NO FILM BUDGET is too high or too low to spook Steven Soderbergh, who’s spent decades crafting everything from indie classics like “sex, lies, and videotape” to award-winning dramas like “Traffic” and blockbusters like “Ocean’s Eleven.” All he asks: that the shoots be frightening in interesting ways.
“There needs to be something about the project that scares me, something that makes me anxious, that makes me feel, ‘Wow, if we don’t pull this aspect of the production off, uh, we’re going to be in trouble,’” said Mr. Soderbergh, 57, from his home in Los Feliz, Calif. “That’s what keeps me alert and on the lookout for opportunities to solve problems.”
For his latest film “Let Them All Talk,” an HBO Max release that stars Meryl Streep and Lucas Hedges, Mr. Soderbergh challenged his crew to shoot what amounts to 80% of the movie in 8 days while crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2. Nearly all the equipment he needed fit neatly into a couple of rolling cases. “It’s a reminder that you don’t need all that stuff,” he said. “If you have a story and you have good actors, with the technology now you can make something that looks amazing for nothing.”
Here, the director talks film homework and the price of making movies.
What I look for as a filmmaker is: freedom and momentum. Shooting on an iPhone gave me that. I wanted the ability to put a lens anywhere in seconds. I like that on “Unsane” and “Highflying Bird” our entire camera department fit in a backpack, that feeling of being an amateur.
If you don’t know: where to place the lens, it doesn’t matter what capture device you have. I don’t care if you’ve got an IMAX camera, if it’s not in the right place, it doesn’t matter.
Fortunately: the Red camera company came out with this new body called the Komodo. It’s very, very, very small. “Let Them All Talk” was the first shoot to be able to use one. Literally, these were the prototypes.
The trickle-down effect of having gear that small is: pretty significant, because it means all of the support that you need for those cameras shrinks. So the tripods are smaller and I’m using the wheelchair with a stabilizer as a dolly. And everything just becomes much more manageable in spaces that are often very tight.
If I thought there was a specific look I couldn’t get any other way: I might shoot it on celluloid again. But it most likely wouldn’t be 35mm. It would be 16mm or even Super 8. The technology that’s available now to manipulate images and postproduction is ridiculously sophisticated.
If inspiring the next generation of filmmakers is: a byproduct of making small projects, that’s great. But it’s really a message I’m sending to myself, a reminder that you don’t need all that stuff. If you have a story and you have some good actors, with the technology now you can make something that looks amazing for nothing.
If I have any down time, I make: collages. I’ve got one in my house in Los Angeles that’s 6 feet by 9 feet, crafted from tabloid images of movie people. It’s very detailed.
My collage habit began when: I bought a few magazines at the airport to kill time—Us Weekly, People, that sort of thing. I was sitting there thinking, “I spend a lot of time looking at stuff like this. I need to do something with it.” So I spent six months compiling and cutting out images from those kinds of magazines. Then I spent another six months building the collage. It cured me of ever picking up one of those magazines again.
Other collage elements come from: a box of what I called “bling” images: watches and handbags and shoes, all ads I cut out from magazines, all super high-end. I made a bling collage.
I just don’t have: acquisition envy. I edit on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, so I was looking at Apple’s new laptops and asking, “Is this really going to be any better for me?” Because if it’s not, I’m very happy with what I have. I ultimately decided to let it shake out.
I used lockdown to: finish remastering and in some cases completely re-cutting films of mine whose rights had reverted back to me. I worked through quarantine to get them ready for a set that I want to put out soon.
My re-edit of my film ‘Kafka’ is: pretty drastic. It’s a different film with a different title, a complete rethink. Others like “Full Frontal” and “Schizopolis” just got shorter. When I go back to change a film it’s not because something’s missing, but usually because things could be leaner.
My home-theater setup is: pretty solid. I’ve got a 77-inch LG OLED and somebody from the postproduction house we work with came to tune it up. These big LGs now are becoming the standard even in postproduction suites. But many would be pained to know that despite the big screen I’m doing nothing to boost the sound. So that’s embarrassing.
When watching a movie, I’ve found that it’s: impossible to turn off my filter that’s assessing the filmmaking. I have a better chance of getting lost in something if it’s new and I don’t know what’s coming, so that’s still very exciting. But typically if I’m watching something that isn’t new, it’s probably homework-related. I’m usually starting to think about the next film.
‘Let Them All Talk’ is a film about: endings and about a way of living that was going to have to change. I watched Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game” for homework because it was one of those films that portrayed that feeling very well. And Renoir had a sharp view of human behavior, but he was also very generous toward his characters. He didn’t shy away from the aspects that were ridiculous or destructive, but he was never mean.
If you asked me if movie theaters will come back, I’d say: yes. Do I know when? No. The entertainment industry still relies on the model of a movie that absolutely blows up at the box office. That $2 billion hit is why people keep going back to the gaming table to make a movie.
Streaming hasn’t changed how: I shoot films. Not at all. I don’t shoot more close-ups because I know people are going to watch it on a TV. My attitude is that I’d rather see an amazing shot on a small screen than a mediocre shot on a giant screen.
One thing I don’t wait for is: permission. If you have an impulse to create something, go create it. Stop sitting around thinking, “Oh I can’t because I don’t have X or I don’t know Y.”
If you have a smartphone, you’re: already in the film business. And I think it’s great. It certainly solves the problem for me when people come up and ask me how to get into the business.
In ‘Notes on the Cinematographer,’ Robert Bresson says: that those who’ve worked with the least can learn how to work with the most. But those who’ve always worked with the most can never learn to work with the least. So I think how you operate and succeed has a lot to do with where you started.
—Edited from an interview with Matthew Kitchen
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