TIFF Interview: The Informant Director Steven Soderbergh
by Alex Billington
September 21, 2009
Here is my interview with director Steven Soderbergh that I did during the Toronto Film Festival. He wouldn't let me shoot video, so I had to record it and transcribe it, so here it is in its entirety below. I will gladly admit that Soderbergh has been and still is one of my all-time favorite directors. I love his style, I love his experimentation, I love everything he does, and I loved The Informant. Half of this interview focuses on that film and its development, but in the second half we get into some interesting discussion regarding the rumored end of his career and where he is planning to go and what exactly he is planning to do. Read on!
The Informant is about Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a businessman who turns FBI informant after the government decides to go after an agri-business giant with a price-fixing accusation. It's based on the book written by Kurt Eichenwald and is a true story about the real Mark Whitacre. It's a fun film and entertaining to watch, so I hope everyone gets the chance to see it. And with that, check out my interview after the photo!
I wanted to start by asking where and how you found this story?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, it's funny how things get to you. I've never really had a plan about how to find things, never had any sort of structure. While we had Section Eight obviously there were things that would come in, but I think this was one of those projects that could have very easily never have gotten to me because Scott Burns, the writer, had heard a story on the radio about the book when the book came out just by chance while he was driving somewhere for a meeting. And he was so interested in it he ended up sitting in his car waiting for the end of the story -- instead of going in to this meeting that he was supposed to go to so he called us in Section Eight and we read the book. This is in 2001 within the first year of the company being set up so it was actually one of the first projects that we started developing and, as you may or may not know, it's the last Section Eight movie or at least it's going to be the last movie that has Section Eight on it.
The book is really, really terrific and very cinematic the way Kurt [Eichenwald] writes and the way he kind of withholds certain information until a certain point is very cinematic, and so I thought well, this is a character that I think is really well suited to movies. And since I've come to believe that movies really at the end of the day should really start with a character more than a subject or even a story because even if you identify a subject whether it's oh, I want to make a movie about the Vietnam War or I want to make a movie about corporate corruption the first thing you have to ask yourself is, "Who are we following? What's our way in to this? Who's the character that we're going to build this on?" So I felt Whitacre was such a ready-made movie character that we should pursue it. I immediately thought of Matt [Damon] because he had that sort of classically American appeal.
You already touched on this, but I wanted to ask about the story and idea of it being cinematic. We see so many films about corporate issues in American and I'm wondering whether that was something that needed to be craft from the book or whether it just instantly felt like a perfect story with a perfect character.
Soderbergh: Well, once we determined that the film was going to be very subjective, that it wasn't-- I didn't want anything in the film that didn't happen but at the same time I didn't-- I wasn't necessarily wanting it to be real. I don't know if that makes any sense. I didn't meet Whitacre. I didn't want to meet anybody who was involved with the story. I had the facts and so I didn't really want to get in to discussions with people about what things meant. I just wanted to know what happened, and it wasn't immediately clear to us that it should be a comedy. That kind of came out of discussions in which I was describing more often than not what I didn't want it to be like. I didn't want it to be like The Insider. I didn't want it to be like Erin Brockovich. I wanted to separate it from those films, and the bottom line was he got himself in just such an insane situation that I wasn't really convinced that for instance if you had a scene like the one -- basically, it's the "what if" conversation where he confesses that he's been embezzling money with the FBI agents. I didn't know how to play that for drama.
I just thought it was so darkly funny that we needed to sort of work back from that and say: "Okay. If this is a kind of black comedy, what's the best way to do that if we're going to do a black comedy?" And that's when Scott came up with the voiceover idea, which really-- That's when things started to work. That's when I certainly was able to start seeing it and thinking okay, we found our gimmick; we have our hook now to get people in. What I liked about it is it was unlike narration that's used typically. This didn't help at all. It didn't help the audience at all. It didn't give any information. It didn't connect anything. It was purely a kind of verbal graffiti that gave you some sense of what was going on in his head but really didn't advance the movie at all. That's what I loved about it is that it was totally kind of useless except that you couldn't imagine the movie without it.
