Steven Soderbergh tonight unveils what he says is his final feature film Behind The Candelabra. The film explores the secret father/son/lover relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his valet Scott Thorson. It’s playing in competition here at Cannes, even though HBO will premiere it in the U.S. on Sunday before it gets a traditional overseas theatrical release. If that seems complex, it fits Soderbergh, a true maverick who has always been up for putting himself on the line for disruptive, groundbreaking fare. That began with sex, lies, and videotape. The movie won the Audience Award at Sundance and the Palme d’Or at Cannes before grossing nearly $25 million in 1989 and earning him an original screenplay Oscar nom. It is viewed as the picture that turned indie film into a viable business. “He is the father of this movement,” said Harvey Weinstein, who distributed the film. “Before him, there was no independent movie that did more than $5 million. This was the one that went out, almost wide, in the summer — where they said these films could not play — and broke the art house ghetto.” An Oscar (for directing Traffic) later, and a career that spanned every genre and enterprising release strategy (he aroused the ire of theater owners by road testing the day-and-date release platform that is now a Sundance deal staple), the 50-year-old Soderbergh talks with Deadline about Behind The Candelabra, indie economics and more.
DEADLINE: All week, I’ve heard people here debate whether Michael Douglas and Matt Damon will lose possible Oscar nominations because the film plays first on HBO, before a more traditional international theatrical rollout. You intended it originally to be an indie feature. Explain the gyrations that ended up with this unusual release strategy.
SODERBERGH: We were trying to get the last $5 million to finish it off. The movie cost $22 million and change. We’d raised $18 million foreign and we just needed this piece. Superficially it would seem like a no-brainer, but when you look at the realities of the economics of putting a movie into wide release, you have to gross $65 million-$75 million just to get out. People just didn’t have that appetite for this kind of material.
DEADLINE: How different were things back when you conceived it as an indie and took several years to get to it and get a script by Richard LaGravanese?
SODERBERGH: There’s no question in my mind that if it had been five years earlier that we’d probably would have gotten it. But the pressure has gotten so extreme. I talk to people at the studios about it all the time. Somebody told me last week that they are doing a better job controlling movie costs but that marketing costs keep moving at a trajectory faster than everything else. Another terrifying thing is, you used to be able to bank on stars. If you had certain elements in a certain kind of movie, you could bank on doing X. Now you are guaranteed nothing.
DEADLINE: On global summer tentpoles, studios routinely use $125 million as the given in the mathematical theorem of what it costs to launch these films. Is there no way to bring down that massive number?
SODERBERGH: I know they’ve tried to figure this out because it’s killing them, but I haven’t seen a Nate Silver-like systemic analysis of what an ad dollar does, exactly.
DEADLINE: TV spends seem very inefficient for their high cost.
SODERBERGH: Yeah, but nobody wants to be the first to challenge that, which is weird to me because it would be groundbreaking for somebody to be the one who goes, “I’m capping this at $15 million.” They’re afraid, and yet they lose all the time, doing the thing they always do. It’s an extreme brand of loss aversion. It’s just frustrating because the trickle-down effect is, creatively, things are getting narrower. We did one bold thing on Magic Mike. I had this conversation with Danny Feldman at Warner Bros, when I asked things like, “On a $25 million spend, what does that last $8 million get you?” He says, “We don’t really know.” But Danny said, and I’m sure people all over town who love this will be screaming, but Danny said, “I’ve never seen any evidence that outdoor does anything. How would you guys feel if we did no outdoor and took that $3 million and put it into more spots.” And we said, “Great.” We didn’t do any outdoor, at all.
DEADLINE: It doesn’t seem to have hurt you at all. Didn’t you and Channing Tatum finance that movie by not taking your fees to become an investor like Todd Phillips did in The Hangover?
SODERBERGH: I don’t know what Todd did exactly, but Channing and I split the negative 50-50. When he called me two years ago and said was I interested, I said there was only one way. You and I are going to pay for it, we’re not talking to anybody else, and we’re in preproduction tomorrow because we have to start shooting the day after Labor Day because that’s the slot that I’ve got and you’ve got. I flew to Cannes four weeks later and sold enough territories to cover us. Cash was coming out of our pocket, but at least on paper we were somewhat covered. That’s how we did it.
DEADLINE: Todd Phillips made one of the great director paydays on The Hangover. Is Magic Mike the most you’ve ever made on a film?
SODERBERGH: It will be, I think. It certainly ought to be.
