No More Painting
08.01.14 9:45 AM ET
The Director Isn’t Done Yet: An Interview With Steven Soderbergh
One year after retiring from film because he wasn't having fun, Steven Soderbergh is back with the brutal and beautiful Cinemax show The Knick. But what has really changed?
Steven Soderbergh has finally arrived.
Not, of course, in the show business sense of the word; as a filmmaker, Soderbergh arrived long ago. At the end of 1988, Soderbergh, then 25, was best known—if he was known at all—for directing 9012Live, a full-length Yes concert video. By the end of 1989, his first proper movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, had captured the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, propelled Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s Miramax Films into the cultural stratosphere, and ignited an independent film revolution that would define the movie industry for the next decade or so.
But that’s not the kind of arrival we’re referring to. Today, Soderbergh has actually arrived—as in, shown up, physically, at the offices of No. 13, LLC, a production company housed in a handsome Art Deco building on Hollywood Boulevard.
For a moment, Soderbergh’s arrival seemed to be in question. At 9:55 a.m.—five minutes before our interview was scheduled to start—his assistant called my cellphone from New York. “Steven wants me to apologize,” she said. “He’s really sorry, but he’s going to be late.”
I took a sip of water and settled into my seat in the No. 13 courtyard. The L.A. sun was shining, as usual. The sky was an uninterrupted blue. Various species of fashionable flora swayed in the breeze. I guess I’m going to be waiting here awhile, I began to think. But as waiting rooms go…
And that’s when a pristine vintage Volkswagen Beetle, all glinting chrome and pale-green paint, pulled up, and a narrow man—bald, bespectacled, in sneakers and a plain gray T-shirt—killed the engine and emerged from the driver’s-side door.
Soderbergh. I check my watch: 9:58 a.m.
“It took me 20 minutes to go two blocks!” he says, shaking his head. “I’m sorry again.”
I laugh. “It’s nice of you to apologize… for being right on time.”
“Well, I should have been here 10 minutes ago,” he says. “In my book, if you’re on time, you’re late.”
Soderbergh is nothing if not serious about his job—and his job, until recently, was to be Hollywood’s most unpigeonholeable movie director. In the 1990s, Soderbergh followed Sex, Lies with four commercial flops (Kafka, King of the Hill, The Underneath, Gray’s Anatomy) and an experimental creative reset (Schizopolis). Then, in 1998, he returned to the mainstream with Out of Sight, a pitch-perfect Elmore Leonard adaptation starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. He spent the next 15 years following his muse from the arthouse (Full Frontal, Solaris, Bubble, Che) to Hollywood (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11, Contagion, Magic Mike) and back again.
At times, it seemed as if Soderbergh, who often served as his own cinematographer and editor, was being willfully contrary—a cinematic version of the indie rocker who makes sure to release a “difficult” album the second he starts to get too popular. But really, Soderbergh was just doing what he wanted. And that’s what made him such a singular filmmaker.
Until 2013, that is—the year Soderbergh decided to retire from making films altogether. “When you reach the point where you’re saying, ‘If I have to get into a van to do another scout, I’m just going to shoot myself,’” he explained, “it’s time to let somebody who’s still excited about getting in the van get in the van.” His plan, he told The New York Times, was to try painting instead. “I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and ability to do so.”
But that art form didn’t turn out to be painting, even though Soderbergh did go through an Agnes Martin phase. Shortly after bidding farewell to Hollywood with his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh read an intriguing television script. It was called The Knick. New York. 1900. The fictional Knickerbocker Hospital. A brilliant, arrogant chief of surgery named Dr. John Thackery, whose addiction to cocaine and opium is matched only by his ambition for medical discovery. His new colleague, Dr. Algernon Edwards, the first black surgeon on The Knick’s all-white staff. Race, class, blood, guts, and science. Soderbergh was hooked.
