Most interviews during a film festival like TIFF are mad, sloppy affairs: 10- or, more likely, seven-minute sit-downs in a hotel suite buzzing with handlers. But like many Hollywood games, Steven Sodbergh doesn’t play that way. Insisting on conversations of at least 45 minutes, the director is a harried film journalist’s dream. If time is indeed money, then Soderbergh spends freely – almost as much as, say, Netflix, which is responsible for the director’s latest film, The Laundromat, which is itself concerned with the almighty dollar.
The dark comedy, a sort of Big Short for the Panama Papers scandal, traces the financial misdeeds of an international law firm during the course of several vignettes, each segment equipped with a lesson (Chapter One: The Meek are Screwed) and a handful of famous faces, including Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas and Meryl Streep again (more on that later). During Soderbergh’s visit to TIFF last month, the director met with The Globe’s Barry Hertz for an in-depth discussion on money, secrets and Netflix.
The Panama Papers scandal, and the book this film is based on by Jake Bernstein, isn’t obvious comedic material. But I guess neither is the story of whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, which you explored in The Informant!
Nor is nuclear proliferation, but [screenwriter Scott Z. Burns] and I talked about Dr. Strangelove a lot here, and using comedy as the Trojan horse of what you really want to talk about. When people are laughing, they’re more open to taking on an idea than when they’re not. If we can entertain people and amuse them, then we can throw a lot of information at them and maybe some of it will stick. We talked about The Informant! a bit, and how this was a cousin to that, but we were pushing the attitude of that film even further. It’s more stylized, more theatrical and it requires using more creative muscles. This was a full-on thing, and called upon everything I’ve learned in the last four or five years, both about the world and my job. We were grinding this thing to make it as pure as possible. There’s 35 minutes of edited material that’s not in the film. The good thing was that we had the support of Netflix, and they’ve been superenthusiastic about it.
Unlike High Flying Bird, which was acquired by Netflix, this was produced by them. Was it much of a different experience working with them from the beginning?
Most of our conversations were about casting, as they usually are. And as we were getting close to locking the picture, [Netflix’s head of original film] Scott Stuber and I were going back and forth on structural things, and they had a noticeable impact on the movie. I don’t need the people on the other side of the table to solve my problems for me, but when somebody says, “I’m bumping on this,” I take that seriously. It’s my job to figure out why they’re bumping and how to get rid of that bump. I like that back and forth. I’m not a “don’t-talk-to-me, leave-me-alone” artist.
Has that process become easier for you deeper into your career?
No, never. The way I describe it is, in the land of ideas, you're always renting. You could be evicted at any moment. There's no ownership. But what I have tried to do is optimize that process as much as I can, to streamline it. It can be terrible, and I've gotten notes that are just horrible. But you need to stress-test certain ideas, and then sometimes, the DNA of the thing is the problem, and that can't be solved. And that's terrifying.
Has that ever come up for you?
The Good German is an example. In terms of execution, that’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to being exactly what I had in my mind before we started. But it’s possibly the most hated thing I’ve ever made. The flaw in that was thinking that making a “What If...?” movie would be compelling to audience. As in, what if in 1945 there was no Hays Code and you could make a movie then with all the freedom you have today? Turns out, I was the only person who was interested in that question.
When talking about casting with Netflix, was the discussion centred on Streep?
In this case, we had her first before Netflix. She continues to be that much of an economic force because this movie was green-lit because of her, and not me. I was upset with myself that I waited 29 years to work with her. Why didn’t I try to call this woman right after Sex, Lies, and Videotape? She’s incredibly efficient, in the sense that she doesn’t burn any calories on things that don’t matter unless you’re rolling. Everything else is cleaved away. There’s no entourage, it’s just her. We’ve already shot another movie together [HBO’s Let Them All Talk].
When that film was announced – as in you revealed that it had already been shot aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner – it felt like another one of your secret projects just getting revealed. Do you have this desire to surprise people?
I’m just not somebody who goes around announcing what they’re doing – I just go do it. And I’m happy for it not to be known about until as late as possible. It benefits the film. It’s a lot easier when these films are self-financed, because then you don’t have to talk to anyone. For Let Them All Talk, I don’t think a legitimate company would’ve signed off on it, either. It would have been a conversation like: “Let me get this clear: you’re going to shoot a movie on an actual ship as it crosses the Atlantic, with real passengers on-board and shoot 10 pages a day, and it’ll be fine?” Most people would think that’s crazy. But we had the crew who worked in similarly aggressive circumstances, and we had the experience to pull this off.
Back to The Laundromat, there’s the framing device of having Oldman and Banderas’s lawyer characters act as audience guides throughout the movie. How early on did you decide on that approach?
That's how it started, with Scott and I having this discussion about the beginning and ending and how they're mirrors of each other, except in the last one, the mirror gets turned around toward the audience and the filmmaker. We reverse-engineered this movie between those two pillars.
So there’s the flip that happens with one of the two characters that Streep plays, when you reveal that the actress has not only been in the main role of this Midwest widow investigating insurance fraud, but also a Spanish secretary at the Panama law office. What do you view that as a commentary on? The artifice of the whole process? Because when I was watching, I could see the argument that Meryl is playing a Spanish woman, and accusations of brownface.
I knew somebody would bring that up, but it’s so clear to me what the purpose of that is, and the architecture of the plot that it has to be Meryl [playing the second role]. But it also can’t be Meryl – she has to be disguised. The last shot in the movie doesn’t work if she’s not playing that part. But I knew somebody was going to complain. If you see the movie, and you don’t understand why that has to be that way, then I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a comedy. Comedies deal in the tropes of cliché, stereotypes. It’s a comedy existing in a very specific comedic context. So are we German-washing, or Kraut-washing, by giving Gary that accent? At a certain point, I have to say that this is what we’re doing here. The other thing is, when Meryl takes off that disguise, she’s not brown. She’s Meryl. We didn’t paint her. But I knew as soon as Meryl showed me, “Here’s where I think I’m going to go with this,” I said, “That’s hilarious, and I’ll take the heat. Let me take the heat on that. Somebody is going to complain about this.”
What do you mean, “where she wanted to go with this...”?
She showed me this kind of wig, this prosthetic, these glasses, and said, “I want to go full-on disguise.” It’s this really tricky thing; I want her to be in some disguise, but I want you to feel that something’s up with her. That’s why she has to play that part. And there are all these demands that have to be met that require her to play that part that way. So be it.
The film ends with a call to action, as in you tell audiences that it’s time to start asking questions of their government, their business leaders. Do you think anything will change?
I think something has to be done or this whole thing we’re doing to each other is going to get demonstrably worse soon. This economic structure cannot sustain, where essentially less than 50 people control half the world’s wealth. The only solution is to demand transparency, to make it harder for people to do this stuff. What’s fascinating is what’s going on in Hong Kong right now, and to see how long that protest is sustained and what it accomplishes.
The China-set vignette in the film is interesting as well, in that exploration of corrupt systems.
I’m fascinated by China, and watching them try to navigate their own future. The one thing that they’re able to do that we’re not is they can make a radical turn on a dime if they want to solve a problem. That’s what makes them scary – they can just go, “Tomorrow, we’re driving on this side of the road.” And it’s going to happen overnight. That’s the kind of fluidity you need to solve a big problem, and we can’t move that quickly, which is why we’re in the mess we’re in. But this movie is never going to show there ... All right, who else can we offend?
Well, I was just getting to that: The Laundromat closes with a note about huge corporations that didn’t pay corporate taxes last year. According to various reports, Netflix didn’t pay federal or state income tax in 2018. How do you feel about this being a Netflix production?
Here’s what I said to them: “You better have something prepared for this, because I don’t think you want me speaking for you guys.” I don’t know what it is, but somebody should ask [Netflix’s chief content officer] Ted Sarandos what’s up with that. I certainly don’t know how Netflix operates financially, and it’s not clear to me that people who work there know how Netflix operates financially. Maybe they do, but it’s not clear to me what the master plan is. From the outside, it’s very mysterious. But they didn’t seem hesitant at all about [The Laundromat]. I don’t know what they’re doing, but I encourage you to put on your Sy Hersh hat and see if you can get somebody to tell you something, because they’re not telling me anything. It’s not very transparent, and that’s weird.
[Writer’s note: Asked for comment, a Netflix spokesman said that the company “paid federal, state and foreign incomes taxes in 2018.” The company’s 2018 Form 10-K, an annual report required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, notes that the company paid US$131-million in income taxes worldwide that year; previous reports stating that the company paid no income taxes might have been looking at the “current tax provision” for U.S. federal income taxes of negative $22-million, implying a refund, not taxes paid.]
Does that lack of transparency bother you?
I just think it’s weird. It would bother me if I felt I was getting screwed, if I felt there was fraudulent behaviour, but I’ve done multiple things with them, and they’ve always been very straightforward. It’d be interesting to know what’s happening below the surface, just because I’m interested in systems, how their business works. I know what you know in that they say they’re spending this much on content, their subscription rate is X. So you have some basic pieces, but I don’t know how it all fits together or what the five-year plan is. Of course, you could say that about almost every company right now.
This conversation has been condensed and edited
With files from David Milstead
The Laundromat opens Oct. 4 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, Oct. 11 in Vancouver and Edmonton, and Oct. 18 on Netflix