DEADLINE: What does that say about taking entrepreneurial risk when the business is shifting like it is?
SODERBERGH: It’s hard for me to use this as an example people should follow. I knew that as ideas go that this was Halley’s Comet. I just knew Channing in a stripper movie, that’s gold. I wouldn’t do that all the time. I had to borrow money from my accountant in the last month of post. To hold up my end, it took everything I had. I didn’t get out the second mortgages, but it took every dollar I had in the bank. I knew it was coming back, but it was embarrassing to have to go to my accountant and say I need some money. Especially since he was the one who said, “Are you sure you wanna do this?”
DEADLINE: At the risk of sounding crass, I watched Behind The Candelabra and found myself stopping several times and saying, “Here are two Oscar-winning stars, heterosexual icons, and they are gaying it up like nobody’s business.” You directed what for my money remains the most romantic sex scene with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight, and this was more delicate. Explain how you have such a knack for getting actors to invest in the intimacy to make scenes like this so convincing and memorable?
SODERBERGH: It starts with the writing. As faithful as we were to the book that was Scott Thorson’s take on the relationship, there were places where Richard LaGravanese had to expand things Scott said. Sometimes Scott would be very specific about dialogue, and sometimes he would just say, “We had a conversation about X.” Richard’s act of prestidigitation was remarkable. He deepened the scenes and made them emotional. In addition to being physically intimate, they needed to be emotionally intimate and those conversations were very personal, the kind that people who are in serious relationships have eventually. If you ask Michael and Matt, they would say it was all there, in the script. They understood what was demanded, that it would have been an insult to the people we are portraying and to gay people in general, if we express any kind of outside-looking-in attitude, if we were winking at it or conveying anything that was insulting. They both were just so unselfconscious. The goal was to show behavior that would be taking place if there was not a camera present, and that’s what they did. But I was aware that it was so … naked emotionally and intimate. But the big moment to me was right after the most explicit sex scene, where you’ve got Jason Bourne on top of Gordon Gekko. And the B side to that is a hard cut right after to Michael, there with a cigarette, taking this long beat and saying, “I always wanted children.” Those things next to each other made me feel like, Wow! They’re 18 inches apart, naked in bed, with Michael basically telling Matt he loves him, he wants to help get him a house, and wants them to be family. That’s very intense, and they were all there.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you build that trust over time. You’ve worked often with Matt, and Michael did some daring things as the drug czar with an addict daughter in Traffic. In the wrong director’s hands, this could have damaged them by coming off as caricature or farce, and if you hadn’t known what you wanted specifically.
SODERBERGH: They knew they had to be Thelma And Louise and jumping off the cliff or it doesn’t play. While we were shooting, Michael was funny. He’d say, “Matt is the age I was when I made Fatal Attraction, and I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near something like this back then.” What I love about Michael, though, is how he is never the hero when he tells a story. Any story that Michael will tell you about himself is like this one: He says, “Once I got off a plane in Brazil, press all around, and I made a gesture with my hand like that [it approximates the symbol for ‘OK’] and the press went silent. I turn to the guy next me and said, ‘What did I do?’ And he said, ‘Well, you just told everyone that sexually, you like it from behind.’” Any story he tells is about him making huge mistakes. My experience with Michael as an actor creatively is that he never expresses any sense of anything to protect.
DEADLINE: The point he made about Matt is valid, though. What does it say about Matt that he’s willing to do this after Jason Bourne, at an age when Michael did Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct and had a brand to protect?
SODERBERGH: It makes you understand the difference between a movie star and an actor. A movie star has something to protect and an actor doesn’t. Matt has walked this really fascinating line, taking creative chances and at the same time finding a way to be in movies that are hugely successful. I think he likes both. I think he loved making those Bourne movies.
DEADLINE: You wanted to make a Liberace movie before you knew what the movie was. At the finish line, what is your estimation of the guy?
SODERBERGH: I think I would have had a blast hanging out with him. He seemed like one of these people who wanted to have fun from the moment he got up in the morning to the moment he passed out at night. Jerry Weintraub obviously knew him well and Michael knew him a bit and Debbie Reynolds knew him very well. I couldn’t find anybody to say anything negative about him, just that he was a blast. I would have loved his show just the sheer…
DEADLINE: Gaudiness and theatricality?
