DATE January 2, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Steven Soderbergh talks about directing his new movie
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "Traffic," about drug
trafficking, opens nationally this weekend. It has already won the Best Film
Award from the New York Critics Association and is tied with "Gladiator" for
the most Golden Globe nominations of the year. My guest is the director,
Steven Soderbergh. He was named best director of the year by the New York and
LA film critics for his work directing both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich."
Soderbergh's first feature, the 1989 independent film "Sex, Lies, and
Videotape," was a festival and box office hit. His other films include "Out
of Sight" and "The Limey." "Traffic" tells several interrelated stories that
are each about the difficulties of controlling the drug trade. The stories
revolve around drug enforcement agents trying to infiltrate a cartel, American
drug dealers who are fighting among themselves, the Mexican police who are
secretly involved with the drug trade and the new American drug czar, played
by Michael Douglas, who is pretty clueless about what he's really up against.
In this scene, Douglas is meeting the outgoing drug czar played by James
(Soundbite of "Traffic")
Mr. MICHAEL DOUGLAS: Well, you've done a fine job, general. The Office of
National Drug Control Policy is in better shape than when you found it.
Mr. JAMES BROLIN: I'm not sure I made the slightest difference. I tried. I
Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, I think there's some positive signs. The work's just
started. I plan on seeing it through. You can count on that.
Mr. BROLIN: You're here for two years, three maximum. What'd they offer
you, a court appointment? What district appeals? Not Supreme.
Mr. DOUGLAS: Well, this is a tough enough job. I plan on focusing on this.
Mr. BROLIN: You know, when Khrushchev was forced out, he sat down and he
wrote two letters and gave them to his successor. He said, `When you get
yourself into a situation you can't get out of, open the first letter and
you'll be saved. And when you get yourself into another situation you can't
get out of, open the second letter.' Well, soon enough, this guy found
himself in a tight place so he opened the first letter which said, `Blame
everything on me.' So he blamed the old man and it worked like a charm.
Well, he got himself into a second situation he couldn't get out of and he
opened the second letter. It said, `Sit down and write two letters.'
GROSS: I asked director Steven Soderbergh about the challenges of telling
several separate but connected stories at one time.
Mr. STEVEN SODERBERGH (Director, "Traffic"): There are two concerns. One is
that the tone be consistent from story to story even though each of these
three narratives take place in very different locations. You sort of need to
feel like everyone's acting in the same movie and there's 110 speaking parts
in the film and we are in the course of showing these three stories in seven
different cities. But you at least want to feel like there's a consistency to
the way everybody's behaving. And then on a technical level, I try to
differentiate the three stories by adopting very different visual palates for
each of them. The Mexico section of the film looks very, very different from
what I call the East Coast section of the film which looks very different from
the San Diego portion of the film. Essentially...
GROSS: Describe some of those differences a little bit.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, Mexico's very sort of--we use these heavy, heavy
tobacco filters and desaturated the film and increased the contrast so it's
very blown out, very brown. San Diego has a very diffused and sort of
blossomy feel to it. The light is very hot but pleasing. And on the East
Coast section of the story, we've gone for very cool tones, a lot of blues.
And that way, as soon as you cut to one of the stories, before you've even
seen a character, you know exactly where you are.
GROSS: You said you used tobacco filters.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, those are still legal.
GROSS: No, that's not what I meant. I mean, is it literally a tobacco filter
that you're using over the lens?
Mr. SODERBERGH: That fits on a cigarette?
Mr. SODERBERGH: No, it's a piece of glass that basically is sort of brownish
GROSS: Oh, I see. This is just film lingo that I don't know.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah.
GROSS: OK. Now you said you wanted to make sure it looked everybody was
acting in the same movie. How do you do that?
Mr. SODERBERGH: You hope. You also try and cast well. And more than
anything, you try and create an environment in which the performances can be
as naturalistic as possible. And the film is done in a very documentary-like
fashion. A lot of it was shot with available light and hand-held cameras. We
were moving very quickly and I think that contributes to actors performing in
a style that isn't inherently very theatrical. It isn't what you would
typically see in a sort of large-scale movie with movie stars in it.
