Steven Soderbergh is the Swiss Army knife of American filmmakers: Serving as director, producer, cinematographer and editor on most of his movies, he’s also tackled just about every genre. He burst onto the scene at 26 with Sex, Lies and Videotape—winning the Palme D’Or in Cannes, earning his first Oscar nomination and inspiring a whole new wave of indie cinema. Since then, his work has run the gamut, from Academy Award-winning intrigues like Erin Brockovich and Traffic to the heist-flick franchise he launched with Ocean’s Eleven. Along the way, Soderbergh has pushed envelopes both stylistic and sexual, casting a porn star in the Godard-like drama of My Girlfriend Experience and scoring a surprise hit with Magic Mike’s rollicking saga of a male stripper.
But then, in 2013, Soderbergh announced his retirement from making movies, saying he would take up painting and playwriting. He blamed his retreat on everything from his frustration with the tightening straightjacket of Hollywood convention to existential burnout. At the time, when I asked him what he was most fed up about the movie business, he said, “Everything. Just the thought of having to go out and scout locations one more time . . .”
His resolve didn’t last. Just months later, he plunged into directing the HBO TV series The Knick. And now, four years after he announced he was done with movies, the 54-year-old, Atlanta-born director returns to the big screen with Logan Lucky, opening Aug. 18. It’s another heist movie, but one set at a NASCAR race, starring Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig and Adam Driver as blue-collar crooks rooted in the depressed coal country of West Virginia. Maclean’s spoke to Soderbergh about “retirement,” working with the James Bond franchise’s Daniel Craig, what’s changed about mainstream moviemaking, and why Logan Lucky is an experiment in filmmaking.
Q: When we last talked, four years ago, you swore you were done with movies for good. What changed your mind?
A: I’m a big believer in timing. This script came into my hands when I was thinking about what changes could be made in the mainstream distribution system to accommodate someone like myself. I’d been having some back-channel conversations with studios and exhibitors. And I was getting a sense there might be a new model that I could adopt that would solve my issues—namely complete creative control where there would be no middlemen. I felt planets were lining up for an experiment in which I would make a film designed to go out to many thousands of screens, but was as lean and mean as I could make it.
Q: How lean and mean was it?
A: Under $30 million.
Q: Usually, total artistic control means settling for an even smaller budget.
A: Yeah, when you get a certain level of resources, and you want things a certain way, I find it difficult to get too belligerent because it’s not my money. In this case it is. It’s a lot easier to stand your ground and say “I want it like this” when you know it’s your money you’re spending.
Q: The script that lured you out of retirement comes from newcomer Rebecca Blunt. Who is she?
A: I met her through my wife [writer Jules Asner]. I don’t know her well. She has a background in tabloid journalism and family roots in West Virginia. Apparently she read some story about these sinkholes at the Charlotte Motors Speedway and started working on this idea.
Q: Logan Lucky is about blue-collar, beer-drinking NASCAR-loving dudes from the heart of coal country—Donald Trump’s base. Coincidence?
A: In the fall of 2014, no one knew what the world was going to be like three years later. It’s a movie that I assumed was going to play better in the middle of the country than on the edges. But I don’t know for sure. I grew up in the South so I was just going off my own compass as to the tone. One of the things that appealed to me about the script was that these aren’t people who get portrayed as heroes very often. No money, no technology, no skill set really. They aren’t criminals unlike the Ocean’s films. They’re learning as they go. All that made it appealing, because it’s the inversion of what I’ve made before.
Q: The deadpan idiocy of your heroes, who aren’t as dumb as they seem, has the tone of something from the Coen brothers.
A: Yeah. They have a real skill at portraying a certain kind of feral character who surprises you with their thought process. I enjoyed the layered aspect of this, when somebody pops out with something that makes you rethink how you feel about them. It’s more grounded than an Ocean’s film. These are people who are under economic pressure and have very few opportunities. It seemed more emotional to me.
Q: And they’re literally grounded in a place where Trump has pledged to revive the coal mines.
A: That is kind of strange, that the coal miner thing in West Virginia is in the news, when it wasn’t at all when we were making the film.
Q: Your star, Channing Tatum, is someone you’ve really cultivated. He’s such a classic hunk, he might have been forever typecast. But you’ve cast him in four movies—Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects and now this. What did you see in him?
A: When I first encountered Channing, what I recognized is a native, active, curious intelligence. He’s always looking for opportunities to push himself, whether as an actor or a producer. This Magic Mike Live cabaret show he put up in Las Vegas is amazing. He’s not content to just wait around for people to throw parts at him. Look at what he did in Foxcatcher. He’s not afraid of anything, and he’s not trying to protect anything.
Q: You’ve cast Daniel Craig as a Southern brute of a convict with tattoos and a peroxide brush-cut. He must have been thrilled to trash his James Bond persona so utterly.
A: That’s what I was hoping when I went to him—that he would look at this as a great opportunity to throw a grenade behind his shoulder and blow up everything he’d done. So I told him he had carte blanche with the look, the sound, everything. I said just take it and run with it, there’s no wrong answer. And that’s what he came up with it. It’s a good part on paper but he really stepped on the gas.
Q: Though you grew in the South, you’re part of what Republicans might call the Hollywood elite. How to do you get on with regular folk in a place like West Virginia?
A: Oh, I have people who do that for me.
Q: Ha! That’s funny.
A: It’s never been an issue. The way I was raised, I try to be as straightforward and plain speaking as possible. I don’t have any layers around me. Benicio del Toro was asked once to describe working with me, and he said, “There’s no mystery.” When you work with me, there’s nothing mysterious about it, nothing manipulative. We have problems we have to solve in as timely a fashion as possible, and it’s not about me. It’s about the Thing. The Thing is bigger than all of us. We have to submit to that and figure out what the Thing wants. I’m not at the top of the pyramid. The Thing is at the top of the pyramid.
Q: Speaking of pyramids, movies were once the prestige art form while TV was the crass, commercial medium. But the tables have turned. TV is the new haven of creative freedom and cinema has been invaded by comic book franchises. Where do you see this going?
A: What has happened over the last 10 or 15 years has been fascinating. Mainstream moviemaking was becoming less and less interested in flawed characters and ambiguous moral situations, focussing on heroic characters and clearcut narratives. I don’t know if that was a residual, subliminal response to 9/11, and that this country has still not processed that event completely, or healed from it. Suddenly television became a place where people were open to exploring these shadow aspects of human beings, and movies started to feel more like pure escapism. Except for the end-of-the-year stuff, which you have to discount because it’s so calculated. September-October-November is the dumping ground for any serious movie that is made . . . It all starts in Toronto.
Q: You’re telling me. It used to start in Cannes. Now it starts at TIFF.
A: But I’ll argue against myself. One of the things that appealed to me about Logan Lucky is that it was first and foremost a piece of entertainment. I made it very clear to all involved: we will not be mounting a [Oscar] campaign of any sort for this film. I don’t know what I’d do if I made something you could put into that arena, because I’ve been through it before and I don’t have a desire to go through it again.
Q: Even with a totally different kind of movie?
A: Yeah, the movie’s irrelevant. It’s the process. You burn a lot of calories. At a certain point you go: I’d rather be working. I’m older now and I want to make sure I’m spending my time on worthwhile endeavours. But it’s important to me to talk about Logan because it’s a large-scale experiment and I’m very curious to see the outcome.
Q: What’s experimental about your new business model?
A: It’s made up of some things people have done before. The first is pre-selling the movie overseas to pay for the cost of the film. But new platforms and new technology now allow you to reach more theatres more easily. I formed Fingerprint Releasing, sold all the non-theatrical rights to Amazon, and used that money to pay for prints and advertising. So essentially the movie is zeroed out when it opens. There’s nothing to recoup.
Q: Tell me about Mosaic, your interactive HBO movie starring Sharon Stone. Will viewers be able to choose different plot outcomes?
A: Yeah, it’s a murder mystery. I’m hoping it’s going to drop in November. I felt we were making a cave painting. I kept it simple, but people are going to look at it and see other things that can be done with it. It’s a form off storytelling that has enormous potential. The question is, can you find a way to do it that feels fluid and not like an interruption or an annoyance.
Q: What did you learn from directing 20 episodes of a TV show like The Knick? Was it a faster tempo?
A: It was a very intense but ultimately pleasurable boot camp. I liked every aspect of it. I liked the scale of the canvas, the 10-hour arc, and the fact that you really have time to really spend with the characters. On Mosaic and Logan Lucky, the schedules much more aggressive than they would have been if I’d made them before I made The Knick. The muscle memory of filtering away all the wrong versions of what you’re doing improves the more time you’re on a film set. I feel like my problem-solving algorithm got kicked up a notch.
Q: Did you ever really retire, even if briefly?
A: There were two weeks before we took Behind the Candelabra to Cannes in May 2013. I had nothing in front of me. I’d started painting lessons and was in this pure sabbatical mode. Then the script for The Knick came in. I was the first person to see it, and I knew that if I didn’t say yes the second person to see it would say yes. So I turned to my wife and said, “I know I was going on this extended vacation, but not only am I not doing that, in four months we’re going to start shooting this ten-hour television show. And she was like, that’s fine, if you’re lit up about that, then do that. Then once we got on set, I had a real sensation of “C’mon, dude, this is your job.”
Q: Are you working all the time?’
A: Yeah, but it’s fun. If you ask [George] Clooney— he’s always on set—”Don’t you ever want to, like, go back to your trailer?” He’s like, “My whole life I’ve been trying to get onto a set. That was my fantasy. Why would I want to leave this set?” For me, this is what I’ve always what I’ve wanted to do. I get out of bed happy each morning to go work. Vacations are hard.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.