behind the scenes

Steven Soderbergh on the High-Speed Production of High Flying Bird

Shooting on an iPhone for High Flying Bird. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

It was a late-winter afternoon in 2018, and Steven Soderbergh was premiering his newest movie aboard a Manhattan–bound Amtrak train. Earlier that day, in Philadelphia, the director had finished production on the basketball-business drama High Flying Bird, about a quietly insurrectional sports agent, played by André Holland, who is trying to outmaneuver the NBA during a lockout. Now he and Holland were zipping back to New York, watching portions of a rough version of the movie that Soderbergh had finished editing just hours after filming wrapped. The 56-year-old director is famously efficient: On his Cinemax series The Knick — on which he served as director, cinematographer, and editor — he cut together footage while being driven back from the set. But on High Flying Bird, Soderbergh was able to shoot and complete a first edit on an entire 90-minute film in just a few weeks. “We moved fast on The Knick,” says series co-star Holland. “We moved even faster on High Flying Bird. If anything, there was an intensified energy to his approach.” The director agrees. “The Knick demanded another gear,” Soderbergh says. “We all got into that rhythm. I don’t know how to get out of it.”

A year after High Flying Bird’s marathon shoot, Soderbergh — dressed in corduroy pants and a blazer, plus a T-shirt he produced featuring a license plate number from The French Connection — is in Los Angeles, working out of the Hollywood offices of his friend, Gone Girl and Mindhunter director David Fincher. There’s a Fincher–face Pez dispenser sitting nearby and a bar of Fight Club soap. The two have known each other since the early 1990s, when they met on the 20th Century Fox lot while Fincher was working on Alien 3. They became close enough that Fincher even sent Soderbergh a rough cut of Gone Girl, asking for feedback. (“We always show each other stuff,” Soderbergh says.) Over a weekend, Soderbergh edited his own cut of Gone Girl and sent it back. It’s one of several for-fun editing projects he has undertaken during his short-lived 2013 retirement from moviemaking, including a mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with its 1998 remake, a slimmed-down version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a black-and-white version of Raiders of the Lost Ark featuring Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s scores from The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Soderbergh’s obsession with editing began decades ago, when it was the only job he could get. In the early ‘80s, not long after graduating from high school, he worked a series of editor-for-hire gigs, including a stint on the short-lived sports-competition series Games People Play. “Editing is the first thing I understood,” he says. “What lit me up immediately was the power of it. You’re pulling from all these other skills and mediums.”

He’s cut several of his own features over the last three decades, including his sweaty 1989 breakthrough, sex, lies, and videotape — the movie that launched a career that has since undergone multiple forms and phases. There was the Indie-Dignitary era, which started with sex and continued through much of the nineties; the Big-Studio Auteur years, which lasted from 1998’s Out of Sight through the Ocean’s series; and the High-End-Pulp-Maestro stage, which included such genre delights as Contagion and Haywire.

Now, Soderbergh is in full-on High-Flying ’Bergh Mode, blazing through productions with the aid of small crews and relatively low-cost technology, creating (and breaking) new personal edit-speed records along the way. The rapid-response approach began on Che, the two-part 2008 biopic he filmed digitally, which allowed him to dig into dailies just hours after the cameras stopped rolling. By the time of 2011’s Contagion, Soderbergh was cutting together entire sequences while winding down over dinner in the bar of The Peninsula Chicago hotel. “We’d wrap, I’d get cleaned up, and then I’d go to the bar and sit with the brain trust,” he says. “I would pass the headphones to a producer, or to whoever was around, and say, ‘Take a look’. I remember Laurence Fishburne one night going, ‘Gee, this seems like a long day for you: Ten or eleven hours of shooting, then you come back here.’ I was like, ‘This is the fun part. This is the reward.’”

