultural specificity and they were a little freaked out. They said, ‘It’s just so American!’ I said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you, that’s my job, to make the thing specific.’ It took a while to calm them down.

You wrote something interesting on your blog, that “Editing is in a weird place right now. Technology has opened a door for a lot of over-editing on a micro-level, and while you would think the ability to get an assembly cut faster would allow for a longer period of judging the entire piece as a whole, editing on a macro-level has never been worse.”

That speed in being able to get a version of the movie together lets you sit back and not look at it for a couple of weeks, so that I can judge it on a macro level and see if there are any big moves that need to be made structurally, or if there are any big lifts that need to take place. I still think that’s true. I see movies now that are just misshapen, like nobody stepped back from this thing and went, ‘This thing is 20 minutes too long, it’s got no ebb and flow, or press and release.’ It’s really frustrating and I don’t know why it’s so endemic right now. Obviously, I love all of this new technology and the fact that you can iterate so quickly to figure out if you’re doing it right or not, and then if you’re not to be able to solve it so quickly. I wish I’d had it when I started is all I can say. When I think that on Sex, Lies and Kafka and King of the Hill, I literally didn’t start editing until after we finished shooting, it makes me sick.

Are you returning to stuff the next day that you cut the night before?

Oh, absolutely. On The Knick, there was a scene I was having problems with. I started shooting and realised that I don’t have an idea, I haven’t figured out how to do it. So I sent everybody home and cut everything I had up to that point, and then I realised what I needed to do. I called my producer, Greg Jacobs, who was also my AD, and said, ‘Get this performer on set for 8.30’. We turned up and it took an hour. The idea of having to wait a couple of days to figure it out is… irresponsible! This is not my money.

You seem to have a really good working relationship with writers, and you talk in the Lester book about how you like to have them on set if possible, so there’s another creative voice to bounce things off. As someone who usually shoots and cuts their films too, do you not miss having other voices in those areas?

Not lately. I think it would be pretty hard for me to work with another director of photography at this point. Stephen Mirrione is a very good editor, and I can imagine a scenario, on a certain kind of project, where I would ask him to come edit. But lately I think I’ve fallen into this rhythm because of the overlapping nature of the projects, that it’s just easier for me to continue doing it myself. Plus, it’s something I enjoy, so it’s not a burden, it’s a reward. I’ve always valued the writer and have always made sure they’re as intimately involved as they wanna be. On The Good German, when I asked Paul Attanasio if he wanted to be on set, he said he couldn’t imagine anything more boring. I like having writers there just in case I want to change something. I may have a suggestion about what needs to be done, but I’m not really comfortable changing it without making sure that it’s consistent with everything else that was written.

What I realised, and part of that was taking place when I was writing that book, was that I wasn’t a writer. I had written, but I wasn’t a writer. Just as some people have directed but that doesn’t make them directors. My career just got a lot better. The movies got better, I was having more fun. It’s a real trap that young filmmakers fall into, the sort of Woody Allen trap, that they want to be known as writer/directors and they only want to direct their own scripts. I just think that’s unnecessarily limiting.

And yet when you did decide to write another script yourself, you took on Solaris, of all things. That’s pretty ambitious for someone who doesn’t consider themselves a writer.

Well, I would argue that the problems with that movie that I never solved could’ve been solved if I brought in one of my writer friends. There are issues that I have with that movie that are script issues, and it was my fault that I couldn’t, in that moment, just step outside of it and say, ‘I should just call somebody that I’ve worked with, just for a week, to come and help me with this one section that I’m really struggling with.’ I mean, why wouldn’t you do that?

I think it’s one of your best films. I’d take it over the Tarkovsky.

Oh man, you don’t wanna print that…

They are very different.

One thing I gave up trying to explain to people was that I’m not remaking the Tarkovsky film, I’m adapting the book. There are so many versions of Solaris to be made out of that book. He sets up so many fascinating ideas, and I was just following one branch in a certain direction, while the Tarkovsky film was going off in another direction that allowed him to indulge his preoccupations. There are things in it that I think are as good as anything I’ve done. There are sections in it and pieces in it that are, for lack of a better term, pure cinema, that I’m really happy with. It’s a miss for me because it’s got a second act problem that I never figured out, and so it’s a frustrating memory. I also think in retrospect that I should’ve made it for cheap. We didn’t spend a giant amount of money, I think it was $45m, but I should’ve made it for 10 or 15 in existing locations. If I’d made it for that much money it would’ve had a shot at being successful.

Another problem that I didn’t realise until after, was that any movie with a suicide as a central plot element is gonna have a real tough time with an audience, because the audience breaks into two groups: people who’ve been close to someone who’s committed suicide, who then have no desire to re-experience that in a movie, and people who haven’t, who don’t understand what that feels like. I thought I was making a piece about someone transcending grief, but it turned out most people thought I was making a movie about a suicide. It had a lot of issues.

Clooney is so great in it. Lots of actors talk about how fast you move when you’re shooting. Do you ever come into conflict, especially on such a performance-driven film as that, where your shooting pace is out of whack with what the actor feels they need?

That’s a very specific kind of film and a very specific kind of performance that probably wouldn’t benefit from being rushed. That being the case, I wouldn’t rush it. I wouldn’t leave until I felt we’d got what was necessary there. But y’know, I haven’t really made anything like that since. I don’t think you could talk to any of the actors I’ve worked with and have them describe their experience as being rushed. They’d say I’m quick, but it’s all in aid of keeping the energy and momentum alive, and not letting it fritter away by taking time away from the performances. Because the performance is always my priority. Most of what I’ve read about actors’ experiences working with me, they seem to find it really invigorating. They come to set, it’s lit and ready to go, we block, we rehearse, we go right into shooting, and we don’t stop until the scene is finished. So they get to be inside of it from the moment they reach the set until the scene’s done, and they really like that. It’s almost like a filmed play. It used to destroy me on a set when we’d just be getting to the good stuff and then, ‘Okay, turning around!’ Everybody would go away, back to their trailer, it would just make me insane, because then you’ve gotta get all that energy back up again.

