Steven Soderbergh's 1989 breakthrough sex, lies, and videotape put him at the forefront of the nascent American independent movement, but no one could have predicted the eclectic career he's put together in the two decades since. After a string of ambitious but financially unsuccessful ventures, including Kafka, The Underneath, and King Of The Hill, Soderbergh seemed like a risky choice to adapt Elmore Leonard's Out Of Sight, but his first studio film proved that mainstream entertainment could withstand an infusion of artistry.
From there, Soderbergh has taken on projects of all shapes and sizes, from big-budget star vehicles like Erin Brockovich and Ocean's 11 to quirky digital experiments like Full Frontal and Bubble. He won a Best Director Oscar for Traffic, and has parlayed his studio clout into one-of-a-kind oddities like Solaris and The Good German. True to form, he has three new features in various stages of completion, and they have nothing in common: The Informant, an adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald's superb nonfiction account of corporate crime, starring Matt Damon; The Girlfriend Experience, a digital film starring real-life porn actress Sasha Grey; and Cleo, a 3D musical about Cleopatra starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and featuring songs by Guided By Voices.
With the biopic Che, about the iconic revolutionary Che Guavara, Soderbergh has gone out on a limb again. Presenting what could generously be called a distribution challenge, the four-hour-plus film has been divided into two parts: The first, "The Argentine," follows Che (Benicio Del Toro) as he foments a successful revolutionary movement in Cuba's rural southwest, and the second, "Guerrilla," looks at his last days in Bolivia, when he tried and failed to repeat the same script. (Though a "road show" version screened the two parts back-to-back, the distributor, IFC, will be releasing them separately and requiring full admission for both.) Soderbergh recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the development and distribution of Che, why he works as his own cinematographer, the one way his viewers surprise him, the greatest era of American film, and much more.
The A.V. Club: What are your thoughts on the opportunities and pitfalls of the biopic in general, and how did that affect the way this film was conceived?
Steven Soderbergh: I think often people fall into the breadth trap of wanting to do too long a period of time, and obviously there's this sort of algorithm of how much depth you can put into something times how much of their life you're trying to show. My attitude has always been, I'd rather show a briefer period of time in more detail than a longer period of time in less detail. When I started, though, I had a blank slate, which was either a perfect way to start, or a terrible way to start. I really didn't know anything, and I'm not Latino, so I was truly a kind of agnostic about Che. I think for what we were trying to do, that was probably a good thing, because I wasn't looking for things to confirm what I already believed.
I gravitated initially toward Bolivia, or we all did, because that was the area of his life that was least-known and least-discussed. The first couple of years were spent just researching Bolivia, for the most part. Then I was off the project for a while, because Terrence Malick came on initially as a writer, and then I sort of agreed to step into the corner and let him direct, and he worked on the script for a couple of years. Then the Che money, which was always precarious, came together right as the money for The New World came together, and there was this huge problem because the Che financers were saying, "We're not going to wait for you to go off and make this other movie and not see you for two years." So it looked like the thing was going to collapse. It was very awkward.
I agreed to come in to keep the money together, but little did they know it was going to be way more than two years before my version got ready. As it turns out, what I didn't say to them, to the money people, when I came back was, I didn't think Bolivia was enough. What I said to [producer] Laura [Bickford] and Benicio was, "Having looked at this now fresh, I think this needs to be expanded. I think without the context of Cuba, Bolivia doesn't make any sense. You don't know why he stays. You just keep asking yourself, 'Why don't they leave?'" So then we start getting into Cuba, and as you can imagine, there is a giant amount of material.
AVC: That's been covered pretty thoroughly, too.
SS: Yeah. We'd been going to Cuba regularly to talk to people, and what was great about going is, they have these book fairs where you can get these books you can't get anywhere else. Apparently everyone who fought in the Cuban revolution wrote a memoir, so Benicio would buy up all these books and they would have these little gems in them, like the final scene in part one with Rogelio in the car—that is in Rogelio's memoir that he wrote about the revolution. And I thought, "God, that's perfect. It's the perfect ending to part one, but it's also the quintessential Che scene." I mean that is so him, you know, based on everything I read and heard.
