Steven Soderbergh tends to travel light — even when he has a movie camera tucked away inside his suitcase. That’s how the filmmaker set off on a recent Japanese press tour where, in between interviews, he used a lightweight high-definition video camera known as the Red One to steal some Tokyo exteriors for his upcoming movie The Informant, a darkly comic thriller based on New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction best-seller.
Although The Informant features a major movie star (Matt Damon) and will be released later this year by a Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.), Soderbergh’s moviemaking M.O. has changed little in the 20 years since his first dramatic feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, won him the audience award at Sundance (then called the United States Film Festival), the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay — all before his 28th birthday. As the critic David Thomson has noted in comparing Soderbergh’s film to another auspicious debut by a filmmaker of roughly the same age — Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane — “There are differences.” But so self-assured and preternaturally wise was Soderbergh’s roundelay of sexual predilections and peccadillos among four Louisiana 30-somethings that, coming as it did on the heels of a lackluster decade for American movies, it was hard to resist proclaiming its young auteur an indie-film messiah.
Next week, Soderbergh and Sex, Lies, and Videotape will return to Sundance for a 20th-anniversary screening, a few days after his latest feature, Che, opens in wide release across the U.S. And if, by almost any standards (including those of Soderbergh’s globe-hopping, multinarrative Traffic) Che qualifies as an epic undertaking, the director managed to bring his DIY-moviemaking mentality to bear even on this two-part, four-and-a-half-hour chronicle of iconic Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara. Shooting on the Red One camera (then barely out of the prototype phase) and serving as his own cameraman — as he has done on all his features since Traffic — Soderbergh brought the entire production in on a 78-day shooting schedule for a relatively modest $58 million budget, or, roughly $30 million less than the reported cost of Ocean’s Thirteen.
“I’m helped by the fact that I came out of the independent world and I’m used to doing stuff for cheap, or just having a ‘let’s put on a show’ attitude,” Soderbergh tells me when we meet in his sparsely appointed, paint-specked office in New York’s Flatiron district a few days before Christmas. The weather outside is windy, slushy and generally frightful, but 30-odd blocks uptown, inside the 1,100-seat Ziegfeld Theater (and at the smaller Landmark theater in L.A.), Che has been playing to packed houses for most of the past week, selling out many shows in advance on its way to a $60,000 opening weekend.
So great, in fact, was demand for Che that distributor IFC Films quickly moved to extend the movie’s exclusive “roadshow” engagements by an additional week. (In most of the U.S., the film will be released in two separate parts, and will also be available via IFC’s on-demand cable service.) Not Marley & Me–sized business, perhaps, but a considerable sea change from Che’s lightning-rod world premiere at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which saw dozens of journalists flee at intermission, and resulted in a widely circulated Variety review (since quoted for ironic effect in the film’s international ad campaign) that declared: “The pic in its current form is a commercial impossibility, except on television or DVD.”
Publications hungry for a Cannes cause de scandale picked up the story and ran with it, eventually spurring rumors that the Sean Penn–led jury would award Che the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or just to spite the film’s dismissal by Hollywood’s self-proclaimed show-biz bible. (In the end, star Benicio Del Toro took home the Best Actor prize instead.) For Soderbergh, while the film’s commercial performance thus far has been gratifying, he never felt that Cannes was anything but the perfect launching pad for it.
“We had exactly the experience that we hoped we would have,” he says, pointing out that much of Che’s budget had already been recouped through foreign presales before the festival even started. “We just wanted to detonate there, and that’s what happened. When we went to Cannes, there were only a couple of territories left to be sold — the U.S. being one of them — and it was important for us that the people who had prebought the movie get a sense of what a publicity magnet the movie is, because we’d sort of sold them on that idea. So it was great for them to witness, regardless of the reaction, the fact that we sucked up a lot of oxygen. You can’t buy that shit, you can’t manufacture it. The movie either is one of those things or it isn’t.”
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.
Never one to rest on his laurels (or merely rest), Soderbergh is also soon to embark on a 3-D rock musical about Cleopatra, followed by a Liberace biopic that will reunite him with Traffic star Michael Douglas. When I tell him that he works fast, Soderbergh replies matter-of-factly, “I don’t know why you wouldn’t, if you could. If you were in a situation where you can get people to say yes, I don’t know why you wouldn’t get a bunch of stuff going.”
There are times in the career of any filmmaker, he says, when “things are going good or you feel like you’re sort of on to something, and I feel like you’ve got to seize that and keep really, really busy. Even though I’ve been working constantly, you do go through peaks and valleys.” He cites the quintet of Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven as “a good sort of run, and then, you know, there were some projects that people found a little more problematic. But I feel like Che, The Informant, The Girlfriend Experience, Cleopatra and Liberace, that this is going to be ... I feel like I’m in a good spot right now.”
Looking ahead to the Sundance revival of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh fears that the VHS-era technology employed by James Spader’s impotent camera-wielding voyeur may cause the film to seem “like a period sci-fi movie.” Yet chances are greater that audiences revisiting Sex, Lies will find it, like a lot of actual period sci-fi movies, an uncanny tale of things to come. Two decades after it first shocked some audiences with its aggressive blurring of the real and the virtual, the public and the private, Soderbergh’s film now seems a prescient harbinger of the YouTube/MySpace/camera-phone revolution.
“We were coming out of the worst decade in American cinema history and there were only a couple of people — a couple of independent filmmakers — who were poking through in the ’80s,” Soderbergh says. “So I just feel like we were the recipient of a general sense of relief on the part of the audience to see something that was made by an individual. It was really that simple.”
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With its $25 million domestic gross, Sex, Lies, and Videotape shattered the perceived glass ceiling for indie features and turned Harvey Weinstein (who bought the film for a then-astronomical $1 million, nearly Soderbergh’s entire budget) into an overnight mogul. It also bought Soderbergh a degree of creative freedom he still enjoys today. “In essence, I was able to coast on the success of that movie and try some other things that, had it not hit, I wouldn’t have been able to do,” says the director, who spent most of the subsequent decade at the helm of a series of critically praised but commercially lifeless movies, including King of the Hill, The Underneath and Schizopolis. “The results of some of those experiments have been part of the reason for the success of other movies that I’ve made.”
Today, Soderbergh — to say nothing of Weinstein — finds himself in a very different indie-film landscape. After two high-rolling decades in which sales figures for movies buzzed about as “the next” Sex, Lies, and Videotape or Pulp Fiction soared as high as the overinflated real estate market, independent distributors (and filmmakers) were gobbled up by Hollywood, and no-budget digital films seemed to multiply faster than nymphomaniac rabbits, the market for smaller films now stands in a widely reported state of oversaturation. Meanwhile, the major studios, feeling the pinch of the economic crisis in their pockets, seem less willing to take chances on untested material.
“I can already see a contraction,” says Soderbergh, who assembled the financing for Che from several international partners, including the French sales company Wild Bunch. “It’s going to get more conservative, so it’s going to be tricky.” But like any good guerrilla, Steven Soderbergh will find a way to push forth. “I can exist in any version of this business,” he says. And with that, he bundles up, locks his office door and heads off to the set.
Opens Friday in Los Angeles theaters. Screens on Monday, January 19, at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.