Interview: Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh’s pop sensibility is exuberantly displayed in Magic Mike, his most breezy movie since Ocean’s Eleven. Set in a Tampa strip club, where cute guys bare their bums while women of all ages (they’re our surrogates) laugh and scream and stuff dollar bills in the talents’ jock straps, it has the optimism of a 1930s Depression-era musical about a bunch of kids who fix up a barn and put on a show. Here, however, the star (Channing Tatum, seizing the opportunity to show off more than his signature back flips: for instance, that he can act) doesn’t want to make it to Hollywood—or rather Miami, the stripper’s paradise. He’d rather leave showbiz behind so he can devote himself to making custom furniture. Magic Mike is based on Tatum’s actual experience of working as a stripper when he was 19, but there’s something about the narrative that reflects Soderbergh’s own decision to get out of the movie business come 2013. Barely suggested existential questions aside, the essence of the movie is that sex as theater can be unabashed fun, especially when it’s as craftily put together as it is here.
Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic which you are about to shoot for HBO, are two of the final three movies that will be in your filmography when you retire in January 2013. Did you have a “to do” list for your career—nearly 30 movies in less than 25 years—and was “the male body” the last item on it? When we were setting up this interview, you emailed, with characteristic modesty, that the Liberace biopic will be “the gayest movie ever.”
Certainly, I felt that Magic Mike would be the way to build credibility for the final assault on heterosexuality in movies. I’m actually glad the two movies timed out like this. I thought of Magic Mike as an undressed rehearsal for Liberace. I’m curious to see what the reaction of the gay community is to Magic Mike, to the choices that were made in how to present that material. I have certain ideas about how I want to present Liberace, and I want to see if I’m on the right track or not.
I went to the Magic Mike screening with a young, brilliant, gay, arts editor. He was interested in how the film walked right up to the edge of camp but never crossed over. He also wondered where you found the choreographer.
I tasked Channing, as one of the producers, with finding the person to do the choreography because it was going to be his problem more than mine. It needed to be good enough so that if someone paid a cover charge to see the show they wouldn’t be disappointed, but these people aren’t trained dancers. He mentioned Alison Faulk, who had done work for Madonna and Britney Spears, and she understood exactly the line we were trying to surf. We had determined what the subject of each of the routines would be. There’s going to be a fireman routine, a doctor, a boxer, and so on. I didn’t want to see the rehearsals. Then, about a week before we started shooting, I saw everybody do their routines. I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the first concrete confirmation that this was going to be fun for the audience. They weren’t sleazy, they were funny, and that’s when I relaxed and thought we’re going to be fine. Is there a darker, dirtier, scummier version of that world? Of course, but I wanted it to be fun not only for the audience’s sake but for mine. I had no desire to spend 10 months working on something that was going to be a downer. After Che, I felt I had gotten the important movie shit out of my system.
It’s not. Even Contagion—I was trying to push it as far into a genre film as I could.
Okay, but I can’t believe you won’t get the bug again to do something difficult.
That’s true. Self-important would be a better way to put it. Stuff that’s conceived with an eye toward an all-categories trade ad at the end of the year. That’s what I don’t want to do anymore. But even with Magic Mike, when we started testing the movie, and by then Warner Brothers was involved, part of the conversation became that in the last third of the movie, things stop being funny for a while. Anyone who has tested a movie in the past five years has discovered that all people want right now is happiness. They reject ambiguity or any kind of shadow side of anything. It’s just gotten worse and worse. What people want when they go to the movies has shifted a bit. I think there are a lot of reasons for it. But it’s been weird for me, because I’ve been losing a lot of arguments. Not in the practical sense, because I’ve still gotten things the way I want them, but I’ve seen instances where the argument that is presented to me about why people don’t like the film more often turns out to be true. All the things I’ve argued for because they make the film distinctive turn out to be a barrier for the audience. In that sense, the people making the argument turn out to be right. When we asked people about why they didn’t score Contagion higher, they said, “We didn’t like Jude Law. We didn’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy,” and they felt it was the filmmaker’s fault for not making that clear to them.
In a climate like that, I understand that it’s just about impossible to make anything interesting.