So we still had this one script, and it's starting to balloon because now we've got Cuba in it, then I find out about New York. Shit, he was in New York. I read the text of the speeches, and I'm like, "God, these are really intense speeches." And Lisa Howard had a cocktail party at her house, how weird is that? He was on Face The Nation. There was all this great stuff—just the image of him in Manhattan is so… it's like, "Man, he's in the belly of the beast. You can't not shoot this." So we start writing the New York stuff.
Then I start thinking, well, Mexico City, we should see him meet Fidel. So this thing is just turning into, you know, The Andromeda Strain. It just keeps getting bigger, and it's still one script at this point, with four different timelines playing out simultaneously. So we're working on it, we're working on it, we're working on it, and I'm like "This just isn't… it's unreadable." I said, "This feels like a trailer, a two-hour trailer for a four-hour movie." All the scenes are three pages long, and there was no rhythm. You didn't get a feeling of what the rhythm was for [the revolutionaries] day to day.
It was during when we were shooting The Good German, and we were tentatively going to start shooting in six months on Che, and I said, "I'm stopping this. We're not moving another inch forward until we solve the script problem. On this movie, there is no way I'm going to the set without feeling like we've solved this, and we haven't solved it."
Of course, nobody wanted to hear that, but I just couldn't see daylight. So we were shooting, and it was good to have something else to sort of think about, and then a couple weeks later, I called Laura and I said, "It's got to be two movies. It's just gotta be two movies. If it's two films, it solves all our problems. We can do it the way we want. We can make Bolivia just one story, which it should be because it's so linear and the trajectory of it is just so clean, and we can use the multiple storylines in part one, because that really lends itself to that. The Cuban revolution went on for so long, I'm going to need reasons to pop out and come back and skip over things.
Now we had to go back to all the people we'd made deals with around the world for one film and say, "Now it's two films, and by the way, it's in Spanish. We've decided definitively it's in Spanish." And everybody said, "Fine." I was ready for this wave of antipathy, and every one of the distributors that had pre-bought the movie around the world said, "Great."
AVC: So there was no thought like, "This is going to be a problem to distribute"?
SS: Well, there was, but they felt, to their credit yet again, like that was the best way to do this, to tell this story. Although now I look at it, and I feel like, "Shit, we should have just done a miniseries." We should have just done a 10-hour miniseries. We would have had a lot more money to do it, ironically, and we could have done all the stuff that was really fascinating that we didn't have time for.
AVC: It could have been everything.
SS: Yeah. Like, Che in the Congo is an amazing story. That's a whole other film, but really fascinating.
AVC: It's interesting to contrast Che with something like Milk, which is also about a political figure, but seems more interested in making him someone who mainstream America might embrace. That kind of portraiture doesn't seem to interest you here. What were your goals in defining Che the man?
SS: One of the things that was clear to me from the research is that he is not a very embraceable figure, and wasn't a very embraceable person. He was kind of distant in a way. I remember one of the people who fought alongside him and who he knew and trusted, and even though this person described getting into arguments with him about stuff, he was a person I think that Che basically respected. And years after the revolution in Cuba, he was having a conversation with Che, and he put his hand on Che's shoulder, and Che looked at him and said, "What's with the hand?"
I heard a lot of stories like that, and I related to it because I don't know that anyone has ever described me as being warm. I think people would say that I'm nice, but I don't think warm. I'm half-Swedish, half-Italian, and I think there's more Swede. So I related to his feeling, him being Argentine and surrounded by Cubans who are probably the most gregarious people you're ever going to meet. You know, it was easy for me to imagine him feeling a little separate.
AVC: But then he has this ability to connect and inspire.
SS: Well, he does, because of his commitment and stamina, his ability to lead by example. It would have felt inaccurate to make him somebody who you thought, "Oh, he'd be fun to hang with," because it was clear that he wasn't really a lot of fun to hang with. He was kind of a pain in the ass, and he never dropped that mask. He felt like if you're a revolutionary, there is a sort of code of behavior that doesn't have a switch. You are always that person, and everything you do has to follow this ideology. And that's gotta be an intense thing to be around a lot. There was this scene that got cut of these young recruits trying to figure out if they can be transferred into Camilo's column, because they hate being in Che's column so much. He was known as a really, really tough disciplinarian, and there was no wiggle room with this guy.
