He’s been away for such a short time, you may not have noticed Steven Soderbergh had even stopped making movies. In 2013, the director — who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with his 1989 debut, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” when he was just 26 years old — announced his retirement from filmmaking, citing frustrations with the way Hollywood movies were produced and distributed.
It proved to be a short vacation. Only a few months after calling it quits, he was back in the director’s chair, helming two seasons of TV period drama “The Knick” for Cinemax. Now he’s returned to the big screen with a new movie and a new distribution model that he hopes will shake up the status quo in Hollywood.
The film, “Logan Lucky,” takes the heist-caper format that Soderbergh honed in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels, and transposes it to the unglamorous environs of West Virginia. Channing Tatum and Adam Driver star as two slow-witted brothers who decide to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, with help from a surly bomb expert played, incongruously, by Daniel Craig.
Soderbergh was in Tokyo recently to attend the film’s Japan premiere during the Tokyo International Film Festival, which also hosted a short retrospective of his work. It was his first trip to the country since 2011, when he came to watch a bombastic stage musical version of “Ocean’s Eleven” by the all-female Takarazuka troupe.
“This thing was mind-blowing,” he enthuses. “I’d never seen a production this massive.”
Given the breadth of Soderbergh’s oeuvre — “Logan Lucky” is his 28th feature — you may think he’d seen more such adaptations of his work, but apparently not.
“Almost once a year, somebody wants to acquire the rights to do ‘Sex, Lies’ on stage, but I don’t see that at all,” he says. “I always say no, because it’s not gonna work.”
“First of all, I think it’s really dated: watching that movie now is like reading a Jane Austen novel,” he says. “And also the structure of it, and the things that I was doing that take advantage of what you can do in movies — in terms of juxtaposition of sound and picture, structural loops and things like that. I think those are things that movies do uniquely.”
He says he’s seen plenty of films attempt to mimic “Ocean’s Eleven” — without much luck, of course. He credits their failure to the lack of a crucial element: not the movie’s A-list cast — which included George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts — but its composer, David Holmes, who also worked on “Logan Lucky.”
“The role of music in those films — and in this film — is so crucial that if you’re two degrees off, you might as well be 180 degrees off,” he says. “It’s that critical that you get the music right.”
For “Logan Lucky,” Holmes delved into his vast record collection and, Soderbergh recalls, “started sending me buckets and buckets of tracks.”
“What’s really helpful is, that was happening while we were prepping the movie,” he continues. “I was able to identify a lot of pieces of music and know, ‘That sequence is gonna be that (track),’ and I could shoot and cut to those pieces of music.”
That phrase — “shoot and cut” — tells you a lot about how Soderbergh works. The credited cinematographer for “Logan Lucky,” Peter Andrews, is actually a pseudonym for the director; so is editor Mary Ann Bernard.
“You’d probably find it amusing to be on set and watch how things work, because the conversation that would typically be taking place between the director, the camera operator and the director of photography isn’t happening out loud,” he says.
Soderbergh is famously passionate about editing, in particular. In his spare time, he produces “re-edits and mash-ups” of other people’s films, including a 110-minute cut of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and a version of “Psycho” that spliced the Alfred Hitchcock original with Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot 1998 remake.
“Editing, for me, is the best part of the whole process,” he says. “That, to me, is the reward. As we make our way through the day, I’m already looking forward to being able to get my hands on (the footage) and put it together.”
Not surprisingly, he’s been a passionate advocate for digital technology. During our conversation, he describes how he’s trying to reorganize his workflow to allow him to start editing footage at lunchtime, rather than wait until the end of the day.
“One of the huge benefits, to me, of things moving into the digital realm is just the speed with which you can iterate and know what you’ve got,” he says. “To me it’s not a debate, but there are some people still having this debate. These are like climate change deniers to me: people who still won’t let go of celluloid. To me, it’s just completely ridiculous.”
When he meets up with Christopher Nolan, an ardent champion of shooting on film, he says they have a “tacit agreement that we’re not gonna talk about this.”