It’s hard. So with Magic Mike, there was a big discussion about whether I could just carve that part out of the movie. And I said, No, I can’t. There would be no journey. We seeded that stuff earlier. It happens because the kid [Alex Pettyfer’s character] has shitty judgment. He shouldn’t be giving ecstasy to strange girls at a sorority. He’s stupid. But look, nobody dies. And interestingly, people at screenings lately have said they’re glad that’s in the movie. They thought it would be a piece of total fluff and it turned out to be more than they expected.
But the movie isn’t about the kid. He’s the second banana. What matters is that Magic Mike makes the right choices—that things go well for him. And they do because he ends up with the equivalent of the boss’s daughter. Why did you cast Cody Horn [the daughter of Alan Horn, the former head of Warner’s] as Mike’s love interest? She’s very good and a good match for Tatum. But you’ve made a lot of movies at Warner Brothers.
Yes, I immediately thought they were good together. I had no idea she wanted to act. The last time I saw her, she was a 16-year-old PA. I was having trouble finding the right person for that role. I told our casting director she’s got to be tough and strong and funny, a young Rosalind Russell. She said, I think you should have a look at this girl who just came in. She posted it and I said, “Is that who I think it is? She’s perfect.” It’s rare that you can find a woman who can be that brash and yet not annoying.
That scene where she visits the strip club for the first time and you play the whole thing off her face—she was terrific.
And without trying to do a lot. She just watches. That really was the first time she saw Mike’s routine. I purposely set it up so we shot her side of it first. That was take one. She has really good instincts. And I think it helps growing up the way she grew up. There’s a consonance. I thought it would be funny and weird that the obstacle to them getting together is that she doesn’t like his job. It’s really hard these days to find those kinds of obstacles to romance. But the big elephant in the room is obviously McConaughey. When I started showing the movie around, the first thing out of everyone’s mouth was, “Matthew McConaughey, what a crazy-ass performance.” He impressed the shit out of me. He showed up with a lot of ideas and they were all good. I described the part to him in one sentence and he said, “I know exactly who this guy is.” And he did. How he dressed, how he talked. Really fine.
What’s interesting about the way he plays it is that the character doesn’t have a sexuality that you can nail down. And in that one low-angle shot late in the movie, he looks like the devil—really perverse.
We talked about that. I thought it would be interesting if you had a guy who did this job and is surrounded by sex as a commodity, and yet we never get a bead on what he does. He doesn’t appear to be with anybody, he doesn’t talk about anybody. He appears to be this strange asexual, ambitious visionary. It was an interesting line for him to walk. It was a pretty secure on his part to not want to tip it.
Could we back up a bit? You’ve said two things today that are really striking in the context of your being a director who has made more than two dozen movies in the way you wanted to make them. When you talked about the Liberace movie, you said something about wondering how the gay community would view it and then, talking about movies in general, you spoke about what audiences want these days. Has the way your movies are viewed always been in the front of your mind? I’ve never heard you talk like this much about what other people might think.
We should separate that into two parts. One has to do with how commercially viable a filmmaker I am. Because I don’t want to waste my time trying to make things that are either not going to get made or, if they are made, not get seen. Wondering about why people go to the movies and what they want to see there is something filmmakers continually need to do. But I can only make them the way I can make them. So it isn’t a question about how I work. It’s a question about whether how I work is still viable. The other part is about how the gay community will respond. The rights of gays and the role of gays in our culture has become a big part of the conversation, so that when you’re dealing with material such as Behind the Candelabra, which is specifically about a gay relationship, you want to make sure it doesn’t end up being something that someone can hold up and say, “See, this is my problem with those people.” I want the movie to be sincere, and I want it to be accurate. Now it may be both those things, and it still might be used as a hammer by someone. It’s almost like with Che: I was ready to be attacked, but I didn’t want to be attacked for being historically inaccurate. At the same time, you have to step back and say it’s just a relationship movie. It just happens to be two guys. I could argue that it’s more interesting for it to be two guys because the world they occupy is so strange.
Because of the period? Because of the closet?
Yeah. That specific aspect of show business at that time was just so weird. Liberace was living in the era when he had to hide that part of his life. It would have been career-ending. It’s sad. But now he wouldn’t have to worry about it. You could argue if there had been no Liberace, would we have the Elton John that we have? But my job pictorially is just to figure out how to shoot all these Jacuzzi scenes.
