It's been a very hot year for the director of New York
Film Critics Circle favorites "Traffic" and
"Erin Brockovich." Next year may be hotter
his chunky, horn-rimmed glasses swiped from Lisa Loeb,
Steven Soderbergh looks just like what he is -- the
Geek King of Hollywood. Hot off his success earlier
this year with "Erin Brockovich," Soderbergh's
new film, "Traffic," due out Dec. 27, has
already been named the best film of the year by the
New York Film Critics Circle, with the pale, 38-year-old
Baton Rouge, La., native also earning best director
an epic, two-and-a-half-hour war on drugs "Rashomon"
based on the popular BBC miniseries of the same name,
delves into almost every aspect of America's never-ending
drug habit with the intensity of a PBS "Frontline"
documentary and the grittiness of erstwhile NBC drama
"Homicide: Life on the Street."
with impressive performances by Michael Douglas, Benicio
Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Dennis
Quaid, Luis Guzman and others, "Traffic" is
serious Oscar bait, as is "Erin Brockovich."
Both are part of a Soderberghian winning streak that
began with the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez romantic
caper "Out of Sight" in 1998 and continued
the following year with "The Limey," starring
Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda.
nothing can stop the Soderbergh juggernaut -- shooting
on his remake of the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle "Ocean's
11" is slated to begin next year with more A-list
stars than a British tabloid, including Julia Roberts,
Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.
expect such success from the guy who at age 26 snagged
a Palm d'Or at Cannes for his modest freshman effort,
"sex, lies and videotape." But it hasn't always
been so easy for Soderbergh. His recent book, "Getting
Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest
Bastard You Ever Saw," chronicles his Gen X, pre-midlife
crisis though a series of conversations with veteran
director Richard Lester, interspersed with diary entries
filled with ennui and self-doubt. Soderbergh admits
he was coasting for several years following his initial
triumph, and "Getting Away With It" reveals
a generous portion of his dissatisfaction at that time
with filmmaking, his critics and himself.
do you choose your projects?
It's all gut -- what am I interested in at
the moment? Having come out of an experience like "Out
of Sight," "The Limey" or "Erin,"
it's a matter of what I feel like doing next. I'm usually
just trying to find something that's going to provide
a different experience than the one I just had.
It was a combination of things. There's actually
a passage in "Getting Away With It" where
I'm musing about drugs, wondering what they're about
and what role they have in our society. Clearly this
was something I felt was worth addressing, but I had
no idea what a film about that might be like. It wasn't
until I ran into Laura Bickford, the producer, and she
mentioned that she had the rights to make the miniseries
into a film. I thought, "Ah, that's how you should
do it." Then we were doing research on writers
and came up with Steve Gaghan, who we thought would
be perfect -- the only problem being he was already
writing a drug movie for Ed Zwick. Luckily, everybody
agreed to combine the projects.
you seen the BBC miniseries?
saw it when it ran over here in 1990, I think, on PBS.
I always remembered it, but not enough to think of transplanting
it to this country. That was Laura's good idea.
what degree did "Traffic" the BBC series influence
"Traffic" the film?
A lot, in that two of the stories track very similarly.
The Mexico story we invented from scratch. But the feeling
of it is similar to the BBC series in that it took,
I think, an evenhanded approach to a very complicated
issue. It didn't wear its politics on its sleeve, and
I appreciated that. It was just trying to show you things,
not lecture you. We definitely tried to emulate that.
did you decide to shoot the film with a different style
for each geographical location? Was that a device used
in the miniseries?
No, the miniseries looked all the same. That
device is meant to help people orient themselves. As
soon as I cut to one of the new stories, the viewers
know where they are before they even see a character.
I'm asking so much of them -- there are so many characters,
so much information -- I thought: At least if they know
where they are, I'm helping them a little bit. Plus
those three places felt very different to me. My impressions
of Mexico were different from La Jolla, Calif., and
different from Ohio in the winter.
the way you shot have anything to do with you being
your own director of photography on this film?
I've been working toward that for a while.
