Steven Soderbergh makes movies about people who are good at what they do. The Ocean's 11 franchise was about movie stars and their glittering repartee, but it was also about expert thieves solving a problem. The Knick, his virtuoso Cinemax series, was about addiction and greed and race, but it was also about surgeons innovating their field. Che, his epic biopic about Che Guevara, took a revolutionary and drills down not on his radicalness or his tyranny or his passions but the small, dry details of fomenting change one tactical plan at a time (for four and a half hours). And Magic Mike features a lot of Channing Tatum's crotch thrusts—in the context of a team of professionals producing a really tight stage show, of course.
Soderbergh's entertaining new film, Logan Lucky, which came out on Friday, is also about process. This time, the vault robbers are the anti-Ocean's: unslick, a little daft, and amateurish, even if they are being played by Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, and Daniel Craig. This unlikely West Virginian trailer-park crew does hatch an ingenius plot to get into the vault of the Charlotte Motor Speedway (a very profitable NASCAR venue), and Soderbergh came out of his self-declared, short-lived "retirement" from feature filmmaking with his own radical plan: To take the process of making, marketing, and distributing movies and put it all in the filmmakers' hands, using a new production model of his devising. Logan Lucky is not the work of an auteur director, it's the work of an auteur one-man studio.
It's also an experiment, one that disappointed its mad scientist after a slow opening weekend of only $8.1 million in sales. Typically, Soderbergh did not sugarcoat his reaction to the New York Times on Monday, calling the returns "frustrating." But if it were that easy to remake Hollywood, it probably wouldn't suit Soderbergh, who has rearranged the career trajectory of an Oscar-winning director the same way he has blown up the timelines of his films. His addiction to tinkering with process throughout his 25-year career, ever since he broke through as the young prodigy behind the Cannes-conquering Sex, Lies, and Videotape, is probably why he's thrown himself neck-deep into the marketing and distribution of Singani 63, a brand of the little-known Bolivian spirit that is technically a brandy but which Soderbergh is so deeply invested in that he's petitioning the U.S. government to reclassify it as its own category. It's taken up a considerable amount of his energy and concentration, which he is famous for. Last week, before Logan Lucky opened in theaters, we sat down for a drink in the midafternoon in New York, at a nearly empty back room of Tavern on the Green, in Central Park. One strong drink turned to another, and Soderbergh, who can come across as stern, softened along with the afternoon light.
Are you a daydrinker?
I need a reason, but functionality’s not a problem. It may be the thing that saved my career: If I am conscious, meaning no matter how completely blitzed I am, I can edit film. But my whole thing is the next day I have to check it. There have been many times I’ve come home after being out, and certainly not in a position to be operating any heavy machinery, but I’ve sat down and edited for a couple hours. If I’m awake, I can edit. And then the next day, I go, Eh, 60 percent of that is usable. I think you’re hoping for two things: The diminishment of the critical inner voice, and the amplification of the ability to connect things you never saw were connected before.
You’ve said that you could drink Che Guevara, who you made a four-hour movie about, under a table.
Yeah, he was a lightweight. He didn’t like to drink. He cut his wine with water.
But you can handle yours.
Yeah, I think so. I’ll go head to head with basically anyone. What happens when we’re on location is that we’ll have a hotel room that is essentially the editing suite. And the group, whomever wants to come hang out, gathers in the hotel room. And we all drink while I assemble that day’s footage, and we put it up on the monitor. And we’re all drinking. That happens every day of shooting on location. So it’s a lubricated process.
Are you a regular here at Tavern?
No, in the summertime it just happens to be one of our [Singani 63's] more picturesque accounts in New York… we've got to be in close to 150 [places in the city]. It’s a big market for us.
Singani, a brandy, never struck me as your type of drink. I know you were a vodka drinker before, which made more sense to me—it’s precise and efficient, like the way you make movies.
