Steven Soderbergh Is So Money
Director Steven Soderbergh made a splash at Cannes in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape. For almost a decade after that, he came across as a one-hit wonder. Out of Sight kicked off a Soderbergh comeback in 1998 which he built on with The Limey, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Soderbergh’s next project was a remake of the little-loved Rat Pack heist movie, Ocean’s 11. Even with a star-studded cast, the movie was a high stakes gamble. Stephen Rebello talked to the director about his resurgence and upcoming projects in this interview from the January/February 2002 issue of Movieline magazine.
Three years ago, after nearly a decade of confounding movie pundits by following the precocious phenomenon sex, lies and videotape–which wowed critics and audiences alike and won the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival–with such off-center and commercially disappointing fare as Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath, Gray’s Anatomy and Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh came roaring back with Out of Sight, a funky-cool crime yarn fueled by palpable sexual chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and The Limey, a stylish, L.A.-set revenge thriller that reinvented ’60s screen icon Terence Stamp.
Last year, Soderbergh cemented his position in the pantheon of contemporary filmmaking talent with another double-barreled success: Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Erin Brockovich could have been an exceptionally well-written movie of the week, but instead it prickled with edgy energy and powerhouse performances by Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. Traffic could have been a polemic, but Soderbergh turned a strong script and an unconventional ensemble cast into an enormously human film that raised intriguing questions about America’s failed drug war. Each film earned more than $100 million at the box office, and pulled down five Oscar nominations apiece. Soderbergh, nominated for both films, won Best Director for Traffic, and his Brockovich star Roberts took home Best Actress. Suddenly, all over town, it was welcome back, Soderbergh.
Where do you turn when Hollywood gives you carte blanche? Refusing to be pigeonholed, the director opted for Ocean’s 11, 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-entertainment flick without sacrificing his trippy, 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 entity Section Eight that he runs with George Clooney, and he’s also joined one-of-a-kind directors Spike Jonze and David Fincher to create a new production partnership.
STEPHEN REBELLO: When we last talked, when Traffic was about to open, you told me that for Oceans 11 you were thinking of casting Luke and Owen Wilson in the roles that eventually went to Casey Affleck and Scott Caan. The press speculated about such others as Bruce Willis, Ralph Fiennes, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. What’s true?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: 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 go, “I love Andy Garcia in this. He’s not afraid to play the role.” And, yes, we talked to the Wilson brothers, but Scott Caan and Casey Affleck kill me. I mean, those two guys were a TV series.
Q: This cast looks so light and easy together that you want to hang out with them.
A: 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 going to just walk through this, you’re mistaken. If anybody gets smug, we’re dead.”
Q: Clooney and Pitt have great chemistry together.
A: I had this feeling about George and Brad because they have very similar attitudes about themselves and about work. They’re unpretentious, they’re self-deprecating, they treat people well 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, and Brad is like that. He’s one of those people who can eat constantly and just look the same.
Q: Jeez, another reason to resent him bitterly. How do you size up Pitt after having worked with him?
A: 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. I mean, we’re all looking to him for guidance. 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. He’s fearless. I don’t know anyone else in his position who’s taken the chances he has.
Q: There’s a funny scene in which the plot requires him to disguise himself as a doctor.
A: That happened right on the set when I said, “I don’t know any doctor on call at a casino that looks like you. We’ve got to do something.” Our key 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.
Q: You’ve worked with George Clooney before, and have now formed a company with him. What’s the connection between you guys?
A: 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 easy to work together.
Q: Is there anything that annoys you about your great-looking, talented, well-liked friend and colleague?
A: [Laughing] When somebody said, “Why are you going into a production partnership with George?” I said, “He’s agreed to give me 25 percent 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.
Q: 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.
A: Julia and I really talked about that aspect. I wanted to try something risky with her in the context of the movie, something that might turn audiences off. I also wanted her scenes with Danny Ocean to feel like a Howard Hawks movie–two grown-ups talking. I told her, “You haven’t gotten over what happened between you and Danny Ocean, and you’ve dealt with it by emotionally cauterizing 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 I said, “There’s a line to be crossed. We know where we’re going with your character.” She found a place where she’s firing off those lines but she’s not being a bitch about it. It’ll be interesting to see whether audiences sit with it.
Q: It’s by design a cool guy’s movie. What was that like for her?
A: She was in heaven.
Q: Did any romantic sparks flare up?
A: No. In retrospect, that was obviously a difficult time for her, so in that regard, she was very much keeping 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 hang quotient is pretty high with her, and the guys being who they were, she fit 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, where I’d have to go, “All right, let’s knock it off. Can we get back to work?”
Q: One of the things I liked best about it was that it’s not your father’s Ocean’s 11, but it’s a throwback movie in the best way, like one of those great men-in-groups movies directed by Howard Hawks. The last 10 minutes of the movie, much of it scored to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” wowed me.
A: I’m really interested in seeing how this movie will go over. The whole movie’s inherently theatrical, and the last 10 minutes shift into a ’40s-studio-movie mode, like a George Cukor movie. Julia does a long walk across the casino floor. I thought she was spectacular–just great movie-star acting–and that whole sequence is one of my favorite 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, it’s very linear, and is meant to be put together one way. And we were cutting as we went because we thought there was going to be a strike. We were watching it and I felt, There’s a beat missing.
Q: You mean an emotional beat where her character shifts her allegiance from one man to another?
A: Right. I knew it wasn’t a dialogue thing, it was a matter of watching her downshift and realize 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. She looked at it, asked, “What exactly am I supposed to do?” I explained, she said, “I get it.” 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, she 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.
Q: With the ongoing aftershock of the events of September 11th, do you have any trepidation about the movie, in which there are explosions and blackouts of an entire city, and with a teaser poster campaign that featured a huge red number 11 that freaked out some people?
A: I’d absolutely make the movie again today. I didn’t know what to say when that whole thing about the poster came up. We decided to do nothing. I mean, the movie has an 11 inherently in its title. It doesn’t have that association to me, though I guess it does to some people. I don’t know how far to extend this idea of erasing anything which has any association with that event. As far as the movie opening on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor? Just another horrible coincidence.
Q: 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?
A: In the middle of making Ocean’s, I thought how I really wanted to make a small movie. All the actors seem very intrigued by the idea of driving themselves to the set and showing up ready to be on camera. They’re going through their closets and picking out their wardrobe. To me, it’s a slapdash combination of Richard Lester and Max Ophuls, Rules of the Game and a Godard movie. The plan is to strip away the machinery in the making and the selling, so it’s an 18-day shoot, a $2 million movie. We deliver the print in February and release it on March 8th.
Q: What’s with the independent production entity you’re putting together with directors Spike Jonze, David Fincher and Alexander Payne?
A: We’ll all talk about it and lay it out, but it’s just too early. It’s been such fun getting Section Eight up and running. For instance, Todd Haynes’s movie with Julianne Moore [the upcoming Far From Heaven] is a fake Douglas Sirk movie, but brilliant–one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. With Section Eight, we’re sort of calling people we like and using whatever momentum we might have to try and get some interesting stuff going.
Q: With everyone telling you how good you are these days, with an Oscar and many other film awards at your house, how good do you think you are?
A: 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 that Kieslowski or Bergman was. I’m not an artist like Tarkovsky, ironically, whose film Solaris I’m going to ruin. Solaris is going to be as close a run at a serious film as I will have ever made. I’m realizing 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.
Q: But there’s a built-in trap there.
A: 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 learning. I still feel that I have better work in front of me.
Stephen Rebello interviewed Elizabeth Hurley for the November issue of Movieline.