While Steven Soderbergh has made a number of movies over the past few years, for whatever reason, I’d never had an opportunity to speak with him. So when I was offered a possible interview for his latest thriller, Side Effects, I sent an email saying I’d like to do it and figured it would never happen. Thankfully, I was wrong.
At the Los Angeles press day, I was given 45 minutes with Soderbergh (he only does 45-minute interviews), and we talked about a wide variety of subjects like his his post-retirement plans, Twitter, comic book movies, his preferred digital camera, whether digital can ever match IMAX quality, 48fps, the success of Magic Mike and the sequel, his work as second unit director on The Hunger Games, championing Christopher Nolan before the world knew who he was, his filmmaking process, editing while shooting, why he cut 45 minutes out of Contagion and why you’ll probably never see the footage, Kickstarter, and so much more. If you’re a Soderbergh fan, I promise you’ll dig this interview. Hit the jump to either read or listen to what he had to say.
Click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. Side Effects is now in theaters.
Steve: I guess I have to start by saying I am a little mad at you and it’s because I’m a huge fan of your work and I have to say that I’m a little disappointed that you’re stepping away for who knows how long. So I speak for the fandom when I say I just want to express frustration.
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Well, thank you. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Even if I were to start up again, I’ve already set things in motion that would delay that by a couple of years. So at the very least it’s going to be a few years and then we’ll see, we’ll see how I feel.
To be honest though as a fan of yours I just want to you to be happy, but I’m disappointed as a fan because I want to see more movies.
But I understand that you want to do other things and I think I speak for most fans who just want you to be creative.
SODERBERGH: Yeah, it’s just going to be different stuff. I don’t think I could ever sit still and do nothing. It’s just going to be different stuff. In the hopes that maybe by exploring some other avenues I can find another way in to this job and reboot somehow. It’s something I’ve been planning for a while and I get those feelings of I just know something’s got to change, so five years ago I decided pretty much to follow the plan that I followed.
I’ve hear rumors about writing, painting, a whole bunch of stuff. Are you a proliferate painter?
SODERBERGH: Not yet, I’ve painted a little. I’ve got a lot of work to do. You can’t get good at anything unless you do it day in and day out, over and over, so I’m just now getting to the point where I have enough time to practice. I’m in that phase of just trying to learn how to do very basic things that I’ve seen, that I like and it’s the same process as learning how to make a movie, you see something you like, you go out, you try to imitate it, you try to figure out how they did it, I mean, it’s going to take a while. It’s going to take a while. But I’ve got time, I’ve bought myself some time so it could be a while before I generate anything that I want to put out there. I’m putting up a website, maybe March or early April, and whatever I’m up to will be there or you’ll be able to know what it is. That will be my portal to the outside world.
Does it have a URL yet?
SODERBERGH: I think for now I like a lot of different- it’s like movies, I like a lot of different kinds of movies, I like a lot of different kinds of paintings. At this point I’ve been going back and forth between portraits and just pure abstract stuff. So I don’t know where that will lead, and then I’ve been doing collages. There’s going to be one book on filmmaking, one more book about filmmaking about a quarter of the way through now that I’ll put up on the site, when it’s done I’ll self-publish that. I’m going to do Scott’s play in the fall. I’m probably going to do Cleopatra on stage next year, I hope. So there’s stuff.
Yeah, he mentioned he was doing something on Columbine.
That it’s very…
SODERBERGH: Yeah, we had a read through in New York the day before Newtown, it was very weird. It’s a really interesting piece and when you say- if you were to say to somebody, “Oh, I’m doing a piece on Columbine.” When you see what it is, it’s not at all what you expect. He found a really fascinating avenue into it and it’s not about guns, it’s not about that debate, it’s about something else.
We’re going to get into Side Effects of course, but I’m just curious about your take on the whole Kickstarter thing right now. I mean it’s a very, very exciting time for everything.
SODERBERGH: Yeah. Look, what’s great about all this technology and things like Kickstarter is that it enables me, finally, and without any bad feeling at all, when people come up to me now saying, “I want to do this.” I can just go, “There are no excuses anymore.”
I’m waiting for the person, say a big filmmaker, who has a problem with the studio and needs say 50 million dollars, do you think it’s possible for someone to really put together this mega budget thing that the studios would never approve and actually get it going on Kickstarter? Do you think that will ever happen?
SODERBERGH: I wouldn’t be surprised if we see that happen at some point on a scale that’s significant. I’m not even clear- now how does this work exactly? I put money into a Kickstarter thing, do I get it back?
Basically when someone creates a Kickstarter, say it’s for 30 days, I believe that’s what it is, so say they want to target $100,000, everyone puts in money, until they reach the target you are committing to something that is not going to be taken, like a credit card will not be charged anything until they reach the target. Once they reach that target then the money gets funneled into the account they set up and I guess it’s like the honor system, like you’re just believing that they’re going to do what they say. From what I understand most people, most people, are pretty honest about this.
SODERBERGH: Don’t they explain to you like, “Oh, if you put in this money, you’re going to get a shirt”?
