This piece was originally published on January 27, 2013.
Steven Soderbergh has directed 26 films since his 1989 debut, sex, lies, and videotape — the behind-closed-doors portrait of yuppie Louisiana often credited with kick-starting the indie-film revolution of the nineties, released when he was only 26. In the 24 years since, he’s been a remarkably prolific chameleon, managing arguably more than any other director of his generation to successfully bounce between the low- and high-budget, not only directing but often editing and shooting his own films, each, in its way, an audacious experiment. In one extraordinary three-year streak — 1998 to 2001 — he directed two noirish classics (Out of Sight, The Limey), pulled an Oscar performance out of Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), earned an Oscar of his own (Traffic, the same year he was also nominated for Brockovich), and launched a lucrative franchise (Ocean’s Eleven, followed by Twelve and Thirteen). Then in 2011, the seemingly abrupt announcement: He wanted to be done making movies by the time he was 50, to focus on painting, among many other things.
A few days before that big birthday, with his mission accomplished (his last theatrical release, Side Effects, comes out next week), Mary Kaye Schilling met with Soderbergh in his office and painting studio near the Flatiron Building, where he talked about cribbing from Lucian Freud, his love of Girls, and why movies don’t matter so much anymore.
Just to be clear, I won’t be directing “cinema,” for lack of a better word. But I still plan to direct — theater stuff, and I’d do a TV series if something great were to come along.
You said something once about playing baseball when you were growing up. You were obsessive about it, an excellent pitcher, but one day you woke up — I think you were 12 — and you knew you had lost “whatever it is that makes you know you’re better than the other guy.” The next day you played badly, and you never recovered. Is that similar to what’s happening with film?
No. It was a combination of things. I had talked about it in the aftermath of Che.
Was that the nail in the coffin? You’ve said that the two-part, four-hour-plus biopic was not only a bitch to make but that you wish you hadn’t made it.
Well, the first part of that is true. But it wasn’t just that. These things — I can feel them coming on. I can feel it when I need to slough off one skin and grow another. So that’s when I started thinking, All right, when I turn 50, I’d like to be done. I knew that in order to stop, I couldn’t keep it a secret — so many things are coming at you when you’re making films that you need to have a reason to be saying no all the time.
And what was that reason?
It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere. But that could just be my form of theism.
Is it similar to how you were feeling in 1997 when you made the satire Schizopolis — an attempt to “blow up the house,” as you put it?
Yeah. If I’m going to solve this issue, it means annihilating everything that came before and starting from scratch. That means I have to go away, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take. And I also know you can’t force it. I love and respect filmmaking too much to continue to do it while feeling I’m running in place. That’s not a good feeling. And if it turns out I don’t make another one, I’m really happy with this last group of movies. I don’t want to be one of those people about whom people say, “Wow, he kind of fell off there at the end.” That would be depressing.
You’ve made eight remarkably different films since 2009: the super-low-budget drama The Girlfriend Experience, with porn star Sasha Grey; the documentary And Everything Is Going to Be Fine, about the late monologuist Spalding Gray; the corporate farce The Informant!; the disaster flick Contagion; the action picture Haywire; the stripper dramedy Magic Mike; and now the medical thriller Side Effects. You’ve also got the upcoming Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, for HBO. Do they add up to some kind of statement as you head out the door?
Not at all. A couple of them were just happenstance. Haywire started because I got fired off Moneyball and I needed to go to work; I just happened to see Gina Carano on TV and wanted to build a film around her. Magic Mike came out of the blue, and we jammed it in. Side Effects happened because another film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., blew up. Half were planned, and half were not.
There’s this theory out there that your strategy is “one for you, one for them.” In other words, you do a big film, a studio film, like Erin Brockovich, so you can then make smaller, more experimental films, like Bubble, which had no script and was improvised by nonprofessional actors. Would you agree with that?
No. There may be some directors who do that, but anyone who works with me can tell you that I don’t operate that way. I can’t spend two years on a project without being totally excited about it. Any movie I’ve made has been because of the challenge it offered me as a director, because it provides a new canvas. Even the big-budget stuff like the Ocean’s films.