Which is why we’re here today. In a few weeks, on August 8, The Knick will premiere on Cinemax. Soderbergh directed every episode; Clive Owen stars. It’s the smartest, headiest, and most brutal show of the summer. I have a lot of questions to ask—about Soderbergh’s career, his creative process, his retirement, his issues with Hollywood, and his plans. Soderbergh, for his part, has agreed to spend a couple of hours coughing up answers.
With that, we get started—right on time.
Let’s talk about The Knick. You got the script last…
Why did it come to you? You were supposed to be retired.
Right. I had really cleared the decks. I had nothing in the chamber.
I reread your retirement interviews. You definitely weren’t saying, “Hmm, maybe I’ll do a TV show next.”
All the movie stuff was finished. I had no TV stuff planned. But The Knick was just too good to let go. My manager had a feeling about it. He said, “I know what the situation is. But you really need to look at this.”
Were you reluctant?
Very. I really felt I was on a different track. But I knew I would regret not doing it. It would have been really hard to watch somebody else go and do it.
It’s everything I’m interested in. Literally. It’s got all the food groups.
What are those food groups?
It’s about problem solving, knowledge creation, race, class. I just felt like without ever being strident, it was touching on all the issues we’re still confronting, but in a way that was fresh. And there was an opportunity, I felt, to play with what we traditionally think a period piece should feel like. I read it and felt, “Oh, Thackery is us.” That guy, in that place, at that time feels like we feel now. For him, things are moving that fast. So how do we create that feeling? How do we shake the dust off of the period piece?
What do you mean by “dust?”
There’s a bit of a diorama effect sometimes. We really didn’t want that—in terms of the writing, the performances, the look, the sound. We really wanted The Knick to feel up-to-the-minute, if possible.
The other thing I loved about the script I read was that it had absolutely no nostalgia whatsoever for the period. At no point do you think, “Wow, it must have been so cool to live back then.” [Laughs] It was horrible.
It looks horrible.
Yeah, and I loved that about it—that your overriding emotion was one of “I’m so happy that I don’t live then.” I thought that attitude was really compelling.
You’ve always said that you love to go “narrow and deep.” Television gives you that opportunity in a way that film can’t.
It’s really fun to build a story that plays out over that length of time. The two days that we spent in New York with a giant dry erase board breaking out the year were really fun. And from a viewer standpoint, the long arc is really satisfying.
Why was it fun for you? Did it feel like something you hadn’t been able to do before?
On K Street, which was very much designed as a five-hour piece, we were building it as we went. That was stressful. Here at least we had the ability to build the whole thing in a safe environment. I’m somebody who very much is a process person more than a results person. And the process part of this, of doing a 10-hour piece, was really fun. As scary as it was before we started shooting.
So you were you afraid, too.
I was very, very worried about the schedule. I’ve dealt with some tough schedules, but this was significantly different.
It was 570 pages in 73 days. That’s five movies. But once we fell into the rhythm, it wasn’t … I was prepared for it to be really awful. To be Che-like. But it wasn’t.
How did the difficult experience of making Che help you make The Knick?
I came out of Che a different filmmaker. What we all learned from that was very applicable here, which is to strip everything down to its essence and be as simple as possible. It would be hard now, I think, to go back to a normal movie schedule. I don’t know what that would be like.
Three pages a day? What do you do with all that time? [Laughs] It would be really weird to go back. But I don’t have any plans to go back, so…
You once said of your retirement from film, “All I know is that everything depends on whether I succeed in becoming an amateur again.” Did The Knick give you a chance to be an amateur again?
It’s important to be scared. You want to be far enough away from your comfort zone that you’re scared, but no so far that you’re lost. That’s right where we were with The Knick. And that keeps you from being complacent. As I continue to work, and as I learn more, I have to keep looking for ways to be slightly outside of my comfort zone. So that’s what I’ll keep doing.
For years everyone has been going on and on about how we’re living through a Golden Age of Television, or even the Golden Age of Television. Do you agree?
