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Soderbergh's Liberace, 'Behind The Candelabra.'

In his new HBO film, the acclaimed director examines the five-year relationship between the flamboyant entertainer and Scott Thorson, who was 40 years Liberace's junior and still a teenager when they met. Michael Douglas plays Liberace and Matt Damon plays Thorson.




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May 21, 2013

Guest: Steven Soderbergh

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to start today's show by saying how sorry we are for the people of Oklahoma, whose lives were devastated by the tornado, people who have lost possessions they cherished, their homes, their pets, their friends, members of their family. Our thoughts are with you.

Today on FRESH AIR, we're talking about the new HBO movie based on the life of Liberace.


MICHAEL DOUGLAS: (As Liberace) You know, I always get asked: How do you play the piano with all those rings on your fingers? And I always tell them: very well, indeed.

GROSS: That's Michael Douglas, starring as Liberace in the new HBO film "Behind the Candelabra," which premieres this Sunday. It's about the five-year relationship between Liberace and his boyfriend Scott Thorson, which had to be kept secret from the public. Thorson, who's played by Matt Damon, was 40 years younger than Liberace, and was still in his teens when they met in 1977. Liberace was already a star, famous for his showy piano playing, the candelabra that was usually on the piano and his wild, flashy outfits: bejeweled jackets, feathered capes, fur coats.

Liberace's home, where he brought Thorson to live, was also extravagant. For a while, Liberace made Thorson part of his act. Thorson wore a rhinestone-studded chauffer's uniform and drove Liberace onstage in a Rolls Royce. "Behind the Candelabra" was directed by my guest Steven Soderbergh, who previously directed Michael Douglas in "Traffic" and directed Matt Damon in the "Ocean's" movies and "The Informant."

Soderbergh also directed "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" and, more recently, "Contagion," "Magic Mike" and "Side Effects." He's said the Liberace movie will be his last, at least for a while. Let's start with a scene from "Behind the Candelabra." It's two years into the relationship. Liberace and Thorson are at home on a couch, watching videotapes of Liberace's TV show. Thorson has one leg swung over onto Liberace's lap and is eating popcorn. Liberace speaks first.


DOUGLAS: (As Liberace) I was the first person in television to look directly into the camera. I was the first matinee idol in television. I was the one that had the idea of putting the candelabra up on the piano. You know, I saw an old Merle Oberon movie when I got the idea from - not Chopin, what was the name of that - "A Song to Remember."

MATT DAMON: (As Matt Thorson) Really? That's like your trademark.

DOUGLAS: (As Liberace) I know. Who knew?

DAMON: (As Matt) Wow. So really, no matter what you did, you were just meant to be famous.

DOUGLAS: (As Liberace) I guess so.

GROSS: Steven Soderbergh, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So you were about 24 when Liberace died in 1987. What did you know about Liberace when you were growing up?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I have a pretty distinct memory of seeing him as a child on TV. My parents liked him and found him very entertaining. And I did, too, although I couldn't quite at that age put my finger on what was different about him. And then I didn't really think about him again until the year 2000. I was standing on the set with Michael Douglas in Cincinnati, where we were shooting "Traffic," and for some reason, I just turned to him and said: Have you ever thought about playing Liberace?

And he sort of smiled and did a 30-second impression. And I said, OK, I'm going to come back to you about this. And years later, I did.

GROSS: What made you think of even asking him if he wanted to do a film about Liberace? Did you see a physical resemblance? I mean, like, what would inspire that question?

SODERBERGH: I just don't know. I mean, it literally came out of nowhere. There must have been something that triggered it, but it certainly wasn't conscious. And Michael later said he thought - because we didn't know each other that well at that point - that this was some sort of psychological mind game that I was playing with him. But obviously, it wasn't.

And it took me - it took me several years to even figure out how to approach Liberace as a subject. I did some research and started reading, and I was having real trouble figuring out what the angle should be. And then a buddy of mine in New York told me about the Scott Thorson book "Behind the Candelabra." And when I read that book, it sort of solved all of my problems.

It gave me a sort of specific time period to deal with. There was the arc of the relationship between the two of them to give me a structure, and that's when things really started to move. So that was 2006.

