Skip to main content
screen time
Open this photo in gallery:

Steven Soderbergh speaks during a news conference in Berlin, in February 2018.STEFANIE LOOS/AFP/Getty Images

Thirty years ago, Steven Soderbergh brought Sex, Lies, and Videotape to the Sundance Film Festival and everything changed. Not only for the then-26-year-old director, who won the festival’s audience award for his debut feature, but for the modern independent-film landscape. Acting as a sort of “big bang” for indie filmmakers, as Peter Biskind would write in his 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was so successful – grossing 36 times its tiny US$1-million budget – that the industry realized there was money to be made in small, intimate, idiosyncratic filmmaking. At least, for a while.

Today, it’s doubtful that Sex, Lies, and Videotape would be released theatrically, let alone receive the exposure necessary to net US$36-million at the box office. But it might just find an audience on Netflix, which is where Soderbergh is currently making his home. Later this year, the streaming giant will release the director’s The Laundromat, a thriller about the Panama Papers scandal. And this past weekend, Netflix unveiled High Flying Bird, a dialogue-heavy drama about the inner workings of the NBA that is just as radical as Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Shot for only US$2-million on an iPhone, and featuring little basketball action to speak of, the movie is emblematic of Soderbergh’s career-long desire to experiment with both sides of the filmmaking equation: production and distribution.

The day before High Flying Bird was released to Netflix’s 139 million subscribers worldwide, Soderbergh spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz for an in-depth conversation on Hollywood, innovation, and failure.

Open this photo in gallery:

André Holland in High Flying Bird.Photo by Peter Andrews/Courtesy of Netflix

Like the last time we spoke, the condition was that you’d only talk if it was for at least 45 minutes. That’s a good half-hour more than arts journalists get with most anybody today.

That is for my sanity as much as yours. When I re-emerged around the Out of Sight period and started making films that people knew the names of again, I found that the traditional publicity mill approach where they shuttle journalists in every few minutes, was a very specific form of psychological torture. Nobody was being served. I didn’t get the chance to really talk, and the people I was talking with didn’t get a lot of new material. So I started making these rules. Plus no television in the United States. If I do TV outside the United States, it’s 20 minutes minimum. No portraits, where I sit for a photograph. I’m trying to maintain the ability to go places and not be recognized –that’s not helpful to me. What is helpful for me is to be able to go out and observe people, and add to my catalogue of human behaviour. But generally this is a very small part of my existence.

Has this policy changed at all after the experience you had with Logan Lucky and Unsane, where you tried to experiment with marketing?

No. I’ve always felt it’s potentially dangerous if you’re a filmmaker, if you’re me, to participate actively in the construction of yourself as a brand. This is why I don’t want to be the face of whatever movie I’ve directed. People get tired of brands. I want the movie to be what they’re interested in. Now, if you hang around long enough there’s going to be a small sliver of an audience who might go see something because you did it. I see filmmakers who are comfortable being out in front of it and being a brand, but I couldn’t do it. I feel like that there’s only way that could go, which is down.

So much of the industry is run on brand awareness, though. I take comfort that there’s still a strong enough director brand out there, such as a Tarantino or a Nolan, as opposed to an intellectual-property brand such as Marvel.

That’s true, at least it’s a human. But it’s a double-edged sword, because the bigger you become as a name, the more activated people become to go after you. Christopher Nolan handles it pretty well. People go to see his movies because they’re Chris Nolan movies, but he’s not out doing talk shows. He has no desire to perform for people.

Open this photo in gallery:

Daniel Craig in Logan Lucky.Entertainment One

When you announced your retirement in 2013, was it because you felt you had to do that: perform?

That was more me being frustrated with the movie businesses. When I finally went back to work on The Knick, I realized, oh, I love directing, I just don’t love the businesses. The Knick proved to be a great reset for me. It got me re-engaged with my job, and directing is the job I should be doing. Nobody is waiting around to see my paintings. I promise that if I retire again, the announcement will be accompanied by a series of tweets that are so offensive, it will be impossible for me to go back to work.

How much of High Flying Bird was informed by what you wanted to do with Moneyball? [Soderbergh was set to direct the baseball drama, but the project was pulled days before shooting by Sony Entertainment; it was later directed by Bennett Miller.]

I think superficially people might assume, “Oh, he’s finally going to make his sports movie.” But they’re completely different things. Moneyball was about objective analysis of data and whether or not there was an irrationality at play that was creating an inefficiency. That’s not what High Flying Bird is about, which is the commodification of professional athletes, African-American athletes in particular. Those were two different ways into the sports movie.

And that idea for High Flying Bird started with you and [star André Holland, who also starred on The Knick]?

It was me and André, and then he pulled in [Moonlight playwright] Tarell Alvin McCraney. André and I came up with the basic frame, which is: It’s six months into a basketball lockout, it’s hyper-verbal and has a Sweet Smell of Success kind of attitude. Then the three of us spent a day creating a rudimentary beat sheet, and Tarell went away and sent us stuff when he had it. What you see is what he wrote. He did all the work. The only version of this that’s easier is a spec script showing up on your doorstep that you didn’t know existed.

Open this photo in gallery:

(From left) Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson and Daniel Craig in Logan Lucky.Claudette Barius/Entertainment One

Was there discussion between you, André and Tarell about you being a middle-aged white guy directing a movie about black athletes working in a system owned by middle-aged white guys?

I broached that when the script came in, and asked, “What do you think the optics are of me directing this?” They both said they assumed I was going to do it, and they wanted me to. But I was very conscious of that narrative potentially, and needed to know that André and Tarell were willing to provide cover for me and support me doing it. If they hadn’t said that, I would’ve absolutely stepped aside and just been a producer on it.

You shot this first, and then it was acquired by Netflix. Was that your hope while making it?

Pretty much. In a pure theatrical world, it’s a specialty film. It would’ve gotten a standard, slow platform release, and it’s arguably a movie that doesn’t have foreign value theatrically. Being able to put it everywhere in the world at once was a better move.

Why were you initially against theatrical exhibition for it?

I was, until I got convinced that, for instance, if somebody decided that after The Laundromat comes out this fall, which I’m sure Netflix will do some theatrical release for, you could have someone reverse-engineer that and say, “Oh, why does the Meryl Streep movie get to go theatres and the André Holland one doesn’t?” I don’t need to be legitimized by being in theatres, but I see how it could be a bad look.

Open this photo in gallery:

Polly McKie, left, and Claire Foy in Unsane.Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street

You’ve never had that do-or-die theatrical mentality, have you?

I've always been agnostic about where people see the thing, as long as they see it. When I was growing up, there was a giant gap in experience between watching something at home and going to a movie theatre. That doesn't exist any more.

With two movies coming out on Netflix this year, what are your thoughts about the company being notoriously cagey with audience data? I’ve talked with filmmakers who don’t even know how many people are watching their work.

For the time being, I’m of the mind that if they are happy enough to want to keep going, and they pay for it, then why would I have a problem with that? Let’s say High Flying Bird drops Friday, and I get a call next week from Netflix saying they’re very happy about the viewership. Should I demand more details? They paid for it, they bought it; if they’re happy, fine. There’s no back end for me, they bought the film in perpetuity. What do I care?

It’s interesting to contrast that with even a few years ago, when filmmakers would very much be judged on opening weekends, in terms of being able to set up their next project.

I'm sure there's still a version of that. If I were to make four films for Netflix to decreasing viewership, that would be relevant.

This is your second feature shot with an iPhone, after last year’s Unsane. Is this your tool of choice going forward?

No, but it was the right tool for those two movies. Later this year, we’ll see a capture device the size of your phone, but with a full-size 35 mm-style sensor in which you can use selective focus and zoom lenses, and all the toys you get with a quote-unquote normal camera. That’s going to be gigantic for filmmakers.

Open this photo in gallery:

Unsane was shot with an iPhone.Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street

Recently, you spoke about the failure of experimenting with marketing and distribution for Logan Lucky and Unsane, and you said, “the studios were right about everything.” How difficult a realization was that for you to come to?

It wasn’t difficult at all, because the evidence was pretty empirical. I’m not someone to stare reality in the face and pretend it’s not happening. I liked making those movies, but as soon as it became clear it wasn’t working – that you need more marketing money – I put it in the rear-view mirror.

On Logan Lucky, could you offer clarification on the case of screenwriter Rebecca Blunt? There was the Hollywood Reporter story when the movie opened that speculated the first-time screenwriter was either yourself, or your wife [Jules Asner]. Who is Rebecca Blunt?

Rebecca Blunt is Rebecca Blunt. I think she's content to be out of the conversation. I know that she's working on another script, but not for me.

Well, she doesn’t have any forthcoming credits listed

Because she's writing on spec. I hope I get to see it. But she's out there. I only pushed back on that stuff then to the extent that for people who thought it was me, I wanted to make clear that it was not me. That it was a woman and she wrote that script on her own.

Before you have to go, I have to ask about Bill and Ted Face the Music, which you’re executive producing.

Oh my god, I'm so excited. The last I heard is that the money is secured, and the start date is early June. The script is hilarious, and everybody is doing it for the right reasons. All the money is going on the screen. They're doing this because they want to close this thing out in a big way.

This interview has been condensed and edited

High Flying Bird is available to stream now on Netflix

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe