Twenty years ago, writer-director Steven Soderbergh made his feature directing debut with Sex, Lies and Videotape, a breakthrough indie that took Cannes' Golden Palm. Since then, he has delivered a slew of idiosyncratic indies (from Kafka to Bubble), and traditional Hollywood pictures (Out of Sight, the Ocean's films), in recent years adopting what may seem like a "one for me, one for them" attitude. Ask Soderbergh himself, though, and he'll tell you that he makes them all for himself, in service of his eclectic taste and yen for cinematic adventure. He won the Best Director Oscar for Traffic (he was simultaneously nominated for Erin Brockovich); his other films as director include King of the Hill, Underneath, Gray's Anatomy, The Limey, Full Frontal, Solaris, and The Good German. He also published a book—Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw—that includes interviews with Richard Lester and journals from the shoot of Schizopolis. His latest, Che—an epic about the rise and fall of Ernesto "Che" Guevara—precedes a typical change-up in 2009: the indie The Girlfriend Experience and the studio release The Informant, starring Matt Damon. I spoke to Soderbergh at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel when he came to town to pull the curtain on the single-admission, four-hour-plus Roadshow Version of Che.
Groucho: In a sense, I think your take on Che is procedural—defining the man through action and, as you put it, his "unshakeable will." We see other facets. We see his pensive seriousness of intent. We see his passion for education—an almost rueful intellect surrounded by lesser lights. Was it a challenge for you to bring out the humanity of such an uncommon man?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, he’s certainly not the most—at least in my opinion—the most embraceable person you would ever meet. And that was something that came out during the research and that I had to really think about because he didn’t really provide much opportunity for those typical movie moments where you are endeared by him. And so, as you said, I decided that we needed to show that he is a very emotional person, but in a sort of higher abstract way. There’s a continuation of a quote that we used in the movie, when he’s being interviewed and...at the risk of sounding ridiculous, he says, "One of the most important qualities of a revolutionary is love." What he goes on to say—that was taken from his essay "Man and Socialism in Cuba"...is "I’m not talking about the kind of romantic love between a man and a woman. I’m talking about a love of humanity that exists on a plane higher than that and that often precludes the kind of romantic love that most people associate with that word." Maybe I should have included that whole statement because it’s a pretty succinct description of why he was doing what he was doing.
G: And the loneliness that’s inherent in what he was doing.
SS: Absolutely. I mean look at what he did. On two different occasions, he left a wife and a family behind to go back into the jungle. And there were some letters with his second wife when he was in the Congo actually, which we don’t show in the film—another failed campaign, where she’s sort of being very emotional in her letters to him and he kind of sets her straight. He says, "Listen, you can’t go there"—like "You can’t keep writing these letters where you go to that place, because I’ve explained to you before what the obligations of a revolutionary are and that this is the deal." That was, again, the thing that came through the research is that there was no off switch with this guy. He was always trying to live up to his ideal of what a revolutionary should be. And he was very strict and kind of a pain in the ass in a lot of ways.
G: And maybe only with that kind of emotional discipline could you do the things that he did.
SS: Well, I think so...this gets into this whole conversation that often comes up about the executions and all this stuff that went on at La Cabaña, and "Why isn’t that in the film?" when, in fact, it sort of is in the film if you’re paying attention. New York is basically all about that—him as that guy. And he was totally unrepentant about those events.
G: And the UN speech is introduced by the depiction of an execution that was basically along the same lines of what he did in La Cabaña.
SS: Pretty similar. I mean, look. Did the events at La Cabaña meet our standards for due process? No. I don’t think anybody could say that. What Che would say, though, was, and what he did say was "This is necessary." And he was not a sentimentalist when it came to this kind of stuff. And you could also argue, you know, to someone who takes him to task and defines him by those events, "Well, then you must be very happy with the way he died, because he died being executed without a trial in a twelve by twelve room." And to be honest, he knew that was a possibility.
G: Yeah. Can you talk about your evolution of your understanding about who Che was? You’ve said you started with a blank slate. Was there a defining moment in your research?
