The Fretts on Film Interview: Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh likes to talk about movies. He insists on 45-minute interviews (at minimum), a rarity in today’s 10-20-minute phoner Hollywood publicity culture. I spoke with him for close to an hour about his latest film, the smart psycho-pharmacological thriller Side Effects, for The New York Daily News. As you would imagine, our conversation veered off into other topics, like why his Leni Riefenstahl biopic and Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake got scrapped, the impact of David Fincher’s Netflix series House of Cards, the relationship between 50 Shades of Grey and Magic Mike, and how he hopes all the readers of my ex-EW colleague Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel Gone Girl will flock to Side Effects.
You’ve collaborated with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns four times now, on HBO’s PU-239, The Informant!, Contagion and now Side Effects. What was it about him that made you want to work with him when he originally pitched you The Informant! 10 years ago?
Well, I guess initially it was his ability to identify an interesting piece of material. When he rang us and said, ‘I want to come in and talk about it,’ and described how it might work, I thought, ‘That sounds good,’ and the script turned out to be something that was so distinctive, and as I discovered, unique to Scott that he and I immediately just started spit-balling other things to work on. And before The Informant! even, we got involved with Pu-239 and after The Informant, we were within a day of making a deal to make a movie about the German documentarian Leni Riefenstahl. We had a very interesting take on it, and the day before we were supposed to go in and literally sort of close it and start working, I called him on the phone and said, ‘You know what—nobody’s going to go see this. Not even our friends, and I’ve had enough of spending two years on things and having nobody go to see them. I don’t mind doing something weird, but it’s got to have a shot, and this thing has no shot. So what else do you have?’ And he didn’t even hesitate and went, ‘I’ve always wanted to make an ultra-realistic movie about a pandemic.’ And I said, ‘Let’s pitch that instead.’ So we literally walked into this meeting where they thought we were going to say, ‘Let’s close it and here’s what we’re going to do with Leni,’ and we sat down and I said, ‘Forget that—we want to do this instead.’ And the producer said, ‘Great.’ And literally that afternoon, we started working on that. Apart from Scott’s talent is his ability in the moment like that—to take a breath and go, ‘You know what, that’s the smart macro-view of our situation and I’m absolutely prepared to take a radical left turn.’
Well it sounds like you’ve had to do that with him a number of times. You’ve talked about how this movie sort of happen because The Man from U.N.C.L.E didn’t and I know he was also going to working on that. And it also took a long time for Informant! to actually get made after he pitched it to you. Is that just typical of the Hollywood process?
Yeah, it is. And I think a lot of my time when I was a producer, and a lot of my time even now in talking to other filmmakers is trying to remind people not to take it personally. Everybody gets thrown under the bus at some point so I think Scott’s done a great job of being very resilient and part of it, I think, is because my attitude is “don’t look back.” When things have always gone one way or another, I’ve always looked ahead and gone, ‘What’s next? What are we going to do now?’ So when U.N.C.L.E blew up, the next day, I called him and said, ‘Can I have Side Effects?’ again because I had been asking him for years, and he said, ‘Yeah.’
Because our idea was that you’re rooting for her, and the Hilter and Goebbels were kinda the studio. So at the end of the movie, she’s made this absolutely horrifying piece of propaganda that glorifies Nazism and she’s standing up on the stage and people are throwing flowers at her, and the whole point—the movie was essentially going to be made as you should be applauding her, too, which is why I knew nobody would go see it. I thought the only way to make it was to absolutely adopt her belief system, and not have one foot out of it and go, ‘Isn’t she horrible?’ Make the movie like you’re inside her point of view. That would be even worse.
Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a tough sell.
Yeah, it would have been.
What’s your collaborative process with Scott like? I take it he just doesn’t write the script and hand it to you, but that he’s really there on the set and working through problems.