I think that what David Chase did with The Sopranos altered the landscape so significantly. He blew everything up in every direction. Not just in terms of the show itself and the content of the show, but he also destroyed all these old ideas about when a season starts, how many episodes is a season. For a creative person to say, basically, “We’ll be ready when we’re ready. Maybe it’ll be six episodes. Maybe it’ll be eight. Maybe it’ll be 10. We’ll see.” Nobody had ever done that before. He laid the track that the rest of us are running on.
Were you watching The Sopranos in real time?
No, I caught up to it right at the end of the first season. I was shooting Erin Brockovich when it premiered, and while I was shooting someone was telling me, “You’ve got to see this. You have to see this.” So I called someone at HBO and got ahold of the first season and just watched them all in two days. That was my first experience of bingewatching. At the time, I didn’t have any understanding of how that might impact me or my career.
You didn’t say to yourself, “I have to make a TV show.”
No, I didn’t. I just thought it was great television and kept it at that. But I think the trickle-down effect has been pretty significant. It’s hard to imagine the great shows that have been on since then without The Sopranos.
Why did television acquire so much momentum in the wake of The Sopranos? There have been great or groundbreaking shows in the past that haven’t spurred such a massive cultural shift.
The Sopranos happened at a time when the Internet was here, was with us, and I think it enabled a land grab to take place. Television took over a part of the cultural real estate that used to belong to movies and music. Technology accelerated that. The Internet is the ultimate watercooler, and television really rewards that kind of attention. As a form it is well-suited to that kind of connectivity and engagement, week after week.
So let’s talk about the trickle-down effect. As a member of the television audience who also happens to be a filmmaker, which shows—or scenes or performances or whatever—have made you sit up and go, “Holy shit. TV is better than the movies now?”
Like a lot of people, I enjoyed Breaking Bad. Not just because it was a really good show, but also because, almost more than any other show that I’ve seen, it had a such a high percentage of really strong episodes. I felt that Vince Gilligan’s slugging percentage was extraordinarily high, given the demands of a series like that. And the fact that he managed to land the ending so well, and so publicly, is another testament to Vince’s vision.
Breaking Bad also had a stronger visual intelligence or wit than most television shows—unusual camera angles, single-concept episodes—and a fondness for cutting up chronology and playing with the narrative. Was that surprising to you as someone coming from a cinematic background?
I was really impressed with how well-made Breaking Bad was. There were some episodes that were so well directed that I went back to check who directed them. Like, I looked the directors up on the Internet to figure out where they came from and what their backgrounds were.
That brings up an interesting point. Like film actors, film directors—David Fincher with House of Cards, Guillermo del Toro with The Strain—are crossing over into TV. Some—like Cary Fukunaga with True Detective and you with The Knick—are even sticking around to direct an entire season. Is this the next big thing?
I think you’re going to see more director-driven television. What the end result of that is going to be, I don’t know. But whenever I hear an idea now, my first thought is, “Why shouldn’t this be on TV?”
And yet there’s a bit of an irony here, no? The old line is that cinema is a director’s medium and television is a writer’s medium—and that seems in part to be why television has become so good: because it’s a writer’s medium.
But I think what you’re going to see in some cases is creators/showrunners recognizing that having a director in the room when you’re building the show—conceiving the show—is a real plus. If you can organize it that you’ve either got a very small group of directors over the course of a season, or in the case of The Knick or True Detective, one director, there’s a unification of elements that’s really unique. So I think that will become more of the norm—because if you can manage to have a good director as a member of the brain trust, you’re going to have a better show.
Directing does seem like the one area where television hasn’t reached its full potential yet. The acting is great, the writing is great. But then you have a bunch of different directors coming on as hired guns.
Part of that is an economic issue. Television schedules tend to be really tight. The traditional way of thinking about it is, “Well, there isn’t much time to interpret this. We’ve got x amount of pages.” But to stop thinking that way and to see the show through a directorial lens is, I think, a good thing for the piece.
Why are film people flocking to TV?
