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  STEVEN SODERBERGH—TRAFFIC
by Ray Pride
DECEMBER 2000
 

Taglines to sell movies are often feats of clever wordplay, but seldom have they encapsulated the temperament of a movie as the one for the great new thriller, Traffic: "No one gets away clean."

Traffic, directed by Steven Soderbergh from a script by Stephen Gaghan, is a singular movie in a culture that produces stories of individual triumph, but seldom of communal effort. With more than a hundred speaking roles and a running time under two and a half hours, Traffic endeavors, with splendid success, to orchestrate several distinct story lines that convey the enormity of the drug trade and its effects on our fellow Americans -- and Mexicans. One strand, in authentic, slangy Mexican Spanish (with notably different, less profane and idiomatic English translations) follows the struggles of a pair of Tijuana cops, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro, in a smoldering, minimalist performance) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas; very good). They work under Mexico’s crime-fighting General Salazar (Tomas Milian), whose corruption knows few bounds. Are they opportunists or dogged heroes? The clues we get to their moral conflict alternate with the story of conservative, upstanding Ohio State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas, excellent in a role that was once Harrison Ford’s), who is named the new anti-drug czar. The enormity of the problem is starting to sink in just as he discovers that his teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen, a touching portrait of vulnerability) is increasingly addicted through her freebasing experiments with boyfriend Seth Abrahms (Topher Grace, smart and cocky). In San Diego, undercover DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) assemble a case against mid-level drug trafficker Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). Cheadle and Guzman’s byplay is often hilarious, and Ferrer’s performance is right in every way you could want. Ruiz wants immunity, and cuts a deal to testify against drug baron Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who lives in ritzy La Jolla with his unwitting and pregnant wife Helena (a delicate Catherine Zeta-Jones, who turns steely when it is time to protect her family). When Carlos is arrested, Helena learns the depths of her complicity from lawyer Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid).

Sound complicated and demanding? Not in the least. Traffic is nimble, serious drama, and refined craft from a director at the top of his game. To start with, Soderbergh, working as his own cinematographer and camera operator, is less auteur than simply an intent eye. Each section is shot largely in available light and color-coded: a dusty yellow for Mexico; a cool, fish tank blue for Ohio; a biting backlight for La Jolla. As information is parceled out, our eye instantly knows what part of the intricate landscape we’ve landed in. Witty, sharp, and clear-headed about the greatest intoxication that drugs provide -- money and power -- Traffic is easily one of the two or three best American movies of the year.

About Soderbergh’s run-and-gun, pared-down production style that enabled this intimate epic to be made for under $60 million, Michael Douglas says, "Because he’s hand-held, rather than us having to have our marks move for the camera, he just slides over. So for actors, you’re left with this incredible freedom of really feeling like you’re in a real environment, not aware of having [to perform]."

Douglas describes it as "a safe acting envelope, a bubble." He says, "By having a smaller crew and not as much lighting involved, 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 secondly, he loves actors and he trusts them." Soderbergh, who played the lead in his own experimental comedy, Schizopolis, gets the empathy nod from all his actors. Del Toro calls him "the director I’ve learned the most from, in every way about filmmaking, and about how you behave around a set in some ways, how to make everybody around you better. He’s a gifted dude."

And Douglas was charged-up by the rapid shooting speed and its effect on the work of nonactors in the film: "I have a number of scenes in this picture with nonactors. They were federal agents and they weren’t scripted. A lot of ’em were improvised. And I was amazed at how good a lot of these federal agents were, and then I realized of course most of them had been working undercover most of their lives, which is probably the toughest acting there is. So a camera was not scaring these guys. The speed is great for certain types of actors. If you’re like me, you’ve done your homework...you know, we got it first, second takes. Steven never did more than, like, three takes, so there’s an energy that happens. He has civilized hours in finishing his work -- you don’t have that fatigue factor. You really feel regenerated."

"Probably, I would say, one of the top five filmmakers that we have right now," Del Toro says. "Put him up there." For those curious about how he does it, he’s also articulate and no-bull about the work.

