An Interview with Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s Manhattan studio is littered with decapitated doll heads—souvenirs from Bubble, his most recent feature film, which was shot digitally and released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD, causing an uproar among studio executives fearful of losing their grip on the industry. Also in Soderbergh’s studio are an in-progress painting of onetime James Bond incarnation George Lazenby and a massive magazine collage composed of celebrity faces and bodies that Soderbergh has carefully excised from gossip magazines. The objects illustrate Soderbergh’s predilection for the perverse, his enduring obsession with cinema from the 1960s and 1970s, and the way he’s elicited staggering performances from actors like George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Brad Pitt by lifting them out of their Hollywood context, but it does beg the question: how does the man who single-handedly reinvigorated independent cinema in the 1990s with Sex, Lies, and Videotape manage simultaneously to edit his latest feature The Good German, plan a sweeping Che Guevara biopic, and crouch on the floor of his studio, meticulously slicing images of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston out of Us Weekly with an X-Acto blade? The answer, of course, is that behind Steven Soderbergh’s modest, bald, bespectacled facade lies an individual bursting at the seams with a staggering surfeit of talent, vision, and motivation. His Schizopolis—a cult favorite released in 1996 about a speechwriter for a self-help organization, his wife, a dentist, and a seductive exterminator—could serve as a metaphor for his entire career: unpredictable, offbeat, and obsessed with sampling and mixing disparate genres, be it a tense political drama like Traffic or the Ocean’s 11/12 franchise’s celebration of wry A-list criminals.
This interview began with an email exchange in which Soderbergh outlined the various topics he’d be most interested in talking about. The short list included pornography, Chris Rock, how the Olympics relates to the killer instinct, and the cost of panda bears as compared to the cost of getting off (in the legal sense). We met twice, on America’s most important holidays—Valentine’s Day and President’s Day—for a free-form chat that ended up spanning several hours and generating a short film (see Wholphin No. 2, available at wholphindvd.com).
I. “IT WOULD TAKE YOU
TWENTY MINUTES TO GET RID
OF ALL THE VOMIT.”
THE BELIEVER: If you were going to make a gay cowboy movie—since it’ll be a genre for sure—two gay cowboys, who would you pick?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Right now?
SS: Crispin Glover. And Danny Glover! The Glovers. I’d cast two Glovers.
BLVR: I think Benicio del Toro would make an amazing gay cowboy.
SS: He would, actually. He’d be the law.
BLVR: That scene at the gay bar in Traffic…
SS: That was his idea, with the condom in the cigarette pack. I didn’t ask where he got it from. But yeah, the two Glovers. Crispin and Danny, together again. Yeah, Brokeback Mountain. It’s worth seeing, for sure. What’s interesting about it to me is that it seems like you don’t have to set it in 1963. It’s still a touchy enough subject to set it in the present. People talk about Douglas Sirk movies—“gardener, iconoclast, loner”—and she’s a well-to-do woman, and she starts going out with him, and all her friends are freaked out. It’s sort of the jumping-off point that Todd Haynes used to make Far from Heaven. You set that movie in Beverly Hills today—white woman once married to a well-to-do guy, now divorced, living in Bel Air, who decides she wants to fuck her gardener—there’s going to be some pretty upset people in that neighborhood. We don’t need fifty years’ distance to go, “Look at the way things were back then.”
BLVR: What about if the husband fucked the gardener?
SS: That would almost be less shocking, I think. It would be easier for people in reality to sort of write that off as “He’s gay, and men are men.” It would be more disturbing if the beautiful forty-year-old ex-wife decided, “Yeah, I love this guy, and he’s moving into my house, and I’m going to start a second family.” That would upset people, I think. Let’s find out. We should do it. That’s a reality show.
BLVR: The gardener is the Mole.
SS: What do you think the reality show thing is about?
BLVR: I’m pretty addicted to it.
SS: Which ones? The real ones or the fake ones?
BLVR: I think they’re all fake.
SS: Have you watched Intervention? Dude.
BLVR: What’s Intervention?
