Steven Soderbergh interview: Logan Lucky and more

Steven Soderbergh on changing cinema, Logan Lucky, box office analysis, and radical ideas for film...

Steven Soderbergh, then. The man who walked away from movies, and came back when he found the right story. That story was Logan Lucky, now playing in UK cinemas. And Soderbergh took some time to chat to us about the film, and his work…

[As I enter I slap two recording devices on the table, and explain that I’ve had recording failures before, and now back up as I interview.]

When I was doing the Richard Lester book we’d done multiple, multiple sessions, and I gave the tapes to Faber and Faber to be transcribed, and they lost them. And I had to do the whole thing over; days and days of stuff. It was bad.

Does that ever happen on set? Not necessarily recording failures, but…

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No. I think in the digital universe its more likely to happen, that somebody forgets to hit record, because there’s not much of a difference between being in record and not being in record, at least in an audio sense. Unlike a film camera, which you can hear running. But no, I haven’t had the experience of losing something.

There was that story back in the early 80s of an entire cut reel of negative of Blowout being lost, and it was the Liberty Bell sequence, and they had to go and reshoot the whole thing again. The movie was basically done, but they hadn’t struck an IP yet, and that reel of the movie was lost and they had to file an insurance claim and go back and shoot that again. Can you imagine? That’s what I heard, anyway.

That’s got to ruin your day.

Yeah, I don’t know what you would do, that’s just terrible.

I suppose that’s one of the major advantages we have now, as soon as it’s shot you can back it up four, five, six times.

Yeah. The way we work, as soon as we wrap, the assistant editor – the stuff’s being cloned on the camera truck all day, while we’re shooting – they finish that process, then give the material to the assistant editor who starts to sync it up and give it to me to cut. There are multiple redundancies built into our process.

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Because you had a rough cut really quickly after the film was wrapped. Were you cutting through the filming?

Yeah, every night.

Did you sleep?

Yeah. Look, I don’t shoot long days, because at a certain point I find people’s efficiency reduces drastically. Once you get to the ten hour mark you can see people starting to drift. So let’s say ten or eleven hour day, takes about an hour – depending on how much footage I shot that day – it takes about an hour, an hour and a half to get things ready for me. Unless its some stupidly complicated sequence it takes me about two hours to get a rough together. Then go to bed.

Edgar Wright’s just done more or less the same thing with Baby Driver, which again is a moderately independent-ish, moderately high budget film. Do you think that that’s, as much as anything else, the future – being able to cut as you film?

It seems to me, a really helpful development that you can iterate that quickly and know ‘oh, I’m not done, I haven’t got it, I need more shots’. I can’t put a price on the value of knowing by eight thirty or nine o’clock if I need to call someone to say get those people back on set tomorrow morning at seven thirty because we’re not finished. That’s a huge thing to be able to do, and it’s very frustrating to me that it’s been so late in coming. If I’d had that ability earlier in my career, the work would have been better. I’m happy that it’s here now, trying to take advantage of it as often as I can.

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As vocal as some people have been about how emotionally attached they’ve been to celluloid, I’ve been equally emotional in my stance that nothing is more valuable than this. Than being able to see the result of your work quickly.

On the subject of celluloid, it seems very odd – the vinyl collectors…

Well that’s different.

How big’s the collection?

It’s… eclectic. Not massive, but – look, this is an interesting distinction to make. Part of the fun of the vinyl thing, and maybe this is what some directors are attaching themselves to, is the ritual. The very, kind of tactile, thing. The beauty of the album cover and the fact that you have to touch it and turn it over, there’s a religious quality to that physical ritual of playing a record that’s fun. At least for someone like me, is fun. But that’s kind of a private endeavour. My argument about it, in addition to the process argument as a filmmaker, is that to the audience, I don’t think it matters. I just don’t think they care what the capture medium is.

It’s interesting that you mention the audience. I’ve been reading quite a few interviews with you in the run up to this, and it feels like, in many ways, you’re trying to teach the world to make movies. Certainly you’re much more generous in the way you talk about the process than a lot of people. Is it important for you for the audience to have an understanding, on a conscious level, of the process of filmmaking?