Well, we’ll talk through it. Let’s talk about The Informant and Contagion because those were scripts in which I was kind of involved from the beginning, and especially in the case of Contagion, which was an original, there was a lot of discussion about the math of it. How many characters? How many cities? How many storylines? A lot of discussion like that, a lot of research. And then my feeling is, he gets to go off on a frolic of his own for the first draft. I want the first draft to be basically ‘show me everything that you can think of and that you’re interested in, and then we’ll figure it out.’ Re-writing is easy, which is usually true—it’s not as hard as the first draft. So then we’ll spend a lot of our time together going through it and going through it and then I demand that he be on set see every iteration of the edit because we’re constantly re-calibrating and tweaking things, often during the shoot. There’s several scenes in Side Effects that we re-shot while we were shooting because I would show him a chunk of this film and say, ‘I think we need another transition to get from here to here or I think we need a brand new scene to replace this scene.’ The great thing about Scott is that he’s so quick and he has ideas pouring off of him, and therefore, it’s not precious at all. It’s sort of like when I told him I didn’t want to do Leni, and I asked him what else he had, he like opened up his jacket like he has six other ideas hanging in there. Like his whole thing is, ‘You don’t like that idea? I’ve got plenty more.’ And so it’s really easy. For me, it’s great. There’s never this kind of eye roll or exhale or, ‘What do you mean you don’t like it? What are you trying to change that?’ He’s so fluid.
He said that you’ve ruined him from other directors though because you’re so collaborative. Do you feel bad about that, considering you’re saying you’re not going to direct anymore? And now you’re going to turn him out to other people who won’t treat him as well.
Well [laughing]—that’s the thing, it’s a two-way street. I can open the kimono like that because Scott’s cool and knows what the ideal version of that interaction is so he makes it easy for me to have him attached to my hip. Some writers are not like that. I’ve been lucky, most of the ones I’ve worked with are. And you get to know by reputation who those people are, and also, if I’ve started working with a writer and we’ve spent enough time in a room, they know that when I ask a question about something or I’m interested in trying to change something, it’s the furthest thing from arbitrary. There’s a very specific reason and they’ve seen that I have enough of a history of not fucking things up. I’m changing it because I think there’s something better there. But again, some people just feel, ‘The way I wrote it is the way I wrote it.’ I had a fantastic relationship with Paul Attanasio on The Good German, and he never came to the set. He just said, ‘I hate it, it’s so boring, I have no interest in seeing the cast say my words.’ He said, ‘Call me when you have a cut together.’ But to me, the preferred method to have them there because it’s just such a resource and again, here with Scott—this is another original screenplay—I wouldn’t feel comfortable changing anything without clearing it with him because I don’t want to make it worse. You can make something worse by just having a few words wrong, and so whenever there was anything, he was there, and I would say, literally, ‘Can we invert this sentence?’ It was that detailed and he loves that.
He’s pretty upfront about the fact that he wanted to direct Side Effects himself. How did you massage that transition?
Look, it was a tough ask, and he again, looked at it and thought—I said to him, ‘I really thought you and I were going to be making a movie together in April and now we’re not and it’s November. Would you consider this?’ And he thought about it and he said, ‘Look, I just want to see my stuff get made, I know I’ll have a great time, I’ll write something else, I have other ideas, I’ll find something else.’ And never evinced any sort of regret or a frustration with the fact that I was doing it. First of all, he was a producer on it so there were additional obligations that were required of him that he was able to fulfill, which was great, and so every opportunity I get, I thank him for taking the long view and saying, ‘Yes.’ Not a lot of people would have.
It was hard to tell. The conversations started because there were a lot of cast discussions and that was getting tricky, and then there started being a lot of discussion about the [budget] number, and I felt that we were in a range that really didn’t merit a sort of live-or-die conversation about the number, but that seemed to be where we were at. And I started to think, ‘Well maybe this is about something else, and the number is just sort of a misdirect.’ So at a certain point, I sort of decided, something’s not right and I think we should step out of this because I don’t want to go into a situation making a movie that even though it wasn’t a gigantic budget, was designed to be a tent-pole franchise—if this is where we’re at right now, we’re not going to get any better. So I called Scott and I just said, ‘I think we have to agree to walk away from this because I know how things are supposed to go when it’s going to go well and that’s not what’s happening here.’ And I have a relationship with Warner Brothers and I’d rather keep it somewhat at par than get into a situation on a high-profile film where there’s a real problem. So that was kind of self-preservation and trying to read the tea leaves at the same time.