GROSS: So why did you even want to make a movie about Liberace? What interested you in the man and in his sensibility and the feathers and furs and sequins, the virgin fox fur with the 16-foot train that cost $300,00? I mean, so much of his sensibility was this kind of, like, smiling, pleasant, middle-of-the-road sensibility, but with all this just like gaudy, extravagant luxury. You know, I mean, it was...


SODERBERGH: Yeah, well, I mean, obviously, there was an inherent visual appeal. You could make an argument that Liberace really invented the idea of bling. I mean, nobody, nobody was dressing themselves like this. I mean, when you look at the people that have followed him, whether it's Elvis or Elton John or Cher or Madonna or Lady Gaga, you know, all these people are sort of building on something that he began.

And then the other thing that I realized when I started researching his life and his work was he was an incredible technical keyboardist. And I was really fascinated in this idea of an incredible level of professionalism sort of being almost hidden behind, you know, the exterior of this flamboyant performer. That was really interesting to me.

GROSS: I think my favorite line in the film - this is before Scott Thorson has actually met Liberace. And so Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon, and his friend, played by Scott Bakula, are in a club together watching Liberace performing in his sequins at this, you know, mirrored piano. And, you know, Scott Thorson says to his friend: It's amazing the audience would like something this gay. And the friend says: They have no idea he's gay.



GROSS: You know, I remember Liberace from when I was growing up, and I was trying to think, like, did people I know think he was gay? And I think there was a sense of, like, he's gay, but that meant that that was just synonymous with, like, feathers and rhinestones or something. I don't know. What do you think? Do you think people knew he was gay?

SODERBERGH: Perhaps, but my sense of it is people just - I don't think they cared, you know, I really don't. My parents didn't, and they were, I think, sharp enough to probably see what was happening. There was a story that was told to us by Ray Arnett, who was Liberace's sort of director-choreographer. He staged all of Liberace's shows.

And he told us about when the story broke in the tabloids of Scott Thorson revealing his relationship with Liberace and the beginning of the palimony suit, and that they had a show that night, and Liberace was very worried about what the response was going to be from the audience. And he was saying: What are we going to do if they start booing me, or if they start heckling me?

And Ray said, I don't know. I mean, I guess we could do a blackout and you could leave the stage, but I don't think that's what's going to happen. And Ray described listening as Liberace left backstage to go out and be introduced, and he said the room just exploded, like it was a bigger and more positive response than he'd ever gotten before.

And that, to me, indicates that people just - they didn't care. They just loved him as an entertainer, and I don't think that really mattered to them.

GROSS: You referred to this in the movie: Liberace sued a newspaper that wrote that he was gay, and he won the suit.

SODERBERGH: Yeah, in the U.K. It's true. I mean, he was - Seymour Heller, his manager, was very aggressive about that kind of thing.

GROSS: So even Liberace, even somebody who was, like, such a queen onstage, it would have been really bad for his career if he had been outed, even though, as you say, eventually when he was, it was OK. But still, it was a risk. It was a big risk.

SODERBERGH: Oh, I think there's no question for him, at a certain point in his career, it would have done a lot of damage, you know, for it to be publicly known that he was gay. So he had legitimate reason, as did a lot of other performers, to be closeted. And I think there's a - watching the film, of course, there's this sort of undertow, an emotional undertow because you can't help thinking, as you're looking at it, you know, if it were today, or if it were even just a few years ago, none of this would be an issue, and he could live any way he wanted.

And, you know, if he were in a certain state, he could even be married. So it's unfortunate to think that for so long, he had to spend so much effort to keep that part of his life a secret.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Soderbergh, and he directed the new movie "Behind the Candelabra." It's the story of one relationship in Liberace's life, with a younger man, about 40 years younger, played by Matt Damon. And the movie premieres on HBO May 26th. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Soderbergh, and he directed the new movie about Liberace, which is called "Behind the Candelabra," and it's going to be shown on HBO.