So the studios didn’t pressure you to do Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen after the first one became a massive hit?
No. They didn’t care. We kind of had to talk them into it. Those movies provided a really unique set of opportunities visually. They’re not easy for me to make. The first Ocean’s was, directorially, a lot harder than Traffic. Not even close. But they allowed me to play in a way the other movies don’t. It’s the closest to a comic book as I’ll ever get — I viewed them as like Roy Lichtenstein panels, which was really fun. And I’m very happy with them visually. When you look at what passes for a tent pole now, the Ocean’s movies are pretty gentle in terms of their spirit, and I like that about them.
What do you think people mean when they call a film Soderberghian?
I have no idea. But never use that word to describe your movie in a pitch meeting because it won’t get made.
Really? You just made a $7 million film about strippers — Magic Mike — that has earned something like $167 million worldwide.
So pitch the movie as Magic Mike. Otherwise, if you’re using my name, you could mean The Good German.
But you’ve shown an incredible ability for getting films made, particularly the mid-level, character-driven, superhero-and-vampire-free films that conventional wisdom says don’t get made anymore — from the esoteric sci-fi film Solaris to, yes, even a somber, black-and-white movie about post–World War II Germany. How do you account for that?
On the few occasions where I’ve talked to film students, one of the things I stress, in addition to learning your craft, is how you behave as a person. For the most part, our lives are about telling stories. So I ask them, “What are the stories you want people to tell about you?” Because at a certain point, your ability to get a job could turn on the stories people tell about you. The reason [then–Universal Pictures chief] Casey Silver put me up for [1998’s] Out of Sight after I’d had five flops in a row was because he liked me personally. He also knew I was a responsible filmmaker, and if I got that job, the next time he’d see me was when we screened the movie. If I’m an asshole, then I don’t get that job. Character counts. That’s a long way of saying, “If you can be known as someone who can attract talent, that’s a big plus.”
You’ve talked at length about giving actors as much freedom as possible. That’s resulted in a number of performances that have launched, revived, and revitalized careers. In the case of Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, you’re responsible for her only good film performance.
It’s not that I never say no; I’m just not trying to control them. I’m looking to amplify and showcase whatever it is about them that I find compelling. You know, my attitude is that all of us have to submit to what the film wants and needs to be. So the best version of the thing is sitting up here, and you have to submit to that.
How do you accomplish that?
I keep the environment pretty relaxed — relaxed but focused. I work with the same people all the time. There’s a form of band humor that develops: inside jokes and references that only a core group of people understand. It’s fun. Some people believe tension is a good creative tool, that you get more out of people if you make them feel insecure. I’m not one of those people, and I don’t want to be around that when I go to work.
Before shooting began on Magic Mike, Matthew McConaughey says he sent you two e-mails full of painstaking details about his character. The first e-mail was nine pages, the second was ten. Your responses were “Sure” and “Go for it.” Is that true?
Matthew understood the part so well and had such good ideas that I had no desire to box him in. So I just said yes to everything, which turned out to be the right way to go. I think the only note I gave him, when I first pitched him the part on the phone, was that his character believed in UFOs.
It wasn’t a way of diminishing the character. It was actually the opposite. My mom was a parapsychologist, so I grew up around that stuff.
You’ve talked in the past about obsessively viewing films for inspiration — like The Battle of Algiers and Z for Traffic. What did you watch for Magic Mike?
Saturday Night Fever was our model. It’s one of those movies people remember differently than what was actually true. Going back, we were startled by how dark it gets. This girl is being raped in the back seat of the car, and Travolta doesn’t really do anything, he just drives around. He does things that you probably wouldn’t want your protagonist doing today.
And what were you watching for your new film, Side Effects, which is set in the psychopharmaceutical world?
Fatal Attraction. I watched that a lot. That’s a very well-directed movie. Adrian Lyne knew exactly what he was doing. The eighties was a terrible decade for American films, with a few exceptions in the independent world. It’s basically when the corporations took over. And one of the few, to my mind, interesting aspects of the decade were these psychological thrillers that popped up. I don’t know why they stopped being made. Maybe they priced themselves out of existence.
