Steven Soderbergh
Photo by François Durand

Steven Soderbergh: “I can’t reverse a trend”

Short Profile

Name: Steven Andrew Soderbergh
DOB: 14 January 1963
Place of birth: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Occupation: Film director, screenwriter

Steven Soderbergh's new noir thriller, No Sudden Move is out now.

Mr. Soderbergh, what does the term cinema mean to you?

Well, we’ve got to separate our terms. Cinema, as I understand it and think of it, is an approach. It has nothing to do with the venue of where the piece of cinema is going to be viewed. Those are two different things. I have seen commercials that are cinema, and I have seen movies that have won awards that I don’t think are cinema. So, to me, cinema is what the filmmaker brings and sees and shows us. Then we have the separate issue of where you see your piece of cinema.

Does that matter to you?

I have never been as precious about this as other people! Have I seen my work on a larger screen? Yep. But I have to say I don’t have a problem with people watching it somewhere else on a device, that does not bother me. Because it’s still the thing that I made. The pixels are not being rearranged. A bad idea is a bad idea if it’s 60 feet or six inches tall. This is what it is about, ultimately. As a filmmaker, it is a waste of time for me to be worrying about this. It has nothing to do with what I do on set.

“This is a river with a current that is moving very quickly in a certain direction, and if I am going to stay alive, I’ve gotta find a raft!”

What do you worry about as a filmmaker?

I spend a lot of time worrying about “the thing” that I am trying to make and then hoping that people are going to see it. And if you make something that over and over again people don’t like and don’t see, then you’ve got to have a real serious conversation with yourself about what you are doing as an artist. I don’t have feelings of nostalgia for celluloid, you know? I can’t reverse a trend. This is a river with a current that is moving very quickly in a certain direction, and if I am going to stay alive, I’ve gotta find a raft that’ll take me down the river — or I’m just going to drown. All I care about is what the actual thing is.

But it’s surely getting even more difficult to make movies these days due to the pandemic. How was that experience for you?

Well, there were a few steps. First was the industry effort to memorialize the Covid protocols; there were many months spent getting that sorted out. Once we had that sorted out, the practical realities of executing these protocols are very expensive. It’s a huge cost. Depending on the project, you could add 15 percent to your budget, and that could go up to 25 percent  depending on the scale of what you’re doing. That’s a gigantic number, and it hurts smaller independent films disproportionately because they really can't afford that extra money. The psychological effect is very real, and I was very sensitive to it… I wanted to make sure that we were wearing these masks for 10, 11 hours straight, even when that was a new thing.

Certain other precautions also seem like they would be particularly challenging on a film set.

The distancing part was amusing to me, because you’re right that it’s impossible to do. This idea that you are going to be on a film set and actually shoot a sequence and be distanced from people; that is not going to happen. So you really got to make sure that you are not only following the testing protocols very closely. Covid is not on set, it’s outside. For my new film, No Sudden Move, we took over a hotel and created a bubble for most of the cast and the crew. But it’s still a stressor. It’s not as fun. 20 percent of the things you say people can’t understand, so you are raising your voice and at the end of the day, you’re more tired… I’m looking forward to the new version of the protocols when you have a fully vaccinated crew and you don’t have to do this anymore.

But the limitations don’t just stop on set — they even extend to how many people can realistically see your film on the big screen.

In the next six months we’re going to learn a lot about how people’s interests have shifted, or if they have shifted at all. Prior to Covid, there was this very clear dichotomy of fantasy-spectacle, and Oscar bait — and not a lot in the middle. The mid-range movie for grown-ups, like No Sudden Move, economically, is not a viable course for a studio anymore. This is a movie as opposed to a film — those are two slightly different things. It is a movie for sure. But I like the idea that it can function for an audience on a purely superficial plot level, and then there are these other layers underneath that hopefully keep it from being something that you just forget the moment that it’s over.

“I don’t know if the desire to just go out and see a movie will generate more activity beyond these two categories of fantasy-spectacle, and Oscar-bait...”

In a post-Covid world, do you think the outlook for that type of movie will change?

I don’t know! I don’t know if the desire to just go out and see a movie will generate more activity beyond these two categories of fantasy-spectacle, and Oscar-bait. And you know, one of those categories only exists in the latter part of the year! Mid-September till December is where you get your Oscar-bait stuff, whereas the blockbusters, these fantasy giants have now pretty much established that they can open any time in the year and do well.

They are even advertising their release dates well into the next four years.

It’s crazy to see, right? That Marvel trailer, where they show what’s going to happen in the next four years, all the titles and the dates… Their plan for world domination is all mapped out! (Laughs) I am greatly impressed by that because I know how these things function, practically speaking. What they are able to do on a purely technical level of keeping all these projects moving in the right direction, and being shot out of sequence, and doing two at a time, and shooting for six months and then off for three months and coming back… Just the logistics of what they are able to do is kind of stunning.

Even though they’re taking up a lot of cinema real estate.

Sure, I mean, I was saying to somebody yesterday, I wish we could convince IMAX to play some dramas. In the same way a fantasy spectacle is enhanced by seeing it in IMAX, a drama is also. There is no reason you can’t put dramas on a screen like that and get people to go. I am frustrated by the fact that that real estate has just been abandoned by anything other than giant spectacle films... But I don’t have a problem with these films — as long as they’re good.