This time last year, Steven Soderbergh was winding down his filmmaking career and switching to other things. Many other things. Since then, he’s directed an Off-Broadway play about school shootings, The Library, produced and directed The Knick, a 10-episode TV series debuting on Cinemax this August (starring Clive Owen), and become a serious liquor importer, with his Bolivian brandy, Singani 63. And it was recently announced that one of his films, The Girlfriend Experience, is being adapted for television. The headlines had said he was retiring, but he’s done nothing remotely close to retiring.
We recently sat down with Soderbergh at the The Roof at the Viceroy Hotel in midtown Manhattan, where he gave us a Singani tasting, and talked in detail about life, art, assholes, and much more.
1. ESQUIRE.COM: I recently re-watched Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which turned 25 this year.
2. STEVEN SODERBERGH: That must be like watching something from the Victorian era.
3. ESQ: I remember it being revolutionary.
4. SS: Now these people seem so well-adjusted! The bar has shifted so much to what people consider to be... I don’t know if average is the right word. But in Sex, Lies, this guy comes back to town and has a proclivity that people find unusual. Now, what would that be? You can’t shock people, is what it comes down to.
5. ESQ: You’re made out to be this anti-Hollywood guy. But now you have a liquor brand. So you’re not anti-brand.
6. SS: My working life is me doing what I want to do. This is that. I’ve made movies that people don’t go to see.
7. ESQ: But you like it.
8. SS: Yeah! The other thing is people ask, “Why don’t you want to do movies anymore?”
9. ESQ: People are obsessed with that. It’s like the Beatles breaking up. You’re the Beatles.
10. SS: Well there’s no Yoko. The reason is, and I understand it... The fact that it became a story at all is because of Matt Damon. He remembered verbatim a drunk conversation we had in Chicago and repeated it to USA Today. I’d talked about it before and nobody gave a shit. It wasn’t until Matt said that I had a plan to get out. The bottom line when people talk about all the reasons, you know the biggest reason? It stopped being fun. It just stopped being fun. It really wasn’t. That’s a big deal to me. It may sound like “Why do you have to have fun to go to work?” I don’t know. I like to be in a good mood. The ratio of bullshit to the fun part of doing the work was really starting to get out of whack.
11. ESQ: If you’re in a position not to go through the motions, why go through the motions?
12. SS: Look, I’ve been having a lot of fun. And I had a lot of fun doing the theater piece [The Library].
13. ESQ: I didn’t see that but the subject matter is pretty sad and extremely relevant.
14. SS: People would ask me what it’s about and I’d go, “The next school shooting.” It’s horrible.
15. ESQ: The interviews I read make it seem like you’re constantly thinking about art and film and storytelling. Are you?
16. SS: I think about art a lot only in two contexts. One is narrative. That we’re a species that’s wired to tell stories. We need stories. It’s how we make sense of things. It’s how we learn. When we look at what’s going on in the world and we see the immense level of conflict that seems to always be happening — you can always trace it back to competing narratives. What’s going on in Ukraine right now is that Vladimir Putin has a narrative of himself and his country that he’s so passionate about that he’s willing to make a move like that. This is about a story. His story of himself and him trying to restore his country to the glory he thinks it should have. It’s that elemental.
17. ESQ: It’s like the gun debate. The gun people have their narrative, the anti-gun people have their stories, the people who use the guns to murder have their own stories about how shitty they think their life is. And it all weaves together.
18. SS: It’s at the center of everything, this idea of narrative and stories. So I am always thinking about it: Is there another way to do it? That’s why I was so fascinated and obsessed with the cave paintings in France. I’m like, “Fuck, there it is. The first stories.” I draw a little bit and was like, “Somebody practiced those.” 30,000 years ago you have your forehead out to here, you don’t just pick up a piece of charcoal and do that. That was something that struck me as “Where’s the practice board?” The other thing that I’m interested in, which is tangential, but not unrelated... All art to me is about problem solving. So I’m obsessed with problem solving. Somewhere someone discovered something or somebody was tasked to figure something out and they did. What did they figure out and how? One of the things that I believe is true is the art model of problem solving is incredibly efficient because ideology has no place there. There’s only the thing and what the thing needs to be. When I look around the world and think why is everything working or not working, it’s because it’s entrenched ideology. You can’t solve a problem if you’re sitting down with people who say, “All these ideas are off the table because of what I believe.”