So what made you want to do Side Effects?
I just loved it. He’d been sending me drafts and I wondered why this kind of movie had kind of fallen out of favor. Because they’re not expensive, they’re real audience movies. They’re not esoteric, you don’t have to like platform at the end of the year and hope you get on some list or anything like that—they’re real populist movies, and frankly, the same with Man from U.N.C.L.E., these were going to be the last two things I was going to do for a while, well that and Behind the Candelabra, and I was like, ‘I want to have fun. I don’t want to do something heavy—I want to have fun.’ And this just seemed like a lot of fun.
When you say this kind of movie, do you mean psychological thriller? I know you’ve compared it to Fatal Attraction and that sort of genre.
Yeah, yeah. Something that’s not designed to make you feel bad.
It might freak some people out, though—don’t you think?
Well, that’s what Scott’s good at. He has sticky ideas. I mean look, we’ve got to go do a Q&A at Lincoln Center tonight right after the screening, and I’ve got my beta blocker, and at around 9:00, I’m gonna take it with a lychee martini.
The movie does have some early twists. How do you decide what to give away and what to keep under wraps, in terms of the marketing and the way that you’re selling it?
Obviously our vote is to say nothing—we were like, ‘Well maybe we can put it out there without anyone knowing anything.’ But, I have to say, having done the junket last weekend and these are the few things that have jumped up—the articles and stuff—people have been very cool about it because they know it’s so fun if you don’t know what’s going to happen, and I think they understand, ‘Well, if I have a readership, it’s because I write a certain way or people want to read what I write—why would I want to betray my readers by giving this up? Then I’m a jerk.’ So people have been pretty cool about going, ‘You know what? The less said about this, the better. It’s really fun, great performances.’ It’s kind of like, let’s talk after. So I mean, we’ll see. In the age of the internet, it’s really tricky.
Well, I will try to preserve as many of the twists as I can.
No, well, look—there are enough there that I feel like, even if you knew one of them, you’re not going to know all three of them. I’ve talked very openly about how the first 35 minutes of the film, we worked on as hard as anything I’ve ever worked on. Trying to calibrate the first act was really tricky in terms of rhythm, in terms of information release. We did more iterations in the first 35 minutes of this movie than any movie I’ve ever made. Once it hit that point, it was kind of on the rails of taking off, but it was, you know, going in, it’s a girl-with-a-problem movie. But you don’t want to bore people. It has to feel real.
When I went to the screening, they made a big deal about not letting anyone in after it started. Is that your idea?
I do that whenever I screen stuff. We had a lot of friends’ screenings to get feedback and we always post that on the door, and I said to Open Road, we got to do this because if you miss the opening, you don’t know what’s going on. It’s not fun. And they were fine with that. Once the word gets out, people show up on time.
It just reminded me of the whole Psycho marketing.
Absolutely. I wish we could do it in real theaters, but somebody would get shot.
In terms of the real-world issues that this plays off of, do you see the film in any way as a cautionary tale or is it just a thriller that has some real-world elements to it?
Yeah, I think so. The takeaway of the movie when you walk out of the theater is not so much, ‘I wonder whether or not I should be on anti-depressants,’ but there’s no question that part of its appeal is that it really feels like an issue movie, as we weighed into it. and it is an issue that is really thought-provoking. Almost everybody knows somebody who’s on something.
Do you think too many people take anti-depressants?
Well, I think two things. I think not just in our culture here in the U.S., but in the world and certainly we hear a lot—people are really interested in shortcuts in every direction, whether it’s a relationship or to make money or whatever. I think people are always looking for a shortcut, for a way to sort of gain an advantage so that they don’t have to put in the hours to get to where they want to get or get what they want to get. There’s that part. Because Scott and our consultant would tell you, there’s a certain type of doctor that’s like, ‘Well, if I can put some people on these meds then I don’t have to do the full 50-minute talk therapy thing.’ So there’s that danger, and the other thing, which Scott referred to is “The War on Sadness”—that we seem to be waging on this idea that it’s somehow inappropriate to have peace and values in your life as you react to specific sets of circumstances, and I think that’s true, too. Look, there are people that are in sort of William Styron territory, and they need something. They need meds, they need therapy, some of them need ECT, which actually is very effective and doesn’t have the kind of physical side effects that these pills do. But it’s very tigmatized because of movies and shit. The country’s under a lot of stress—I know that.