SS: Well, no, it began with talking to people who knew him and fought with him, and keying off of their expression and the tone in their voice. And what was immediately apparent was something along the lines that I was talking about, which is that they clearly loved him but also found him very difficult to love. One of the doctors that fought in the Cuban revolution alongside Che said to us at one point, "You had to love him for free." So that was something that I kept in my mind, and I was on the lookout for scenes that showed that. The scene that concludes Part One with Rogelio and the car was to me—when we found that, in a memoir...written by the two brothers, the Acevedo brothers—that was gold to me because that was just classic Che, and also funny and also the perfect way to end it because I didn’t want to go to Havana. And at the time I didn’t have a way to end Part One and when we found that story, I just thought, "Oh, that’s perfect."
G: You know, on paper Guevara’s guerilla actions are extraordinarily well documented. And in your research, you had to reconcile conflicting viewpoints, which the film does very scrupulously. How did you gauge the reliability of various sources, including Che himself?
SS: Well, mostly by trying to source things from multiple people or documents...as far as we were able to ascertain, there isn’t any scene in any of the four and a half hours that you can’t source with someone or some text and say that that happened. Things have been compressed and combined, but we didn’t invent anything. In the case of Part Two, we were really lucky that a large number of documents were declassified under the Freedom of Information Act about the United States Government’s role in Bolivia. And there were reports that were written by this man that was working for the CIA and with the Bolivian government that he was sending back to the State Department, and that was a huge help. We’ve got sort of verbatim reports of meetings: who was in the meetings, what was said, what was decided. These were like, for us—they were a gold mine. Because I felt it was important for you to see—unlike the first part—it was important for you to jump out and see what was happening externally. And if we hadn’t had those documents, we’d have been making things up.
G: Do any of Terence Malick’s fingerprints remain on the Part Two script or was it effectively written from scratch when he departed the project?
SS: No, I think there are—it’s not markedly different. Terry is a poet, you know, and I’m not. And so I think, you know, the version of Part Two that we ended up with is much more of a blunt instrument than anything Terry would ever do, because he’s just a much more poetic filmmaker. And I wanted something very terse. So the structure was sort of similar, but he was kind of focusing on different things, you know—it wasn’t as much of a procedural as what we ended up with.
G: More abstract?
G: Which is what you’d expect from him.
G: I guess I kind of want to get a sense—that I didn’t in my research—of really where this all started. I know it was at least seven years or more in the development. At what point did you come on board and how? And also the production notes sort of emphasized Peter Buchman at the writer. But I wanted to know about the respective roles of him and Benjamin A. Van der Veen and yourself in developing the script.
SS: Well, I’ll try and do the chronology quickly. Laura Bickford, our producer, and Benicio had sort of attached themselves to this thing in the late '90s, right after the Jon Lee Anderson book [Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life] came out. And they were all hunting around for somebody to help them develop it. So during Traffic is when they approached me about getting involved. So I got involved. We started doing some research. Ben van der Veen was a writer friend of Benicio’s. And he got involved very early at that point. And we worked on it for a couple of years. And then we were still looking for another writer to come in and help us, and somebody floated the idea of Terence Malick—because Terence was in Bolivia when Che died, trying to do a story about Che. So Malick came on for a while as a writer. And I could tell that he was interested in it—really interested in it—and I said, "You know, if you want to sort of slide into this, I’d be happy to sort of step aside." So for a while Malick was on—they were working on the scripts—and then at a certain point, the money was sort of gotten together or cobbled together right at the moment when Malick got money to do The New World. And the people who were backing Che didn’t want to wait for him to finish that. Little did they know it was going to take many, many more years to actually get it off the ground. But I stepped back in essentially at that moment to keep the money from falling apart. Unfortunately for everyone, when I came back in, I felt that just doing Bolivia wasn’t enough. And that we needed to expand the scope of the film to include Cuba and New York and maybe a little bit of Mexico City. At this point, Peter Buchman came in and joined us and started working on this new sort of concept of the movie. And then in around late 2005 is when I decided that we had to divide it in two—that the thing had just become so elephantine that we needed to treat it almost as two separate films in regards to the financing. And so we went out and rewrote all the contracts overseas to make it for two films. So it was complicated.