The movie is an old-school nail-biter, not a diatribe on antidepressants, drug companies, and psychotherapy. Still, it takes a pretty dim view of all of those things.
I think if you were to talk to Dr. Sasha Bardey, an adviser on the film, he would tell you that there’s a place for SSRIs, but there’s no question that a lot of people are looking for the shortcut. He would also say a combination of prescription meds and therapy can help people who are in a really bad way, but that there’s a difference between those people and the garden-variety feelings of anxiety or depression that most of us go through occasionally because of a set of circumstances.
[Spoiler Alert] In Side Effects, Catherine Zeta-Jones has a sex scene with Rooney Mara, and your HBO film Behind the Candelabra stars Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover. Are you trying to spice up or break up the Douglas-Zeta-Jones marriage?
[Laughs] That was just coincidence. I got the idea of doing a Liberace film when we were making Traffic—so thirteen years ago. Out of the blue, I asked Michael if he would be interested in playing Liberace, and he said yes. He told me later that he thought I was just fucking around with him. I don’t think he understood where this was coming from, and I didn’t either.
Candelabra brings you back to more lighthearted territory. At least it looks like a lot of fun—Michael and Matt making out, for instance.
It was really fun. The world of it was just bananas. It was great to see Michael and Matt jump off the cliff together. Nobody can accuse them of being shy. They just went for it. It’s pretty gay.
Can Douglas sing?
He can sing as well as Liberace, who sort of talked-sang like Rex Harrison.
How did Matt get involved?
He came to do a day of work on Che. I gave him the book Behind the Cabdelabra, by Scott Thorson, and said, See if you’re interested in playing Scott. Matt said yes, but when Michael had a little gathering at his house for a brunch—it was literally the day before shooting started—I could sense Matt was anxious. He said, I’m not sure where we’re going with this guy. I told him to just show up to work the next day, get into his outfit, and put the hair on. It was one of those things where there wasn’t anything to say—I didn’t know what string of words to put together to explain it to him. It was about the physicality of just being there. From that point it would be obvious what had to be done. And it was. By the second day he said he felt good, and by the end of the first week he was totally dialed in.
Are you disappointed that it’s not being released in theaters?
Not at all. After Warner Bros. put it in turnaround, we showed it to every studio in town. No one wanted it, even though we only needed $5 million.
That seems inconceivable—no, stupid.
It was crazy. But HBO was immediately into it, and the experience was great from beginning to end.
John Huston, one of your influences, said that the ideal film “would be as though the reel were behind one’s eyes and you were projecting it yourself, seeing what you wish to see.” It reminded me of watching your movies. I can almost feel your impatience, like you can’t get close enough to what you’re shooting. It’s almost as if you want to be the film.
Right. I wish it all happened faster. When I get stuck, I slow everything down, I send everyone away. I know, from experience, that you can’t rush it. The opposite is that when you’ve figured it out, you can’t move fast enough.
People tell stories about Hitchcock, that for him the shooting part was not fun. I don’t believe he was as bored by shooting as he and others claim; for me, there’s nothing more fun than watching a performer do something you don’t expect. But I understand what he means: The exciting part is the idea, and then the execution of it sometimes is just laborious.
What do you consider the most important thing about the execution?
That we’ve made sure to take advantage of all the opportunities that the story provides. I want to feel we came out the other end of it considering all the options. The worst feeling in the world would be if we weren’t rigorous enough. Contagion was a tricky one. We overhauled the movie in postproduction, cutting 45 minutes of material. And it was because we were trying to do two things. Take advantage of what that subject had to offer while avoiding disaster-movie clichés—we had a list we refused to do: Can’t show the president. No helicopter shots. You can’t go somewhere and show people suffering where our characters haven’t been. Those restrictions made us think laterally, which was good.
The DVD for your 1999 crime film The Limey includes an exceedingly entertaining director commentary with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who berates you for screwing up his script through cutting or rewriting.
