Steven Soderbergh on Refining His 'Logan Lucky' Experiment, Quieting the Ego

Steven Soderbergh - Getty - H 2016
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Steven Soderbergh - Getty - H 2016

The Oscar-winning director, at the Tokyo International Film Festival for a 'World of Steven Soderbergh' showcase, also talks about creativity in uncertain times.

After attempting to disrupt the Hollywood distribution system with caper movie Logan Lucky, director Steven Soderbergh continues to push the envelope.

The interactive app-cum-TV series Mosaic has just hit smartphones, while his recently completed horror film Unsane, shot on an iPhone, will be released using the same distribution model as Logan Lucky.

The just-ended Tokyo International Film Festival put the spotlight on the director who continues to defy convention and categorization with a "World of Steven Soderbergh" showcase featuring Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Ocean's Eleven; Haywire; and Logan Lucky. 

Soderbergh in Tokyo spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his unfinished distribution experiment, being in awe of George Miller, listening to "what the thing wants to be" and creativity in a time of political upheaval.

Logan Lucky is a caper movie, and those should be fun. It looks like people were enjoying themselves ... 
The danger of that is if the result isn't as fun for the audience as it is for the people making it. But I wasn't really worried about that. The Ocean's movies were a good example of projects that I really enjoyed, but in terms of the actual shooting weren't really fun for me. They're fun for the cast because nobody has to really shoulder the movie, they come in and out, the material is very light. But because of the way I work, I'm visually building them on the fly as we go through them, and that's very stress-inducing. Now some people would probably solve that by storyboarding or something rational, but I just don't like to work that way. I want to get on set and build it right there. It's not a simple thing to make a complex thing look breezy. You don't want the audience to feel you were sweating, but the fact is I was sweating.

This was obviously something of an inversion of those films, which is what appealed to me. I came up with a different set of rules for myself in terms of the visual grammar of the movie. The zoom lens in the first three Ocean's movies was almost a character. I decided very early on that I needed to drastically simplify my toolkit and create movement through composition, cutting patterns, blocking. It didn't seem appropriate for the characters or the environment to get what I call "schmancy." I like having parameters that I have to work within. The movie really benefited, in terms of the production, from me having done two seasons of The Knick. There were fewer sequences that scared me in Logan Lucky than there were in The Knick.

You never storyboard?
No. The ability to stage well is a skill and a talent that I value above almost everything else. And I say that because there are people who do it better than I'll ever be able to do it after 40 years of active study. I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road again last week, and I tell you I couldn't direct 30 seconds of that. I'd put a gun in my mouth. I don't understand how [George Miller] does that, I really don't, and it's my job to understand it. I don't understand two things: I don't understand how they're not still shooting that film and I don't understand how hundreds of people aren't dead.

I could almost see that's kind of possible until the polecat sequence, and then I give up. We are talking about the ability in three dimensions to break a sequence into a series of shots in which no matter how fast you're cutting, you know where you are geographically. And each one is a real shot where a lot of things had to go right. I'm going to keep trying; I'm not going to keep trying in the sense that I'm going to volunteer to direct the next Mad Max movie. I'm going to keep trying in the sense that when I have sequences that demand a certain level of sophistication in terms of their visual staging, I'm going to try and watch the people who do it really well and see if I can climb inside their heads enough to think like that.

But he's off the chart. I guarantee that the handful of people who are even in range of that, when they saw Fury Road, had blood squirting out of their eyes. The thing with George Miller, it's not just that, he does everything really well. The scripts are great, the performances are great, the ideas are great. He's exceptional. I met him once for about 30 seconds at the Directors Guild Awards in Los Angeles the year of Fury Road. But you don't want to say that stuff to somebody's face; it's embarrassing.

Do things like that drive you?
Absolutely. Watching it again last week, there are four little things that I suddenly picked up the math on. This shot went to that and to that and I picked up the math of what on a real visual level what connected those sequences of shots. With the understanding that this is figuring out four more decimals of pi, I'm never getting to the end of this. So I'll watch that and I'll watch some Fincher stuff, some Spielberg stuff, some Cameron stuff, and John McTiernan has shot some stuff that is very impressive. I'm just talking about physical staging of sequences, in which there are multiple elements moving very fast.

