Guerilla Filmmaking on an Epic Scale: CheChe comandante Steven Soderbergh talks strategy and tactics with Amy Taubin
Written by Amy Taubin
Many movies take the form of a hall of mirrors, where narrative is reflected in the filmmaking process and vice versa. Few, however, accomplish this with the dedication, clarity, and brio of Steven Soderbergh’s fraternal twins, The Argentine and Guerrilla (bundled under the shorthand title, Che). In the press conference following Che’s Cannes premiere, Soderbergh remarked that what most fascinated him about the Latin American militant was his will. Although revolution, as Mao chided, “is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting” and, despite the heady sentiments of ’68, not a film either, Soderbergh’s own will—to shape every aspect of this project from conception to release—is palpable in Che, the film that places him in the ranks of the masters.
At Cannes, where responses ranged from “a triumph” to “a disaster”—which coincidentally describes the respective trajectories of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Cuba as depicted in The Argentine and in Bolivia as depicted in Guerrilla—the only near consensus was that Che would never again be seen in the version that was shown at the festival, a version that many believed was a rough draft. “No doubt it will be back to the drawing board for Che,” brayed Variety, where prognostication about box-office performance colors every paragraph of critical evaluation. As far as this viewer was concerned, I was almost certain, however, that what was screened at Cannes was 98 percent finished. Bearing in mind that Kubrick famously went into projection booths and clipped bits out of his films even after they were in release, it was a given that Soderbergh would do some tinkering; digital postproduction makes the temptation irresistible. The more serious worry was that in the U.S., the full four-hour-plus version would prove as elusive as Vertigo after Hitchcock withdrew it from distribution.
Not so. The Argentine and Guerrilla will premiere in North America at the Toronto Film Festival and then play in the New York Film Festival, showing, as in Cannes, back to back with a short intermission. According to Soderbergh this “road-show” version will open for limited one-week engagements in some 20 cities at the end of the year—a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution and the 80th anniversary of Guevara’s birth. “I think, for hardcore people who have a day to throw away, it’s the fun way to see it because all the call and response is right there,” he says. The two films will then be split up. In the foreign territories where Che was pre-sold (the pre-sales covering $54 million of the $58 million budget) there are, to Soderbergh’s knowledge, no plans to show the two films together. Given that Che is already nearly paid for, the movie only needs to do enough business in the U.S. to cover the cost of prints and advertising. “The definition of what is financial success for us in this country may not be good enough for people who write about movies,” the director said with barely detectable irony, “but if this movie does $5 million and then sells a couple hundred thousand units on DVD, we’ll be very happy with those numbers.”
Writing about Soderbergh in Filmmaker in 2002, I argued that the structuring principle underlying his films is contradiction, not in the Marxist political sense but as an aesthetic according to which an object is defined by what it is not. Contradiction determines the shape not only of Soderbergh’s individual films but also the relationship of one to another. The sexy, extroverted Out of Sight (98) and the melancholy, introspective The Limey (99), for example, are more dazzling as a pop art couple than either is on its own. What Soderbergh terms “the call and response” relation between The Argentine and Guerrilla is intrinsic to their form and meaning. The Argentine depicts the 1956-58 campaign in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and ends in glory with Che and Fidel en route to Havana. Guerrilla follows Che’s disastrous attempt to repeat the Cuban strategy in Bolivia in order to spearhead a revolution throughout Latin America. Largely based on two books written by Che, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and Bolivian Diary, The Argentine and Guerrilla are action films, couched from the perspective of the man who was at the center of the action—who experienced the physical agony and the adrenaline rush of guerrilla warfare (heightened because he was asthmatic) and who, because he was a military strategist fighting for a political cause and ideology he articulated with great brilliance, also saw himself and his situation from the outside. The character of Che Guevara (embodied by Benicio Del Toro with intelligence and an unflagging conviction) gives rise to the push/pull experience of both films, the sense that one is both immersed and distanced.