SS: It’s a show about people who have various problems. The one I saw had a binge eater, a young woman, and a crystal-meth addict. They all agreed to be on a show about addiction, but they didn’t know that part of it was an intervention. It’s weird—the more real they try to make the show, the more disturbing the questions that arise. For instance, you don’t watch The Bachelor or How to Marry a Millionaire and ask questions like, “Aren’t they uncomfortable with the cameras?” Because the whole thing is so constructed. But with Intervention, they’re really trying to make it as real as possible and as undirected as possible, so you have this woman going out to eat with her husband, bingeing like crazy, driving home quickly in a separate car to beat him to the house, going into her walk-in closet, making herself throw up into these gallon-size ziplock bags, which she then seals and hides in her lingerie drawer. The whole time you’re watching—and she’s good at it, she gets her fingers down her throat and stuff comes out like that—the whole time, you’re thinking, “But there’s a camera there! And a sound guy! This is really fucking weird!”
BLVR: And at what point do they step down and realize they can’t just be observers? The Real World got in trouble with one girl who was shitfaced and decided to drive her car home. And they got in the car and filmed her driving.
SS: It was weird. Not as weird as every week her taking the twenty sealed bags to the dumpster. That was one of the craziest images ever. You could tell she was in agony, that she didn’t have any control over it.
BLVR: Why would you keep the bags?
SS: Where do you keep it? There was so much of it. It would take you twenty minutes to get rid of it all. She had this shit down. All I could think while she was doing this was, “But there are cameras there!”
II. “PORN IS SUCH A BETTER WAY TO DETERMINE SOMEONE’S MIND-SET.”
BLVR: Do you think if you train the cameras on them long enough, people forget they’re there?
SS: I don’t think so. Not in my experience. I’ve worked on shows where I’ve followed people around for a while and tried to be as lo-fi as I could, but no. No. It’s just strange. Is it any weirder than porn? Maybe not. There’s obviously people that don’t think so, but that’s a line I don’t think I can cross. Being in porn. Having a camera in the room while I was having sex. That’s just not something I could wrap my mind around. But selfishly I’m glad there are people who don’t have a problem with it, so I can order it up. I can’t imagine, though. Maybe if I had, like, a balloon dick, maybe it’d be really appealing to me. I know someone who had a friend who had this enormous schlong, and whenever he would get drunk he’d want to show it to everybody. This was an ongoing problem. It was a real problem with his girlfriend. Every time he went somewhere and had more than four drinks, he would get really loaded and it’d be time—at a party, “You guys gotta see this!” And I was like, wow, maybe that’s the impulse. Porn actors are… most of them, they’re the Olympians of this activity, and that’s what makes them comfortable.
BLVR: What sort of porn are you watching?
SS: I’m not interested in the well-produced porn with good lighting. That ruins it. Maybe there are people for whom that takes the onus off. I like the amateur stuff. It’s fascinating—as much of it as there is around, in our culture at least, it’s still so powerful. The portrayal of these acts, the documentation of these acts—people are sort of numb to watching violence, but sexual activity is still as strong as it ever was in terms of generating response.
BLVR: Do you think that’s just in the U.S.?
SS: No… and in a way you could see that as a good sign, I suppose. You wish people wouldn’t become so numb to violence. Everybody has sex, but not everybody is experiencing violence. I feel like porn is such a better marker… if I were to have a political party—and I think we do need a third political party—porn is such a better way to determine someone’s mindset than whether they’re Republican or Democrat. We should have a political party, and the things that make people a part of it should be more interesting than “Are you pro-business, or pro–health care?” Let’s make it more interesting, more personal. We need a third party. We’d need some money and some friends—or maybe we don’t… maybe now with technology where it is we don’t need that much money.
I’m trying to come up with some names, because that’s the most important thing.
BLVR: And the mascot.
SS: What about calling it the Life of the Party Party? That’s too glib. It’s got to be something you like saying a lot, but it shouldn’t be serious.
What I need to find out, from someone like Malcolm Gladwell, is how do people change their minds? What is the process by which a person changes their mind about a deeply held belief? What’s the thing that clicks over for them? I have no idea. Clearly people do change their mind about things, but how does that work? Is it gradual, sudden? Is it through a peer? What’s the source of the information? I’d love to know how that works. You might be talking about ideas that people from either side might find a little odd or dangerous. I could figure this out! I’d love to know the mechanism by which people decide they now think differently about an issue. We’ve got to figure that out first.
BLVR: Is it going to be one particular issue?
SS: No. You have to determine what people will listen to, who they’ll listen to. What resonates with them? What kind of information resonates with them?
BLVR: A lot of people are just shut off.
SS: I think it’s because, and both sides are guilty of this—which is what this party is getting rid of—marginalizing, ignoring, or denying any factual information that doesn’t line up with your belief system. Truth and facts have to trump partisanship. There has to be something that’s true regardless of what your angle is on it. There’s always plenty of blame in both directions when you get into politics, and I have a problem with that. I have a problem with having to toe the party line because it’s the party line, even though there are factual reasons that maybe disagree. This is the thing we’ve got to solve.