I’m glad I got to work with Lem again on Haywire, because that’s a fairly typical exchange for us. It’s not anger—he’s more incredulous than he is angry. I enjoy those conversations, because he’s very bright, he’s seen everything, and he has a strong point of view.
His chief criticism is that you favor style over substance, that you’d rather show a detail than an emotion. He’s not the only person to say that about your films.
That’s a reflection of my personality, probably, and I would argue that some of the things I’ve done that frustrated people upon a first viewing, ten or fifteen years later you’re happy that they’re that way. I remember describing making movies as a form of seduction and that people should look at it as though they’re being approached at a bar. My whole thing is, when somebody comes up to you at a bar, what behavior is appealing to you? And there are certain things that I’m not willing to do to get a reaction.
Like what? Pander?
It’s not pandering so much as being obvious. Do you want to hang out with someone who has the most obvious reaction to everything that happens? That’s boring! And when I see a movie that’s doing the obvious thing all the time, it’s frustrating.
Your 1999 book, Getting Away With It, is a combination of your own diaries from that time and interviews with director Richard Lester, whose films—like A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack … And How to Get It—were major influences on you. At one point you complained to him: “I feel like a codger saying ‘It’s never been this bad,’ but I really think it’s never been this bad … People who make dumb movies that make a lot of money are now treated with the kind of respect that used to be reserved for people who made good movies.” You must be apoplectic now.
It’s true that when I was growing up, there was a sort of division: Respect was accorded to people who made great movies and to people who made movies that made a lot of money. And that division just doesn’t exist anymore: Now it’s just the people who make a lot of money. I think there are many reasons for that. Some of them are cultural. I’ve said before, I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people … Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.
Around the same time you also said, “If you go much over two hours, I think you really better have a very good reason.” I was thinking about that as I sat through the big December releases, which seemed to average two hours and 40 minutes.
The thing I also see a lot of is multiple endings—I feel like movies end like five times now! I remember being very conscious of the Lord of the Rings movies having a lot of endings. But I wonder if the audience has come to expect them.
Music has become another of the most abused aspects of filmmaking. I’m mystified by the direction scores have taken in the last ten years. It’s wall-to-wall—it’s the movie equivalent of the vuvuzelas from the last World Cup! I don’t understand it at all. For me, it’s ideal when you can get the music to do something that everything else isn’t doing.
I’ve always appreciated how you don’t use the soundtrack to telegraph emotions; your scores are remarkably subtle. The Informant! was one of the few times you used music conspicuously, but it really worked for that film.
A lot of people had mixed feelings about that score. Look, it was a very specific choice in the sense that—what I said to [composer] Marvin Hamlisch was, this music is not for the audience. This music is for him [Matt Damon’s character], it’s his soundtrack. For the movie, it worked. But that’s not typically what you’re doing with a score. I think that’s why people reacted ambivalently.
Have you noticed how loud trailers have gotten?
They’re punishing! I’ve cut trailers that don’t do that, and they test badly. I will point out to the studio that sitting some people in a room and showing them this one trailer is not how they will be seen in a theater, where you get six in a row. I don’t want my trailer to feel like the other five. Their response is always, Look at the numbers. That’s one good thing—well, there have been many good things about working with HBO—but there are no numbers, no focus groups.
What else has gotten worse?
The worst development in filmmaking—particularly in the last five years—is how badly directors are treated. It’s become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen, to put it bluntly. It’s not just studios—it’s anyone who is financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what
the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies because of being in that audience.
But an alarming thing I learned during Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync. I remember during previews how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, “Oh, that’s interesting, I’m not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.” People were really annoyed by that. And I thought, Wow, so ambiguity is not on the table anymore. They were angry.
Critics used to have the role of standing up for ambiguity. But you’ve never been a fan of film critics.
