Hollywood Flashback: Berlin Got Caught in Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic' in 2001

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Steven Soderbergh at the Berlinale in 2001

Based on a 1989 British television miniseries, the film offered a multiperspective, ultrarealistic glimpse of the international drug trade that would be mimicked in such TV series as 'Narcos' and films like 'Sicario.'

The world has largely forgotten about Intimacy, but Steven Soderbergh probably hasn’t. The 2001 film, which starred Mark Rylance (who then had hair), beat out Soderbergh’s 147-minute crime epic Traffic for the Silver Bear that year. In hindsight, it’s Traffic that probably should have won.

Based on a 1989 British television miniseries, Soderbergh’s film offered a multiperspective, ultrarealistic glimpse of the international drug trade — establishing a style that would be mimicked in such TV series as Narcos and films like Sicario. Benicio Del Toro, who starred in Traffic (playing a Mexican cop), as well as Sicario and the upcoming Sicario 2: Soldado (playing a former cartel assassin), is to the genre what Clint Eastwood was to spaghetti Westerns: its squinting, cold-blooded antihero.

Twentieth Century Fox originally had planned to bankroll the film, but executives demanded numerous changes to Stephen Gaghan’s script and insisted that Harrison Ford be cast in a major role. Soderbergh balked and shopped the project to other major studios, all of which passed.

Ultimately, the project went to USA Films, later to be known as Focus Features. Perhaps Traffic’s rocky road to the screen is what led Soderbergh to predict at a Berlinale press conference that Hollywood studios would become drastically less influential by the decade’s end. “I think the studio system is going to slowly drift away,” Soderbergh told reporters then. “It will end up with people just using the studio as a distribution apparatus, rather than a development and production center.”

While Soderbergh’s forecast did not quite pan out — pricey superhero epics were not yet the norm in 2001 — his adherence to his artistic vision did. The helmer is back in Berlin this year with the antithesis of a studio film: Unsane, a low-budget psychological thriller starring Claire Foy and Juno Temple that was shot entirely on an iPhone.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 18 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.