It's so interesting that you cast Michael Douglas, because, you know, most of Michael Douglas' roles, he's such a kind of, you know, macho, straight guy. And here he is as Liberace, and it's a very convincing performance, and even though you told us a little about it earlier, I'm still so surprised that you saw that capacity in him.

SODERBERGH: Yeah. I certainly, in meeting Michael and working with him on "Traffic," recognized very quickly that he was an intelligent, complex person, in addition to being a really gifted performer. And he knows a lot about a lot of different things. And I never questioned the idea of him playing a role like this.

I knew he could do it, and my only hope was that he would want to do it, which he did. But I think the - it ended up, you know, the movie got postponed a couple of times for various reasons, and then Michael was ill for a while. And this was the first project...

GROSS: Ill, yeah, he had throat cancer.

SODERBERGH: Yeah, so this was the first film he made after recovering. And I think there was an aspect of being there on set, that things felt a little more heightened because of, you know, what he'd been through and how long it had taken us to get to the first day of shooting.

And he just - he and Matt both, I was fascinated to watch how quickly they sort of fell into these roles, and how completely. They both just kind of jumped off the cliff, and there was no hesitance. There was no sense of them ever sort of looking back at themselves as they were performing. They just seemed completely inside of it.

And I don't know if part of that is the physical aspect of putting on the clothes and the wigs, and in some cases, you know, prosthetics that allowed them to feel so comfortable in this transformation, but it was really something to watch. I mean, if they - they both had to meet each other, you know, at the exact same point, or it wasn't going to work.

GROSS: Is it true that Michael Douglas' father, Kirk Douglas, lived next door to Liberace?

SODERBERGH: I know they both had houses in Palm Springs. I'm not sure how close they lived to each other. But Michael, you know, Michael met Liberace many, many times when he was younger.

GROSS: Oh, really? Because of his father living in the same neighborhood as Liberace?

SODERBERGH: Yeah, and the parties, you know, people would throw parties, and everybody would show up. And so he at least had a pretty strong reference point. And then, of course, we had Debbie Reynolds in the film playing Liberace's mother, and Debbie knew Liberace very, very well, because they were both performing in Vegas at the same time. And she knew Frances, Liberace's mom, very well. And so she was able to sort of recreate her whole affect and her sound pretty remarkably.

GROSS: So did Michael Douglas or Debbie Reynolds tell you stories about Liberace that were helpful to you as the director?

SODERBERGH: Only in the sense of - well, we talked to a pretty good amount of people, and you can't find anybody to say anything bad about him. Everybody said he was just a sweetheart, very generous, very kind, very loyal and loved performing. So that was interesting, just to get everybody's impressions and have them be that synchronous.

On the other hand, it was clear that he didn't - he didn't like conflict, and he didn't like, sort of, negativity. And so when things would start for - if a relationship started to sort of go south, he would kind of avoid dealing with it directly. You know, this is where sometimes his manager would come in and sort of take care of things.

GROSS: You say it was hard to find somebody who had anything negative to say about him, but Scott Thorson, the Matt Damon character, has plenty negative to say about him. And, you know, the movie's based on his memoir. And he seems like such an interesting character. I mean, when the movie ends and you have a crawl updating what's happened to people, it says that Scott Thorson lives in Reno.

But I think right now, he's actually living in prison. You know, there's a New York Times article that said he's in prison now. In February, he was charged with burglary and identity theft after buying $1,300 worth of computer and cell phone merchandise using a credit card and license that weren't his. He was arrested at a hotel, where he and a man he had just met rented a room for $33.90 a night.

But it seems like he was not the most reliable character, not only because he's in prison now for having done this identity theft and stealing, but the people quoted in the article in the New York Times who know him basically said he's not a reliable character.

SODERBERGH: Well, you know, I think part of what enabled Scott and Liberace to have a relationship that went on as long as it did and was as serious as it was had to do with both of them, I think, to some extent, being kind of broken people in different ways, and finding some connection in that. Scott's upbringing, if you were to read his book or even see the film and have him describe it, was, you know, not pleasant, and it's - you could make an argument that the fact that he got out of that childhood at all intact was an accomplishment of sorts.

But more to the point, I firmly believe that their relationship was real. I think they really did love each other. I think they had a period of a couple of years that were very, very happy for both of them.

