Soderbergh, Douglas, Cannes, 2013

It was hard to envisage as positive a Cannes response to a U.S. competition film as that which greeted the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” the other day, but if such a thing is possible, it may well have happened today, for Steven Soderbergh’s wonderful Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” (our review here). Immediately after the press screening stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, writer Richard LaGravanese, Producer Jerry Weintraub and director Steven Soderbergh spoke to press, turning up some choice anecdotes and opinions in the process. Here are our 10 favorite moments.

"I don’t think the problem with the studio was because of the gay issue, it’s just they don’t like to be bothered with smaller pictures."
1. The team recounts their personal memories of Liberace
Michael Douglas: I met him once when I was 12 years old in Palm Springs. We were at a crossroads and this car stops, I think it was a Rolls Royce convertible, and it was a great Palm Springs day and between the gold on his neck and rings, the light was bouncing off him. He had a great smile, not a hair out of place (now I know why) and he was charming. I talked to my father Kirk who knew him well and everybody says he was a wonderful host, generous, gracious.

Richard La Gravanese: The women in my family loved him very much and they were the ones who told me the story about how Sonja Henie broke his heart and that’s why he was single. They believed that completely. They had no idea that he was gay.

Matt Damon: I remember him being a presence throughout the 70s...but he was less of a presence in my life than he was in my mother’s. they would sit around and they would watch him. My grandmother was an excellent piano player and she absolutely loved watching him play -- whenever he was on they would stop everything to watch.

Steven Soderbergh: I remember watching my parents watch him, because at 7 or 8 I didn’t know what to make of him, he seemed very enthusiastic, and very arresting person to look at visually because of the outfits. I just remember being fascinated by how fascinated my parents were. But from that point until I talked to Michael on the set of “Traffic” about the idea of playing him, I literally don’t think I ever thought of him again.

2. Douglas remembers Soderbergh’s first mention of Liberace, and breaks down momentarily talking about the film’s timing.
Michael Douglas: [when Soderbergh mentioned Liberace on the set of “Traffic”] I thought he was messing with me. I was playing the drug czar! I saw this pensive look on Steven’s face and he said “you ever thought about Liberace?” I said “What does that have to do with…” And I got a little paranoid about it for a moment, and yes, Steven remembers I tried a little take-off on [Liberace-style] “Thank you very much” and forgot about it. And then seven years later Steven found the outlet through this book, “Behind the Candelabra.”

… for me this has a [Douglas chokes up a little bit] sorry -- because it was right after my cancer and this beautiful gift was handed to me, and I’m eternally grateful to Steven and Matt and Jerry for waiting for me.

Behind The Candelabra
Behind The Candelabra

3. Douglas was apprehensive about mimicking Liberace’s physicality.
"This is the first time I’ve played a character that people knew who he was, so I had a lot of trepidation. [Liberace] was a big Polack, big, broad-chested... you know one of his thighs was the size of two of mine. But I attacked it initially vocally, trying to get the voice right… we started off with a piano teacher, and I said “this is not going to work” [so I practiced from exiting footage]… and then we were really blessed with the hair and makeup -- really talented people. Different looks required different appliances, but I thought they did an excellent, excellent job and then one day it all comes together."

4. A new edit-as-you-go system allowed everyone instant access to a cut of the day’s footage.
Matt Damon: Just to talk about process for one second, I’ve worked with directors before who cut in camera, which is an incredible thing. Spielberg does it, the Coen Brothers, George Clooney does it, Clint Eastwood does it. Steven took it to a different level this time which was because of technology. We all had access to a website where… I’d get home [from the set] in time to have dinner with my kids and I’d put them to bed and by the time I came downstairs I’d get on my iPad.. and I would look at what we shot that day completely cut together.

The best description of filmmaking I’ve ever heard was from Steven twelve years ago he said: “directing is like making a giant mosaic from an inch and half away.” This new way of giving all of us access to the movie… we could gauge our performances. This process was really a gift to all of us.

Behind The Candelabra, Michael Douglas

5. They are now philosophical about the initial reaction to the script from major studios.
Douglas: I don’t think the problem with the studio was because of the gay issue, it’s just they don’t like to be bothered with smaller pictures. And therefore cable has become an access point.

Soderbergh: ...the sense was [from the studios] “we’re not convinced that there’s an audience for this film except for people who are gay” ... it was a risky proposition. And to be fair, seeing the film and seeing how emotional it is it’s hard to plook at a piece of paper and to imagine these performances. I understand to some extent...Looking back, this all worked out the way it was supposed to work out. the bottom line is, we all just wanted to make this movie, and we got to. I’m not complaining. I’m very happy.