It seems that there are some surface similarities to Contagion in that it’s taking this real-world issue and spinning it out into a thriller, and Jude Law is in it and there’s pharmaceutical industry concerns, as well. Did you look at Contagion in any way and say, ‘Well, that worked really well creatively and commercially—let’s try something like that again?’
Well, I thought it would create an interesting diptych. Here’s a movie in which for the most parts, except for Jude’s rants, pharmaceutical companies and science are the heroes. But you’re dealing with a government agency that doesn’t work for profit—its job is to keep people from dying. I thought it was great. Okay, now we get to do that sort of shadow side of that. You’re dealing with companies that are working for profit, and you could argue are helping to suggest that there’s a really big problem somewhere that they have a solution to—so they’re the arsonist and the fireman. And I thought that was really interesting that we got to explore that part of it.
Why cast Jude Law again?
Scott and I talked about it and I said, ‘It seems like such a great Jude part.’ I don’t even know what that means, but we need this guy to play two halves of something that I think he can do really well. The first half is this guy who really feels like he has everything dialed in and is working at a level slightly above everybody else. and then a guy who becomes an obsessive. I feel like those are just two things that he plays really well. And we really like the idea of playing him as British and having that become an issue at a certain point where you wonder, ‘Well, why did he leave the U.K.? What happened there?’ And also, I really wanted him. I wanted as much of Jude, as I got to know him, to come through. I wanted a very thin layer of skin between him and this character. And he seemed up for that. And he loves talking—he talked to all kinds of doctors, he read all kinds of stuff. I’d send him stuff to read, Scott would send him stuff, and he loves doing all of that. And then when he shows up, he puts all that aside, and he’s just in it. For somebody like me who likes to work really quickly, it’s really great.
Why did you think of Rooney Mara for the part? It’s another very dark role after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. You don’t think there’s any danger of her getting pigeon-holed?
I don’t think so because it was so different. I’ve gotten to know her a bit personally through David Fincher because I was running an editing room in his office when he was finishing Social Network and all during the time he was making Tattoo so I was talking to him about her a lot. And so I was very interested in her, and that all came together pretty quickly.
She’s very pleasant. But she doesn’t overshare. She’ll answer a question, but she’s not running around just spouting material.
Do you think that quality is what makes her so fascinating to watch on screen?
Yeah. I mean there’s certainly—she’s just got that thing. If it were 1920, she’d be doing this. She just has that—there’s an ethereal quality to her that just suggests a lot of rear brain activity. And I think your job is to make sure that the camera’s in the right spot so that that’s coming across because it’s there.
You’re obviously fond with working with Channing Tatum. What makes you continue to cast him in your movies?
This, I thought, would be a nice switch-up for him, and we talked about, the first thing he said was, ‘I want to sound different. I want to work with somebody; I want to change my voice because I want to get rid of all my kind of Southern tendencies to kind of round things off; I want to speak in a much sharper, much more clipped, much more precise way.’ And I said, ‘You know, that’s a great idea. Let’s do that.’ I think for him, it was just nice to put on a suit and play something a little different than what he’s been doing lately.
Scott was saying that he thought people didn’t quite realize—or maybe they’re just starting to realize—that Channing wants to be a part of interesting movies. Do you think his looks have gotten in the way of that for people?
No, I don’t think so. If I were him, I’d feel pretty happy how things have been—10 years ago, we didn’t know who he was and he didn’t know who he was.
No. Only in a sort of joking way when I offered it to her, and she said, ‘Wow, well this seems like very familiar territory and the fact that it’s you—great, let’s go do it,’ which I was really happy about because I just left like she ought to be in this movie. She has a quality that just belongs in this movie, to my mind. And so I was really happy she said yes right away, and I think she was happy to be home [in New York City], as always, so we didn’t have to talk a lot. She understood it, she knew what she was doing. There wasn’t a lot of course correcting.