It’s what Dave Hickey said: It’s air guitar, ultimately. Was it helpful to read Pauline Kael’s work when I was growing up? Absolutely. For a teenager who was beginning to look at movies as something other than just entertainment, her reviews were really interesting. But at a certain point, it’s not useful anymore. I stopped reading reviews of my own films after Traffic, and I find it hard to read any critics now because they are just so easily fooled. From a directorial standpoint, you can’t throw one by me. I know if you know what you’re doing, and, “Wow, critics”—their reading of filmmaking is very superficial. Look, nothing excites me more than a good film. It makes me want to make something good. But I have certain standards, and I don’t grade on a curve. If you want to be a director, I’m going to treat you like I treat everybody. So it’s frustrating when critics praise things that I feel are not up to snuff.
Do you think it’s deteriorated since Kael?
No. I think her reading of that stuff was pretty superficial as well. She had a great gift for setting movies in cultural context, but what set her apart from most critics—and especially a lot of critics today—was that she was at her absolute best when she loved something. And that was exciting to read. Nowadays, I find critics to be very facile when they don’t like a film, but when they do like something they get tongue-tied.
Do you still see films in theaters, with audiences?
Sure. It’s strange because you’d think there would be a lot of good theaters in Manhattan, but there aren’t. There are a couple, but in general it’s not fun to go out to movies here.
Somehow I don’t think you’re someone who worries about a legacy. But what do you think yours will be?
I have no idea. As Orson Welles said, I’m the bird, you’re the ornithologist.
sex, lies, and videotape sparked the indie-film explosion of the nineties. Could something like that happen again?
It would be hard because movies cost so much to market. I’m encouraged by Video on Demand, which is a very promising distribution method. But it’s much harder for filmmakers now. You’re sort of expected to emerge full-blown. That’s rare. Some people do, but I didn’t. Like I said, you can’t make five films in a row that nobody sees. You’d be in movie jail. I feel really lucky that I got to make the mistakes I made and still get to do Out of Sight.
Are there young filmmakers you’re excited about?
Shane Carruth. He did the film Primer, and he’s got a terrific new movie at Sundance. And I’m acting as a presenter on the new Godfrey Reggio film [Visitors], which is exciting. I mean, this is a guy who doesn’t build a film based on other things he’s seen, like I do. It’s his own thing.
For a filmmaker as prolific as you are, what do you make of Terrence Malick’s 30-years-in-the-making Tree of Life?
Everyone works in their own way. And as is often the case with people who are unique, the problem isn’t Terrence Malick or Quentin Tarantino, the problem is all the people who came after them and want to be Terrence Malick and Quentin Tarantino. But that’s the way it’s always been.
I once asked Tarantino if he would change anything in any of his films. He said, “No. It wouldn’t be in the film if I didn’t want it there.” That doesn’t sound like something you would say.
Well, I’m remaking—it’s been a long process—but I’m overhauling Kafka completely. It’s funny—wrapping a movie 22 years later! But the rights had reverted back to me and Paul Rassam, an executive producer, and he said, “I know you were never really happy with it. Do you want to go back in and play around?” We shot some inserts while we were doing Side Effects. I’m also dubbing the whole thing into German so the accent issue goes away. And Lem and I have been working on recalibrating some of the dialogue and the storytelling. So it’s a completely different movie. The idea is to put them both out on disc. But for the most part, I’m a believer in your first impulse being the right one. And I certainly think that most of the seventies directors who have gone back in and tinkered with their movies have made them worse.
Are you entirely satisfied with any of your films?
Out of Sight. It’s less flawed than the others. Or The Informant! As I look at those two, I feel like I don’t know what else I would do.
Are there many films you wanted to make that didn’t happen?
Less than a handful. There are tons of excuses you can make for something not happening. It’s a very imperfect process, getting a movie made. And I’m one of those people who just ignores that stuff. The film doesn’t have to be perfect. The deal doesn’t have to be perfect. I’ll reverse engineer into whatever box we have so that we can do it and do do it—less money, less time, whatever. I’m looking for reasons to say yes. But, sometimes, nothing works.
Like Confederacy of Dunces. Whatever happened to that?