Just following the material. I don’t think there’s a lot of deep philosophical debate. There are more possibilities in TV, in terms of storytelling, than there are in the movies. I like the idea that these lines don’t exist anymore between films and television—that people can just follow whatever content they want to follow.
You’ve said this before: “Nobody’s talking about movies the way they’re talking about their favorite TV shows.” How important is that sense of cultural centrality to you—the idea of being where the conversation is?
It depends on what level of disposability you’re comfortable with. [Laughs] I’m aware of the fact that everything I make is disposable. But it’s certainly a nicer feeling when it has more than a day as part of the discussion. I mean, to work on a movie for a long time and get a call from the studio on Friday afternoon going, “Sorry, it’s not working”… it’s annoying.
Movies don’t have time to find audiences anymore. With TV, it’s nice to feel like your part of a conversation that’s going on—as opposed to the movie business, which is only judged by one prism these days: economic.
You once said that “if I were going to run a studio I’d just be gathering the best filmmakers I could find and sort of let them do their thing within certain economic parameters.” Isn’t that basically what the leading cable networks are doing these days?
I know that’s the stated intent of the people I’m working with, which is, “We want this to be the place where talented people want to work.” That’s the way they look at it. I haven’t encountered any television executives who felt that they were the creative people.
Which is different than the movies.
Yeah. Lately. The other day, as I was sitting in my car, I was thinking: the movie business, what can they do? The only growth area right now is in one-hour programming. That’s blowing up. Everything else is shrinking, except for sports. So I wonder if it’s possible for the studios to emulate the subscription model. If you’re Warner Bros., there’s some version of being a subscriber to Warner Bros. Once again Warner Bros. would clearly define itself as “We make a certain kind of movie” or “We make good movies.” Bringing back the idea of the studio as a brand. Would that work? You would subscribe to a studio. Their theaters would be known as “the good theaters.” And studios would be competing to give viewers the best experience.
So what would the content be in that system? Would a movie studio make one-hour installments of some story and then subscribers would go see those “episodes” at the studio’s theaters?
Here’s what I would do. If had a hit show like Breaking Bad, I would have done the end of the show as a two-hour movie that opened the week after the penultimate episode. Absolutely. Maybe we’ll do this on The Knick. Since we air on Fridays, let’s say next year Episode 9 and 10 open for a week in 2,500 theaters on a Friday. You advertise it all year. You’re already advertising anyway. Everybody’s going to know it’s coming. I think that would be really interesting—to see if there’d be any crossover.
The counterargument would be “Why does it have to be in theaters. Isn’t television good enough?”
I have to say, we had a screening of Episode 1 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art the other week, and it was really fun to see it with 400 other people. You know?
You’ve always enjoyed toying around with genre. Is The Knick that kind of project for you? I mean, medical dramas are the biggest cliché on television.
I was attracted because The Knick was a genre piece. But at the same time, it felt like a new take on that genre. It was the best of both worlds. You’ve got the foundation of this indestructible genre, and yet the trappings, the dressings, are new. There’s humor in it, but it’s not jokey. There’s drama in it, but I feel that it’s earned. And it’s extremely graphic. [Laughs]
It certainly is.
Yeah. If it’s not the most graphic medical drama that’s been on television, it’s certainly got to be tied for first.
Why so graphic? Was it about realism—giving viewers a sense of how things actually looked and felt in an American hospital at the start of the 20th century?
Yeah. I feel like it’s OK, in television, to have aspects of a show that are polarizing, as long as they’re organic to what the show is. It’s fair for people to debate whether The Knick is too graphic—or whether or not the music is weird. The medium, the long form, rewards… if not ambiguity, then elements that create multiple reactions in the viewer.
The music is fascinating. It feels so un-period.
Often you end up figuring out what something should be based on what you don’t want it to be, I had a very clear idea of what I did not want the music to sound like.
Acoustic. I hired Cliff Martinez, then I didn’t tell him anything for a long time. Then, just before shooting the show, I said, “We’re going to go all electronic.” And he said, “Great.” It really was just born out of the sensation of “I can’t bear the idea of strings on this. I just can’t.”
