At age 48, Steven Soderbergh has already directed more than twenty films, among them sex, lies, and videotape, which demonstrated his originality right at the outset of his career; Traffic, which won him an Oscar; his three Ocean’s movies, which made a ton of money; and along the way, Out of Sight, an Elmore Leonard adaptation, which made George Clooney a major star. Soderbergh is equally at home scoring big commercial hits and risking low-budget experiments — like Bubble, which he cast with non-actors; the equally bare-bones Girlfriend Experience, for which he took a chance on porn star Sasha Grey; and the just-completed Magic Mike, which is set in the world of male strippers and stars onetime stripper Channing Tatum. And then there’s Haywire, out next week, which features Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, and the super-busy Michael Fassbender, but which stars another first-time actor: MMA grappler Gina Carano. Soderbergh has a few more movies scheduled, but after that, he says, it’ll be a wrap. Well, maybe. Sort of. He wants to disappear for a bit, recharge, try something new. Which is pretty vague. Vulture pressed him for details.
So I just saw Haywire today ...
Oh, wow — it must be really fresh in your mind.
... and everyone at my screening was asking, "Who is this Gina Carano?"
They must live a very insular existence.
Maybe they just don't watch us much TV as you do — they've never seen her MMA fights.
I don't actually watch a lot of TV. It was more through channel surfing that I even saw those. It was so random. I landed on one of those fights that CBS was running, the Saturday Night Fights, and she's, you know, beating the shit out of some woman. And then they were talking to her afterwards and she was so striking — and I thought it was unusual, that combination of elements. Then, in June 2009, when Moneyball fell apart, I thought I should track her down and see if she was interested in acting. She had just lost her last fight, so it seemed like a good time for both of us. I wanted to build something around her, and I was looking to do something immediately, to get my head clear. I wanted to do a spy movie, like a throwback to the sixties, and I thought, Instead of a guy, why not her?
It's refreshing to see a female action lead who actually has some muscle on her — someone who can really beat you up.
[Laughs.] She can hurt you. She's very strong. Look, I like to be entertained, but I know when I'm being cheated, and I didn't want that. What I was trying to do was stage sequences where we wouldn't have to resort to trickery. But it was a gamble, because the stakes in these sorts of things are usually so crazy, in the scale of the action, and with the quick-cut Bourne shots. I wanted a human scale, with looser shots, longer shots, with the camera in lockdown. One of the shots I loved was watching her run — because she will catch your ass. We had a camera mounted on a four-wheeler, about four feet from her nose. I wanted her running as fast as she could at us, and we were trying to judge the time and distance, because if we made a mistake, she was going to get hurt. That might be my favorite shot of the whole movie.
Speaking of getting hurt, what were the injuries like on set?
Little bruises. Gina was supposed to hit Michael Fassbender in the head with a vase for one scene, and for four weeks I kept telling him, "Don't look at her when she does it," and he would laugh about it. But sure enough, he looked, and she hit him right in the eye. But for other scenes, she learned to pull her punches. She's an athlete, she's a fighter, she knows what she's doing. And she really did have a presence. She looks like she belongs in a movie.
And you made her sound like she belongs in one, too.
That's not really her speaking voice. We spent a lot of time in post working really hard on her voice, and we used every trick imaginable that's used on records today — in the editing, in the pitch. We combined five different readings in one sentence. We wanted her to sound different — not like Gina, but like her character, Mallory Kane. So that took a lot of work, and we worked really hard on it. That was the point of it. Everyone under the age of 30 is terrified of Gina, but Mallory is someone new.
Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience had a very flat affect, too. Did you want a different sort of vocal performance, when you were working again with a non-actor?
We wanted that flat affect! If you're paying $2,000 an hour to hang out with her [character], you don't care about that. [Laughs.] I've had a great time working with non-actors, because they can have a certain quality. They get to be themselves, and they haven't been taught anything wrong. The worst kind of acting is results acting, and they have no sense of that at all, no sense of trying to get a result. They have this weird openness that's really interesting to me. You've got to be pretty careful with them, though. You've got to create an environment where they can be themselves.
Do you get a lot of support or resistance for unconventional casting — like putting comedians such as Patton Oswalt and Joel McHale in serious roles in The Informant!?