I wasn't born with it, so I have to do these workout sessions. I envy it. Look, even at a young age I thought about what I did have that was inherent in me that I could compete with, so I focused on those things and I continue to do so. Through having made 29 films, 40 hours of television, I feel confident enough to sit in a room with a writer, or writers, with a blank eraser board and lay out a narrative, and speak coherently about how it should be structured, what the character dynamics are. I feel confident about listening to what this thing wants to be. Obviously I love editing and feel confident in my ability in the editing room to tease out what the thing wants to be. It's a strange line you have to walk between confidence – which is a good thing, you need confidence in order to lead people – and ego.

Ego is what keeps you from hearing what the thing wants to be. The thing has to be above all of us, we are all submitting to what the thing wants to be. It tells you what it wants to be, if you're paying attention. What happens is, if you do that, you'll have ideas that don't work, that the thing spits out, but eventually the ratio of things that work begins to increase, because you begin to get a sense of the algorithm of what it wants.

You're saying that finding that balance between ego and confidence allows you to hear?
Yeah. I talk about that on the occasions that I speak to a film class. I'll use examples, talk about directing, try to break the process down as best I can, with the understanding that I can describe a process and a method, but I can't turn anyone into an artist. Then I spend the last quarter of the talk discussing character and the fact that you as a director are in a position of considerable power and that there's a responsibility that comes with that. And that people tell stories; that's what we do. You really need to think about what kind of stories people will tell about you. The difference between a good story and a bad story can be the difference between you getting a job and not getting a job. And I've had that experience. And there's no class for that, there is nobody to teach you about that. And we're seeing it play out in the movie business right now.

It's the best job in the world, but I also respect it enough to know there is no conclusion to it, other than the ultimate one. There is no formula that works beyond the moment that you solve a problem. I have a very allergic reaction to hearing people talk in terms of having figured something out. That just doesn’t seem lifelike to me, there is always another question. I read, as a hobby, about what we know of the physical construction of the universe. And it's very clear that every time we learn something the mystery gets deeper and deeper. But what do you do? You just keep trying to figure it out.

Or you can go the other way and decide the earth is flat ...
That's another shocking thing to come to terms with. There are a lot of people who want freedom from choice not freedom of choice. If you're a certain kind of thinker, you assume everybody wants freedom of choice, how could you not? It's a sobering experience to actually be out in the world and realize not everyone wants that. Especially now as the world feels like it's getting increasingly complex, there are a lot of people who just want to be told what to think. And I get it, I do get it.

There's been a lot of talk about the distribution model you've tried for Logan Lucky, and you described it as an experiment. What do you think are the results so far?
Well, it worked in the sense that we were in profit as soon as someone bought a ticket. And we're going to be sending sizeable checks out to the cast and crew that had backend on Logan Lucky in the U.S. Was I frustrated by the result in the U.S.? Absolutely. I'm still trying to unpack why it didn't perform better theatrically, and I don't have all the answers yet because the experiment is not quite over.

But the bottom line is we'll end up doing $28 million, and 46 percent of that goes into the pool. That was the beauty of the model. The other beauty is we're the bank, the money comes to us and we dispense the money, there is nobody else between the theater and us. I'm going to keep refining this and keep doing it. The film I just finished is going to go out through this same model. I'm going to use some of the information I got through Logan Lucky and recalibrate some of the marketing spend and just keep going. It makes too much sense if you're a certain kind of filmmaker.

The film you just finished is Unsane. You were talking about getting that done in 10 days, was that possible?
It was a short schedule.

Not 10 days?
It was a very aggressive, short schedule. But, boy, Claire Foy, I really like her a lot. She's got all the tools. She's going to confront the same issue that all female actors confront, which is can she keep finding great parts. It's getting a little better, at least in the States, but the fact is that most movies are written for men, and most of the really good parts are written for men. But she's smart, she'll figure it out.

However long it was, you said it was a very aggressive shoot. Was that just to challenge yourself, or was it budgetary constraints as well?
A little of both. We didn't have a lot of money, and like I said, I like that challenge. It was a contained enough piece to not be hurt by that. If I thought I was hurting it by moving that quickly, I would have said I need more time. You've got to have that little pocket of fear to keep you alert. Looking at the schedule going in, I was thinking we've done The Knick and Mosaic, which was also an incredibly aggressive schedule. But even after both of those projects I thought we were pushing it. But when you have people like Claire, Josh Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Aimee Mullins, you know at least you're never going to be waiting on them, they're going to show up letter-perfect, A-game. That's a must. There was no margin for error, none, and everybody delivered.

