If you were to turn the clock back 11 years, chances are Steven Soderbergh wouldn’t be able to take your calls. This time in 2001, after a sophomore slump that comprised most of the 1990s, the filmmaker was swimming in buzz over Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and was about to become the first director in six decades to be Oscar-nominated twice in the same year (his predecessor was Michael Curtiz, who helmed Angels with Dirty Faces and Four Daughters in 1938). These days, however, Soderbergh is only tangentially linked to the biggest and baitiest films. Following a reported studio spat, he was fired as director of Moneyball, a film he hasn’t yet seen. As an executive producer, he helped get Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin off the ground, but he tosses off the association as one of minimal involvement. His second-unit contribution to the upcoming Hunger Games film caused a stir across the web, but again, he downplays the gig as a contained, specific favor for friend Gary Ross. And as for War Horse, let’s just say that, for reasons explained herein, that’s one project he consciously avoided.
No longer very keen on courting Oscar, Soderbergh has turned to genre films that get the blood pumping, like last year’s epidemic globetrotter Contagion and this month’s Haywire, an ass-kicking actioner starring women’s MMA sensation Gina Carano. Regardless of whether or not his output is always successful (some recent works have only whiffs of former glory), one has to admire the man’s penchant for diversity and willingness to experiment. He says himself that he came up in a film climate much different than the one today, which allowed him to learn and fail but keep plugging away nonetheless. The struggle, a gift in retrospect, seems to have instilled a sense of professional adventure, which has resulted in a film like Ocean’s Twelve being released the same year as Equilibrium, his contribution to the auteur triptych Eros. Ironically, though, he says that sense of adventure is nearly spent, and the whooshing films he’s currently cranking out are doubling as winds to usher him out the door to retirement. At a hotel in SoHo, Soderbergh divulged details of his plan to leave the biz, along with tidbits about books, records, focus groups, male strippers, horses, and cereal.
Mallory Kane, the Gina Carano character in Haywire, usually ends up dominating the film’s fight scenes; however, I’m having a hard time remembering when I last saw a woman get hit so hard and beat up so fiercely by men. Were you trying to break some new ground there? And also, what would you say to someone who finds the movie misogynistic, or even a little fetishistic?
I would say I don’t know what you’re talking about. [hollow laugh] To me, the point was to, in essence, de-genderize her, and to not be patronizing by treating her any differently than I would a male character. That was my attitude: Don’t do anything with her that you wouldn’t do with a guy. It would be insulting, in fact, to tell the guys, like, “Don’t hit her in the face, because she’s a woman.” That’s not the world we’re in. Now, I asked Michael Fassbender when I sent him the script, “Are you going to have a problem hitting a woman in the face as hard as you can?” Because he’s got to be that guy and appear that he’s really hitting her. And he laughed and said, “I don’t think so.” And Channing Tatum too. You know, I felt like it was time. And I like that she takes it and then she dishes it out. And Gina would be the first person to say, “You have to do it this way.” And she was also the person on the set telling them, “You’ve got to hit me harder.”
So that’s you, then, speaking through Ewan McGregor when his character says, “Don’t think of her as a woman”?
Yeah, exactly. I was very conscious of not wanting to turn her into a fembot. I mean, I think she’s sexy in the movie, but that’s because Gina’s sexy.
And she’s very voluptuous for being a fighter.
You’d think she’d be a little leaner.
Well, she’s really, really strong.
And you have a reverse James Bond situation here, too, where instead of finding all these sexy women to surround James Bond, you’re finding all of these…
Yes, older heartthrobs and younger heartthrobs.
Absolutely. That’s a good point.
In regard to the script, you mentioned earlier that Aaron Cohen, your technical advisor, helped out with script details, like calling Mallory a “Twizzler,” i.e. a parachute that won’t open due to tangling. Did he also come up with lines like “LEO,” to mean law enforcement officer? I don’t think I’d ever heard that before.
Yeah, he did. And it’s shocking because that line seems so obvious. But I hadn’t heard it before either. So yeah, there were little things like that so that you…you’re just trying to avoid those lines that are kind of creaky. The lines like, “You may think you know what you’re involved with, but you don’t,” or, “It’s bigger than you’ll ever know.” We were trying to keep it realistic. At the end of the day, whether it’s Contagion or this movie, the first question is, “What’s real? What’s the reality of the situation?” You work from there, and most of the time, that’s what’s most interesting.
Can you discuss your decision to drop out the score for all of the fight scenes? Was that always the plan?
Yes. I knew there wasn’t going to be music. It just drives me nuts when people try to convince you that something’s exciting when it’s not. I felt [the score] would take away from the realism. It would take you out of it. If all there is to focus on is, “Wow, that looks like she really hit him,” and “That sounds like she really hit him,” then that will be memorable. And there’s a lot of foley artists hitting clay and shit, but I didn’t want it to be Raiders of the Lost Ark either, where the punch just sounds like a cannon.
I felt that that the score recalled the Ocean’s scores.