Steven Soderbergh

Rough Cut: How can you work so fast? We’ve gotten three ambitious films in under two years from you: The Limey, Erin Brockovich, and this intricate story.
Steven Soderbergh: I’ve been using the same crew, for the most part. It’s pretty easy. We have meetings about the next film while we’re shooting the current one. It’s not hard. Plus, I find if you decide not to get involved in the social aspects of the film business, you have so much time on your hands! Literally. Ya know, "I can’t go to that screening. Sorry, I can’t make that dinner party. Sorry... that premiere, just can’t." If you bail on all that stuff, you’ve got all this free time.

RC: Are you aware of scale and money when you’re making the movies?
There’s no difference. The problems that you face on Schizopolis are the same ones you face on Out of Sight. You’re still showing up every day trying to figure out, can it be better? You just have more people standing around. It’s the same psychic pressure. It doesn’t change.

RC: But don’t you shift your approach...?
No, you don’t, that’s the trick. That’s the trick of the mind that you have to get yourself into, is to make the same decisions you’ve made on Schizopolis on Traffic. Even though there’s more money and more at stake, you have to block that out and go strictly on your instinct about what’s creatively best for this. You have to train yourself to do that.

RC: Let’s try another way of asking it. Emotionally, they’re such different films. Do you get attached in different ways?
Oh, I’m attached to all of them, or I wouldn’t do it. You, you, they press different buttons in you, but you’re as invested in all of them...otherwise you wouldn’t spend two years of your life trying to get it together. I don’t understand how people do that.

RC: Does shooting fast help? You did The Limey pretty quickly.
We did. That was a super-fast one. Super-fast.

RC: You were talking about having fewer people stand around on a smaller-budget film. Besides peeling away the dinner parties, do you try to peel away extraneous crew? Was that part of your inclination to become your own cameraman on larger-budget features?
Opportunity, really, and an understanding that the smaller, sort-of self-generated films will always be there. But when you get sent a script like Out of Sight or Ocean’s Eleven and that unusual confluence of a good piece of material that you think you know how to do well, that you think you can put actors in who will do a great job, and that might get seen, ya know, you’ve got to jump at that stuff. That stuff can’t wait. When I got sent Ocean’s Eleven and I read it, I called over to Lorenzo Bonaventura and said, "I want in," because I knew the next person who read it was going to say yes. Those things don’t come along that often, and that is a harder group of planets to line up than a Schizopolis or a Limey, which I can do basically any time, anywhere, and which I will continue to do. But you can’t just let things like that slip by, or you’ll have a whole career of making Schizopolis and then you’re screwed.

RC: I was more thinking about the simplified way of production...
Yeah, but we apply that to everything, even Ocean’s, which is not going to be a cheap movie to make. I’m still shooting it myself. It’s going to be a hybrid aesthetic between something that’s rough and something a little more polished, but I still hate having people standing around who don’t have anything to do. Luckily, with a couple of exceptions, we won’t have to have a lot of people standing around. Actually, there’ll be more people standing around in front of the camera than behind it!

RC: Why do you hate the standing-around part?
Soderbergh: It infects the vibe of a set somehow. I remember I was at some Academy panel once, and I was talking about that. Lynn Redgrave was in the audience. She said, "I want to speak to that. As an actor, you can have a boom guy hanging off a chandelier with a microphone six inches from my face, and it doesn’t bug me. But seeing somebody standing off to the side of the set, doing nothing, with their arms folded, completely throws me." And it’s really that. Anyone who’s there and not working is an energy vampire. It has an effect. My desire is just to strip it down as much as you can and get rid of all that video village crap. Also, you just move faster.

RC: Is a movie more about telling a good story or about being creative artistically?
It’s both.

RC: Could you talk about the importance of using the different shooting styles for the different passages of Traffic?
Oh, just to help people orient themselves. As soon as I cut to one of the new stories...you know, where you are before you even see a character. I was asking so much, so many characters, so much information, I thought, at least if they know where we are, I’m helping a little bit. Plus, the three places felt very different to me. My impressions of Mexico were different from La Jolla and different from Ohio in winter.

