CHE—Interview With Steven Soderbergh
As a long-time admirer of Steven Soderbergh's unique genius as a maverick filmmaker, I was one of the many who thronged to see the roadshow edition of Che at its Toronto International screening, and—despite considerable distraction at the festival—felt compelled to write Che up right away (here). I've since seen it as well in its theatrical version, which caused me to grumble about the cuts that had been made to shorten its length when Michael Hawley announced IFC's decision to extend the traveling roadshow to San Francisco, where it is currently playing at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema.
Despite Mick LaSalle's anemic (if not insulting) miscomprehension of the film in his "review" for the San Francisco Chronicle, this is a cinematic experience not to be missed, whether afterwards you weigh in favorably or not. As a respectful aside, let me be quick to assert that it is LaSalle's fearlessness to foist an opinion that makes his reviews readable, even if often laughable. But let me also caution that at a time when San Francisco is experiencing the diminishment of its ethnic diversity in favor of a commodified demographic, LaSalle scores no points with me as a Chicano by asserting: "To be specific, it's possible to watch all four hours and 17 minutes of this picture and still not be sure why Soderbergh told this man's story, why he thought it was worth such epic treatment and why he handled his subject with such glowing veneration. If Soderbergh made as idol-worshiping an epic about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln—actual heroes with tangible, positive legacies—people would gag at the naive treatment. Perhaps with Che, the hope is that audiences might be confused or browbeaten into reverence, into just assuming they're missing something." [Emphasis added.] If anyone's missing anything, it's Mick LaSalle, from the get-go. In his presumption that Che is hagiographic propaganda, he fails to notice that it's not, and for very good reason. Whereas posing the "tangible, positive legacies" of Presidents Washington and Lincoln against revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara is like comparing apples and oranges. Mick LaSalle commits the most grievous of errors possible for a film reviewer, which is to use the holy "we" to guise a misguided personal opinion. He can do better than to guise personal distaste as critical acumen. It's no wonder that the true "we"—audiences—are fed up with film critics who deny them the sovereignty of their own intelligence. Then again, as a film critic, perhaps LaSalle feels he has left more of a "tangible, positive legacy" than the rest of us? We have a word for him in my community: pendejo.
Of course Steven Soderbergh breathes in such contention like fresh air because—as he puts it—it makes the project alive. Contrary to LaSalle's presumptions of hagiography, Soderberg has come to his "biopic" of Che as an admitted agnostic. I believe he should be taken at his word. Shortly before yesterday's premiere of the roadshow, Soderbergh sat down with me at the Prescott Hotel to discuss his controversial diptych.
Michael Guillén: I'm working on an essay to contribute to a volume on film festival culture and the topic I've decided to tackle is that unruly beast: the Q&A session, which I consider to be the flint spark between filmmaker and audience. I'd like to know generally what your experience has been with Q&As and, specifically—because I understand you weathered a somewhat contentious Q&A at your Ziegfield Theatre screening in Manhattan—how the Q&As for Che are going?
Stephen Soderbergh: That's a good place to start because the Q&As for Che have not been like any other Q&As I've ever done; people stand up and yell at you. I love that. I feel like that's at least alive. A lot of times you're either telling people things they already know or they sense and—as I get further into my career—I find it more difficult to describe how I work or how things are done. My question is always, "What are they looking to get out of a Q&A?" Because when I attend a Q&A for another filmmaker—and I've been the person interviewing filmmakers many times—in that case, I try to put myself in the audience's position. I ask the filmmaker questions that I want to know the answers to and I guess that's what an audience is looking for as well.
Guillén: Have you learned from your audiences by such interchange?
Soderbergh: Well, it's always interesting to see what lands with them, what imprints, especially in a movie like Che, because it's not always what you think. They don't always respond in a way that you would anticipate. I'm lucky in the sense that—especially on this film—there's a lot of stuff to talk about that goes beyond the typical, "What's Brad like?" So I've been pretty lucky in that regard. I find the whole thing very odd. I'm not sure if over the past 20 years the extreme level of demystification that's been going on with regard to moviemaking is a good thing or not. I think it's a great thing if you want to make movies—I wish I'd had access as a teenager to the stuff that's out there now—but, for the audience, I can't say that it's a good thing.
Guillén: I'm aware that this coming Monday the Sundance Film Festival will be screening sex, lies & videotape in honor of its vigesimal anniversary. When I first heard that news, it played oddly in my mind. I opened up the first video store in the San Joaquin Valley back in the '80s—which doesn't really seem that long ago—and yet already the VHS cassette is officially dead. It's amazing that within the space of 20 years even the title of your film has become anachronistic.