In the years since, Soderbergh’s filmmaking metabolism has only gotten faster, resulting in the athletic production of The Knick, as well as last year’s revenge-thriller Unsane. That movie, like High Flying Bird, was shot using an iPhone — just one of several affordable, fast-turnaround pieces of equipment that have helped Soderbergh knock out films with such efficiency. It helps, of course, that the director has his own unsane amount of energy: “I’m not on growth hormones or anything,” he says. “It’s work, but it’s the best job in the world. You couldn’t come up with a game as interesting.” Here’s how Soderbergh got High Flying Bird off the ground so quickly:

1. A High-Flying Concept

Holland first approached Soderbergh about making a movie together shortly after they’d completed their first season of The Knick. “At the time, there weren’t loads of opportunities out there for me in film and television — or, at least, if there were, I didn’t seem to have access to them,” says the actor, also one of Bird’s producers. “Rather than allow myself to get down, I felt I had take charge of my career: How can I have more agency in this business as an actor?”

He and Soderbergh eventually came up with a one-page story outline, which would later be expanded upon by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won an Academy Award for co-writing 2016’s Moonlight (which Holland also co-starred in) and whose Choir Boy opened on Broadway in January. It took almost two years for McCraney’s version to be completed. “He’s a very busy guy,” says Soderbergh. “I didn’t pay him to write it. He was doing it sort of on spec, on the side.” (McCraney, Holland, and Soderbergh all receive an equal part of the back-end money for High Flying Bird, which Netflix bought last fall).

The finished script follows Ray (Holland) as he deftly tries to ignite a behind-the-scenes revolt against the NBA’s managers and bureaucrats — the people who have created, as one character notes, “a game on top of the game.” It all leads Ray to series of showdowns with not only his anxious young client (played by American Vandal’s Melvin Gregg), but also a manipulative team owner (Kyle MacLachlan) and a bullshit-averse players’ rep (The Wire’s Sonja Sohn).

High Flying Bird contains just a few seconds of actual basketball; instead, much of the story is told through a series of power-shifting conversations. (Soderbergh watched such chatty classics as The Sweet Smell of Success and Glengarry Glen Ross before filming.) But the screenplay just happens to align, both logistically and philosophically, with Soderbergh’s current approach to filmmaking. For starters, the characters’ brainy exchanges often unfold in glass-enshrined skyscrapers and eateries — the kind of sustained locations that allowed the director to film entire sequences in just hours. And Ray’s attempts to circumvent the NBA’s long-entrenched traditions are akin to Soderbergh’s recent attempts to rethink the way Hollywood works, whether he’s shooting on a phone, or experimenting with self-distribution, as he did with 2017’s Logan Lucky.  “I am someone who’s very prone to question why things have always been done a certain way,” the director says. “I relate to a guy who’s asking, ‘Why does it have to be like this? Why can’t it be different?’”

2. Freeing the Actors (and the Crew)

Soderbergh isn’t a morning person. ”The one thing I hate about directing,” he says, ”is getting up early.” During High Flying Bird’s 13-day production last year, he’d wake as late as he could before filming started, which was usually around 7:30 a.m. Once on set, he’d often consult his sides — the notes that break down that day’s scenes and dialogue — and start marking up exactly where he wanted the camera to be during the characters’ conversations. High Flying Bird opens with an extensive restaurant sit-down between Ray and Erick, his latest superstar signee. Their exchange runs nearly nine pages, and Soderbergh wanted to cover it from more than a dozen angles. But he didn’t want to shoot the back-and-forth over and over again — in order to save time, and to avoid wearing out the actors. “It would get stale,” he says.

Instead, he essentially pre-edited the day’s sequence in his head, planning out each camera-angle cut ahead of time and capturing whatever moments he needed using one of the three 256-gig iPhone 8 Pluses he kept on set. Equipped with anamorphic lenses made by Moondog Labs and a camera-control app called Filmic Pro, the phones allowed Soderbergh to move around with ease. “You can put them anywhere you want,” he notes. “You can Velcro one to the ceiling.” While filming Ray and Erick’s sit-down, Soderbergh also employed a pair of miniature, bendy-legged tripods he calls “spiders” — they’re actually called Joby Mini Gorillapods, which sell for $14.95 —placing them back-to-back on a restaurant table. That way, he could capture both actors at once, instead of having to yell “cut,” set up a new camera angle, and run through it all over again. “It makes it all go a lot faster,” he says.