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It would be nice if, all people who saw movies had some sort of basic understanding of what they’re looking at, but I don’t think you can assume that. And one of the lifelong processes that never ends is trying to determine, on a case-by-case basis and on a macro basis, what matters to the audience. That’s something that there’s no formula for that applies to everything, because what matters to them changes, sometimes from moment to moment, certainly from film to film, and from week to week. And as a filmmaker, trying to figure out as they’re watching out film, what matters to them.

What are the things that matter to them and what are the things that don’t, and then how do I feel about that, do I care that this matters to them in the sense that they won’t like the way it is but I like the way it is? What do I do about that? Do I feel that its potentially fatal to the film if I don’t address this? Or can I leave it the way it is and know that it may bug people but that’s the way I want it? You’re constantly having this dialogue with yourself and this abstract group of people. I don’t mind that, it’s a public art from. It doesn’t bother me, I think it goes with the job, but anyone who tells you that they’ve figured it out is a charlatan, because you never figure it out. It’s different every time.

You can take a movie like Logan Lucky, the movie just opened now, and the response to the film, both critically and from an audience standpoint, would not be the same if it were a year from now or if it were a year ago. It’s just something you have to deal with when you makes stuff, the timing is really crucial.

I’ve said to many people, Sex Lies [& Videotape], that was just timing. We were in the right place at the right moment, and what happened to it was, I would argue, more about that than the film itself. It appeared at a time when people were just ready – they wanted to see movies again that felt like they were made by a person, not by a committee. They were just ready. They were like “Ok, finally.”

It had been nascent – there were other independent filmmakers in the 80s who were working – but that year was a tipping point where finally people were like, “we’re ready for the auteur film business to come back in the states”. That was just our good luck, to kind of appear at that moment, at that festival.

You’re talking about the audience response. I assume, given the way that you’ve distributed the film, you’ve been following audience response. It was released in the US this weekend, what has the response been, particularly in the South?

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They didn’t show up. And we can’t figure out why, because we went after them pretty hard, and targeted them very specifically and repeatedly, and they didn’t show up. West Virginia was the lowest grossing state in the country for us, and I’m trying to figure out why that is the case.

We got a better critical response than I ever imagined we were going to get. I certainly didn’t make this film thinking that we were going to get really good reviews, and I didn’t think that ultimately that it would be necessary to get good reviews. The audience that we were seeking is one that is fairly underrepresented in mainstream Hollywood movies, and certainly they don’t get to be the heroes of any of those movies, and I was really hoping that they would turn out to see the film, and they didn’t. They kind of stayed away.

Over the next couple of weeks we’ve got a fairly open field, there aren’t any gigantic releases in the next two weeks in the states. We’ll see what happens, and whether the good reviews and the good exit polls will carry the film forward a little bit, but all of us are still trying to figure out why did the audience that we felt was the target for this movie turn their backs on the film? Were they that suspicious of a Hollywood movie made by elites about that part of the country and people in those circumstances? I don’t know?

Do you think, and it’s just me throwing it out there, the vast majority of people see themselves portrayed by film and TV as rednecks? And not just rednecks, but given what’s happening in America at the moment, quite often as racist, deeply unpleasant people. Certainly the ones I’ve met don’t see themselves that way, regardless of their politics, do you think that maybe – without seeing it – they assume the film is going to portray them that way?

Possibly. There has to be some element of that. There’s something that’s keeping them away. It’s really odd, I’m really hoping I can figure it out. It runs counter to what anecdotally you hear from trade organisations like the MPAA about the frustration that Middle America feels about the kind of films being made.

Do you feel, in light of the soft opening and the reduced response, that the way you’ve done things was an error?

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No. I wouldn’t do anything different.

