Steven Soderbergh starts things off with an apology. His assistant is on vacation, and he was certain that our interview was scheduled to start a full 15 minutes after it was supposed to commence. That resulted in a mad scramble of calls and text messages to track down the filmmaker.
“I was just sitting here staring off into space,” he says.
It must have been a rare moment of calm for the always-on-the-move director, who has averaged at least one movie or series a year since reemerging from a short-lived retirement in 2017.
And he’s back again this summer with “Full Circle,” a six-part miniseries that premieres at the Tribeca Festival before launching on Max on July 13. It’s a morally complex story about a botched kidnapping that causes several characters’ lives to intersect in surprising ways. It’s also a fascinating portrait of modern-day New York City, one that showcases a privileged Manhattan family (Claire Danes and Timothy Olyphant play the gatekeepers of a business that revolves around Dennis Quaid’s celebrity chef), as well as a pair of Guyanese kidnappers who are deployed by CCH Pounder’s shadowy business woman to exact revenge. “Full Circle” is the kind of knotty thriller that Soderbergh, a master of the genre, does such a great job of setting up and then untangling. To say more would be to spoil its pleasures.
But this being Soderbergh, the brainiest of auteurs, our conversation quickly moves from “Full Circle” though several concentric topics and into an ever expanding array of issues facing the entertainment business and society.
How did you get involved in “Full Circle”?
This was all an Ed Solomon joint. During post-production on “No Sudden Move,” which Ed wrote, he came to me and said, “I’ve been working on this premise.” It was a variation on an idea that’s present in the [Akira] Kurosawa film “High and Low,” which also involves a kidnapping. But he’d come up with a couple of complications and an overlay that made it different. He shared all that stuff with me, and I said, “That sounds great Ed. Why don’t you go write it?”
Nearly ever major character in “Full Circle” has something that they are trying to keep secret. There’s a lot of information that needs to be teased out over several episodes. What’s the challenge with telling a story like that?
We were constantly analyzing how information should be released. There was a lot of trial and error. It was a real clinic in the limitations of your own knowledge and experience, in the sense that you may have written something down and you may think it’s clear when you read it. Then you go out and start to shoot, and you realize stuff that you thought was clear is not as clear as it needs to be. Things that you thought were subtle are not subtle and need to be made more subtle.
The good news was that while I was shooting, I was editing. I’d cut scenes for everyone every day. As we started to accumulate footage we made real-time calibrations to adjust things. If there was a storyline or a certain performer who was really working, we could figure out how to expand their storyline and that character as we’re shooting. I showed “Full Circle” to a lot of people during post-production to get feedback and to make sure that the structure of the piece was working. You need people to feel like they are chasing things a little bit, but still know it’s in reach. You don’t want your audience to get so overwhelmed with information and characters that they tap out before the show is over.
How dramatically did “Full Circle” change as you worked on it?
After I completed the first version, we ended up deleting over an hour of edited material and re-shot over an hour of new material.
What did you cut?
There was one narrative thread that we felt was a bridge too far. I don’t want to say what it is, because I just want people to see the show. I’ll talk about it after people see it.
The series is about a botched kidnapping. But it seems equally concerned with contrasting the affluent lifestyles of Timothy Olyphant and Claire Danes with those of the other characters who don’t have any kind of safety net. So many of your films — from “Erin Brockovich” to “Logan Lucky” — also work as critiques of capitalism. What interests you about that subject?
I would argue that if you make anything contemporary and you want to be realistic at all, you need to operate in that space. What I liked about “Full Circle” was you’ve got a family who has built this massive edifice and this fairly substantial economic eco-system on a lie. And they’ve been willing to look beyond that because of the status and the comfort that they enjoy.
In the case of Claire Danes and Timothy Olyphant’s family, they are ostensibly running a sunny food business, which has this darker underbelly. Is there something about capitalism where these great fortunes have this polite exterior, but there’s something corrupt and polluted behind them?