That speed is freeing for the actors, who don’t have to go through countless takes. But Holland initially wasn’t sure what to make of Soderbergh’s all-iPhone filming style. “When he first mentioned it to me, I was maybe a little bit nervous,” he says. “Once he broke down how he was going to do it and I saw some footage, I was impressed. And it matches what the film is about: taking control of your own creative process and being able to get the product to the people with as little buffer in the middle as possible.”

The slimmed-down approach allowed the small cast and crew to travel around Manhattan with relative ease. There were no trailers to park on High Flying Bird. Nor were there arduous rigs to set up: Soderbergh prefers natural lighting — though he’d occasionally use a single LED panel — and opted not to rent bulky equipment. “The fact that we’re not carrying a dolly on High Flying Bird means I don’t need a truck,” he says. “I don’t need two people to move it around. I don’t need all of the supporting material. That stuff adds up.”

Instead, Soderbergh opted for cheaper devices like DJI’s Osmo Mobile stabilizer, a hand-held device he used for scenes involving motion, including a lengthy backseat pow-wow between Sohn’s character and Ray’s ambitious assistant, played by Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz. “On Unsane, we learned very quickly that hard-mounting the camera to vehicles would not work,” says Soderbergh colleague Troy Sola, who served as High Flying Bird’s first assistant cameraman. “Any vibration near the iPhone looks like an earthquake on the image — the one downside of having such a small camera with very little mass.”

The stabilizer was also employed in moments like the one in which a dejected Ray takes to the sidewalk and slowly makes his way to his office. Soderbergh approached such the sequence as he would a game of pick-up, grabbing whatever location he could. Sometimes he shot from a wheelchair — “We did splurge for a nice one,” notes High Flying key grip Kevin Smyth — which he used as a makeshift dolly, with Smyth pushing him through a bike lane. “It took us about two hours to make our way downtown,” Soderbergh says. “We just kind of made it up as we went along.”

At the end of each set-up, Soderbergh would make a note of whatever take (or takes) he liked. “Typically, I’m only circling a few,” he says. “I like to keep it lean and mean.” On most days, he’d be finished wrapping by 4:30 p.m., at which point all of the phones’ footage would immediately be cloned to a series of back-up drives. Soderbergh would also make sure the footage had been sent via Dropbox to his long-time editing collaborator, Corey Bayes. Then, after about nine hours or so of filming, Soderbergh would head home — where he’d go back to work.

3. Editing at the Speed of Thought

Using his MacBook Pro, Soderbergh could even edit on the train.

At Fincher HQ, Soderbergh opens up a midsize MacBook Pro and connects it to a slim, one-terabyte drive. “This is the holy grail,” he says half-jokingly. It’s a modest setup, but it served as his mobile editing suite during the High Flying Bird shoot. After filming, he’d return to his Tribeca apartment, where he’d review footage on Avid, the digital-editing software Soderbergh has been using since the late nineties, including on his film Out of Sight, which he worked on with Lawrence of Arabia editor Anne V. Coates. “Some people have switched over to other systems,” he says. “It has its issues. But I find the handful of things you do most often during editing, Avid handles intuitively.”

Almost every night on High Flying Bird, Soderbergh would cut together all of the day’s footage in a rough sequence, a process he says usually doesn’t take longer than 90 minutes. It helped that he had already narrowed down the takes he wanted and preplanned most of the cuts — an approach that’s especially helpful with a film as brisk and verbose as this one. “I like scenes that keep pushing you forward and keep you alert,” he says. “When you watch a dialogue scene they’ve covered from four or five different angles, and they use all of those angles in the first 30 seconds, part of you stops paying attention to the shots and the cutting. It’s clear there’s no plan. You’re not seeing a layer of visual conception on top of everything.” In other words: there’s no game on top of the game.