What about the look of The Knick? There’s a very pronounced tone—a kind of warm, dark glow.
We were very anxious that the lighting all be practically-based. Whether it was truly shooting with available light, or building sets with practical fixtures in them and only using those—that was our approach. It should look like you just walked into this place and turned the camera on. It was dark back then!
Is there a distinction between The Knick and cinema, other than just a) length and b) where people are seeing it?
Only in strict definitions of form. In terms of my approach and how I was directing the show, I made choices using the same criteria I use when I make anything. I very much viewed it as a 10-hour film.
Watching The Knick I noticed a more pronounced directorial sensibility than I usually see on TV. To take one example: There’s a conversation the doctors have after a patient dies. They’re washing up, and three people are talking, but the camera just stays on Dr. Gallinger’s face the entire time instead of cutting back and forth.
At that point in time, in that situation, watching Gallinger navigate that conversation is important for us. Directing is really about determining the balance of elements so the emphasis is always appropriately placed. That was a situation in which I felt it was important to emphasize what it was like to be him. And I like doing that. Going back generations, whether it’s Persona or Carnal Knowledge, there’s a long history of holding close-ups while things happen around the character.
Because you’re upsetting the usual syntax of cinema. We expect to see each character as they speak.
Yeah. And the reason I can do that is that I don’t have someone calling me the next day going, “Where’s the coverage?” You need to have the freedom to solve the problem the way you want to solve it—and not have somebody second-guessing you.
Will we see more of that as more directors move into TV?
I hope so.
Clive Owen is fantastic on The Knick. How did you get him to agree to it?
It happened very quickly. I knew Clive casually, and I knew a lot of people who worked with him. I just saw him immediately as being the guy. The right combination. The Thackery part needed somebody who could hold the screen: a movie star.
If you have a character who in some ways takes over whatever room he enters, you better have somebody who can sell that. Clive just had the perfect combination of intelligence and intensity for us to believe the character as a force that is almost singlehandedly keeping this hospital alive. I knew there were a lot of reasons for him to read this and say no. But we got on the phone and described what we had in mind and how we were going to do it, and he said, “I’m in.”
Was Clive like you—someone who wasn’t having much fun in film?
No. I’ve never heard him complain about anything, actually. [Laughs] It’s a nice quality.
You’ve gotten a lot of career-best performances out of actors: Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Matt Damon in The Informant, George Clooney in Out of Sight. How?
I think you’d be surprised by how little I talk to the actors. My goal is for them to feel like they landed in exactly the right place through some process of their own. I don’t feel the need to own what they’re doing. So my discussions with them tend to be very, very practical. Very technical.
What’s an example of that?
I’m very interested in physicality. What they’re doing with their bodies. Are they sitting, standing, coat on, hat off? If you can get the actors sorted out physically, it means they’re going to be in the right spot mentally—everything comes from the physical.
I don’t want them thinking. I want them behaving, instinctually. So I keep it very, very simple, and I try to avoid setting anything up shot-wise until I’ve seen what is going to happen with the actors. I try to never have a situation where I’ve already built a frame and I’m telling them where to stand. The first thing I do is, “Let’s just make sure we have a scene that plays. Figuring out how to shoot it is the easy part. Let’s make sure we have something worth shooting.” I can’t remember the last time I said, “I think what you’re feeling here is…”
How did The Knick’s compressed shooting schedule—having to shoot so many pages so quickly—affect your approach to the actors?
For once I didn’t have to justify how fast we were going. [Laughs] Everybody knew. We move pretty quickly on movies, too, and sometimes people can interpret that as not caring enough. It’s not. Having done this for a long time, it’s just me having no desire to make things harder than they need to be.
Still, if I hit a wall… Look, there was a day on this show. A scene that I was having real difficulty figuring out how to do.
Later in the season?