RC: You’ve talked about whether drugs should be legalized, and you were concerned if they were more available, how that might affect your daughter. Has making this movie answered some of those questions for you?
Yeah. Legalization is not going to happen anytime, I don’t think, in our lifetimes, for a variety of reasons, a lot of them just practical. It would be a violation of every international trade agreement we have. The Untied States would become an enormous drug lab. There’d be people pouring in from all over the world to buy drugs here, to take to their countries to sell illegally. So we’d be ostracized by every other country of the world. So that’s not going to work. You have to say, what if everybody in the world legalized all at once.... well, you know the odds of that happening. So what I came away from this process with is, all right, let’s talk about realistic stuff. Let’s talk about stuff that maybe you can get across. Prop. 36, finding a way to look at this as a health-care issue and not a criminal issue. Find something other than filling up prisons with nonviolent users, most of them nonwhite. There are little things that we can do to make a big impact. Everybody in law enforcement will tell you, education and treatment work. Money and resources put into that problem have a concrete effect in a way that very few other notions do. That would be a good thing. It’s not a very sexy approach; it’s a lot sexier to send Belljet Rangers to Colombia. But it works.

RC: How significant was it to have the Mexican portions in authentic Spanish?
It was brief. I had a five-minute conversation with USA about it. I explained why it I thought it was important. I just said, "If these people don’t speak Spanish, the movie has no integrity. You just can’t expect anybody to take it seriously. Plus, part of the point of the movie is the impenetrability of another culture. The way that Mexicans speak to other Mexicans is very different from the way they speak to Americans. That’s the point." They said, "Okay, okay, we get it."

RC: How about directing Spanish-language performances?
Well, I had followed the levels of translation pretty closely, because the dialogue originated in English, and then I would read all the various translations. We had several people going through to make sure they were accurate. We had a dialogue person on the set with us at all times with headphones. The truth... I’ve taken a couple of years of junior-high Spanish. It’s through repetition and context that you begin to understand what was being said. Fortunately, I was dealing with a group of actors who were great, who were very concerned about it sounding right. I was letting them be a little bit loose so it would feel natural.

RC: All the actors on this show are gushing with praise for you as a director, saying you’re one of the best directors we have today. How aware are you of this reputation?
Yeah, in five years, we’ll see what happens. Five years ago, they weren’t saying that. All this stuff is... I mean, that’s great. I like actors, which puts me ahead of a lot of other directors!

RC: What are you doing to get this kind of praise?
I’m doing the same thing I always did. I’ve always liked actors, and I’ve always gotten on really well with them. I respect them, and I empathize with the specific brand of exposure that’s involved with being on camera. I tell you, man, it’s intense. I think a comfortable actor is a good actor, so I try to make sure that they’re okay. When they’re in the zone, I leave them alone, I don’t get in their way. I try to be very sensitive to when they’re having a problem and get in there quickly and figure out what it is. In my experience, if you’ve cast properly and an actor is having a problem, it means there’s a problem with the text, that they’re being asked to do something that’s inherently.... They’re going all on instinct and emotion, and if they’re having trouble, if it isn’t apparent before you start shooting, it’s usually apparent within the first or second take. That normally means, because they’re so well-tuned, they may not be able to articulate it, but it means there’s a text problem. For some reason, they’re being asked to go from A to D, and they haven’t been provided with the stepping stones to get there. You have to sit down and figure it out. You sit down and you say, "I see what’s going on. You’re being asked to do something, the blocks that you need to get there haven’t been provided. So let’s figure out how to get you those blocks, or maybe land you someplace else."

