Steven Soderbergh: interview

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Steven Soderbergh will soon have two films out: one stars a porn actress as an escort who goes that extra mile, the other stars Matt Damon as a corporate whistleblower

In the 20 years since his debut, ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Steven Soderbergh has refuted – gloriously – his prediction that it would be ‘all downhill from here’. While the 46 year old’s career has had its ups and downs, no other American director since has proved so versatile.

His filmography, from ‘Schizopolis’ to the ‘Ocean’s’ movies, is testimony to a restless curiosity that’s as audacious and ambitious as it is acutely intelligent. Furthermore, he’s so prolific it hardly even comes as a surprise that, less than a year after the UK release of the two ‘Che’ films, there are not one but two new Soderbergh features about to reach our screens.

The Girlfriend Experience’ features porn actress Sasha Grey as a deluxe call girl, and ‘The Informant!’ has Matt Damon as a food-industry executive who helps the FBI to nail his price-fixing colleagues.

At first sight, the two films appear very different from each other and their predecessor – though all are distinctly ‘Soderbergh’ in their attention to telling detail, their precise imagery and their fascination with process and context, be it social, ethical, economic or political. But the director is wary of people making too much of the last.

‘People have said that in the last three movies I’ve been addressing issues like capitalism,’ he says. ‘Not really: they’re just about this thing in us that wants “more”. Call it capitalism, but you can see it in all areas of life. It’s not specific to corporate culture; that just functions as an accelerant. Anyway, I think movies are more about characters than stories, and I work outwards from the character.’

Indeed, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ has little ‘plot’ in conventional terms. Centred on a critical moment in escort Chelsea’s life – when her emotional needs clash with her business plan – it’s not so much a story as a study of certain parameters she’s established in her daily routine. It almost feels as if Soderbergh made the film so that he could do some thinking about a new and intriguing subject.

‘The film came about accidentally,’ he explains. ‘I was in New York for a few days with two other writers working on a rewrite for a friend, and we took a break in the hotel bar. A woman there struck me as totally unconnected to the other 30 or so people in the room, and when I mentioned it, the guys said: “GFE!” I’d no idea what they meant, so they told me about high-end escorts providing an extra layer of intimacy, the primary delineation being that they kiss. I found it fascinating that people make top money for making out! I thought it’d be good for a low-budget movie, so we wrote an outline and started interviewing escorts.

‘Some use stage names, some don’t. Some never have an orgasm with a client, others don’t care. But all of them said about 50 per cent of clients want to take it beyond a business relationship, and all said, that’s when they stop seeing that person. When I read about Sasha in a magazine, she had clear ideas of what she wanted, so I thought she might be good for the part. I met her and found she was very ciné-literate: I mentioned Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie”. She’d seen and loved it.’

Talk of how some partners are comfortable – or not – with their wives or girlfriends being escorts leads on to Soderbergh’s other new film. ‘The Informant!’ could be retitled ‘Money, Lies and Audiotape’: in providing the FBI with information on his bosses’ misdemeanours, Matt Damon’s Marc Whitacre not only deceives his workmates but, in his quest for justice, lies to the agency, his wife and himself.

‘Most of my films revolve around issues of truth and betrayal. But these films, like most of my others, are also about characters who believe they can shape the world. Obviously, I don’t believe that’s possible.’ Hence his recent talk, despite his productivity, of throwing in the towel.

‘The appeal of making any art is to have a kind of control you don’t have in life; get it right and it can be an amazing oasis. But coming out of the “Che” experience made me think about what art’s for. I can’t say with a straight face that it’s accomplishing anything other than filling our time. I see no indication that the problems we face are being solved.

‘Plus, Hollywood’s getting more and more conservative. The studios’ solution to the current crisis is to exert more control. When you’re dealing with people who can’t see the difference between what David Fincher does and what a mid-level director-for-hire does, the writing’s on the wall. I believe in restraints – that’s healthy – but it’s starting to feel like their checklist of demands,  creatively and financially, is getting tighter. I can only do what I can do. And when you feel you’re maybe out of sync – I’ve had the opportunity to try everything I can think of, and frankly I’m running out of ideas – there’s nothing wrong in moving on.’

I remind Soderbergh he was equally despondent before he made ‘Out of Sight’. He laughs, without the slightest hint of bitterness. ‘But that was my fault. I was despondent then about where I was going. I tell you, man, I wouldn’t want to be coming up right now. If you’re a young filmmaker, it’s brutal.’

The Informant!’ opens on Nov 20. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ opens on Dec 4.

Author: Geoff Andrew



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