Things are so prescribed in movies. I don't care who's financing it, there's always a list: "Here's a list of names who would be good for that part." It's so boring. Shouldn't we be growing new crops here? That's why I love this cast, and building this movie around Gina. Let's open up the field a bit!
Albert Brooks said the same thing. He had trouble getting people to cast him as a villain, despite his turn as one in Out of Sight.
That's hilarious to me. The guy is an actor. He can do anything. He was so great in Out of Sight, and yet ten-plus years after that, he's still typecast. I'm always looking for ways around that. If I see a quality in an actor, if they have this whole other thing no one knows about, I've got to find a way to showcase it.
Is that what happened with you and George Clooney, since you've had a long-standing working relationship with him?
George Clooney is a perfect example. We found each other at the right time. I think in that moment, we were both perceived as not living up to our potential, and we both felt we had a lot on the line.
You were a Sundance darling for sex, lies, and videotape ...
But then I made five movies in a row that nobody went to see [Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath, Gray's Anatomy, and Schizopolis]. Nobody. People thought I was going to be some art house homeless person or something. I was not perceived as having the ability to reach an audience, and sex, lies was thought to be a fluke. But Out of Sight removed those doubts; and it removed any doubts that George was a movie star. So having gone through that, and combined with that we like the same kind of movies, we have the same work ethic, it's easy to keep the relationship going.
Do you think sex, lies would have had a different reception if you had gone with Elizabeth McGovern — your first choice, who said no to the Andie MacDowell part? Or Out of Sight, if you had gone with Sandra Bullock, whom the studio wanted, instead of Jennifer Lopez?
I never look back like that. Elizabeth and I went on to do King of the Hill together. People say no all the time, and I'm never upset. I never call them and go, "What the fuck?" And I really felt that, for the Elmore Leonard universe, Jennifer fit into that really snugly, and it all came down to chemistry. Yeah, George and Sandra should be in a movie together, but not that one. And George is a clown. When you see him in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? that's a huge part of his personality. You'd know that just by hanging out with him. But no one was thinking of him that way.
By now it's well known he's a prankster on set. Has George ever pulled a prank on you?
[Laughs.] I'm too smart to get directly involved, but I know what's absolutely lethal about him — he's patient. He's got one horrifying practical joke that he's been holding onto for eight years — I know what it is, and it's horrible! And at any moment now, he's going to present it to the victim. It requires some real ingenuity — it's a good one.
Who is it? What is it? Is that the one he owes Brad Pitt for changing his outgoing phone message?
[Chuckles.] That prank dates back to 2004. That's seven years old. Brad knows a prank is coming, and he's very resigned to the fact that it's going to be bad. George has a couple ideas for revenge for that one. The worst thing is when you know it's coming, because you can never relax. And this other person is walking around thinking everything's fine, and has no clue what's coming. I can promise you this — when it happens, I'll call you and let you know who it was. [Laughs.]
Your style for some of the movies you've directed and produced — from Traffic to Syriana to Contagion — has been called "hyperlink cinema." What do you make of that?
I hadn't heard that. What does that mean?
It means you have these interlinking stories to show how everything is connected.
That's better than being called polyphonic! Yes, that's appropriate. It's something that movies do really well. Contagion is a good example of that. When [writer] Scott [Z. Burns] told me he always wanted to make a good pandemic movie, I thought it would be better to show it, not tell it. Certain ideas just work better in a fiction film than in a documentary or a magazine article.
Plus you have a hyperlink way of coming up with these movies to begin with: Matt Damon does a rant about catching a virus in The Informant!, which leads to you casting him in Contagion. Channing Tatum works with you on Haywire, tells you about his stripper past, and that leads to Magic Mike.
And Benecio Del Toro, when we were doing Traffic, that's when we started talking about Che. All that stuff, my antenna is always up for something that sounds appealing to me, that sounds new, that involves a world I haven't explored. With Magic Mike, as soon as Channing said that, I went, "Wow, I haven't seen that before. It sounds like a good movie idea." Although I was already getting down to the end of my list! I had to jam that one in quickly [before my sabbatical].
What exactly is your approach to Magic Mike? People are salivating over this one, but what are the look and tone going to be? Will it be like Showgirls, or more like The Girlfriend Experience?