GROSS: Is there a movie that you particularly admire that helped you think
through how you wanted to make this movie with its multiple stories and
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, there were several movies that I watched again and
again to study their esthetic. It could be something like "The French
Connection," which was a very good model for what we where trying to do. Or
it might be a film like "The Battle of Algiers," which was made in 1966. Or
"Z," which was made in 1969. Both of them with a very, very strong
documentary-like feeling. I mean, in the case of "The Battle of Algiers,"
they literally had to put a title at the beginning of the film saying, `Not
one foot of this film is documentary footage' because some of it is so sort of
shocking that it's hard to believe that it was staged.
GROSS: Now what are some of the things that you've done in "Traffic" to get a
documentary look but to still have control over what is happening?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, it's kind of planned anarchy in a way. I wouldn't
rehearse and I usually had two cameras running simultaneously so that if some
accident happened, I'd covered myself. And, again, we weren't using very many
lights at all and I wasn't telling actors where they should go, I wasn't
giving them marks to hit. And I was keeping the camera a little further away
from them than normal and using a longer lens so that what I would call their
acting space wasn't violated. And all of that contributes, I think, to a
feeling that is much less traditional in, again, a movie with this many name
actors in it.
GROSS: At the beginning of the movie, Michael Douglas' character is named the
new drug czar and there are scenes in the movie in which he's meeting people
from Congress and other experts, each of whom is pitching their point of view
about what he needs to do to control the drug trade. In one of those scenes
there's several real congressman in it.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Right.
GROSS: Orrin Hatch is one of the people in that scene. Why did you go for
some real people in that scene as opposed to just actors?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, again, it's all out of desire to create a sense of
verisimilitude and make you think that it's happening in front of you. And we
had a sequence which, you know, we referred to as the Georgetown Cocktail
And so we went to Georgetown and there was some scripted material we had but
we invited a fairly good number of senators and congressman to join us and
didn't discriminate about who we invited. We just did a blanket mailing,
really. And when they showed up, I basically brought them over to Michael
Douglas and said, `He's the new drug czar. I want you to discuss your point
of view on the drug war. What's happening in your area and how you think he
should navigate Washington.'
And I had three cameras running in this case and it was all improvised and
then edited down to what I hoped was a manageable length. But I don't think
there's any faking that. I mean, you see Orrin Hatch telling Michael Douglas,
the new drug czar, what he thinks he ought to be doing and there's a feeling
to that that I don't think you can cheat.
GROSS: Tell me this, though. You know, you're watching that scene and you're
thinking, `That's the real Orrin Hatch saying what he would say to the real
drug czar, but that's Michael Douglas playing the drug czar.' And, you know,
do you think the audience can ever quite forget that it's Michael Douglas?
Mr. SODERBERGH: No, probably not.
GROSS: I guess what I'm asking is, is it difficult to have someone who's, you
know, a real movie star in a sequence that's meant to have a documentary
realistic feel to it because he is what he is, a movie star?
Mr. SODERBERGH: I think you can in this instance. Or at least I hope you
can, for a couple of reasons. One, Michael is a terrific actor and also is
someone who, I think, is perfect for portraying a man like this, who is put
into this situation. And then again, the way in which the film is made, the
style of it, I think helps blend all of it so that Michael and, for instance,
Orrin Hatch do seem to occupying the same world. And so it didn't--I thought
it blended pretty well. And there are a couple of other instances in the film
where we're using real people portraying themselves. For instance, when
Michael is given the tour of the border in San Ysidro between the US and
Mexico and when he's allowed into the intelligence center in El Paso, the
people giving him the tour there and talking to him and answering his
questions are the real people.
GROSS: You did some of your own camera work...
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...for "Traffic." Why did you want to do it yourself?
Mr. SODERBERGH: For a couple of reasons, the main one being speed. I wanted
to be able to move as quickly as possible and so--to sort of rely on my sense
of what is enough in that we've taken enough time and this looks the way I
want it to look. It just made it easier for me not to be having a series of
discussions about that aspect of the film. The second was a desire to strip
the crew down to its bare minimum so that we could also move more quickly and
there were fewer people standing around. And the third is some of the looks
within the film, within these three palettes were pushed to such extremes that
based on my experience, I thought it might have been difficult to convince a
cinematographer to go that far. And again, I didn't have time to have the
discussions. We just needed to move as quickly as possible.
GROSS: Now the scenes in Mexico are subtitled.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Right.
