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LISTEN: Steven Soderbergh on 'What's Killing Cinema,' A Fungible Algorithm (PODCAST)

by Meredith Brody
April 29, 2013 3:11 PM
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Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh

No State of Cinema address at the SFIFF has been as hotly anticipated as this year's by Steven Soderbergh. (Listen to our podcast recording below.)

This is not only because he's a prolific and beloved auteur that has worked in every genre and budget, but because he recently announced his retirement from filmmaking, in order to spend more time painting, making collages, writing books, directing a new play by Scott Burns about Columbine, as well as a stage version of "Cleopatra," and exploring other avenues of creativity (sign up at his new website for upcoming news. Of course, Soderbergh allowed as how he was working on a 12-hour miniseries of John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor," so maybe he has a different idea of just what retiring from filmmaking constitutes than we did.  Thankfully.

Soderbergh was introduced by Executive Director Ted Hope, who said that the people you meet have a lot to do with the life that you lead, and that in addition to the film industry being filled with narcissistic types, there were also other types of people. He cited calling Soderbergh cold when he was trying to put together a film on a Ron Vawter theater piece and Soderbergh immediately not only said what can I do to make it happen, but showed up to be in the audience during the filming.

After Hope told us that Soderbergh had requested no photography, video, or recording -- "respect his privacy" -- the man himself strode out confidently, dressed in a sharp dark grey suit, a lavender shirt, a darker lavender tie, and his trademark dark-framed glasses.  After taking a swig of water, he began his rapid-fire talk, glancing at a script from time to time. It was as assured as a stand-up comic's routine -- and sometimes as amusing.  He also left room for improvisation, digressions, and parenthetical remarks.  The following is my impression of his talk, from scribbled notes that left my wrist sore.

A few months ago, he said, on a Jet Blue Flight from JFK to Burbank --he'd spent $60 for the extra legroom, and he was getting ready to relax when he noticed that the guy next to him had downloaded action-adventure movies on his laptop.  But the guy was just watching the action sequences and fast-forwarding through the dialogue sequences.  5 1/2 hours of mayhem porn!  A wave went over him, a sense of "Am I going insane or is the world going insane or both?"  He's getting old, he's in the back 9, he's older than Elvis.  Maybe he should ask his 22-year-old daughter what she thinks.

When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of "The Sopranos" than a woman being stoned to death, what's happening? People think our government can stage a terrorism attack, and this when we know there are no secrets today.  

He was reminded of the experiment that proved if you're in a car and going more than 20 miles an hour, you can't distinguish a person's features.  Which is an odd experiment in itself.  And that was an example of his circular thinking on that flight.  He cited Douglas Rushkoff's "Present Shock": that's what he's suffering from.  There's so much information coming in from so many sources that it doesn't make a story -- there's a constant distracting hum.

What is art for? If the collective work of Shakespeare can't prevent genocide, what's the point?  On "Oceans 13," the casino set used $60,000 worth of electricity every week.  What about all the resources?  What about even the carbon footprint to get him here today?

He finally decided art is inevitable -- from the paintings on a wall of a cave 30,000 years ago to today.  We are a species driven by narrative.  We need to tell stories.  At the very best, you can enter the consciousness of another being, and you are altered in some way.  The experience is transformative.  Art is also about problem solving, art is an elegant problem-solving model.

And now we arrive at the subject of this rant.  There is a difference between movies and cinema.  In cinema, there's a specificity of vision, an approach in which everything matters.  If this filmmaker didn't do it, it wouldn't exist.  An acclaimed movie may not qualify as cinema.  And cinema could be an unwatchable piece of shit.  But it's not made by a "company."

He likes technology.  He likes things that are smaller, lighter, faster.  He cites a quote by Orson Welles: "I don't want to wait on the tool.  I want the tool to wait on me."