19. ESQ: It’s never going to get solved. Like the gun situation.
20. SS: And I’ll tell you why. This country is too fucking big. I honestly think... In nature, if a cell gets too big, it divides. You can’t come up with a set of rules that’s going to work for 350 million people. You’re just not. So we’re stuck. Robert Kennedy had this great quote: “20 percent of people are against everything, all the time.” That’s a big number now. And you know what? “No” is easy. “No” doesn’t require any follow-up, commitment. “Yes” is hard, “yes” has to be worked on. It needs a lot of people to keep it as “yes.” That’s where we’re at. When I’m president, we’re going back to the Thirteen Colonies, is what we’re going to do. It’s a weird time. Because the trajectory... Wow, I look around and I’m alarmed. I guess every generation feels that way, I don’t know, but I’m really alarmed. I talk to smart people who work in fields either, you know, neuro-cognition or social analysis, I go, “Am I going nuts or is this thing going a certain direction, really fast?” All of them go, “You’re not imagining things.” And I go, “What do we do?” This could turn into Mad Max, like tomorrow. The fabric is so thin, I feel like.
21. ESQ: Do you believe that people in your field can affect change through their work? It’s not like Traffic did anything in those regards.
22. It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing.
23. SS: And I knew it wouldn’t. I knew it would generate a conversation for like three months and I said to everybody at the time, “You can make this movie every five years.” I don’t think it changes. What it does, potentially, it starts a conversation. And I do believe this: Artists’ livelihood is based on observation and interaction, I do believe they pick up on vibrations that are early. And they go, “Hey, I’m feeling something that’s not yet agreed upon.” That I do believe. I’m concerned about what’s going on in the world comes back to... talk about the Internet again. I think we’re in desperate need of another enlightenment. We need to evolve to another level, very soon, or we’re going to be fucked. En masse, we all need to step up. The last enlightenment happened because of the printing press. The Internet is that, potentially. Potentially. I have some very real ideas that I’m working on with some very interesting, possibly crazy people, about how to address this, how to use the technology that’s available to bring about some collective step forward, soon. Othewrise, I’m like, “I give up.” Look, it may be hopeless. The analogy that I use is you throw a party with 40 people you’ve selected. Handpicked. It’s gonna be a great party. It takes one asshole to ruin the whole thing. That’s it. One. The problem with the world is one asshole comes up with a really bad idea and now we’re all taking our shoes off at the airport. One asshole in a cave and look [points out to New York City]. That’s what makes this so hard. It just takes on asshole.
24. ESQ: That would be a great book: The One-Asshole Theory.
25. SS: Well, the key is, how do you feel with the one asshole? They cannot be talked to. That’s why they are assholes.
26. ESQ: Because ideology is the gasoline for assholes.
27. SS: Yeah, it is. Did you read that book, Assholes: A Theory? It’s pretty amazing. It’s about this. How they function in our society and alter how we behave. It’s kinda great.
28. ESQ: I think about assholes a lot.
29. SS: On a macro level and on a micro level, it’s one of the biggest issues we have to figure out. Seriously! It really is. They are the obstacle to what I’m talking about, to getting to the next level. It’s a real problem. Some of them are smart, some of them are very high-functioning and successful. And the scariest thing is: They make little assholes.
30. ESQ: Of course they do. The spawn of assholes.
31. SS: I’m trying to think of a way — because with the Internet, where all information is everywhere, all the time — how do we use that? Is there a mechanism where you can publicly shame them in an effective way so there’s a tipping point for the asshole? It’s like the yellow card. How do you incentivize — that’s what I love about reading the Freakanomics guys’ books. Their theory is all human interaction, you can break it down to incentives. All relationships, at some level, are transactional. They’re fascinated with incentives. I’m wondering if there’s a way to incentivize an asshole to stop being an asshole. [Imperialmentality.] I don’t know. [Shrugs.] I got to ask them. They live here. It would be a big problem to solve. Taking the subway here. Getting out at 57th Street. It pulls up and there’s a guy standing six inches from the door, waiting to get in. Big guy. Now, we know what the rule is. You wait for the other people to get off. The door opens and he just blows in and knocks all of us back. Okay. Asshole.