Capitalism is too small a word for the problem that human beings have with human beings. These issues of power and status and a feeling that life is a zero-sum game, all of that stuff existed before anyone came up with the idea of money and creating value through trade and all that. When the first family moved into a cave, they thought they were better than everybody else. Then a month later, somebody else had an even bigger cave and they looked at those people and said, “Why is their cave so much nicer?” We’re just wired this way. We compare ourselves to other people. That’s just something we do. Capitalism is just a symptom of this larger problem: Why do we create destruction and suffering for other people and think that’s necessary in order to survive?
Isn’t there something deliciously ironic about the fact that you make these critiques of wealth by using the financial resources of multi-national media conglomerates like Warner Bros. Discovery?
You mean privileged people making privilege porn? It’s weird for sure. Now the problem is if Ed and I want to make a show about this subject at this scale, there is no place to go except one of these giant conglomerates. And they’re happy to write the check as long as a lot of people watch it. So getting people to do that is our job.
So to get their backing, do you need to Trojan Horse those ideas into the story by surrounding them with genre elements? “Full Circle” is ostensibly a dramatic thriller.
That’s really conscious on my part. Genres are great delivery systems. This is a perfect example of us trying to make something that if you just want to watch it purely superficially as kind of a melodrama with these little bursts of activity in it, it plays on that level. If you want to look past that, there’s other stuff percolating that you can latch onto. I like to entertain people. I think it’s actually a sign of maturity in a storyteller that you have a real desire to entertain people. That doesn’t mean, however, that it needs to be single-use plastic. That was the balance that we were really trying to achieve of pure American driving narrative and this other stuff that we also wanted to get into.
We had a lot of discussions when we were going through the promotional materials, like the teaser and the trailer. I wanted them to be careful because this is a drama that has some sequences where a lot of things are happening. So how do we sell that as opposed to “it’s a non-stop thriller”? But in the world of telling an audience in 90 seconds what a six-hour show is about, you kind of end up in a default mode of making it feel like it’s hyperactive. There’s not a lot you can do. At the end of the day, if people tune in and start watching it and aren’t engaged, it’s my fault.
There are a lot of people in this show like CCH Pounder and Claire Danes who you’ve never collaborated with before. Do you keep a list of actors you’d like to work with?
It’s not formal, but there is absolutely a list in my mind of people that I hope some day I get to do a project with. I’ve learned you can’t force that. You can’t approach it like, “I’m going to go find a project that I will then pitch to them.” You go after things that you love and want to do and then if the cinema gods put one of those people in front of that project, it’s great. And by the way, people say no to me all the time.
Really? You get a lot of people turning you down?
Oh yeah. I don’t take it personally. I don’t cross them off the list. There’s somebody it looks like I’m going to be working with next year who I’ve approached before and got a no. It looks like now we may may get to work together. My attitude is that if it’s not a “hell yeah” for you then it’s a “no.”
There’s a moment in “Full Circle” that hinges on a character’s cellphone battery dying. It made me wonder if having smartphones and this ability to look things up instantly and be reachable at all times, makes creating dramatic tension so much harder? Because so much of what makes a thriller thrilling revolves around not being able to find someone or not knowing something.
Cellphones are the worst thing that’s ever happened to movies. It’s awful. Last week, I told Ed that I’m going to build a timeline of every insert that’s in the show, just one after another of all the phones and screens in our show, just so you can have them in one place. One of the pleasures of doing “The Knick” or “No Sudden Move” was that this shit didn’t exist. I think you could talk to a hundred storytellers and they would all tell you the same thing. It’s so hard to manufacture drama when everybody can get a hold of everybody all the time. It’s just not as fun as in the old days when the phone would ring and you didn’t know who was calling. I remember that fondly.
There’s been a lot of concern about artificial intelligence and whether it will replace artists and writers. Does that worry you?
I may be the Neville Chamberlain of this subject, but I am not afraid of A.I. in this specific context. It has no life experience. It’s never been hungover. It’s never made a meal for anybody it loved. It’s never been scared walking home late at night. It’s never felt insecure because somebody that it went to high school with 20 years ago has become incredibly successful. I’m not afraid of it. It’s just another tool. If it helps you finish a first draft of a script, great. But can it finish that thing and make it great on its own? Absolutely not. As of today, it is not keeping me up at night.
