Soderbergh keeps up with the details. He likes footnotes,
whether hes reading David Foster Wallace or writing
his own in his most amusing book, Getting Away With It,
Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You
Ever Saw. He promptly answers his e-mails on his PowerBookeven
now, while hes juggling finishing the edit on Traffic,
writing his adaptation of Stanislaw Lems space classic
Solaris, making notes for the sequel Son of Schizopolis,
and prepping his next, Oceans Eleven.
Its hard to imagine that this bespectacled egghead
was once a Little League pitching ace who threw no-hitters
and hit .500. (I was in the zone, he says.)
Now hes in an equally rarefied zone: that of Hollywoods
A-list directors. Soderbergh is three-for-three with Out
of Sight, The Limey, and Erin Brockovich, whose star,
Julia Roberts, is heading into Oscar season as a Best
Actress front-runner. Finally, the movie world is figuring
out that Soderbergh is an actors director. (I
happen to like them, he says.) Performers from Andie
MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape) to George Clooney
(Out of Sight) to Terence Stamp (The Limey) have done
their best work with him. And his cachet among actors
is such that his upcoming update of the Rat Pack curio
Oceans Eleven attracted an almost unheard-of collection
of A-list talent, including George Clooney (whos
also producing), Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon,
and Bill Murray. His real signature is that he brings
out the best in all his collaborators, says screenwriter
Howard A. Rodman (TVs Fallen Angels, for which Soderbergh
has directed an episode). Erin Brockovich would
have been a movie-of-the-week in anyone elses hands.
directors he reveres range from Richard Lester (Getting
Away With It features an exhaustive Q&A with the
director of A Hard Days Night) to Jean-Luc Godard.
Giant posters of such Godard rarities as Les Caribiniers
and Bande á Part dominate Soderberghs Burbank
office. Godard is a constant source of inspiration,
he says. Before I do anything, I go back and look
at as many of his films as I can, as a reminder of whats
possible. But the director Soderbergh probably
resembles most is that master of many genres, Howard
Hawks, who cannily, craftily improved just about every
story he got his hands on.
since Soderbergh arrived on the scene in 1989 with the
$1.2 million Sundance smash and Cannes Palme dor
winner sex, lies, and videotape (a film about deception
and lost earrings), the writer-director has avoided
letting Hollywoods overheated praise go to his head.
For one thing, he labored for years in Hollywood and in
his hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a worker-for-hire
on TV game shows, music videos, documentaries, and after-school
specials, honing his skills as a writer, editor, and director.
Hes also intensely self-critical. He was not only
willing to reveal himself in the semiautobiographical
sex, lies, and videotape and Schizopolisthe latter
film starring himself, his then-wife, Betsy Brantley,
and their daughter, acting out their family lifebut
he recognizes that the artier experiments Kafka, The Underneath,
and Schizopolis were less than satisfying to audiences.
Yet he insists that those three features and his six short
films were crucial to his own growth. Hes
an authentically gifted, idiosyncratic filmmaker,
says producer Ron Yerxa (King of the Hill). Hes
not afraid to fail. And he doesnt kiss anyones
Soderberghs latest radical move has been to join
Los Angeles Local 600 as a card-carrying cinematographer.
Having operated his own camera on his shorts and on Schizopolis,
Soderbergh decided to be his own cinematographer on the
drug drama Traffic, his $49 million handheld Dogma
film. Not surprisingly, the ensemble moviewhich
stars Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid,
Don Cheadle, and Benicio Del Torohas the raw immediacy
of a documentary. Soderbergh tried to get the screen credit
directed and photographed by, but the Writers
Guild wouldnt give him a waiver to put the photographed
by credit between the writers and the directors
credits, and he was unwilling to credit himself twice.
So, using his late fathers first two names, he concocted
the pseudonym Peter Andrews for the cinematographer. Will
he also shoot the glossy studio picture Oceans Eleven?
I dont think you can go back, he says.
You feel so close to the movie when you shoot that
it would be hard for me now to insert someone into that
Premiere: Its difficult
to find a thematic thread in your films; youre a
bit of a chameleon.