I ended up walking away. We had this lawsuit over the rights [against Scott Rudin and Paramount pictures in 1998], and we got the project back, and at that point—it was a good lesson to learn, actually, because I realized once we got it back that my enthusiasm had been beaten out of me. Now it was an obligation, as opposed to something that I wanted to do. I don’t know what’s happening with it. I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.
We should talk about your painting, since, well, we’re surrounded by your paintings! A portrait of Samuel Beckett, a panel of vivid stripes in the Color Field style. Looking at your work, I can see you’re not a beginner—your fluency with different styles is impressive. You’ve been drawing since you were a child, right?
Yes, and both my parents did, too. But it wasn’t until I was older that I started looking at visual art closely. What’s exciting is to feel at the very beginning of something. It’s also terrifying starting from scratch, but panic has always energized me. It’s the same process as anything: identifying who your heroes are, figuring out what they did, and then just going and doing it. I can stare at my Lucian Freud book for hours and hours, but at a certain point you have to go to the wall and imitate. So it’s very basic right now: Can I make things look the way I want them to look? That’s where I’m at right now.
I get the sense that, as with film, motivation is not an issue.
I was watching one of those iconoclast shows on the Sundance Channel. Jamie Oliver said Paul Smith had told him something he hadn’t understood until very recently: “I’d rather be No. 2 forever than No. 1 for a while.” Just make stuff and don’t agonize over it. Stop worrying about being No. 1. I see a lot of people getting paralyzed by the response to their work, the imagined result. It’s like playing a Jedi mind trick on yourself, and Smith is right. That’s the way I’ve always approached films, the way I approach everything. Just make ’em.
What are you gravitating toward as a painter?
I go back and forth between portraits and abstracts. I’m not really interested in landscapes or still life. I’m more attracted to faces. In fact, whenever I think of a film I’m about to make, I see a face with a certain expression on it. For my photography, I’ve been studying the work of Duane Michals. He’s famous for these photo sequences, which tell stories in a cinematic way. I bought a few of his books, and I’ve begun to think about sequences of my own that suggest a narrative.
I’m always curious to hear how something was made—though I have no interest in why an artist did something, or what his work means. Like with Jackson Pollock: I’m always interested in what kind of paint and canvas he used, I just don’t want to know what he meant. You’re supposed to expand your mind to fit the art, you’re not supposed to chop the art down to fit your mind.
Given how often you layer and deconstruct scenes in your films, I’m curious if you’ve ever worked in collage. Maybe I’m being too literal.
Actually, I’ve got a big collage in L.A. I was sitting in an airport reading Us Weekly one day, and I realized all the hours of my life I’d spent reading tabloid magazines. I thought: I can’t have wasted all that time! So I spent six months building this six-foot-by-nine-foot collage of people on the red carpet. It was really fun.
You’ve spent hours of your life reading Us?
That shit is made to be read in an airport!
Do you have a fantasy of what your typical post-cinema day will be?
A little bit of everything. I’m really looking forward to reading a book, finishing it, and picking up another one.
Based on a list you put together two years ago—of everything you read and watched between April 2010 and March 2011—you had no problem reading while you were making films. What are you reading now?
I tend to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. I just finished a wonderful novel by Paul Murray called Skippy Dies. Right before that, I finished Tony Fletcher’s book about the Smiths. They generated a lot of good music in a short time, then kind of burned out and crashed. I recently reread three Raymond Chandler novels, which were amazing all over again. I literally don’t think he uses more than 200 different words. Of all the arts, I think the novel comes closest to being inside another person’s head. Probably because none of it is being literalized; you’re creating the images based on what you’re reading, so you’re never “wrong.”
So painting, reading. Given your work ethic, that probably adds up to half a day.
I’m importing this liquor from Bolivia: Singani. Technically it’s a brandy. I was turned onto it while I was doing Che and everybody on the crew got hooked. You don’t get that burn in your throat like you do with most hard liquor, so it’s dangerous. You can drink it like water and then you’re invisible.
You’ll be the U.S. distributor?
