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Cannes: Steven Soderbergh on 'Behind the Candelabra's' Marriage Equality Message (Q&A)

Steven Soderbergh Venice - H 2011
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The director -- who is taking a sabbatical from feature films -- talks to THR about the HBO film, and how some might be shocked to see "Jason Bourne on top of Gordon Gekko."

Call it a sabbatical, not a 
retirement. Cinephiles have been bracing for Steven Soderbergh’s exit from filmmaking ever since he began talking in 2009 about retiring from creating movies. 
The 50-year-old director, who won the Palme d’Or with his first film, 1989’s sex, lies, and
 videotape, is taking an indefinite break from the big screen. (He instead will be focusing on episodic TV.) But he’s not ruling out more movies in the future. Before heading to Cannes, Soderbergh spoke with The Hollywood Reporter at his soon-to-be-vacated office
in New York’s Flatiron district about the 
studios’ uninspired marketing campaigns, 
how he discovered a way into his new movie about master showman Liberace and how that film plays into the debate about marriage equality.

The Hollywood Reporter: So, are you really retiring?

Steven Soderbergh: I’m sort of taking time off and just trying 
to determine whether I can come at movies from a different direction. That’s something 
I think I can’t really explore while undertaking another movie. I think I can explore
that philosophically and contextually while making some television. I think I need to
take an extended sabbatical from movies while I think about that.

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THR: What kind of television will you tackle?

Soderbergh: I’ve got a couple things that I’m circling that I probably will land soon. The good news is that there are a lot of options, a lot of channels, a lot of outlets, a lot of models. This is a really good time to go make some interesting TV. The issue for me is going to be my completionist streak. I would want to do all of a first season.

THR: How did Behind the Candelabra come about? 
Did Michael Douglas break into a Liberace impression while filming Traffic?

Soderbergh: Well, that’s the first time I discussed the idea with him, and he did do a little impression, which I thought was excellent. I’d done some research on [Liberace] but wasn’t really happy with my ideas for how to do it. It took me six or seven years before a writer friend in New York, said, “Oh you don’t know about the book?” And I said, “Which book?” And he said this guy [Scott Thorson] wrote a book that I’d never heard of. So I got a copy of that. And then I found my way in. We were essentially following Scott. That sort of solved my problem of how to do Lee’s [Liberace’s nickname] life, which was basically using Scott as the Trojan horse to get into the problem about Lee. It gave me a definitive time period, and it gave me a structure because of the arc of the relationship. That was in 2007. Jerry [Weintraub] got the book. We hired Richard [LaGravenese, to write the screenplay]. 
It was developed originally at Warners, but they didn’t want to do it.

THR: At that point you took it to HBO?

Soderbergh: It was just happenstance that Jerry was finishing that documentary about himself, and he got into a conversation with HBO about this. They said, “This looks like a deal that’s gonna go. We’ll get back to you in a day.” They fully financed it. $22.8 million.

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THR: How much contact did you have with Scott Thorson?

Soderbergh: Jerry talked to him. Just a couple conversations to deal with sorting the rights out. When you’re telling a true story, there’s certain cases in which you really want people involved and certain cases where you feel like, “I don’t know that that’s going to help.” We had the book. I did talk to some people that worked with Lee, and that was helpful, mostly to ask them their impressions of Scott to see if they lined up to the impression that he gave of himself in the book or not. But in the same way that I didn’t want Matt [Damon meeting with the real] Mark Whitacre of The Informant!, I didn’t want him being pulled by who Scott Thorson is now, 30 years later. I wanted him to be able to feel free to interpret it as he could.

THR: What was it about 
Liberace that intrigued you?

Soderbergh: For the life of me I don’t know why I was standing on the set of Traffic in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I looked over at Michael and asked him if he would ever consider playing Liberace. I really don’t know where this came from. I’m old enough to have seen him on TV at my parents’ place, and found him very entertaining. I was kind of intrigued by the incredible technical skill being masked by this flamboyant persona. Underneath this performer who was all about entertaining his audience and giving them a good time was actually a concert-level skilled keyboardist. It’s kind of like if LeBron James decided to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. There really wasn’t anybody like him. And there are a lot of people now that owe him a real debt because of how he presented himself. This guy invented bling. He loved performing.

THR: How did Matt Damon get involved?

Soderbergh: He was in Spain doing his cameo in Che, and I gave him the book. I can only imagine what was going through his mind five years later before we started shooting. But Matt doesn’t have anything to protect. That’s not how he makes his decisions. He makes his decisions based on whether he’s engaged by the piece or not. If it turns out to be something that’s really gonna push him as a performer, even better. And Michael, he was just fearless. They both are. The movie just doesn’t work if they don’t both literally join hands and jump off the cliff. It’s intimate stuff, even if it was a guy and a girl. But for a lot of people it’ll be hard to see Jason Bourne on top of Gordon Gekko.

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THR: Do you see the film as making a statement 
about marriage equality?

Soderbergh: There’s certainly an undertow to the movie that comes from the knowledge that they could be married today, like Elton John.

THR: You recently talked about what is wrong with the film industry at the San Francisco Film Festival.

Soderbergh: I felt that I earned the right to weigh in
 on a process that I think can be improved because as a filmmaker, from the minute that you propose an idea until after the film has  come out, all anyone does to you is ask you, “Can it be better than this? What are you doing? What if you did this? What if you did that?” Also, every studio movie poster looks the same. If you look at the campaigns in the ’70s that were really striking, they were done by ad agencies, they weren’t done by the studios. If I ran a studio right now, instead of spending $30 million on P&A, I’d take $10 million and go to the best ad agency on the planet and say you’ve got $10 million. Do something provocative. Do something distinctive.