Could you ever see yourself making a big action movie, or branching into a genre that you haven’t explored yet? ^ Well, “Ocean’s Eleven” is as close to that as I’ll ever get. It’s, I hope in the best way, a big piece of Hollywood entertainment with a lot of activity in it. It’s a great script, and we’ve got a really good cast put together. But I’m also working on “Solaris,” which is science fiction. That’ll be different.
Is that the remake of the Russian film? ^ Yes.
That’s fantastic. That’s something you’re working on right now, development? ^ No, I’m writing it. What’s interesting about it is it’s not a hardware science fiction movie, it’s a psychological drama that happens to be set in space, and that’s what’s interesting to me about it. I’m interested in science fiction, but only in the conceptual side of it.
There are hardly any real science fiction movies made today. They’re all about the hardware or selling action figures. ^ Exactly, and my whole pitch to James Cameron’s company, because they owned the rights, and it was something I was interested in for awhile, and I said if we do our jobs right it’s a combination of “2001” and “Last Tango in Paris.” They said “Oh that sounds good.”
Amazing. ^ I’m excited by it. It’s the first thing that I’ve wanted to write in a long time. I had been writing “Son of Schizopolis” and I put that aside to work on this.
What’s your earliest memory of going to the movies? ^ 1968, drive-in theater in Pennsylvania, “Planet of the Apes.” My father put his hand over my face at the beginning when they find one of their cryogenic capsules had a crack in it and there’s that skeleton there. I remember his hand coming up over my face, because he didn’t want me to see that. That’s my first memory of seeing a movie.
That’s a true science fiction movie in the sense that the filmmakers were toying with real social ideas. ^ It’s funny, I was just leafing through this Pauline Kæl book I have in my office, and I breezing through it and landed on this “Planet of the Apes” review, which she really liked a lot. “2001” was due to open any day, but she basically said this is the best science fiction movie ever made. [Pause. Steven is actually reading the book.] She said it’s kind of arched sometimes, but it’s fun, and alive, and it has ideas in it. I just remember reading it and thinking, “Gee, Pauline Kæl likes ‘Planet of the Apes.'”
Is there a film that you saw that was kind of an epiphany movie. You saw it and said, “I want to be a filmmaker.” ^ Certainly when I saw “Jaws” in 1975, and it so freaked me out that I wanted to know who made this, who was responsible for taking my head off in this manner? And luckily this book, The Jaws Log that Carl Gottlieb wrote, was released simultaneously with the film and I bought it. I just read it compulsively and reread it and became fascinated with the idea of how movies were made. That was sort of the germ of it. ^ The following year, when we moved to Louisiana, I fell in with these filmmakers, because I happened to be going to high school on the LSU campus. As soon as I got my hands on some equipment I thought, “This is fun.”
Do you collect movies? What’s on your shelf? ^ Not as many as some people. Lem Dobbs, the writer, nobody can touch him. I think he has everything. Certainly every obscure movie I’ve ever called to ask him about he said, “yeah, I got it”. I have a pretty good collection, not indiscriminate though. I don’t buy everything, I buy s**t that I like.
What’s your home entertainment system like? ^ It’s pretty straight-forward. I don’t have a big sound system or anything. It’s pretty simple. I have a decent size screen, but you wouldn’t look at what I’ve got and think I was in the film business.
What do you think about DVD? ^ I love it.
All of your films have gotten great treatment. ^ Yes, most of them. I think Universal is planning to remaster an put out on DVD “King of the Hill” next year. Which will be nice. They put out “The Underneath,” but they didn’t remaster it, which is unfortunate. Although I didn’t like the movie that much, so I didn’t care. I know Paramount has the video rights to “Kafka” and they’re considering remastering that. Which, again, it’s not creatively a very successful movie, but you like the idea of just being able to line them all up on the shelf. We’re still waiting for Fox-Lorber to put out the “Schizopolis” DVD.
Traffic is an amazing examination of the drug war in America. What are your personal thoughts on this issue? ^ My thoughts are more complicated now than when I started on this two and a half years ago. I’m not very hopeful, however there are things that can be done that I hope we will do. Some of those things are conceptual, and the main one getting people to consider drug addiction as a health care issue instead of a criminal issue. That would be a big step. In California they just passed prop 36, which Barbara Boxer had gotten on the ballot. It means that non-violent drug users, the first two times they get picked up, can demand rehab instead of being sent to prison. That’s great. That’s a big first step, but there are so many people on both sides of this issue for whom continuing the drug war is an appealing idea. I’m not very optimistic. I’m very concerned about what we’re trying to do in Columbia right now, sending three billion dollars over there ostensibly to assist the battle against the drug cartels. The idea that all of the money and resources will be used only for that reason, I think is naïve.
How did you get cameos from real politicians like Senator Orin Hatch? ^ We sent them letters, and offered to send them the script, and told them what the film was about. And that we were trying to present as even handed an account of this issue as we could, and we would love for them to take part. The people who were able to come we made sure that we shot them. All that stuff with the real people was improvised.
Tell me about the performances of the actors in Traffic, across the board, phenomenal. Benicio Del Toro, they’re talking about Oscar nominations for him. ^ He’s great. We got very fortunate in terms of timing, because we only had a month to put the cast together. We had trouble getting the financing, and the movie was greenlit three weeks before we started shooting. Deborah Zane, the casting director, had, on the basis of the script, over 130 speaking parts to fill. So, it became a combination of people we had in mind initially, people that we’d worked with before and people that we’d always wanted to work with. We went down the list, and shot from the hip, and didn’t agonize. We just started casting people left and right. A couple of them were just sort of favors, like Albert Finney basically came in and did two days of work as a favor. We got lucky.
Read more and get Soderbergh on working with a pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones, Clooney, Sinatra and “Traffic.” STEVEN SODERBERGH UNLEASHED: Part 3 >>>