Yeah. That took five years. There’s also at least one non-fiction book that I’m working on. Another filmmaking book. And I’m working on a play with Scott.
Is the Cleopatra musical with Catherine Zeta-Jones still happening?
Yeah. And I’m working on a play with Scott [Burns, who wrote Side Effects].
Mike Nichols has been a mentor pretty much since you started…
He’s a good problem solver. I try not to make it a burden. I try to pick the right time to get his reaction.
I imagine he’ll be particularly helpful as you move from film to theater.
We’ve talked about what skill set is transferable from one to the other. But whatever I do in the theater, the pieces have to be original pieces. In order for me to take advantage of what I can do, it would be pointless for me to do straight plays or revivals. The projects have to be something that I’ve been involved in creating from scratch, so I can use the sensibility I’ve developed as a filmmaker. I don’t have the background in pure stage craft.
I just saw this great production at the Irish Rep—“A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” starring Julian Sands. I like Pinter a lot, maybe because his work reminds me of my own home growing up. There was all this unspoken heaviness going on, but everything happened off camera. We knew my parents weren’t getting along, but they kept it to themselves, which was in fact a very generous thing for them to have done. And good for my career!
Was it classic WASP behavior?
No. My father was Swedish and Irish and my mother was Italian with a little Irish in there as well. They were just very different people. I’m a blend of both of them. My mom does not think in a linear way. She’d be very comfortable in this room [he gestures to the organized chaos of his studio, crowded with canvases, painting supplies and cardboard boxes]. This is not what my dad’s office looked like. My father was a teacher and an intellectual—linear, rational, organized, hard-working. I got something from both of them, but I was closer to my father growing up so it took awhile to realize I was like my mother too. That dichotomy is featured in everything I’ve done.
What TV do you watch?
Pretty much what you’d expect: Breaking Bad. Can’t wait for that next season. Mad Men. Boss. I feel very lucky because David Fincher sent me advance episodes of House of Cards. I’ve got three to go, and I’m totally hooked. What I like about all those shows is that there’s an aesthetic that’s adhered to no matter who is directing it. They have rules, there’s a tool kit. I don’t like seeing stuff where there’s no coherence to the choices that are being made. And all those shows are shot like movies. That train-robbery episode in the last season of Breaking Bad? They had like eight days to shoot that episode. That’s good shit! And House of Cards is the most beautiful thing you’ve seen on a screen. Oh, and I watch Girls.
You fit right into the Girls demo, which includes a large percentage of men in their forties and fifties.
Must be the butt-fucking. Many of your films—beginning with sex, lies—have been about communication and miscommunication and the noisiness of the world and the destruction of language, which has only been exacerbated by Twitter. So I’m wondering: Do you tweet?
I created a sort of shadow name that I’ve posted a few things on. Like anything, it’s a tool. What is it going to be used for? Is there some aspect of it that can be positive? I guess the answer is maybe. I look at the young woman from Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for advocating that girls go to school. It’s hard to believe something like that can still happen, but I look at that and think, Is this technology a way to generate enough outrage that some change will occur? I don’t know.
One thing I do know from making art is that ideology is the enemy of problem-solving. Nobody sits on a film set and says, “No, you can’t use green-screen VFX to solve that because I’m Catholic.” There’s no place for that, and that’s why I’ve stopped being embarrassed about being in the entertainment industry, because I’m surrounded by intelligent people who solve problems quickly and efficiently, primarily because issues of ideology don’t enter into the conversation.
That’s a 180-degree turn from fifteen years ago, when you called the film business the silliest in the world.