You've produced a series for Netflix, would you consider doing a film for them?
If it was the right thing, sure. I think you need to have a really frank conversation with yourself about, if we're talking about a movie, who's the audience for this? And not be delusional and have some fantasy about oh it's going to be discovered and it's going to blow up. I just don't know that happens anymore, although Get Out obviously turned into a phenomenon. Given the cost and time it takes to put a movie out in theaters around the world, I would seriously just look at the movie and say: hypothetically, I've got a $2 million movie with questionable appeal in the U.S. and probably very little appeal overseas, theatrically I'm talking. And Netflix is going to give me $14 million; there's no theatrical version of that movie, in which your upside is going to be 12 million bucks.

On the other hand, Unsane I was leaning toward that model with, but when we came out the other side I decided I wanted to go out theatrically. I'm agnostic in terms of platforms. I think we have to acknowledge that why people go to the movies has changed. And the very real fact that when I was growing up there was a big difference between watching on TV and going to the movies, because the TV was really shitty. That's not the case anymore. I was watching Mindhunter the other night in 4K, HDR on a pretty large Sony monitor … it's stunning. So you're asking people to leave what in some cases is a mini-theater to go to another theater, where you might have an experience that you find not satisfying, and not cheap. I'm not a romantic when it comes to that stuff, story is story.

Jumping back to Logan Lucky, that was your first film in four years. What drew you back?
If it hadn't been for that script we wouldn't be sitting here. I was out, everything I had in development was in television, I was very happy, I am very happy, in television. I'd been having conversations with friends in distribution just about the state of the business, the state of the technology, in distribution theatrically. And I saw some daylight in a couple of areas, and those conversations coincided with getting this script. It wasn't that I cared if people were going to complain that I rolled back on what I'd said. When the script came in, I realized I didn't want to go see the result of someone else making this movie. I never would have started up again with something that wasn't fun.

I think you can see since Che that everything I've done pretty much has been a genre film of one kind of another. My appetite for serious drama has pretty much disappeared; not as a filmgoer, just as a filmmaker. I want to take advantage of the fact that genre is such an efficient delivery system for nearly any idea that you can come up with. That's a realization that's come to me kind of late. I guess I've just never articulated it before because I've made a lot of genre films; I just didn't realize why I'd been gravitating toward them. Everybody gets what they want: I get to have fun, the audience gets to have fun, and I still get to explore these ideas I'm really interested in.

Times of political and social upheaval are often said to be good times for creativity. With what's happening in the States now, do you think this will be such a time?
I find it all fascinating, and we're in the middle of it. I don't know where we're going, but I'm trying to pay close attention and learn what I can from it. I'm not someone who gets pleasure from events confirming what I already believe. I like having a deeply held belief shaken, and sometimes destroyed, by real events that are happening in the real world, where the people involved don't care what I think.

I'm always concerned in the sense that I wish we were all doing a better job of this. I'm also prepared to acknowledge that what we're experiencing now may be necessary in ways we don't understand today. Maybe that's just the artist's excuse, or it can be a default mode to observe more than to participate for a certain kind of creative person. If that's true it's only because I feel that the judgments made in the middle of something are amygdala-driven. How many times in your life has something happened in which what it meant in the moment turned out to be what it meant for the rest of your life? Sometimes you have to be somewhat willing to say, "I'm not sure what's going on right now and what it means." It really comes down to whether you're willing to accept deep uncertainty, and I guess I am because my reading about the physical construction of the universe deals with uncertainty on a very deep level, and I'm not alarmed by it … it doesn't threaten me. But I think that's because I was lucky enough to be raised by two parents for whom that was also the case, and who didn't feel the need to mold me in their image. And that's different from what I see around me in the new mode of parenting where the child is the center of the universe.

That's not how I was raised, I was one of six. It was clear that there was such a thing as a child and there was such a thing as an adult. And that was OK, that was kind of the point, because when you were a child you looked forward to the day when you got to be an adult. And so there was nothing wrong with being told, no, you're a kid and kids don't get to do X or make these kinds of decisions or be present for those kind of events. So you looked forward to being an adult when you got to do what you want to do.

This new mode of never saying no to a kid is a recipe for a very unhappy adult who finds themselves in a world where a lot of people say no, and you've got no equipment to deal with it. As I say that, I'm also the custodian of two animals that weigh between eight and 12 pounds that run my life. So I'm a hypocrite.

Can I inquire as to the species?
Cats, you probably could have called that. But no shrink bills for them, no college tuition, no tell-all, so it's a pretty good trade-off.