Steven Soderbergh: ‘I don’t want to stop making things’

Liberace, the late flamboyant pianist who is the subject of Steven Soderbergh’s new film Behind the Candelabra, liked to make an entrance. On one occasion the star, played in the movie by an immaculately coiffured Michael Douglas, was driven on to the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton in a silver Rolls-Royce Landau, emerging clad in a $300,000 white virgin fox coat with a 16ft train, its lining studded with glittering sequins and Austrian crystals. The crowd went wild before he had even played a note on his rhinestone-encrusted grand piano.

Soderbergh’s entrance is more muted. When I enter the cavernous lobby of the Directors Guild of America headquarters on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood for our interview, I spot a studious-looking man in the far corner reading something on his phone. I can’t work out if it is him – he is not surrounded by the retinue of fawning publicists that would normally accompany a top actor or director to meet a journalist – so I ask the man behind the reception desk if he has seen him. Without turning around he gestures over his shoulder with his thumb; at that moment Soderbergh looks up from his phone and I walk over.

He is wearing a beige jacket, a black shirt, dark trousers and striped socks; there are a few days of stubble on his chin and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. He is in town for a meeting at the DGA – he is vice-president of the organisation, which represents directors in pay negotiations – and has reserved us a nearby screening room. We are here to discuss Behind the Candelabra, the 27th feature film in a career spanning almost 25 years – and one that could be his last if he follows through on a recent promise to retire.

His disenchantment with Hollywood was inadvertently revealed by Matt Damon, who stars as Liberace’s young lover Scott Thorson in the film, when he told a journalist that Soderbergh intended to quit the business. “That’s when this all started to get traction,” says the director, referring to the outcry sparked by his proposed retirement. He speaks in a calm, low voice and recalls telling Damon of his plans one night in a bar in Chicago when they were filming Contagion. “I was very impressed [that he remembered] because we were pretty drunk that night. My only concern was, given what most people are going through these days, it seems gross for me to talk about walking away from high-paying work.”

Soderbergh on set for 'Behind the Candelabra'

Soderbergh’s plan to step away from the big screen sparked angst among film aficionados, distraught at the prospect of losing one of the best directors in the industry. He first burst on to the scene in 1989 when he won the Palme d’Or with his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, and after a few years when he made “five films that nobody saw” he had a critical hit with Out of Sight, directing the only good performance ever given by Jennifer Lopez. He won an Oscar for Traffic in 2001, was nominated for another in the same year for Erin Brockovich and assembled one of the starriest casts (George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and others) of the past 20 years for the Ocean’s Eleven series. He has made a few flops – his four-hour biopic of Che Guevara is one – but has also had big commercial successes, most recently Magic Mike, his 2012 movie about male strippers in Florida, which grossed $114m in the US alone on a budget of just $7m.

The most bankable stars in the business seem to love working with him and they keep coming back: Clooney, for example, has made six films with Soderbergh; Damon has made seven. And now he is walking away from it all. Why? “It’s less fun than it used to be,” he says, simply. Studios have become more risk-averse: there were no takers for Behind the Candelabra until pay-TV channel HBO stepped in. The film will be released theatrically in the UK on June 7 and in France, where it will be screened in a few weeks at the Cannes Film Festival, but not in the US.

Why weren’t the studios interested? “I think their feeling was this will only appeal to gay people. We were looking for a tiny amount of money for domestic [release] because we had already sold the foreign [rights]. But then on top of that to put a movie out is $25m-$30m [in marketing] so you have to do $60m-plus [at the box office]. And they weren’t convinced that it would do that.” He laughs. “Because it’s so gay. There’s no … mitigating factor here, where you can say: ‘Well it’s not that gay.’ It’s gay! And that looked like too much of a risk.”

The rejection was a wake-up call, of sorts. “All you can do is walk out of those [studio] meetings and go: ‘Wow. OK, that’s what it is now. Five years ago this wouldn’t have been a problem but it’s a problem now.’ You have to be stupid not to think that means something.”

There are other reasons for Soderbergh’s disenchantment with the studios. He has spoken before about audiences treating cinema less as a mirror for their feelings and moving towards a cinema of total escapism. I ask if he still believes this and he nods. “I’ve seen a shift in why people go to the movies.” Ambiguity has become a dirty word, he says.“They’re moving toward an attitude of: I want it all spelled out and tied up at the end.”