I wanted to move quickly, stripping the crew down to
the bare minimum. It was something I'd thought about
a lot, not an arbitrary decision. I shot "Schizopolis"
myself, and I shot all my short films.
a number of scenes actual government agents are seen
explaining their jobs to Michael Douglas' character.
And there's a cocktail party in Georgetown with real-life
politicos like Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Orrin Hatch.
How did you secure the participation of the various
government agencies and politicians involved?
the case of the Drug Enforcement Administration and
U.S. Customs, we went to them very early with the script
and told them we were trying to present as detailed
and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible.
They agreed to help us in the sense of letting us know
when we were being inaccurate and giving us access.
To their credit, they never tried to influence the content.
They just let us know when we were doing something that
was procedurally incorrect.
to the politicians, we just sent a lot of letters out.
We didn't discriminate as to who we sent them to, and
the ones who showed up we filmed. There was a lot of
material we got in that cocktail party scene. We had
to cut it way down. But it was fun -- all improvised.
you come to any conclusions about drugs in America during
the making of this film?
not going to happen -- not in our lifetime -- for a
whole variety of practical reasons. It would be a violation
of every international trade agreement that we have.
The U.S. would turn into 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 in the
world. That's not going to work. You might say, "What
if everyone in the world legalized all at once?"
But what are the chances of that happening?
came away from this process thinking, "All right
let's talk about realistic stuff." Stuff like Prop.
36 [the California initiative passed this year that
provides treatment programs for nonviolent drug users];
finding a way to look at this as a healthcare issue,
not a criminal issue; something other than filling up
prisons with nonviolent users. There are little things
we can do to make a big impact. Everyone in law enforcement
will tell you, education and treatment work. Money and
resources put into them have a concrete effect. That
would be a good thing. It's not a very sexy approach,
but it works.
you encounter any resistance to shooting the Mexican
part of the film in Spanish with English subtitles?
much. I had about a five-minute conversation with USA,
the production company, about it, sort of explaining
why it was important. I said, "If these people
don't speak Spanish, the film has no integrity. You
just can't expect anyone to take it seriously."
Plus, part of the point of the movie is the impenetrability
of another culture. The way Mexicans speak to Mexicans
is very different than the way Mexicans speak to Americans.
That's the point. And so they said, "OK, OK. We
of the best things about the film is Benicio Del Toro's
performance as a conflicted Mexican lawman. I understand
that he made several suggestions you used in the film.
really great that way. I remember in an early version
of the script, the way they get Frankie Flowers, this
assassin working for one of the Tijuana cartels, is
through an elaborate kidnapping. I remember talking
to Benicio and saying, "It's so clunky. I don't
want to shoot that, it'll take forever." Benicio
said, "He's gay, right?" I said, "Yeah."
He said, "Well, why don't I just figure out where
he hangs out, go and pose as somebody who wants to pick
him up, and then just cut to him with the blindfold
on in the car." And I said, "Great idea."
That's the good thing about Benicio -- he has great
movie ideas. He understands how cinema works.
"Ocean's 11" going to be like?
hope it's going to be fun to watch. It's a terrific
script, but a very complicated movie physically. So
I'm very anxious about it, but I'm hopeful. It's a great
heist movie and we have a super cast. I ought to be
able to make a film that delivers on that level, but
it does make me nervous.
a good chance you'll end up making a better film than
the original, which was just an excuse for the Rat Pack
would hope so. [Laughs] I said to someone the other
day that it's fondly remembered by all who haven't seen
it. It's not a great movie, but it has a great idea
at the center of it. That's basically all we've taken.
Other than that, it's been completely overhauled. I
told Jerry Weintraub, the producer, "I want to
make it because I want to see it." This is the
kind of movie I'd be buying tickets for two weeks ahead
of time. I love heist movies.
your book, "Getting Away With It," you have
some pretty tough words for movie critics, calling them
"parasitic," questioning their legitimacy
and so on. Have the recent awards from the New York
Film Critics Circle changed those opinions?