Oh, this is pretty efficient. That’s one of the things I like about it. And the smoothness of it—as a vodka drinker I was accustomed to that second burn. That’s just the price of getting into the end zone. But singani didn’t have that. I’ve come to believe that, because it had never been exported outside of Bolivia, that this was kind of the spirit equivalent of buying a painting in a garage sale and having someone look at it and go, "You realize this is a Rothko."
I believe in the past you’ve said that the difference between distribution models of movies and of liquor is that, with liquor, if you’re not on the shelf you’re dead.
Yeah, the spirit business is especially resistant to any radical changes because of the central importance of the personal interactions you have to have with your accounts and your distributors. There’s just no delegating that. If you don’t do it, you’re going to get lapped by the people that do—which is everybody. So there’s no real workaround, whereas in the film business a lot of the mechanisms of getting a film out there can be delegated. It can be rethought, rebuilt. You can experiment.
How much of your time does Singani take up these days?
I’d say about 20 percent.
It’s become this fun part of the Soderbergh lore.
True, true. If you looked at a lot of the material we generate for the brand, it’s all designed to be fun. We put Singani 63 on Dayton White’s [played by Sebastian Stan] racing outfit in Logan Lucky. And the number of the car is 63. When we asked NASCAR if we could have that number, they said that as it turns out, no one has it.
I know that in your talks with NASCAR, they were initially afraid they were going to be taken for a ride, no pun intended. That their culture would be made fun of.
Before they met with us, I think that was a concern—which I understand. It’s a huge brand, and like any pro sports organization, they wanted to know what our intentions were. I think we laid out for them pretty clearly how we wanted to present the sport.
How did you pitch them on it?
I said I wanted to do for that race [the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, NC] what we did for the Bellagio [hotel, in Las Vegas] on Ocean’s Eleven. That people would want to go see where the movie was shot. People still want to go see where Brad [Pitt] and George [Clooney] stood. I think [the hotel] viewed it as a two-hour commercial for the Bellagio, and rightly so.
The first round of drinks arrive, along with a shrimp cocktail for Soderbergh. To my surprise, my drink—Singani 63, gin, "canteloupe, yellow bell pepper"—resembles an ultra-elaborate gin and tonic.
Oh, singani is a clear liquor?
I remember I was on the set of Magic Mike XXL, and we placed a bottle in a bar. I noticed that the singani bottle was half-full of brown liquid. And by law, you have to empty out any alcohol from any props. I asked the prop guy, "Why is that brown?" And he replied, "Well, it said brandy." And I told the government—who we are petitioning to reclassify singani as its own subcategory, like pisco—this story: "This is the problem. This is misleading." We spend more time explaining what it isn’t than what it is.
Do you ever feel like you have to do that with your movies—explain what they aren’t rather than what they are? By that I mean that people expect a director of your talents to make big important movies, and you seem to have no interest in that.
Yeah, not anymore. I’m more interested in genre than I’ve ever been before. I think so much of an audience’s reaction to a film is rooted in their expectation of what they’re gonna see. Which is why the way a movie is presented, the way you sell it, is so crucial. And on the occasions I’ve had to debate how a [publicity] campaign should be mounted, it’s been when I felt a distributor has been afraid to embrace what a movie is at its core for fear of it not being commercial enough. So you end up with materials that kind of misrepresent a film, and then people see the film and they’re disappointed, and then the word-of-mouth is bad.
You often bury your social or political commentary within bigger entertainments, like the labor dispute in Mexico in Ocean’s 13. Is there any of that in Logan Lucky?
Well, look, I think whenever you present characters under a lot of economic pressure, the subtext of that is: Why is that happening? And the reason that there was no need to present any larger political framework than just that is that, for people in those circumstances, it doesn’t matter who’s in the White House. Nobody’s helping them. It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans, these are people who are marginalized no matter what. So it didn’t make sense to me to get too pointed about it, other than these are the forgotten citizens.
You’re from Louisiana, but I’m not sure that the larger public knows that. Do you think Southerners might feel they’re being mocked by who they perceive to be a Hollywood or New York filmmaker?