G: Well, it always is I suppose to some degree.
SS: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve had—I remember from the first meeting to discuss the possibility of making The Limey to delivering the finished film was nine months.
SS: So sometimes you get that. And that’s more fun. But this one was the opposite.
G: I want to talk about your collaboration with Benicio Del Toro. Obviously, he was very involved very early as a producer. Was there some negotiation with him and the screenwriters as to how Che would be depicted, or was everyone essentially on the same page from the get go?
SS: I feel like we were all kind of working from the same place—that we were interested in the same stuff. And it was really a massive editing job. We had a lot of research material to go through, and I felt my job was, when necessary, to sort of, you know, throw down arbitrary dates about getting a new draft. So I would say, "Look, the three of us are going to lock ourselves in a hotel room, and we’re not coming out until we have a new draft. Because it’s time to sort of make decisions." And we'd do that every six months or so—Benicio and Peter and I would literally lock ourselves in adjoining hotel rooms, and we wouldn’t leave until we had a new draft. And then it extended to the point where finally I said, "July 25, 2007, we’re starting. So speak now or forever hold your peace—because this can’t continue forever. We need to start." So I felt that was my job to sort of keep this train heading forward and on some sort of schedule. Because Benicio would be the first to admit, he would—he loves doing research. He’s fascinated by everything. He would have done this forever.
G: Obviously the research was incredibly important to him, but what else was your perception of Benicio’s process as an actor in embodying the character?
SS: Well, Benicio’s a very physical actor, and I think that shows in the movie—it’s part of the reason that I don’t isolate him in close-up a lot, because his physicality is really important to him and he spent a lot of time making sure, when we had scenes with Che doing something that he probably did ten thousand times, that Benicio looked like he’d done it ten thousand times. And there’s really not a shortcut to that. It’s just repetition and homework, and he loves that kind of stuff. I mean, that’s the great news is that he’s totally dedicated to making it look like he knows how to handle an M1. And so that stuff 's all great as long as he understood when we all get on the set ,we got basically like three takes and then that’s it. And he understood that.
G: And also he had the benefit of people who knew Che and were there to be able to give him some of that physicality or coach him on it.
SS: Yeah. Absolutely. They would say, you know—and it would be little things but they’re really helpful—that, in this scene, "These people would be present. Che would probably be sitting. And they would be arranged like this." Or in another scene, he might say, "No, they’d be arranged like this, and he’d be standing here, and he would be pacing like this." It was really, really helpful for all of us to have that kind of detail. Or, I remember in one instance, somebody showed up on the day—one of the actors—and started to roll [his] sleeves up, and our consultant said, "No, no, no"—ran over to the guy like "No, no, no. Che would never let you do that. You’re always buttoned up. You know, your shirt’s always buttoned, your sleeves are always buttoned, no matter what. That’s—you can’t do that."
G: Interesting. It seems to me that American financiers are interested in only what’s the same while film artists are in pursuit of something unique. And in this case, you solved the problem by securing a lot of the money from Europe, where risky cinema is more appealing as opposed to being anathema. But in general, how do you negotiate that conflict?
SS: Well, you have to kind of balance the idea against the resources necessary to execute it properly. We knew pretty much the moment we decided the movies were going to be in Spanish that there was probably going to be no American financing. And that turned out to be true. The good news though is, in this case, in Europe it’s just a much more director-driven ideology when it comes to film financing. They’re less star-driven, and they’re more interested in the director. And so we got as much money as we could get. At times it didn’t feel like enough. But it was what we had, and we decided we would go forward with it, despite the fact that it seemed odd to me, because in the last five to ten years, there’ve been a couple of huge successes in the US that have been foreign-language films. I don’t blame the people who finance movies for being conservative. That’s the business they’re in. You know, it’s my job to either convince them otherwise or to prove them wrong. But I don’t take it personally. It’s just the way the world works.
G: Again, I’m generalizing, but to me great directors immerse themselves in their subjects—especially during production—not unlike actors except with a broader focus. And there can be a kind of Stockholm syndrome, I think, when you become captivated by the subject—when you really identify with the material or the protagonist. Since filmmakers are so often described as generals, did you feel a kinship with Che when you were in the process?