AVC: But there's a scene late in the film that also shows his ability to be empathetic. He's talking to this guard on a very human level, and the guard has to leave the room, because he's so persuasive, and he's connecting to him in a way that guard's leadership probably never could.
SS: No, and I think that comes from being somebody who really walks the walk. You know what I mean? People can recognize when they're dealing with somebody real and when they're not, and he was obviously the real thing, and knew very well that his path could end in a room like that, with a guy aiming a gun at him. I mean, he knew that was the deal. I'm going to Miami tomorrow, and you know, there's a lot of discussion about what happened after the revolution at La Cabaña, and why isn't there more of that. It's interesting to talk about. I like to talk about it. There are obviously people who are very anti-Che and for whom there's just no amount of atrocity you could show that would satisfy them.
He is a murderer to them. He is irredeemable, and it's hard. And sometimes you can have a reasonable conversation about it, and I can talk to them about context. And I can talk to them about balance and my reasons for showing the two periods that I show, and addressing the issues of the executions in the way we do. But some people literally can't… Like I was having a discussion with this journalist in Europe, and he said, "I don't know how you can make this film and not address the executions." And I said, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "Well, you know, those things happened." And I said, "It's in the film. It's in the UN. He says in a close-up, 'We execute people. We've never denied it, and we're going to keep executing people because this is a fight to the death.'" I go, "Did you not see that?" And he was like, "I don't remember that." And I thought, "Wow. Wow. How do you not remember that?" The point being that Che knew that killing is part of this, and he was willing to kill and willing to be killed. So now it just becomes a matter of balance. For people who don't like Che, he is defined by the events at La Cabaña, and to me, the events at La Cabaña are consistent with what I read about him and what I heard about him. And given the sections of the story we're telling, you know, the only way to address them is through his talk at the UN.
AVC: You've said that the movie is about process. And the overall impression the film leaves is just how hard it is to start a revolution. Is that really the fundamental goal of the film, to just focus on the nuts and bolts of getting it accomplished?
SS: I was really fascinated with how physically difficult it was, and also how much mental strength was required to sustain your commitment to it. And all the details about how, for instance, the Cuban revolution played out—you never really get much of in school. I never went to college, so all that I knew about Cuba was the 20 minutes it was given in some history class, and it was pretty superficial, obviously. Finding out all the details about the other groups that were also trying to foment revolutions was really interesting, and I loved all this stuff about how, say, there should be a strike or there shouldn't be a strike. This group thinks we should do this. This group thinks you're all communists. That stuff to me was really, really interesting, and I didn't know any of that before we got started. And I wanted that in there so that people understood, as he says in the film at various points, that this isn't just about guns, you know. That's part of it, but that's not all of it. You have to educate yourselves. If we win, you're going to be the people running this country. I was really fascinated by this, the political maneuvering that went on.
AVC: But Che was never somebody who…
SS: He's not a politician.
AVC: Right, he was never somebody who could get to that point and then run a country.
SS: No. I think you saw him getting all those groups to work together in the final months of the revolution, and that was the extent of his political abilities. That was about as far as he went.
AVC: Were you thinking of the current political landscape when you were making this movie? How might the film reflect upon, say, Castro's Cuba, or Hugo Chavez?
SS: We were thinking vaguely in terms of the film's being ready during an election year, which is always good. And which is what happened to us on Traffic, also. Only because that means these sorts of ideas are in the air, and people might be more receptive to seeing the movies. What's happening economically is kind of interesting. We're seeing the result now of an unregulated free-market economy. This is the economic equivalent of a guy going, "No, I don't have to wear a condom." [Laughs.]
So these ideas now are in people's heads about "What is enough money?" I think on a karmic level, there is a zero-sum game at play here, meaning, if you have obscene wealth somewhere, it costs someone on the bottom somewhere else. I've seen variations of that my whole life, and it really does force you to ask "How are we defining what is enough? How are we defining success? How are we defining progress?" You go down to Cuba, and the overall standard of living, obviously, is lower than it is in the U.S., but there are also fewer people off the bottom of the chart with nowhere to go and no safety net, and there aren't any strip malls. So I feel confident in saying that there is probably a better version of what they're doing to be had, and there's certainly a better version of what we're doing to be had. So you know, this is an exciting time. I hope Obama takes advantage of the fact that he really has the opportunity to do something bold here. And I hope he does.
