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Steven Soderbergh’s filmography is packed with stories of disaffected professionals who announce that they’re permanently out of whatever job they used to do yet reenter their fields instantly when offered a challenge too enticing to pass up. Soderbergh’s many heist pictures (the Ocean’s trilogy especially) are obvious examples, but the best may be the chronicles of Mike Lane, Channing Tatum’s self-effacing master of the bump-and-grind who can’t quit quitting the stage. In the third installment of the franchise, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, he’s back in the limelight after dramatically leaving it, this time in London, where he’s choreographing and starring in a theatrical revue financed by his beautiful patron-slash-lover (played by Salma Hayek, who, yes, dances with Tatum in two numbers).
Neither Tatum nor Soderbergh had any intention of revisiting the Magic Mike universe after the 2016 sequel, Magic Mike XXL, on which Soderbergh served as producer, cinematographer, lead cameraman, and editor (he left directorial duties to his longtime producer Gregory Jacobs). But the public wanted an encore. So Soderbergh and Jacobs started developing a Magic Mike Broadway show about the character’s early years, which they paused in 2019 after key members of the team departed over “creative differences.” Meanwhile, Tatum and his regular co-choreographer and dance partner, Alison Faulk, had been developing a revue-style stage show (with no story or singing, just dancing), Magic Mike Live, inspired by the finale of the second movie, wherein Mike and the lads perform themed numbers at a strippers’ convention. Their revue opened at the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 2017 and was an instant sensation; in 2018, a revised version debuted in London’s Leicester Square. That’s where Soderbergh saw the production and “was just so knocked out that I wanted to glom onto what they had done,” he explains.
The result is a collaboration between Soderbergh, Tatum, and screenwriter Reid Carolin that fictionalizes the origin story of a show that actually exists in real life. Soderbergh, after announcing that he was ending his own career as a director of theatrical features in 2011 in order to focus on painting and non-cinema work — only to go on to direct several more films while “preparing” to retire and to ultimately direct, produce, edit, and shoot all 20 episodes of Cinemax’s The Knick — has returned to the director’s chair for Last Dance, and he also serves as director of photography and lead camera operator (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard). Why did he decide to un-quit a part of show business he never really gave up? I’ve asked him this question before, and we discussed it again in a conversation ahead of his latest film’s release. But Last Dance answers it with meta-textual acuity: When we remeet Mike, his furniture business has been destroyed by the pandemic and he’s swearing to Hayek’s Max that he is finished with erotic dancing; two minutes later, he’s gyrating around her and agreeing to perform in her London theater. Action is, simply, where the action is.
What was it that made you want to revisit Magic Mike one more time?
This one is a combination of everything we’ve been trying to load into these movies and, at the same time, an expansion. It’s the first time Mike’s actually in a relationship while the movie’s happening, which was, I think, a necessary evolution for the character. But it’s also, for me, my favorite thing — a process film.
Meaning a film about the actual process of doing a thing.
Right. What was most exciting for me after I saw the live show in its final form was the idea of making a movie about how Channing came up with that show. It sounds stupid to say that I was surprised at how good it was. After I saw it in London, I got on the phone that night and told everybody what I wanted to do, which meant setting aside the Magic Mike Broadway show that we’d been developing for quite a while. So it was a big phone call.
I just want to make sure I’ve got this correct: This movie was built around the preexisting live show?
Yup. If Channing and Reid and the choreographic team hadn’t created the live show, the movie wouldn’t exist. There was no compelling reason to make a third film prior to that.
I think it’s a very interesting time to be having conversations about what is desire, what is fantasy, what is the difference between sexuality and sensuality. Certainly, I feel that American movies have gotten a little weird about sex. It’s not gone, but it’s treated in such a strange way! It’s either explicit but kind of clinical, or it’s just avoided. I mean, I’m excited about people seeing the movie and, eight minutes in, watching this sequence between Channing and Salma which involves activity that you don’t see movie stars engage in very often.