Soderbergh: Yeah, right.
Guillén: Is there something you're going to present to your Sundance audience to commemorate that 20-year span and your personal impact on indie film making? Any commentary on current reports that indie filmmaking has somewhat capsized or collapsed?
Soderbergh: Well, I haven't seen sex, lies & videotape in a long time so—if I decide to sit through it—that will be an interesting experience. In terms of what Spader's character is focused on, the Internet has made his activity seem positively quaint. Not that the movie was ever designed to be shocking really; but, what you can get in two clicks now makes him look like a Victorian. That will be interesting just to see how that part of the movie comes across. And, of course, the hair.
As for the independent film movement, there's no question that it's contracted. Every time somebody predicts that it's dead, though, a movie pops and sort of resuscitates it. Its coming-back-from-the-grave potential is wired into the DNA of the independent film movement so I never worry about it too much. There was a period a few years ago when I was asked to look at Memento. This was after it had shown in festivals and after every distributor had turned it down. The movie couldn't get released. I went to a screening of it and came out of that screening thinking, "It's over. The independent film movement is over if this movie can't get released." What happened was the financiers formed their own distribution company, put the movie out, and made a lot of money. It became a huge hit and one of those films that revived the movement for a while. So while we're lighting a funeral pyre to the independent film movement, I know there's somebody somewhere in a room making something that six months from now we're going to be talking about. I never really give up on the independent film movement.
Guillén: Yesterday I was talking to Jeffrey Katzenberg about 3-D technology and he was asserting that in the very near future every single movie is going to be in 3-D and everyone will own their individual 3-D sunglasses for watching films in moviehouses. I'm aware that you're bringing out a 3-D movie musical Cleo about the life of Cleopatra?
Soderbergh: Trying, yeah.
Guillén: Has the economy thrown a wrench into the works?
Soderbergh: No, it's actors' schedules. I was going to film it this Spring but it's been pushed into the Fall. I agree with Jeffrey that 3-D technology is going to become a viable tool and an option for filmmakers; but, I don't think every movie is going to be made in 3-D. I might be wrong; but, I don't think so. Still, there's no question that we're going to see real penetration with that format within the next five years.
Guillén: Will you be authoring Cleo in 3-D?
Soderbergh: Oh yeah, yeah. I think it's great. The one thing they haven't sorted out is the cost.
Guillén: It's quite expensive; something like $1.6 million per minute I understand.
Soderbergh: No, I mean the cost of having everybody exhibiting in 3-D. The exhibitors can't afford it and you can't make them pay for it. That changeover is expensive.
Guillén: What I found to be Katzenberg's most persuasive argument, and one I could get behind, is that—with home entertainment systems having developed as much as they have—something needs to be done to draw audiences back into the moviehouses.
Guillén: Which leads me to ask about your strategizing the rather interesting premise of the traveling Che roadshow. I've seen Che now both in the roadshow edition and its theatrical edition and definitely vote for the roadshow—I think Che should be seen all at once—and was disappointed, frankly, that the theatrical release removed the introductory maps. I feel Americans are generally so geographically impaired that the maps served a necessary function in situating the films' narratives.
Soderbergh: They certainly help. But I wanted there to be something about the roadshow that was specific to the roadshow and so that was one of the rewards for sitting in one place for 4½ hours.
Guillén: Along with this lovely program you're offering your roadshow customers. Can you speak to Mary Ellen Mark's contribution to the program?
Soderbergh: As anyone who's into photography knows, she's an icon of her own and I've known who she was since I was taking photographs in high school. Laura Bickford, Che's producer, is a friend of Mary Ellen's and she said to me, "Look, this whole production is such a unique circumstance. We really need to think if there's a way to document it that's as unconventional as the movie." I said, "Yeah, I think there has to be." So Laura said, "Let me call Mary Ellen and see if she'll come out and shoot." She agreed. She did it just to do it. There's no up side for her, really; but, it was a great way to memorialize the experience. To have another artist come in with her own take on what was going on was fascinating for me; just to see what she chose to shoot.