GROSS: You told us a little bit about how you decided you wanted to use Michael Douglas as Liberace. What about Matt Damon? You've worked with Matt Damon on the "Ocean's" film and on "The Informant." Did you have to test their chemistry together to see whether Michael Douglas and Matt Damon would be convincing as a couple?

SODERBERGH: No, I didn't. It's funny. I had no doubts that their sort of mutual respect for each other and their incredible professionalism would result in something that would be convincing. And I knew it had to be, because that was really - at the end of the day, the movie is really kind of a two-hander between the two of them, and my compass was always focused on their interaction.

And it's a very intimate movie. It's a very emotionally intimate movie. And there are scenes between them that are almost uncomfortable in their intimacy, and would be if it was a man and a woman involved. You know, there are some very, very...

GROSS: You're talking about sexually intimate.

SODERBERGH: No, I mean in every way.

GROSS: You mean in every way, right.

SODERBERGH: Just conversations that take place between people who are in, you know, serious relationships that can be very volatile and very uncomfortable. You know, I always felt that if we did our jobs correctly, that halfway through the movie, you'd forget it was Michael and Matt, and you'd forget it was two men and just feel as though you're watching a relationship.

GROSS: I was talking to my producer Lauren about this, and, you know, because I was saying there's something musically, in terms of just being an entertainer, with the kind of patter he'd have with the audience that was just, like, so middle of the road. And at the same time, he's like so extravagant and queenly and everything.

And she was saying it's as if Lawrence Welk, like, you know, suddenly became this queen or something. You know, it's just like two totally different sensibilities in one.

SODERBERGH: Well, I think, you know, the story that he tells in the movie about the Hollywood Bowl is kind of instructive and absolutely understandable, when he's saying he went to the Hollywood Bowl for the first time to prepare for a performance and was looking at, you know, the setup on the stage with this black floor and this giant clamshell. And as he said, traditionally, pianists always wore black tuxedos, and he realized: I'm just going to disappear, like literally, people won't be able to see me.

And that's one of the things that led him to start wearing these gigantic outfits, you know, as he tells the story. And then he's wearing this crazy getup, and he says can you see me now. You know, on the one hand it's funny, and on the other hand I get it. I think he's totally right. You know, when you're sitting in front of a piano on a stage somewhere, and you want to be seen, you've got to step it up.

And so what was funny, obviously, was over the years, to see how he kept trying to top himself. I mean, these outfits are just crazy. I mean we - you know, we were able to show a fairly decent amount of them, but there was - there's, you know, there are books just entirely made up of images of his outfits, and they're just jaw-dropping.

GROSS: Steven Soderbergh will be back in the second half of the show. He directed the new movie "Behind the Candelabra," which premieres on HBO Sunday night. Here's Michael Douglas as Liberace. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a moment, we'll get back to our interview with Steven Soderbergh about his new HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra," based on the life of Liberace. First, let's hear from Liberace himself in a clip from one of his TV shows in the '60s. He's dressed in a brocaded black and gold suit, seated at his white piano with a mirrored keyboard with his signature candelabra on top of the piano. He's talking to the studio audience.


LIBERACE: You know, ladies and gentlemen, there's one song that I think everybody in show business has done and I don't want to be left out, I'm going to do it too. But I'm going to try to do it a little bit differently. First of all, to refresh your memory, I'm going to play in its original form, and then as a Viennese waltz by Strauss, a Swiss music box, in that popular Latin tempo, the bossa nova, and last of all, the way that kids seem to like it best. And all of this is going to happen to "Mack the Knife."



GROSS: That's Liberace from a TV show in the '60s. Here's another scene from the new HBO movie, "Behind the Candelabra," starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, directed by our guest Steven Soderbergh. This is the scene in which Liberace first meets his boyfriend Scott Thorson, played by Matt Damon. Thorson, who's still a teenager, 40 years younger than Liberace, has just seen Liberace perform at a Vegas club and is taken backstage by a friend who knows Liberace. In the dressing room, they also see Liberace's director, Ray, and his accompanist Billy. After being introduced, these are some of Liberace's first words to Thorson.


DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Ah, lost babe in the woods.


DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) It's like a Disney movie, little Bambi. Very nice to meet you.

DAMON: (as Scott Thorson) You were incredible out there.

DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Oh, I'm just a piano player. But everybody did seem to enjoy themselves, didn't they?

TOM PAP: (as Ray Arnett) You were great too, Billy.

DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Ray, why don't we fix everybody drink?

PAP: (as Ray Arnett) All Right.

DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) I'm not going to have one. I still have another show to do.

DAMON: (as Scott Thorson) You're going to do that all over again? I don't know how you do that.

DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Oh, aren't you sweet. It's not bad for an old bag, huh?

DAMON: (as Scott Thorson) Oh, you look fantastic. And those bits with the audience are gold.

PAP: (as Ray Arnett) They work every time. I stage the show once a year. It works the same way every single night.


DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) Well, I'll tell you, when I was working saloons in my youth back in Milwaukee, they called them saloons. I mean that's how old I am.

DAMON: (as Scott Thorson) I'm from Wisconsin too.

DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) No. You are? Well, this must be fate. Well, one night this audience asked me to play this popular Hit Parade song called "Three Little Fishes," you know, it barely had a melody, it wasn't a challenge at all. But I played it, you know, and they were happy. And then I don't know where it came from, but I got this inspiration to play it as if it was composed by Strauss. And they loved it. They ate it up. You would've thought that I invented the piano.


DOUGLAS: (as Liberace) And I knew right then it was all about giving them a good time. And that's what I'm all about. I love to give people a good time.

GROSS: That's Michael Douglas as Liberace from the new HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra." And my guest is Steven Soderbergh who directed the film. It's so interesting that Michael Douglas' first time back acting after throat cancer, he's doing a role where getting the voice right is so important. I mean this is not his regular way of speaking and, you know, he's doing a pretty interesting job of capturing Liberace's speaking voice. Were you or he concerned at all that, you know, his voice physically couldn't hold up to something where he would be, you know, having to put on a voice?

SODERBERGH: No. He seemed - by the time we started shooting, he seemed to be 100 percent recovered and healthy. And I think for us the trick was more because there's a lot of material available to look at that he not get hung up in doing an impression of Liberace. You know, I didn't want him sort of, you know, I didn't want his focus sort of pulled by having to technically try and reproduce, you know, exactly how Liberace sounded and I think he found a really nice sort of sweet spot where there is a voice and it's very distinctive and it's not Michael's voice. But it's not just him parroting Liberace. I just think I don't think either of us would have felt that that would be interesting.

GROSS: You expected this to be studio film but apparently the studios didn't want the film. Did you find that out after the movie was already made?

SODERBERGH: No. I mean we were taking the film around town trying to get a domestic partner and nobody wanted to do it. I think there was a - there was a...

GROSS: When you say taking around do you mean the script or the actual movie?

SODERBERGH: The script.


SODERBERGH: The script with Michael and Matt attached. And yeah, we didn't need very much money. We'd sort of presold the majority of the film overseas. But there was a sense that the movie wouldn't have any appeal outside of a gay audience and that that audience wouldn't be big enough to return the investment and so we just couldn't get anybody to do it. And fortunately, Jerry Weintraub, our producer, was in the middle of working with HBO on a documentary about himself called "His Way" - which I encourage everybody to see, it's pretty fun - and he had a conversation with HBO and said, you know, we're trying to get this Liberace movie off the ground and they said that's exactly the kind of thing we want to do and it was done immediately.

GROSS: I suspect in the U.S. more people will see it on HBO than would have seen it had it been released to theaters.

SODERBERGH: Oh, I don't think there's any question. Yeah, I think you're absolutely right.

GROSS: But what does it say to you about TV versus movies?