I’ve got to do my homework. What’s the process in starting a third party? You’ve got to get on the ballot. You need signatures to get on any ballot.
BLVR: You need to come up with a style that will resonate with people. I’m struck by how political commercials always seem twenty years out of date even though there’s so much money behind them.
SS: First of all, they shouldn’t have the candidate in them. That’s going to be the whole point of our party—the ideas are bigger then any one person. It’s not about somebody’s face.
BLVR: How do you condense all the ideas into thirty seconds?
SS: You do a whole series. They might have to be sixty seconds.
III. “THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FAILURES AND THINGS THAT ARE BAD.”
BLVR: When you shot Bubble, how much did the camera cost?
SS: It’s like four thousand dollars. You could do the whole thing for ten thousand dollars.
BLVR: How much did Bubble cost altogether?
SS: One point six million. Because I paid people. There’s a tipping point. If you’re going to make a movie for ten thousand you can talk everybody into doing it for free. You could make a really good-looking movie right now for ten grand, if you have an idea. That’s the trick. I was watching Alphaville this weekend, and I’d love to do like a ten-minute version of Alphaville here in Manhattan. It’s so easy now. I don’t know what the ultimate result of that will be—whether you’ll see a sort of a film version of iTunes, where you can access things that have been made independently by people.
BLVR: Books, as well—you can self-publish your book easily, have them ship boxes of the book to you, but there’s no vetting process.
SS: You’re right. But then the question is—whose vetting process is this, and who are these people? A buddy of mine, I went and saw his art at DUMBO, and I asked him why his shit wasn’t showing in the big New York galleries. And he said he can’t get in there, he doesn’t know anybody. It’s just the way it works. Your response to that can be “Fuck them, I don’t need the imprimatur of a bunch of Manhattan gallery owners to know that I’m good,” and you’d be right. But if you’re a painter and you want people to know who you are and recognize your work, you’ve got to build some long-term value, you’re beholden to this cabal. I don’t know where the middle point is—“I can’t find anyone to vouch for the legitimacy of this thing that somebody’s asking me to download”—and access that’s being controlled by a bunch of people who, it’s possible, if you met, you’d actually hate.
BLVR: While we’re on the subject of hate, what’s the worst movie you’ve seen in the past few years?
SS: Can’t say.
BLVR: Too many? Are you offended by bad movies?
SS: It’s not that I’m offended, it just makes me sad. And there’s a difference between failures and things that are bad. I’d like to think that I’ve made movies that were failures, creatively and otherwise.
BLVR: Which? Any you would take back?
SS: No, just ones I’d do differently. They were sincere attempts. I think Kafka was a failure. King of the Hill. The Underneath is a failure. I should have done that very differently. I’ve made movies since then that don’t work for people—there are a lot of people that don’t like Full Frontal, don’t like Bubble. But I feel like I got what I was after with those films, I understood what I was trying to do. They succeeded on their own terms. But the earlier films, I just hadn’t hit the next level yet.
BLVR: Bubble is about a crime, but it’s the least proficient crime imaginable. It’s almost like an anti-heist movie.
SS: It is. The original idea for that came from a news story that the writer and I had seen—remember that news story about the woman who went into an ER with an infant and said, “I just gave birth to this baby”? She was, like, covered in blood. “I just gave birth to this baby, would you help me?” The ER people knew immediately something was wrong. It turned out she’d killed her friend at work, who was pregnant, and took the baby out of her stomach and brought it to the ER. And this was all because this woman wanted a baby and was jealous that her friend was having one. This was the craziest thing I ever read. We were talking about this line that gets crossed, where people…
BLVR: Like the homeless guy in the windshield.
SS: Yeah! They go over and they don’t come back. I didn’t want to use that story, but I did want jealousy to be at the heart of this thing somehow, that there was a murder and jealousy was the motivating factor. So it went from there.
But bad movies—I think I’ve got a word for the kind of sadness I’m talking about. Schoenfraun. The sadness of when you’re watching someone enjoy something that you think is substandard. Schoenfraun. Schoenfraun. It just sounds right. The ineffable sadness when someone is happy and something is not as good as it should be.