It’s interesting the way it’s presented because it is a “dance routine.” They both have their clothes on, but they’re basically having sex in a variety of positions. It’s kind of a teasing, cheerful nod to the way sex scenes would be done back in the days when mainstream movies had sex scenes.
I remember being in Miami, watching Channing and Alison Faulk, the choreographer, go through the paces of that scene. I was about to leave to go scout a location, and Salma was on her way to start rehearsing with Channing. As I was walking out the door, I said, “There’s no universe where Salma’s going to do all that.” And when I came back, Salma’s like, “No, no, no, no! Let’s push it further! I want to lock and fold him! I want to do all this other stuff!” I thought, Okay! Let’s do it!
So the number is rated R to begin with, and when Salma Hayek gets involved it becomes NC-17?
Yeah. She felt like, If we’re here, let’s do it. There’s so much of her in the film because we were building these scenes based on conversations we were having with her. The scenes where she’s debating or challenging Mike to make something better: Those were all conversations we were having with Salma in which she was challenging us to make the movie better. There’s one big argument scene they have about whether the “Suavemente” performance should be in the show — “You don’t have a climax!” — and they’re just really going at it. That’s what it’s like to get into a creative conversation with Salma. It’s that intense! You’ve gotta step up to her level. She’s so smart and she’s so quick that, if you can’t keep up with her, she’ll just run right over you.
I want to talk a bit about the class anxieties woven into the movie, which are there even when the characters aren’t directly addressing them.
I’ve always been interested in what people do to make a living. How do they make money? How do they pay rent? And that’s always been central to these movies: Mike’s attempts to make a living while he’s figuring out what he’s good at. I liked the idea of Max being wealthy and Mike, you know, having to wrap his head around what it means to be with somebody who’s that well off. He’s never been with anybody for whom where the money’s coming from is not an issue.
Your parents were middle class, right?
Yeah. My dad was a college professor, but he had six kids. One of the best things I inherited from my parents was a lack of interest in acquiring money. Money really didn’t matter to them. There wasn’t a lot of it around, things were tight, but it was never talked about as having meaning beyond its ability to pay your rent and bills. I think Mike shares that attitude. He’s struggling to make a living — that’s his issue. Literally, he’s like, How do I make money so I can pay my rent and eat? It’s so central to all of our lives. To me, it’s always front and center when I start thinking about the characters: What do they do, actually? What’s their job? Or if they don’t have a job, What’s that about? The place my mind always goes when I see a movie that’s set in a universe like Marvel’s is, Okay, are they getting paid? Does a check show up every Thursday? Who’s paying them? What does it cost to live on that ship?
Who were your filmmaking inspirations on this movie? You usually zero in on directorial influences for each project and they become key ingredients.
The three filmmakers I was thinking about while we were doing this one were Ernst Lubitsch, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Lina Wertmüller. Those were my three sort of touchstones because Max seemed to me like a character out of a Lina Wertmüller movie. That’s the kind of energy and freedom I wanted to get from her.
Where does Lubitsch come into play?
Lubitsch is for the classic Hollywood comedy complications and characters. That’s where Victor (Max’s butler) and Zadie (Max’s teenage daughter) were created, from Reid and I watching and talking about the Lubitsch films from the ’30s. That whole setup and their attitudes are right out of one of those movies.
And then Bertolucci for the movement, the visual language of the film. I wanted that kind of fluidity with the camera that he really — I wouldn’t say pioneered, but when he rolled up in collaboration with Vittorio Storaro and moved the camera the way he moved it, especially in The Conformist, that was something that I was looking to key off of.
The word voluptuous always comes to mind when I think of Bertolucci. There’s an abundance of everything.
I miss when it’s … I don’t know if controlled is the right word? But when it coheres, when there’s an overarching grammar that is being employed and it’s not just, Oh, I can throw the camera around. I can make it do anything I want. There’s a purpose to the movement.
What goes into deciding how to shoot one of your dance scenes?
In the opening dance, I wanted that first sequence to take place at that specific time of day where you’re in magic hour and it’s starting to bleed into nighttime, which meant we had to shoot it in pieces over the course of three days. Our window each day was about 45 minutes. I could only get two or three takes of each angle because the light would dump and it wouldn’t match what had come before. It meant the shots needed to be longer and I had to do it in fewer cuts than I might normally.
