Director Steven Soderbergh burst onto the scene in 1989 with his first feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape that won the Audience Award at its Sundance premiere and went on to win the top prize four months later at Cannes. In the subsequent two decades his path has been eclectic and unpredictable; ranging from arcane personal projects (Schizopolis) to highly commercial (Ocean’s Eleven). In 2000 he received an Academy Award for his direction of Traffic and other credits include King of the Hill, Erin Brockovich and Bubble. Additionally he’s been active as a producer with credits that include Far from Heaven and Good Night and Good Luck.
His most recent release is Che, a two-part film on the iconic Ernesto Guevara that premiered in Cannes in May. The film originally was to be directed by Terrence Malick but when the filmmaker decided to postpone production, Soderbergh was approached to take over the project and developed a new screenplay and approach to the material.
Below the Line: What was it that intrigued you about Che?
Steven Soderbergh: Boots on the ground. What I found most compelling was that if you choose to be a revolutionary there’s no waking moment when you’re not. I wanted to show what it might be like—all the nuts and bolts—to be involved in a movement. I don’t think a film had ever attempted to show that.
BTL: Did you have access to Terry Malick’s script.
Soderbergh: Oh, sure. It was a true Malick screenplay; the focus was Bolivia and it was very impressionistic. It was very poetic and regardless what you think I’m not a poet; I’m much more a blunt instrument. As I began to research Che’s life and how to portray it, the structure evolved. I wanted to make two films—one focused on the period of the Cuban campaign and the other the final period in Bolivia. They’re obviously related but they’re also two distinctly different films. The financiers were very concerned that the project was getting bigger but I assured them the two films could be done quickly and for the same budget that had been earmarked.
BTL: You shot each film in different formats and the second seems to me more intimate and claustrophobic.
Soderbergh: Absolutely. The second film we’re pushing in whereas the first has an expansive nature. They have different palettes. I was looking at some of the epic films like El Cid and other films by Anthony Mann and John Sturges to prepare for the first film. For the second I screened The Battle of Algiers and The French Connection.
BTL: And you shot all over the world.
Soderbergh: (laughs) We shot in five countries but mostly in Spain and Puerto Rico. It was set up as a co-production with Spain and that dictated a number of decisions. Each part had a 39-day filming period—because of union regulations we shot mostly 5-day weeks in Spain—with a 10-day break between. We actually shot the second part first and it proved to be the easiest to film. I somehow sensed that. I was at an emotional low point during the break but once we restarted I didn’t have time to be depressed.
BTL: Did you look into filming in Cuba.
Soderbergh: Oh, yeah. I even tried to get a Swedish passport because of my grandparents but it was going to take too long. Right now it’s just impossible because of the State Department. If you’re Michael Moore and have a small camera you can do it but there’s no way to set up a production office and do a complicated schedule. I went to Cuba five times to get a sense of the type of locations we needed to emulate.
BTL: You mentioned that Che was set up as a co-production with Spain and with most of your keys comprised of Spaniards, I assume that was partially dictated by treaty. Were there unique problems in working with an entirely new crew and language issues?
Soderbergh: Nothing that I’d classify as crippling. My Spanish is pretty rudimentary but the keys at least had excellent English and because I have a pretty good knowledge of their cinema I had a good starting point in assembling the creative departments.
BTL: Yes, a number are longtime collaborators of Pedro Almodovar.
Soderbergh: It’s an asset to have worked with good people but you’re looking for a lot of things that range from type of experience to a sense of temperament—are you going to go to war with this or that person. The production designer, Antxón Gómez, had this wonderful sense of economy that really allowed us to keep on schedule. He’d build a house in a way that the front could be used for one location and the back a totally different one. Then you could get a third in using the interior.
BTL: Was the work ethic like your experience making American independents.
Soderbergh: Yes and no, mostly no. It’s a different culture and industry and a very long discussion that’s probably best for a different story. Regardless of situation or language, the one thing you’re never taught and utterly unprepared for when you start making movies is the sheer volume of questions you’re bombarded with as the director. It’s almost always best to give a prompt response because you don’t want to slow people down.
BTL: You did manage to keep your cinematographer Peter Andrews (note: Soderbergh uses this nom de plume).
Soderbergh: He earned his salary on this film. You know I like to get right in when I’m filming and for the battle sequence that could be dangerous. There’s a strange sensation to be fired upon by rifles and be close enough to explosions to have debris rain down on you. I wore this, how best to describe it, quilted robe to protect me but I took my fair share of cuts and bruises.
BTL: You’ve talked a fair bit in the past about operating the camera in relationship to the way you work with actors. I’m wondering if it isn’t also a benefit in bonding with your crew.
Soderbergh: It eliminates a layer of communication. It’s one thing to be the director and be the boss. Handling the camera and inter-relating with the people determining the look speeds up the process. I basically work on the basis that you light the space so I can go right from the rehearsal to shooting the scene.
BTL: Are you constantly switching hats as director and cinematographer or is it more organic?
Soderbergh: You don’t really have time to think about it. Sometimes things are set long before you start capturing image. You establish a rapport and confidence. With someone like our costume designer Sabine Daigeler it’s only later or in flashes that you realize the problems they had to overcome.
Soderbergh: Well she had lots of people to cloth—there are more than 100 speaking parts—and I had very specific feelings about how everything should be aged. We’d wrap for the day and I’d see her crew meticulously working on the wardrobe for hours after. One thing I hadn’t anticipated because this was a rag-tag army was how picky the actors would be about their costumes. You know there are hundreds of first-hand books about the Cuban revolution and a lot of the cast read them and had a fierce sense of how they should look. It must have driven her crazy.
BTL: Was your editor, Pablo Zumárraga, cutting as you were filming.
Soderbergh: Of course. This is actually funny. When I was looking for an editor I was consulting with our Spanish line producer and she suggested several people including Pablo and then she kind of added sheepishly that he was her brother. What’s interesting as we move from celluloid to digital cinema is the way things have changed particularly in the editing process. Without getting overly analytic, it’s resulted in movies getting better in a micro level and more difficult on a macro level. There are a lot of technical issues that relate to the type of cameras employed and the way information is sent back and forth and stored on hard drives. Editors need to be technicians to a greater extent and Pablo is extraordinarily tech savvy.
BTL: How did you work with your composer Alberto Iglesias?
Soderbergh: You know working with the music is probably the most unusual aspect of the filmmaking process. I met with Alberto before shooting but generally his work occurs late in the process and there are tremendous time constraints. The thing about music is that it’s a way of fixing things I didn’t do, and it’s the biggest thing to fix if it doesn’t work.
BTL: And how did it work for Che?
Soderbergh: I’ve never had a better working relationship with a musician. What I gave him were cuts that had temp tracks with Jerry Goldsmith mostly from Planet of the Apes and Patton for the first part and Brian Eno for the second. I want to give a sense of tone; I don’t want music that’s a reinterpretation of what’s on the temp track and he got that. He came back very quickly with a score and it’s the first time where I liked everything I heard.
BTL: Just one last thing that’s not quite related but I’m curious. Did your actors go through a military crash course?
Soderbergh: You bet. We sent them to Guerrilla School with our military advisor for a week. I could have used it but I was otherwise engaged. It really helps not just for the role but from a safety standpoint.