“It was something i couldn’t say no to, which is different from saying yes,” Soderbergh remarks about Che. “I can’t sit here and say I wanted to do it. I only knew I had to do it.” Soderbergh, Del Toro, and producer Laura Bickford began talking about a Che movie when they were shooting Traffic in 1999. When Del Toro and Bickford discovered that Terrence Malick had been in Bolivia as a journalist in 1966 working on a story about Che, they asked him to write a script. Malick’s involvement with the material was intense, and Soderbergh thought he should direct it as well: “I said to him the list of people that I’d be willing to step aside for to see their version as opposed to mine is pretty short, but you’re at the top of it.”
At that point, the film was entirely about Che’s 1966–67 Bolivian campaign. After about a year and a half, the financing and the timetable hadn’t entirely come together, and Malick left to do The New World. Fearing that their multi-territory deals would fall apart, Bickford and Del Toro asked Soderbergh to come back on as director. He agreed, although he had begun to feel that there was a problem with focusing just on Bolivia: “Although I love movies about quixotic journeys, there was no context.” A new script was generated with multiple interwoven timelines: Bolivia, Cuba, New York, Mexico City.
“It was unreadable,” Soderbergh continues. “You couldn’t do the detail, you couldn’t get a sense of the rhythm of what their days were like. And we had a start date approaching. I said we have to stop and think about this. And two weeks later, I said it needs to be two movies. We need to break it in half, and do each movie in the way we feel is appropriate, and by the way, we’ve got to do them in Spanish. For Laura, this is interesting news. We now have two movies so all the deals have to be redone. And Peter [Buchman, the credited screenwriter for both films] and Benicio sat down and started from scratch to do Cuba.”
The Argentine and Guerrilla were shot back-to-back beginning in July 2007 and in reverse order: Guerrilla in Spain and then The Argentine in Puerto Rico and Mexico. Soderbergh had shot the framing sequence of part one—a flash-forward to Che’s visit to New York in 1964 when he’s at the height of his rock-star glory—a year earlier. The budget was absurdly small, the schedule—39 days for each—ridiculously tight, considering that these were war movies set in rugged locations. What made it possible was Soderbergh’s maniacal work ethic (this is a director who praises his collaborators with the words “he works very fast”); the commitment of Del Toro; and a new digital camera prototype, the Red One, intended for moviemaking guerrilla-style but also capable of delivering ’scope-dimension images with the lush, satiny beauty of 35mm.
“It was such a difficult production that whether or not what you got was up to certain standard was not even in your mind during the day,” says Soderbergh. “You had six pages to shoot and often there were 10 or 15 people in all those scenes or it was a battle sequence, and you were just hanging on by your fingernails to get through the day. But to get pushed that hard creatively is a good thing. What interested me most was the process and the physical difficulty. In the case of Cuba, these people slept outside for two years. Just being out there made you appreciate the mental and physical stamina it took to do what they did.”
Soderbergh, who has done the camerawork (under the name Peter Andrews) for every film since Traffic, gambled that the Red One would be ready on time. “I tested the camera and felt I held the future in my hands and that it would have a gigantic effect on how we would shoot Che and how it would look. I pushed Jim Jannard [the inventor of the camera] and the Red team to get ready for us because they weren’t prepared for somebody to go shoot a movie with it last July. I refused to order film cameras, so we had no backup plan.” The Red cameras arrived two days before the start date. “In the past 12 months, the camera has gone through these great leaps. So it’s frustrating for Jannard to look at build number one on screen when they’re now on build number 16. But I couldn’t be happier with what I’ve got.”
The two films diverge in style. Soderbergh conceived The Argentine as what he calls, for lack of a better term, “a Hollywood movie”—classically composed, in a widescreen ’scope aspect ratio, with the camera either fixed or moving on a dolly or a Steadicam (handheld camerawork was off-limits). Alberto Iglesias’s jagged score is a proper tension-builder and the battle of Santa Clara a tour de force of visual storytelling. (“I wanted it to feel like a throwback to a John Sturges movie—there were only a few of us, but we beat the odds and we won.”) Guerrilla, on the other hand, is formatted in 1.85:1, shot off the shoulder, and borders on a horror film.
