Slamdance: Steven Soderbergh Talks Filming 'High Flying Bird' With an iPhone

Steven Soderbergh - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Steven Soderbergh - Getty - H 2016

Joined by Slamdance co-founder Peter Baxter, the Founders Award recipient looks back at his experiences at Park City's other film festival.

This year, Slamdance — the other film festival in Park City — celebrates its 25th anniversary. To discuss the event, its co-founder Peter Baxter was joined by director Steven Soderbergh, who has a long history with the fest that is presenting him with its Founders Award this year. Soderbergh is also unveiling two new projects to Slamdance — his sports drama High Flying Bird, which debuts Feb. 8 on Netflix, and Brian Welsh’s Beats, which he executive produced. (He also served as a producer on Scott Z. Burns’ The Report, which is screening at the neighboring Sundance Film Festival). Soderbergh spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his experiences at Slamdance, filming a movie with an iPhone, bringing a film to Netflix and his next project, The Laundromat, which stars Gary Oldman and Meryl Streep.

As Slamdance turns 25 this year, it is bestowing its Founders Award on Steven Soderbergh. Peter, give us some background on Steven’s involvement with the festival.

PETER BAXTER: Steven has a very long history with Slamdance. He produced Greg Mottola’s first feature The Daytrippers, which won our first Grand Jury prize in 1996. Then the following year, he premiered Schizopolis at Slamdance, and that’s where he saw the Russo Brothers’ Pieces. He approached them after their screening and offered to produce their next film [Welcome to Collinwood], and around that same time he also supported Chris Nolan [whose Following played at Slamdance in 1999] in Insomnia, putting his name forward as the director. Then a few years later we showed his first documentary, And Everything Is Going Fine, his ode to Spalding Gray. Steven’s presence continues with the world premiere of High Flying Bird, and he’s also executive produced the North American premiere of Beats, Brian Welsh’s new film. Steven’s helped our organization really grow through recognizing talent and launching careers. He not only serves as a reminder about what we as filmmakers strive for, but he shows time and time again how to do it yourself, on your own terms. We were just emerging as a festival on the fringes of Sundance and Hollywood, and here was the director that Roger Ebert called ‘the poster boy of the Sundance generation’ [Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape won the Audience Award at Sundance in 1989] offering his support. [Steven gave us this advice:] "Don’t ask for permission." Those words meant a lot to us. And no matter how quickly he became a force in entertainment, he never really lost the independent spirit that defined Slamdance. So for every one of his Ocean’s, he made a Schizopolis, or a The Girlfriend Experience. He’s remained a committed DIY-er, long after most directors would have moved on. Steven, now you’ve edited, what, 23 of your own features?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: That’s possible. 

BAXTER: And your new film High Flying Bird is shot entirely on an iPhone.

Tell us about your first Slamdance experience, Steven.

SODERBERGH: We had a fantastic screening with The Daytrippers precisely because we were having technical difficulties of a kind that increased the drama of the screening, and the audience became engaged in this meta narrative of how to show this film. It was really fun and exciting, and a classic example of indie know-how and refusal to put up with an obstacle. There were projector issues: We could only show one 20-minute reel at a time, and that’s not an ideal way to see a movie unless the audience is fully aware because they’ve been two feet away from you, and you can’t get the projectors to work, and so they are kind of rooting you on to get the show on the road. When the reel ends, there’s an "Oh, no," and applause, the lights go up and everybody’s talking, and you get the next reel put on, the lights on go down and they start clapping again. It was like a revival meeting. There ended up being an energy that was absolutely attributable to this technical problem. If that had happened at a studio premiere, it would have gone down in everybody’s book as, "That was the worst night of my life." After that, the movie was invited to Cannes, got sold all over world, and was profitable here in the U.S. when those things were not a guarantee. And it immediately established Greg as a writer-director who people should be giving money to. You couldn’t ask for a better launch, as it turns out. And it was proof of concept: It had to be reckoned with, that Daytrippers world premiered at Slamdance and went on to be a very successful indie title by any metric.

What does it mean to you to be coming back to Slamdance in its 25th year?