It’s in Episode 7. It’s one of the most important scenes on the show. And I was stuck. I spent two and a half hours setting up a shot. One shot. I rehearsed it once, didn’t even shoot, stopped, and sent everybody home. I pulled my assistant director aside and said, “I don’t have it. I know what I don’t want it to be, but I don’t know what I want it to be.” It was the last thing we were doing that day. I said, “I hate what I’ve set up. We’re not even going to shoot it. I need to figure this out.”
So I went home, cut everything else we’d shot that day up to that point, figured out what the solve was, called Greg, and said, “I got it.” The next morning, we went in and it was done in an hour. The whole thing.
That’s an example of, yeah, I like to move really, really fast, unless there’s a problem and we’re not getting it. Then I’m the slowest person in the world. I will literally stop everything and send everybody home. You need to know when you don’t have it.
What did you learn about your creative process on The Knick?
It was a sharpening of a lot of experiences that I’d had on disparate projects. It needed everything that I had. Ultimately, though, the bottom line is: You just can’t force it. The goal is always to somehow get into the mental space that allows the door to open. That’s a real Jedi mind trick that you’ve got to do on yourself, because being on a set with a lot of people standing around and the clock running isn’t particularly conducive to calm consideration. But there is a way to trick yourself into forgetting all that. To just think, “What if I did have all the time and resources in the world? What would I do?” And then, “Is there any element of that that can be conjured here?”
I remember on Full Frontal, we had this one scene. We were running it and running it and it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure it out. And again, I said, “Let’s stop. Something’s not right. I don’t know what, but this just isn’t working.” And we all [laughs]… Me and the two actors ended up, by circumstance, all in the bathroom at the same time, talking about the scene. And I realized, “Oh. The problem is that the scene is happening in the wrong place. The scene should be in here.” We did the whole scene in the bathroom and didn’t change a word. When it was in the office and it was one guy across the desk from another, it was dead. But in the bathroom, it worked.
How have you been able to sustain your fear of complacency? Every creative person knows they should avoid it, but almost no one manages to.
More often than not, people get frozen in the moment of their first success. They’re scared of losing it. But of course, that’s the surest way to lose it. If there’s no idea of yourself that you’re trying to protect other than the idea of yourself as someone who doesn’t protect anything, I think you’re going to have a much more satisfying career. I’ve never worried about how I’m perceived.
Now, I’ve worried about my employability. One of the reasons that I wanted to do Out of Sight, and one of the reasons that was probably the most important assignment I’ve ever had, was that, at that point, half the movie business was off-limits to me. I didn’t just want to be art-house boy.
But other than that, which was coming from a place of “I want maximum opportunities and mobility,” I’ve never made a decision based on anything other than engagement with the material. Period. You don’t go make Schizopolis if you’re trying to protect some idea of yourself as a filmmaker.
That takes a certain kind of confidence. You have to realize that what you did is not the important thing, but rather who you are as an artist—and you have to follow that wherever it takes you.
I always use the example of Interiors, which Woody Allen made in between Annie Hall and Manhattan. You can’t just go from Annie Hall to Manhattan. You have to have Interiors in between. People have issues with that movie. But I look at it and go, “It’s a necessary step for him. He has to go do that.” That’s getting lost now in the movie business: the necessity of, for lack of a better term, mistakes. Failures. Choices that didn’t pan out. Those are crucial for the development of an artist.
The films that I made that nobody saw were very, very important for me. I made Sex, Lies, and Videotape, then I made five movies in a row that nobody saw. Then I made Out of Sight. You don’t get that many “mistakes” now. I’d be in movie jail.
I don’t know. I guess the economic stakes are too steep. Studios are risk averse, and they’re like, “Why would I hire this guy who just made five weird movies in a row that nobody wants to see?”
I think it’s partially television’s fault, too. The audience that was going to the movies before—and going for smarter stuff—is no longer leaving home because the smart stuff is on TV. So Hollywood says, “Well, we have to make money somewhere, and there are these emerging markets overseas, so we’re going to gear our movies to international viewers.” It’s like some sort of horrible Rube Goldberg machine.