And then the script was done in late '02 or early '03 and we had to wait for my schedule and Matt's schedule to sort of link up.
Talking further about the character, I would say that you seem to make a mockery out of Mark Whitacre. There's a comedic aspect but he's a smart guy and we understand that from everything he does and the fact that he got where he was and made so much money, but at the same time he's someone we laugh at because of the mistakes he makes. I think by the end we get that he was almost just like a common criminal...
Soderbergh: Well, it's complicated. And that's what made it so crazy is that the information he got them was huge. It is still the biggest case of its kind ever prosecuted in the US, but he was also embezzling so it's obvious that two opposing ideas can be true at the same time. Nine years is a lot, but I didn't really want to mock him. I wasn't really judging him. I thought, like all of us, he was his own worst enemy and that's what was interesting about the movie too is that he was -- I didn't see it as a movie about corporate corruption. It was really a movie about Whitacre.
I think Whitacre would have sort of acted out in this way whether he was working at ADM or in some other -- ADM didn't make him into this guy. He was telling a lie about his parents when he was in school so clearly he was already vulnerable to a certain kind of behavior and the pressure of that job really exacerbated his problems, but I didn't -- I would never have sat back and thought oh, I really want to make a movie about corporate corruption. He was my way in and he just happens to work in that world, but he could have been in the insurance business. I think he would have still ended up behaving this way.
Talking a bit about Matt Damon, and I just love him in general, you work with him so much, but you also often cast unknown actresses in films like The Girlfriend Experience and yet you brought back Matt for this. I was wondering if you've ever considered a vice versa of that situation where you bring in someone new for a big studio feature.
Soderbergh: Well, I'm about to do that now. I'm building a whole movie around Gina Carano so I love doing that. In that case I just felt like why aren't there more women around who can carry a gun? It seems to be a very small list and she's really intriguing, and so the whole idea is to kind of -- as we did with Sasha but on a very different scale with a very different intent. Let's build something around her and sort of wind her in to it and take advantage of what she is and what she can do. That's kind of fun. It can be scary and for people who are financing films it's a sort of nervous-making proposition because there's not a built-in movie audience for her but in this case I feel she's actually got-- she has a following and I feel like she's someone who I think is going to emerge in some way and I feel like well, let's be the first because if it wasn't us, I feel like it would be somebody would be coming to her and saying, "You should be in a movie."
On the flip side with Matt again, you seem to be pushing him in terms of continuing to develop his own acting skills especially with The Informant because what I see too often nowadays is an actor just playing himself as an actor, whereas in this he's really becoming Mark and becoming a specific character, and that's a credit to both of you working together so much.
Soderbergh: Well, that's Matt wanting to expand his experience as an actor and you got to give him credit for that. A lot of people, not just actors, a lot of people get frozen in the moment of their first success and they're very afraid of doing anything that will screw around with that, and Matt and George [Clooney] are the kind of people that are -- they're too intellectually restless to get stuck like that. They're interested in too many things and they're not-- they both feel very lucky that they've been successful as actors but they don't sort of feel tethered to any particular persona or kind of film and they're not worried about whether people will follow them or not, and that's what you want. You want somebody who's kind of fearless and we look at the complete transformation that Matt goes through in this. You're seeing somebody who sort of jumps off the cliff and doesn't look back, and that's what you want.
I have to say another strong part of all of your films is the ensemble cast that you also put in them. I could mention the Oceans films, but with The Informant in particular as well. Everyone else in that, even from the smallest role on up, was just fantastic.
Soderbergh: Well, the cliché is true about scripting casting. When people talk about how you direct actors, honestly if your text is working the way it should and you've cast properly there shouldn't be a lot to do, that you should pretty much be able to leave them alone and let them do their job. And this was a really good example because we had cast a lot of stand-up comedians in these supporting roles not because I wanted them to be funny but because I find them to have a distinctive quality because of what their day jobs are. They make a living being distinctive, and a lot of these parts I felt like had to register pretty quickly, and they really do -- they really can in a very short period of time make an impression, and they also look like normal people.