A little. That certainly makes sense because of David Holmes [who scored both Haywire and the Ocean’s trilogy]. It’s certainly got that kind of sheen. David’s great. He must have everything ever recorded on vinyl because he sends me these bins of stuff that’s just so obscure. And I’ll just start pulling things out and saying oh, “I like that riff,” or “I like that combination of instruments,” and that’s how we start. For this, we started to talk about Lalo Schifrin, a composer we like a lot who did Bullitt and the Mission: Impossible theme. He’s a really great composer. And there’s this one cue in Bullitt called “Shifting Gears” that has these great horns. It’s a specific type of horn, a jazz horn. I became obsessed with that, and David really ran with it. The score needed to sound more like the character than the genre. I wanted it to be more closely bound to what she feels like than what this kind of movie feels like in general.
You’ve mentioned that finding Gina is what incited the making of this movie. Yet, The Girlfriend Experience is another recent movie of yours with a nonprofessional actress playing a woman off the grid with an offbeat career. That’s not just something you’re interested in right now? It’s more about stumbling upon her?
Yeah, that’s just chance. And taking the attitude that, when an opportunity arises, or you hear an idea, that you need to act quickly, or decisively, and will it into existence as soon as you can. Magic Mike is a perfect example of that. Channing Tatum came to me and said, “You know, I’m developing this movie about when I was a stripper.” And I thought, “Ooh, that needs to happen right now. Like, right now.” And that movie is fun. It’s a party. It’s an Altman movie, in that sense: a comedy. Not like, jokes, but the people are funny. If you’re fortunate enough to be in a position to make certain things happen on a certain scale, and quickly, then I feel like you should do that. Why wouldn’t you?
You’ve shot a number of your films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, but you’ve edited fewer of them as Mary Ann Bernard. Is there something specific that determines whether or not you’ll edit one of your films?
No, it just depends on the circumstances. Sometimes it depends on the budget. But then, sometimes, like in a movie like Contagion, I know I’m going to benefit from having another set of eyes on that, because the canvas is big and there’s a lot of moving parts. So to have Stephen Mirrione there, kind of keeping the macro of it straight, was really, really important. But with other things, smaller things, when you’re after something so specific, it seems stupid to dictate to somebody what to do, like on Bubble. That would be a waste. Because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and it was super low budget.
Do you have a lot of input on your films’ trailers?
Oh, all the time, but unless you’re going to sit down and cut something yourself, it’s just impossible to get something distinctive out of that process. If it’s too distinctive…well, the thing is that everything’s about testing now. I don’t mind testing movies, but the point is, what is that for? I want to know two things: I want to know how people feel about the pacing of the film, and I want to know if they’re confused. When you start getting into discussions about numbers, and if you’re a filmmaker who doesn’t have contractual control over the content of the film, those can be ugly conversations. It becomes a hammer. You can feel like a real idiot when someone has a stack of paper and says, “Don’t you see?! They don’t like so-and-so! Look, there’s 400 people, they don’t like him!” And you’re going, “They’re not supposed to like him.” There was a lot of discussion about Jude Law’s character in Contagion, a movie that did not score well that I thought was going to be fine. And Warner has never hammered me on that shit, but the one thing that came up was, “People don’t know how to feel about Jude.” And I said, “Yeah, I know.” There’s a difference between ambiguity and confusion. I said, “He’s an ambiguous character. He’s a polarizing character.” These are movies, not cereal.
Is there a movie genre you wouldn’t attempt?
Western. I don’t like horses. I mean, I think they’re beautiful, I just don’t want to stand next to one.
There’s a suggestion in the film that Mallory relaxes with a glass of wine while cleaning her guns. What do you do to relax?
Umm…read, probably. Given free time, I’ll read. That’s the first thing I’ll do. When I go on vacation, I have a stack of books and I just go right to it. I can sit down for eight hours and just read. That’s pure pleasure for me. Or listen to music, though I’m unfortunately so old that I can’t do both, unlike my daughter.
What about all the talk of your retirement?
What about it?
Well, you keep coming out with new movies, but…
Yeah, but my out date is still the same. A year from now I’ll be done. What I’ve said is, I need to break down my process and start over again if I’m going to come back. Because I’m not gonna come back unless I’ve figured out a new way to do this, by my definition. I don’t know if that’s gonna happen or not. We’ll see. I’ve got ideas for stuff that isn’t movies, whether it’s painting or photography or books. With movies, I’ll miss two things: the specific camaraderie that develops around the core shooting team—a kind of language, and inside jokes and running gags that make no sense to anyone who’s not in that group; and I’ll miss editing, but I can still do that on my own, just edit to edit. I’ve been planning this for a while. It was a series of things, all leading to me feeling like I need a change. A radical change. The primary reason was just feeling frustrated at my knowledge being at a standstill. I feel like there’s another kind of movie out there and I’ve got to see if I can figure out what it is. This is one of those things that come up every once in a while in your life, where you just feel like, “I gotta tear it down.”