After he finished for the night, Soderbergh would post completed footage to the video-sharing system PIX so his producers — including Holland — could see what he’s completed so far. Afterward, “I might watch something to clear my head, or to learn,” Soderbergh says. “Or I’ll read something.” (The director keeps a detailed diary of his viewing and reading habits; during High Flying Bird’s shoot, he took in such films as Das Boot and All About Eve, as well as multiple episodes of Atlanta, and read a posthumous short story by William Trevor in The New Yorker.) Then he would head to bed, ready for work on the next day of shooting — and the next night of editing.

As accelerated as Soderbergh’s cutting schedule might be, it’s actually designed to let him slow down. “It’s to buy myself time,” he says. “I can literally put the movie down for a week or longer and come back to it fresh, without having gotten bored of it.” In the past, he has used the editing process to reimagine entire films: For 1999’s The Limey, Soderbergh panicked after watching an early cut — “It was the most scared I’ve ever been,” he says — and worked with editor Sarah Flack to give it a more dreamlike, time-defying structure. Nearly a decade later, he found himself stuck with an overlong Contagion cut, until frequent collaborator Scott Frank suggested chopping it down drastically just to see how it played. “I pulled out 45 minutes of edited material and threw it on the floor with whole storylines gone,” says Soderbergh, who then reshot parts of the film. “That’s hard to do. You have to write letters to actors and say, ‘I’m sorry.’ [But] the movie was resisting all attempts to make it work until we got medieval with it.”

Soderbergh often screens work-in-progress cuts of his films for peers and colleagues, to get their feedback, however harsh it may be. “It’s a really critical part of the process and another reason that I try and get a cut together quickly,” he says. “I want to get it in front of people. I have a handful of friends that I have to take a deep breath before I put them on the list, because I know I’m going to get a brutal reaction. But the good news is that when they have an issue or if something’s not working, their notes don’t come from a place of fear. They come from a place of support. They want me to succeed.” And yes, he did send the film early on to Fincher. His main note? “He said it was really fun,” notes Soderbergh. “Mostly, he talked about André, who owns the movie in a way only a few people could do.”

Ultimately, the version of High Flying Bird that Soderbergh showed Holland on the train back to New York wound up being very close to the one that debuted on Netflix earlier this month. One notable change: the addition of a few dropped-in interviews with the likes of basketball stars Reggie Jackson, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell. The idea was suggested by longtime Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs, who watched a rough cut of the film and reminded the director that he’d planned to use similar interviews for a long-ago-scrapped version of Moneyball. “It expanded the universe [of High Flying Bird],” says Soderbergh. “That simple idea just made the movie feel twice as big. If I hadn’t sent him a disc to look at that, that may not be in the movie — and that’s a really important part.”

Soderbergh’s same-day-editing strategy worked out so well that the director employed it on his next Netflix film, a Panama Papers drama called The Laundromat, starring Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman, which is now sitting on Soderbergh’s laptop, awaiting release. On that film, he and the cast and crew worked so quickly that he would occasionally rib Fincher, a filmmaker known for his long working hours and many takes. “There were a couple of days that we wrapped at lunch,” says Soderbergh. “Those are the days I’ll text him at 12:45 or whatever and go, ‘We’re done. What are you doing?’”

All this speed has also freed up Soderbergh to do whatever he wants next. One idea he’s been kicking around: A mash-up that would combine footage from the 1953 musical-fantasia The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T with the Japanese drama Gate of Hell, which was released the same year. “They’ve both got these crazy visuals,” he says. “I thought, ‘It would be really fun to slam these two movies together.’” He’s not sure when he’ll actually find enough time to sit down and get to work on such an elaborate project. But it’ll make for an interesting night.

*This article appears in the February 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Soderbergh on the High-Speed Production of High Flying Bird