They don't look like actors and it was important since I was trying to make Matt kind of blend in and be somebody who you wouldn't look at twice if you passed him on the street. I felt well, if you do that and you surround him with people who look like they're in movies then you've broken the spell of whatever world we're trying to create, so there was kind of a dual purpose there, and I was really, really happy with the people that we cast. I didn't know some of them. I didn't know Joel [McHale] was hosting "The Soup" when he came in and read for us, and that was a show I used to watch a lot. I just didn't know that he had been hosting it for so long, and of course now I see the show and he's really, really funny, and like I said all of them really did a great job of not trying to sort of tart it up or take this position of like oh, I'm only on screen for so much time so I've really got to have bits of business to-- They just came in and they were totally low maintenance and did their jobs and I was really happy.
I saw that you haven't written your own script in a long time and I'm curious why that is and why you don't write your own scripts more often.
Soderbergh: I'm not a writer. I've spent enough time with real writers to know that I'm not a writer. I wrote by default to get in because I didn't know anyone, and so that was a way-- I would write script after script because that was my only way to get my foot in the door but I didn't like it. I don't like writing and I think in my view my best work has been when I've worked with other writers. It took me a while to figure that out because I had the good fortune to have Sex, Lies take off and for a moment I thought I was a writer/director just because of that-- I did that and this-- and it turned out okay although my second film I didn't write, but it took me a while to really let go of that and realize I'm not really a writer. I don't have that-- I don't have a really deep well to draw from.
I'm much more of a synthesis than I am an originator, and so once I had figured that out, things started to improve pretty quickly, and so-- I can't think of the last thing I wrote. I think it was Eros. I think Eros is the last thing I wrote so it's just not-- I have notebooks that I carry all the time that have ideas in them, but writers-- Somebody asked me last night when I got in to this conversation like, "Why don't you write anymore?" And I said, "I'm not a writer," and they said, "Oh, well, that's silly. Of course you are," and I said, "No. A writer writes every day. They get up and they write every day." I go "I don't do that and I don't want to do that. That's not interesting to me."
Do you at least go in to a project and want to bring your own voice to it--
Soderbergh: Oh, sure, but that's part of directing. That's part of your job so sure, I'll have a conversation with a scene and say, "Well, what if he said X and then So and So said Y and"-- I'll say that but I want them to sort of improve upon that. I don't necessarily want them to transcribe what I said, but I just want them to have the idea of what the interaction is about-- but I much prefer playing that role than being the person who has to generate it.
Right, I understand. How do you maintain such a rigorous schedule in terms of finishing two films in one year?
Soderbergh: In terms of partying?
Well, a lot of other directors that are your caliber take years between each film, yet this year you finished two films. I'm sure there's so much that goes in to it from casting, shooting, editing, everything, and I'm just curious how you can maintain such a schedule.
Soderbergh: I don't know because it's funny. At times I feel kind of lazy. It's not as I've gotten more experience and have improved my ability to problem solve and identify at least the bad versions of something more quickly and eliminate them. I don't understand why directors aren't more prolific. I really don't. I really look back at the old studio system and I think that's the way you ought to be working. What you learn from shooting cannot be learned any other way and you only get better the more you shoot so I always think it's a bad sign when the gap between films starts to expand. I always feel like that's not good. You've gotten too precious. You're over-thinking it, and I've had the experience of asking people, "Hey, what's going on? What are you working on?" And they say, "Oh, I can't find anything," and I'm completely mystified by this.
I was reading another interview with you where you mentioned that while working on Moneyball you just got to a point where you dropped that and started to work on the next project. Do you constantly just stockpile extra project and just start working on things more and more?