The male body.
Maybe in terms of movies the male body hasn’t gotten as much attention as the female body, but movies are a recent art form. But throughout history, the male figure has gotten as much attention as the female.
But once stories came into the picture, that changed.
That’s interesting because there are two types of strip clubs. In strip clubs for men, there isn’t even a pretense of narrative. But in clubs aimed at women, you always have a skit or some kind of sketch that has a story in it.
Everyone has their own taste. I don’t find the strip club scenes in any way erotic but they are a lot of fun. But there was that one druggy sex scene late in the movie—kind of a dreamlike slo-mo strangely colored scene—that is a turn-on. The one that ends deliriously on the potbellied pig.
That was a tricky sequence. As written, it’s just “They go out and they party.” So how was I going to put across that feeling, like when you know you are going to get some really good drugs and go out and hook up. I really wanted to see if I could find a way to give that feeling. One of the things I like about the story is that none of us wanted to be punitive about the ways people pleasure themselves. No one is punished in the movie because they had sex or did ecstasy. That’s not why things go wrong. It made me think that to a large degree we are still in that mindset that you need to be punished for having pleasure. What I like about the movie is its attitude that fun is fun. Nothing wrong with it.
Channing Tatum is terrific. I used to think he had a bit of potential, but here he’s entirely different.
I noticed something different about him here too when I was working with him. I never brought it up because I didn’t want to derail him by asking him questions about why he seemed so different. I have to believe that since the movie originated out of his experience he knew the character so well he was incapable of giving a wrong answer. He was more confident.
It’s kind of the way Clooney was suddenly different in Out of Sight . In E.R., it had seemed as if he had movie-star potential, and then on the big screen in Batman and Robin (in 1997) all you could see was that smirk and all those terrible self-conscious habits. I always wondered what you said to him or what you did to transform him.
I try in every way that I can without being overt to give them confidence, make them feel secure. I remember one of the first things we shot on Out of Sight with George. I told him that I wanted him to be stock still. I said, “We have great material, we have a great cast, you don’t have to do anything to own this scene.” That was the only conversation we had like that. He got it. I wanted him to know how much I believed in him. The point is “Don’t hide behind stuff. I want you, the inner part of you. That’s what’s most interesting, so don’t distract me.” But when you have a lens three feet from your nose, that’s hard to do.
This is a funny conversation, because it’s all about self-consciousness. Self-consciousness in making a movie, self-consciousness in the presentation of self. But let me ask once again, are you really getting out?
But you know so much about what you do. How can you just leave that?
I know a lot about stuff that doesn’t matter to me anymore, so I’ve got to find some new stuff that matters to me. I’ve hit a wall. I’m not saying that I won’t come back, but I would need to come back as a really different filmmaker, and the only way for me to do that is to do something else, so I have time to annihilate everything that came before and start again. I’m excited. It’s a luxury for me to do this. I’m holding out hope that there is something that’s eluded me that I can get my fingers around if I turn off the sound for a while.
I think a lot of people, me included, have the feeling that the movies as we’ve known them are worn out, or have become less important within this totalizing media environment. But how one could continue or if one should continue to make discrete objects isn’t at all clear.
This is a very expensive hobby. One thing we’ve got to do is redefine what a success is. The ability to reach everyone is potentially a good thing if you are making a discrete and unique object, providing that the scale of it isn’t too crazy. And on the other hand, if you are making something that only appeals to a couple of people, you can get to them all now. The question for me is, can I withstand the tyranny of traditional narrative. And if that’s indestructible and that’s never going to move, can I find another way to transmit information so that you know what’s going on but you don’t know how you know. I might end up in some weird hybrid Matthew Barney world. I don’t know. And maybe there is a new cycle of filmmakers coming who are more connected to what audiences want now. We’re due for another wave of filmmakers.
I think Magic Mike is going to connect. It will make a lot of money.
We’re fine. It only cost $7 million. I hope that if it works, a door is going to open for someone behind me. It’s an original screenplay, there are no guns, nothing explodes, it’s aimed at adults. If we can show up in the middle of the summer and have it work, that means someone else is going to get that opportunity too. And I like that.