SS: Well, I think in retrospect there’s a reason why I was drawn to the periods in his life when he was in the jungle, because there were at least some tenuous analogies to making a film. And I had a sense of what it’s like to be out in the middle of nowhere with a group of people trying to do something and having it not go exactly the way you thought—and having a lot of people looking at you for answers and guidance. So I understood that a little bit. I also understood being out there—what he must have liked about being out there—there’s something very, very pure about it and simple. And especially when we were doing the second part, and we were in some very remote locations.
G: And very authentic locations, actually in Bolivia.
SS: Yeah, I really—I loved being out there. I loved being out there with this—we had a pretty small crew throughout. And just looking around and being out in nature with a small group of people sort of all trying to do the same thing. I totally felt a piece of what he must have felt. There’s something exhilarating about it and something energizing about it. And it confirmed—I was always fascinated by the fact that he kept going back into the jungle. And when I started the project, I wasn’t sure why. It didn’t seem to make much sense. But I thought, "Well, it made sense to him, so I’ve got to follow that." And it wasn’t until I was out there in the middle of it that I realized, "Oh, there’s a physical part of it that you can’t articulate that he was drawn to." There had to be.
G: And in that, you had sort of your own personal Malick moment, I guess.
SS: Yeah, I mean it really—as a filmmaker, what you like about it is you’re getting stuff that you just can’t get any other way. You know what I mean? Like you can’t fake it. You can’t recreate it somewhere else. You just have to take the camera out there and go and get it. And there’s something really great about that. I mean, Bolivia I really liked a lot because it’s, you know—there are places where you felt like you were on the surface of another planet.
G: Che takes a docudramatic tack, and lets the audience make up its own minds about whether or not what we’re seeing is politically wise. In spending so much time pondering the subject, did you come to your own conclusion about Che’s political legacy?
SS: Well, you know, I’m not a Communist. And I’ve read all this stuff that he read and my takeaway is very different from his. You know, Marxist, Leninist economic ideology I think doesn’t work and it’s been shown not to work. I mean, even China, which is the last sort of large-scale Communist country left, has had to adopt certain free-market approaches to survive. So it’s a little frustrating on some level for me to know that he just completely embraced an economic policy that I think is pretty obviously a failure. But you have to remember where it’s coming from. And it’s coming from this desire on his part to construct a society in which one group of people are not exploiting another group of people for profit. That’s an idea that most people can get behind, and it really then becomes about your methodology. And at that level, I didn’t want to editorialize about what he thought. The movie’s about his dream. It’s not about my dream. And so I can’t judge him in that sense 'cause it’s not my job.
G: And the film reflects what was pure about him and what was corrupted about his ideals as well—I mean by others, or by destiny or failure.
SS: Well, here’s the problem...that form of political system breeds corruption. Not necessarily on a personal level—I’m not saying Che was a corrupt guy. But as it is, there’s no transparency, there are no checks and balances, there’s no accountability. It’s a system that actually breeds a really virulent strain of corruption—almost worse than the kind of corruption that capitalism breeds. And again, that’s the thing that you look at, and you just feel, "Wow, if you could have taken that will and attached it to something that, in its real world context, is more humane, that would be amazing."
G: How does it feel—on a lighter topic—to have resuscitated the road show? The closest film I could think of in recent memory is Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996, and that didn’t even have a commemorative program!
SS: Yeah. And then before that, probably Reds.
G: Right. Yeah.
SS: I love—I’m so—as someone who grew up standing in line for hours to see movies, and wanting to be the first one there, and wanting to see whatever special version there was out there to see, I was really obsessed with this idea that people somewhere get to see what I call the "Roadshow Version" in this way with no trailers, no commercials, no credits. You get this little program, the lights go down, the movie starts, then it’s like a concert. And the good news is that IFC was totally behind this—and that the results in New York and L.A. were so strong that we all got on the phone and said, "We got to keep going with this." People like the event aspect of this, and we’d be stupid not to go into more markets. I’m so excited.