AVC: It would appear that his instincts are pretty pragmatic.
SS: Yeah, but I think the pragmatic thing to do is to be bold right now. And so it's going to be interesting. But again, there is an assumption that if I make a film about this person, then obviously I line up with him about all these various issues, which is absurd to me. No artist would ever say that about another artist, but from the outside, I guess people would think that. And it's funny in this situation, because literally in the society that Che is building, there is no place for me. [Laughs.] I know he didn't care for movies. He liked poetry, but I think his attitude at a certain point… The idea of beauty for beauty's sake, or form for form's sake—forget it!
AVC: Wouldn't it be fun to see his reaction to a film like I Am Cuba?
SS: Well, he saw it. I wish we knew what his reaction was. I can imagine, having spent some time in Cuba and having seen that film, which is so fucking Russian, they must have been livid. They must have been apoplectic. I mean, I bet that must have been a crazy screening. I can't imagine.
AVC: You've been very active in challenging conventional distribution models. Is Che part of that challenge? Ideally, how would you prefer it be experienced?
SS: I think there's no question that if you've got access to the road-show version and have a day to waste, that's a fun way to see it. Well, maybe fun's the wrong word, but it's the movie version of an isolation tank—the immersion into the world is total. And we've got it set up great in New York and L.A. No commercials. No trailers. And, of course, there's no credits. You just get this printed program. Like, you walk in there, and for four and a half hours, your ass is ours and there's no escaping it. And as somebody who stands in line to see movies and stuff, I would flip for that, but you can only do that in certain places. I also think there's probably an interesting but different set of benefits to seeing part one one weekend and part two next weekend, and having a week to think about what you saw. And so far as the OnDemand stuff goes, it's part of IFC's model. It's how they're able to put out a lot of movies, and having been through the [Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner's] 2929 process with Bubble and now with The Girlfriend Experience, I was totally comfortable with that, when they said, "Look, when we come out in January, and a couple of weeks after that, we're going to be on VOD." And I said, "Great."
AVC: When I last spoke with them, the 2929 people were convinced that all these windows—theatrical, video, OnDemand—are just going to completely collapse, and then it will be one thing. What do you think?
SS: It's hard to tell, because nobody's done a mass release that way. The theater owners, the members of NATO, the National Association Of Theatre Owners, obviously don't like VOD, don't like day-and-date simultaneous releases. They won't play anything that's going out that way. So it's hard to know if that can work or not, unless you put a movie out on 2,500 screens that people really want to see. You know, Pirates Of The Caribbean. Until somebody puts out Pirates Of The Caribbean in all formats on the same day, we're not going to know if it works. Because right now, in this case, we're sort of restricted to independent theater chains. And that's not a lot of screens. So it's hard to tell if the model works or not.
AVC: In your diary about the making of sex, lies and videotape, you expressed a lot of admiration for movies like Jaws and The Conversation that displayed artistry within the context of a mainstream studio project. Did you envision yourself then as someone who could have a career like that? How has your perspective changed over the years?
SS: I still feel that those movies from that decade, '66 to '76, represent the best cinema that this country has generated, and it was because of this fusion of a European or a foreign approach to style married to a very American attitude toward narrative. I grew up in a subdivision in Baton Rogue and didn't travel a lot. So on the one hand, I felt myself being very much an American filmmaker. On the other hand, when I was in high school and started seeing a lot of foreign films, I had an immediate attraction to the way they were shot, and the way they were performed, and the rhythm and the look.
While that's happening, some of the films I'm talking about in that journal, I'm seeing for the first time, or in the case of Jaws, the 28th time, and trying to imagine how to continue that tradition. And early on, when sex, lies happened, I think my assumption was, it was going to be very difficult for me to make a studio movie. Because you have to remember that when sex, lies came out, we were coming out of the worst decade of American cinema, with some notable exceptions like David Lynch's Blue Velvet or Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing or Altman, always. A corporate decade of really bad movies that was not quite in its death throes yet, so at the time of sex, lies, I really felt like, "I don't know where I'm going to fit in here." I had a couple things kind of being developed, but none of them were real studio movies, and I would get offered stuff and turn them down.