There are levels. It could be like $10, you get this, $50 you get this, and ultimately there will be a few that are very expensive that really give you a lot of VIP perks and that’s where they can really get ahead.
SODERBERGH: But it’s mostly not designed to pay people back their money.
No, it’s about getting something made; like a product or a film or a documentary.
I put in money for a really cool thing this British inventor made to help deactivate landmines; it’s like a plastic device, a big ball that can really save a lot of lives and for me that was worth my money. So I’m hoping it works out.
SODERBERGH: Interesting. Look, like I said what I used to say to people all the time was, “Don’t wait for permission.” Now it’s shocking what you can make for nothing, you can make incredible looking shit now.
SODERBERGH: It’s great. That’s the good news, anybody can make something. The bad news is everybody is.
I’m curious about digital cameras. Right now every director and cinematographer I talk to uses either the ARRI Alexa, the RED Epic, or recently the Sony F65, I’m curious your take on the digital cameras that are available right now.
SODERBERGH: I have a long history with RED so I’m partial to RED. I like the way it looks, I like the way it works, I like its size. The Sony camera that’s a nice image, but the thing is a boat anchor. When I first saw the Panavision Genesis I knew that wasn’t going to work because it was bigger than a Panaflex. The whole point is we want it smaller. The thing about the Epic, which can record full resolution without being connected to anything, you know, we have that shot in Side Effects where Rooney puts her foot on the gas, I just stripped everything off the body and stuck the camera behind the gas pedal. Normally you’d have to saw a hole in the car to get that shot. That’s the shit I want. I want to be able to put it wherever I want. That combined with the sort of ethos of that company, which is that they are constantly upgrading. They’ve got a new sensor coming out, the Dragon, that’s fucking insane, like it’s a whole other level in terms of dynamic range, resolution, it’s crazy. I’ve seen the tests on it, it’s nuts. These guys just stay up really late and they’re just never satisfied and they’re constantly pushing it. So I look at it as…if you’re conservative you should probably use something other than the RED, if you’re someone who likes to live dangerously and push stuff then you should be using the RED because that’s where it’s at its best.
A lot of these cameras, you use them and they have text there saying, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” Whereas with RED we’ll shoot stuff that will come back, Jim Jannard will look at it and go, “Wow, I didn’t know somebody was going to do that with our camera. Great, lets figure out how to turn what most people would look at as a problem into our next firmware upgrade.” They’re just constantly tweaking. And it’s a great story too because its him, he’s like Howard Hughes; he had the idea, he had the money, he put the super group together, they went and did it and that’s the way innovation happens, you know what I mean? And he’s a gearhead, he’s a camera guy. A lot of these things you look at and you go, “Clearly the people who designed this have never had to use one of these.” Because if you knew you were going to put that on your shoulder you wouldn’t design it that way. Jim was a photographer. He really canvased a lot of people and said, “What do you want? What do you want in this?” And literally talked about how big should it be? How much should it weigh? What should it look like? What should the weight distribution be? What kind of lens masks do you want? He was trying to make something that you could use with your hands that felt intuitive. So I’m really happy that I ended up being a part of that narrative of the development of that camera because it was exciting to watch and the product itself has completely changed the way that I’ve been able to work. My only regret is I wish I had it ten years ago.
When do you think digital cameras are going to hit the resolution or the ability that anyone using film is going to say, “It’s time to switch”?
SODERBERGH: They’ve already done it. Film people are just in denial. They’ve already done it. They passed them a couple years ago.
SODERBERGH: Oh, they will. I mean the new Dragon 6k is crazy. Take the new Dragon sensor, put a Master Prime on it, shoot it at a decent F-stop, and do a line pairs test where you have this chart that has a series of lines on it…and let’s see.
Because I don’t know the resolution of the Dragon sensor versus what the RED Epic is doing right now, is it like 50% better? Is it 20%? Is it 100%?
SODERBERGH: I don’t know, it’s a lot. It’s noticeable.
I’m wonder if Mr. Jackson is going to shoot with that when he does the additional photography on The Hobbit.
SODERBERGH: I don’t know, if you were going to blend, I don’t think he would want to blend it with the Epic. I don’t know. I mean, Peter’s off on a frolic of his own.
While we’re talking about this, I definitely want to know your take, if you don’t mind talking about it, on the high frame rate that Peter’s doing.
SODERBERGH: There’s a technical reason why I think that frame rate is weird and it has to with your brain’s ability to scan beyond a certain rate. The point is I find it looks weird. There was an article written a couple months ago by a neuroscientist explaining why it is always going to look weird. Your brain is never going to rewire to have this look “normal” because beyond a certain frame rate you lose the ability to take it all in. So it’s always going to look like video, it’s never not. And I find that weird.
I saw it twice, once at Warner Bros. and once in IMAX and I found the IMAX presentation to be much better, but I’m curious if the high frame rate might be more applicable towards documentaries, because it really is taking the glass out of the window. I’m not sold on it, but I’m also not against it. I think its maybe more applicable for certain genres.