GROSS: In earlier Hollywood films, they would have been in English but with a
Mexican accent. Tell me how you thought through the idea of actually doing it
in Spanish with subtitles and if you fear that that means that the movie's
going to play art houses instead of, you know, shopping mall cineplexes.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, there were two reasons for having the Mexican
sequences be in Spanish. The first is that I didn't think you could get
anybody to take you seriously if you had Mexican characters speaking to other
Mexican characters with accented English. And since we were trying to make a
film that purported to be up to the minute and sort of reality-based, I just
never considered that you would do anything but allow them to speak in
And the other important aspect of that is it's very crucial that you
understand that the way Mexicans speak to Mexicans is different than the way
Mexicans speak to Americans. And the Benicio Del Toro character, who plays a
Tijuana state policeman, has a lot of interaction with American characters in
the film. And the way that he relates to them is very complicated and you
need to understand, you know, the impenetrability of another culture, moving
in both directions in this case.
And so I just felt that was the way to go and wasn't really concerned that it
would be a problem for people. And the fact that we have the cast that we
have--I wasn't really concerned that we would be sort of considered an art
GROSS: My guest is Steven Soderbergh. His new film, "Traffic," opens
nationally this weekend. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Steven Soderbergh and his new film is called "Traffic."
He also directed "Erin Brockovich," "Out of Sight" and "Sex, Lies, and
Let's talk a bit about your movie "The Limey." Terence Stamp in this plays a
British ex-con. While he was in jail, his daughter was killed. When he gets
out of prison, he goes to Los Angeles to hunt down the celebrated record
producer who Stamp thinks killed his daughter. And the record producer is
played by Peter Fonda. Now I would have played a scene with both of them in
it, with both Fonda and Stamp, but there's very little in this film...
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in which they're actually speaking together, because most of the
film is about Stamp hunting down Fonda as opposed to being in the room with
him, and Fonda's story is told in parallel with Stamp's story. So instead,
let's hear a scene that is really fun with a lot of Terence Stamp. And in
this scene, he's trying to enlist some help from a drug dealer who he suspects
was cheated by the Peter Fonda character, the record producer, and Stamp is
kind of explaining his code as a criminal.
(Soundbite of "The Limey")
Mr. TERENCE STAMP: Let me explain to you. When I was in prison the second
time--no, total lie, third stretch. Yeah, third. Third. There was this
screw what really had it in for me, and that geezer was top of my list. Two
years after I got sprung, I sees him in Arnold Park. He's sitting on a bench
feeding bloody pigeons. There was no one around. I could have gone up behind
him and snapped his (censored) neck. Voila. But I left him. I could have
(unintelligible) with him, but I didn't. Because what I thought I wanted
wasn't what I wanted. What for I was thinking about was something else. I
didn't give a toss. It didn't matter, see. This bloke on the bench wasn't
worth my time. It meant ...(unintelligible) in the end, because you've got to
make a choice: When to do something and when to let it go, when it matters
and when it don't. Bide your time. That's what prison teaches you, if
nothing else. Bide your time and everything becomes clear, and you can act
Unidentified Man #1: There's one thing I don't understand. The thing I don't
understand is every mother (censored) word you're saying.
GROSS: That's a very funny sequence. Did Deborah(ph) help write that, with
all of the British slang in it?
Mr. SODERBERGH: No. Lem Dobbs, the screenwriter, was an American who was
raised in London and left when he was, I believe, 18 or 19 and has stayed very
steeped in British culture. And a lot of people think that the sort of
cockneyisms in the film were created ...(unintelligible) or by Terence, but
Lem wrote them all.
GROSS: I confess that I really hadn't seen Terence Stamp in anything. I knew
of him, but hadn't seen him in anything until seeing him in "The Limey," and
he's terrific in it. What did you know about his work and why were you so
anxious to work with him?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, Terence was one of those actors that came up in the
British New Wave in the '60s that I always thought was very compelling, and he
made a series of really interesting films. He made his debut in "Billy Budd,"
which is an amazing film based on the Herman Melville novel, and he was in
"Far from the Madding Crowd." He was in "The Collector." And then he just
sort of bailed out for quite a while. He re-emerged in a couple of the
"Superman" films in the '70s...
GROSS: Oh. Right. OK.
Mr. SODERBERGH: ...Emperor Zod.