SODERBERGH: I’m very glad they are still going strong. These things are very difficult to pull off. Motives for continuing to do it are the pleasures of providing a platform for new talent. I get as excited as anyone when I see new talent emerging. So given the fact that it would appear this thing kind of just pops up in January, I know how hard Peter and his team have to work year-round to keep it afloat. I do it as a very necessary component in a larger movement to support independent filmmaking. It reminds me very much of when I was going to high school, I hooked up with these college film students on the LSU campus. I would walk from my high school to this building called Coates Hall, and for four years every day I would hang out with these film students. That vibe was very reminiscent to me of the Slamdance vibe when I first got exposed to it. It felt very familiar and very collegial. There was a structure, but it was fluid. They have retained that kind of enthusiasm, what I would call, not pejoratively, the enthusiasm of the amateur. Meaning that you’ve never lost sight of that initial passion that got you into it. It think that’s an incredible achievement to maintain over a quarter of a century. There are people who can’t even sustain successful well-paid careers for that period of time.  

How did High Flying Bird — which you directed and which is world premiering at Slamdance on Sunday — come about?

SODERBERGH: It grew out of a series of conversations I was having with André Holland during season one of The Knick. The economics of sports became one of the things that we talked about. We were both excited about the idea of a project that basically gave you a look behind the kimono of how these large-scale sports leagues function, and to ask the question how we all feel about the commoditization of athletes. We were kind of kicking that around and we said let’s think about a what-if scenario and let’s keep the time-frame fairly compressed. We talked about Sweet Smell of Success a lot, because I wanted to use that as kind of a template. And we decided that the NBA and to imagine what a contemporary version of what a lock-out would look like was very fertile ground. And he suggested we bring [writer] Tarell Alvin McCraney into the conversation. And this was years ago, I think, when Moonlight was being shot, when we all started talking about this. And Tarell said, "I like it," and just started working on it. I think it took him two years to write. When it came in, it was done, he had a very, very clear idea of how it should be done. We did an afternoon’s worth of polishing in New York just before we started shooting. It’s almost exactly what he wrote. 

What I loved about the movie and me coming back with this movie this year, I built my name on two people talking in a room. And I still believe in the power of something seemingly so small as two people talking in a room. I still think that is how everything begins. You can look at the largest global narrative that you can find, and you can trace it back at some point to two people in a room. So that stuff doesn’t scare me, when I read a script that has a lot of people talking in it. And when it’s Tarell who is writing the words, then I’m not just unafraid, I’m super excited. It’s so lively and so fun for the actors to perform. It literally just grew out of chats that André and I were having because I knew he wasn’t just somebody who was sitting around waiting for someone to ring him up with an acting gig. I knew he was interested in other stuff and had aspirations to produce so that is how the conversations started. 

When was High Flying Bird shot and tell us about shooting it all on an iPhone?

SODERBERGH: It was shot in February and March of 2018, in three weeks. It’s a very small crew and the gear that’s available to enhance this already pretty extraordinary capture-device made it even better. So, if I had to do it in a more traditional way, it would have actually hurt the film. I was able to do things because of the ease of shooting something. You can basically shoot anything you can think of, you can put the lens anywhere you want. If I were in a more traditional mode, there were things that I wouldn’t have been able to execute as well as I’d wanted, because of the size of the equipment and people necessary to move it around. It’s hard not to think, when I was 15 years old, what I would be doing with this stuff. I was back in a world of scraping up a few bucks for Super 8 footage, you shoot a little bit, and you have to send it away and wait for weeks for it to come back, and maybe it would look good or maybe it didn’t. The opportunity costs were high if you wanted to do something that looked good; now they are not. You still need to know how to stage something, but it’s a pretty incredible tool. 

How did Netflix become involved with High Flying Bird?

SODERBERGH: I’d been in conversations with Netflix during Unsane [also shot on an iPhone], and when I ended up going in a different way, I said, "Look, I have this other thing, I will make sure you get eyes on it early." When it was basically finished, I brought it to them and they said, "Great, we’d like to buy it." It felt like, the kind of film it is, the best way to maximize eyeballs. It’s got a better shot at finding all the people who will like it. Otherwise, it’s a slow-rolling platform release, which are expensive and you’re bound by where the big art house theaters are. You can’t just go anywhere. I just felt I’d rather have it drop and have everybody be able to see it. There are a lot of philosophical debates going on about all of this [distribution] stuff. The bottom line is: You are never going to settle on a universal field theory of how this should or shouldn’t work because every movie is different. As soon as you think, I’ve got that algorithm, you’ll run into a movie that will blow it up. Every movie needs to be addressed individually. They’re not automobiles.