I think that there were certain sequences in The Hobbit, for me, where it did the same thing and others where I found it very compelling. Switching back, let’s jump into your movie now. Originally Scott was trying to make this as his directorial debut.
SODERBERGH: No, he’s made a movie before.
My bad, he wanted to direct this and he was explaining to me how you really liked the script. Was it weird for you, because you’re very close to him? What was that conversation like? Because he’s been trying for a while.
SODERBERGH: It seemed to not be that big a deal in the sense that I called him right after The Man from U.N.C.L.E. blew up and I just said, “I really wanted to work with you this spring. I won’t ask you again, but can I have Side Effects?” And he said, “Yeah” and then we kind of never talked about it again. I think it would have been weird if we didn’t have the history that we have, you know what I mean? We’ve worked together twice before, three times before, we worked together on the U.N.C.L.E. movie for a year. I think if it had been someone else it probably would have been a more difficult decision for him than it was, but it seemed, you know, he knew how much I liked it and I think he felt, “Yeah let’s just go do it.” He’s one of these guys; he’s got tons of ideas. His attitude was, “I’ll write something else.” He does. He’s very prolific and very facile so I don’t think he had, he didn’t exhibit any of the proprietary attitude that a lot of writers would have. I think he felt like, “I got other stuff.”
How much do you change scripts based on actor’s involvement? Because a lot of actor will come to the plate and then say, “Okay, I want to do this, but I want to make this dramatic change to the arc.” Over the course of your history, how much have you adjusted your films for an actor? Or is each project is different?
SODERBERGH: It depends, yeah. It really depends on the project. Sometimes there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s great to have somebody come in with a different perspective. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve gone to an actor with a script and they’ve said, “I like the project but I don’t think this character is working.” And we’ve gone off and worked with another actor who said, “I want to do the movie but I think there’s work to be done on the character.” They’ve worked with us and then bailed on the movie and then I went back to the original actor and they said, “You’ve solved it, I’m in” That’s happened to me before.
It really depends on the piece and I think in the last few years there’s been less of that because I think the scripts, from the get-go, have been more done. You’ll have actors coming in who will have a lot of questions about things to make sure that they’re in line with what we’re intending, but in the last few years the scripts have been in pretty good shape by the time we started casting. Me and the writer have kind of beaten it death and there wasn’t a lot of room for somebody coming in and rethinking the character. Now having said that, in post on Contagion we did a lot of work and ended up going back and doing a week of reshooting to accommodate a version of the movie that was created in the editing room that was very different from the script. So that was an interesting circumstance because we had a movie that wasn’t working at the length that we shot it and then we did a really radical 90 minute cut that solved a lot of problems, but in order to work it needed some connective tissue. So we went and shot stuff to make the 90 minute version work. That was a pretty dramatic overhaul in post.
Obviously I’m the one sort of saying to Scott “This is what I think we should be doing, look at this cut, I think we need scenes, I think we need to re-do these scenes, and we need scenes that connect here to here to here.” Typically if you’re going to be talking to the actors it’s more explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing than to solicit input and so that’s a lot different than…god, I remember we had like a week of rehearsal on Sex, Lies, and Videotape and now I think, “God, what did we talk about for a week?” That’s the only time I think I’ve ever felt on a set that we had all the time in the world, where I never felt under any time constraints at all. Because I think of that movie now we had 30 days, I could shoot that thing in 12 days now. I just remember just sitting there, which was fine, it was a cheap movie anyway; I think we had 10 people on the crew.
SODERBERGH: Yeah, I know.
Clint Eastwood likes two takes, if you’re lucky, Fincher likes 50; where do you fall on that scale?
SODERBERGH: It depends. I fall mostly towards the lets keep it fresh, 3 is my ideal, but there was one scene that ended up getting cut significantly, I’m only using the front part of it now, in Side Effects where it was a long dialogue scene that I wanted to play out in one shot and there was a lot of movement in it so there was like seven different destinations for the camera. We did 23 takes before we got it. If that’s what it requires, I’ll do it, but in general if there’s not a big technical thing going on, I feel like unless there’s something wrong with the text or the actor, 3 takes and we ought to be thinking of moving on.
I don’t know what the final running time is on Side Effects, what is it?
SODERBERGH: I think total with credits, 105 minutes.
SODERBERGH: Two hours.
SODERBERGH: So it wasn’t too long.
So there’s not a lot of deleted scenes?
SODERBERGH: There are but a lot of them are scenes- there’s some, you’d be surprised how many, but a lot of them just…it’s that trial and error thing where people are ahead of us. They’ll make that leap that he goes from here to here. A lot of it though what you would find is scenes that I just, like I said, I cut the entire back 2/3 off or I cut the entire front 2/3 off. There was a lot of hacking, just like, literally I don’t need the first 2/3 of that scene, I can just come in on that line. There was a lot of that in the last edit I did. I really got a lot aggressive about that kind of stuff, as did Scott. Scott would send me notes going, “We don’t need that. You can get out here and go right from there to there.” So that’s the fun part.