Let’s put it this way, we capped our marketing spend at twenty, that was the plan. Typically, it’s thirty plus, sometimes forty. It’s very clear, if we’d had another ten million dollars to spend, we still wouldn’t have moved the needle. Like I said, there’s this mystery at the centre of this that’s larger than whether or not we should have spent more money on marketing. The audience for this movie did not show up. Our biggest grosses were in cities. Twenty-five of the top thirty screens for us were in New York and LA. We didn’t spend any money there. It’s really odd. It played like a – what they call – a ‘smarthouse’ movie, and that’s not what we made.

Could that perhaps, Mr Soderbergh, be because of the name on the movie?


Yourself. Certainly as far as I’m aware, the people who like your movies, it’s a broad range, but it does tend to be an arthouse crowd.

Sure, absolutely, but that’s sort of a separate issue. It doesn’t answer the question of if you make a bowling movie, and people who bowl don’t show up, you want to know ‘why didn’t they show up to the bowling movie? Don’t they love bowling?’ I’m hoping over the next few weeks, as it plays out, that we’re able to sift through the data that we have to try to answer this question. As somebody who was born and raised in the South, to have the South basically say ‘no’ is just really odd.

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Thinking about what we’ve been talking about, I know you’ve got a couple of projects going on, you’ve got Mosaic, and something you did on an iPhone…

The secret project.

Yes. I’m curious whether you see somewhere down the line, with all of these technologies, with everything changing and emerging, a way that perhaps, when a film is underperforming in a territory, in a city, you could throw out a tweaked cut? Presumably the technology is pretty close.

It’s something that I’ve thought about. Creating multiple versions by design so that you’re aware you have one week to see this cut, because next Friday a new cut’s coming. It can be done, and it’s not difficult to do, we’re still not in a world where it’s inexpensive to do, we’re still in a world where there’s digital print fees. The digital cinema initiative, to pay for the changeover to digital projectors, involves virtual print fees, meaning its still, per print, for every DCP, you’re paying $850 to have it delivered to the theatre. That money goes to the theatres. So it’s a couple of million dollars to make 3,000 DCPs, but it’s something that I’ve thought about.

It would require a certain kind of film that would lend itself to a radical reimagining, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t want to put something out and have people go ‘I’m not sure what was different about that’, I’d want it to be a completely different movie. Sort of what I’m doing with Kafka. I think you’d have to conceive it that way. Come up with a project in terms of its content and its genre that would allow for this kind of overhaul.

In an ideal world you’d want to have a different score, you’d want to have a completely different structure. You’d want to have characters that were either completely eliminated, or exist in the second cut that weren’t in the first cut. You’d want it to be really, really different, I think.

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Presumably then, the app that you’ve been developing for Mosaic, let’s assume you bypass the cinema for a movie and use the app for Mosaic, that could be something down the line then, the app would allow you to do that.

That’s kind of what it is. It’s a branching narrative that allows you to have pretty significantly different experiences of the story depending on which choices you make. There will also, and apropos of what we’re discussing, I’ve also created a linear, episodic, six hour version of Mosaic that will air on HBO, which is very different. There’s footage on that that’s not in the app, and it’s a very different imagining of the piece, that was fun to do. I kind of finished the app edit first, which took a long time, and then had, like, a month to do the linear cut, and I was kind of dreading it and then once I got into it, I said “Well this is actually really fun, it’s different.” It didn’t feel like an afterthought, it felt like an opportunity to rethink the whole thing, and that was really fun to do. As is clear, editing something I like to do.

Given all of these things, given where you’re going with all of the apps, with HBO, with all of the technologies, and a lot of your peers are eschewing theatrical releases for a quicker, swifter process, what’s the continued appeal of cinema for you?

Well, it’s still, I think, a unique way to experience something. And the appeal of the sort of Netflix/Amazon streaming platform model is twofold for a filmmaker. One is you don’t have to chase the movie around the world, and that’s a quality of life issue, and as you get older, and you feel your time is limited, that’s a very serious consideration. The second is not having to stand the pressure and scrutiny of the weekend box office return.

As we know, on these platforms, the thing gets dropped, and Netflix or Amazon says something like ‘we’re really happy with the results of that’, and you never know if that’s true or not, but the perception is always a lot of people saw it, but you don’t know that for sure.

I think it depends on the piece. Given the amount of resources and time that a worldwide theatrical release takes, it’s not a dumb thing for the people involved in the making of a certain kind of film to go “I don’t know if I can justify this. This thing that we made, we made it for two million dollars, and it’s going to take fifty million and six months to roll it out all over the world.”, where Netflix will buy it for fifteen or twenty and drop it once, everywhere.

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Again, I think it depends on the film. The film that I’m finishing now, Unsane, before I started it seemed like something I should just drop in a platform. I wanted to do it, just crank it out and drop it, and then I got out the other end of it, and was so impressed by Claire Foy and what she did, that I started rethinking that. Then I got a call from someone out of the blue, not a distributor, a production company, saying “We read the script for this, and we heard that you’re in post now, would you consider putting this out theatrically if we bought these rights and put it out through our deal that we have, and you can put it out through your thing domestically, would that be intereting to you?” and I said, “Yeah actually, it would.”

We had a conversation, and the terms of the arrangement that they have require that they get eyes on this thing and that it meets objective quality criteria, and I said “Why don’t you fly to New York, and I’ll show you the first seventeen minutes of this thing, so that you can call the people you have your deal with and tell them it looks like a movie?” And so they came to New York, and they saw it, and they went “Holy shit!”. Anyone going into a theatre looking at that, that just looks like a proper film. There’s no indication that that was shot on anything other than a high quality digital camera.

Did you use standard lenses?

We mounted lenses.

You used cinematic lenses?

Yeah, although they were tiny. It’s shocking, when you see it. It’s shocking what you can do.

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It’s a 4k capture, the issue – it really comes down to, if I can make a really awful paraphrase, it’s not the size of the chip, it’s what you do with it – and the fact of the matter is, when you’re dealing with chips that have that kind of resolution but are small, you have a massive depth of field. This is the only real issue. If like me, you’re into selective focus, that’s something you have to give up. There are a couple of shots in the movie where I was able to pull focus from something very close to the lens to something five or six feet away, but generally speaking you’ve just got massive depth of field all the time and you have to shoot and stage embracing that, instead of pretending that’s not the case.

What it meant was wide and close. A lot of wide lenses, and when I wanted to get close to an actor, I got physically close to them. But what was great about it was the ability to put the lens anywhere I wanted it, in a minute. And not have to deal with any of the stuff that you have to deal with with a normal camera.

If I wanted to put a normal camera above your head, I’ve got to tie a rope to the ceiling to secure it so it doesn’t kill you if it drops. Here I can just fucking Velcro it and just shoot it. That’s why, when you see the film, you’ll be able to tell, ten to fifteen percent of that will be made up of stuff that’s really tricky to get with a normal camera.

Was the idea of strapping a lens to an iPhone the genesis of the movie?

No. No. I mean look, I’ve been shooting stuff for a couple of years, and playing around with camera phones, and looking at them, and comparing them, and buying lenses, with the notion that at some point I’m going to do something with this, because it’s just too appealing, and the quality is too good. What happened was a writer friend of mine who I’d worked with before rang me up and said “Is there anything that you’ve got that I can work on?” and I said “No, but if you can write a low budget horror/thriller or something, I’ll shoot it this summer.” And he said “OK”, and he and his partner went away, and three weeks later a script showed up, and I went “Great, were shooting it.”

It seems you’ve been liberated by this technology. How do you feel that democratisation has affected the rest of the industry? Has it?

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I don’t think so. Not in any significant way. Maybe in the long tail part of it. It’s easier to make a good looking film than it’s ever been before, it’s just harder than it’s ever been to get eyeballs on it. But in terms of the mainstream business, I don’t think it’s really changed much.

Would you like to see it change?

I don’t… over the course of my career, I’ve tried to be efficient about where my energy goes, and so Logan Lucky is a good example of – I’m not going to change Hollywood, if I want to do something differently, I have to go do it on my own. I’m not going to convince them to do anything different, that would be a waste of my time. The good news is, yeah with the technology that exists now, you can create your own version of the film business, one that you want to be in, and yeah it depends on your metric for what success is, and not to get trapped in the studio definition of what a success is.

