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With his chunky, horn-rimmed glasses swiped from Lisa Loeb, Steven Soderbergh looks just like what he is — the Geek King of Hollywood. Hot off his success earlier this year with “Erin Brockovich,” Soderbergh’s new film, “Traffic,” due out Dec. 27, has already been named the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, with the pale, 38-year-old Baton Rouge, La., native also earning best director honors.
“Traffic,” an epic, two-and-a-half-hour war on drugs “Rashomon” based on the popular BBC miniseries of the same name, delves into almost every aspect of America’s never-ending drug habit with the intensity of a PBS “Frontline” documentary and the grittiness of erstwhile NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street.”
Littered with impressive performances by Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Luis Guzman and others, “Traffic” is serious Oscar bait, as is “Erin Brockovich.” Both are part of a Soderberghian winning streak that began with the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez romantic caper “Out of Sight” in 1998 and continued the following year with “The Limey,” starring Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda.
Apparently nothing can stop the Soderbergh juggernaut — shooting on his remake of the 1960 Rat Pack vehicle “Ocean’s 11″ is slated to begin next year with more A-list stars than a British tabloid, including Julia Roberts, Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.
I’d expect such success from the guy who at age 26 snagged a Palm d’Or at Cannes for his modest freshman effort, “sex, lies and videotape.” But it hasn’t always been so easy for Soderbergh. His recent book, “Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw,” chronicles his Gen X, pre-midlife crisis though a series of conversations with veteran director Richard Lester, interspersed with diary entries filled with ennui and self-doubt. Soderbergh admits he was coasting for several years following his initial triumph, and “Getting Away With It” reveals a generous portion of his dissatisfaction at that time with filmmaking, his critics and himself.
How do you choose your projects?
It’s all gut — what am I interested in at the moment? Having come out of an experience like “Out of Sight,” “The Limey” or “Erin,” it’s a matter of what I feel like doing next. I’m usually just trying to find something that’s going to provide a different experience than the one I just had.
It was a combination of things. There’s actually a passage in “Getting Away With It” where I’m musing about drugs, wondering what they’re about and what role they have in our society. Clearly this was something I felt was worth addressing, but I had no idea what a film about that might be like. It wasn’t until I ran into Laura Bickford, the producer, and she mentioned that she had the rights to make the miniseries into a film. I thought, “Ah, that’s how you should do it.” Then we were doing research on writers and came up with Steve Gaghan, who we thought would be perfect — the only problem being he was already writing a drug movie for Ed Zwick. Luckily, everybody agreed to combine the projects.
Had you seen the BBC miniseries?
I saw it when it ran over here in 1990, I think, on PBS. I always remembered it, but not enough to think of transplanting it to this country. That was Laura’s good idea.
To what degree did “Traffic” the BBC series influence “Traffic” the film?
A lot, in that two of the stories track very similarly. The Mexico story we invented from scratch. But the feeling of it is similar to the BBC series in that it took, I think, an evenhanded approach to a very complicated issue. It didn’t wear its politics on its sleeve, and I appreciated that. It was just trying to show you things, not lecture you. We definitely tried to emulate that.
Why did you decide to shoot the film with a different style for each geographical location? Was that a device used in the miniseries?
No, the miniseries looked all the same. That device is meant to help people orient themselves. As soon as I cut to one of the new stories, the viewers know where they are before they even see a character. I’m asking so much of them — there are so many characters, so much information — I thought: At least if they know where they are, I’m helping them a little bit. Plus those three places felt very different to me. My impressions of Mexico were different from La Jolla, Calif., and different from Ohio in the winter.
Did the way you shot have anything to do with you being your own director of photography on this film?
I’ve been working toward that for a while. I wanted to move quickly, stripping the crew down to the bare minimum. It was something I’d thought about a lot, not an arbitrary decision. I shot “Schizopolis” myself, and I shot all my short films.
In a number of scenes actual government agents are seen explaining their jobs to Michael Douglas’ character. And there’s a cocktail party in Georgetown with real-life politicos like Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. Orrin Hatch. How did you secure the participation of the various government agencies and politicians involved?