G: This is kind of a stupid question, but having you here I just kind of have to ask. Possibly with you as the prime mover, IFC has sown some confusion about whether or not it’s one film or two. And I suppose it depends on how you see it or how you come to it, because there are those two options and there is a dividing line and there are two styles and what not. But I just wonder: in your mind, do you see it as one film or two?
SS: I see it as one film. I certainly—when I count the number of movies I’ve made, I count it as one film. Yeah, there was never—it’s interesting because Americans get accused of being sort of philistines when it comes to art and stuff. This is the only place in the world that audiences are seeing the Roadshow Version, because all the distributors everywhere else in the world said, "Nobody in our country will go see that." So it’s been interesting that we’ve been able to show the road show here and be successful. It’s a testament to the adventurous quality in a lot of American moviegoers. My hope would be that the road show would be the only thing that’s out theatrically, and that if you want to see one part or two parts, that you’d go to VOD and watch them there. And that the two are sort of separate entities, the VOD and the theatrical. Which, by the time the end of the month rolls around may be the case.
G: Obviously, you have to be forward-looking in terms of your career. But do you take an interest in what goes on with your back catalog? I’m thinking here of Kafka and King of the Hill never having officially been released on DVD.
SS: Well, Kafka I’m re-cutting. I’ve gone back and I’ve like totally re-imagined that movie. So at some point late this year, you may see that. And at that point we’ll bring out a double disc with the old version and the new version. King of the Hill, Universal’s been willing to do that. They want me to do a commentary for it, and I have this policy of not doing them alone.
SS: And I haven’t found anybody to do it with me. So they’re sitting on that. I think Universal wants to do a four-pack of King of the Hill, The Underneath, Out of Sight and Erin. So I think that will show up eventually.
G: It’ll work itself out. I’m clinging to my VHS copies at the moment. I read that you flirted with making Fantastic Four—
SS: That’s—I don’t know who said that.
G: Is that not true?
SS: That is not true. I’m here to tell you. It’s not true.
G: Okay. That was just a rumor.
SS: I would have—I get offered movies that are based on comic books. I have no facility for that. I’ve always said "no" just 'cause there are other people who can do it well. And I can’t.
G: I know that certainly they’ve been knocking on the doors of every smart filmmaker around lately.
SS: They’re hard to do. When you get the right person—when you get a Christopher Nolan—it can really explode. But I just have no gift for it at all.
G: But you do have a gift for the musical, at long last. That’s an upcoming project [3D musical Cleo].
SS: Yeah, we’re supposed to do that this spring. We've got to push it a little because of an actor commitment. But the musical is something that I’ve been working on for a long time.
G: What’s your favorite musical?
SS: Probably a combination of—it’s a tough call—'cause Cabaret is kind of a musical. I don’t consider it a full-on musical because it's performers, you know, performing songs in a real context. So probably in terms of a pure musical, 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
SS: That’s probably my favorite.
G: That’s a good model for what you’re heading into, I guess.
SS: Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.
G: The visual appeal.
SS: Yeah. Exactly.
G: And that film is going to focus on a larger-than-life historical figure as well. Is that, to you, mostly an opportunistic choice, or was there something about that character—that historical character?
SS: Well, a bit of both. When I was thinking about musicals and their commercial viability, I started with the premise that the audience for musicals is primarily female driven. So I started thinking in terms of characters that women could lock into, and I started thinking about historical figures, and pretty soon, you know, hit on Cleopatra and thought "Well, oh, Catherine Zeta-Jones can sing and dance—she’d be a great Cleopatra." So that’s sort of how I landed on that character. But as it turns out, lately, yeah I’ve got Cleo, and I’ve got Liberace coming up, so a lot of biopics.
G: I’m already jonesing for everything you’ve got lined up—The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant—you blessedly are allowed to keep working steadily. Are you "the luckiest bastard I ever saw"?
SS: Yeah, oh yeah. By a long shot. By a long shot. There’s no question. I have insane luck. Really. I should play the lottery. I have really crazy luck.
G: Well, I have to wrap it up, unfortunately. I could talk to you all day. But thank you very much.
SS: Thank you.