I think what I was referring to at that point was whether
or not, in the current structure of how movies are made
and sold, they have the kind of role that they used
to have. There was a time when I think critics had a
more significant and integral role in what was happening
with movies. But the business has changed so much that
you could argue that's not true anymore. When you can
find somebody somewhere to call every film a masterpiece,
then it's gotten out of hand.
the number of serious critics who are allowed and/or
encouraged to write at length and seriously about movies
is diminished, which is sad. I didn't always agree with
Pauline Kael, but I sure loved reading her stuff because
she was incredibly bright and knew a lot about a lot
of things, not just movies. There aren't many like that
by strict definition, critics are parasitic in the sense
that they can't exist without the artist. The artist
has to create something that is then commented on. It's
great when a group of critics gets together and gives
you an award like that. But the bottom line is, it doesn't
make me any better at my job, which is all I think about
when I get up in the morning. You have to give such
awards their proper weight.
you think a lot of what critics and film journalists
do now is just propaganda for the film industry?
have to separate the serious ones from the ones who
are not. The ones who are serious aren't anybody's stooge.
It's just, with some exceptions, harder for them to
express themselves the way they want. I know enough
of them casually to know they're often under pressure
to keep their writing at a certain level and not let
it get too intricate or esoteric. They're encouraged,
for the most part, to write at length about big films.
They can't write a big piece on a foreign film or an
art film that's not going to get a wide release. They
can write something, but the "Charlie's Angels"
review has to be big and front and center.
there's a corporate dumbing down of what critics can
and can't say?
little bit. And they're not the only ones who are under
that kind of pressure these days. [Laughs] Everybody
on every side of the business is essentially dealing
with that now.
you under that sort of pressure, too?
but I've been very lucky in that I've either gotten
hold of commercial material that was distinctive or,
in the case of "The Limey" and "Traffic,"
worked for independent companies.
it bother you when your smaller films, like "Schizopolis"
or "Kafka," fail to find an audience?
couldn't be very disappointed that "Kafka"
failed to connect because I didn't think it was very
successful creatively. When they're done, I move on.
I can't control whether or not people want to see something.
There have been a couple of small films I've done that
I was happy with where it would have been nice if they'd
found an audience. But I just keep working. I take the
shotgun approach. I figure that if you keep your head
down and your feet moving, eventually you'll luck into
something people want to see.
influence Richard Lester has had on you is apparent
in "Schizopolis." How did the book with him
was part of my reawakening, if that's the proper term.
I was trying to figure out how I had drifted so far
off course. I was finishing "The Underneath,"
and I was unhappy with the process and the work I was
doing. I wanted to get back to the way I felt when I
first started making films. I remembered that one of
the filmmakers I connected with most was Richard Lester
-- the playfulness and gentle skepticism his films have.
In the middle of going back and watching all his stuff
again, I called Faber & Faber and they said yes
to the book idea. Initially, it was going to be a straight
Q and A. Then I decided to include a journal and the
a lot of frustration in the journal during that period
of 1996-97, a year or so after you had finished "Schizopolis."
How does that relate to now? Are you happier with what
was frustrated then because I was searching for a place
for me to be within this business. I didn't know where
that place was or what it looked like. I didn't know
if I should keep making movies like "Schizopolis"
and finance them by writing scripts for other people.
I really wasn't sure where I was headed. As the book
comes to an end, I'm starting to figure that out. Since
then I've just been lucky that things have been coming
at me that I've wanted to pursue.
was the resolution of that personal crisis? Was it just
serendipity in being sent the script for "Out of
was partially serendipity, but the timing was right.
I was beginning to realize that I had marginalized myself.
And if I wanted a career of any length at all, I needed
to do a better job of working on both sides of the coin.
Though I think those lines are disappearing, it was
as if half of the business was going to be off limits
if I continued as I was. "Out of Sight" was
the turning point.
you're sent a script like "Out of Sight" or
"Ocean's 11," and you have that confluence
of a good piece of material that you think you know
how to do well, that you can put actors in that you
know will do a great job and that might get seen, you've
got to jump at that. Those opportunities don't come
along that often. It's a harder group of planets to
line up than a "Schizopolis" or a "Limey,"
which I can do any time, anywhere, and which I'll continue
to do. But you can't just let things like that slip
by or you'll have a whole career of making "Schizopolis."
Then you're screwed.
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