I guess we’ll find out. All comedy is based in stereotypes—that’s where you start. I felt very comfortable with the way the characters were portrayed, because at a certain point everybody gets an opportunity to surprise you. And I think it’s an issue that’s been raised by more people from big cities than anyone else.
You screened the movie in Charlotte?
We had a screening in Charlotte, for NASCAR. We did two test screenings, one in Plano, Texas, and one in Nashville. Both of those screenings went really well. It’s a very, I think, good-natured movie. It’s not a mean movie, or a cynical movie.
Yes, definitely, you feel that way once you see it. But I do think there’s a knee-jerk reaction that might take hold. The country is knee-jerk right now.
I know. Yeah, there’s always going to be somebody that’s going to have an issue with something. But the bottom line is, these are not characters who are given a lot of screen time in Hollywood films as anything other than the butt of a giant joke. What appealed to me about the script is that I thought, Oh, that’s nice. Nobody makes them the heroes of any Hollywood movies. And this was, in my mind, for all intent and purposes a Hollywood movie. That’s why it was the perfect guinea pig for this distribution model. I needed a broad-appeal commercial film that I could put movie stars in.
It’s interesting that Channing Tatum is your baseline for good common sense in this movie. I think he has been that in all your movies with him. Whereas in some of his other movies, like 21 Jump Street, he’s the goof.
Right. He also has a very soulful quality that I think is difficult to fake. There’s a sincerity there that is real. If you can directorially pull that out, people will respond.
I think you’ve found that in Riley Keough, too.
Yeah. Well, she can do anything. Riley has that thing where she can be absolutely stock still while everything’s going on around her. She’s got incredible range, and she’s completely fearless. She’s smart, and based on the conversations she and I have had, is probably going to be making her own films soon.
I had no idea, but I could see that. With your “comeback,” there have been a lot of best-of lists of your movies coming out. The consensus seems to be that everybody still really loves Out of Sight.
It’s certainly, in my mind, in the category of “not sure I would do anything different.”
How many other movies are in that category?
The first Ocean’s?
Possibly. The Informant. Behind the Candelabra, probably. So a few. But Out of Sight was the first film that I felt that way about.
That came after your sort of wilderness period following the Sex, Lies, and Videotape breakthrough.
I had to do a real Jedi mind trick on myself to forget about the self-imposed pressure that was present for me making that movie. Because I knew if I f---ed it up, I was going to have a real problem.
That you might not have a chance to make another.
I think you’d said before that every major director passed on Out of Sight before it got to you.
Literally. I was literally the last man standing. But I knew what it was, so I was patient and confident. I had a very strong sense that George [Clooney] was a movie star, and at that point had not gotten the vehicle to show that. He had done One Fine Day, The Peacemaker, From Dusk Till Dawn.
Right. But he wasn’t the movie star that people had thought he would be coming out of E.R. yet.
[Laughs.] We met at a point where we were both viewed as not having fulfilled our potential. And we both knew that, and so we bonded very quickly. And we both knew what was riding on it. Even though it’s one of those movies that’s perceived as being more successful than it was, because it didn’t make its money back. We had a weird thing happen; we were supposed to come out in the fall in October, and they pushed us up to midsummer. And it’s just not a midsummer movie. And five days later, Armageddon came out and just completely wiped us out.
No pun intended. I would say Out of Sight is also the best Jennifer Lopez has ever been.
I had a great experience working with her. If I had something else I thought was right for her, I’d cast her. We tested George with everybody in Hollywood. They just looked great together; she was not the studio’s choice. Basically George and I said, "If it’s not her, you should fire us. It has to be her." It just wasn’t what they had in mind, and I felt like the movie needed what she had. That she belonged in the rest of that world. It’s very tricky, the Elmore Leonard universe. If you’re off by one degree, you’re off by 180 degrees.
I do feel you have this history of taking actors who are known as one thing and reframing them, or reorienting their trajectory. Matthew McConaughey, for instance [whose career renaissance took flight after Soderbergh directed him in Magic Mike].