With Logan Lucky and Unsane, you’d started a distribution company, Fingerprint Releasing, to see if you could go wide with a film in a new way. How did that go?

SODERBERGH: It didn’t work. I was hoping to create a scenario in which you could put a movie into wide release with a significantly smaller amount of resources than is typical for, let’s say, a studio release. That’s not true. You need all the money that they are spending. Part of the reason I wanted to prove that wrong is because if that’s true, the implications of it on the creative community are significant. But that’s just the way the world is right now. I tried it twice; I mixed up the way in which the marketing resources were spent [on Logan Lucky and Unsane]. But the amount of money you need to create awareness for something that is going to go out on 2,500 or 3,000 screens is just signify higher than I hoped, and much more than we had. It was merely an attempt to open up another lane. The whole point was to do what studios were doing, but for less. It just didn’t work. 

You are also a producer on The Report, which is playing at Sundance and directed by your frequent collaborator, Scott Z. Burns. Tell us about it.

SODERBERGH: It’s a movie that asks the questions, What are we about as a country? Because there are a lot of options out there for people, but this movie really gets to the heart of us having to declare what country we are publicly. You would think that wouldn’t be difficult, but as it turns out it really is.

How did you get involved?

SODERBERGH: It’s been one of those things that Scott had been working on for a long time, and we would talk about it continually and I was fascinated by the story and also fascinated to see what Scott’s approach would be. It got to the point when he was preparing to take it out to get it financed, and he said, "Well, I really wish you would become formally involved because you have been involved." And knowing that my relationship with Scott was that, yeah, I was gonna stay intimately involved because I want to support him, I said, "Sure." Sometimes people approach me to produce things and I have to say no, because, understanding the obligations in my mind that go with that job, I don’t have the time. So this was something that I didn’t have to think about. It was clear, I really wanted to be a part of it. 

On a film like this, what is the predominant role you play as a producer?

SODERBERGH: I’m there to facilitate what he wants to see and what he needs to accomplish that. So yeah, first it starts with, "Where are we going to get the money?" In this case, it ended up getting financed by Vice, and that turned out to be a connection that Scott had. And they came on board and did the whole thing, which was unusual for them and great for us. Then it’s the same kind of creative conversations he and I have when we work together, except the dynamic is inverted, and he is the decider. 

How comfortable is it to be in that space where the roles are flipped?

SODERBERGH: It’s great. It’s nice not to be the person on whom the entire prospect is weighted. I’m sure every director would tell you there’s been a time when they’ve looked across the set to some P.A. doing lockup on a corner and thinking, "Wow, I wish I had that job instead of this one, in this moment." I was vice president of the Directors Guild for, I think, nine years; I loved being the vice president. I really did. People kept saying, "Aren’t you gonna run [for president]?" and I said, "Nope, this is perfect." I’m in the middle of all the conversations of what’s happening and I can voice an opinion and support the cause, but at the end of the day, I don’t have to be the face and the voice of this whole thing. I love that. 

Tell us about your next film as a director, The Laundromat, with Gary Oldman and Meryl Streep.

SODERBERGH: It’s another Scott Z. Burns screenplay. It’s hopefully a kaleidoscopic take on the Panama Papers story that’s typical for Scott. It’s not an approach that most people will be expecting. But I’m really happy with it. It was shot in October-November of 2018 and we are cutting now. We deliver to Netflix in the first week of April and they will decide what to do with it. 

So now you’re directing a couple of projects a year, but after 2013’s Behind the Candelabra, you said you were retiring from directing and would take up painting.

SODERBERGH: I did. For two months I was retired and I was taking painting lessons. I had nothing in front of me, but then somebody gave me the script for The Knick. That’s my fault. I read something really extraordinary and you gotta follow that. I now do a little of both, film and series, including another branching-narrative project. I learned a lot making [HBO branching-narrative series] Mosaic and I’d like to apply some of that knowledge. Can’t say anything about it yet. We’re negotiating with someone. I don’t have a deal anywhere, I still live in the a la carte world. 