Steven Soderbergh: Good. You know, there are two kinds
of filmmakers. There are filmmakers who have a style.
And they look for material that fits that style. Im
the opposite. I look at the material and I go, Okay,
who do I have to be to put this across?
of your characters are spinning out of control and then
find their way, from James Spader in sex, lies, and
videotape to George Clooney in Out of Sight and Julia
Roberts in Erin Brockovich.
Protagonists in my films tend to be at odds with their
surroundings and/or the people around them. This is
what I liked about Erin. She was more interesting than
a fictional character. Somehow, when youre writing
fiction, its hard for the characters and the situation
not to seem constructed. Erin was there full-blown and
she drove the narrative, and you thought, God,
now what? What is she going to do? Because she
can be as self-defeating as she can be successful. You
have to work back from that and say, Whats
the best way to put her and the story across?
brought more realism to that film than your average
studio director would have. At the same time, you were
working with a major star. When you looked at Robertss
work every day, did you see what a star brings to a
God, yeah. She was ready to go. She was on the blocks,
day one. It was a great time to get her. Id look
at dailies and understand why she was a star and why
she has the career she has and that you cantthough
we doput a price on it. Some people have it and
some people dont. Shes got ita lot.
coming along as a producer-star. Youre working
together on Oceans Eleven.
Hes got all the tools. Theres nobody quite
like him around his age, who has the kind of vibe that
he has. Hes a man. Hes not a boy. Georges
thing is, I dont need any more money; what
I want is a legacy of movies I can look back on and
feel good about. Hes very pragmatic, smart.
He knows why he makes the choices he makes, and he understands
dispassionately the result.
Bros. sent both you and Clooney the Oceans Eleven
We got sent it simultaneously without knowing that each
had been sent the script. I called Warners back the
next day and said, I want to do it. And
Lorenzo [Di Bonaventura, Warners production chief]
goes, Thats good, because George read it
and he wants to do it.
you and George worked out the deal structure?
Our whole deal was, Remember those Irwin Allen
[producer of The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno,
et al.] movies with 15 starswouldnt that
be cool? Theres only one way to do it: Come
up with a formula that everybody adheres to. And the
bottom line is, nobodys getting what they normally
get, up-front [salary] or in the back-end [share of
the revenues]. The studio said, This is how much
back-end you can have. Its a slice of a
certain size, and we all said great. It was led by George,
and Brad [Pitt] and Julia [Roberts] said, Were
The film noir The Limey was designed as a vehicle for
Terence Stamp, complete with footage from his 1967 film,
[Writer Lem Dobbs] and I decided on him before we did
any work, which was great, and so when I called him
on the phone, I was very anxious because I didnt
know him. I didnt even know anybody who knew him,
or what I was in for, but I wanted him and luckily he
wanted to do it. Hes a dreamboat.
the storytelling in The Limey is quite innovative, your
next picture, Erin Brockovich, was a more conventional
Erin Brockovich is not the place to be standing between
the audience and the movie screen, waving your arms.
Coming off The Limey, I wanted to try a different discipline
that was really pleasurable. I thought, I need
to let my interest in fragmented narrative go for a
while, and Erin just seemed like the perfect antidote.
And then coming out of that, I was ready to do something
a little harder.
attracted you to Traffic, which you made at USA Films
after the major studios passed?
Back in 96, I was thinking about drugs, like,
what role do they have in a persons life, and
culturally, what are the reasons for the way we view
them the way we do? So it was in my mind that I didnt
want to make a movie about addicts. When I found out
that Laura Bickford owned the rights to the Traffik
[British Channel 4 TV] miniseries, I said, I know
what to do with that. And we started that process.
was it so hard to set up? Stephen Gaghans script
read like an accessible thriller, like Costa-Gavrass
Youre stoned! Oh, its compelling, but it
was hard for me to describe what it was like and who
the audience was going to be. I was hard-pressed to
come up with a drug movie that had made money. And its
long: two hours and 20 minutes. Most people havent
seen Z, which was the model we were using. Its
not an unreasonable thing for someone who is spending
$49 million to ask, Can you give me a taste of
whats in store? So I talked about things
like The French Connection.
