I'm not sure which came first: Steven Soderbergh or the over-used term "independent film." In 1989, Soderbergh was a relatively obscure 26-year-old writer/director who startled the world when he walked away with the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and then, to even greater surprise, the film became a commercial hit. From that time forward, the industry profile of independent films would never be the same. Suddenly, investors and even Hollywood studios were searching for the next sex, lies, and videotape. They still are.
While independent film has sometimes suffered under the industry's increasing commercial pressures, Soderbergh's art has not. Since sex, lies, and videotape, the director has continued to redefine filmmaking with such distinct and complex projects as Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath, and Schizopolis. And even when he ventures into studio filmmaking, as he did with the outstanding Out of Sight, Soderbergh has remained a true independent. His latest work, The Limey, which stars Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, and Luis Guzman, is another fine example of what independence means: absolute dedication to and passion for the art of moviemaking.
In later years, Soderbergh has also produced other director's projects, including David Siegel and Scott McGehee's Suture, Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers, and Gary Ross' Pleasantville. Currently, Soderbergh is editing his next directorial effort, Erin Brockovich, a film which stars one of his favorite actors, Albert Finney, along with Julia Roberts.
The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native recently sat down with Back Stage West to discuss his close collaboration with actors, The Limey, and his continuing innovation in the cinema.
Back Stage West: The Limey, like all of your films, defies categorization. I think the same thing could be said about many of the actors you cast in your films. Is there such a thing as a Steven Soderbergh actor?
Steven Soderbergh: I don't think so. It helps if they have a sense of humor, but it's not a prerequisite. I've been very fortunate in that I've never really had one of those bad experiences that you sometimes hear about. All the actors I've worked with have been really good and very capable, and I think a lot of times those bad experiences happen because there are directors out there who just don't know how to talk to actors, don't know how to relate to them, don't understand what it is they do, or don't have a desire to find out what it is they do.
BSW: Is your approach to actors something you learned along the way?
Soderbergh: No. I certainly didn't have any training, but when I was in Baton Rouge making short films, I knew actors at the LSU [Louisiana State University] drama department. I hung around them. I just felt familiar with them and they weren't mysterious to me. They didn't have an "otherness" to them that I found intimidating or disconcerting.
I tend to be pretty straightforward. I don't believe in manipulating actors, so the communication tends to be very direct and very efficient. I'm not one of those people who thinks you have to trick an actor into doing something, and if the scene's tense you have to make the actor tense. I just think that's crap. Any actor who has any level of craft can give you whatever you ask for. I think the problem is sometimes how you ask them and the environment that you're providing for them to perform in. I believe a comfortable actor is a good actor. So the atmosphere on the set, which is dictated by me, is absolutely actor-driven, and it's made clear to everyone on the crew that the performance is the priority here.
BSW: What kind of audition process do you set up to find the right actors for your films?
Soderbergh: I think auditioning is just a very clunky way to do it. It's sometimes unavoidable, but I don't enjoy it because I know how hard it is on the actor.
BSW: So, ideally, how do you cast your films?
Soderbergh: It's a combination of things. Sometimes there are people I've worked with before that are right for things, and that's always nice. Sometimes they're actors that I'm very familiar with, either professionally, or I know them personally and have met them enough times in non-work situations to get a feel for them and whether or not we'll get on well, and that's always helpful.
I really use straight auditioning as a last resort for people I've never seen before or that are trying something with a character that they've never tried before. Other than that, I will usually just meet with them and talk with them. If I can meet with an actor for a while whose work I've seen, I can usually make a pretty informed decision about whether or not they'll be right for the part. That's always my preferred method-just to talk.
BSW: A lot of the actors in The Limey-while they're well-respected actors-are not A-list stars at the box office. Did you ignore the pressure to cast more commercial actors?
Soderbergh: There's a balance there. First of all, we all knew going in that we were building a movie around Terence Stamp, and then shortly thereafter, Peter Fonda. And basically, Artisan Entertainment said, "OK. Terence, Peter, Lesley Anne... Nine million dollars. We'll take the shot." They could have easily said no, but they thought it was worthwhile.
I was acting as a moviegoer. I thought, I would love to see a movie in which Terence Stamp is the lead character, so that's what I was thinking. But I also knew that we had a movie in which 95 percent of the dialogue was spoken by characters 50 and older, and that's not exactly where the core demographic is lately.
One of the things that I liked about the script was that Terence Stamp's daughter, Jenny, had a really close friend who was not her age. Lem Dobbs, the writer [of The Limey], and I were talking about that and he was saying, "You know, I have friends of all different ages, but I feel like when I go to see a movie, everybody's friend is exactly the same age." We became very enamored of the idea of Jenny's closest friend being a woman [Lesley Anne Warren] who was much older than her, because that seemed absolutely right for it.
BSW: Who are some of your favorite actors?
Soderbergh: I've worked with a lot of them, and I'm sure I have a list in the back of my head that I keep chipping away at. The film I'm cutting now has Albert Finney in it, and I've always loved Albert Finney. Again, Terence was always one of my favorites. That's sort of how The Limey came about. Luis Guzman, who I've used twice [and is now in The Limey], I remember seeing in Sidney Lumet's film Q&A in 1990 and sort of making a mental note, I really like that guy; someday I want to find something for him to do.
I make those little lists, but I think that I'm not really conscious of them and they're filled with people that aren't necessarily known to the general public, but perhaps by your readers. I'm doing pretty well at chipping away at it.