Both films break at least as many Hollywood codes as they obey. The first half of The Argentine is highly elliptical, leaving it to the viewer to fill in the gaps in the action. “I knew that the last act was going to be Santa Clara, and you don’t get much more narrative clarity than that. So it allowed me to be not so beholden to the traditional setup-setup-payoff structure that you get in most movies and especially in most biographies, which tend to have an inherently reductive attitude about action and reaction. I wanted to show day-to-day stuff—things that have meaning on a practical level and on an ideological level, but that, from a narrative standpoint, aren’t necessarily in support of some goal. It’s a way of showing what it might have been like to be there. It’s not just a relentless surge of movement going forward all the time.”
Even more striking is Soderbergh’s parsimonious use of close-ups and the absence of the punched-up emotions that usually accompany them. “It never occurred to me to isolate him the way you would in a normal movie because it felt, frankly, un-Che-like. His attitude was that this is bigger than any of us individually, this is a collective effort. And therefore, to isolate him in close-ups is in ideological opposition to his entire set of principles.” The only close-ups in part one are in the New York sequences, where Che was besieged by paparazzi. “That 1964 beret is a very familiar image to people and I really wanted to key off that.” In part two, as Che’s band is encircled by the Bolivian army, Soderbergh’s camera also begins to close in. It’s tightest on Che in the moment before his death when he faces his executioner, saying, “Go ahead, shoot, do it.” “It was a conscious build. When you look at the trajectory of Bolivia, you understand that he can’t go back to Cuba. The CIA has called him the most dangerous man on the planet. At a certain point, he said, ‘We’re either going to have to win or I’m going to die here.’ But I think that really must have started to settle in at a certain point. Even if you escape, where are you going to go?”
Soderbergh knew that he was going to take a lot of heat for leaving out the executions that Che authorized at La Cabana after Castro took power. “There are anti-Che people who would not be satisfied no matter how much barbarity we depicted. Do I think all the people who were executed were guilty? No. Do I think that they were all innocent? No. Does every regime when it feels threatened at some point act excessively? Yes. The firebombing of Japan? The dropping of a second atom bomb? I think those are excessive. I think those are on a par with the kind of thing we’re talking about. Che says in his speech to the U.N., ‘This was necessary for our survival.’ Would that have fit your definition of due process? Probably not. You could say that in a lot of trials in the United States prior to 1964, due process was something that only applied to white people.”
In the end, Soderbergh says he focused on the campaigns in the Sierra Maestra and in Bolivia because they are circumscribed events, while Cuba after the revolution is a story that is still unfolding. “The other interesting story to tell would be about his failure in the Congo. He writes about it very eloquently and in a self-critical way. Benicio, Laura, and I talked about, if these movies were, um, hugely successful, doing an 80-minute movie about the Congo and then showing him writing about it in his apartment in Prague. Boy, after the Congo, you really are stunned that he went off and tried what he did in Bolivia. His ability to sustain his outrage is what is remarkable to me. We all get outraged about stuff, but to sustain it to the point of putting your ass on the line to change what outrages you, to do it consistently for years and years, and to twice walk away from everything and everybody to do it, it’s not normal. And that’s the flip answer when people ask why make a movie about it: because his life is really good movie material. It’s active. The stakes are high.”
Soderbergh planned from an early stage to use the much-described image of Che’s corpse, shrouded in a blanket, tied to the skid of a helicopter flying over the jungle. He also knew that he would dissolve from there to the final image in Guerrilla—a repeat of an image that occurs early in The Argentine. Che is standing on the deck of the Granma, the boat that is carrying him and the Castro brothers from Mexico to Cuba. “There’s something about him looking up and seeing Fidel and Raul that I think is kind of loaded. I just imagined him being on that boat going, ‘What the fuck is this?’ And never imagining where this would land him.”