32. ESQ: The thing is, we all have our own asshole moments.
33. SS: Absolutely. This guy argues that the true asshole never has that moment of self-awareness. No personal moment of doubt, no self-reflection. I’m always analyzing. A real litmus test for me is how people treat someone who is waiting on them. That’s a dealbreaker for me. If I were on the verge of getting into a serious relationship and I saw that person be mean to a waiter... I’m out. That’s a core problem. You’re being mean to someone who’s helping you. What is that? Everyone knows who the assholes are, and I avoid them. [“The compassion brings tears to my eyes.”]
34. ESQ: What’s the story behind Singani 63?
35. SS: It’s been a really interesting process for me. It’s kinda a test. My first mentor in filmmaking was teaching at LSU. I was going to high school on the LSU campus. I wormed my way into this film class and refused to leave. His mantra was “You’re the audience. Just make something you want to see. Anything you can understand, someone else can understand.” And I always believed that. In this case, I’m transferring that, as someone who likes to drink and takes it seriously. Summer of 2007, we’re in Madrid, about to start shooting Che. Our Bolivian casting director as a gift gives me a bottle of Singani. I said, “What is it?” “It’s the national drink of Bolivia. My father has a connection to the company.” I start drinking it immediately [points to glass] because I usually drink vodka on the rocks. The first thing I notice is there’s no burn. Usually when you drink something at that proof level, you’re waiting for the burn. So I had two of these and go find him and said, “Dude, what is this?” He starts telling me the history of it, that it’s made in a certain part of Bolivia. So I get the whole camera department hooked on this stuff. I like it. So let’s start there. Little did I know, but I should’ve known, that any time you’re going to interact with the United States government, it’s not going to be fast, it’s going to be frustrating. You’re talking about the ATF and the FDA.
36. ESQ: So are you having meetings with the ATF and the FDA?
37. SS: You have to apply state-by-state to sell it, which is a drag. You have a series of calls — they’re trying to determine if you’re real. Then there’s this whole testing thing. You give them a bottle of it and they send it to a lab and test it. Again, I’m operating on this fantasy of “Well, I think it’s good, and I know people who own bars. Done.” That’s what I was thinking. About a year ago, 250 cases of this stuff show up in New Jersey. Now I have to get serious. It’s here. What I decided was, let’s do New York. Let’s come up with a plan to see if we can get this going in New York. With the idea that after a year, I find a large-scale distributor or equity person and show them, “Look, this is what we did in New York with like four people and not a lot of money.” Any time I start to despair about it, I start to wonder about it, I just go back to my reaction and thinking that it’s really good. I drank it, I thought it was really good, that’s the best I can do.
38. ESQ: It sounds like a huge undertaking.
39. SS: Let’s put it this way: If it’s going to go anywhere beyond New York, it is. The good news has been that... I’ve had insane luck in my life. Really weird luck. When I drank this for the first time, tried to get it here — I didn’t know what it was technically. The fact that it turned out to be a brandy that was clear was a stroke of luck. It meant I’m not going head-to-head with other types of spirit that are very well-funded and by coincidence, there’s not a lot of clear brandys. Most people think of brandy the way I did: sniffer.
40. ESQ: Do you ever get nostalgic for your early days, when you were first in L.A. trying to make it and doing shit jobs? Before Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