So years go by, and I make a series of movies that nobody goes to see, and I'm really worried at that point that half of the business is off-limits to me. And Out Of Sight comes along, and I feel like, "Okay, now this would benefit from what I can bring to it. This is a terrific script." George [Clooney] was already attached to it. I was convinced that George was going to be a movie star and just hadn't had the right part. I was dealing with a studio chief, Casey Silver, whom I had worked with twice before, who liked me, and would let me do it the way I wanted to. And I thought, "Okay, there's a reason I waited this long to say yes, and it's because this is the right thing for me to do." And even though the movie didn't make money, it was certainly a watershed for me in a lot of ways creatively, because it got me out of the arthouse ghetto, and I think it was proof that you could fuse the independent world with the studio world, and come up with something that was fun to watch. During that time, when people said, "Well, why did you do this? What does this mean?" I said, "It means that, you know, you should support the idea of Gus Van Sant making a movie that comes out in a couple of thousand theaters, that's what it means. We should stop being so dogmatic about this." So I'm happy that [Memento, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight director] Chris Nolan and other independent-minded filmmakers are making studio films. The Wachowskis, Jesus, they made Bound before they made The Matrix. That's one of the bigger risks anybody has ever taken.
AVC: Do you treat your studio films like capital in a sense? Do you say, "If I'm going to make this juggernaut for you, like Ocean's Eleven, you're going to give me Solaris?" Do you think about it that way? If you have a run of good films that are big and profitable, can you press studios to gamble on something different?
SS: The time to do the trickiest shit is when you're sitting pretty. When I've been on an upswing, I've tried as much as possible to start pulling out the stuff that's tricky. In a couple of cases, they haven't worked, and I've tried to analyze why—whether was it a problem in execution or a conceptual problem. I think in some cases, they were ideas that people were never going to embrace no matter how well-executed they were. And then in some cases, I feel like there was an idea there, and something in the execution made it off-putting.
Take Cleo. Cleo is going to be the next real crazy experiment for me, but I've actually been pretty craven in constructing it. [Laughs.] Let's put it this way: I've always wanted to make a musical, but musicals are risky. In looking at what makes musicals work more often than not, their audience is primarily female. Women drive the audience for musicals more than men. So I started thinking about doing an original musical with a female protagonist. Then I'm thinking, "Well, let's pick a well-known, historical female figure." Then I'm thinking, "And who are the women I know that can really sing and dance, so I can do shots that go on for four minutes? Well, Catherine [Zeta-Jones]." Who's a historical figure that Catherine could play well? Cleopatra. And when you compare that line of thought to Solaris or The Good German, I'm way ahead here in terms of just coming up with something conceptually that an audience might want to see. Then you add 3D. [Laughs.]
AVC: And you've got Guided by Voices doing the music for this.
SS: Yeah, but Robert Pollard writes hooks like nobody's business.
AVC: He does, but lyrically…
SS: [Screenwriter] Jim Greer and I have rewritten the songs to fit our purposes for the story. So again, I'm getting the best of both worlds. I'm getting Robert's monstrous gift for writing melody, and you know, people who can really sing and dance. And a format that I think really fits this genre well and something that's going to be fun, basically. That's the other thing, is I decided: "If I'm going to do something weird, maybe this time it should be fun."
AVC: What is the status of the project now? It hasn't been shot yet, has it?
SS: No, we should start in April.
AVC: What are you looking at in terms of 3D? 3D can be used in a whole range of ways.
SS: I'm hoping to use it in a way in that takes advantage of the things that it can do well, and not just… I don't want to make a 3D version of a 2D movie. I've seen enough stuff now done in the format to have a sense of what I want to do, which is different than what some other people are going to do. And so I'm really excited about it. It's still going to work in 2D. It's still going to be like a crazy Elvis musical, but in 3D, I want to make something visually that's just eye-popping, you know? Not just in the "things in your lap" sense, but I mean in terms of the color and the movement, you know. I really want to make something that's beautiful.
AVC: Are you serving as your own cinematographer again? What are the advantages of that? You've been doing that now for nearly a decade.
