Mary Kaye Schilling of New York Magazine has a quite interesting interview with Steven Soderbergh, who is about to quit making films to paint. I’ve long been an admirer of Soderbergh, probably since his first film came out when I was taking film classes at UT I don’t love every film Soderbergh has made, but he often does interesting stuff.
A few excerpts, in case you are too lazy to click the link. For instance:
MKS: You’ve talked in the past about obsessively viewing films for inspiration—like The Battle of Algiers and Z for Traffic. What did you watch for Magic Mike?
SS: Saturday Night Fever was our model. It’s one of those movies people remember differently than what was actually true. Going back, we were startled by how dark it gets. This girl is being raped in the back seat of the car, and Travolta doesn’t really do anything, he just drives around. He does things that you probably wouldn’t want your protagonist doing today.
MKS: But you’ve shown an incredible ability for getting films made, particularly the mid-level, character-driven, superhero-and-vampire-free films that conventional wisdom says don’t get made anymore—from the esoteric sci-fi film Solaris to, yes, even a somber, black-and-white movie about post–World War II Germany. How do you account for that?
SS: On the few occasions where I’ve talked to film students, one of the things I stress, in addition to learning your craft, is how you behave as a person. For the most part, our lives are about telling stories. So I ask them, “What are the stories you want people to tell about you?” Because at a certain point, your ability to get a job could turn on the stories people tell about you. The reason [then–Universal Pictures chief] Casey Silver put me up for [1998’s] Out of Sight after I’d had five flops in a row was because he liked me personally. He also knew I was a responsible filmmaker, and if I got that job, the next time he’d see me was when we screened the movie. If I’m an asshole, then I don’t get that job. Character counts. That’s a long way of saying, “If you can be known as someone who can attract talent, that’s a big plus.”
SS: Music has become another of the most abused aspects of filmmaking. I’m mystified by the direction scores have taken in the last ten years. It’s wall-to-wall—it’s the movie equivalent of the vuvuzelas from the last World Cup! I don’t understand it at all. For me, it’s ideal when you can get the music to do something that everything else isn’t doing.
MKS: I’ve always appreciated how you don’t use the soundtrack to telegraph emotions; your scores are remarkably subtle. The Informant! was one of the few times you used music conspicuously, but it really worked for that film.
SS: A lot of people had mixed feelings about that score. Look, it was a very specific choice in the sense that—what I said to [composer] Marvin Hamlisch was, this music is not for the audience. This music is for him [Matt Damon’s character], it’s his soundtrack. For the movie, it worked. But that’s not typically what you’re doing with a score. I think that’s why people reacted ambivalently.
I was saddened to hear that the Confederacy of Dunces script is dead, again:
MKS: Are there many films you wanted to make that didn’t happen?
SS: Less than a handful. There are tons of excuses you can make for something not happening. It’s a very imperfect process, getting a movie made. And I’m one of those people who just ignores that stuff. The film doesn’t have to be perfect. The deal doesn’t have to be perfect. I’ll reverse engineer into whatever box we have so that we can do it and do do it—less money, less time, whatever. I’m looking for reasons to say yes. But, sometimes, nothing works.
MKS: Like Confederacy of Dunces. Whatever happened to that?
SS: I ended up walking away. We had this lawsuit over the rights [against Scott Rudin and Paramount pictures in 1998], and we got the project back, and at that point—it was a good lesson to learn, actually, because I realized once we got it back that my enthusiasm had been beaten out of me. Now it was an obligation, as opposed to something that I wanted to do. I don’t know what’s happening with it. I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.
Ok, one last bit relevant to this blog’s interests:
MKS: That’s a 180-degree turn from fifteen years ago, when you called the film business the silliest in the world.
SS: After making a lot more films, I realized that the movie and TV business is, for all its inefficiencies, one of the best-run big businesses we have. It’s very transparent, financially, and the only business I know of that successfully employs trickle-down economics: When movies and shows make money, the profits go right back into making more movies and shows, because the stock price is all about market share. And these people excel at problem-solving—that’s 99 percent of the job. I look at Hurricane Katrina, and I think if four days before landfall you gave a movie studio autonomy and a 100th of the billions the government spent on that disaster, and told them, “Lock this place down and get everyone taken care of,” we wouldn’t be using that disaster as an example of what not to do. A big movie involves clothing, feeding, and moving thousands of people around the world on a tight schedule. Problems are solved creatively and efficiently within a budget, or your ass is out of work. So when I look at what’s going on in the government, the gridlock, I think, Wow, that’s a really inefficient way to run a railroad. The government can’t solve problems because the two parties are so wedded to their opposing ideas that they can’t move. The very idea that someone from Congress can’t take something from the other side because they’ll be punished by their own party? That’s stupid. If I were running for office, I would be poaching ideas from everywhere. That’s how art works. You steal from everything. I must remember to tweet that I’m in fact not running for office.
(click here to continue reading In Conversation: Steven Soderbergh — Vulture.)