And there's this core group of what I call the LSU Mafia, people who were in the M.F.A. program there when I was in Baton Rouge, that I keep using in little parts in all of my movies. They're always popping up-[the late] David Jensen, who's in almost every one of my movies somewhere or other, Joe Chrest, Scott Allen, Wayne P re, and this woman, Betsy Monroe, who I cast in a play that I directed at LSU and then later put in Out of Sight. That's always fun, because I have this group of people that when I'm dealing with a casting director I can say, "Oh, that would be good for Joe. We'll have Joe do that." They're just friends of mine.
But it's funny. I've finally figured out what rehearsals are for just recently.
BSW: Did you not used to rehearse?
Soderbergh: I always rehearsed, but now I've come to realize that as time was going on that we were spending less and less time rehearsing and more and more time just talking. And I realized that that's what rehearsals are for-assuming the script's in good shape-that time is really for me to get to know how the actors want to be spoken to and who I need to be to get them the most comfortable.
BSW: So you adjust yourself to accommodate the actor?
Soderbergh: Yeah, and then I make sure that I don't over-direct. When the actors are doing well and things are going well, I leave the actors alone. We all know that the worst thing you can do is to go, "Hey, you know when you did that thing? It was so great," because it's never going to be great again. Usually we're dealing with very, very minor direction.
BSW: I understand that you don't like to use a video playback monitor on your sets-something which has become a standard for many film directors. Why not?
Soderbergh: That was a conscious thing. I threw that out five years ago and now I'm either right next to the camera or I'm operating the camera, and it's a completely different relationship with the actor and a much better one. The monitor, for me, is a bad thing. It makes you passive. It draws the energy away from where the camera is. And I've never met an actor who likes it. There's just no substitute for feeling the director right there or looking through the lens. I really enjoy it a lot more and I feel closer to the actors, emotionally.
On Out of Sight, Jennifer Lopez had never been on a movie before where it wasn't being used. For the first day, I think it was disorienting because she was so used to the monitor/playback thing, and then she really liked not having it, because she saw not only how quickly we moved, but how it made everyone go on instinct. The gap between her and me had been closed to almost nothing and she found out how much more fun that is.
BSW: There's some incredibly innovative techniques used in The Limey, and I imagine that some of your actors found these techniques quite challenging, such as the scene in which Terence Stamp is talking to Lesley Anne Warren and their dialogue overlaps between three different locations. Tell me about that scene.
Soderbergh: That idea of taking an entire scene and shooting the whole thing in three different locations and cutting it together as if it is happening simultaneously was something that occurred to me during Out of Sight, but I couldn't find a place for it. I really wanted to try it to see if it would work. I had a feeling it would, even though logically it makes absolutely no sense. It was very disorienting for the actors. Very.
BSW: So how did you convince them to trust you?
Soderbergh: Terence helped me out. He just sort of went with it. I think it was harder for Lesley Anne, just because at that point Terence had been on the movie longer and he had surrendered himself to the idea that we were doing some unusual things. That specific sequence was hard because it's just so counter-intuitive to the way an actor works. When you're saying, "I want you to play this identical scene out in three different places with two different blockings in each of those three places," an actor is so keyed in to their environment and their surroundings that it's hard for the actor. Lesley Anne was saying, "Well, I don't understand. I feel so different in my apartment than I do walking along the beach than I do sitting in a diner. Which one of those do I play?" And I said, "Play whatever you feel in that location," which she was content to do, but she felt that it would be so jarring because the timbre of each scene would be so different. And I said, "Yes, it will. That's what I want. Don't sweat it," and she went through it. But I'm sure it was really strange for her.
I have to say, it's one of my favorite things in the movie when I see it, because it's so specific to cinema and it's something that only movies can do.
BSW: What are some things that actors do that really excite you? Is it, like you said, when they do something that you know can never be repeated?
Soderbergh: That's really it. The script is like the inflatable doll before it's been inflated, and when you see an actor in the zone, who understands the character and who understands their craft, it's like watching the air fill it up and it turns out to be a shape that you never considered before. That's why I try not to over-rehearse stuff too much, and it's also why I'm usually running at least two cameras-because I really like the feeling of spontaneity that comes from turning the camera on everybody knowing, This is the first time it's ever happened. So I tend not to do a lot of takes.
The film that I'm cutting now, which also stars Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart, I was very fortunate that they like to work that way, too-quickly. You get into a rhythm where people go, "I'd better be ready on take one because he may walk away on take one." The energy is much more palpable. It keeps them in character more. Julia was remarking that she never had less down time between setups than on this movie. She said, "It's great, because I don't have to leave my character. I can come in in the morning, get there mentally, and stay there all day." I think that's ideal, because then they're not thinking; they're being and it's become a non-intellectual process, and I think intellectual processes are usually bad for art. Certainly in my case, I think it's true. I want to be totally running on instinct.
BSW: Is there a specific element in the filmmaking process that you've found you enjoy most?
Soderbergh: It's probably editing. That's where you see the film take shape. That's where you're hacking the figure out of the block of marble, and that's really fun. You keep being reminded how powerful certain simple things are. Cinema's been around a hundred years and we make thousands of movies every year and I'm still stunned at the power of a well-placed close-up. Given the right context and the right confluence of events, the close-up is still the most powerful aspect of any film, and that's constantly amazing to me.
BSW: Is there any advice you could offer a filmmaker getting started in this business, particularly since the climate has changed drastically since you first began?
Soderbergh: What I've found as a common element with people who seem to emerge is that they don't wait for permission. It's not a choice. It wasn't for me. I didn't choose to do this. I just felt, Well, this is what I do. I found that to be the case with a lot of people that I've worked with-that commonality and that mindset. It requires no thought at all. This is just what I have to do. And as a result, you find ways to do what you want to do. Usually, that involves getting a group of like-minded friends together. That's certainly what I had. There was a group of us-filmmakers and actors-we all started together, and that's crucial. BSW