Steven Soderbergh on Superhero Movies’ Stunning Lack of Sex and What ‘Contagion’ Got Wrong
The tireless, endlessly innovative filmmaker talks about his new pandemic-set tech thriller “Kimi,” revisiting “Magic Mike,” the state of Hollywood, and much more.
Steven Soderbergh isn’t just one of the world’s most accomplished directors; he’s also one of its most eclectic, segueing between genres—and cinematic techniques and formats—with bold and inventive flair.
On the heels of last year’s stellar 1950s crime drama No Sudden Move, the restless director once again shifts gears with Kimi, a lean Hitchcockian thriller about a single woman named Angela (Zoë Kravitz) who, while analyzing data streams collected by an Alexa-style personal assistant, stumbles upon what she believes to be a recording of a violent crime. Getting to the bottom of that mystery, however, proves more difficult than initially appeared, not only because her Big Tech superiors have ulterior motives for keeping things quiet, but because she’s an agoraphobic with a powerful urge to stay holed up inside her Seattle apartment—an impulse further stoked by the pandemic.
Interacting with society through both her high-rise residence’s windows and her various digital screens and devices, Angela finds herself ensnared in a predicament that Soderbergh fashions as a 21st-century variation on Rear Window-via-Panic Room-via-The Parallax View. Debuting exclusively on HBO Max on Feb. 10, it’s a suspenseful effort rooted in fears about surveillance and privacy, led by a formidably anxious performance by Kravitz. It also reconfirms the peerless genre skill and dexterity of Soderbergh, who has numerous additional projects on his plate, including the six-episode limited series Full Circle and a return to the Magic Mike franchise that he first launched 10 years ago with Channing Tatum. Add to that a sizable list of producing endeavors, and it’s clear that Soderbergh is as astoundingly prolific as ever.
The 59-year-old filmmaker is also one of the most contemplative and insightful voices in the industry. Consequently, it was our immense pleasure to once again sit down with him to talk about his latest film, the threats posed by technology, the state of the theatrical and streaming businesses, and the main reason he doesn’t see himself spearheading a superhero blockbuster any time soon.
Kimi’s story revolves around an Alexa/Google Home personal assistant. Do you own one yourself?
No, I wouldn’t be able to deal with that—while admitting that I know my phone is listening to me. You know your phone is listening to you. You’ve seen your phone push ads to you regarding something you were talking about 15 minutes earlier. So, for me to take a position like I would never have an Alexa in my house is kind of ridiculous because I have a smartphone right here. Now, I don’t take it upstairs with me. When I decide I’m going to sleep, I don’t want this thing anywhere near me.
One of the film’s underlying ideas is that we’ve willingly (and unwillingly) surrendered our privacy to non-stop techno-surveillance. Is there any way to reclaim or manage it? Do people even want to?
I don’t know. It’s a really interesting question, whether or not a generation will evolve that rejects this concept, and the necessity for it. It’s hard to argue that we really have to have this—that society is going to split apart at the seams if we don’t have Siri and Alexa doing shit for us. We don’t need it. And I wonder if it activates a pleasure center in the brain that, over time, is really not working in our interests.
There’s a famous thing that you may have heard of called the Marshmallow Test that they give to 4-year-olds. The whole idea is, they explain to them—they put two marshmallows in front of you and you’re going to sit here for five minutes. If you don’t eat one of them, you’ll get another marshmallow after five minutes. Then they watch and see how many kids can’t resist and eat one of the marshmallows. That is an indicator, even at that young age, that our brain is wired in such a way that impulse control may become an issue. I wonder if this kind of immediate satisfaction triggers a dopamine hit that makes us kind of dependent. It’s an open question. I think it’s a possibility that you get addicted to getting instant gratification about these things, and if somebody takes it away, you have withdrawals. I’m sure that’s happening right now.
The film paints an unflattering portrait of such technology—albeit not totally. Did you see Kimi as a cautionary tale about the need to turn off all electronics, because they imprison more than they liberate? Or did you want to take a more evenhanded approach?