RC: You put the characters in a swimming pool, the way you do here when Benicio’s Mexican policeman doesn’t trust the US feds, and they take a meeting in a hotel swimming pool.
There are lots of things like that. Benicio is really great that way. In an early version of the script, the way they get Frankie Flowers [a gay assassin working for one of the Mexican drug cartels] was this elaborate kidnapping thing. With a van and all this kind of crap. I remember talking to Benicio, saying, "That’s so clunky. I don’t want to shoot that. It’s going to take forever and it’s just a tiny thing. Yet it’s going to be this big hassle." Benicio says, "He’s gay, right." I say, "Yeah." And he says, "Why wouldn’t I just figure out where he hangs out, go there, and pose as somebody who wants to pick him up; then you just cut to him in the car with the blindfold on, and you don’t see any of it." I said, "That’s a great idea!" That’s the great thing about Benicio, he thinks about the movie; it’s not about making himself look better. He has great movie ideas. He understands how cinema works. It was the same thing with the swimming pool. In an early version of the script, they take him downtown. They had this room in this warehouse with all these tape decks and stuff, and that’s where he freaked out and said, "I’m really uncomfortable." Again, we’re sitting there thinking, "Wow, that’s a lot of shoe leather, it’s really clunky." Benicio said, "Well, I’ve been talking to some people I know, DEA people, other people, and they all agree the swimming pool is the way to go if you want to make sure you’re not being recorded."

RC: Did you find it a little weird that Benicio knows DEAs?
Uh, no. Nothing surprises me about Benicio.

RC: How do you make speeches work in a social drama without becoming speechifying? Miguel Ferrer, as the busted low-man-on-the-totem-pole makes salient, but funny points about the drug war, and Topher Grace’s preppie brat has a great one to Michael as well.
The key is to have the speeches given by a character within a context that is not normal. So you have Topher Grace, whom you wanna slap silly, you just want to belt him so much, and he’s sitting in a car with the drug czar of the United States of America outside a crack dealer’s house lecturing him on something that he’s actually right about. So you have to spin it so that it’s not coming at you, it’s coming at you in an oblique way.

RC: And you have comedy undercutting, too, like cop Don Cheadle telling Miguel he’s not on Larry King.
Right. That was an improv by Don. So it’s the same with Miguel. Here’s a guy who’s a drug dealer, not a good guy, but who actually has a very well-articulated overview of this problem. Which is not normally where those speeches come from.

RC: The movie’s a really dense feat of storytelling. What length did you whittle it down from?
The first cut was 3 hours and 10 minutes without credits. The current version is 2:27, it’s a 7-minute crawl. So I look at the movie as 2:20.

RC: So what did you lose?
Oh, lots of stuff. Everybody got cut. Whether they got their entire sequences cut or they had a sequence reduced varied from person to person. Catherine had more whole sequences cut than anybody else. It was a long script. At a certain point, [writer Stephen] Gaghan and I were struggling so hard with what to keep in and to leave out, I said, "We’ll just shoot it." So we went into production with a 165-page screenplay.

RC: Is this the version you want? Is there a DVD "real" version?
I’ve been lucky. All of my films have been the director’s cut. I’ve never been in that situation. However, like Erin, we will be putting some of the stuff that got cut in a separate supplement and talk about why they got cut.

RC: What was the very last thing you cut and why?
Well, there were lots of trims. I’m trying to think of the last thing I cut cut. The ending used to go on for a while. [He describes a few spoilers.] It was just redundant. You know what’s going to happen.

RC: Is that what you did when you worked for Showtime, just cut things and cut things?
Yep.

RC: Did you learn that ruthlessness there?
It’s so hard. What I’ve been doing the last couple of movies, which helps, is that literally a couple times a week, I make a tape of the movie and watch it in its entirety. And when you do that two or three times a week, you become the worst possible audience member, because you’re so sick of watching it that you begin to get really ruthless about it. You know that when you really dread a certain sequence coming up, something’s wrong. Either it shouldn’t be there, or it’s not being set up properly. I found it to be a really good way to preempt somebody going, "Aghh, I can’t just bear it anymore." Believe me, I don’t like sitting down and attacking it, but I would force myself to sit through the thing and make notes. Invariably, there would be little things, little redundancies. Then, screening the film, you get a sense of what the audience will fill in for you. For instance, the scene where Michael’s daughter is in the bathroom, that scene used to go on longer. There was a lot of explanation and conversation between the two of them. And I thought, ya know, it’s so much better if when he throws [her works] on the ground, and then the next time you see her, she’s in rehab. The audience fills in all the blanks, the "I don’t want to go, blah blah blah." The whole process is about understanding when you can do that, when you can have the audience do the work for you.

©2000 Turner Network Television. A Time Warner Company.

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