Steven Soderbergh: “Artists don’t need lots of money, they just need freedom”

Steven Soderbergh turned his back on the studios to make Logan Lucky – but it may have changed cinema forever. The director talks pressure, politics and Daniel Craig’s pay packet

Financing models are possibly the least sexy aspect of Hollywood but Steven Soderbergh’s new film Logan Lucky is a game-changer. Before a scene was shot, overseas distribution and non-theatrical rights (to Amazon) were sold. Cutting out the studio system entirely, the money raised from pre-selling the film was the money used to make the film.

“As soon as the movie opens and someone buys a ticket we’re in profit,” Soderbergh says. “Under this model we never lose, it’s just a question of how big a win there is.”

Trade papers in the US dubbed Logan Lucky a flop after it opened at number three at the box office. While that would spell disaster for a blockbuster trying to salvage its production costs, Soderbergh isn’t concerned: “Just the fact we did it was a win.”

As soon as the movie opens and someone buys a ticket we’re in profit

“I don’t think anybody really cares about this outside the movie business – and they shouldn’t – they should just be concerned about whether or not the film’s any good. But if there’s an alternative that provides a wider lane for film-makers to work in and a more diverse range of films, ultimately I do think that’s good for the movie-goer.”

This could change film-making forever but it’s just the latest in a long line of Soderbergh’s cinematic experiments. His eclectic back catalogue begins with 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and launched the indie film movement that reinvigorated Hollywood in the 1990s. With Out of Sight he transformed George Clooney from dishy heartthrob to serious movie star, a relationship that continued through the Ocean’s trilogy that made almost half a billion dollars.

In 2001 Soderbergh was nominated twice for best director at the Oscars – Traffic pipped his other film Erin Brockovich to the prize. He also made the sprawling two-part biopic of Che Guevara, Che, and the gleeful stripper comedy Magic Mike.

Candelabra

After Behind the Candelabra, based on the life of Liberace (pictured above), Soderbergh announced his retirement in 2013. “I reached a point about four years ago where it had just stopped being fun,” he recalls. “I was feeling increasingly out of synch creatively with what the studios were looking for.”

Retirement lasted roughly two weeks. A TV script arrived and then the idea for funding Logan Lucky came together. Soderbergh didn’t like the system so he changed it.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘That’s easy for him to do.’ Yeah, perhaps. The easier thing for me to do would be to take a big pay cheque for a movie I’m not really engaged by. The problem is I can’t bring myself to do that. I couldn’t make something I wouldn’t stand in line to see. I remain somewhat earthbound in my taste, and what I see is a lot of films that are becoming increasingly untethered to reality.”

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So what would Soderbergh’s superhero movie be like?

“I just made that. Logan and the Ocean’s films are as close to a superhero movie as I can get.”

Logan Lucky is the inbred cousin to the glitzy Ocean’s heist films, as a hapless band of rednecks attempt to rob a NASCAR race. In a country with ever-growing divisions, these kinds of characters are not frequently seen onscreen in a way that transcends stereotypical portrayals. But Soderbergh is remarkably frank about what disappointing box-office figures in the US mean.

“It’s clear from this past weekend that a lot of the people who might relate most closely to the characters and the situations in the film stayed home. And we know we reached them, I know from the data from the content we dropped – who saw it, who shared it – they knew the movie was out there. Whether or not they decided that, ‘Oh, these people are just going to make fun of us’, I don’t know. I really don’t know.

Steven Soderbergh at the 66th Venice Film Festival
Steven Soderbergh at the Venice Film Festival

“These are not people that get a lot of screen time and even when they do they are not presented as heroic in any way. When an under-represented group of people don’t show up to see a film that represents them, you’re stuck wondering why that is. You can’t do a poll where you call people up and ask – why didn’t you go to the film?

“It’s such a strange time to be in America and to be an American. It’s really hard to tell what this all means and where it’s going. Right now we’re all trying to parse the difference between debate and out-and-out conflict and culture war. I don’t know where this is going to wash up.”

For the film, Soderbergh enlisted actors who share a similar hot-cold relationship with the studio system, including Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig, as bleached-blond James Bond antithesis Joe Bang.

“He understood what we were trying to do and was happy to be a part of it,” Soderbergh says. “But I have to believe at the end of the day what was most appealing to him was the opportunity to play a part like this where he could cut loose and show off his comedic chops, which he doesn’t get asked to do very often.”

Logan Lucky’s budget was $29m. For the next James Bond film, speculation puts Craig’s pay packet at anything up to $135m.

“First of all, when you talk about numbers and the film business – there are very few people and/or companies that are telling you the truth about anything,” Soderbergh explains. “They lie all the time to make stuff look better. Is Daniel going to be well compensated? Sure. But how that gets broken up – how much of that is upfront, how much is triggered by performance – it’s impossible to know without looking at his contract.

It’s such a strange time to be an American. It’s really hard to tell what this all means and where it’s going

“In this circumstance he should get whatever he can get. He’s great in that part, he’s the draw here and he should share in the success of that, absolutely. I’m sure after the gigantic success of the franchise with him in the lead he wants to make sure proportionally speaking he’s being compensated.”

But Soderbergh’s goal is not to make as much money as possible. “The goal is freedom,” he says. “Artists don’t need a lot of money, they just need freedom. What I have to do is redefine what success is and not fall into this trap of having it defined by a system I don’t agree with.”

So if this is a success is Hollywood doomed?

“There is a larger quotient of fear right now than there has been before,” he says. “There’s more pressure to deliver hits. People are trying to figure out what the new landscape will look like. I look at the uncertainty and see it as an opportunity but a lot of other people, they’re just worried – and instead of taking the opportunity to try something different they’re doing the same thing they’ve been doing. I would argue that’s unnatural. Nature evolves. The only constant in this world is change.”

Logan Lucky is in cinemas now