Cinema is under assault by the studios, with the full support of the audience.  There's a lack of leadership.  This is very subjective, and there's an exception to everything he's going to say (that's so you won't think he's talking about you).

Meetings have gotten pretty weird.  There are fewer executives that love and/or know movies.  It's as if he was in a meeting with an engineer and told him how to build his car.   Studios take into consideration the foreign market, which leads to spectacle, homogenized and simplified.  Narrative complexity and ambiguity go out the window.

When he was at a test screening for "Contagion" and a guy stood up and said, "I hate the Jude Law character, I don't know if he's a hero or an asshole," he thought "there it goes."

The studios run the numbers.  It's a fungible algorithm (aside: he doesn't want to be shot on the streets [for talking about this]. He really likes his cats). For a start, it costs $30,000,000 to release a film, and $30,000,000 more to release it overseas.  Therefore it has to gross $120,000,000 at least (because exhibitors keep 50%).  That's why the Liberace movie ["Before the Candelabra," soon to show on HBO after premiering at Cannes] didn't happen.  Even if they only needed $5,000,000 to make it, it would still cost $60,000,000 to release it.  And the studios thought it was too special a subject.

How can you reduce the cost of putting a movie out?  There's testing.  "Magic Mike" opened at $38,000,000.  Tracking said it would do $19,000,000. That was 100% wrong.  How does that happen?  It mystifies him.  He thinks you don't have to spend as much on the sequel.  Does anybody not know that "Ironman 3" is opening on Friday?  Yet studios spend more on opening the sequel.  

It's because of testing that everything interesting gets tossed out -- posters, trailers.  But we don't see things in isolation.  Maybe a different poster would stand out if seen in a lineup of many.


  • Stevart | June 24, 2013 9:15 AMReply

    "You are either Australian or a German refugee. This is a gentile house, bud. So why don't you just run along."

  • Sam Lowry | April 29, 2013 8:14 PMReply

    Oh Kevin. Kevin-y Kevin-y Kevin.

    And you, JG. You might actually be worse. (But then I would say that - I'm actually working for the CIA. We have cameras in your apartment. You really need to do your laundry more frequently, my friend).

    In a way, both the moronic commenters below and the unfortunate (and yet fortunate) broadcasting of this would-be private speech are connected. Because what Mr Soderbergh was trying to address was something specific and trenchant about the world as it exists right now in 2013 – about broader societal trends, about waves of information overwhelming us thanks to a pseudo-connectivity that unites us but drowns us, exposing us not to singular, clearcut forms of expression and ideas (what once was called "genius" before it was co-opted to describe just about anything and anyone, and Soderbergh calls "cinema" – the transmission of one person's worldview into another's consciousness) but a tidal wave of mediocre thinking and the bland tastelessness of the quotidian which is present as much in the anonymity of the modern bulletin board (never read the comments, my friends...) as it in Kevin and JG and yes – arguably – in consensus-driven, profit-led moviemaking.

    Which is to say that Soderbergh rules, and Kevin and JG are *very* silly billies.

    Anyway – in the absence of an articulate response to a deeply articulate and heartfelt cri du coeur I thought it might be valuable, just this once, to post a specific response on the internet to the content of the actual speech – you know, to populate the "comments" field with something resembling an actual thought - just in case, as I hope, the vast majority of visitors to this page, like me resemble a thoughtful, silent majority rather than knee-jerk comment-writers sitting at home in their underwear stabbing wildly at their keyboards with one hand as they bite into another piece of dripping chicken with the other.

    To Steven I say – rock on, soldier. It's a pain in the ass that this speech got leaked in this way, yet on the other hand this is the world we live in and c'est la vie, et cetera.