A success to me is the ability to keep working. That’s success, it has nothing to do with money, it’s the ability to keep getting things made, period. If you talk to any filmmaker, and if you said to them ‘I guarantee you x amount of money per month for the rest of your life, and it’s not a big amount of money, but I can also guarantee that you will work continually, you will get to make what you want to make’, any filmmaker on the planet will make that kind of deal. I would have made it.

So if that’s the way you’re thinking, this is a really exciting time to be a filmmaker. You’ve got to be talented, obviously, but the opportunities are there.

So presumably you’ll be going back to doing this sort of thing again?

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I think so. It sure seems like it. I sure had a good time. It has to be the right thing, it has to be something that really benefits from the, what I call the ‘gets’ of working this way. There are a couple of things that you can’t do, but I felt they were outweighed by the things that you can do.

I’m curious what those things that you can’t do are…

Multiple-destination dolly masters. The camera is so light, and so sensitive to vibration, that it’s difficult to mount it in a brace, put it on a dolly and do like a multiple destination move, and not have it shake. If you touch the thing it’s ruined, they’re that sensitive.

But that’s mitigated by the fact that the DGI Osmo Steadicam that’s built for an iPhone is fucking awesome, and you can do things with it that you can’t do with a normal Steadicam, and so you cancreate shots that would be very difficult to do with a traditional camera. We had some running shots where somebody’s running full speed, and I’ve got the Osmo in my hand, and the grip is pulling me in a wheelchair at full speed, and we’re taking corners. Again, normal film camera, with the weight of that, it’s too dangerous, you can’t get that shot.

So presumably, if you’re working in this way, and the higher end cameras are moving toward smaller form factors too, is there a version of filmmaking that combines what you’ve done with Logan Lucky with the small cameras and being able to shoot things quickly?

Absolutely, and I’ve got a couple of things that I’m developing that I think are going to benefit from this sort of, for lack of a better term, downsizing and miniaturisation of the tools, and yet are not low budget projects. I think that’s coming, I think we’re getting… somebody soon, whether it’s me or somebody else, is going to shoot something like The Nick, a large-scale period piece on something not much bigger than a phone. That’s going to happen eventually. And it should. There’s going to be a moment, there’s a tipping point where the cast and the crew won’t bat an eye at the fact that the camera they’re performing for is the size of your phone. When you see it on the screen, no one will know.

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And it’s interesting, that whole – I’ve had conversations with some directors who have shot stuff on film, and they’ve described this thing of “I want people to take seriously the time that we’re rolling, and we can’t just do like a bunch of takes, and it focuses everybody and gets them serious and ready,” and I just said, “Well that’s kind of your job, it’s not the job of the equipment, that’s your job.”

There are two ways to approach the uncertainty of the business right now, one is to be excited and try some stuff, the other is to keep doing what’s been done before, which is essentially standing still, and that doesn’t seem like a very good option.

You are, presumably, getting in analytics from Logan Lucky – are those analytics showing you things you haven’t seen before?

I don’t know yet, I haven’t seen it. When I get back we’re having a meeting where the company we hired to do like forensics on all this stuff is going to come in and do a presentation to see if we can get some answers as to what happened over the weekend. I’m dying to get a look at this stuff.

I know you’ve set up a system so that the people who worked on the film can get sales and box office data from you. Are you going to make that data available to the public as well?

Yeah. In terms of how the film performed, generally speaking, and who saw it and where? Yeah, absolutely.

I think that would be interesting to a lot of people, and I’ve tried to make it clear in my studio rants, this was an open source experiment, I want to be completely transparent about what we did, how we did it, what the results were. I think it would be really fascinating for somebody to look at a map of the US with colour codes to show here’s what happened with Logan Lucky – here are the people who went, here are the people who didn’t, and for people to look at it and go ‘wow, that’s interesting’, and to continue that on through the ancillary life of the movie, because I think that kind of information is useful to anybody.

Steven Soderbergh, thank you very much.

Logan Lucky is in UK cinemas now.