SODERBERGH: Well, you know, this is something I've talked about over the past couple of years, which is the sort of migration of a particular kind of audience from movies to television. And at a certain level it's not surprising to me at all that we ended up at HBO because I've seen a drift over the last decade or so and it's partially I think as a result of the fact that there's just so much great television being made, and a lot of this is I think due to "The Sopranos," which kind of altered the landscape in a way that is still evolving. But I think everything that's good now is sort of standing on the shoulders of what David Chase did and it just completely changed people's attitudes about TV and, you know, here we are where I look at it and, you know, it feels like a sort of second golden age of television. There's really, really good stuff being made.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Soderbergh. He directed the new movie "Behind the Candelabra," which premieres on HBO Sunday night. More after break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Steven Soderbergh and his movie about Liberace starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his younger boyfriend premieres on HBO May 26th.

You have said that this is going to be your last movie before either retiring from film or at least taking a hiatus from film. Which do you think of it as now?

SODERBERGH: I don't know. I don't know. I'm just going to step away from that particular job for a while and I don't have a sense right now how long, you know, my break will last or whether it's permanent or not. I certainly wouldn't be unhappy if "Candelabra" turned out to be the last movie I made. That would not be a problem for me. But I've got some, you know - as we were just talking about television - I've got a few television things that I'm trying to get off the ground. So it's not, I'm not going to be idle.

GROSS: Oh, I see. You're not giving up on shooting stuff and directing stuff. You're just giving up for now on it being in theaters.

SODERBERGH: Yeah. In terms of what I, you know, for lack of a better term, cinema, I'm taking a break on that. But I'm hoping that a couple of these TV notions will become reality. That would be fun.

GROSS: And I presume it's premature to tell us what they are?

SODERBERGH: Yeah, because they're not set up yet. I'm still trying to get them together. But, you know, if you're talking about what, you know, a long form piece, it's an opportunity to go narrow and deep and to present characters who are complicated and probably flawed. And in this sort of medium that's not a problem, it's a plus.

GROSS: So what are some of the reasons why you want to stay away from movie movies now? Does it have to do with financial constraints and creative freedom?

SODERBERGH: It's partially that. It's partially the fact that the box is getting smaller, that there are economic pressures that sort of force it to become more and more constricted - and that's neither here nor there. It's just that's just the way it goes. The business isn't as fun as it used to be - or at least as fun as it was when I came up a long time ago.

And then there are just creative issues of my own, of feeling that I need to sort of tear down everything I've done and rebuild from scratch. And that's a process that I think is not incremental. I feel I can go and work on some things in television while I'm thinking about my relationship to movies, whereas I don't think I can think about my relationship to movies while I'm trying to make a movie. I just need to just destroy everything that's come before and see if I can kind of become a primitive again. I'm not even sure it's possible. I don't know if it's something you could do...

GROSS: What you even mean by that?

SODERBERGH: It means just throwing away everything that you've learned and thought and trying to become in essence a completely different filmmaker, because I've hit a wall of what I feel I'm able to do at this point - not because I've figured everything out, I've just figured out what I can't figure out and I need to tear it down and start over again.

GROSS: Why would that be different in television?

SODERBERGH: Because they're different mediums and they have different demands. And the things that I can do currently I think dovetail very well with what's happening in TV right now. And I like to be busy. I don't like to sit around so it was always in my mind that I would be making things, it just wouldn't be movies.

GROSS: When did you first become aware that there was such a thing as a director and that the director had a lot to do with why you liked a movie when you were watching it?

SODERBERGH: When I was 12.

GROSS: Through watching what?


GROSS: Really? Because of the suspense?

SODERBERGH: Yeah. That was the first that...

GROSS: Because of the way you were...

SODERBERGH: No. It was just I came out of that film in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the summer of 1975, and my relationship to movies had completely changed. I had always seen a lot of films because my father loved movies, but in that two hours and four minutes, they went from something that I used to view as entertainment and became something else. And I had two questions when I came out of that theater. One is, what does directed by mean, exactly? And who is Steven Spielberg? And luckily, there was a book that had been published around the time the movie came out called "The Jaws Log," which was written by Carl Gottlieb, one of the co-screenwriters, and it turned out to be one of the best making-of books that anybody has ever produced and I bought a copy of that and read it over and over again and highlighted any mention of Steven Spielberg and what that job entailed. And from that point on I realized oh, this is a job, you could have this is as a job.