After making a lot more films, I realized that the movie and TV business is, for all its inefficiencies, one of the best-run big businesses we have. It’s very transparent, financially, and the only business I know of that successfully employs trickle-down economics: When movies and shows make money, the profits go right back into making more movies and shows, because the stock price is all about market share. And these people excel at problem-solving—that’s 99 percent of the job. I look at Hurricane Katrina, and I think if four days before landfall you gave a movie studio autonomy and a 100th of the billions the government spent on that disaster, and told them, “Lock this place down and get everyone taken care of,” we wouldn’t be using that disaster as an example of what not to do. A big movie involves clothing, feeding, and moving thousands of people around the world on a tight schedule. Problems are solved creatively and efficiently within a budget, or your ass is out of work. So when I look at what’s going on in the government, the gridlock, I think, Wow, that’s a really inefficient way to run a railroad. The government can’t solve problems because the two parties are so wedded to their opposing ideas that they can’t move. The very idea that someone from Congress can’t take something from the other side because they’ll be punished by their own party? That’s stupid. If I were running for office, I would be poaching ideas from everywhere. That’s how art works. You steal from everything. I must remember to tweet that I’m in fact not running for office.
Okay, so here’s your chance: What is the efficient way to run a railroad or a government, as the case may be?
I’m of the minority opinion that presidents should be given more power for less time. Let him—no “her” yet!—put the ideas he campaigned on into play, like a new tax code, and let’s see if it works or fails, quickly. If it doesn’t, then two years later the people who said it would never work get their chance. A watered-down version of an idea isn’t a good indicator of whether it’s a good idea. I read this great book by Daniel Lazare—The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy. The Founders very clearly indicated that they had no idea what the country would be like in 100 years, and if the laws they’d written didn’t work, they should toss them out and write new ones. The problem, of course, is that building or fixing things takes time. Tearing shit down is easy. The analogy I use is that if you throw a party with 40 people, it takes only one asshole to ruin the whole thing. And that’s kind of where we’re at. I wonder what would happen if I started a virtual country. Are there laws that would forbid that? What if I had my own virtual country with 1 million people?
Well, isn’t a film set kind of like your own country for a limited time? You have to be a leader. What did you find to be the hardest part of that?
Being good and clear. Because if you’re being clear, you may not be good because you’re too obviously trying to be clear. If you can find interesting ways to be clear, you’re really onto something.
Have you met any naturally great leaders?
George Clooney. He inspires people. He listens. He’s generous. He’s loyal. He’s funny, which is crucial. He solves problems better than anyone I know. That’s why people keep telling him to run for office, but he’s too smart for that. If there were 500 of him, you could take over an entire country—but of course three weeks later you’d lose it again because of all the parties.
Do you still feel like a pessimist in a country of optimists?
When I hear people talk about 2025, I’m like, this could all turn into Mad Max a lot sooner than that! I was talking to Dr. Larry Brilliant, who consulted on Contagion, and I asked him, “Does the world seem to be spinning out of control as fast as I think it is?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.”
But, look, I don’t want to sound like a bummer. There are lots of things that America does really well.
Comedy. We have the best comedy in the world, hands down. I’m very proud, for example, that we have Chris Rock.
Are you a Louis C.K. fan?
I love his show. He seems like someone who would be fun to know. Seems like. And we do sports entertainment better than anyone. It’s phenomenal—the production values, the computer graphics, the commentators …
What teams do you follow?
I followed the Jets, simply because they were such a train wreck this season. But I follow stories more than teams—stories like Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick.
Do you watch basketball?
I was going to say that the only thing I don’t really watch is basketball. It has to do with my personality, how I’m wired. You can’t make a play in the first quarter of a basketball game that will determine the ultimate outcome the way you can in baseball or football—like if a touchdown is scored in the first quarter, that could conceivably be the only big play of the game. So I can never figure out why I’m supposed to watch the first half of a basketball game. Well, except for the pure athleticism—seeing something like the crazy Blake Griffin dunk from last year.
Any other American achievements you’d like to endorse?
We produce the best pet food! I’ve traveled the world, and I’ll go to the mat on that one. When I open the cans for my cats—our cats—my mouth waters. You could serve the stuff on a cracker.
What brand are we talking here?
Fancy Feast. It comes in individual little trays that peel open. I think they’re even called appetizers. This is the cat equivalent of eating at Nobu every night. So that’s three things we lead the world in. Pretty good, right? America, fuck yeah!
This conversation has been condensed and edited from two interviews conducted on January 9 and 11.
*This article originally appeared in the February 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.