What about the dance with all the rain falling onstage?
There are only two scenes in the movie that are handheld: the exterior of the theater in the rain when Salma’s telling him, “I’m shutting the show down, it’s over,” and then, by design, the water dance. In my mind, those two things are thematically connected. They’re bookends. He creates a dance out of the idea of this scene with Salma in the rain outside the theater. So I always knew both of those were going to be done handheld.
As you can imagine, Channing and his partner in that scene, Kylie Shea, spent weeks on that routine. That shit’s hard to do when it’s dry. He’s deadlifting her and throwing her around, and it’s fucking wet! You can fall and somebody can get seriously hurt. They were rehearsing in water for weeks and weeks and weeks to do that. When it starts to get really, really crazy and intimate, that’s when I decided on the spot, Okay, I’ve really gotta get in there. We had this tiny little seat with coasters, like five sets of wheels on the bottom of it. I was moving myself around the stage, around them, with the camera. I was just chasing them.
Are you sitting?
I’m sitting, and I’ve got the camera cradled just above the ground, and I’m pushing myself with this wheeled seat wherever. I wanted it to feel — sloppy is not the right word, but rough. I was not going for a kind of typical, classical composition or movement. I wanted something that just felt spontaneous.
And let’s be clear: I don’t have a lot of takes. They can’t just do this shit repeatedly all day. I said to Chan that morning, “It’s Omaha Beach. Here we go.” The entire water dance, from the introduction to its conclusion, took ten hours to shoot. And, you know, we got through it and nobody got hurt.
The water dance was the moment that made me wish the movie were in IMAX.
Well, we have some of those screens! Also, I didn’t follow through on it, but I had this idea: I wanted to create a logo for IMAX showings with a trademark card that says, “Photographed in GUYMAX.”
It’s a pity, in my opinion, that American movies don’t have a place for Channing Tatum to be dancing all the time.
I think if you asked him, he would tell you he left it all on the field. One of the reasons he wanted to do this one and was excited about it was to be able to go, “Okay, this is probably the last time I’m gonna do it, so I want to make sure I really do something memorable.”
How much shooting did you personally do on this movie?
The only time I wouldn’t be operating the camera was if we had a shot that was so elaborate that it required a remote head, which would mean a geared head with wheels, which I can’t do well. When we were doing the dance stuff, we had multiple cameras going, usually — at least two, sometimes three.
I’m aware that this stuff is gonna get judged and compared to other movies that have musical sequences. I was reading these biographies of Bob Fosse while we were in prep, and to hear the descriptions of how long they were shooting some of these sequences in some of those movies, I thought, Oh wow, that would be nice to have a week to shoot one sequence. But then, at the same time, I don’t know! My metabolism isn’t really built to do that. To grind on one thing for seven or eight days? That would not be fun for me.
In your heart, I wonder if you’re not a cameraman? You love to capture moments, and that sense of immediacy seems very important to you.
There were a couple reasons that I started working as my own cinematographer, and none of it has to do with my talent. It had to do with my experience on set. I wanted a more intimate relationship with the cast. I wanted control over the momentum of the set and how quickly we were moving, period. I wanted to control that. I did not like relinquishing or sharing that control with somebody else. I was willing to accept the fact that my talent in that area has a ceiling in order to gain this momentum and a closer relationship with the cast. So I’m giving up that I’m not Roger Deakins or Emmanuel Lubezki.
If you can’t be Roger Deakins, being Albert Maysles is not a bad trade-off.
Not at all! And ultimately, it’s in aid of getting at something that I think really matters to the audience more than the lighting — which is the cast, the performance, how they feel about the people that they’re watching on the screen.
That’s why all these discussions about capture medium are kind of irrelevant at the end of the day. Jorge Luis Borges described something as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” All the audience cares about is the story and the characters. They don’t care what you shot it on; they just want a story and characters that they like. And so every part of my process, as I continue to try and optimize it, is about creating an environment in which the scene and the performances feel alive and like they’re happening in front of you. That’s my ultimate goal.