IV. “I THOUGHT SCHIZOPOLIS WAS GOING TO BE BIGGER THAN SEX, LIES, & VIDEOTAPE.”
SS: I have dreams where I hit people. I also have dreams where people are chasing me. We haven’t talked about dreams.
BLVR: Do you remember your dreams every day? Are they recurring?
SS: They recur in their theme. Mostly they involve me not being able to move fast enough. Or I’ll have baseball dreams. I had one the other night. They put me on first base, and the guy hits a ball to me and I’m going to turn a table play by stepping on first base, and I throw the ball to second and it only goes halfway and it bounces. I’m going, “What the fuck?” I can’t throw. My legs feel like lead. I have those dreams a lot. It’s just garden-variety frustration. It’s residue from doing my work, feeling like, “Why aren’t I better? Why can’t I do this better?” It’s an expression of that feeling. That’s the feeling I have sometimes—my legs not moving fast enough. It’s the same thing as sitting on the set and going, “Why can’t I figure out how to make this scene come alive?”
BLVR: Do you generally blame yourself when that happens?
SS: When I’m on the set? Yeah. Everything is the director’s fault—you can quote me on that. There are no excuses. And I do have dreams where I get into fights, but again, I’ll try and hit someone and I’ll miss them, I’ll graze them, I can’t clock somebody. It’s never successful. They’re not successful dreams.
BLVR: What is the hardest thing about filmmaking?
SS: I will say, and coming from someone who’s made some of the movies and TV I’ve made, it may seem disingenuous—but the hardest thing in the world is to be good and clear when creating anything. It’s the hardest thing in the world. It’s really easy to be obscure and elliptical and so fucking hard to be good and clear. It breaks people. Because you don’t often get encouragement to do that, to be good and clear.
BLVR: Rather than, if you’re talking film—having a plot that runs backwards.
SS: Yeah. Now, luckily for me, I don’t like to do any one thing all the time, so sometimes I get to be clear and sometimes I get to be—
BLVR: Schizopolis was pretty straightforward.
SS: [Laughs] That’s what I thought. It wasn’t good but it was clear.
BLVR: That was a great movie! Nobody ever asks you about that?
SS: No. Except maybe the ones with the crazy look in their eyes when I go to festivals.
When I finished Schizopolis, I honestly thought—I need to come up with a German word for this, too—I honestly thought that I was really onto something that was going to be very, very popular. I thought that movie was going to be a hit. I thought people would go, “This is a new thing.” I thought it was going to be bigger than Sex, Lies, and Videotape. You have to believe that while you’re making it. Once I started showing it, I didn’t believe it anymore. I made that movie for four hundred thousand. The plan was to make one of those every two years, and make enough money to subsist on a crazy movie every two years, and make enough just to live. I don’t think anyone who was involved with Schizopolis made money. My plan was to have the films finance themselves, and just keep making these crazy movies. In my opinion, as nutty as Schizopolis is, Full Frontal was less accessible. Schizopolis is about the breakdown of a marriage. It’s very simple, in a way. It’s about two people who can’t communicate. It’s all in the service of expressing this emotional detachment and frustration. As crazy as it gets, it’s not actually an obscure movie to me. Full Frontal is like a real… it’s odd because it’s about aesthetics. It’s a live-action discussion about the phoniness of aesthetics, and at the end of the movie the wrong aesthetic is exposed as being phony, the one that you think is real. And so it pisses people off, because basically the movie’s just saying you shouldn’t be too pulled in by any of these tricks. That may not be a discussion that needs to take place in front of an audience. At the time, I was interested in the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. What’s the fine print? What are you allowed to do and not to do? For two million dollars, let’s find out. And I learned something—I learned that, for most people, I really went off the reservation there.
But that’s fine. You’ve got to be able to chart that. If I hadn’t made Full Frontal, I wouldn’t have been able to make Bubble the way I did in terms of the control of the aesthetic. What I learned from Full Frontal was that you need to apply some of these ideas to something that is clearer. A lot of people who write about art don’t understand the importance of failure, the importance of process. Woody Allen can’t leap from Annie Hall to Manhattan. He has to make Interiors in between to get to Manhattan. You’ve got to let him do that.
BLVR: But if someone’s making a good number of films regularly, the margin for error is greater than if you’re only making three in your life.
SS: Yeah, but you’re going to make some mistakes. Every time you make something that somebody likes, your impulse is to remind them that if you hadn’t made some of these other things that they hated, you wouldn’t have been able to make the thing that they liked. The attitude toward the stuff they don’t like is so extreme because they don’t understand the role that it has in your development.