It's going to be a fun movie. I wasn't interested in making some dark exposé of the male strip world. It's a very strange environment, in terms of its relationships. I would hope we have an Altman-esque group of interesting characters, who are very funny, very familiar, very loose. The issues are interpersonal, and it has nothing to do with the sex involved. It's fun. There's conflict in it, but you could understand how a kid could find this world appealing, especially if you have Channing Tatum guiding you through it. I think people will be surprised at how good-natured it is. It's not a mean movie. It's going to be interesting, to be in this environment where men are completely objectified, when we're used to seeing women that way, and how the men view themselves. It doesn't resort to humiliation for laughs. Nobody gets punished for being sexual, or for being in this world. It's not a punitive movie, or a moralistic movie. I think it'll be pleasing to look at — and not just because of the beautiful actors! Visually, it's really pretty. And the dance-club routines, those are just really crazy and funny. I'm letting things play out within the frame, with less coverage, so you can see everybody, so you'll be able to see some overlapping action. And the subtleties. It'll be a really fun summer comedy.
You've got two more films to shoot before you take your hiatus: Bitter Pill, or The Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra. But what about all the other things on your wish list? You were hoping to do Cleo, the Cleopatra musical, and an adaptation of The Sot-Weed Factor. Was there anything else you wanted to do that you haven't yet?
Cleo may end up on the stage. Sot-Weed, I have that written up as a mini-series. After I wade into my sabbatical, or whatever it is, we'll see how I feel about that. If I did it, I'd have to do all of it, and it's a rather ambitious thing to have on my plate, so I'd need an extended piece of time. I thought Sot-Weed would be a movie, but it was resisting compression, so why not do it for TV? The only thing I haven't figured out is how to do it from a style standpoint, what approach do I want to take? I want to do something unusual with it, not just faithfully re-create 1699, and not just do a dirty version of a Merchant Ivory film. I also always wanted to make a sports movie, but that didn't happen. I never want to make a Western, because I'm terrified of horses, so that's not going to happen.
But why take a break in the first place?
I'm not going to stop making things. I just need to come at it from a different direction. I don't think change can be incremental. I need to tear it all down and start again. I tried that after The Underneath, with Schizopolis, and that felt like my second "first" film, and that reverberated [in my work] for quite a long time. But even that explosion [of creativity] has started to ... has stopped expanding, and I've started to retract. I feel like I'm not moving forward. Plus, it's not as fun as it used to be.
I wish movies mattered more. I wish they were more influential. I mean, they do influence things, but only things that are not that important, such as how people talk, how they dress. But in terms of having a real role in the ongoing debate about how everything should work, how lives should work, they're not influential. There was a period where I felt that the movies coming out were as good as any novel, as any form of serious art that you could look at, and I'm particularly frustrated by my inability to create something at that level. I watch older movies regularly, depending what I'm working on, for inspiration. But I'm just not that inspired right now.
Not just older movies — you've got The Social Network on repeat.
[Laughs.] That's because David Fincher allowed me access to a secure website to watch the film, and I was trying to find something to steal! Not just a shot here or there, but a way of seeing things. It's a real gift he has. But fortunately I have a backlog of movies to call upon for inspiration.
If the sabbatical doesn't work out, would you ever do another Ocean's movie?
If a few years go by and I'm broke, I may have to swallow my wish for exploration in order to survive. That's a distinct possibility. I'm always on the lookout for material that's commercial, but there's nothing on the runway right now. Ask me a year from now. I doubt it, though, knowing me. I've been orchestrating this hiatus for a long time, for years — for four years, actually. This isn't a rash decision. I've been putting it into place for quite a while, because it's time for a change. If I do another film, it has to feel right.
Do you regret calling it a "retirement," or at least telling Matt Damon when you thought he was drunk that you wanted a break?
[Laughs.] I've always said that Matt is a terrific actor. I'm stunned by his recall. He appeared to be very drunk at the time. Let's just say this: If Matt is able to be so good an actor that he can transform himself into a red-faced, puffy-looking, slurring companion, and that's just acting, then I'm doubly impressed. He had me fooled. He looked really lit. But you can't trust these actors, can you? They could be faking it. Or maybe I'm just gullible. I got fooled. So maybe I blew it, because he was actually just acting drunk, and I thought he was drunk, so that's a double bad on me. I should have known! [Laughs.]
Perhaps you owe him a prank in return.
There's a lot of opportunity for pranks. And he does spend an inordinate amount of time in a hot tub, so I'll get working on that. It's not going to be small. It'll end up on the news.