My attitude to technology is not binary, ironically. Technology doesn’t care. Technology doesn’t know that it’s technology; it’s agnostic. It’s just present. It’s how we employ it, and what sort of role we give it, that matters. Unfortunately, we’re a species that, from the moment language—and stories that could be passed from one person or group to another—emerged, we’ve been convinced that whatever problems we’re experiencing will be solved by a new piece of technology. We are absolutely convinced of this all the time. And it’s just not true. The inability to acknowledge that technology isn’t going to fix the things that really need to be fixed right now, and that we need to do some people work—the longer that gets delayed, the more concerned I become. I fall prey to that too, like everybody. If you’ve gotten a new phone the last couple years, there was a part of you that felt like, my life is going to be better when I get this new phone. You’re excited about it. I do that.
Genre-wise, this is a departure from No Sudden Move, which was a departure from Let Them All Talk, which was a departure from High Flying Bird and The Laundromat. Is switching things up a conscious effort—and vital to keeping yourself artistically energized?
I’d say there’s a bit of calculation in the lack of calculation behind the choices. I typically have a few things in various stages of development, and so I don’t always control when something’s ready. I certainly didn’t control this process, because it was David [Koepp]. David pitched me this idea in London four years ago, and wrote it 1.5-plus years ago, and when the first draft came in, I turned it into Warner and said this is what I want to do next, after No Sudden Move. It all happened very quickly, and it could have been a different project that showed up ready. I liked that it was different. That it had some connections, in terms of storytelling arithmetic, to No Sudden Move, but it was a more tightly focused box. That presented challenges that are different than the challenges of No Sudden Move. And I just love thrillers, and David has a very deep understanding of movie storytelling, and of ideas that only work in the movies, or work best in the movies. Storytelling ideas, character ideas. There’s a reason he's the most successful screenwriter in history.
I’m surprised that Kimi originated four years ago, because it feels so closely connected to our present moment. Was the decision to set the film during the pandemic driven by practical circumstances, or by a desire to tap into a contemporary sense of anxiety/claustrophobia/disconnection?
No, that was imposed upon us when we made the decision that the film would occur now, for the audience. That just became a discussion about how do we want to do it and how much real estate do you want to give up to COVID? That’s an important discussion to have, because the movie is going to be seen 10 months after you’ve shot it. We shot March-April of last year, and I don’t think we’d hit Delta yet, and then we had Omicron. We were guessing, and nobody likes guessing.
The film taps into a type of quarantine madness that I think everyone has experienced, where we feel both a burning desire to escape home, and also a fear of going outside. How much did you and David discuss that dynamic, as well as how Angela’s agoraphobia would tie into it?
What we wanted to do was present a three-dimensional character who is not above—at certain moments, because of her issues—using COVID to make her case for why she is the way she is. We wanted to make Angela a fully rounded character. She’s smart, she’s diligent, and she is also, at times, very self-serving and inconsiderate. You like her because she’s capable and she’s intelligent, but she’s kind of prickly sometimes. To me, part of the fun of it was watching Zoë just lay it all out there and not be protecting anything. She didn’t care how Angela came across; she wasn’t trying to make her look like a perfect person. We talked about it, obviously, before we started shooting, but you never know until you get there, how much is she willing to just be an asshole when she needs to be an asshole? Like Darius [Angela’s tech friend, played by Alex Dobrenko]—she does use Darius! He’s not wrong; she only calls when she needs something, and then she hangs up on him. That’s not nice.
How did Zoë become a part of the project?
She was someone I was really intrigued by and had gone into the master file of people that I want to work with—or find something to collaborate with on. When this script came in, those two planets were in the same orbit, and it needed her. It really needed somebody that can do all of the things that she can do. She read it quickly, said yes quickly, and it all happened fast.
Who decided to give Angela blue hair?
That was Zoë. She said, what I have witnessed in the world during the pandemic is a lot of people self-dyeing and changing their hair, just to create a sense of something changing. I loved that idea. She came up with the cut and the color, and it’s unthinkable now that she wouldn’t have her hairstyle that way. It ended up becoming a really crucial connection point between you and her.
