Toward a universal cinema: a talk with Steven Soderbergh.

Author:Andelman, David A.
Position:CONVERSATION - Interview

Steven Soderbergh burst on the international film scene more than two decades ago with his extraordinary indic success, "sex, lies, and videotape," which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival--at 26, the youngest director ever to receive the festival's top honor. There followed a succession of Oscar nominations and big budget Hollywood successes, including "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," "Ocean's Eleven" and its sequels, followed by the four-hour, two-part epic, "Che," chronicling the life of the Argentine revolutionary. Soderbergh talked in his Manhattan production studio with World Policy Journal Editor David A. Andelman and World Policy Institute senior fellow Silvana Paternostro, who also served as associate producer of "Che."

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: When you began making films, what were your influences?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: Looking back on it, I was extraordinarily lucky. I was attending this laboratory school on the Louisiana State University campus and had access to a lot of films that under ordinary circumstances I never would have been exposed to. I was hanging out with these college film students and seeing movies from all over the world, in addition to classic American films. Watching "8 1/2," or "Blowup," or "High and Low" at 14 and 15 is a really extraordinary experience. They imprint you in a way that's unique, you're such a sponge at that age. I think it resulted in my work having this funny combination of both aesthetics--there's a very American desire to entertain and to tell a story, but there's also a very European approach to style and character that is obviously influenced by those early experiences. So I'm kind of amazed when I think that when I grew up in Baton Rouge I actually got this incredibly varied cinema diet. I can't imagine what kind of career I would have if I hadn't seen all of those films during that period.

WPJ: The films you mentioned--Fellini, Antonioni--you could call them part of the Western Canon. They're Western European filmmakers and a lot of them were influenced by early Hollywood films, but I guess when you start talking about a Global Canon of films, you're starting to expand out, extending to Iranian, Chinese, Japanese ...

SODERBERGH: At that point, Asia was about as far away as it got. We got the [Satyajit] Ray films from India and we were getting the highlights of Japanese cinema. In the last 20 years, the wave of movies that have come to us out of Hong Kong, out of Korea, that's kind of a recent thing. I wasn't being exposed to a lot of that.

WPJ: Now when you start to think about other films, do you think in terms of being influenced by your peers? What influences you in your mature years, or is your style already clearly set?

SODERBERGH: There are two ways of working. You're either a filmmaker who has an aesthetic that you carry from movie to movie and you're looking for stories that fit that aesthetic or you're like me, and you're working from the story outward and changing styles according to the content. So I feel like stylistically I'm still sort of evolving from film to film.

WPJ: And your choice of content ...

SODERBERGH: My choice of content is driven more by what's happening in the world now than ever before, and less by what other people are doing or what is happening in cinema in general. At the same time I'm much more pragmatic about my choices than I used to be. Part of it is taste, but part of it is the level of competition that exists now. When I started 20 years ago, it was easier, frankly, to be starting out. Young filmmakers today are facing an environment that is so much less forgiving than the environment I was in with "sex, lies, and videotape." I had the opportunity and the luxury of making five movies after "sex, lies, and videotape" that nobody saw, yet that were a very important part of my development as a filmmaker. You wouldn't get those chances now. People would literally lose your phone number if you made that many bombs in a row.

WPJ: In that case, do you think that the real artistic work is being done in other countries, in other cultures, where there isn't that Hollywood money or pressure?

SODERBERGH: Well, there's a different kind of pressure. There are fewer resources, fewer channels of distribution. If they're indigenous filmmakers, they're competing with movies from other countries, specifically the United States, so they have their own sets of problems. I think I see a variation of it here, the democratization of production has resulted in a lot of people being able to make movies now who couldn't make movies before. I don't think that just because you can make a movie means that you should make a movie. Besides, getting eyeballs on a film is much more difficult now, and getting theatrical distribution is hard, really hard. So it's easier to make a movie, but more difficult to get it seen.

What's also happening now, which is interesting, is that a lot of the major studios are financing movies made in other countries. For instance, Warner Brothers finances French-made...

To continue reading