That’s why after Che—like Stalin—I had a five-year plan to segue out of the movies and into something else. I could feel the trajectory moving in a certain direction. I could tell: “That’s not going to be a good place for me much longer. I need to make a change so that I’m somewhere where whatever it is I do is viewed as positive and not a negative.”
You’ve said you retired from cinema because you weren’t having fun. Who was to blame for that: you, or Hollywood, or both?
I think the work environment has changed. Any filmmaker you talk to will tell you that. It’s different than it was 10 years ago. But it is what it is. The degree to which an economic model that I consider pretty close to unsustainable is going to continue, I don’t know.
It does seem like a death spiral, doesn’t it?
It does to me. But I guess most of these companies are so vertically integrated that they can absorb losses that the studios couldn’t in the 1960s. Back then, when you made a movie that lost money, you lost every nickel. It was done. There were no TV sales, no DVD, no foreign. Now you can spread it around.
And that insulates the studios.
It insulates them from the real consequences of bad choices. There’s no turnover of ideas.
August 18 is the 25th anniversary of Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
Have you watched it recently?
I haven’t seen it since it was remastered for Blu-ray. That was a long time ago.
What would happen if you were a 25-year-old filmmaker and you made that movie today?
I don’t think anything would happen. In the 1980s, the studios took over the movies. And we showed up at a moment when, on a mass level, audiences were ready again to see movies that felt like they’re were made by hand. That weren’t committee-driven. It was just timing. It was zeitgeist.
Doesn’t that suggest that there’s a cycle at play, and that maybe we’ll see a similar shift again?
Absolutely. I think you have to pay attention to that. Not to be a slave to it, but to pay attention. Traffic very, very nearly didn’t get made. We kept pushing and financing the prep ourselves because we had a very strong sense that it was the right time for that movie. Like, “There’s just something in the air right now.”
In terms of topicality?
It just felt like a conversation that people were ready to have. Now, we were very aware that nothing was going to come of it. [Laughs]
It seems like people today are frustrated by the lack of individual, handmade films. Could a movie—the equivalent of Sex, Lies, and Videotape—come along now and effect the same sort of change?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now with Boyhood. People are so intrigued by this idea of the same boy actually growing up on screen—which is a classic Rick [Linklater] idea. Only Rick would think of doing that. [Laughs] It’s been awesome to watch the success of that film. That’s an idea that doesn’t cost anything. The cost of it is in the ability to sustain your interest in the project—and convince everybody else to remain interested in the project, too.
Yeah. And that’s an act of will. That’s not a line item. I love the fact that people are really lit up at the concept of the film, because it’s so human-scale.
You’ve said, “American movie audiences now just don't seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative.” So I want to bring up the counterargument. Isn’t that just Golden Ageism? Fogeyism? The false assumption that everything sucks now, and that everything was better way back when?
I don’t think so.
But doesn’t Boyhood disprove the idea that audiences aren’t interested in complexity?
It’s the exception that proves the rule. No, I don’t think my dissatisfaction is nostalgia. The bottom line is that at a certain period in time, from 1966 to 1976, the most successful movies were also the best movies, and that’s just not true anymore.
But we have these arguments about journalism, too. In the 1960s, people were doing serious longform journalism: Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion. The biggest magazines—Time and Newsweek—were full of deep reporting and elegant writing. But the vast history of journalism has been about bias and yellow journalism and selling out to the lowest common denominator. So has everything gone to shit—or was it always shit and then there was a brief period in which it wasn’t?
I think the honest answer is some things have gone to shit. We all go through life making judgments about things. What we think is good, bad, indifferent. And that’s totally appropriate. A world in which you don’t differentiate between what you’re exposed to is kind of pointless. All I can do is stand on the shoulders of people I’ve identified as heroes and try to emulate them in some way—and not contribute to the noise and the sludge.
What would you say to people who’d argue that there are still great auteurs at work in Hollywood: Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, and so on? They’re all making movies.