One of my favorite moments in any of your movies is the close-up of Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape where she figures out who her husband is sleeping with. She’s staring at an earring she vacuumed off the bedroom floor, and she gradually realizes it belongs to her sister. You shot that close-up during postproduction because you realized during editing that all the shots you had were too far away. Was one of your takeaways that if you make sure to get a lot of close-ups of people thinking, you can get out of a lot of jams when you’re editing?
Oh, absolutely. You wouldn’t think a close-up of somebody thinking would have the power that it does because, in theory, it’s static. But yes, one of my favorite things to do is to have a camera close to somebody’s face as a penny is dropping.
But another thing I like to do is watch somebody’s idea evolve as they’re moving. You can probably put together half a dozen different shots of characters in my movies beginning to understand something while they’re on the move — and as they understand it, increasing how quickly they’re moving. It’s the shot of Julia in the first Ocean’s movie realizing that George may still be somewhere on the casino property and she needs to find him. Or Marion Cotillard in Contagion when she realizes that the people she was spending time with have been given placebos and not real vaccines.
You’re making me think about the opening of Out of Sight, after George Clooney leaves the bank and you see his anger building and he throws his tie down. He’s such a cool cucumber when you first meet him, and a few minutes later he’s completely losing it.
Right! I try not to impose those things, but when they develop organically, I embrace them. I never feel like, Oh, you’ve done that before. You shouldn’t do that again. I feel like, Well, if that’s what it needs, it’s what it needs. You should just service the viewer, make your point, and move on.
How has your approach to that mission evolved over the decades?
I’m always trying to distill things down to their minimum. I start from a place of, How few shots does this need? Pretty quickly, it gets down to very few. Sometimes, rarely, it’s one. I’m trying to view it as kind of a Japanese line drawing. Like, How few strokes can I create an image with?
When I watch directors who are obsessed with doing every scene in one shot, I think, I see you trying to stuff things into this same little box, and half the time you can’t even close the lid. Why would you want to do that?
Well, the question you need to ask yourself in those situations is, Why is it better to do this in one shot instead of using the most powerful tool potentially that’s ever been created in any art form?
Which is editing.
You tell a lot of jokes with cuts. One of the classics — you’ve done it a lot, and it never fails to get a laugh — is “No, no, no, no, no, no! There’s no way in hell I’m going to do that!” Cut to: them doing it.
To me, that’s the equivalent of a spit take. A spit take to me is just always funny, and I wish I had more of them in my filmography.
Why add narration? The other Magic Mike films don’t have any.
Reid and I really liked the idea of Zadie narrating the film and knowing these two characters better than they know themselves, even though she’s a 16-year-old. But there was a lot of discussion about whether the movie needed it. There was some experimentation with “What if Victor was the narrator?” and “What if Victor and Zadie were both the narrators?” We tried a lot of different things before we circled back to the original idea. There used to be more of it and then we backed off a little bit. But it felt like the universe of the movie needed that note.
It was also, in a very naked way, an opportunity to articulate some things that I really wanted the movie to articulate, like the line “Dance speaks no meaning as to its desire.” I wanted somebody to say that out loud. It was important to me. There are very few things in this world that have this kind of purity and clarity, and I think it’s one of the reasons that dance is so joyful. That was the appeal of making this movie. It isn’t often that you’re able to do that with something that doesn’t feel cheesy or cloying.
I wrote down some lines from Magic Mike’s Last Dance that seem as if they might mean something to you beyond their function in the movie’s plot. I want to read them to you now and get your reactions. The first one is from the lunch scene, where Mike is asked, “What are your plans for Act Three?” And he stares blankly and says —
“We’re gonna have one!”
What makes that scene funny?