GROSS: Does Steven Spielberg know this story?

SODERBERGH: I have no idea.

GROSS: So you haven't had a chance to tell it to him?




GROSS: So then you realized you wanted to be a director and it was before every cell phone had a video camera on it.



GROSS: And so what did you do to start trying it out?

SODERBERGH: Well, I managed to get my hands on some equipment, some, you know, super 8 equipment, occasionally some 16 millimeter equipment. You know, it did - it required you had to save up some money and, you know, getting...

...Super 8 equipment, occasionally some 16 millimeter equipment. You know, it did - it required - you had to save up some money and, you know, going out and shooting stuff wasn't as simple as it is now. And there were plusses and minuses to that. The plusses were, like I said, you really had to plan things out and be very careful about what you shot because you only had a limited amount of film in a cartridge.

And this was also a period in which, you know, in order - this was sort of pre-video, videocassettes and being able to get access to everything all the time. Luckily during this period in Baton Rouge, I was going to high school on the LSU campus and there was a film program there and there was a repertory house next to the campus.

So I was seeing films almost every night of the week for four years. And things imprint in a way when you're a teenager, I think, that is unique. You know, things sort of hit you in a way they'll never hit you again. And I was just very lucky that during that four year period I saw a ton of movies from all over the world. And they made a gigantic impression.

GROSS: Now, your father, I think, was dean of education or something at LSU, Louisiana State University?

SODERBERGH: During that time, yeah. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So did he impress upon you the importance of education, and then did you, like, not go to college so you could go to Hollywood?

SODERBERGH: Well, here's what you want - is to see your kid lit up by something.

GROSS: Yeah.

SODERBERGH: And I inherited from him a bit of a - both sort of workaholic aspect and also an obsessive quality. And when he saw what was happening, he just sort of stood back and let it happen. And I - believe me, high school, I never cracked a book. I mean I got by just on the fact that I read a lot and sort of coasted on what I knew.

But every - every waking moment during that period I was either making a movie, reading about a movie, or seeing a movie, if I was awake. And he just, he let it happen. You know, he was very supportive. Because he loved movies too. And I think at a certain age - I've had this happen with my daughter, who has a pretty remarkable singing voice.

And when I saw her perform as a ninth grader in the lead of a school play, to see your child do something that you could never do is a great - it's a great moment. And I think he saw very quickly that I was doing things, you know, that he would never have been able to do.

GROSS: Your mother taught parapsychology. What were some of the things she believed in?

SODERBERGH: My mother was ahead of the curve in a lot of different ways when I was growing up. And being in the house, it was unusual because she had a kind of fascinating cast of characters floating through. But she was interested in the paranormal. She was interested in the kind of health foods that now, again, you can get anywhere.

But back then you really had to pursue getting, you know, people - when you talk about, you know, anything like kale or algae or, you know, any of the things now that are pretty commonplace, back - you know, these were things that she was interested in back then.

She was just sort of a free thinker and I think I ended up being a kind of combination of the two of them because my father was very structured and very good at working at a job that had certain hours. I could never do that. Like, I wouldn't be very good as someone who had to go to an office every day and be there from this point to that point. That would be hard for me.

So I'm kind of a combination of the two of them. I have her sort of abstract quality and I also have his kind of very linear approach to process and problem solving.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Soderbergh. He directed the new movie "Behind the Candelabra," which premiers on HBO Sunday night. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with director Steven Soderbergh. His films include "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Traffic," "Contagion" and "Magic Mike." He said his new HBO movie, "Behind the Candelabra," will be his last - at least for a while.

So I read that one of the movies you'd like to make now, if you were making movies, which apparently you're not going to be for a while, would be a movie about Leni Riefenstahl, who was the filmmaker who did, you know, just like amazing...

SODERBERGH: Nazi propaganda.

GROSS: Amazing Nazi propaganda films.


GROSS: That when you watch them, they're so like powerful and frightening. She's such a controversial figure.


GROSS: Because you have to keep two thoughts in your mind at the same time - that she was, you know, a really terrific director and had a great eye and knew how to stir up emotion, and at the same time she was doing this on behalf of just like the most despicable ideology. So why have you been having trouble getting the film made?