What’s your advice for emerging filmmakers today as technology on every front is changing faster than ever, and deals at festivals may not emerge in the way you hope?

SODERBERGH: For anybody showing their movie [in Park City], you really have won. This is an extremely competitive environment. There are a lot of people making films and to have this public platform is a really big deal, and they should really enjoy that. [When I spoke to the 2019 Slamdance filmmakers before the festival], I wanted to make sure they didn’t martyr themselves out of having a good time. Especially meeting and spending time with other filmmakers, because you need the community to advance. I wanted to make sure that none of them walked away with any kind of frustration if they didn’t have the fantasies that I had the first time I went to a festival. You can’t define your success that way. It’s hard for them with the technology that’s advancing so quickly. It’s easier than ever to make something, but it’s harder than ever to get eyeballs on it. They’re coming up in a tough time. My whole goal, and the goal of the people that I was coming up with, was to try and infiltrate the studio system to an extent that our opportunities expanded. I felt like Gus Van Sant should be making movies that open in 2,500 theaters — why shouldn’t he? For a while, there was a period that that was true. That seems to have shifted back into a place where, if the young independent filmmaker is going to go into the studio system, the paths are becoming fewer and they are tending to lead toward these tentpoles. It’s a much different landscape than the one I grew up in and I guess that’s inevitable. I have a low-level version of the same issue, the question: Which lane should I be driving in?

BAXTER: To add to that, when Slamdance began, we had no idea if we would make it through our first year. The Park City Chief of Police told me, "Your days are numbered." We went from that first year of wanting to create a festival for filmmakers like us. We can say now that Slamdance has helped launch many filmmakers who have gone on to change the face of entertainment and have generated billions of dollars. But, more valuable than discovery and dollars, is the artist-led community that we’ve created over time. Where we help each other build sustainable careers. And we did this on our own terms, and Steven has been a very big contributor towards that. But the entertainment industry generally doesn’t always invest in developing new talent over a longer period of time, and that is something that Slamdance really wanted to get involved in year-round, not just at the festival. We continue on to make connections and introductions that have helped to develop filmmakers’ projects in some way, to connect them to alumni who can make a difference. The industry likes to have this low-hanging fruit that they can pick and work with right away. It doesn’t work like that. And Steven has shown, even at times when perhaps you’ve been at a crossroads with Schizopolis, you still had the energy and the passion to support filmmakers like Greg Mottola and Joe and Anthony Russo. It’s in your DNA. But it’s not common, and I think that is one of the reasons why Slamdance has actually survived. There are not that many organizations that do this continually as an artist-led community. 

What made you want to pay it forward?

SODERBERGH: I began my exploration of filmmaking surrounded by people who had a very, in retrospect, progressive and well-developed ethos about how you behave and how you behave toward other people. And the pleasures of having a gang that could also be a community, because, unless you’re a painter or a novelist, you are in a very collaborative art form and so these relationships are crucial in order to learn and be connected to other ideas and other people who can pull you forward. So it’s always been a part of my desire to keep this artist-led community afloat, to reach out to people when I feel like there’s talent that only needs an opportunity. The thing that came out of being at Sundance with sex, lies and having that experience, in my mind that means more opportunities and that I can get in the room. And sometimes you see people who are ready to make something really substantial and they just can’t get in the room. The only thing I did on Insomnia was to convince the studio to take the meeting [with Christopher Nolan]. They didn’t want to take the meeting. I said, "You have to take this meeting." I knew once Chris got into the room, he wasn’t going to need anything from me after that. So, it’s fun to help.

What do you think is the enduring appeal of Slamdance? 

SODERBERGH: I like the size of it, it’s retained its feeling of intimacy. Sometimes you wanna go see someone perform in a 20,000-seat arena, and you think, "Wow, it would be great to see them in a club with 400 people." Both of those things are pleasurable. I feel like that’s the best way to describe it. There is an intimacy to Slamdance, because it’s exactly the size it needs to be. It’s like a cell that has figured out, "I want to be just the right size." At a certain point, things grow and become dysfunctional, because, unlike a cell, they are not able to divide, and turn into two new things. That’s not the way most situations play out. It speaks to the core desire of the Slamdance team’s mandate, which is to provide a platform for these diverse voices. If you make that the priority, it’s axiomatic that continual expansion is not necessarily in sync with that.