Yeah, although to be fair he was in the middle of a self-motivated reboot. It had come at a time when he was starting to do some really interesting things, and rethinking his approach. He had been in [Richard Linklater’s] movie Bernie, which I liked a lot. And there was one other thing that I don’t think I’d seen but that I heard he was doing, and I thought, Well that’s interesting.
So you don’t take any credit for the McConnaissance?
No. If it wasn’t us, it would’ve been something else. When we talked about the idea of him, it just seemed so right. I called him on the phone, we talked for just a couple minutes and he said, "I’m in." He understood it completely, and was a total blast to work with. Very diligent and rigorous. Not in a self-protective way, in a story-protective way.
With these ensembles of big stars that you’ve had, it feels like someone has to take a step back. Matt Damon, for instance, does that in the Ocean’s movies. He subsumed his stardom for those; he was the butt of the jokes in many of your movies, really.
Well, he’s got to be one of the least vain and egoless actors that I’ve ever met. He’s not protecting anything. When we were doing Candelabra, one day Michael Douglas said to Matt, “You’re the age right now that I was when I was doing Fatal Attraction. There was no universe where I would’ve gotten anywhere near anything like this.” Michael was like, “I’m impressed you’re driven strictly by, Is that a great part in a great movie?’” And Michael’s right.
Matt is extremely loyal, and put together a pretty great career. It sounds self-serving, but I always tell young actors that they’ve got to follow the filmmakers. That their decisions should be based on the filmmakers more than anything else. That’s their best shot, working with good filmmakers. It’s not about only working with established name filmmakers. Just work with good ones; there are a lot of young filmmakers out there.
Do you have any favorites?
Well, if a young actor came to me and said, "Well I’ve got this choice between doing this thing and doing the next Sean Baker movie," I would say do the Sean Baker movie. Or Jeremy Saulnier, who I like a lot. Obviously anything Amy [Seimetz] and Lodge [Kerrigan, writer-directors of Starz's The Girlfriend Experience, which Soderbergh produces] are doing. I’m not saying only work with famous directors, just work with good directors. And if you’re an actor of a certain stature, use your juice to build a young filmmaker’s career.
Good Time is an example of that. Robert Pattinson made the Safdies’ movie possible, and those are filmmakers who have resisted making bigger movies.
That’s a good use of his power. Look, prior to Out of Sight, I was offered studio projects. After Sex, Lies, I was developing The Last Ship, with Sydney Pollack. That would’ve been a studio, star-driven movie had the wall of Berlin not fallen. [Laughs.] That kind of ruined the whole premise for me, which was really inconsiderate. So in the intervening years, I would be offered things. I would be very sensitive to red flags, whether it’s a studio that doesn’t have a great reputation for working with certain kinds of directors, or performers or producers who don’t have good reputations. Or more likely than not, just a piece of material that I didn’t connect with.
Did you ever feel like there was a project that got away? Moneyball?
Well, that didn’t get away. I was fired. But between Sex, Lies and Out of Sight, I was very sensitive to what I felt were red flags. Because I knew that it was very important that on my first sort of large-scale studio movie, that I had the freedom and the support to do it the way I wanted to do it. When Out of Sight came along, the studio, Universal, was being run by Casey Silver, who I’d made two movies for already. I knew what to do with the material; I knew what the tone of it was. So that was all green lights.
When was the last time you didn’t have final cut on a movie?
Would you go back and recut that?
No. Luckily, from the get-go I’ve always had great producers who’ve supported me. Whenever there was a debate about a certain move or editorial choice or anything really, it would be worked out within "the family," and then it would be a united front presented to the studio. In the case of Out of Sight, they had to convince me not to cut some scenes that I was prepared to cut for momentum. I was prepared to cut the postcoital scene with George and Jennifer.
I know. And they were like, "You can’t!" They went bonkers. And they were right; it was a crucial scene for both of them. Look, I’m a big believer of moving things along. Anything’s on the table; nothing’s sacred to me in the editing room.
