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Warning: this is a long interview. But this is an interview with Steven Soderbergh, the director who has brought us movies as different as Ocean's 11 and sex, lies and videotape, the director who never fails to surprise. When I spoke to him during the Tribeca Film Festival, he kicked off the conversation by asking us what the festival experience was like for us-- and of course we let him take charge of the conversation. I mean, it's Steven Soderbergh!
Check out the chat below, in which he talks not only about The Girlfriend Experience, but some of the techniques that have defined his career-- non-linear storytelling, working with non-actors, and a persistent interest in "the version of our own story that we keep telling ourselves that allows us to keep getting up in the morning." He's a smart guy; I think you'll want to read it.
Why bring this film to Tribeca as opposed to Cannes?
I try to be very careful about Cannes, actually. I feel like you have to dole that out. I don't want to be somebody who automatically brings everything I do to Cannes.
Why did this feel like a good Tribeca film?
New York. You know, New York. If you love movies, you get a little anxious shooting in New York. A lot of good people have shot movies in New York. What are you going to do? I really wanted to make a whole film here. But I did have that moment of trying to figure out what my take was going to be.
The locations felt very of the moment. Was that in the script?
No, my producer, Greg Jacobsen, and the location manager worked hard. It was difficult because we didn't have any money, and they would find out what the movie was about and say 'We're not helping you.' The party tonight [for The Girlfriend Experience's premiere] was supposed to be sponsored by Grey Goose, and it was all set up, and they were going to pay for the party. Then two weeks ago they're like, 'We didn't know Sasha Grey was a porn star. We're not going to pay for your party. Vodka and porn, what's more American than that?
This is coming out 20 years after sex, lies, and videotape. Is there an intentional parallel there?
No, that's just coincidence. We actually wrote the outline for this in spring 2006. It turned out to be a nice symmetry. It's the 20th film I've made if you include [his next film] The Informant. And also, I viewed it, specifically, it was kind of a companion piece. Here's what else they share. They're about delusion. We have to have a version of our own story that we keep telling ourselves that allows us to keep getting up in the morning. Both that movie and this are about blind spots that get exposed, that everyone thought were pretty well covered.
The setting is so specific, with the bailout and these financial quandaries. Right now it's very of the moment, but what do you think people will take away 20 years from now?
I'm hoping that it's so specific, and so lacking in perspective, that it will hold up as a snapshot of a very very specific point in time and a very specific place. I think there's always a danger of sort of ripping things from the headlines. You should be doing one of two things. You should have absolute omniscient perspective on something, or none at all. And this one has none at all. This movie is absolutely swimming in its own juices, and its universe extends out 3 feet in every direction. Whereas a movie like Che, I've got 40 years distance on him to sort of look at him from a height. You see some films that are trying to incorporate what's happening in the world in order to sell you a story of something, or an idea of something. This isn't really doing that. It's not selling any idea. It's sort of a fictionalized documentary. It's a slice of someone at a certain place at a certain time.
What made you decide to chop up your narrative in such a non-lienar way?
I think we actually experience life in a way that's much closer to the structure of GFE or The Limey than we do a normal movie. The fact that time moves in one direction gives us the illusion of narrative in our lives, when in point of fact, you're existing in three different temporal modes simultaneously. You're leaving this building to go to the screening tonight, and you're walking down the street. There's the present-- you're walking down the street, and at a a certain point, something happens that forces you to face what's happening in the street. You're thinking about what you just left, and you're thinking about the screening that's happening tonight. This is all happening simultaneously, and depending on your physical space, the emphasis shifts about which one you're giving primacy to. That's my experience of the world, and that's the impression that I'm trying to give here.
You and Sasha have both mentioned that you don't like critics. It's hard for us not to take it personally.
Well I just don't read them. It's just not something that helps me at that point. First of all, I'm usually already two movies away from what they're looking at. They have a role, they just don't really have a role for me. I'm aware of the general critic response to something as it affects the business life of the film. If you make a film that's a speciality film, and you get trashed by everyone, you're going to have a tough time trying to break through. If you're making a movie like Ocean's it's less relevant. I pay attention in the sense that, oh, we got trashed by a lot of major outlets, so I guess our run in these arthouse theaters will be pretty short. It's like getting hit by a car and six months later somebody going "you shouldn't have stepped in front of that car." OK, wish you had been there! I have nothing to say in response. The film is what it is.
Do you think there's some value, though, in reading something like Pauline Kael?
Absolutely. I read everything Pauline Kael-- I didn't agree with her all the time, but as a teenager beginning to makes films, beginning to get seriously interested in films, I have dog-eared copies of everything she published. It was a goldmine of information and references to other art forms. She was really unique. That's Halley's Comet, that may not be coming again. I'm sure we all have complex feelings about the Internet. On the one hand, in theory now, if you're writing about movies, you can go on the internet and write a 5,000 word piece on something if you're so moved. The question is, will anybody get to word 500 before they go 'Oh Jesus, just tell me, how many stars?' This larger question of, culturally, is there a place for that kind of ruminative complex criticism, that's an open question. And not just in question. For everything. For books, for music.
You came up with this movie before the economic crisis hit. Would it have had the same attitude toward these rich men if it had been made earlier?
I don't know, it would just be different. You're just teeing off what's coming off you. It's the closest thing to hands-free directing that there is. You're just making sure the camera's in the right place. They're kind of going off on their own.
It's lucky that you caught a pretty extraordinary moment.
It was so funny. it was like that green mist in The Ten Commandments. It permeated everything. It really was like, well, now I'm thinking we have swine flu this week.
As a director there's a kind of symmetry to your movies. You make a commercial one, and then a non-commercial one.
When I'm making them, they all feel commercial to me. I thought Schizopolis was going to make money. You have to remember what happened on the first film I made. It's no joke. If I'm making a movie for a million bucks, I feel like this thing could blow up, man. It's happened before.
How is directing non-actors in this structured improv setting different from directing someone like George Clooney?
Before you start the only thing you're trying to make sure of is they're as comfortable as they ought to be depending on what the scene is. If you've cast it properly, there's really no wrong answer. I know from experience, if you've done more than two takes, you're probably not going to get something that you want. The best takes are the first and the second, when they're really just going by the seat of their pants. They don't have any result in mind. There's some just really funny, interesting stuff coming up.
Why is there so little actual sex in the film?
Well here's my thinking about that. I'm operating under the assumption that not all fantasies are purely sexual. For instance, let's make a generalization. Men, since this is a film about a woman, men fantasizing about a mainstream actress that's in mainstream commercial movies, and they have a fantasy about seeing them in sexual situations because they never get to. So they're fantasizing about the thing that they don't get. I'm trying to invert that. Now we're dealing with someone in Sasha, who with a double click, you can see in pretty much any sexual situation you can imagine. The thing that you aren't getting from that is a sense of what it's like to be emotionally intimate with her and spend time with her and be her boyfriend. I'm going on the premise that there's a fantasy that works in that direction.