So who do you show your early cuts to for a second opinion?

It’s friends. Other filmmakers, writers, some of whom I have to take a really deep breath before I invite them to the screening because I know it’s gonna be tough. But that’s okay, I know they want me to win, I know they’re rooting for me, but there are a couple of them that can be pretty tough.

What was the best note you got on Logan Lucky?

There were two consensus notes that came out of both the friends’ screening and the test screening that we did in Texas. One was less articulated by people but was something that I felt, which was that I wanted to continue to deepen the relationship between Jimmy and his daughter. So we came up with some additional material for the two of them. The other was we needed one more layer of complication in the heist, so we came up with one more thread that happens throughout, to make it seem less easy and that something could go wrong. So that was it, we wrote a couple of pages and went back and did two days of shooting to fix that. We did another screening in Tennessee which is almost identical to what you’ve seen.

Do you still take a look at early cuts for friends?

Sure.

Didn’t you do a fast cut of Her for Spike Jonze?

Yeah! That was fun.

Did he take many of your cuts?

Well, there were two big moves that I made, and Spike took one of them. It’s sad, Eric, his editor, died just this week. Spike called me and said, ‘I’m just stuck. I need fresh eyes on this.’ I said to send me a flash drive that I can load into the Avid, and I spent the weekend messing around and sent it right back to him.

You cut like an hour out, right?

There was a lot. I was pretty aggressive about it. Spike said, ‘Yeah, Eric and I had to lay down after we watched it, but then we got back up…’ Like I said, I made two big moves and he was like, ‘One of those absolutely works.’ I see a lot of stuff that my friends make, but there are a couple of people who will send me something and say, ‘Take a weekend to mess around with this.’ They just wanna see what I’ll do.

Speaking of editing, on Out of Sight and later Erin Brockovich you worked with the legend, Anne Coates.

Yeah!

She’s in her nineties now, and still going strong. That must have been a masterclass.

I love Anne. She has the thing that you want, which is a completely open mind. She has no preconceived notion of what it should be, she responds solely to the footage that she’s looking at, the conversations that you’re having with her. There was no idea that she wouldn’t pursue in her attempt to make the thing what it should be. Every day, we’d work together, and then I would leave and she would stay and keep going. Then I’d come back in the next day and she’d be like, ‘Oh, I took another pass at this.’ She just wouldn’t give up. I had a great time with her, and those are, without question, two of the ones that people consider right at the top of my films. She was a big part of that. I mean, she cut Murder on the Orient Express, which is one of my favourite films.

Does working with someone like that make you braver in your choices?

Well, it’s just the textbook example of the good aspect of having an editor, of having another person there. She’s as good as we all think she is.

You’ve spoken before about panic-editing on King of Hill. Is it fair to say you don’t love that film as much as some of your others?

No. It’s too pretty. Elliot [Davis] is a DP that I really enjoyed working with and I learned a lot from him, and it’s a beautiful looking film. Ultimately, too beautiful. Maybe it should have been a little rougher in its style.

But that contrasts with its melancholy, it kind of sugars the pill.

Look, I do misremember things, I can’t remember the last time I saw it, so I may be not as down on it as I seem to be. That whole period, that I write about in the book, was a crucial part of my development. Those movies from Sex, Lies to Out of Sight was me really trying to figure out what kind of filmmaker I was and what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be. Where did I fit? These were all questions that I was trying to answer. They were all necessary projects, regardless of their outcome or regardless of how I feel about them. I needed all of them to get to Out of Sight, which is clearly a watershed project for me, career-wise.

You famously re-cut Heaven’s Gate for your website, and then did a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you put it in black-and-white and cut the soundtrack to draw attention to the staging. You’ve spoken a lot about Spielberg, and how you see him as this 4D master. If you were to take any sequences from your own work that could serve similarly instructive purpose, what would they be?

Oh god. I don’t know because I never feel that I’ve gotten close to the people that have that gift. I mean, that sequence in Minority Report, at the robotics plant, the staging in that is fucking ridiculous! It makes my head hurt how you would map that out shot by shot, or any number of sequences in a Fincher film. The montage in Fight Club where he’s trying to retrace Tyler Durden’s steps? That’s sick! I wouldn’t even know where to start. I don’t think I could ever pick something of mine and say here’s an example of staging or montage, when no matter what I do, I don’t think I’ll ever get close to those people I see as savants when it comes to that stuff. If I can’t match them in that category, what I have to do is try to over-perform in other aspects, to at least try and compete in a total sense. I’m still learning, I’m still watching that stuff myself to try and deconstruct the thought process, to try and get inside of it. Fincher’s a friend of mine, and too good a friend for me to go, ‘So David, what were you thinking when…’ That’s too embarrassing.

You posted the list of everything you watched in 2016 on your blog, and I thought I could try and parse it for clues as to…

…what was coming?

Not what was coming but what you watched while you were prepping and shooting Logan Lucky, to see if there were any influences…

Right.

It was a bit of a fool’s errand. You watched Ishirō Honda’s mushroom-monster flick, Matango, twice.

I wanted to remake that.

No fucking way.

Yep!

Oh my god.

Haha. I couldn’t come to terms with the studio.

That CinemaScope and the colour, it’s so perfect for you.

Yeah, it was a movie I saw as a kid and it scared the shit out of me. I wanted to remake it but I couldn’t figure out a deal with Toho, so it didn’t happen.

Tags: Steven Soderbergh

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