SS: Speed and intimacy. Look, I'm not Harris Savides or Emmanuel Lubezki. I'm never going to be, but I'm willing to make the trade. I know what I can do, and I'm willing to make the trade to get the momentum and the intimacy it provides, you know, between me and the actors and the crew. There's no video village on my shoots. There's none of that shit. It's usually me with a camera, and usually one other person as well. That gets me back as close to when I started making films as a kid as I'm ever going to get, so I don't want to lose that.
AVC: But doesn't that take you away from other aspects of the production that you need to attend to?
SS: No. Actually, it's one less level of communication that everyone has to go through, so you could argue that there's a sort of time save.
AVC: You're one of the small handful of people who record commentary tracks that are actually worth listening to. What goes into recording a good commentary track?
SS: Well, the key is to never do them alone. Nobody can sustain it by themselves. I mean, the Schizopolis one [Soderbergh goes a commentary with himself —ed.] is kind of a joke, but then in many ways, I thought if I weren't just a total clown, I would have never done a commentary after that. Because I really finished that and went, "Well, now what do I do?" After you've done something that absurd, how can you do another commentary with a straight face? But there were other opportunities that have come up that were just too good to miss, like the ones with Mike [Nichols on The Graduate and Catch-22] and James Gray [on Gray's The Yards] and Mark Romanek [on Soderbergh's Bubble] and these are people making interesting things, and I wanted to know more about what they did, and they're very articulate, so I'm doing them as much for me as I am for any other purpose.
AVC: Do you prepare going in?
SS: Oh yeah. I read everything I can get my hands on about them and about the movie. I'll have a huge clip file before I go in, because I want to be ready. I want to be able to pull from anywhere, and if necessary, keep the thing going. Like I said, doing it with somebody is great.
AVC: You have that really good one with [screenwriter Lem Dobbs] on The Limey where you're really having—
SS: Well, that's the best, because it's an argument.
AVC: Did you expect that to happen?
SS: Absolutely. That's why I wanted Lem to do it, because I love him, but he's a total crank. I knew it was going to go there. I was thrilled. I thought, "This is awesome." Whenever you get somebody like Lem who's willing to say, "You know what the trouble with your movies is?", then you know it's going to be good.
AVC: Was that maybe a movie he would have approved of more in an earlier stage, before you got in and messed with it in the editing room?
SS: I don't know.
AVC: Or is he the type that's just always going to have an issue?
SS: We made two movies together. [Kafka is the other. —ed.] So we know each other really well. And, you know, there are problems with my movies. It's not like he's imagining things. But I think our tastes are a little different, and I think… it's not an excuse, but I keep telling him, "You need to go make a movie. Because you will then either have a lot more or a lot less respect for what I do, because right now, you have the best of all worlds. You just get to sit back and take shots at me from the roof of a building, while I'm down in the courtyard." He's a good guy, and he actually was one of the early supporters of Che when we came back from Cannes. He came from a screening and he wrote me a really nice e-mail. Because Che is very much something like Lem would write.
AVC: To get back to Che, what did you make of the reaction to the film at Cannes? Was that expected?
SS: Yeah, absolutely.
AVC: You knew it was going to be—
SS: I knew it was going to be polarizing. It's designed to be.
AVC: Have you ever been stunned by the way people have responded to one of your films?
SS: You never really know, but I'm never stunned by negative responses. I'm more stunned by positive responses. You're just preparing for the worst, and the good news is, I am really a process person, and when a movie's done, it's done, and I'm usually already on to the next thing. I'm curious from a kind of anthropological perspective what the response to the film will mean to the commercial life of the film, just out of curiosity. If you make a certain kind of movie and you don't get good reviews, the movie's never going to expand beyond a certain amount. From a business standpoint, it's interesting to look at. It doesn't mean anything to me as a filmmaker. What somebody says doesn't alter it. The pixels don't rearrange into a new design by somebody sniping at your film. The film is the film, so it doesn't mean anything to me. It's unfortunate that we don't live in a time now where a polarizing film is a positive. Like in the '70s, if you made a film like Straw Dogs, and half the people hate it and half the people think it's a masterpiece, that's viewed as cool. Now it's not. Now if you don't get unified critical acclaim, your film is viewed as a failure. There's no badge of honor in having a high-end critic bash you and have it in a sense prove that the film is not down the middle. Now you get e-mails from people that are like, "Oh, I'm so sorry about the Times." That doesn't prove anything. That's great. They're angry. That's great.