Ford was originally slated to play Traffics role
of the drug czar whose daughter is hooked on drugs;
he then stepped out, and the role was taken by Michael
Douglas. What happened?
This was something very different for [Ford]. I talked
about how Id like to work with our run-and-gun
approach, that in addition to operating [the camera]
I would be the director of photography and there would
be a lot of available light and it would be moving really
quickly. And with two cameras, he would spend more of
his day acting than any other movie hed been on.
He seemed very jazzed by that. But I also knew that
this was not a slam dunk. He never said, Im
in and Im doing it. While this process was
going onand the deal by which he would take $10
million, half his usual price, which he was totally
open to, was being conceptualizedwe fixed Robert
[the character Ford was to play] and found a way to
make him the emotional center of the movie. And [then]
he said, I dont feel like this is what I
want to do right now. I wished it were otherwise,
but Im a big believer in instinct. If somethings
holding him, do you want an actor on the set who doesnt
want to be there?
his part] Michael Douglas really enjoyed being able
to spend most of his day working instead of waiting.
There were a couple of key emotional scenes where we
were moving so quickly that it enabled him to stay right
there, and there would be a break of two minutes between
one angle and the next. I was really impressed, performance-wise,
at how readily he fell into the low-key, naturalistic
approach that I was trying to maintain. Its not
a movie-star performance. Its a very secure performance,
and it comes from someone who doesnt have to show
shot this movie yourself, mostly, using a handheld camera,
which must have been logistically complex, given that
the picture has 110 principal roles and was filmed in
nine cities. Why do this project that way?
Id been refining the idea of doing a run-and-gun
movie over the last couple of films, trying to make
things more naturalistic, and this seemed to be the
one to do it on, because of the subject matter, the
size, and the short schedule. Shooting this way helped
us to be able to get it done in 54 days, [with] what
started as a 165-page screenplay. And the momentum was
maintained from beginning to end, which is great for
for doing the cinematography myself], it was a natural
progression. I was trained as a still photographer.
I shot my short films, and Schizopolis. I watched the
[cinematographers] whom I worked with very closelytoo
closely, probably, for them. Its very comfortable
easily could have filmed it as a more glossy, conventional
thriller, with a boom-boom pace and music pumping. Your
way is more daring.
The riskier thing would be to do it the other way. What
youre selling is that were giving you a
snapshot of whats going on right now, and if it
doesnt feel like that, then people are going to
check out. Any attempt to gloss it up would be rejected,
whether consciously or subconsciously. The intent of
the film didnt line up with that sort of traditional
Hollywood film approach.
moviegoers tired of the same old formulas?
Theyre tired of all the same movies that feel
like they were directed from the back of a limousine.
I know I am.
that the reason so many filmmakers, such as yourself
or even a more traditional Hollywood filmmaker, like
Joel Schumacher, are becoming interested in the ultra-realistic
Dogma-style moviemaking philosophy?
Its used in an attempt to get at something that
feels emotionally honest and immediate. There are similar
things happening in writing right now. Im intrigued
by what Dave Eggers [A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering
Genius] and David Foster Wallace [Infinite Jest, Brief
Interviews With Hideous Men] are up to because its
in service of trying to get at an emotion. Eggerss
book wouldnt be as powerful if it werent
so deconstructed. For the first time since I can remember,
somebody has written a book in that format that is actually
moving. And Wallace is after the same thing. Its
going on quietly, but I think its a huge thing.
In movies, the formal choice has to be appropriate to
the material. Im trying to sort out now how much
of that feeling I can bring to a movie like Oceans
Eleven, which is very stylized. You derive a certain
pleasure from the artificiality of watching a big caper
movie with a bunch of movie stars. And I need to be
careful not to subvert it needlessly and piss the audience
off, because they want to be entertained. [But by the
same token] you have to resist the impulse that when
you have a movie of a certain size with certain people
in it, you must execute it in a way that is consistent
with how those movies are normally done. If I have Michael
Douglas, then I have to do it a certain way, because
thats what people will wantI dont
think thats true. I think if you do something
that is consistent with the intent of the material,
people will go in whatever direction you want.
too much realism can be a problem, as was the case with
Clooney and Jennifer Lopezs infamous trunk scene
in Out of Sight as you originally shot it.