You’ve been known to cut entire episodes of TV on your way home from the shoot.
It’s part of the recognition that editing is the most important aspect, I think, of filmmaking. If you have a good editor, or if your approach as an editor is on target, there’s a lot that you can fix. You have all the tools to really make something into what would appear to be a unified, coherent piece. There have only been a couple of projects that editorially I’ve struggled with. One of them was The Limey, and the other one was Contagion.
That’s interesting. The Limey I could see, Contagion I wouldn’t have guessed.
Well, what happened was I had a two-hour-and-20-minute version of the movie that just didn’t work, that didn’t flow or feel unified or connected. Scott Frank [a screenwriter and frequent Soderbergh collaborator] saw the film, and he said, "Look, why don’t you take half a day and cut a 90-minute version of this film. If someone put a gun to your head and said it had to be 90 minutes, what would survive?" So I took out two complete storylines and put in slugs—you know, scene slugs where you needed to shoot material to bridge. But I could tell that structure works.
You’ve never been shy about revising films or reshooting scenes, which to some looks like an admission of some kind of failure.
Why would you be? I love it. There’s nothing more satisfying than putting those last few pieces in.
With all the new distribution models out there, I wonder if you’ve considered a live platform where you can revise a film after it’s in theaters the way, say, Kanye West revised Life of Pablo on the fly.
I’ve thought about that, and that’s something I may do at some point. Like making part of the campaign that every Friday, for the four or five weeks that the movie is in the marketplace, there’s a new version of that movie. This is what digital allows you to do. Why not? It would have to be the right thing, though. It would have to be something that would lend itself to a radical reimagining.
You’ve talked about recutting Kafka forever.
Yes. That’s almost done. I have to figure out how to put it out there; I’m not sure there’s a lot of people that care. It seems like a midnight movie to me—it feels like the best thing to do would be to drop it at the IFC Center at midnight, and then make both the original and the new versions available on a platform. But yeah, it would be great to do something as radical as what I’ve done to Kafka, but not take 15 years to do it. I mean, one thing we should talk about is Mosaic, which is going to exist in two forms: The app’s branching narrative version, and then the six-hour linear version on HBO.
Can we back up here a bit: How did your project Mosaic come about?
I was approached, ironically, by Casey Silver, who has since become a producer. He came to me in 2012 and said, "I’m part of a small group of people who have, like, I.P. on this variation of branching narrative."
Is it like a choose-your-own-adventure?
Sort of. It’s a fixed universe; you do at certain points decide who you want to follow and how you want to navigate this narrative. There’s a story map that you can access at any time to look at the 30,000-foot view of what it is. The appeal of this was that everyone gets to be a lead character, should you choose to go that way. And it was fun for the actors, too. That cliché of the actor who thinks everything is about them? With Mosaic, it is! You do have your own movie.
I was very aware that while we were making it, that we were making a cave painting—that this is the primitive version of what this will ultimately turn out to be. That somebody else was going to come in and ride this thing like a rocket. But you’ve got to start. And all the credit to HBO.
It seemed like you were having a lot of fun making TV for HBO [The Knick was on Cinemax, which is owned by HBO].
Oh yeah, yeah. Season 3 was going to be crazy. It was set in 1947; it was going to be in wide-screen black and white. And we had some had some crazy, crazy shit.
Clive Owen was still dead?
Yeah. The whole plan from the get-go was six seasons; every two seasons you leapt forward. Seasons 5 and 6 were going to be set in the future; and I was going to bring everybody back, but it was going to be set in the future. We had it all figured out from the beginning.
So what happened? Circumstances?
Yeah. [HBO President] Michael Lombardo left. They didn’t want us to be on Cinemax anymore. Black and white widescreen sounded pretty weird to them, I think. We were now on HBO, against a lot of other shows that are very successful. It’s not a cheap show to make. We were up in the $6 million-an-episode range. I understood. We were all sad. I wasn’t mad, I was just disappointed because I was so excited about that season. I came out the other end of it… it was like Crossfit.