    Broadly speaking, surely the simplest response to your thesis is surely "twas ever thus", no? Perhaps from the eye of the storm the twister looks more violent than e'er before and yet for those of us on the sidelines this particular period, economically speaking, is just another cycle on the merry-go-round. The black swans manage to break through, and always will – not just your Mementos, but also the Shane Carruths and Amy Seimetzes. That's why art's art, right? Because they're the exception, not the rule. Are Carruth and Seimetz looking for three picture deals with Disney? You'd know better than me, but I wonder if it isn't the struggle that makes them who they are, not the plush office on the Warners lot, or the ready financing from a corporate behemoth.

    I suspect that what your fabulous speech is really about is the frustrations of a first-class, award-winning filmmaker at the top of his game unable to find the financing for the stories he wants to tell – which is fair enough. A system in which moving to the top of the ladder doesn't make things any easier for the artist must feel like no system at all – but as you pointed out, this is the purest form of free-marketeering, which is to say the numbers will tell you absolutely nothing about art. Art (cinema) is never the popular shit. You can't legislate for it, or manufacture it or steamroll statistics-driven (transparent) industry into cranking it out. Ah yes, you'll say, back in the seventies – but who the hell knows what happened then? I think being high probably had a lot do with it.

    In short you sir are the geek in school who got made prom king – the luckiest bastard you ever saw. But the metric here is skewy –you're lookin for art where nobody else expects to find it, in the pie-charts of a sausage factory.

    So yes, things have got tougher for artists in your position who've made a living out of gaming the system, but I guess you either shit or get off the pot. Zemeckis makes Flight. Coppola makes Tetro. PTA makes all kinds of random-ass shit that makes less and less sense and is more and more beautiful. And you...

    Well, it looks like you're getting off the pot. Those of us who are your fans – the ones who've sat through the commentaries, who've read your book, who think you're hot shit and who remember your Academy Awards speech with gratitude and respect – feel it's a shame you're getting off the pot, but it's cool. We all know you'll never stop doing your thing. And we also know that once you regain your mojo and start from the ground up – do something cheap, like back in the old days, that you'll start to get back into the swing of things. And so it goes and so it goes. But thanks for doing your thing, and for being resolutely yourself. On behalf of the silent majority who don't normally comment on bulletin boards – adieu, and au revoir.

  • John Wheaties | April 29, 2013 7:54 PMReply

    "If the collective work of Shakespeare can't prevent genocide, what's the point?"

    Soderbergh makes some good points, but the above "quote" makes him sound like a teenager waking up to the ways of the world. Most of us figured this out - that art doesn't prevent great evil - before Soderbergh wrote SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE.

  • John Wheaties | April 29, 2013 10:02 PM

    Ok, I read the summary (again) barely observing Soderbergh's wishes, and I was unfair to nail him for the Shakespeare "quote," I didn't read carefully and didn't pick up on the fact that that wasn't his subject. But still... I feel for him (my inner 99cent-store psychologist says this probably stems at least in part from his experience with MONEYBALL) but reiterating to some extent Sam Lowry above, and somewhat less charitably - this is basically all old news. William Goldman said costs only go up years ago. It stands to reason that the intelligence quotient in studio films must go down. Soderbergh is entitled to feel burnt out, but here's hoping the Jeff Nichols and the other voices outside and inside the studio system still have the desire and energy to scramble for the leavings. And PAIN & GAIN was actually pretty good!

  • kevin | April 29, 2013 6:38 PMReply

    What is killing cinema is hacks like this guy. Soderberg is a blowhard. The girlfriend experience was a terribly shot horrible movie like most (i said most not all) of his crap

  • GG | April 29, 2013 11:33 PM

    Right on, Kevin. Soderbergh is overrated and comes across as a whiner in almost every interview he does. Get tired of people treating him like some sort of god.

  • jg | April 29, 2013 5:12 PMReply

    Utterly ignorant comment about terrorist attacks near the beginning. That is faith based reason, lacking evidence and analysis. US government supports terrorism around the world, notably Libya, Syria and oh... what's that one... hit the news recently... Chechnya. Don't run your mouth on important topics if you have no idea what you're talking about.

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