It’s the turbocharged version of being completely lost creatively, of feeling absolutely overwhelmed and underprepared. When I’m shooting, I dream every night about shooting — and it’s always going wrong. Things are always going wrong. The lunch scene is that. That’s a nightmare. Channing in that scene is what I feel like when I’m dreaming about work at night, which is that everything is going wrong and I’m not prepared. Channing’s great at playing someone who’s not quite prepared for the thing they’re being asked to do. He has a specific kind of panic and incredulity at what’s being asked of him that is very funny. It’s fun to watch him flail.
He’s like Matthew Broderick in the body of Burt Lancaster.
There is a thing that came out of conversations with Salma that I was really happy with when he’s teaching one of the dancers. He’s like, “Okay, Harry, try doing a lap dance.” And Harry does these moves. Channing goes, “All those moves are great, but you’ve gotta keep the connection with her and it’s gotta be more personal.” And Channing does exactly the same moves as him but better. He just does it better. He’s better at it.
What I liked about that scene is, as you’re watching it, it feels like Channing’s winning. And then Salma comes up out of the audience, stops the whole thing, and goes, “You’ve got this amazing space, and you’ve got somebody stuck in a chair. Why don’t you make it more expansive?” She completely destroys what he just did. And she’s right!
And you can see by that expression that he knows she’s right.
This is how shit gets solved. It’s not always sunshine. You sometimes have to hear stuff you don’t want to hear.
The next line I want to get your reaction to is Max stating, “This show is not about getting dick. Only.”
Oh, she crushed that! There’s a micro-pause in there that if you don’t nail it, it’s not funny.
How does that line resonate with you as an artist?
It’s funny because it’s true about the show she’s talking about, and it’s true about the movie she’s in. It works on a couple of different levels if you execute it as well as she does. We didn’t want to be winking at the audience, you know what I mean? We didn’t want to take a kind of ironic pose or get meta about it because I didn’t want people stepping out of the movie.
The line that really, really hit me was “There’s absolutely nothing sexier than a body in motion.” That statement applies, to some extent, to every movie you’ve done. You like shooting people, you like shooting bodies, you like shooting faces. Faces are in action too.
That’s what I see when I imagine something. If I’m reading something that I’m sparking to or if I’m imagining something from scratch, I see faces. I don’t see locations, I don’t see masses of elements being coordinated, I see this: [Holds both hands horizontally in front of his face — one at mid-forehead, the other below his chin.] A face with a certain kind of expression on it.
I don’t come in with shots. I need to see it. I need to be on the set, and I need to have the people there, and I need to work out the blocking. That’s a lack of imagination on my part, that I can’t decide how I want to stage it until I’ve seen it. I know enough to be able to tell the transportation department where to park the trucks, but I’m not good at imagining things beforehand.
The other possibility is that you don’t want to be boxed in by any preconceptions you brought to the set.
I’m sure people would appreciate more of an idea of what we’re going to do. It can be frustrating for people on the production. But I really resist determining anything before I’ve even seen where people are gonna stand. I’ve gotta see it, and I’m always willing, if I feel like I’m bumping on something, I’ll either stop or I’ll tear it up. Every scene has to fight its way into the project. As far as I’m concerned, the scene had better prove to me that it needs to be here.
You’ve joked that the physicality of your filmmaking style is “directorial CrossFit.” I’ve seen you doing what look like yoga poses in order to get the shot you wanted. How long can you keep going like that?
I’ve asked myself that. I’m trying to imagine whether I could stand being John Huston directing The Dead from a wheelchair with an oxygen mask strapped to my face. Would that still be pleasurable to me? I guess I won’t know until I’m confronted with it.
I think the more difficult question is about maintaining the love of the job and of the medium. How long can I love what I’m doing to the extent that I want to get up every day and keep doing it? Will I just at some point feel like I’m out of ideas? I don’t have the grandiosity gene. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never made anything that somebody would look at and go, “I can’t do that,” the way I do when I look at something like Come and See. That requires a way of thinking not only about the world but about yourself as an artist that I don’t have. I’m more earthbound. I don’t have the ability to make Apocalypse Now. What I am capable of is an entire body of work that somebody might look at and go, “Okay, that’s hard. That’s tricky, to do that much and keep the level of quality consistent.” That’s the best I can hope for.