Right. You could try out everything you’ve thought about trying in movies.
I couldn’t have shot Mosaic as quickly as we did, couldn’t have shot Logan as quickly as we did, had I not gone through the experience of shooting The Knick. Only coming out the other end of The Knick would you say, on Mosaic, "Yeah I can shoot 600 pages in 50 days." What I found out the hard way is that I’m at my best when I treat it like a sport—where I’ve done my homework, and I understand on a macro level what the thing is, but in terms of being on the floor and shooting, it’s like racquetball. It’s fast, and you go on instinct. And the instinct is built on your understanding of what the thing is and your knowledge, your experience of problem-solving up to that point.
You’ve always been vocal about your interest in making movies in order to try things, to learn what works and what doesn’t. Which is not something everyone is willing to admit, since it’s someone else’s money you’re playing with.
Yeah, and I feel a real responsibility to the people who pay for things—a moral responsibility. The contract in my mind, whether it’s literal or not, is if I hit the number, I get to do what I want. You’ve read the script, you see what it is, and we’ve agreed that’s the number. If I hit the number, I get left alone. That’s my understanding of the deal. Granted, it’s always your job to pursue the best version of the what the movie should be, but I’m always baffled when I hear of or witness a filmmaker who’s cavalier about the budget or the schedule. I just don’t understand that. I feel like I wasn’t raised that way. That’s not cool, in my mind.
I remember a conversation [Christopher] Nolan and I had when he was directing Insomnia, which I was a producer on. I told him, “Never let the budget be a reason for the studio to try and come in and take your movie from you.” Just take that hammer out of their hand; just stay on budget. If you get known as someone who’s responsible, that’s a huge thing within the industry. Because a lot of people aren’t. He recounted that in an interview that he did—I didn’t know that stuck.
That may be part of the problem with some of the indie filmmakers who’ve suddenly been Marvel-ized, and then struggled with the jump to huge comic book movies.
Right. Well, look, those movies are bananas. I see some of them and I’m like, “I couldn’t direct 30 seconds of that.” Just because so much of my time would be spent on things I’m ultimately not interested in. You look at my career, and it’s mostly just two people in a room. Two people in a room to me is exciting. If you look at history, it's the way gigantic things happen; it’s the result of two people in a room. I’ve always felt that was the richest tapestry you could come up with. So anything that isn’t about that, I’m immediately kind of like, "Well, why isn’t it two people in a room?" So you’re just spending all this time having conversations with VFX people, instead of with actors about what the scene is. And that’s what I’m interested in. It’s not that I’m a snob. It’s just that I wasn’t into comic books as a kid, and I’m not interested in things that don’t have to do with performance.
In The Knick, you made two people talking in a room feel like action by what you were doing with the camera, with the way you would hold the camera on one person’s face during a rowdy conversation.
Well, that became a gag, almost. I heard this later from Michael Angarano [who played Dr. Bertie Chickering], that sometimes when an actor would come off the set with a certain sort of smile, that Michael would go, “Oh, did you get Soderberghed today?” Which meant: "I was in this scene and he never shot me." And I was like, “Well…” And he said, “No no no, we find it really funny.”
It became a trope.
Yeah, exactly. But then you do the opposite. I remember there was a boardroom scene. When I’m stuck, I’ll walk around and look at it, and I’ll keep running the scene. And I was trying to figure out, Okay what do I do here? And I realized that Jeremy Bobb, who plays Herman Barrow, never speaks. That he was the only person in the scene that never spoke. And I went, That’s whose scene it is. So every shot is Jeremy or has Jeremy in it, but he never speaks. And that made me happy; that was a way to tilt…
Yeah. That’s what was fun about that show. Every hour on the set that you have to solve those problems just gets better.
Is that why you wanted to make an iPhone movie—
Did I? Did I? Did I make that movie?
[Laughs.] I’m glad that you’re sticking to that story. That internet says you did, so it must be true.
