Steven Soderbergh Wants a Revolution

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Despite director Steven Soderbergh’s several belt-notches — Traffic, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Oceans Eleven (Twelve, and Thirteen) — he continues to work as hard as ever, with projects as impressive in their ambitions of size, scale, and high art as they are in actual execution, something that rarely happens in Hollywood. His latest is Che, a four-hour epic about the life of Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara. Che is split into two parts, with a majority of the time focusing on actor Benicio Del Toro’s portrayal of Guevara from his early years through his death. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Soderbergh; in the first part of our interview (see part two), Soderbergh discusses the trouble he had getting the movie made, and his plans for changing the world (none of which involve movies). You and Benicio Del Toro started talking about Che eight years ago, when you were doing Traffic — what were those first conversations about? At any point, did you see what came to fruition as a possibility when you were directing Traffic? There really weren’t many conversations at the beginning. Because, obviously, the first thing we needed to do was start researching. We had, at that time, John Lee Anderson’s book. There were a couple of other books, of course. But the key was to get to Cuba, to start talking to people. That was our first order of business. And we sort of started backwards, because the end of Che Guevara’s life was the period I didn’t know at all. I knew about him, but I really didn’t know anything about him.

We’re talking about Bolivia? Yeah. I didn’t know how he died or where. And I think that’s probably why the project was tilting in that direction for a long time, because it was just filling in a gap for us. Right. And most people don’t really know about the second part of the story. I didn’t. No, they don’t. Without a larger context, I don’t think Bolivia is going to make any sense. You’re just going to wonder why Che doesn’t quit. I mean it’s admirable that he doesn’t, but … We have to understand why he doesn’t quit. We have to understand why he doesn’t leave. If you saw the second half of the movie cold, you’d just go “dude …” “Why’s he still here, fighting this war?” Yeah, and it’s because he believed in a miracle. A series of breaks going his way because he’d seen it happen before. Because the tides had turned. So you can imagine when I had to say “okay … now we gotta start researching Cuba.” And then we found out about New York. And then I start talking about Mexico City because I wanted you to see Fidel, and suddenly this thing — and it’s still one script at this point with four different timelines going simultaneously — it’s unreadable. You can’t spend any time with it. You know it’s 200 pages, and it feels like a trailer for a longer film. You can’t stay with anything. I did my time at an agency. I know that almost anything coming in over 120 pages, people look at it like it has a disease. Absolutely. The obstacle just got twice as high, in terms of everything: money and time. At this point, we were moving towards a start date. And I sort of put the brakes on it and said, “Look, you need to stop. We need to just stop for a minute, ’cause the script doesn’t work. I’m not going to shoot a script that doesn’t work. I need some time to think about this.” I took a couple of weeks, and then came back and said, “It needs to be two films. Or it at least needs to be two parts … two separate things.” What was the reaction when you came forth with the idea to split the film into two parts? Strangely enough, not only did Benicio and [producer] Laura Bickford see that it would solve a lot of our problems creatively, but we went back to all the people we’d made deals with around the world and said “It’s not one movie it’s two,” and they all said fine. We rewrote all the contracts, and it was two films. Cause they’d been reading the scripts too. And everyone was sort of felt like this was going to be better. We’ve got two scripts that are 120 pages — well actually they were longer — but it just solved a lot of problems, and I felt that this was the only way to do it to my satisfaction, I don’t know how else to do it. During that whole time, the Spanish language thing came up. And the only real impact was no American money. It’s such a strange thing that that was the obstacle in getting Che made. It was to me too. It’s a bizarre thing. Especially that language. You’ve got Without a Trace, they do like half their episodes in Spanish and they don’t even subtitle it. In the last ten years, American cinema’s seen this huge emergence of Latin-American filmmakers doing commercially successful films — Pan’s Labyrinth, for example. The resistance towards foreign language films — especially Spanish ones — is strange. I was stunned by it, too. I really thought it wouldn’t be as big a problem as it turned out to be. What we ended up learning was: all the people who might have been interested said, “Look, our pay-TV deals are what enable us to cover a lot of our print and advertising, or keep us from getting killed.” All of our pay-TV deals exclude foreign-language films, so half those deals where our ass is hanging out, and you know my attitude was, “Ya, I get it, but we were never looking for a big number.” We never anticipated someone who was going to blow $10 or $15 million putting this thing out. We weren’t asking for an advance … we were just looking for a deal. You just wanted to get it out there. Yeah, so that was. Other than that, I felt like still: nobody wanted to take a chance other than IFC, and Magnolia, for a while. That was annoying. The whole language thing goes back in the Elmo Oxygen territory. Do you kind of feel that resurgence and kind of feel that “Oh my God, there’s this very bizarre communication barrier that is in the way of this thing getting out there.” Yeah, I mean, look: I hope we’ve passed that time where people feel they need to make stuff in English when they go somewhere else. But we probably haven’t. When you’re making a film in Spanish, does it affect the way you frame actors and frame a scene? No. The best analogy I can use: It’s like hearing music. And I can tell, you can ask Benicio, I can tell when something was wrong. I can tell when somebody wasn’t saying something they were supposed to say. Or the pitch of it was wrong. I can hear it. I can hear when a note was missed. It wasn’t … among the problems that we had, that wasn’t high on the list. It really wasn’t. You use the word “engagement” when describing what Che did … and the ideas of constantly engaging what lies before us. Che engages in the most visceral way possible. He lives his life on kind of precipice of engagement. He’s very impatient. Do you ever feel that impulse yourself? To keep going? About work. And I’d like to feel … I’m trying to find a way to be similarly engaged about politics or political issues, but I’ve got to find a way to express that, that is specific to me and doesn’t involve me having to use a form that is already established and already has certain prescribed parameters. Something I’ve been working on awhile and is going to take me awhile. I don’t even know how to describe what I’m talking about. Well … keep going. I’m working on something. I think the downward trajectory of what is going on around us is … We’re talking about 2009. I think this thing could turn into Mad Max. And I feel like there are solutions out there for a lot of the key issues. What’s lacking is the next step in human evolution. We need another period of enlightenment like we had a few hundred years ago, or I think we’re going to crash and burn in a big way. We need to start thinking and anticipating. We need to start leaving behind some ideas that have proven themselves to be detrimental. So how do you do that? How do you convince enough people to stick to do that is what I’m trying to figure out. Well, you made a movie. Maybe it sounds pompous to say … I don’t think movies do anything.