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Love it or hate it, Che is a movie Soderbergh says he knew he had to make, even though by his own admission he was “totally ignorant” about Guevara when Del Toro and Traffic producer Laura Bickford first came to him with the project. “If your producer and your star come to you with a subject that you know is going to be interesting and you don’t say yes, you’re kind of a clown,” he says.
Originally conceived as a single film about Guevara’s failed Bolivia campaign to be directed by Terrence Malick (who left the project to make The New World), the two-part Che evolved over a long development process between Soderbergh, Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman — an experience Soderbergh likens to Goethe’s tale of a certain sorcerer’s apprentice and his disobedient magic broomstick. “The more you got into it and the more research you did, the farther away from the shore you felt,” he says. “There were periods where I really was convinced that we just weren’t going to be able to find a shape for this, that we were drowning in research.”
An important breakthrough came when Soderbergh decided to focus on those aspects of Guevara’s story that resonated the most with his own experience of the world — the ones that suggested how guerrilla warfare is not so very different from guerrilla filmmaking. “There are so many metaphors for making a film in what we were trying to do, and that was at least part of my way in,” he says. “The group of people getting together to accomplish a certain task in imperfect surroundings ... you know, all of that. There’s nothing more revealing to me than being on a film crew. You put me on a crew with somebody and you put me under difficult circumstances and give me 39 days, I’m telling you I’ll know that person almost as well as their spouse [does].
“The things we were looking for were the equivalent of my conversation with a dolly grip about why this shot is not working and what we have to do to make it work, which would be a very revealing conversation to hear if you were interested in knowing who I am and who the dolly grip is. That’s why we gravitated toward those scenes where he’s instructing or he’s criticizing something. I really love that shit.”
Still, Soderbergh evinces a tinge of regret when he says he wishes he could have made Che as a 10-hour television miniseries, with episodes devoted to Guevara’s adventures in the Congo and his time as a dissident-executing henchman in post-revolutionary Cuba. The omission of the latter period — arguably the most controversial of Guevara’s life — has been grounds for some virulent attacks on the film (including one, captured on camera phone and widely YouTubed, during Soderbergh’s Q&A with the opening-night Ziegfeld audience). But as my colleague J. Hoberman has succinctly pointed out, Che’s two parts are designed so that “every Bolivian sequence has its Cuban parallel,” and the rest, well, isn’t part of this particular equation.
“To me,” Soderbergh says, “it’s really obvious when you create a diptych that there’s a certain structure there that has to be adhered to in order for it to work, and that this choice was clearly an artistic one and not a political one.”
The same goes for the accusations that Che is a “cold” movie — something, Soderbergh says, that speaks directly to the many firsthand accounts of Guevara he encountered in the course of his research. “There wasn’t a single person who used the word ‘warm’ when they described him,” he says. “This one guy had a great quote — he said, ‘You had to love him for free.’ That’s why, based on what I read and the people I talked to, the movie feels like him — a little bit distant and, you know, tough.
“The bottom line of it is that this is a four-hour-and-20-minute film, and all you need to feel at the end of it, to my mind, is the sense of someone’s life ending — that someone who led a very interesting, event-filled existence, that this is coming to a conclusion. Whatever you thought about him, he chose the hard path all the time and this is the end of it. That’s the way I looked at it.”
At one point in our conversation, Soderbergh paraphrases French director Robert Bresson’s famous observation that “Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can with the most cannot, inevitably, with the minimum.” A more apropos maxim for Soderbergh’s own career would be hard to come by. Indeed, the director has proven so skillful over the past decade at segueing from star-driven studio projects like Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven to low-budget offbeat experiments like 2002’s Full Frontal and 2005’s Bubble, it comes as no surprise to learn that, in addition to The Informant, he has nearly completed work on The Girlfriend Experience, a comedy set in the world of prostitution (produced, like Bubble, for the HD Net cable channel), starring porn actress Sasha Grey. Following our interview, Soderbergh tells me, he’ll be shooting a few pickups for the film at a Manhattan hotel.
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