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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Series-Stephen Soderbergh

Director Series-Stephen Soderbergh

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Steven Soderbergh returns to the bygone era of noir in The Good German,a tale of personal survival amid the corruption of post-World War IIBerlin. The film stars George Clooney as a military journalist drawninto a love triangle with an old flame (Cate Blanchett) and anopportunistic officer (Tobey Maguire). All are seeking a way out of thedeadly games being played in the city.The Oscar-winning director recreates the feel and the look of noirfilms, emulating in particular the style, look and feel of MichaelCurtiz’s Casablanca. Keeping all the elements required to pull off thishomage was easier for Soderbergh, who also served as cinematographerand editor. The prolific director’s next feature Ocean’s 13—the lastunder the Section Eight banner he founded with Clooney—is already shotand due to be released next summer as Soderbergh preps LifeInterrupted.Below the Line: The film is more than a stylistic homage to the filmsof the 1940s. How much did you try to replicate the technology andstyle of the films that were made back then?Steven Soderbergh: We did a little bit of homework beyond just watchingthe films that were coming out of the studios during that period,specifically the movies coming out of Warner Bros. We pulled somedocumentation from a couple of Michael Curtiz films so that I couldconfirm what lenses were being used most often, and we tried to stickto those lenses. [Production designer] Phil Messina was going through alot of books and production stills from that period to get some ideasfor tricks, ways of doing things that were cost efficient—a lot of ithaving to do with creating this sense of decay that we had to portrayon the back lot. It was a very lengthy process, getting the filmmounted. The book came in in the spring of 2001, and the script took along time. The gathering of the archival material took a long time. Wewere working on it for quite a while, while we were making othermovies.BTL: I understand you used some vintage lenses in shooting this film.What lenses were they and why did you choose them?Soderbergh: They were older Panavision lenses. They weren’t from thatera because Panavision didn’t exist yet, but they happened to have someolder lenses that aren’t quite as—I don’t know if ‘snappy’ is the rightword—they don’t have all the coatings they do now. They had a 32mm,which is sort of an unusual length. It’s not a length people ask for alot. It turned out that it’s a lens that Michael Curtiz used a ton, sothat was a lucky find, because I didn’t want to have to use a zoom,because we shot on primes for the whole film.BTL: What are some of the differences you get in the look of the filmby using these lenses?Soderbergh: They’re not so insanely sharp, the way the currenttop-of-the-line lenses are. Some of them are so sharp that they’reunforgiving. These are kinder, I think, and they just have a nice sortof warmth to them. I knew we were going to be doing a lot of close-ups,because that is very much the language of that era, so I wantedeverybody to look great.BTL: Did you shoot this film on black-and-white stock or did you shootin color and then convert to black and white?Soderbergh: We had to go with color because of some of the green-screenmaterial, the driving stuff. The black-and-white stocks are very slowand very grainy. It became apparent pretty quickly when we startedexploring the idea of doing the process shots with real rearprojection, the way they would have back then, that this was going tobe very laborious and very time consuming. Fred Brost, one of myproducers, said, “I know how quickly you like to move and you’re goingto be very unhappy with this. I suggest you go with green screen,” andhe was right. I knew in a digital intermediate that we could get themovie to look exactly the way we wanted.BTL: Did you consider doing more of the film in green screen, like onSin City?Soderbergh: No. It’s funny, one of the early incarnations was doing thewhole film as an animated film. I thought about that for a while, justa full-on animated movie,and decided no—that having live actors was sort of crucial to this andthat wouldn’t have been a good idea.BTL: What are the advantages of being the director, DP and editor interms of working with your crew?Soderbergh: The advantages for me are fewer conversations. Thedisadvantages for everyone else are that I tend to not communicate asmuch. People aren’t as aware of what is going on as they would be if Iwere having discussions with a director of photography or an editor. SoI’ll tend to just start doing things or trying to achieve what I wantwithout speaking, and sometimes it takes people a while to catch upwith what I’m doing. But that’s minor, and I try to be careful aboutthat. The speed is the main advantage. It allows me to work veryquickly, and in this case, part of the grammar of that era was cuttingin the camera. We shot very little coverage. It wasn’t an editoriallyintensive job, by my standards. This was shot to go together one way.BTL: I assume you work with the same people on your films and develop ashorthand with them.Soderbergh: Yes, absolutely. It also helps because as you finish onemovie, you can be talking and meeting about the next one while you’reworking on the one in front of you and it helps a lot.BTL: At the Below the Line screening, Phil Messina said that you wantedconstraints—you wanted to fight your way out of a corner. What doesthat mean?Soderbergh: It meant having to be more specific earlier than we’ve everhad to be, to the point where I had to tell Phil that I was going topan from here to here or only tilt up this high because he wasdesigning right to the edge of the frame. We had to take that approachwith everything, and that’s not normally how we work.BTL: He described you as an improvisational director.Soderbergh: Yeah, I like to show up and block it with the actors andsee what we’re going to do and then decide how to shoot it. I don’tstoryboard, so in this case, we would go to the location and I wouldbasically lay out for him what I was going to do ahead of time so heknew where to stop designing, because every couple of feet had a verysignificant dollar figure attached to it.BTL: Maybe you can talk about your approach to a couple of thedepartments that work under you. Let’s start with costume design.Soderbergh: This was interesting because, unlike a lot of the filmsI’ve made, it was a mixture of what we hoped were historically accuratecostumes, but also, in the case of Lena, costume designer LouiseFrogley had to create a wardrobe that speaks for her character. Sheused to be a very sophisticated, high-class woman, and now she’s aprostitute. We shot a lot of tests of her wardrobe because it was justa huge part of her character. Cate wears clothes pretty well and shereally loved everything that Louise was giving her. There were a lot ofoptions and the hard part was narrowing it down. The rest of it’salmost exclusively military.BTL: Did you do anything different with sound?Soderbergh: We had a no-wireless rule, so if we couldn’t record it witha boom mike, then we couldn’t record it. We stuck to that, and ithelped in terms of the performances, because I was asking for this veryexternalized style of performing and it actually helped that we wereusing a boom mike on everything and the actors had to really project tobe picked up properly. It made it easier, because instead of me saying,”I need you louder because I need the performance to be bigger,” Icould just say, “Look, we’re not getting a good enough track, you’vejust got to project more.” That alone puts you in a different space asan actor just in terms of your performance.BTL: How long was the shoot?Soderbergh: It was 46 days.BTL: And you shot most of it on back lots?Soderbergh: Yes. Universal back lot, Sunset-Gower, a little bit ofPasadena, a little bit of Hancock Park, Huntington Gardens. We traveledaround a little bit but stayed in LA. That was our other rule, that wecouldn’t leave LA.BTL: You mentioned y
ou did a DI on this production. Is that somethingyou’ve done before on your films?Soderbergh: The first thing I did a DI on was Ocean’s 12. There wereother people, obviously, doing it well before us. But that was where westarted, and it sure is great to be able to manipulate the image tothat extent. I was someone who was always very frustrated by theHazeltine process of color timing. I found it very archaic andannoying. So when I felt the DI technology had advanced enough to makeit worth our while, I really jumped in. On this film, I couldn’t havegotten it to look exactly the way it looks now any other way. Theextreme contrast would have been harder to achieve and also I did avery slight de-focus, which gave everything just a tiny bit of a glow.And that’s something where you press a button in DI to do that, but todo that in camera would have been trickier and less consistent.BTL: How did you decide to use the archival footage and what was theprocess of integrating it into the film?Soderbergh: It was kind of gradual and improvised, in a way. We startedcollecting all this stuff. We were pulling footage from all thesemovies—what are called rubble films, made in Berlin right after the endof the war. We’d start with drafts of the script and try to find whatwe had in the script, but it turned out often that we couldn’t alwaysget what we needed and would end up rewriting things to accommodatewhat we could get. It was sort of a back and forth. There was one sceneI wanted to do, a big foot-chase through the city, and it just turnedout I couldn’t put together enough footage to make that sequence. Myidea was I was going to try to get enough so that I could put some ofthe actors in this old footage and have them do this foot chase. And Ijust couldn’t build it.BTL: Did it help on this film in particular to make it quickly, the waythey used to make them back in the 40s?Soderbergh: I think so. You’re running on instinct, which I think isalways a good idea. It wasn’t a crazy short schedule, but we had tomove quickly, and for me that works. And like I said, it was kind ofdesigned to go together a certain way. I think we wrapped on a Fridayand I showed Cate a cut of the movie on the Sunday after we wrapped,because she was going home and I wanted her to get a feel for what itwas going to be before she split.

Written by Tom McLean

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