With everybody encouraged to be auteurs, [directors]
tend to not talk about the importance of people like
[Out of Sight producers] Jersey [Films]. I was bouncing
everything off these people, I got notes from them.
My idea was that by shooting this lengthy scene in a
single take, the sense of emotional proximity would
be increased. You were sharing their experience exactlyyou
were in there with them for the same amount of time
as they were. And then it would be great to watch the
emotional ebb-and-flow of the scene uninterrupted. The
Jersey people knew I was wrong. They would just smile.
So a day and half, 45 takes later, you watch it in dailies,
and as a self-contained shot, it works. Its like
a short film. My belief is that the period between when
you know youre going to get together with somebody
and when you actually get together is the most electricwe
know its going to happen, and then we have to
wait for it to actually happen. I was trying to elongate
that for as long as I could. And I had two performers
who understood that. It was only when I watched it in
context with the rest of the movie that I realized how
wrong I was. It was so obvious when I had our first
preview. It was comical how the audience literally turned
on the movie at that point. It just ground the film
to a halt. What I should have understood is that every
time you cut away and came back, you bought so much,
because the audience filled in the gap for you.
sex, lies, and videotape, Hollywood anointed you the
next big thing. Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack asked
for meetings. But you followed sex, lies, with Kafka,
an $11 million art film!
That was all calculated. I wanted to try a lot of different
stuff, cause when you start out, you feel like,
I can do anything. It takes you a while
to realize, No, you cant do anything. In
fact, here are the things you do well, and here are
the things you dont do well. [As far as
Kafka is concerned], I dont do well with material
that is inherently cold. The experience of it I wouldnt
trade for anything: I got to work with Alec Guinness
and Jeremy Irons, and Prague was amazing. Going from
Kafka to King of the Hill was a result of my wanting
to have the experience of making a picture that was
a little warmer.
good at finding a piecewhether its Out of
Sight, which is a melodrama, or a star-crossed romanceand
finding a way to make that story satisfying for an audience,
so that they dont feel like theyre getting
hit in the forehead with the points that youre
trying to make. Im a good neutralizer for material
that could very easily tip over into being just obvious
or irritating or pedestrian. You come up and you realize,
Okay, Im not Fellini. [Laughs] Im
not one of those people who come along and alter the
you didsex, lies, and videotape actually altered
the indie-film landscape.
Because sex, lies, and videotape made a lot of money
at a time when films like that were not making any money;
thats why were talking about it today. If
it had made half a million dollars, things would be
very different right now for me. [Laughs] That movie
bought me so many mistakes. It bought me the luxury
of being able to make King of the Hill and Kafka.
the case of The Underneath, a little-seen caper film
you made in 1995, you thought it was a disaster even
as you were making it.
I knew it before we started. But I want to be very careful
here not to denigrate the efforts of everybody who worked
on that movie. Nobody knew that while I was making it,
I was miserable, and that I felt it was a broken-backed
idea to begin with and that I had not been rigorous
with the material and I had not come up with a way to
make it distinctive. I disconnected so far from the
excitement that made me want to make movies. It took
sitting on a set and wondering if I wanted to be on
a set anymore to shake me awake. And so in many ways,
it was the most important film that I made.
woke up one day and said, If you feel youve
lost yourself, then you need to retrace your steps.
And so I literally went about re-creating the conditions
in which I made my early short films. I thought, Im
gonna go back home, get five people togetherfour
of them were the ones I grew up with, making filmsand
Im going to start over. And we made Schizopolis.
It was like my second first film. I think everything
since then has been much more fun to sit through.
was a baseball pitcher as a kid, and I was really good,
and then I woke up one morning. I was 12, at my peak,
and I didnt have it anymore, whatever that thing
is that makes you know that youre better than
the other guy. I still had the technical skills, but
that thing was gone. It was an overnight thingthe
next game I played, I got hammered, and I never recovered.
I knew when I woke up that morning when I was a kidI
knew that it was over, that I didnt have it. When
I had that experience while making The Underneath, the
feeling was differentbecause I understood that
I could get it back.