Soderbergh Interview Part 2: On making ‘Side Effects,’ working in Hollywood and scaring Matt Damon

In the first half of my interview with director Steven Soderbergh, he went into great detail about what he’s going to do during his retirement: He’s looking to do nothing less than reinvent cinema.

In this second half, Soderbergh talks about his insanely busy schedule — he’s made five, count ’em five, movies in the past two years — the difficulties of working in Hollywood, and how he completely freaked out of Matt Damon.

Jonathan Crow: So that was [“Side Effects” screenwriter] Scott Z. Burns in the room with you just before I came in, right?

Steven Soderbergh: Right.

[Related: Steven Soderbergh talks about his retirement, becoming a ‘a primitive’ and the next iternation of cinema]

JC: Did he approach you to make “Side Effects”?

SS: No. “Side Effects” was something that he was developing for himself. I’d ask him every year to let me direct it. And then he’d say, “No, I want it.” So a little over a year ago, when my “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” remake blew up — which he was writing for me — I called him again, and I said, “This will be the last time I ask. Will you give me ‘Side Effects’?” And he said, “Yeah. I thought we were going to be making a movie together, so let’s make this one. I’ll write something else for me.” He’s got tons of ideas.

So it all kind of came together pretty quickly. I mean, it had to, because I had Liberace already slotted for the summer. So it was either I make it in April [2012] or bust.

JC: So you shot the whole thing in one month?

SS: It was like a 35-day shoot, so April and part of May. And then six weeks later, we started Liberace. We jumped off of one and back to the other, and then at a certain point we just finished them both at the same time.

JC: That must be really dizzying to keep track off.

SS: No, because it’s the same production crew, same post crew. You just work on one project in the morning and then the other one in the afternoon.

JC: This still sounds crazy. I mean, you’re making Woody Allen look lazy.

SS: He’s lazy. He’s obviously lazy. He could be doing two year and he’s not. No, the key is I don’t write. I work with writers but I don’t write. That’s why I can do it. And that’s the reason I don’t write anymore. I wrote like a director.

JC: What does that mean?

SS: I don’t know. The scenes that I wrote were just kind of functional. They didn’t have the kind of detail that I think good writing has. As soon as I understood that I’m not a writer, my work got better immediately. While shooting Liberace, I had an idea about a scene. I wrote an email to [“Beyond the Candelabra” screenwriter] Richard LaGravenese saying, “I think we need a scene that does this.” And then I would send in my bad version of the scene. By the next morning, it would come back transformed. I’d think, “And that’s why he’s Richard LaGravenese.” It’s really fun to be in a room with somebody who’s a real writer. I’m reliant on them at the end of the day to give it that filigree that’s totally specific to them. You know?

JC: At same time, you put your own stamp on it.

SS: Of course you do. Because at the end of the day, making a movie is answering 10,000 questions, and they are your answers. So of course it has to reflect you.

[Related: Indie Roundup: ‘The Taste of Money’]

JC: How do you think that the movie business has changed in the past decade?

SS: The box that people are willing to let you play in is just getting smaller. It gets a little frustrating. Especially when you get the feeling that actually the people that pay for movies and the people that go to see them are more in sync than I am. That’s really scary. When you realize, “Oh, they’re right. All those notes that I got that I found really sort of obvious and annoying — that’s what the audience wants. I’m the clown. I’m the idiot.”

JC: And you think the audiences had shifted in the past 10 years?

SS: I think they wanted it all tied up in the end. There are exceptions out there, but in general, spectacle, cliché, and cheap sentiment are kind of the order of the day. You get rewarded for indulging in those three areas, and you often get punished for attempting to break out of that. I have seen it.

JC: Other filmmakers or with you?

SS: Both. Yeah.

JC: I just want to get back to “Side Effects” a bit. This film seems to tie into a theme that runs throughout your work, and that’s of lying.

SS: There’s a line that Catherine [Zeta-Jones] says in the movie, “The cardiologist can see the heart attack coming. It’s in the blood. But for us [psychologists], how do we see the lies?” There’s no test for that really. All drama and all conflict is about betrayal, ultimately. There’s a betrayal at the root of every conflict, when it comes down to it. It can be a personal betrayal, it can be a philosophical betrayal, but it’s all about somebody somewhere at some point saying, “I thought this and you’re telling me it’s not this.” It’s something else.

I am continually frustrated by the rate at which we kill each other. And then part of me thinks, “Wow, that’s kind of amazing we don’t kill each other more.” I ride in the subway in New York, and I’m constantly looking around thinking, “We’re all agreeing to be cool.” But who said? It is kind of strange that we’re even able to come to some very basic tacit understandings about how we’re supposed to behave, aside from laws and such. I vacillate between wondering why can’t we do this better and thinking that it can be a lot worse.

[Related: Indie Roundup: Amour]

JC: Yeah. I don’t know … there’s something about that and the proliferation of zombie movies, I think.

SS: Yeah, I wonder what that’s about.

JC: I don’t know.

SS: We joked about that while making “Contagion.” Matt [Damon] would always say, “This movie would really take off if it had a zombie in it.” So we played a joke on him in one scene. It was a specifically designed shot that rounded a corner. I did a lot of takes of it on purpose to set him up. And then I say, “OK, I think we got it. Let’s do one more take.” And had this guy dressed as zombie hidden away that jumped out. Matt was — it’s hilarious. I have the footage and he gets air. Like his feet leave the ground.

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