'Sex, lies, and videotape'. Soderbergh’s 1989 breakthrough film

Several factors have driven this shift, he says. Audiences seeking emotionally complex and ambiguous stories can now find them on television – think of shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos. He has also detected a change in mood since the September 11 attacks: escapism has become more sought after as public anxiety has increased. I wonder if this change has angered him but he says no. “It’s like getting angry about the weather. My saying, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ isn’t going to help. What I need to do if I want to go back to work is go somewhere where my approach isn’t a problem [but] where it’s a plus. That would seem to be stuff other than wide-release movies. You know, whether it’s television or it’s theatre. I don’t want to stop making things.”

He enjoyed making Behind the Candelabra, which is based on a book by Thorson, the young man who falls in love with Liberace. “It didn’t feel like anything else I had done,” he says. “I wanted to take this interesting, true story and wind it into a combination of Douglas Sirk and Carmen Miranda and every camp melodrama that you’ve ever seen.” He had the idea for a Liberace film 13 years ago when he was making Traffic with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, two other periodic collaborators. “I asked Michael if he’d ever thought about playing Liberace. He had met him a few times and immediately went into a little routine. I thought: ‘I’ll just file that away.’”

The film explores the tempestuous relationship between Liberace and Thorson, which starts after a chance meeting: Thorson’s blond tresses, physique and rather tight 1970s jeans catch the older man’s eye. Damon and Douglas both deliver terrific performances, Douglas camp and slightly creepy in a succession of outrageous outfits; Damon, the doe-eyed innocent driven close to madness by a cocktail of drugs and Liberace’s philandering.

'Behind the Candelabra'. Douglas as Liberace and Damon as his lover

In one standout scene, Liberace decides he wants plastic surgery after seeing himself on The Johnny Carson Show. When his surgeon arrives, played by a hilariously frozen-faced Rob Lowe, he casually requests that Thorson also have surgery – and have his appearance altered to look like Liberace. “For a period [Thorson and Liberace] were like these concentric circles that linked up,” says Soderbergh. “They had a couple of years where they were really good. And then they got fat and happy and suddenly it’s plastic surgery time and that starts the trajectory downward.” I wonder if he had trouble convincing Douglas and Damon to sign on: this is, after all, an unconventional story about a physically intimate gay relationship. He shakes his head. “Michael thought this was one of those handful of characters that he’ll be remembered by.” It was Douglas’s first film since recovering from cancer. “It was a symbol that the really difficult period in his life was over.”

Soderbergh then approached Damon. “I knew enough about Matt to know that he’s not the kind of person who has to protect anything [or] that he has an image to uphold. He wants to be challenged. He wants to push himself as an actor.” Once on board, the two actors threw themselves into their roles. “They just grabbed hands and jumped off the cliff. At no point did I ask for something and get any hesitation or ‘Really?’ They knew there was no way to do this except both feet in. The core of the story is the emotional intimacy that they share … it has to be completely equal or it doesn’t work.”

Times have changed, though: it was not long ago that actors of Douglas’s and Damon’s standing would have not considered a gay role. “Michael realised that Matt was the age he was when he did Fatal Attraction. He said: ‘I would never have gone anywhere near this part [at his age]. It would have been too terrifying.’”

There is no such thing as a typical Soderbergh film. He jumps from thriller to love story, popcorn heist movie to political biopic. He takes risks and pushes boundaries: in recent years he has cast Sasha Grey, a porn star, as the lead in The Girlfriend Experience while Gina Carano, a mixed-martial arts fighter, took the lead role in Haywire. He explored global pandemics in Contagion while the murky world of antidepressants became the setting for a thriller in this year’s Side Effects. He recently returned to Kafka, his biopic-cum-thriller about the writer, to re-edit it and dub it into German. “Another naked moneymaking scheme,” he deadpans.

'Traffic'. Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film from 2000

His taste was formed as a young man growing up in Louisiana, where he had an upbringing that sounds as unconventional as some of his movies. His mother was a parapsychologist – an expert in so-called psychic phenomena – while his father was a university professor. “My father was very linear, although creative in his own way. I got my love of movies from him. My mother was very non-linear, not someone who was going to thrive in a traditional nine-to-five position.” He says she reminds him of the Beatrice Straight character in Poltergeist (a parapsychologist who helps a family terrorised by malevolent spirits). “She is a very free thinker, doesn’t really care what other people think of her,” he says of his mother. His parents clearly influenced him. “In terms of this job [as a director] I got the best of both of them: his discipline and focus and her ability to sort of … go my own way.”

It was a yin and yang household, I say. “With all the drama played off screen. It was very Pinteresque. A lot of pauses and coded conversation, which turned out to be very fertile ground, creatively. My impression of how grown-ups behave was all formed by that.”

Soderbergh has been married twice and has two daughters. His own childhood gave him a grounding in cinema. “We were always living in college towns, which provided me with access to repertory screenings.” A new generation of film-makers led by Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg had emerged but he also devoured works by Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, as well as British kitchen sink dramas by the likes of Ken Loach. “I watch Kes,” he says, “and I cry like a televangelist.”

“Fourteen to 17 is a great age to be a sponge,” he adds. “Things just hit you in a way they never hit you again.”

He took animation classes as a teenager and after finishing high school came to Los Angeles periodically to do freelance editing jobs. He wrote some scripts and was hired by a mentor from Baton Rouge to work on a documentary sports programme for NBC. “It was called Games People Play. We would do more thoughtful pieces. There was one about a deaf high school football team in Colorado, the oldest woman to ever hike Mount McKinley … it was fun.” Then he was commissioned to write a spy movie but instead wrote the script for sex, lies, and videotape. “I’m not a writer. But I wrote to get in [to the industry].” He doesn’t write scripts any more. “It’s very necessary that I have someone who can take my description of what I’m looking for and really make it distinct. So it has a real voice.”

I wonder why he likes casting non-actors in his work. K Street, a television series about Washington, D.C. lobbyists that he made with George Clooney, blended real actors with non-actors; The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire starred non-actors. “They don’t have any bad habits. It can be really interesting to watch someone who is not trying to do anything to pull you in.”

He doesn’t want his actors thinking too much. “I don’t want to be in their heads, which is why I rarely give notes [to them] that have any kind of psychology [about their characters]. I try to come up with physical things to do that express how the characters are feeling.” Conveying a scene with physical behaviour “can help the actor”.

“Say someone is in a coffee shop. A second person arrives late and doesn’t take their jacket off. What does that say? It means they’re not going to get comfortable.” It is more effective than the character acting uncomfortable, he suggests. “It says: I don’t want to be here.”

'Ocean’s Eleven'. The first (2001) outing for the star-filled heist franchise

Cinema has been part of Soderbergh’s life for such a long time, what will he do without it? He says he has plenty to keep himself busy – such as a rock musical about Cleopatra. “It could go either way,” he muses. “We’re going to try to workshop it early next year. I haven’t decided if it should be off Broadway or a Tommy-style extravaganza.” He is working on a book about film-making and has the rights to a comic novel set in 17th-century America about a young tobacco farmer who aspires to be a poet, called The Sot-Weed Factor (he envisions making it for television). Then there is his painting, which he has done “on and off for years … but my experience of being competent at something is that it requires regular attention”.

Longer term, he wants to come up with a different way of telling stories, to free himself from the “tyranny of narrative”. He is convinced there are other ways to convey narratives, a way “to transmit information to an audience that isn’t so … traditional. I’d love for you to get to the end of it and know exactly what happened and have no idea why you know. I’m convinced this is possible. But,” he adds, confusingly, “it may not be.” A few days after we meet I discover that he has embarked on a Twitter novel project, writing Glue one tweet at a time from his @bitchuation address.

We are running out of time so I ask him about his political views and he begins to rail against the “two sets of laws” that exist in America. “The people who can pay get the justice they want and the people who can’t, don’t.” Who does he mean? “HSBC!” he says, raising his voice for the first time. He is referring to a recent money-laundering scandal, which the bank settled after paying a record $1.92bn fine. “What do you have to do to get sent to jail? What the hell is going on? Nothing happened! They wrote a cheque that the company turns in profit every six weeks and it’s done. All the people you’re not supposed to be interacting with – they were interacting with them. And nothing happens.”

You should make a movie about it, I say, as we get up to leave.

“No,” he says firmly.

Or a TV show.

“A TV show,” he says, pondering it as we walk to the door. “Maybe.”

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent. Twitter @MattGarrahan

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