SODERBERGH: Well, we - Scott Burns, who wrote "Side Effects" and "The Informant!" and "Contagion," and I were thinking about this project and we had what I thought was a pretty interesting, bold take on the material, which was basically Hitler and Goebbels are the studio and she is the aggrieved artist who is fighting for her vision.

And so the movie at no point leaves her point of view, or delves into any of these moral questions at all. The whole design of the movie is that you are rooting for her to win. And the film ends with her onstage after the premier of "Triumph of the Will" with people throwing roses at her and she's beaming. And that's the end of the movie. Now, what we realized after we solved this sort of creative problem was no one would go see this.


SODERBERGH: That we would break our - we'd break our backs for two years for no money making this movie and that not even our friends would want to see it. And we were supposed to go in the next day to pitch this idea to our producers about how we were going to do it. And I said to Scott, you know, I've done this before, where I've, you know, had an unusual take on a piece and we've all gone out and killed ourselves to do it and then people have just shrugged. And I go, I don't want to do that again. Do you have anything else that we can go in and pitch tomorrow instead of this? He said, well, I've always wanted to make an ultra-realistic film about a pandemic. And I go, OK, we're doing that.

GROSS: Oh, "Contagion."

SODERBERGH: And we went in the next - yeah. We went in the next day and said we're not doing Leni, we're doing this. And they said great. And we went off in that direction. So it was kind of - we agreed, basically, to abandon it.

GROSS: Why would you even consider making a film about Leni Riefenstahl and her documentary work for Hitler and the Nazis and not want to raise any of the moral questions?

SODERBERGH: Because she never raised them. That's the whole point. I wanted to just be inside of her point of view.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SODERBERGH: I wanted you to - you know what I mean? I just wanted it to be what, how - what she thought when she was doing it. Because that's what's so - that's the whole point of it, is we look at that and go could you not be thinking about these issues, and the point is, she wasn't. And I thought it would be really...

GROSS: Do we know that she wasn't? Do we know that she wasn't thinking about them and that - do we know that she didn't agree with the Nazi regime?

SODERBERGH: I just don't think that's where her head was at. I think her head was, you guys need to give me the money for this crane so I can get these shots. I mean that's - that's all she cared about.

GROSS: Right.

SODERBERGH: You know. And so to me, it - the questions are there for the audience. They don't need to be there for her. So anyway, the good news is that film is never going to happen.


GROSS: So finally, you have written, I think it's complete now, a Twitter, quote, novel. You know...

SODERBERGH: Oh, it's not done.

GROSS: It's not done. OK.


GROSS: All right.

SODERBERGH: Who knows how long this is going to go on.

GROSS: I think my question is - why? Why are you doing that? It seems like such an oxymoron because Twitter is all about this short little burst that's ephemeral and, you know, a novel is really like for those times when you actually have time to commit and you want something rich.

SODERBERGH: Well, it's an opportunity, because of the format, to exercise a muscle that I want to keep exercised, and it's not entirely unrelated to my process of trying to figure out what I want to do with movies. I don't even know if I could really articulate how it's connected to that process, but I know that it is somehow, that there's some - there's something in the process of me sort of dribbling this thing out that is connected to how I'm thinking about cinema.

And the idea of Twitter and tweets, I've never viewed it as something that I would ever use for topical issues, or as you say, sort of ephemeral. I would hope that the things that are on there are true today and are true 10 years from now or 15 years from now. I don't want to use it as, you know, what I ate or what I went to go see that night.

You know, I'd like it to be somewhat more permanent than that, and in this case, like I said, it lends itself to a certain kind of format - in this case a kind of genre, I don't know how to describe it, a sort of spy - abstract spy book with some photographs thrown in. And it just seemed like, all right, this could be fun, and I'll do it as long as I can sustain it.

GROSS: OK. Well, Steven Soderbergh, thank you so much for talking with us.

SODERBERGH: Oh, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Steven Soderbergh directed "Behind the Candelabra," starring Michael Douglas as Liberace. It premiers on HBO Sunday night.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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