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."
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 Mexicos 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 Fords), 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 Guzmans byplay is often hilarious, and Ferrers
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).
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 weve 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.
Soderberghs run-and-gun, pared-down production
style that enabled this intimate epic to be made for
under $60 million, Michael Douglas says, "Because
hes hand-held, rather than us having to have our
marks move for the camera, he just slides over. So for
actors, youre left with this incredible freedom
of really feeling like youre in a real environment,
not aware of having [to perform]."
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. Youre 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 Ive 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. Hes a gifted dude."
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 werent 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 youre like me, youve done your
homework...you know, we got it first, second takes.
Steven never did more than, like, three takes, so theres
an energy that happens. He has civilized hours in finishing
his work -- you dont have that fatigue factor.
You really feel regenerated."
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,
hes also articulate and no-bull about the work.
Cut: How can you work so fast? Weve gotten three
ambitious films in under two years from you: The Limey,
Erin Brockovich, and this intricate story.
Soderbergh: Ive been using the same crew, for
the most part. Its pretty easy. We have meetings
about the next film while were shooting the current
one. Its 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 cant go to that screening. Sorry,
I cant make that dinner party. Sorry... that premiere,
just cant." If you bail on all that stuff,
youve got all this free time.
Are you aware of scale and money when youre making
no difference. The problems that you face on Schizopolis
are the same ones you face on Out of Sight. Youre
still showing up every day trying to figure out, can
it be better? You just have more people standing around.
Its the same psychic pressure. It doesnt
But dont you shift your approach...?
No, you dont, thats the trick. Thats
the trick of the mind that you have to get yourself
into, is to make the same decisions youve made
on Schizopolis on Traffic. Even though theres
more money and more at stake, you have to block that
out and go strictly on your instinct about whats
creatively best for this. You have to train yourself
to do that.
Lets try another way of asking it. Emotionally,
theyre such different films. Do you get attached
in different ways?
Im attached to all of them, or I wouldnt
do it. You, you, they press different buttons in you,
but youre as invested in all of them...otherwise
you wouldnt spend two years of your life trying
to get it together. I dont understand how people
Does shooting fast help? You did The Limey pretty quickly.
did. That was a super-fast one. Super-fast.
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?
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 Oceans
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, youve got
to jump at that stuff. That stuff cant wait. When
I got sent Oceans 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 dont 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 cant just let things like that slip by,
or youll have a whole career of making Schizopolis
and then youre screwed.
I was more thinking about the simplified way of production...
but we apply that to everything, even Oceans,
which is not going to be a cheap movie to make. Im
still shooting it myself. Its going to be a hybrid
aesthetic between something thats rough and something
a little more polished, but I still hate having people
standing around who dont have anything to do.
Luckily, with a couple of exceptions, we wont
have to have a lot of people standing around. Actually,
therell be more people standing around in front
of the camera than behind it!
Why do you hate the standing-around part?
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 doesnt bug me. But seeing
somebody standing off to the side of the set, doing
nothing, with their arms folded, completely throws me."
And its really that. Anyone whos 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.
Is a movie more about telling a good story or about
being creative artistically?
Could you talk about the importance of using the different
shooting styles for the different passages of Traffic?
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, Im 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.
Youve 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?
Legalization is not going to happen anytime, I dont
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. Thered
be people pouring in from all over the world to buy
drugs here, to take to their countries to sell illegally.
So wed be ostracized by every other country of
the world. So thats 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,
lets talk about realistic stuff. Lets 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. Its not a very sexy approach; its
a lot sexier to send Belljet Rangers to Colombia. But
How significant was it to have the Mexican portions
in authentic Spanish?
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 dont speak
Spanish, the movie has no integrity. You just cant
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.
Thats the point." They said, "Okay,
okay, we get it."
How about directing Spanish-language performances?
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... Ive taken a couple
of years of junior-high Spanish. Its 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.
All the actors on this show are gushing with praise
for you as a director, saying youre one of the
best directors we have today. How aware are you of this
in five years, well see what happens. Five years
ago, they werent saying that. All this stuff is...
I mean, thats great. I like actors, which puts
me ahead of a lot of other directors!
What are you doing to get this kind of praise?
doing the same thing I always did. Ive always
liked actors, and Ive always gotten on really
well with them. I respect them, and I empathize with
the specific brand of exposure thats involved
with being on camera. I tell you, man, its intense.
I think a comfortable actor is a good actor, so I try
to make sure that theyre okay. When theyre
in the zone, I leave them alone, I dont get in
their way. I try to be very sensitive to when theyre
having a problem and get in there quickly and figure
out what it is. In my experience, if youve cast
properly and an actor is having a problem, it means
theres a problem with the text, that theyre
being asked to do something thats inherently....
Theyre going all on instinct and emotion, and
if theyre having trouble, if it isnt apparent
before you start shooting, its usually apparent
within the first or second take. That normally means,
because theyre so well-tuned, they may not be
able to articulate it, but it means theres a text
problem. For some reason, theyre being asked to
go from A to D, and they havent 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 whats going on. Youre being asked to
do something, the blocks that you need to get there
havent been provided. So lets figure out
how to get you those blocks, or maybe land you someplace
You put the characters in a swimming pool, the way you
do here when Benicios Mexican policeman doesnt
trust the US feds, and they take a meeting in a hotel
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, "Thats
so clunky. I dont want to shoot that. Its
going to take forever and its just a tiny thing.
Yet its going to be this big hassle." Benicio
says, "Hes gay, right." I say, "Yeah."
And he says, "Why wouldnt 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 dont see any
of it." I said, "Thats a great idea!"
Thats the great thing about Benicio, he thinks
about the movie; its 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 thats where
he freaked out and said, "Im really uncomfortable."
Again, were sitting there thinking, "Wow,
thats a lot of shoe leather, its really
clunky." Benicio said, "Well, Ive 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 youre not being recorded."
Did you find it a little weird that Benicio knows DEAs?
no. Nothing surprises me about Benicio.
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 Graces preppie
brat has a great one to Michael as well.
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 hes sitting in a car with the drug
czar of the United States of America outside a crack
dealers house lecturing him on something that
hes actually right about. So you have to spin
it so that its not coming at you, its coming
at you in an oblique way.
And you have comedy undercutting, too, like cop Don
Cheadle telling Miguel hes not on Larry King.
That was an improv by Don. So its the same with
Miguel. Heres a guy whos 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.
The movies a really dense feat of storytelling.
What length did you whittle it down from?
first cut was 3 hours and 10 minutes without credits.
The current version is 2:27, its a 7-minute crawl.
So I look at the movie as 2:20.
So what did you lose?
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, "Well just shoot it." So
we went into production with a 165-page screenplay.
Is this the version you want? Is there a DVD "real"
been lucky. All of my films have been the directors
cut. Ive 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.
What was the very last thing you cut and why?
there were lots of trims. Im 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 whats going to happen.
Is that what you did when you worked for Showtime, just
cut things and cut things?
Did you learn that ruthlessness there?
so hard. What Ive 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 youre 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,
somethings wrong. Either it shouldnt be
there, or its not being set up properly. I found
it to be a really good way to preempt somebody going,
"Aghh, I cant just bear it anymore."
Believe me, I dont 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 Michaels 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, its so much
better if when he throws [her works] on the ground,
and then the next time you see her, shes in rehab.
The audience fills in all the blanks, the "I dont
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.
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