I would argue that in terms of movies, and the movie business, we’re all still on the margins. Let’s put it this way. Are there people out there still making cinema? Of course there are. But when I say cinema is shrinking as a concept… why isn’t Under the Skin a bigger hit than it is? That’s a really good movie. That’s a piece of cinema.
So I’m looking at it going, “Why isn’t this a bigger hit? Why isn’t it a hit at all?”
Would it have ever been a hit, though?
I think so. I think in the 1970s it would have been a hit.
I could see that.
You know? Or at least it would have been a conversation. That movie came out and it wasn’t even a conversation. And I’m looking at it, like, “This is really extraordinary.” I couldn’t even get my friends to go. There’s no reason Under the Skin shouldn’t do well, and there’s no reason everybody shouldn’t be talking about it. That to me is an example of what’s happened. That’s what’s gone.
Do you see The Knick—and your “retirement from film” in general—as something akin to Schizopolis: a creative reset that allows you to break through to the next level?
I don’t know if The Knick was a reset, but there was definitely a moment when we’d found the rhythm of the show, and I remember realizing, “Oh, you know, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Like, “This is the job that I’m built for.” [Laughs] “Nobody’s waiting for my paintings.” I really assumed I wasn’t going to be on a set for a long time.
You lasted about a year.
I know, I know.
When you retired from film, you said something that I thought was really interesting, and even inspiring in a way: “I’m better than I was five years ago... but at stuff that’s superficial—craft. But in terms of making something that’s just off the chart, I’m not. That’s not a shift or change that’s going to take place incrementally. It requires some form of amputation. So I just need to stop for a while.”
What I realized on The Knick is that while I think about whatever that new thing might be—and I still don’t know what it is—I can still go and work. While that’s processing in the background. While I’m trying to deconstruct my relationship with cinema, I can still go to work.
And it’s fun.
Whereas it wasn’t before.
I’m curious to know what you mean by “off the chart.”
[Long pause] The problem is, if I could describe it, I would have made it. I don’t know what it is, other than to say it’s something new. And something ambitious. I just feel like the ambition is gone, you know?
Where is the filmmaker—the filmmaker with the juice to do it—who’s making Apocalypse Now? Where’s our Apocalypse Now? That’s what I want to know.
For you, that’s an example of “off the chart.”
It’s almost too upsetting to watch now, that movie. For me.
Because it’s not happening in Hollywood today?
Yeah. It makes me so sad I can’t watch it. To look at that and go, “Man, at the apex of Francis Ford Coppola’s power, this is what he went out and did.” Nobody’s doing that anymore. I mean, there are people going out and making big movies, but they’re not that. That is not only a physically complicated movie, but a thematically complicated movie. It’s an audacious movie. It’s a polarizing movie. That is something I look at as a totem of what movies used to be. What they used to mean.
Do you still come up with movie ideas?
Yeah. Sure. I always have a notebook going with stuff in it. I don’t know if that’s a game I play with myself—me thinking “This might actually get made”—or whether it’s just reflex: You have an idea, you write it down.
Is the Steven Soderbergh version of Apocalypse Now the only thing that can bring you back to film?
Who knows? It’s like The Knick. I didn’t know that two guys were sitting in a room, pounding that out. So somebody may be sitting in a room, pounding something out, that I’ll read and go, “That’s it. That’s what I’ve been looking for.” I’m totally open to that. And I don’t care if people are like, “This is what he came back for? Why didn’t he stay retired?” I don’t give a shit. If I find something and I feel like, “I want to do this,” then I’ll do it. But I can’t imagine what that would be right now.
On the flip side of it, I don’t get the sense that you feel like you need to make another film as, like, a statement. As a capstone to your career.
Nope. If Behind the Candelabra were the last movie I made, I would be very happy. It was a great experience, and in many ways it was the perfect chapter close because it felt, to me, like a direct descendent of Sex, Lies. Both those movies were about two people in rooms. One of them just happened to have a Jacuzzi in it.