“We both know that it’s the third rail of our friendship,” he says. “If one of us steps on it, it’s over.”
Soderbergh often talks about filmmaking in terms of problem solving, and he’s constantly looking for ways to streamline the process. He describes how with “Logan Lucky,” most of the lighting was either practical (meaning light sources that appear in the shot, like lamps or car headlights) or built into the set. This allowed his camera to move freely around the set, without having to rearrange studio lights for each shot.
“What the ‘get’ there is, you have an actor who comes to the set in costume, having been made up, knowing that when they come to the set, we’re gonna rehearse and block and go straight into shooting, and not stop shooting until the scene’s done,” he says. “That creates an energy, I think, and a sort of freshness of performance that is strictly due to the ability to not have to wait for lighting.”
He credits his experience working in TV with making him more efficient on set.
“My directorial body-fat ratio was at zero when I got out of ‘The Knick,'” he says. “It was all lean muscle mass in terms of my filtering process, because I’d never worked on a project with a schedule that was that aggressive.”
When Soderbergh was preparing to retire in 2013, he told German newspaper Der Taggespiel that in order to resolve his creative crisis, “It all depends on whether I manage to become an amateur again.” Yet it sounds like he’s been getting even more professional in his approach, not less.
“Well, it’s a little bit of both,” he says. “I mean, the directing and the shooting and the cutting is — that’s how I started, when I was making short films. That, and operating the camera, does take me back to being a teenager, and having a group of friends together and trying to make something. I’m doing everything I can to bring it back to that place.”
Perhaps this is why he’s decided to wrestle control of the distribution process too.
Soderbergh often talks about filmmaking in terms of problem solving, and it’s probably this analytical approach that led him to devise an alternative to the Hollywood distribution model. “Logan Lucky” bypassed conventional studio channels altogether in the States: Soderbergh financed the production by pre-selling foreign rights, and covered the budget for advertising and prints of the movie by selling domestic nontheatrical rights, including a streaming deal with Amazon.
When the film opened at No. 4 at the U.S. box office in August, trade publications were quick to pronounce it a flop — “if you’re a studio,” Soderbergh interjects.
“We ended up doing around $28 (million), so 46 percent of that goes right into the pot,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re probably looking at the cast and crew of the movie splitting $18-19 million. Now, a studio film, to pay out, on the back end, $18 million or $19 million in profit, would have to do $180 million — conservatively.”
He admits that it was probably a mistake to spend so much of the film’s marketing budget on digital, rather than television advertising.
“We were over-indexing on all these indicators of people watching stuff, liking it, sharing it, all that stuff,” he says. “And what I’ve realized, I think, is we’re in a culture now in which that kind of activity is a discrete form of activity that people engage in. It has nothing to do with whether they’re going to buy a ticket.”
He describes the model he used on “Logan Lucky” as an “open-source entity” that he hopes other filmmakers will use.
“It was always going to work: The question is, how well,” he says. “This experiment’s not over. I’m going to keep recalibrating and refining it until I find the sweet spot, but the model works, because the model has you in profit as soon as somebody buys a ticket.”
Good luck with that, I say, and he smiles.
“Yeah, well, it beats the other version that I was in for 25-plus years, so I’m happy.”
“Logan Lucky” opens in Japanese cinemas nationwide on Nov. 18. For more information, visit www.bleeckerstreetmedia.com/loganlucky.
How Che Guevara warmed up to Japan
When Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” was released in 2008, the biopic drew some criticism for its sympathetic portrayal of the Marxist revolutionary. It’s a good thing the director omitted an obscure detail he’d unearthed while researching the film: He would’ve made Che look downright cute.
Soderbergh discovered that Guevara had become a fan of o-shibori — the heated towels given to customers at restaurants — during his 1959 trip to Japan.
“He loved the whole hot towel thing,” he says. “He just thought this was the best idea anybody had ever had. Obviously there was no way to incorporate that into the film. I just thought it was funny.”