The booklet idea was something that I stole from Francis Ford Coppola. When Apocalypse Now was released in its 70mm engagements, there were no credits and you got a printed program. That became a big collector's item. A buddy of mine has one that I've coveted ever since because I lived in Baton Rouge and I didn't get to see it in that format. But I started thinking, "That's what we should do. We can't have 15 minutes of credits on this thing. I should get waivers so we don't have to put in credits. We'll use Mary Ellen's photographs and do up a really cool special souvenir." People really like it. I've always looked at the roadshow as like going to a concert and that you should have a piece of merchandise to prove that you went to the concert.
Guillén: You've made a personal appearance with the roadshow at the Ziegfield in Manhattan and now here in San Francisco; have you done so elsewhere?
Soderbergh: We open today in nine cities with the roadshow and then I think there's going to be another wave later in the month and I'm sure I'll go somewhere. I've already been to most of the cities where the roadshow is touring to do press.
Guillén: As a Chicano, of course, when I first heard you were helming this project, I was as excited as I was about Julie Taymor directing Frida. Both Frida Kahlo and Che Guevara, along with the Virgin of Guadelupe for that matter, are commodified icons whose iconicity is exactly their idealized advocacy. But I want to be up front about this: when I first saw Che in Toronto, I was surprised by the fact that I didn't get emotional watching it. Some critics have disparaged the film as "cold"—which I think is being used too harshly—but, I am intrigued by the film's temperate sensibility. If I think about films by, let's say, such directors as Ron Howard or Clint Eastwood, I consider them "hot" films in the sense that they are emotionally manipulative and nearly formulaic in how they intentionally push all the right buttons to provoke all the right emotions. Che, by contrast, feels completely different for being emotionally distant. Can you talk about why you took it in that direction?
Soderbergh: Because—based on all the research—that was the feeling that I got of him, even from people that were close to him. I felt it would have been—not only a mistake—but, immoral to present him differently than my impression of him, which was that—from his writing and from people who knew him—Che was distant.
Guillén: And yet his humanity came into play for me by discovering he was an asthmatic, which I didn't know. As an asthmatic myself, I'm aware of how complicated that can be.
Soderbergh: And completely debilitating! No, his humanity is in the fact that he got up every day and did what he did. So, yeah, right, the movie is not about feelings. It's not. And that's a problem for a lot of people.
Guillén: I read in your recent Esquire interview that one of the things you most appreciated about Che Guevara was precisely his work ethic, which is commensurable to your own.
Soderbergh: Well, sort of. Certainly, the fact that he placed being a revolutionary above everything and everyone else and the way in which other things are excluded when you feel that way, that was something I felt I could understand: the total preoccupation and what that does to people around you. Many descriptions of Che I've heard sounded familiar to me. I don't think you could find anybody that I've worked with who would say that I was unfair or indecisive; but, I also don't think you'd find anybody that would say, "He's such a warm personality." [Laughs.] Know what I mean? That's what really came across to me about Che: the people who loved him admitted that he was not an embraceable person.
Guillén: With regard to your research for the film, you traveled to Cuba?
Soderbergh: We went five times.
Guillén: You met Castro?
Soderbergh: I didn't. Benicio did for two minutes.
Soderbergh: It was so frustrating to not be able to shoot in Cuba.
Guillén: Was that due to the Cuban government or to our own government's embargo?
Soderbergh: Our embargo. I can't work there. I can visit there as part of a cultural exchange, but I can't work there. It was frustrating to have to recreate things that are there and that looked pretty similar to how they looked 50 years ago. Santa Clara was a real problem because it was a certain-sized town and had a certain look. We scouted all around that area of Mexico, went looking in five or six towns in the Veracruz/Yucatan area, and Campeche fortunately had the elements that we needed and they were open to having us come in and change things around a little bit. It turned out to work very well for us, but it took four to five months of scouting to determine that Campeche was going to work.
Guillén: Let's discuss the aesthetics behind the diptych, these two films that—though they mirror each other—are visually quite distinct from one another. When I reviewed the films after Toronto—adjusting first of all to the fact that I wasn't emotionally devasted as I had assumed I was going to be and that, instead, I was intellectually intrigued by what I'd learned from watching the films—I noted that one of the things I learned was the problematics of trying to stage guerrilla warfare in varying environments. The two films did a masterful job of presenting that problem, not only through the narrative, but in the look of the films. Can you speak to how you used the Red One to create these two quite different looks? The Cuban story was colorful, vibrant, positive, textured with mixed film stock, whereas the Bolivian story was still, bleached, dry.
