Steven Soderbergh wants to talk business. The superstar director of Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven and Magic Mike is about to end his four-year sabbatical from film with Logan Lucky, a heist caper full of the kind of tick-tock showmanship he’s mastered by now, and an all-star cast — Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Adam Driver, Hilary Swank — as the obvious draw. What’s different is the way he’s putting it out there. No major studio had a role in financing the film, budgeted at a fairly frugal $29 million, compared with the $85 million that Ocean’s Eleven cost.
More to the point, no major distributor is involved in releasing or marketing it. Instead Soderbergh has personally supervised the promotional strategy and he’s waiting to see if it all pays off. “It’s an experiment,” he tells me, on the phone from New York. “I just want a better version of this business.” The major studios, by Soderbergh’s estimation, would have devoted to their marketing “at least 60-70 per cent more than what we’re spending, and in some cases 100 per cent more”.
All of this is to prove a point: that Hollywood studios overspend in a panicky and wasteful way. And don’t get Soderbergh started on the traditional methods of “tracking” — trying to identify if the title is on people’s radar across the country. “I’ve totally ignored that!” he declares, good-humouredly. “The current version of tracking is, they call 1,000 people on their landlines. That’s ridiculous. Nobody under 30 has a landline. And who are the people that answer these surveys? Who, when they get a call at home, doesn’t hang up the phone immediately?” It’s fascinating to hear the 54-year-old filmmaker — once almost the perfect stereotype of a Generation X egghead filmmaker, geeking out over his craft and ideas — get so energised about profit margins.
There was a period — for roughly a decade after his Palme d’Or-winning debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) — when his films were niche intellectual diversions with little mainstream potential. Everything changed with the Elmore Leonard crime tango Out of Sight (1998), his first film with major stars, and the one that began a prolific partnership with George Clooney and featured a never-better Jennifer Lopez. Though only a modest hit, it transformed the director’s status in the industry. Soderbergh talks of the “nice run” that followed, from The Limey (1999) through to Ocean’s Eleven (2001), with both the sprawling crime saga Traffic and Erin Brockovich getting side-by-side Best Picture nominations in 2000. He won Best Director for the former, and was nominated for both — the first director to pull off this trick since Michael Curtiz in the late Thirties. Four years ago, after his pill-popping psychological thriller Side Effects came out, Soderbergh announced what at first sounded like his retirement from directing films. He only ever intended this to be an extended break. Hence Logan Lucky, a heist flick containing a winking nod to the Ocean’s series. For a director once hailed for his restless leapfrogging across genres and styles, the ensemble caper is now his bread and butter. Has this surprised him at all?
“It’s certainly odd that I would be so attracted to that kind of film. I didn’t grow up around any criminals, and have no real interest in doing anything that would land me in jail! “It’s become obvious to me recently,” he reflects, “that the parallels between pulling off a heist and making a film are very clear. Since I’m a very process-driven person, it may be that a heist movie does hold a disproportionate fascination, because of my interest in unpacking how you problem-solve. Also, it’s a genre that allows you to layer in the comedy, without really having it at the centre of the piece. There’s less pressure when you can kind of toss the comedy in from left-field.”
Speaking of left-field comedy-tossing, try Daniel Craig — hardly celebrated for, as it were, bringing the funny — as a thuggish white-haired safe-cracker called Joe Bang. His head-turning performance reaffirms Soderbergh’s gift for accessing new sides to his actors. This is one of the reasons that major movie stars — Clooney, for a long time, Matt Damon for a stretch, and now Tatum — return to work with him again and again. “These are people who are loyal, generous and have your back,” Soderbergh says. “And if they’re going to punch, they punch upward, not downward. I always admired that when George picked a fight with somebody publicly, it was always someone more powerful than him. Channing’s that way.” As for Craig, he says, “It was a very scorched earth performance, I thought. Not having to shoulder the entire film was probably a relief. Besides, Daniel’s the exact opposite of a sort of brooding cliche of an actor. He’s a blast.”
Soderbergh is not the kind of director who ignores his failures or bullishly defends all his past films. He blames the failure of his biggest flop, the George Clooney sci-fi drama Solaris, on his stubborn refusal to hire another writer: “My desire to have it be mine alone ruined my opportunity to make it better. And that was a hard-earned lesson,” he says. The story goes that as soon as Solaris’s crushing box office figures came in, Soderbergh was straight on the phone to Warner Bros, offering them Ocean’s Twelve as a cash cow. He’s been able to weather the storm of failures, small and large, and always bounce back with either a freshly hatched franchise, a la Magic Mike, or an oddball side project, like the baffling meta-comedy Schizopolis (1996). His happiest ever time on a film, he says, was Erin Brockovich, because he knew he was handing Julia Roberts the role of a lifetime and that she could hardly have been better in it: “It was ‘embarrassing’ how easy it was.”
Asking Soderbergh what’s next is tricky, with all eyes on Logan Lucky’s performance right now. He’ll flag up what’s not next. It’s a project called Unsane, listed on his Wikipedia page and all over Google, which purports to be a horror film he’s shot entirely on an iPhone, starring Claire Foy (The Crown) and Juno Temple. But don’t let your interest get piqued too intensely. He says it’s all news to him. “It sounds cool! As I said to somebody the other day, it sounds totally plausible. Yes, I’ve met Claire, yes, I know Juno Temple. But just show me when this happened. Where did I shoot this thing, allegedly? Who paid for it? I’m fascinated by how these stories get started.”
On the subject of hoaxes, there’s the enigma of who wrote Logan Lucky. The script is credited to one Rebecca Blunt, a first-time writer of whom nobody in the industry has ever heard. No biographical information exists, not a single publicity shot. Because Soderbergh has long performed other crucial roles — cinematography, editing — under pseudonyms, it has led to the (probably correct) assumption that Blunt is a nom de plume, for himself or his wife, Jules Asner. But he won’t get drawn into setting the record straight. Where would be the fun in that? A few days after we speak, the opening weekend grosses from Logan Lucky come in. The film opens to a not-so-lucky $8 million. But the reviews are terrific, and word of mouth is the kind of oxygen all the TV ads in the world can’t buy. Besides, Soderbergh has saved the last laugh with sneaky aplomb. He tells other publications off the record that he’s planning a let’s-try-again variation on Logan’s roll-out for his next picture, which is already shot and cut, was made, ultra-secretly, on an iPhone, and stars Claire Foy and Juno Temple. Its title? You guessed it — Unsane.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017