SODERBERGH: This guy invented bling. I would have totally appreciated that. If I’d gotten any sense in the research that he was cynical about what he did, or that he mocked the people that came to his shows, I couldn’t have made the movie. I don’t want to make a film about a cynical artist. In fact, he created the show that he would want to see. And the other thing that fascinated me was this dichotomy of off-the-chart technical skill and flamboyant, gaudy spectacle that masked his extraordinary keyboard playing. Marvin Hamlisch said, “Technically, I never saw anybody as good,” and Marvin saw him 10 times. I like that part and that he did it beneath this show. But I spent six or seven years trying to figure a way into this, and hitting a wall and feeling like it would be this ’40s biopic that I didn’t want to do. After telling a writer friend I wanted to do this but didn’t know how, he said, “You don’t know about the Thorson book?” That solved everything. Matt becomes the proxy for the audience, like Alice. We follow him down the rabbit hole and suddenly we had a structure, a time and period, and especially the arc of a relationship.
DEADLINE: This is no picture postcard to Liberace. He pushed Thorson to remake himself as a young Liberace with plastic surgery, then discarded him. Not flattering to the piano player.
SODERBERGH: It was a perfect storm of events. The old/young thing, the power Lee had in show business, Scott’s lack of power, and his getting into a relationship after being broken in some way by his father abandoning him and Scott being a foster child. In spite of all that happened, there was a real, actual, loving, serious relationship buried somewhere in there that got smothered. In the movie, they were fat and happy after a couple years, and then Liberace sees himself on Johnny Carson, and the surgery started and there was this fascinating domino effect.
DEADLINE: There is symmetry to you bringing this to Cannes, if it is in fact the end of your career. Your rise started in Sundance with sex, lies, & videotape, which then won the Palme d’Or. That film had everything to do with transforming art house films into a viable business. What is the good and bad of what has happened in the years following?
SODERBERGH: My biggest concern is that it’s gone back to being a small thing. What was unusual about sex, lies, comparatively speaking, is it made a lot of money at a time when independent films weren’t making a lot of money. At that point a $25 million gross on an independent film was just unlikely. I don’t feel we were the first; you look at Joseph E. Levine, who raised money, created AVCO Embassy, made The Graduate, and A Bridge Too Far by cobbling together presales and putting casts together as a producer. Ours made a lot of money, though, and it sort of changed the way people looked at those kinds of movies. My Left Foot came out a couple months later, and then Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. My concern now is that it is really just so hard now for a specialty film, an art house movie, to break out.
SODERBERGH: Largely because of the cost of putting the movie out. I remember seeing a statement that we’d spent $1.5 million to promote sex, lies. I was like, that’s outrageous! Now, the competition for eyeballs is so intense from other movies, from television, from the internet, that it’s really difficult to take an out-of-the-blue, true art house movie from a young filmmaker, one that doesn’t have elements, and be able to nurture it over months to maybe 600 theaters or more. Nobody has the time or resources to pull that off now. I saw Margin Call, twice in 36 hours, and thought, why isn’t that as big as sex, lies? I watched it with my wife, and we ordered it again two days later. I just thought that movie was great. Why didn’t that gross $25 million?
DEADLINE: Proponents of multiplatform day-and-date release companies would argue it did the equivalent, because they saved all those P&A costs.
SODERBERGH: They did OK, I just don’t understand why it wasn’t bigger. Until they take the time to do some deep analysis of why people are going to see what they’re going to see, I don’t know how to address this issue.
DEADLINE: You were on the front end of the day-and-date stuff when you made The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble. You prompted cautionary comments from John Fithian and theater owners who were terrified you would hurt the moviegoing business. Margin Call was the first real day-and-date success. Did you get your head handed to you?
SODERBERGH: They weren’t happy. John and I are trying to see each other soon, just to talk about this type of stuff. I’m sympathetic to the theater owners and the pressure they’re under. But for a certain kind of movie, the traditional theatrical model is almost impossible. There needs to be some other avenue to get Margin Call seen. On Bubble, especially, there was a design flaw in our experiment; none of the major chains would book us, even though we offered to cut them in on the VOD revenue. The idea was too threatening, so we were limited to Landmark screens. We couldn’t go wider than 75 screens. The idea was to test the principle that people in markets not traditionally reached by these films could see the film they were reading about. We didn’t really get to see if it would work or not. We did much better on GFE than Bubble, and it did kind of work.
DEADLINE: Well, it had a more titillating, “oh I gotta see this” vibe that these films require to rise above the din.
SODERBERGH: Well, there were more sale-able elements to that movie. I can certainly understand NATO’s breaking out in hives at the idea of a studio saying, “OK, on The Lone Ranger we’re going to do a $60 pay-per-view premiere window, a week before the movie opens, in hi-def.” If I was NATO, I’d say: “What the fuck are you thinking? Someone will shoot that film off a TV, in HD, and we’re dead.” I get it — piracy is a huge problem.
DEADLINE: I recently asked Quentin Tarantino about when it is time for a director to retire …
SODERBERGH: Everyone is jumping on my bandwagon! Phillip Roth too. Quentin. Kevin Smith has floated it.
DEADLINE: He said he’ll continue as long as his audience believes his next movie is capable of being his best movie. Maybe it isn’t, but it could be. That is when he quits. What is your own rationale in stepping away?
SODERBERGH: When you get more than a couple of directors around each other and more than a couple of drinks in them, it’s the first subject that comes up. Nobody wants to be that person, about whom it’s said, “Wow! He really fell off there at the end.” None of us want to be that, and we’ve seen it happen to a couple of our heroes. None of us want to be talked about like that. So it’s a very sensitive issue for this generation of filmmakers.
DEADLINE: How do you protect against it?
SODERBERGH: It’s combination of self-analysis and reading the room. Being ego-less. It’s tricky. You need enough ego to navigate a touchy, very, intense, competitive business like this and at the same time stand outside of it and go, “Am I just running in place here? Have I hit a wall and am not getting better, and maybe worse?” I use to joke with my producer Greg Jacobs: “Dude, when I start falling off, you gotta be the guy with the rifle when I go out to get the paper. It will be over like that!” I don’t want to drag on past my moment. I don’t think any of us do. It’s hard because it’s the best job in the world. And yet you love the art form so much and respect it so much, you don’t want to feel like, to use the sports analogy, you don’t want to be taking up a position that should be utilized by a younger, better player. I don’t want to be that guy.
DEADLINE: What do you most love about directing?
SODERBERGH: When the solution arrives, however it arrives. When the problem is being solved in front of you, by you or someone else, and you can suddenly see the next 12 moves and you’re just in a hurry to execute it. That’s fun. Try standing on a film set with 150 people and you’re stuck and they’re looking at you because you’re supposed to be the guy with the answer. And when it comes, it’s the most exhilarating thing.
DEADLINE: After you got fired off Moneyball days before production began, it seemed you changed the way you made subsequent movies, down to how they were financed. How did a blow like that impact what happened after?
SODERBERGH: To my mind, you have to do two things when that happens. You have to spend 72 hours doing self-criticism, analyzing how that happened and “what role did I play in this?” You have to take your emotions out of it, take that 30,000-foot view. How do I keep this from happening again, because it is not an ideal outcome. Then, I had to go to work; I had 50 people who thought they were going to make that movie and we have to find something. It took awhile for things to play out, but I can tell you there was good news. If Moneyball hadn’t blown up, I don’t meet Channing Tatum. And I am really glad I did.
DEADLINE: How did one spark the other?
SODERBERGH: We did Haywire with Gina Carano, I met Channing there, and we were off and running. If Moneyball hadn’t fallen apart, we don’t make Haywire and I’m glad we did; I’m glad for all the relationships that followed, and I’m glad for Magic Mike. You just can’t let anything slow you down.
DEADLINE: Didn’t you also put a priority on financing strategies that gave you more security?
SODERBERGH: I started thinking like that awhile ago, after The Good German. I came out of that thinking, “I gotta be a lot smarter about this algorithm of the idea, the cost of executing it, and the potential audience.” Because I clearly got that one way the fuck wrong, and it’s not fun to spend a couple of years on something nobody goes to see. Maybe it was too strange an idea to pull off at all, because I look back and even if I made it for $12 million, we still lose it all. Whereas if I’d found something else and made it 40% cheaper, it would have been profitable. You always have to weigh the accessibility of the idea against the cost of executing it properly. I try to be aware of that. That’s why that Leni Reifenstahl movie Scott Burns and I were going to do, at the last minute I said, “I don’t want to do this.”
DEADLINE: You could do that movie on HBO.
SODERBERGH: Too obvious.
DEADLINE: So I can’t talk you out of this? You’re really closing the chapter on movies, and retiring?
SODERBERGH: Closing one chapter to open another? Yeah. For the foreseeable future, the movie door is closed.