Even the most ardent film fan could get confused about the career trajectory of Steven Soderbergh. His first film, the one that gave him international recognition and a Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1989, was sex, lies and videotape. He later received praise but couldn't find an audience for King of the Hill, had no luck at all with The Underneath and saw his comedy Schizopolis vanish after a minuscule release.
Oddly, the gritty and funny big budget Out of Sight was a minor hit, while the gritty and offbeat tiny budget The Limey wasn't. Enter Julia Roberts and the smash Erin Brockovich and suddenly Soderbergh became a household name. Now, with the intense, sprawling ensemble piece about the failure of America's war on drugs, Traffic, the director is once again working with a large bankroll and will most likely have a huge hit on his hands. He says he's often asked about his choices, about jumping from small budgets to big budgets. Actually, he's never had to think about it much. He knew why he did it right away.
"Opportunity, really," he says. "And an understanding that the smaller, sort of self-generated films will always be there. But when you get sent a script like Out of Sight or [his upcoming remake] Ocean's Eleven, and you have that confluence of a good piece of material that you think you know how to do well, that you think you can get actors in that will do a great job, and that might get seen, you've gotta jump at that stuff. Those things don't come along that often. And that is a harder group of planets to line up than a Schizopolis or a Limey, which I can basically do anytime, anywhere, and which I will continue to do."
And actors continue to line up, wanting to be directed by him. Traffic features great performances from, among others, Michael Douglas as the new American drug czar, his new real-life bride Catherine Zeta-Jones as a woman whose husband is involved in some major drug trafficking and Don Cheadle as a federal agent working the Mexico-California drug route.
"He's got talent pouring out of his ears," says Cheadle, who also worked for Soderbergh in Out of Sight. "He's one of the great directors out there today. And he has no ego about it. Whoever's got the best answer in the room is the person he wants to hear from. He's confident, and he makes you feel confident. He casts people who he likes and trusts, and then lets them work. And that's one of the smartest things he does -- surrounding himself with people who he believes in."
Cheadle also likes the fact that Soderbergh enjoys jumping right in and operating the hand-held camera himself.
"That's cool because you have your director two or three feet away from you. People ask me if that was intimidating, and I say no, that was comforting; it's much more comfortable to have that than to have somebody 40 yards away looking at a monitor and saying, 'I didn't see that, Don.' And then you have to do take after take. So it's great having him right there."
Zeta-Jones refers to Soderbergh's style as a very intimate way of filmmaking. "He's right there, with the camera on his shoulder. He can peek over the lens to give you direction," she says.
"And you don't get the sense that there's a hundred and one people in the room when you're doing an intimate scene," she adds, referring to Soderbergh's affinity for working with a small crew. "Or that there's a tripod and a dolly and the beautifying lights around you. It's real and fast, so that gives you a sense of being right in the moment."
Douglas, too, very much enjoys Soderbergh's methods. "By having a smaller crew, with not as much lighting involved, as actors you then really have just the joy of acting," he explains. "You're not having to fight your concentration with people behind you and all of that. And because he's hand-held, rather than us having to have our marks moved for the camera, he just slides over. So for actors, you're left with this incredible freedom of feeling like you're in a real environment.
"And secondly, he loves actors," Douglas adds. "He trusts them."
Told later in the day about all of this gushing by members of his cast, Soderbergh says, "That's great. I do like actors, which puts me ahead of a lot of other directors," he adds, laughing. "I've always liked actors, and I've always gotten on really well with them. I respect them and I empathize with the specific brand of exposure that's involved in being on-camera. It's very -- I'm telling you, man -- it's intense, it's really intense.
"I think a comfortable actor is a good actor, so I try and make sure that they're okay. And when they're in the zone, I leave them alone. I don't get in their way. I try to be very sensitive to when they're having a problem, and get in there quickly, and figure out what it is. Because in my experience, if you've cast properly, and an actor is having a problem, it means that there's a problem with the text. For some reason they're being asked to go from A to D, and they haven't been provided the stepping stones to get there. So you have to sit down and figure it out. And usually you can figure out how to get you there or maybe land you someplace else; maybe the thing to do is that you shouldn't go to D, you should go to C."
But Soderbergh's filmmaking expertise goes well beyond clicking with and understanding the needs of actors. He's found that it helps quite a bit that he's his own harshest critic, especially in the art of editing, or whittling his usually long original versions down into fighting shape. Traffic started out at three hours and 10 minutes, and now clocks in at two hours and 20 minutes.
"What I've been doing in the last couple of movies is a couple of times a week I make a tape of the movie and watch it in its entirety," he explains. "And when you do that two or three times a week, you turn into the worst possible audience member. Because you're so sick of watching it that you begin to get really ruthless about things. And you know that when you really dread a certain sequence that's coming up, it's because there's something wrong. And invariably there would be little redundancies, where I would say I don't think we need that."
But Soderbergh has found that in order to do things the way he wants them to be done, one of his more important attributes is to be slightly anti-social.
"I find if you decide not to get involved in the social aspect of the film business, you have so much time on your hands," he says candidly. "Literally, I'm always saying, 'No, I can't go to that screening; sorry, I can't make that dinner party.' If you bail on all that stuff, you've got all this free time that you can work."