Soderbergh: Well, I like to have a couple of [other] things going at a time because what it allows me to do is make everything feel fresh. Whenever I'm starting to get that feeling that something's an obligation, I just jump for a few days or a few hours on to something else and then it-- so I'm cheating on the thing that I'm supposed to be doing but I'm cheating on it with other work. I like that because I never get tired of the one project, and also it's going to be-- there'll be a certain point where I just stop. I don't really have gears. I'm either on or off, and so I think my plan, my macro plan, is to have worked really, really, really hard for a certain number of years and then to just stop and say, "Okay. That was that. Now I want to do something else."
In terms of no longer directing?
That's unfortunate to hear.
Soderbergh: If my plan goes the way I hope, it will be a minimum of 25 movies, maybe more. That's plenty.
You can be like Woody Allen and just work nonstop--
Soderbergh: Yeah. I don't want to-- That works for him but I'd like to see while I'm not outrageously old whether I can get good at something else. I would love the opportunity, which I hope I will have earned for myself, to spend time working hard to see if I can get good at something else. I think that would be really exciting.
In terms of directing, you seem to be experimenting with different ideas and different areas and I want to ask more about why you love to try so many different things?
Soderbergh: Well, I'm just restless. I'm not going to say I get bored easily but I certainly-- I sort of chew up and swallow things and spit them out pretty quickly, and so I'm looking for experiences that aren't like experiences that I had before, and so that's another issue in terms of looking at the career as a whole is I'm feeling like well, I'm kind of running out of-- I'm checking off these boxes of things that I'd like to try.
Is there anything that you've come across checking off that list that you think that went so well that I would love to revisit it?
Soderbergh: No. That's a real-- That's a trap. You can't do that or I can't. You have to look at it and go "That was a real"-- And The Informant's a classic example. That felt in many ways like a really kind of blessed project in terms of having a great script and getting Matt. It was a really, really fun movie to make, went together pretty easily. There were no drama in the editing room. It just seemed to kind of-- In that regard it was kind of like Erin Brockovich, which was a really fun movie to make strangely enough.
You have to recognize that that just happens every once in a while. You can't make that sort of alchemy occur at will and you just have to say, "Well, I can-- If I'm lucky and I work hard and I'm making enough movies, probability means that I'll have another experience like that," but you can't any more than you can force yourself to find a soul mate, you really just have to let it go, and the same with the bad ones. It's the same token. Or difficult experiences like Che. I can't, I have to be careful of not doing the opposite, which is assuming that if I get involved with a project that's similar that I'll have a similarly difficult time. You kind of have to wipe the slate clean every time and say, "This is new. I'm not trying to re-create a situation that occurred before. I want it to be new."
Then why make Oceans 12 and 13?
Soderbergh: Well, for a couple of reasons. One, I felt, especially in the case of 12, which, despite being roundly despised, is my favorite of the three and is a very different film from the first one and the third one. I just felt there was more to do. I felt there's some things I want to try both visually and in narrative terms that I didn't get to explore in the first film. They give me an opportunity to play in a way that you can't really justify on a different film. They're comic books. That's as close to a comic book as I'm ever going to get, and so I can do things-- I can really have fun visually and have it be organic and I like those people. They are really fun movies to make.
I knew even as we talked about a second one and then coming out on the heels of the second one, which is a very odd movie, I thought okay, then the third one-- now I've earned the right in the third one to go back and do something a little more linear and a little more coherent, and I knew even then this is going to be the last one. Three is three and out. That's going to be it.
I'm not trying to be harsh, because I love all three of those films, but I was just asking in response.
Soderbergh: Yeah. Well, for me the experiences of them were very different.
I can definitely tell that just watching them that they certainly feel different--
Soderbergh: Yeah. I think so, but for a lot of people I think, superficially they look at them and they feel like they're all the same movie but to me they're not.
Thank you to Steven Soderbergh and everyone at Warner Brothers for this very amazing opportunity to interview one of my all-time favorite directors, it was a complete honor. The Informant is currently playing in theaters everywhere right now is definitely worth seeing!