In terms of the decision to make the primary drug in the film a fictional drug, and not one the real ones that were mentioned—how much of that was a legal decision?
It’s impossible. Here’s the only way you can do it—find a real story where somebody took a real pill, and you want to make a movie based on that and use the real name, there’s nothing they can do. And the two stories that Rooney’s lawyer tells Jude in the diner about similar things that happened—those were real cases. So this stuff does happen. But it was clear from the get-go, we would have to come up with a name, which was kind of fun. Scott used to work in that world—he had like 10 hilarious names. Once you get into the mode of how they think about that, how they associate certain sounds to certain things, trying to make it sound all fuzzy and warm and successful, it’s kind of funny.
Have you gotten any reaction from the pharmaceutical industry yet?
No. I don’t think we really will. What was interesting is that we’ve been screening the move for a lot of shrinks, and their reaction has been pretty interesting. We had one screening and this one psychiatrist came up and he goes, ‘Well for the first half hour, I wanted to just stand up and leave and then I realized I’m being played.’ So I think they came out at the end of it actually pretty sanguine about it. I don’t think they viewed it as—he’s not bad at his job, I don’t think that he takes the view that this stuff doesn’t help, he just found himself in a situation that he didn’t anticipate, and would have never assumed that someone could construct.
Well, if you’re going to retire, it seems like you’re going out on a high note.
I feel good about the last handful of movies. I feel really good about them. I remember when I working on Moneyball and I was talking to Billy Beane and we were talking about this whole myth about why he quit playing. And he said, ‘I want to be clear—I took the uniform off, they did not tear it off of me.’ And I thought that was a great way to express it, and that’s the way I wanted to feel—I wanted to feel like, well, if I’m going to step away, I don’t want it to be because nobody wanted me, I wanted it to be because I felt like I needed a break or I needed a change.
No. Look, I felt it was a very commercial movie, but it’s performance here and the U.K. and Australia, we literally doubled everybody’s projection. When the surprise goes in that direction, that’s fun. I’ll tell you what I think it was, and it’s something you can’t predict—that is just timing and good fortune. We coasted on the heels of that whole 50 Shades of Grey thing. There was this whole discussion going on about female fantasy that was just sucking up all the air, and we were lucky to just show up at a point where everybody was talking about that and all of those people literally went to see the movie. Now, that’s just—we didn’t know when we were making the movie, that was coming—but that had a huge effect. In this case, were hoping, ‘Oh, can we get all the Gone Girl people?’ because this is right in that same terrain. How do we get an email blast of everybody who’s reading Gone Girl right now? Literally, we’ve been talking about, ‘What book clubs are reading that? How do we get to these people?’ I feel like that’s become a huge thing and how do we piggyback on that?
That’s very smart. You might be onto something there. So why retire now?
I saw my brother a few days ago for the first time in a while, maybe over a year, and when we both got back home he said, ‘You seem really different.’ He goes, ‘You seem a lot happier and lot more present.’ And I feel fine. But, it took somebody who hadn’t seen me in a while to see, ‘Oh, he’s not prepping two things at the same time and finishing a third,’ and I guess maybe I didn’t even realize the extent to which that was a distraction moment-to-moment because having that gone, I do feel different.
Is there any wiggle room in this retirement? You’re saying for a while or you don’t know how long…
It’s going to be a little while because I have some other things that are going to take up some time—but I don’t know. I want to see what happens and do some other things and if I can literally tear down the creative approach that I’ve taken to this point and re-build as a primitive almost. I don’t know if you’re consciously trying to do that, if you can do it, but I’m going to try.
Scott said you’re going to direct a play about Columbine that he wrote?
Yeah. It’s really interesting.
It seems rather timely and relevant.
Yeah. It’s a really, really fascinating piece. He’s working on it now, we’re going to do a little workshop at the end of the month, and hopefully, we’d like to have it up in the fall, but it’s the kind of piece that I think I can do. It’s an original. It’s going to require a visual approach to staging that I feel comfortable with. I feel like my skillset is transferable to what this piece needs to be, and I couldn’t say that about most things so I’m really excited about that. That’ll be—it’s very provocative, and not in a way that people will anticipate. It’s not about the hot button issues that everybody thinks of when that word is spoken. It’s about something else that gets lost in that argument, and that’s what I thought made it really, really unusual.
What kind of TV series could you see yourself possibly doing?
There’s a lot of them on right now that I would feel very happy stepping into. I don’t know—it would have to be something either that I came up with or somebody I know came up with that I felt I could bring something to that is distinctive, and that I could sort of set up and create an aesthetic for, that would then be followed, that would really work. The shows that I tend to like sort of have a paradigm of how the show is supposed to be made, and they follow that. and that’s the way movies work, and so, we’ll see. But that’ll be a while. I need some time to sort of decompress. And I’m working on a book, then I’m going to do Scott’s play.
What’s the book about?
Another filmmaking book.
It’s easy to say when somebody hates something that you were ahead of your time because people really hated it. I felt it was physically hard to do. The way that we did it was sort of punishing, but necessary because of the conceit of a new show every week that was ripped from the headlines. I think it’s one of the better things I’ve done when you look at it as a 5-hour movie. I was really, really happy with it, and HBO would have continued with it if George [Clooney] and I hadn’t said, ‘You know what, they don’t want us to come back here, and we don’t want to come back so we’re 10 episodes and out.’ But I’m really proud of it. I felt like it was a really distinctive approach to a very complicated world, and I really liked it. Like I said, I was really a tough 10 weeks, and then to come out of it and have everybody kind of dismiss it or flat-out pee on it, I don’t think any of us walked away with a good feeling.
You talked in my fellow EW alum Mary Kaye Schilling’s NY Magazine piece about video on-demand, and how you’re intrigued by that model. Is that something you could see yourself working in at some point?
Yeah, absolutely. Especially if I had a certain kind of film. Look, with Bubble and Girlfriend Experience, I was trying to be an example of what’s possible with this new technology. The experiment didn’t play out the way we hoped because we kind of got blocked by the theater chains that weren’t Landmark because even though we offered to cut them in on the video stream because they were like, ‘We don’t believe in VOD.’ We couldn’t really get all the information out of that experience that we were hoping to because we were never able to play it in more than 75 theaters, but it seems to be working better now, and so I like when movies can sort of top through and turn a profit, and you get your stuff seen. I mean, Margin Call was one of my favorite movies of last year.
I think there’s a lot of really good stuff coming out on-demand now.
I think that line’s now starting to disappear on whether or not people are starting to take the movie seriously. I think people are beginning to realize that it’s kind of—I’ve been saying for years when people say, ‘How could you do that? Don’t you want your movie seen in the theater?’ And I go, ‘Cinema, as I define it, has nothing to do with the size of the screen. It’s a way of seeing things, it’s a way of shooting things, it’s an artistic approach that is unique to cinema, and it doesn’t matter if the screen is 50 feet or 50 inches.’ I’ve seen commercials that have it and I’ve seen Oscar-winning movies that don’t. So this whole debate to me has been kind of just noise.
It’s not just a dumping ground for products that got botched. I think that was the initial assumption. I’m really interested to see what happens with House of Cards. I’ve seen the first two episodes and I think that Fincher’s onto something…
And he had the toughest two episodes because he’s setting everything up. Once this thing starts really rolling, it’s really good. You’re going to like it a lot.
Just to wrap it up, and bring it back to Side Effects again—if this does end up being your last theatrical film, how will you feel about that?
Great. I would be very happy with that. When you start out, you’re trying to figure out what kind of filmmaker you are and you realize at the end of the day, well, your only criteria for saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something is, ‘Would I get in line to see it?’ And so yeah. If I were the target for all these ads, I would say, ‘I’m going to see that.’ So that’s all I can ask.
What’s your favorite Steven Soderbergh film? sex, lies and videotape, Traffic, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich? Post a comment!