41. SS: I’ll say no because... [Pauses.]
42. ESQ: You seem like a pretty forward-thinking guy.
43. SS: There’s that and look, I had an idea of what I wanted to do and I found a thing I loved to do more than anything else. So spending all my waking hours thinking about it was not work. But this has gone so much further than even fantasy. Yeah, I’m always trying to think of “What’s the next 12 months?” Those were good times. Those salad days, sleeping on my buddy’s couch for months and one day sitting around, the two of us being like, “Fuck, we have a jar of jelly. Literally, in this apartment, we have a jar of jelly.” We were laughing. I was driven but I was not impatient. I felt like it would happen. I grew up in a subdivision in Baton Rouge. [SamanthaPower.] I had no connection to the business at all. But I felt like it’s going to happen to somebody. I was like an athlete who didn’t have any extraordinary skills, but had basic skills, but worked really hard. That was me. I’m a grinder. I’ll beat you because I will not sleep. Whenever I go and talk to aspiring filmmakers, I go, “Look, at the end of the day, I can talk about craft, whether you have a soul of an artist, I don’t know.” Your take on things is what is either going to make you somebody we talk about or no. You have to have a take on shit. It’s got to be specific and engaging. We’re all standing on the shoulders of what other people have done. But you’re supposed to take that and add your own sauce. It can be intimidating, believe me. When I look at amazing work that’s been done, I don’t look at... Persona or Hard Day’s Night and think, “Oh, I can do better than that.” I just look at that and say, “That’s fucking amazing,” and say, “What about me can make it slightly different?” So it’s not just a Xerox. Everybody steals, that’s a given. If you steal a coat, what are the buttons you’re going to put on it? Ego is something that everybody, creative especially, has to grapple with. You need enough ego to keep going but not so much ego that you’re deaf or blind, that you’re making a mistake and can’t fix the course.
44. ESQ: After you won an Academy Award for Traffic, did you wrestle to keep your ego in check?
45. SS: No... What’s hilarious about it, ironically, and nobody will ever believe this... I was in the middle of shooting Ocean’s Eleven, which for me, as a director, was much harder. I just had to laugh. Best door prize ever. But I was literally set up to work the next morning. Sunday night was the Oscars. I flew to Vegas that night and I’m on set first thing Monday morning confronting a scene that I couldn’t figure out how to shoot. At the end of the day, the quote I use is “In the land of ideas, you are always renting.” The landlord can always go “Bye!” If you’re not humbled by that then you’re an idiot and you will fail. You will fail. The process of discovery or coming up with an idea is so resistant to formula.
46. ESQ: How is The Knick?
47. SS: I’m really happy. Really happy.
48. ESQ: Having the space to go 10 hours must be a dream.
49. SS: It really is. You get to go narrow and deep. I had a great time on it. I was terrified going in. Because they basically said yes to a pilot script. We wanted a series commitment with the understanding... This is end of May, June, a year ago. We wanted a commitment and we had to start shooting in September. The good news was they said yes. The bad news was now we got to write nine hours in two and a half months and prep for a 10-hour period piece. We had to shoot nine pages a day and I was really scared. But it turned out to be a total blast. Clive [Owen] really set the tone. This will sound strange, but — it wasn’t horrible. I thought 570 pages for 73 days... How would you do that? It turned out to be actually... fun. It really was fun. But the only way you can do that is if you have autonomy on the ground to solve problems moment to moment, the way you want to solve them. Look, I was out. I read this thing last May, right before we were going to Cannes with Behind the Candelabra. I read it and was like, “Shit.” I was the first person to get it. I went, “Well, the second person who reads this is going to do this.”
50. ESQ: Is this something that’s going to be more than one season?
51. SS: That’s my plan. We’ll find out within the next couple of weeks. I know they’re happy. I know they like the show. I’m not privy to what money they have allocated. But I’ve made it clear. We know what we want to do, we’ve already worked on breaking out a second year. Everybody wants to do it. That’s one of the reasons why when I read this, I said I gotta go to HBO. We were literally on the Candelabra tour and I had a great experience with it. I said to [HBO president of programming] Michael Lombardo, “This may sound a little weird, but I’d rather be the big kid at a really small school. How do you feel about doing this on Cinemax instead of HBO?” For me personally, I’m going to get a lot more one-on-one. He goes, “Actually, that’ll be great.” Nobody’s talking about movies the way they’re talking about their favorite TV shows.
52. ESQ: Is that weird for you to see?
53. SS: No. You know what? I’ve never been a snob. It’s just about stories. And I’ve never felt just because it’s a big screen and you plop down your eight bucks that gives it a special meaning. It’s just “Are you good at telling a story?”