Mr. SODERBERGH: And then worked sort of here and there. He was in a great
Stephen Frears' movie called "The Hit." He had a part in "Wall Street" and
was working occasionally. And then a few years back, I think it was '93, he
was in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," giving an amazing performance. And
when Lem Dobbs and I, the writer, were sitting down and working on the script,
we needed somebody that had associations to the '60s, that brought a certain
baggage with them and was still known to people, and yet was still in sort of
good enough condition to stir up some trouble. And that was a pretty short
list, and we very quickly settled on Terence. So I called him on the phone,
never having met him and not even knowing anyone who knew him, and sort of
pitched the idea of the film to him, and he said, `Sounds good to me.'
GROSS: Now there are flashback sequences of Terence Stamp's earlier life, and
for that, you used one of his earlier films. Which film did you excerpt for
the flashback sequences?
Mr. SODERBERGH: It's footage from Ken Loach's first feature film, which was
called "Poor Cow." It was made in 1967, and in it, Terence plays a young
thief who gets caught and sent to prison and has a relationship with a woman
within the film that--in "Poor Cow" he's actually just a friend. He's not
married to her. But in using the footage as flashback material for "The
Limey," we create the idea that it was his wife. And the legal wranglings, to
get the use of that footage, took quite some time. And then there was another
issue, which is a moral issue, and I actually met with Ken Loach and asked him
if it was OK with him if we did this, because I...
GROSS: You're rewriting the meaning of the film.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah. I mean, I said, `Look, we've sorted out the legal
stuff, but if you really think this is not a good thing to do, I won't do it.'
And he said, `No, I don't mind at all.' I don't know how I would feel if
somebody 15 years from now said, `I've got this movie with James Spader in it,
and I want to use footage from "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" and portray his
character as a young man.' I don't know what my response would be. I guess
it would depend on the filmmaker.
GROSS: Right. And on the other hand--I mean, it's made me want to go back
and see that early film.
Mr. SODERBERGH: It's a terrific film, actually, and it's not readily
available. I saw a fifth-generation bootleg that Lem Dobbs had. And what was
perfect about it for us is that Loach's documentary style really made the
footage look like it was found home movie material. It fit right within what
we were trying to do in a way that a more traditional film wouldn't have.
GROSS: Now the Peter Fonda character, the record producer, has to have a kind
of equal weight and power in the movie as the Terence Stamp character does.
Why did you choose Peter Fonda for the role?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, again, that was a very short list. We wanted somebody
who was American who had the correct kind of associations, sort of slightly
counterculture associations. And also, like Terence, who has always followed
his own beat. Someone who hasn't sort of compromised themselves and has
remained who they are through the years, and that's really Peter. And I just
sort of was excited by this, you know, '60s variation on "Celebrity
Deathmatch." I just thought it was a good couple.
GROSS: Steven Soderbergh. His new film, "Traffic," opens nationally this
weekend. We'll talk more in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: I've looked under chairs, I've looked under tables, I've
tried to find the key that fits in any ...(unintelligible). They call me the
(Credits; soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Steven Soderbergh talks about the surprise success of his
first film, "Sex, Lies, and Videotape." And Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new
boxed set of live performances conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with director Steven
Soderbergh. He's competing against himself in the Golden Globe Awards. He
has two nominations for best director; one for "Erin Brockovich," the other
for his new film "Traffic," which opens nationally this weekend. His other
films include "Sex, Lies and Videotape," "Out of Sight" and "The Limey."
Let's talk a bit about your film "Out of Sight," which is based on an Elmore
Leonard novel and starred George Clooney as a bank robber. And let me just
play a short clip from this, and this is a scene where George Clooney is
hiding out in the trunk of a car with Jennifer Lopez, who's--he's a bank
robber. She's a federal agent. You want to just explain what's happening in
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yes. George has orchestrated a prison escape, and,
unfortunately for him, Jennifer happens to be present outside the perimeter of
the fence, and things get a little complicated. And she, along with George,
gets thrown into the trunk of a getaway car, obviously against her will. And
as things settle down, and he begins to get a look at who he's trapped in the
trunk with, they start up a conversation.
GROSS: Or a flirtation. Here we go.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah.
GROSS: Here's the scene.
(Soundbite from "Out of Sight")
(Soundbite of car traveling)
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Jack Foley) Boy, it stunk in there.
Ms. JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Karen) I believe that you're ruining a $900 suit my
dad gave me.
Mr. CLOONEY: Yeah? It went great with that 12-gauge, too. How in the world
can someone like you be a federal marshal?
Ms. LOPEZ: The idea of going after guys like you appeal to me.
Mr. CLOONEY: So--what's that? Guys like me? Let me tell you something, even
though I've been celibate lately, I'm not going to force myself on you. Never
done that in my life.
Ms. LOPEZ: You wouldn't have time anyway. We come to a roadblock, they run
the car and find out in about five seconds who it belongs to.
Mr. CLOONEY: Yeah, that's if they get shot up in time, which I doubt. If
they do, they'll be looking for a bunch of little Latin fellows with a big,
black guy driving a Ford.
Ms. LOPEZ: Must be quite a pal, risk his own ass like this.
Mr. CLOONEY: Buddy? Yeah, he's a good guy. Back when we jailed together,
he used to call his sister every week without fail. She's a born-again
Christian. You know, she does bookkeeping for a televangelist. He'd call her
up, he'd confess his sins, he'd tell her whatever bank he happened to rob at
Ms. LOPEZ: Buddy, that his given name?
Mr. CLOONEY: One I gave him, yeah.
Ms. LOPEZ: So what's your name? Be in the paper tomorrow anyway.
Mr. CLOONEY: Jack Foley. Probably heard of me.
Ms. LOPEZ: Why? Are you famous?
Mr. CLOONEY: Time I was convicted in California, the FBI told me that I
robbed more banks than anybody in the computer.
Ms. LOPEZ: How many was that?
Mr. CLOONEY: Tell you the truth, I don't really know. Started when I was 18
years old. I was driving for my Uncle Cully(ph) and his partner, Gus.
Ms. LOPEZ: So, basically, you're saying you've spent half your life in
Mr. CLOONEY: Basically, yeah. I go back, I do 30 years, no time off. Can
you imagine looking at that?
Ms. LOPEZ: I don't have to. I don't rob banks.
GROSS: Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in a scene from "Out of Sight."
Steven Soderbergh, what was it like figuring out what two people to cast in
this role? There has to be chemistry between them.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, there does. When I came on to the project, Clooney
was already attached, which was good news for me because I thought he was
perfect for that. And then we began a very lengthy process of trying to find
the right person to play Karen. And we saw a lot of people, we saw a lot of
very, very good people.
And then Jennifer came in, and she was terrific. And also, George was
different with her than I'd seen him be with anybody else. Something about
the way she behaved sparked him in a way that I hadn't seen before. And so we
were scheduled to sort of do three scenes, and after we did the first one, I
said, `I think that's enough. Thanks.' And as soon as she left, George and I
looked at each other and said, `That's the person we want.'
GROSS: Yeah. So what do you do to test the chemistry? You just shoot the
two people in a scene together?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah. I mean, in this case, I was taping them, but that's
not necessary. I mean, you can usually tell. I mean, you're going on gut. I
mean, I just found that I really enjoyed watching the two of them together;
that they had--there was a tension there that was very compelling. But it's
not something you can quantify. I mean, we've seen husbands and wives who, on
screen, probably or possibly don't have the kind of rapport that they have in
their personal lives. I mean, it's a very, very tricky thing.
GROSS: OK, just one more scene I want to play, and this is from your first
feature film, "Sex, Lies and Videotape." And in this scene, Andie MacDowell,
who plays, you know, a wife who's pretty sexually repressed, discovers that
her husband's friend, played by James Spader, has a bunch of videotapes that
he made, and she wants to know what they are.
(Soundbite from "Sex, Lies and Videotape")
Ms. ANDIE MacDOWELL: Why do these tapes all have women's names on them?
Mr. JAMES SPADER: Well, I enjoy interviewing women more than men.
Ms. MacDOWELL: Oh.
Mr. SPADER: It's iced tea.
Ms. MacDOWELL: Thanks.
Mr. SPADER: Do you want--I'm sorry. Do you want some lemon? I mean....
Ms. MacDOWELL: No. This is perfect. It's perfect. So all of these are
Mr. SPADER: Yes.
Ms. MacDOWELL: Can we watch one?
Mr. SPADER: No. I'd--no.
Ms. MacDOWELL: Why not?
Mr. SPADER: Well, I promised each of the subjects that no one would see the
videotapes, except for me.
Ms. MacDOWELL: What are the interviews about?
Mr. SPADER: The interviews are about sex.
Ms. MacDOWELL: Sex? What about sex?
Mr. SPADER: Everything about sex.
Ms. MacDOWELL: Like what?
Mr. SPADER: What they've done; what they do; what they want to do, but are
afraid to ask for; what they wouldn't do, even if asked; anything I can think
GROSS: Steven Soderbergh, how did you come up with this idea of a character
who's celibate, but interviews women about the most intimate details of their
Mr. SODERBERGH: Oh, gee, I don't know where that would have come from.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SODERBERGH: I think, basically, I was just thinking, first, about a
character who's keeping people at arm's length and trying to come up with a
sort of method for him to do that. Twenty-five years ago, that maybe would
have been a still photographer, but even in 1989, sort of camcorders were
becoming very accessible, and that seemed to be, to me, the logical tool that
he would use to sort of put a distance between himself and somebody else. And
yet he can't quite--you know, he's caught in this paradox. He wants to
connect with people, and yet he can't do it without some sort of barrier. So
that's all I was thinking of. I was just looking for a way to externalize
this character's, you know, feelings of ambivalence.
GROSS: This movie was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival in--it was '88
Mr. SODERBERGH: '89, yup.
GROSS: And not only was the film a hit, I think because the film was so
successful as a result of the acclaim it got at Sundance, and later at the
Cannes Film Festival, Sundance became much more famous as a result. Suddenly
Sundance was the place that producers and distributors had to go
to--agents--to find out who the new talent was. Can you talk a little bit
about how Sundance changed you and how you think your film changed it?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, I certainly came out of the festival with a very
different idea of what was going to happen to us than when I went in. I was
there, basically, the whole 10 days, and we had four screenings over the
course of that 10 days, including one very early on. And it was a sort of
progression of interest that piqued, really, the last weekend of the festival
when we had our fourth screening, and people had decided this was something
that they should go to see, and it was getting a little nutty. And
distributors were there, you know, sort of backing us into corners and trying
to get a deal made, which was not something that any of us assumed would
happen going in.
Frankly, I had a great time making it, but was looking at it as a calling card
or a resume piece in order to get a real movie made. So it was pretty
strange; not unpleasant, but just strange.
GROSS: Now, as you have pointed out, you had five consecutive box-office
failures after the big success of "Sex, Lies and Videotape." There was
"Kafka," "King of the Hill," the "Underneath," "Gray's Anatomy" and
"Schizopolis." Were you expecting these films to fail or...
Mr. SODERBERGH: (Laughs) Well, no. I mean, you don't make "Schizopolis"
thinking you're going to set the box office on fire. However, I was more
concerned at the time with doing different things and trying different things
and trying to figure out what my strengths and weaknesses were. And all of
them were made on a reasonably small scale. I mean, they--a few of them lost
money. I mean, in the case of "King of the Hill" and "The Underneath,"
especially, I made those movies for Universal. They weren't expensive, but
they still lost their money, as did "Out of Sight," actually.
Mr. SODERBERGH: But now--yeah. "Out of Sight," at least today, hasn't
returned its investment. However, I'm not feeling too bad because "Erin
Brockovich" has sort of made up for all three of those, and that was a
Universal film. But I was just trying stuff out. And the great thing about
"Sex, Lies" finding an audience was it gave me the luxury to go and make some
mistakes, and a lot of what I learned making those films, especially the odder
ones, like "Schizopolis" and "Gray's Anatomy," went directly into films like
"Out of Sight" and "The Limey" and "Traffic."
GROSS: Now I have to tell you, and I hope you find this funny, when I went to
see "Kafka," there was a handwritten disclaimer on the box office, basically,
saying that, `Several people have hated the film and walked out, and you might
hate it, too. So use caution before buying a ticket.' Can you imagine?