That’s true. Well, but Newsweek says I released my re-edit of Kafka in 2013.
Where did they say you released it?
I don’t know. I was like, “That’s really easy to check.” But yes, I’m sticking to that story until someone presents me with some detail.
But in any case, you’re interested in making iPhone movies, you like Sean Baker…
Oh, that’s going to happen. Because I’ve been experimenting for a couple of years now with my phone and shooting stuff. That’s happening for sure.
Can you tell me what happened to your art career?
It got hijacked by The Knick, basically.
You were taking painting lessons.
Yeah, from Walton Ford. This would’ve been 2013. I was having a great time; Walton is a fun hang, and a great artist.
He does a very specific thing. Is that what you were doing?
No, I just wanted…
A technical teacher.
Yes. And he was like, “I can do that for you. I can teach you the technical moves that’ll enable you whatever you want to do.” And a few weeks into my apprenticeship, the script for The Knick came in, and I just went, “I have to do this.”
Is your art career still percolating?
No. Because once I got on the set of The Knick, I realized: Nobody’s waiting for my paintings. What I realized while I was working with Walton was that it’ll be five years before I generate anything that I’d want people to look at. I had enough basic ability, with Walton’s help accelerating that. And I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do.
Yeah. I had ideas that I felt I could bring from my other job. I was really interested in exploring compositionally and narratively things I felt in a painting space could be really interesting. Compositions that I could create in a painting based on what I’ve done as a filmmaker.
Does it go the other way? Have you learned anything from painting to apply to directing?
No, not much. There just wasn’t enough time. I’ve learned more from still photographers.
Do you collect photography?
Yeah. Look, if you’re a filmmaker and you don’t have every Saul Leiter book, then you’re an idiot. Look at those compositions—it’s the whole thing I believe in, which is keying off what’s in front of you. Not imposing yourself on the environment you’re occupying, but keying off what’s there. And not going for the obvious. What I love about Saul Leiter is there are no symmetry, no right angles. He’s trying to tell—well, I was talking to another reporter the other day, and I was trying to explain that a shot should tell a story.
Do you have a movie of yours that's a personal favorite?
No. I’m just so anxious to get to the next.
Your fans have a soft spot for Schizopolis, which I haven’t seen. But I hear you are actually a really good actor in it.
Well, I wasn’t acting. Look, that was a necessary step. I very much needed to annihilate everything that’d come before it, to evolve. I had to blow up everything I’ve ever done.
You’ve had a couple of these periods in your career.
Yeah, I can feel when it’s time to slough off my skin and grow another one, and that was one of those times. It just had to be done to survive. I was going down a path that was not good for me, and not good for the audience either.
Is that what your "retirement" was?
Yeah. It didn’t feel like a choice. It felt like survival. I’ve never made decisions based on anything other than what engages me. I’ve never worried about what people will think about that choice. I’ve always gone on what I’m excited by, what I want to do. And the understanding that there’s necessary diversions that you often have to take to get to a new destination.
What else is coming up?
I’m definitely going to be doing something very small, very soon. I’m producing Ocean’s 8, I’m producing The Girlfriend Experience Season 2, that’s dropping in November. Godless, this Scott Frank western [which Soderbergh is producing], is dropping in November on Netflix. It’s really good. He wrote and directed this massive, seven-hour thing.
How’s Ocean’s 8 going?
I’m really happy; it’s really good. I think people are really going to enjoy it. It’s an Ocean’s movie, and yet it’s [director Gary Ross’s] take on an Ocean’s movie. It’s in the universe, but it’s its own thing. And it’s really smart, really funny. When you see these women occupy one frame, it’s so satisfying. You just smile. I just think it’s fun as hell. The audience’s expectation of what they want this to be are absolutely that. You’re going to see it and go, “That’s what I wanted.” It hasn’t been easy, but it’s going to be really good. It’s going to work. I’m sad that it’s coming out next June, that it’s that far away.