Soderbergh: The first thing I was trying to do was to recreate the voice of the two texts that I was working from: his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and then the Bolivian diaries. Reminiscences is obviously written after the fact with much hindsight and historical perspective. The voice in that book is very different from the voice in the Bolivian diaries, which was contemporaneous and had no perspective at all about what's going on outside. The first thing I was trying to do was to come up with an aesthetic that would duplicate the difference in those two voices. In the case of Cuba—since it's written from the perspective of the victor; the whole thing has the patina of success—I was looking for a more traditional Hollywood frame, the Cinemascope frame, with classical compositions, a steady camera, vibrant colors, a warm palette, more inviting….
Guillén: I described Che: El Argentino as possessing a glamorous sheen.
Soderbergh: Absolutely! Then in Part Two, I wanted a sense of foreboding, a little bit of a jagged quality, a sense that "I don't know where this scene is going to go", just an uneasiness that comes from having the camera on your shoulder and the taller frame, which is a less glossy frame to my mind, and a color palette that was muted. When I was talking to the production designer Antxón Gómez about the first film, I said, "We have green in both places but in Cuba it's green with a lot of yellow in it and in Bolivia it's green with a lot of blue in it." He knew not to put anything in the first film that really should belong in the second film and vice versa. We avoided warm colors in the second one and cold colors in the first. Again, these were all technical decisions that were based on my trying to recreate the sound of his voice in those two books. That's where that whole idea started. Now, though there have obviously been many other roadshow releases in the past—the distant past mostly—unfortunately, I think this is the first time that the poor projectionist has to change lenses between films. During the intermission he has to go into the projection booth, remove the scope lens off the projector, and put the flat lens on.
Guillén: [Shaking my fist angrily in the air] Damn you, Soderbergh!
Soderbergh: [Chuckles.] I can tell you right now that they also have to change the shape of the screen and I know they're not happy.
Guillén: Speaking of you having the camera on your shoulder, sell me on The Red One.
Soderbergh: It's a game changer. They won't tell me exactly how they're doing what they're doing; but, there's some type of proprietary algorithm that makes this sensor different than any sensor I've ever seen before. The way it sees light is totally unique. It doesn't look like any other digital camera I've ever seen and it just keeps getting better. We were using version 1 on Che and they're now on version 18. I've shot two films with it since Che and I can tell you it's improving by leaps every few months. In a couple of years I think it will have the latitude of film. When you combine that with its size and the ease of using it, to me it's like a fantasy. It's like literally the guy crawled into my head and designed exactly the camera that I needed. By the end of the year The Red will be bringing out a smaller camera called The Scarlet, which is a 3K camera the size of your hand. There's a 5K camera called The Epic which is coming out that's also smaller than The Red. This guy's going to take over the world, I'm tellin' ya. It's unbelievable what he's been able to do.
I wish somebody would do a case study of The Red because it is a textbook example of problem solving. The corporations can't innovate the way an individual with the right amount of resources can innovate. In this case, Jim Jannard—who designed and built this camera—is Howard Hughes. It was his idea, his money, he handpicked the team to put the thing together, and there was no interference. It was done entirely to his specifications. That's how leaps are made! And it's the reason why the larger companies who've made digital motion picture cameras are now behind; they're corporations and that's not how new ideas get born. So it's not surprising to me that he's done it; the fact that he's done it is a real lesson to people who want to innovate.
Guillén: Is there a reason why you credit yourself under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews when you do your own cinematography?
Soderbergh: Yeah. If you look at the billing blocks for my movies, I'm a big believer that having your name once works as "directed by"….
Guillén: And it's enough?
Soderbergh: It's enough! In point of fact, listing your name more than once actually dilutes your impact as opposed to increasing it. In a lot of these billing blocks, you see these directors whose names appear five times. They have a possessory credit, they've taken a producer credit, they've got a writing credit, whatever, everywhere you look you see their name. To me that dilutes it. That makes the director credit seem less interesting.
When this came up, it was two years after my dad died and my dad was the one who really gave me the movie bug. His first two names were Peter Andrew and I thought, "This will give me more pleasure seeing that name than it would seeing my own name." Also, when I edit my own films, I use Mary Ann Bernard and that is my mother's maiden name. Everybody's covered.
Guillén: My final question: having worked with this material for such a long time, what can you say about Ernesto "Che" Guevara? What have you come away with from this project knowing about this man?
Soderbergh: Oh, that he would probably hate me. [Laughs.]
Guillén: He'd have no use for you?
Soderbergh: There would be no place for me in the society that he was building.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.