Mr. SODERBERGH: That's really interesting. That's a marketing ploy that I
hadn't thought of. It's sort of reverse enticement.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, what can I say? I mean, certainly a film that I felt,
looking back on, I didn't do as well as I could have or that I would do very
differently now. But, again, coming out of "Sex, Lies," I wanted to have a
very different experience. I made "Sex, Lies" in a very controlled
environment with a very small group of people, and I actively sought out
something that would take me out of my comfort zone; in this case, a piece
that was much more technically complicated, being shot in a foreign country in
the middle of winter and with a larger cast. And, you know, I learned a lot,
and it's certainly not something I'm embarrassed by. I just wish it were
GROSS: My guest is Steven Soderbergh. His new film "Traffic" opens
nationally this weekend. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Steven Soderbergh directed the new film "Traffic." His other
films include "Erin Brockovich," "Sex, Lies and Videotape," "Out of Sight" and
Let me ask you a couple questions about your early years. When you were
growing up, your father was dean of education at the University of Louisiana.
Did you grow up with a lot of books and music and movies around you?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, I did. My father had been in academics his whole life
and was an extremely bright and educated guy and loved movies and loved books
and loved--I think was fascinated by popular culture in general. And a lot of
that rubbed off on me, but, clearly, the interest in movies rubbed off on me
in a very particular way. I mean, we used to go to the movies a lot together,
and that was--when "Sex, Lies" happened, and I wasn't quite sure how to deal
with the things that were coming at us, one of the ways that I could enjoy it,
actually, was to call my dad, who was just so excited for me; that it
gave--you know, it was a place for me to put it, you know, where I could see
how excited my family was and think, `OK, now I know how to process it.'
GROSS: Now I've read that when you saw "Jaws" as a kid, you loved it; became
almost obsessive about it. What captivated you about that movie?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, like a lot of people, I think I was absolutely
terrified by it. I was 12 years old, so it would have been summer of '75. I
just had never had a movie take my head off like that and, for the first time,
began to wonder who had done this to me. And I bought this book called "The
Jaws Log" that had just come out and was written by one of the screenwriters
of the film and just read it over and over again. And I ended up--I think I
saw the film in a theater 28 times.
Mr. SODERBERGH: And it's--the good news is, to this day, it remains one of my
favorite films. It's a really perfect piece of entertainment.
GROSS: When you kept returning to the theater to see it when you were 12,
were you looking at, `Well, how does he craft the suspense element?'
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, I was watching--I was looking for--I mean, all these
viewings happened over the course of, let's say, four or five years when I was
in high school because they would re-release it. And I would go on a Sunday
and sit through all five shows and just study how he was putting this movie
together. I wanted to figure out why it had such an impact.
GROSS: What are some of the things you started to notice with repeated
Mr. SODERBERGH: Just how he staged and how he composed and how he cut and how
he used sound, obviously, at key moments. And I was very captivated by the
sort of looseness of the performances. There seemed to be a very offhand
feeling to the performances that I thought was very infectious, and that as I
began to learn more about films, I would associate with older studio
directors, like Howard Hawks. There was just a great--you almost felt like a
lot of it was improvising, though you knew that it probably wasn't. And, you
know, I was just fascinated by everything about it, including the fact that I
wasn't a swimmer, and so the whole water thing just terrified me.
GROSS: Now when you started making movies, did you ever use your own money
and go into debt in order to get a movie made?
Mr. SODERBERGH: I did use my own money to make my short films, but I didn't
go into debt. I was just sort of paying for them with the little menial jobs
that I had. So, as a result, some of the short films that I made took a year
and a half, two years to make, you know, a 12- or 13-minute short film. And I
was--at a certain point, I began writing for hire, and I was using that money
to make short films. But I never--I really didn't have the resources even to,
you know, bankroll a 50 or $60,000 movie either on credit cards or through
loans from friends. I just didn't know anybody who had those resources. So I
was always writing scripts with an eye toward getting somebody else to pay for
it, and I did that for a long time, until, finally, I wrote "Sex, Lies" and
somebody said, you know, `This is cheap enough, and it seems, you know, on a
strictly commercial level, filled with enough sexuality to return its
GROSS: Did it seem very clever to you to have a first film that had the word
`sex' in the title, just in terms of, like, selling it, selling the idea,
getting people to come see it?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, the only thing that everybody could agree upon, when we
finished the film, was that I absolutely had to change the title.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yup.
GROSS: Change it from "Sex, Lies and Videotape"?
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah. Yup. Everyone: the people who paid for it, the
producers. The first crowd that we showed it to at Sundance, I asked from the
stage, `How many of you in the audience think I should change the title?'
Half of them raised their hands. Now by the fourth screening, nobody was
raising their hands. So it went from being a title that everyone involved in
the film except for me thought was terrible, to the only title that the film
The funny thing is I gave it that title out of a sort of glib position. I
didn't know what else to call it, and so it's sort of like those generic
products that you see in the supermarket with the white box and the Helvetica
letters that just say `cheese.' I just decided, `OK, I'll just call it "Sex,
Lies and Videotape,"' as a very sort of glib way of describing what it's
about, and it stuck.
GROSS: It's funny because I think there were hundreds and thousands of
newspaper and magazine headlines...
Mr. SODERBERGH: Oh...
GROSS: ...subsequent to that that were plays...
Mr. SODERBERGH: Yes.
GROSS: ...on "Sex, Lies and Videotape."
Mr. SODERBERGH: There needs to be a moratorium on those. I mean,
that's--after 10 years, you've got to find something else.
Mr. SODERBERGH: I mean, it's just--it was a long time ago.
GROSS: Thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. SODERBERGH: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Steven Soderbergh. His new film "Traffic" opens nationally this
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new CD box set of live performances
conducted by Leonard Bernstein. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New 10-CD box set released by the New York Philharmonic
of Leonard Bernstein's live performances with the symphony
TERRY GROSS, host:
Leonard Bernstein was a towering figure among American conductors and the
first to achieve international stature. He was also one of the most recorded.
The New York Philharmonic has released a new 10-CD box set of Bernstein's live
performances with the Philharmonic. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
Leonard Bernstein made more than 500 studio recordings with the New York
Philharmonic, which he directed from 1958 to 1969. One of his legacies was
his extraordinarily wide repertory. Now 10 new CDs of live Bernstein
performances expand even further our perception of his range. Most of these
include works he never recorded. Some of them would be hard to find in any
other version, let alone a better one. For a variety, just look at the B's:
Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Britten, Barber, Henry Brandt(ph) and Boulez.
Bernstein's Bruckner's "6th Symphony" now doubles the number of Bruckner
symphonies he recorded, though his exhilarating tempo makes the first movement
sound a little like "Star Wars."
(Soundbite of music)
SCHWARTZ: Some pieces I've never heard before. Virgil Thomson's enchanting
Parisienne tone poem, "The Seine at Night"; the brilliant conductor-composer
Igor Markevitch's scintillating, modernist "Icarus, Icarus"; and classic and
jazz computer William Russo's(ph) Symphony No. 2(ph), with its extraordinary
trumpet solos played in this Bernstein performance by the phenomenal Maynard
(Soundbite of music; applause)
SCHWARTZ: To tell the truth, I've never been a particular fan of Bernstein's
conducting. His overwrought, hyperventilated style struck me as
self-indulgent, even silly. Isaac Stern called him an `uncontrolled
Vesuvius.' Yet his musical interpretations often seemed conventional. Maybe
that combination of exaggerated public display and obvious ideas is a major
reason for his popularity. Now that he's gone, though, and large-scale,
colorful figures are so rare, I miss him. And listening to these recordings,
there's no doubt about his gifts, his ability to get the players to give their
all and still maintain a dazzling precision.
Bernstein gets good work from some significant artists, too: Vladimir
Ashkenazy and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2; and a more controversial
Russian pianist, Lazar Berman, in a surprisingly powerful Rachmananov 3rd.
There's a Beethoven 3rd with the legendary Wilhelm Kempff, and the Schumann
"Cello Concerts" with Jacquline Dupre. Benjamin Britten's favorite soprano,
Jennifer Vyvyan, is wonderful in a rare performance of Britten's Spring
Symphony; so are the glorious American sopranos Eileen Farrell in "Wagner" and
Phyllis Curtin in a darkly moving group of Sebalias(ph) songs.
(Soundbite of song)
SCHWARTZ: There's one item here of great historical importance: The 1951
world premiere of Charles Ives' 2nd Symphony, which finally took place, thanks
to Bernstein, some 50 years after Ives wrote it. But in some ways, the disc
that impresses me most is the one devoted to brilliant performances of the
20th century avant-garde: Henry Brandt, Yanis Zanokis(ph), Pierre Boulez and
John Cage, with Bernstein's own smart, helpful commentary. Even a decade
after his death, Lenny is still surprising us. And wouldn't he love that?
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix and
author of a new book of poems called "Cairo Traffic." He reviewed the 10-CD
set "Bernstein Live" issued by the New York Philharmonic.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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