How much did you have to do with this release date of Logan Lucky?
Nothing, except that when somebody proposed it as opposed to the original October date, I said, “Oh that’s a much better date.” It’s a summer movie. The wait for this thing has just been excruciating. I’ve never been in a situation in which I’ve been able to essentially test so many pet theories as to how a movie should be released. I’ve been jawboning about this for like four years.
You have a lot at stake here.
Well, interestingly, we have no money at stake. But philosophically, there’s a lot at stake. And if it works, clearly there aren’t going to be champagne corks popping all over town, but it would be nice if suddenly there was an alternative [to making movies].
At this point, more singani arrives, this time on the rocks. Soderbergh first discovered a taste for the liquor, actually, on the Madrid set of Che, at a production party for the epic, four-and-a-half-hour two-part film about the life of Che Guevara.
Your career has been all over the place. But I do feel like that Che is a little different in that it’s the one movie that feels like a passion project for you.
Well, it was the one time where there was—there’s a difference between understanding you have to do something and wanting to do something. I understood that I had to do it. There was no scenario, if I’m who I claim to be, that I don’t make that film.
Why is that?
Because you’ve got to walk the walk. To use whatever juice you have to bring something to existence that probably wouldn’t exist if you didn’t do that.
But why that particular movie?
Because I saw it as, in a way, arguably the ultimate process film. That was my way in.
Right. But I think people look at it, and it’s Che Guevara. And while there are politics in your movies, they’re usually not overtly political in that way. But then you spend like an hour just showing him building tents.
And that’s what was interesting to me about what they went through. I wanted to get granular on that. The mistaken assumption is that if I made a movie about Che, I must love Che. And that’s just a strange position to take, because I think Che would’ve hated me. There was no place for me in the society he was hoping to build. I’d be the poster child for everything he wanted to eradicate.
I think the length also had something to do with it. People thought it must be a passion project, otherwise—
"Why would you do four hours?" Yeah. No, I have a complicated relationship with it. And I still do. But it altered me in a way that turned out to be absolutely crucial to me. It forced me, because of how it was being made, to absolutely strip everything down to its essence. I didn’t have time to do anything but the most simple version of what we were doing. Any spare time I had, I had to use for the battle sequences. Anything that involved people talking, it was two angles, two takes, we’re out. And that was really liberating, in a way. And everything since then has kind of been approached that way. It flipped me into a mode of: How few shots do I need? As opposed to: How many? Now, there are times when you need a lot of shots. If you’re Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender in the hotel room [in Haywire], you know you need the shots. But when it’s not that, it’s how few can I do this in? Can I strip it down to the marrow? And Che got me to that.
Has it been interesting making the press rounds again? As somebody who appears to be keenly aware of how they’re portrayed by the press.
Sometimes you learn things through talking that haven’t occurred to you. And that may get you thinking about … why you did something in a way that you hadn’t considered before. The danger is that... I was talking to a couple of people the other day that were involved in Moonlight, and we were talking about awards season and how it’s a very strange psychological experiment. The premise of the experiment is we’re going to see if we can create an environment where when you get out the other end of it, you end up hating the thing that you love to do. We were just sort of laughing about it. I was talking to Andre Holland, who is in Moonlight, and Tarell MacCreaney [the screenwriter], because the three of us are working on a project. They were just talking about how by the end of that, you just didn’t know where north was anymore.
As the son of a teacher, I think you have to look at [talking to the press] as attempting to transfer knowledge. If somebody can benefit from something I’ve learned or something I do, then that’s worth talking about. If some other filmmaker or any creative person can pull something out of my description of doing something, then that’s fine. That’s how I learned, by reading interviews with people whose work I like. That I don’t mind. The reason I don’t do television here or allow my portrait to be taken is because I don’t want to be recognized on the street. I want to be able to, as I did to get here, to get on the subway. I don’t want to be inaccessible, I don’t want to be a reclusive. I just want the freedom to move around.
Adam Driver hates Halloween, but loves his dog more than anything: