The Traffic Report With Steven Soderbergh
By Darrell Hope
Photos by Bob Marshak
Director Steven Soderbergh
For some cultures, 13 is the age at which a boy becomes a man. For Steven Soderbergh, 13 was the age at which he became a filmmaker. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native came to Los Angeles shortly after graduating high school and worked as a freelance editor before returning home to polish his craft as a director by shooting documentaries and shorts.
Soderbergh's feature debut, sex, lies, & videotape, captured the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and catapulted him
to the forefront of American independent film. Since then he has completed ten feature films including the indie films King of the Hill, Schizopolis and The Limey, and more mainstream fare like Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich.
Soderbergh's latest film, Traffic, is the ambitious weaving of three stories that show the outside, inside and underneath of the drug trade and is sure to instigate dialogues and debate. The film features a huge
cast that includes Steven Bauer,
Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Albert Finney, Amy Irving, Dennis Quaid and Catherine Zeta-Jones and settings in Washington, D.C., Ohio, San Diego and Mexico.
The complexity of the film is almost a metaphor for the director himself, for as he's putting the
finishing touches on Traffic, Soderbergh's also prepping his next feature, a remake of the "Rat Pack" classic, Ocean's Eleven, with his Out of Sight star George Clooney. And he still finds time to devote to the DGA's Independent Directors Committee which he helped found.
Soderbergh, who recently took top honors at both the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the National Board of Review for both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, revealed to DGA Magazine how he keeps track of all of this Traffic.
What made you want to do a film about the drug wars?
It was something that I'd been interested in for awhile. I didn't want to make a movie about addicts but I didn't know what form it should take. Then Laura Bickford, one of our producers, said, "I got the rights to this miniseries that ran in the U.K. called Traffik." I remembered it and said, "I think that's a movie; can I jump on?" We started looking around for a writer and read this script by Steve Gaghan about upper-class white kids at Palisades High involved with drugs and gangs. He seemed perfect, but he was writing a drug movie for Ed Zwick. Gaghan said, "Let's ask Ed if he'll combine the two projects." To his credit, Ed said, "Let's do that. I'll come on board as a producer with my partner and you can direct it." Then it was just a very lengthy process of getting the script together. I remember having conceptual discussions with Gaghan while I was shooting The Limey in October of '98. We finished the outline before I went off to shoot Erin Brockovich. When I got back he had a first draft, then we did just numerous drafts after that. The draft we shot had 163 pages with 135 speaking parts and featured seven cities that we were shooting nine cities to represent, all on a 54-day schedule. It was a real scramble.
How was it having two other directors, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, as producers?
It's actually great because they understand when to be close and when to be far away because they've directed movies and have a very good sense of when they're needed. So it was great for me. They were just a great resource and totally supportive. On the couple of things that I've been involved with as a producer I tried to be the same way, which is, "you let me know what you need me to do because I want it to be your movie."
How about the studio?
USA totally left us alone. We came in $2 million under budget, which helps. We moved quickly.
I imagine that's where your DGA team came in very handy. Tell us about them.
My 1st AD, Greg Jacobs, has been with me since King of the Hill. He's a key part of this and it's like having another filmmaker there for me. Our second was Trey Bachelor, who we've also worked with before. And we had a couple of new people who I liked a lot who I think we're going to keep with us.
With all of the moves and all
of the characters, it was very, very labor-intensive for the AD crews. Shooting on the streets in Mexico, control is an illusion. You need
people who are well prepared enough to be able to improvise,
and also who know me. Greg's got backup plans on top of backup plans because he knows I'm going to
get there and say, "I changed
my mind. I want to shoot this direction," or "Pull that vendor from over there, pay him $50 and get him
in the shot." He's always ready for that.
Basti Van Der Woude, our 2nd 2nd AD, who was new to our crew and has worked on a lot of big
budget studio Hollywood movies, said, "I cannot believe how fast you guys move and how quickly you accommodate radical changes. I've never seen anything like it." We try to be really light on our feet.
What made you decide to shoot this movie yourself?
It was something that I had been working toward. I shot my short films and Schizopolis myself. Then I started operating on The Limey and on Erin and was really leaning in that direction. I knew Traffic was going to be a real run-and-gun movie. It's all part of just trying to get as close to the movie as I can. But I had underestimated the luxury of being able to walk away from the set for ten minutes and just clear my head. You can't leave the epicenter of whatever you're shooting for an instant. It was relentless, but so satisfying.
How did that affect the way you worked with the actors?
I think they really like the proximity. I stopped using video taps some time ago because I felt it was creating a distance between the performers and myself. I think they like my operating the camera because two things happen. One is, subconsciously, it becomes harder to lie because you know that you're being seen and if you show up with something that's not true you're going to get busted. The other is, that same proximity results in a trust and if we shoot something and I put the camera down and give a note, it's a lot different than making the march from video village to come give a note, or worse yet, giving it over a megaphone or God knows what. It just makes them feel more comfortable and when I go, "We got it," they know that we got it.
Michael Douglas said that he likes the way that you work because you keep the cameras out of the acting space. How do you figure out that boundary?
A lot of it's instinctual. I watched a lot of Ken Loach stuff because his movies have that real vérité aesthetic and you believe it. I looked at how he would frame, how far away he would be, what the length of the lens was, how tight the eyelines would be, depending on where the characters were. I noticed that there's a space that's inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic. I was very conscious of that when we would set up stuff and I would start looking as to how I wanted to shoot it. I would tell the assistant cameramen all the time, "This is not about perfection, I don't want to give people marks; I don't want them thinking about that stuff." You don't want them thinking. You want them being.
What kind of camera were you using for the hand-helds?
We used the new Millennium XLs, which are extraordinary. They're even smaller and lighter than
the new high-def cameras that Panavision and Sony created. With their lightweight zooms and a small mag, there wasn't anyplace I couldn't get with that camera.
What other techniques did you use to assist the story with the camera?
The issue of how to distinguish the three stories visually arose about
and I decided for the East Coast stuff, tungsten film with no filter on it so that we get that really cold, monochrome blue feel. For San Diego,
diffusion filters, flashing the film, overexposure for a warmer blossomy feel. And for Mexico, tobacco filters, 45-degree shutter angle whenever possible to give it a strobelike sharp feel. Hopefully those distinctions would be enough to bring you back into each story line after you cut to somewhere else and come back. Then we took the entire film through an Ektachrome step, which increases the contrast and the grain enormously. I'm going through a phase where I'm in love with degraded grainy
contrasty imagery, stuff that I think you'd have difficulty talking some
cameraman into doing. When the film reaches its release print stage,
it will have gone through seven generations.
This must have been a bear to color time.
It's really hard to predict what the Ektachrome will do to a given image because what we're doing is we're going camera-negative, timed answer print, then Ektachrome dupe of that answer print. Because that's a positive Ektachrome, negative I.P., inter-negative release print, it's really hard to look at a first generation, extrapolate the five steps and go, "I think that's bright enough." There'll be stuff that you think, "Oh, there's no way I'll see it in the shot." Then it comes back and you take it through all the steps, you go, "Ah, it's not bad." I've seen the film a lot in the Ektachrome stage and I like the way that looks. Then I go back and I look at the answer print and it's completely different and I have to remember, "OK, is that just what the Ektachrome is doing or did we brighten that since the work print stage?" So the Ektachrome is reflective of the work print but not the answer print. It was really complicated.
After having done all this to the film stock did you still edit it on AVID?
Yes. AVID is such a great tool. For a movie like this, where we did a lot of restructuring in the editing room, it's a dream. We were trying, I remember very late in the process we were starting to get the movie down to a manageable length. The first cut was 3:10 and what you saw was 2:20. There's 45 minutes of complete scenes that I liked that just had to go. I kept watching the movie over and over in its entirety, which, believe me, gets boring. But I found that if I reached a section of the film that I didn't look forward to seeing again, it meant something was wrong. Either the pacing was off or the scene itself was not cut properly.
How long were you editing?
We wrapped at the end of June
and we locked the first week in October. I kept going back and tweaking stuff. I went back and reshot things like the scene with Catherine visiting her husband in jail because it wasn't emotional enough. A couple of the action-oriented sequences were missing key pieces of coverage, what I would call geography shots, so that you were clear exactly where you were at a given moment like the scene where Frankie Flowers gets killed in the parking lot. There are some key shots there of the guy in the window that were new to the version you saw that I'd just shot the weekend before. Now you understood the layout clearly and you understood why he couldn't kill him until that moment. Before that, the scene was a little iffy. I thought, I've got to watch this thing for 20 years so let's run down to San Diego and get it over with.
Although Traffic is rated R, I understand you were prepared to release it as an NC-17.
In the midst of all this discussion about the ratings there was some concern on our part that the film might get an NC-17. We were resolved to take the rating if we got it and not recut. But as it turned out, we got an R. I was surprised.
Do you agree with the DGA's stance that the MPAA rating system needs to be overhauled?
Yes. A group of us from the DGA's Independent Directors Committee met with [MPAA President Jack] Valenti a month before this whole FCC thing came down, because it affects independent filmmakers a lot more than studio filmmakers. Independent movies tend to get rated more harshly for reasons that we can't determine.
We said, "There needs to be a legitimate adult rating that doesn't have a stigma attached to it. The filmmakers want it; the public needs it." We discussed ways in which that could take place. Then this whole thing broke in a big way publicly with that FCC report. There's no question in my mind that the ratings system needs to be updated. Things are different now. You've got to be sensitive to the culture and the issues that are in the air for parents. Personally, I was glad this whole thing blew up because it has nothing to do with censorship; it has to do with responsibility. We need to take some responsibility, so do the studios, so does the MPAA. Everybody has got to get together and go, "This is the right thing to do for the community, to have a rating system that is more accurate and successfully keeps children from seeing films they should not see." I'm glad it came to a head because now something is starting to happen.
You joined the Guild in 1993. Since that time the presence of independent directors within the DGA has gotten a lot stronger through programs like the Low Budget Agreements. Legend has it that you were a factor in the creation of that program.
I doubt the cause and effect was
that clear, but I called the DGA before I went to make Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy and said, "I think
I'm going to have to resign from
the Guild because I'm making these two movies for this amount of money and there is no way I can make
them under current Guild policy." The Guild said, "There is. You send us two documents, one for each film, describing exactly what you're doing, what the budget is, what the crew is, and who's doing what.We will find a way to make this work."
We were able to come up with an agreement that if I ever got paid anything for either of these films, that money would be subject to pension and health, and I went and made the movies. I'm sure I wasn't the only person who made that call to the Guild and maybe enough of those calls came in to where somebody said, "You know what, we've got to get on this because some of our younger Guild members who are going to be the future of the Guild are calling us and saying I want to work in a way the Guild can't accommodate." So hats off to the DGA because more than any other organization, it has its ear to the ground.
As far as the low-budget agreements go, if you call as soon as you start thinking about a project, the Guild will bend over backward to make it happen.
Considering all the new technologies that are coming, do you think the DGA is making adequate preparations for the future?
I'm very confident in the Guild's ability to ride all that stuff. I think [DGA National Executive Director] Jay [Roth] and [DGA Associate National Executive Director] Warren Adler and [DGA Assistant Executive Director] Elizabeth Stanley are in the trenches of how do we deal with these new issues. I think they're really on top of it. They're watching very closely and listening very closely, which is half of it. I'm really confident in the Guild's ability to move in whatever direction it needs to move. Everybody's going to be playing catch-up. The point is that you don't want to be caught napping when you should be catching up. The DGA is pretty savvy about that stuff.
One of the things I noticed as a new alternate to the Western Directors Council, is there's this overwhelming sense of pragmatism. This is not a place to filibuster; it's a place to get things done. It doesn't have to be pretty, it doesn't have to be perfect, it has to work. I really like that energy.
Soderbergh makes a point to Michael Douglas (right) on location
Speaking of energy, are you shooting Ocean's Eleven yourself?
Yes. I think it'd be hard to go back to insert someone into that process having now taken someone out of it, or inserted myself into it.
What are you doing differently on Ocean's Eleven?
I shot Traffic on the fly but I'm going to storyboard Ocean's Eleven because although there aren't as many characters as in Traffic, there are several physically complex scenes where a lot of things are happening with a lot of different people at once and you need to be very clear where you are at all times. That requires sitting down and drawing out how you're going to do that so people don't get confused and we can sell the thing and have it be exciting.
Considering what you learned on Traffic, is there anything you would change about Erin Brockovich?
I don't think so. If anything, it makes me feel like the choices we made from the script stage through shooting and finishing the film were the right choices for that movie. The challenge in Erin was to restrain myself in certain key areas and to never insert myself between her and the audience. I'm used to waving my arms a little bit directorially and it was a really good thing for me to back off. My grip on that movie was every bit as firm as the movie that follows and the movie that preceded it, but it was just a different grip, and half of it was a grip on myself. There was a real pleasure in really servicing the material and not getting in the way. I respected the real Erin so much and wanted to have it turn out well, and it taught me for Traffic, how to find a balance between being entertaining and dealing with a serious underlying theme. It was a good warm-up.
Although you've done studio films, you're still perceived as an independent director. In this era where the studios often operate more like distributors rather than production entities, what makes someone an independent director?
It's really hard to make those
distinctions anymore. Especially because there are some independent companies and distributors who
are more obsessed with the potential commerciality of a given film,
albeit on a smaller scale, than the
studios are. The other day, I saw
this extraordinary new film by Christopher Nolan, Memento. I was stunned. Every distributor in town had seen it and had not picked it up. They only just signed a distribution deal with Newmarket Films. I thought, "That a great movie like this has trouble getting picked up, if that doesn't signal the death of the so-called independent wave, I don't know what does." That's depressing. It's harder now for people coming up than it was when I came up. It was more difficult to get a film made when I started, but it was easier to get it distributed. Now there are just so many movies that it's rare. People are not buying that many finished movies anymore. The great thing about it is how Darwinian it is and how no matter how bad it seems to get, some filmmaker somewhere always does something extraordinary, finds a way and somehow the thing emerges. Right now as we speak, somebody is finishing a movie that six months from now we're going to be talking about. I find that incredibly exciting.
Anything you have your eye on beyond Ocean's Eleven?
There are a couple of things that I'm working on, but it's usually when I'm further along that I figure out what the antidote for the current film
is. After Traffic and Erin I wanted
to do something that had no
social value whatsoever, which was Ocean's Eleven.
Maybe you should do a Star Wars episode.
I'd love to do a Star Wars movie. But it would be like three guys sitting around talking about what they did.