The Hemi Q&A with Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh became a major filmmaker when he was just 26, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his first feature—which he wrote in eight days, shot in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and may have titled sex, lies, and videotape because capital letters exceeded his budget. “I am a very process-driven person,” the director says with a laugh. “I’m always trying to root out inefficiencies.”
Now 54, Soderbergh has helmed more than 30 movies, working with major studios and indie guerillas, in styles ranging from grim absurdism (Kafka) to sexy noir (Out of Sight) to wistful sci-fi (Solaris) to roguish caper (Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen) to jock-strap bromance (Magic Mike) to crime drama (Traffic). That last one won him an Oscar for Best Director, beating out a woman-vs.-system biopic (Erin Brockovich) that he was nominated for in the very same year.
This month, Soderbergh returns from a brief, high-profile “retirement” from feature filmmaking with Logan Lucky, a full-throttle heist film that follows the down-and-out Logan brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) as they attempt to rob a speedway vault during a NASCAR race. It’s classic Soderbergh, both in its seemingly effortless production and in the way in which the godfather of modern indie film is upending established Hollywood business practices. He called in to Hemispheres to talk about all of that, his inauspicious early filmic efforts—and the one genre he refuses to touch.
About five years ago, you declared you were quitting Hollywood filmmaking. Now you’re back with Logan Lucky. Why now?
That speech was a way of throwing a grenade over my shoulder as I walked out the door. I’d been planning to make a shift of some sort regarding the movie business. I never said out loud, “Oh, I’m never gonna make a movie again.” I was saying that something needs to change. And my being handed the script for Logan Lucky coincided with some conversations I’d been having, and what was beginning to take shape was a sort of large-scale independent model that would test some theories that I had about what resources were required to put a movie into wide release, and whether or not I could help create a model that would be more efficient, while also allowing complete creative control over the process from beginning to end.
What are your issues with the current model?
Part of the problem with studios is that they don’t have the time to do a postmortem—because they have another release coming in two weeks—and so there’s no incentive to parse what happened, whether it was a good result or a bad result. I have to start framing, for the people in the industry, that the economic structure of what we’re doing really demands that we not be judged the way a studio film is judged in terms of financial performance. A studio rule of thumb is that you can’t get out of bed for less than $30 million. So I’d have these conversations where I’d say, “Well, can you quantify what you get for the money between $23 million and $30 million?” And no one could. I think if you’re surgical in your search for people that might respond to your film, you can spend considerably less money to put a movie out. If I’m right, this will create a way for a certain kind of film director to produce and release mainstream movies with movie stars in them that don’t fit what the studios are looking for.
It’s an uphill battle, right?
Given my circumstances, it’d be hard for people to imagine I feel I’m pushing against forces bigger than myself. But I can tell you, if you’re a creative person in a field that uses these kinds of resources, you always feel like that. If you’re independent-minded and don’t really like being controlled by other people, then yeah, you are constantly swimming upstream.
Let’s talk about Logan Lucky. It’s the fifth heist flick you’ve directed. Why are you drawn to the genre?
There’s really no explanation for why some kid who grew up in a suburban subdivision would be so compelled by heist movies—other than the fact I loved movies and it’s the kind of story movies do well.
What makes heist films work?
The problem with adapting, say, a great novel into a movie is that the camera tends to reduce everything to its plot. Often, a great novel is great because of the authorial voice and not because of the plot, and when you lay it out and reduce it to its plot, you go, “Oh, that’s not as interesting as I thought.” With heist movies, from the get-go you’re not dealing with the kind of film that reeks of importance. Working in a genre is very freeing. You gotta respect the pillars of the genre—you subvert them at your own risk—but in the case of a movie like Get Out, Jordan Peele used genre as a Trojan horse to talk about something else, and that’s why that’s the movie of the year so far.
Get Out used sci-fi horror to show how America sublimates racism. Your heist film is quite political as well—the inciting incident comes when the hero loses his construction job because he has a limp that gets deemed a preexisting condition.
Working in a genre space, your primary job is to entertain people. There are all these peripheral things happening, but they’re not the primary drive. I wasn’t interested in making a drama about a guy who lives in a trailer. But I grew up in the South, and I have a sense of what kind of economic pressures people find themselves under. I like that it’s based in some sort of reality. Like, when Clyde [Adam Driver] says, “There’s an ice shortage because there’s been a chemical leak,” you think, “Oh, one of those companies came in and poisoned the water, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.”
At the same time, you have some fun with that Southern, NASCAR-country setting.
I liked that the film was very generous of spirit. It’s not a mean film, and it’s not a cynical film. Let’s be clear: Stereotypes are the building blocks of comedy. All comedy is built on stereotypes, and then flipping them. What I liked about this script is that it kept peeling back these layers, in that you had a sense that you understood a character and then suddenly they reveal something about themselves that you’d never have expected.
Speaking of the unexpected, Daniel Craig’s role as twang-talking hillbilly explosives nut Joe Bang is a big departure for the former 007.
I’ve known Daniel for a while, so I sent him the script. And he called the next day and said, “I’m in.” The first indication of what we were in for was when he sent me pictures of his dyed, cropped hair and all of his tats.
He’s a misunderstood actor in a lot of ways.
I think he liked the opportunity to not have to shoulder the entire film and to just play a dynamic character that has lots of great lines—and be funny. That’s a fun gig for somebody like Daniel. He has a very good sense of humor and is really fun to be around. He’s the kind of person that is always looking for the joke. It seemed to me like he was really enjoying himself, just being able to express that side of his personality.
The heist flick is just one of the many, many genres you’ve worked in over the years. How were you exposed to so many different types of film?
The film program at [Louisiana State University] was very, very good—very well curated. I was going to high school on the LSU campus, and I started hanging out at film class with these college students. So during my four years at high school, I had a wide range of films being screened that I had access to. Things imprint on you between the ages of 13 and 17 in a way that they never do again. I was seeing things from all over the world, from the beginning of cinema to the present. I was trying to expose myself to as many movies as I could and read as much about movies as I could and make short films as I tried to teach myself some basic craft.
What was your first film?
It was a short about my brother-in-law having taken too large a dose of Ex-Lax, and his struggle to find a place where he can be … relieved.
So you’ve got the character and his need. Sounds like a hero’s quest…
Yep. Ticking clock. I had all the food groups covered. [Laughs.]
Is there any type of film that you’d never consider making?
A western. Horses terrify me. I just can’t imagine, day after day, dealing with … horses. I think that’s the only genre you’ll never see me work in.
Because of the horses?
Yeah. They’re just … scary.