In the case of the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs, we went to them very early with the script and told them we were trying to present as detailed and accurate a picture of the current drug war as possible. They agreed to help us in the sense of letting us know when we were being inaccurate and giving us access. To their credit, they never tried to influence the content. They just let us know when we were doing something that was procedurally incorrect.
As to the politicians, we just sent a lot of letters out. We didn’t discriminate as to who we sent them to, and the ones who showed up we filmed. There was a lot of material we got in that cocktail party scene. We had to cut it way down. But it was fun — all improvised.
Did you come to any conclusions about drugs in America during the making of this film?
Legalization’s not going to happen — not in our lifetime — for a whole variety of practical reasons. It would be a violation of every international trade agreement that we have. The U.S. would turn into an enormous drug lab. There’d be people pouring in from all over the world to buy drugs here to take to their countries to sell illegally, so we’d be ostracized by every other country in the world. That’s not going to work. You might say, “What if everyone in the world legalized all at once?” But what are the chances of that happening?
I came away from this process thinking, “All right let’s talk about realistic stuff.” Stuff like Prop. 36 [the California initiative passed this year that provides treatment programs for nonviolent drug users]; finding a way to look at this as a healthcare issue, not a criminal issue; something other than filling up prisons with nonviolent users. There are little things we can do to make a big impact. Everyone in law enforcement will tell you, education and treatment work. Money and resources put into them have a concrete effect. That would be a good thing. It’s not a very sexy approach, but it works.
Did you encounter any resistance to shooting the Mexican part of the film in Spanish with English subtitles?
Not much. I had about a five-minute conversation with USA, the production company, about it, sort of explaining why it was important. I said, “If these people don’t speak Spanish, the film has no integrity. You just can’t expect anyone to take it seriously.” Plus, part of the point of the movie is the impenetrability of another culture. The way Mexicans speak to Mexicans is very different than the way Mexicans speak to Americans. That’s the point. And so they said, “OK, OK. We get it.”
One of the best things about the film is Benicio Del Toro’s performance as a conflicted Mexican lawman. I understand that he made several suggestions you used in the film.
Benicio’s really great that way. I remember in an early version of the script, the way they get Frankie Flowers, this assassin working for one of the Tijuana cartels, is through an elaborate kidnapping. I remember talking to Benicio and saying, “It’s so clunky. I don’t want to shoot that, it’ll take forever.” Benicio said, “He’s gay, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, why don’t I just figure out where he hangs out, go and pose as somebody who wants to pick him up, and then just cut to him with the blindfold on in the car.” And I said, “Great idea.” That’s the good thing about Benicio — he has great movie ideas. He understands how cinema works.
What’s “Ocean’s 11″ going to be like?
I hope it’s going to be fun to watch. It’s a terrific script, but a very complicated movie physically. So I’m very anxious about it, but I’m hopeful. It’s a great heist movie and we have a super cast. I ought to be able to make a film that delivers on that level, but it does make me nervous.
There’s a good chance you’ll end up making a better film than the original, which was just an excuse for the Rat Pack to party.
I would hope so. [Laughs] I said to someone the other day that it’s fondly remembered by all who haven’t seen it. It’s not a great movie, but it has a great idea at the center of it. That’s basically all we’ve taken. Other than that, it’s been completely overhauled. I told Jerry Weintraub, the producer, “I want to make it because I want to see it.” This is the kind of movie I’d be buying tickets for two weeks ahead of time. I love heist movies.
In your book, “Getting Away With It,” you have some pretty tough words for movie critics, calling them “parasitic,” questioning their legitimacy and so on. Have the recent awards from the New York Film Critics Circle changed those opinions?
No. I think what I was referring to at that point was whether or not, in the current structure of how movies are made and sold, they have the kind of role that they used to have. There was a time when I think critics had a more significant and integral role in what was happening with movies. But the business has changed so much that you could argue that’s not true anymore. When you can find somebody somewhere to call every film a masterpiece, then it’s gotten out of hand.
Also, the number of serious critics who are allowed and/or encouraged to write at length and seriously about movies is diminished, which is sad. I didn’t always agree with Pauline Kael, but I sure loved reading her stuff because she was incredibly bright and knew a lot about a lot of things, not just movies. There aren’t many like that anymore.
Yet, by strict definition, critics are parasitic in the sense that they can’t exist without the artist. The artist has to create something that is then commented on. It’s great when a group of critics gets together and gives you an award like that. But the bottom line is, it doesn’t make me any better at my job, which is all I think about when I get up in the morning. You have to give such awards their proper weight.
Do you think a lot of what critics and film journalists do now is just propaganda for the film industry?
You have to separate the serious ones from the ones who are not. The ones who are serious aren’t anybody’s stooge. It’s just, with some exceptions, harder for them to express themselves the way they want. I know enough of them casually to know they’re often under pressure to keep their writing at a certain level and not let it get too intricate or esoteric. They’re encouraged, for the most part, to write at length about big films. They can’t write a big piece on a foreign film or an art film that’s not going to get a wide release. They can write something, but the “Charlie’s Angels” review has to be big and front and center.
So there’s a corporate dumbing down of what critics can and can’t say?
A little bit. And they’re not the only ones who are under that kind of pressure these days. [Laughs] Everybody on every side of the business is essentially dealing with that now.
Are you under that sort of pressure, too?
No, but I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve either gotten hold of commercial material that was distinctive or, in the case of “The Limey” and “Traffic,” worked for independent companies.
Does it bother you when your smaller films, like “Schizopolis” or “Kafka,” fail to find an audience?
I couldn’t be very disappointed that “Kafka” failed to connect because I didn’t think it was very successful creatively. When they’re done, I move on. I can’t control whether or not people want to see something. There have been a couple of small films I’ve done that I was happy with where it would have been nice if they’d found an audience. But I just keep working. I take the shotgun approach. I figure that if you keep your head down and your feet moving, eventually you’ll luck into something people want to see.
The influence Richard Lester has had on you is apparent in “Schizopolis.” How did the book with him come about?
It was part of my reawakening, if that’s the proper term. I was trying to figure out how I had drifted so far off course. I was finishing “The Underneath,” and I was unhappy with the process and the work I was doing. I wanted to get back to the way I felt when I first started making films. I remembered that one of the filmmakers I connected with most was Richard Lester — the playfulness and gentle skepticism his films have. In the middle of going back and watching all his stuff again, I called Faber & Faber and they said yes to the book idea. Initially, it was going to be a straight Q and A. Then I decided to include a journal and the footnotes.
There’s a lot of frustration in the journal during that period of 1996-97, a year or so after you had finished “Schizopolis.” How does that relate to now? Are you happier with what you’re doing?
I was frustrated then because I was searching for a place for me to be within this business. I didn’t know where that place was or what it looked like. I didn’t know if I should keep making movies like “Schizopolis” and finance them by writing scripts for other people. I really wasn’t sure where I was headed. As the book comes to an end, I’m starting to figure that out. Since then I’ve just been lucky that things have been coming at me that I’ve wanted to pursue.
What was the resolution of that personal crisis? Was it just serendipity in being sent the script for “Out of Sight”?
It was partially serendipity, but the timing was right. I was beginning to realize that I had marginalized myself. And if I wanted a career of any length at all, I needed to do a better job of working on both sides of the coin. Though I think those lines are disappearing, it was as if half of the business was going to be off limits if I continued as I was. “Out of Sight” was the turning point.
When you’re sent a script like “Out of Sight” or “Ocean’s 11,” and you have that confluence of a good piece of material that you think you know how to do well, that you can put actors in that you know will do a great job and that might get seen, you’ve got to jump at that. Those opportunities don’t come along that often. It’s a harder group of planets to line up than a “Schizopolis” or a “Limey,” which I can do any time, anywhere, and which I’ll continue to do. But you can’t just let things like that slip by or you’ll have a whole career of making “Schizopolis.” Then you’re screwed.
Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.More Stephen Lemons.