You made movies such as “No Sudden Moves” and “Kimi” that debuted on Max. Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns the streaming service, isn’t doing that anymore. It will only make movies for cinemas, because it argues that people aren’t as interested in movies that don’t have some type of theatrical release. Was it hard to get people excited about the straight-to-streaming films you made?
I’ll never know because that’s not data that I’m able to see. I can tell you right now though, if you said “No Sudden Move” needed to have some sort of theatrical component, that’s going to have to be a very, very limited release. That’s not a movie that you can get large numbers of people to turn out for. Now on “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” the studio saw the movie and felt like we should put this out theatrically because it is something we can event-ize. That was them being fluid, and I think that’s what you have to be. There is no one template for releasing movies.
It’s great that studios want to make more movies for theaters. But doesn’t that also mean they are going to be more selective and risk-averse? Will more idiosyncratic and off-beat stuff get produced if studios just want things that will attract a big audience in theaters?
That’s possible. “No Sudden Move” and “Kimi” were greenlit as pure streaming films. Now that Warner Bros. is no longer doing that, you would have to look at both of those films as commercial theatrical prospects. How are they going to do? You might be able to do okay with “Kimi” going out as a wide release thriller, but it’s risky. I think it’s questionable that those two movies get greenlit if going in you knew they had to be in theaters.
There’s an interesting article in the New Yorker that argues that the Marvel Cinematic Universe ate the movie business. Do you agree?
If that’s true, it’s not really relevant to me. The bottom line is people go see what they want to go to see. I’ve got to figure out how to integrate that reality into how I work. I have two choices. I either find something that I love and that has enough in it to potentially attract an audience at a scale that would make the prospect worthwhile to a studio, or I stick to a medium in which those concerns aren’t primary like television or streaming. I’ve got two movie projects that I’m preparing that I’m very excited about that have enough in them to justify coming out theatrically in a normal wide release and not as an arthouse film.
What are the projects?
I don’t want to ruin them. They’re both genre films, and I will say that one is a comedy.
That’s interesting because studios don’t make a lot of comedies right now. It feels like an untapped genre, because it’s a pretty shitty time, and I think people could use a laugh.
It’s true. I think comedies are really important, and when you can find a way to make people laugh and have something else going on underneath, that’s where you have a real shot at people remembering what they saw and sort of pulling it into their life somehow. A lot of the things that are sort of further down the road in the future that I’m starting to build out are comedies.
Not to bring up something potentially painful, but I really love “Che.” When it came out, the reviews were good, but it sort of died. It didn’t do much business and there was no Oscar attention. Was that devastating?
No, the win honestly was getting it made. What did I expect? He’s a very polarizing figure. It’s two movies, and they are in Spanish. That’s a big ask. There are movies from the past that we all look at now and think how could that not have been a hit or how could that not have won an award? Then there’s the other end of the pendulum where something blows up and you go, I don’t understand.
In a 2013 speech at San Francisco International Film Festival, you bemoaned the fact that executives are rarely penalized when a movie they greenlight flops. Instead, it’s the filmmakers who get punished. Is that still true?
When these companies go through a significant changes of hands in a sale and it doesn’t turn out well and it has to be unwound and re-done and re-thought, by most objective metrics, you’ve ended up in a worse place than you started. It doesn’t seem like there’s much fallout from that. Everybody at AT&T is still at AT&T. If the WarnerMedia deal were a movie instead of a merger, those people would be in a movie jail until they went and did something really good on a smaller scale. There just doesn’t seem to be a kind of holding pin at that level for executives. You’re so far above the fray that you’re untouchable.
Any thoughts on the writers strike?
Oh, do you think I’m going to weigh in on that? All I will say is that we are at a critical juncture in the business in a number of different areas, which is why this is so complicated. But I sure would like more information about how things are being viewed and monetized coming from the other side. The black box of it all doesn’t make me comfortable. I don’t know how you solve that, but I hope they do.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that “Full Circle” was the first time Zazie Beetz had worked with Steven Soderbergh. They previously collaborated on 2019’s “High Flying Bird.”