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

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood April 29, 2013 at 3:11PM

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.
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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.

This article is related to: Steven Soderbergh, Steven Soderbergh, San Francisco International Film Festival


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.