The film has some obvious ancestors: Rear Window, first and foremost, and also Panic Room, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Did you discuss those movies with David? And once those connections are out in the open, do you have to work against them to make sure you’re not replicating them too closely?
The algorithm of that relationship is complicated and not fixed. To what extent you’re being influenced, to what extent you’re outright stealing, to what extent you’re blending influences and thefts—it’s all happening in front of you, at all times, when you’re working on the script, when you’re working on the design of the movie, when you’re shooting and editing the movie. It’s this continual process of your relationship with the movies that you’re standing on the shoulders of. And then the very real necessity of knowing what you bring to this kind of film. It may not be one big thing; it may be a series of little things that give it a flavor that makes it not a clone of one of those other films. Fortunately, David and I are the same age, very much have the same influences, and really didn’t have to have explicit conversations about Repulsion or The Conversation or Parallax or Three Days of the Condor. We live there as a default.
Is modern technology, as a subject, the way to make the sort of paranoid thrillers that were popular during the 1970s?
I’ll say this: there are no conspiracies anymore. It’s all out in the open. You read Scott Galloway’s book The Four, and deep-dive into what these gigantic companies are up to and about, and that’s not paranoia—that’s happening. We’re in a really unique situation now where these companies have more power than governments, and yet nobody there is elected, and we don’t know what their plans are, and we only find out about the bad shit they’re up to when some whistleblower comes forward. All of the mistrust that came out of the 1970s because of Vietnam and Watergate has now been sort of redirected and fragmented so that it feels like it’s taking up more space in our daily lives than it did back in the 1970s. The idea that there are powerful entities and people having a real, direct influence on how you live your day-to-day life—that used to be a thing that somebody on a street corner would be screaming in a loop, and it’s the reality that we live in now.
Other than Spider-Man: No Way Home (and some other superhero tentpoles), the theatrical business has struggled during the past year. You told me a couple of years ago that you had faith that theaters would adjust to the evolving film/streaming landscape. Do you see that happening yet, or is the pandemic stymying such change?
Certainly, Spider-Man proves that if people want to go out to see something, they’ll go out to see it—I mean, that was in the middle of Omicron. Personally, I just have to go where the audience for the kind of things I like is hanging out. The good news is: all the data that I’ve been able to squeeze out of the platforms that I’ve made movies for indicates that original movies are a really significant driver of new subscribers and get a lot of eyeballs for people who are already on the platform. It turns out, they still matter over here [on streaming] in a way that they don’t in the theatrical exhibition context. That’s great news for somebody like me, that these mid-level movies for grown-ups have a real audience on HBO Max. All I ask HBO Max is, are you happy with how that went, and would you do it again? Because I can’t get any hard numbers. So far, they’ve said yes, because as it turns out, the people that are interested in us love seeing new movies.
You have an ongoing relationship with HBO Max, which is where Kimi is exclusively premiering. Now that it’s 2022, what’s your assessment about how Warner’s 2021 release strategy—i.e. debuting everything day-and-date in theaters and at home—worked out?
When all that happened, I just thought it was disingenuous for people to assume that a studio—and especially in this case, Warner—would have any interest in not being fully in the theatrical exhibition business. That’s just a ridiculous premise. When a movie works theatrically, there’s nothing like that. There is no equivalent jackpot in the streaming world. Warner’s best-case scenario is putting movies into theaters, believe me. The way information was released, I think, subsumed a rational discussion of the very real issues they were facing economically, with these giant movies holstered. They made the move they had to make. It wasn’t what they wanted; it wasn’t about abandoning filmmakers. Somebody just got in a room with the numbers and went, we don’t have a move here. This is what we have to do.
So, it got done. We’ve learned some things; that’s always a positive. But any studio is absolutely thinking, how do we get that business back? There’s no streaming equivalent of a movie that goes out and grosses $1.8 billion. That’s a unique bonanza, and they all want it. So, they’re desperate for this thing to go back to where it was. They’re not abandoning it.
Do you get approached to make franchise blockbusters? Is that ever on your radar?
Not really, and I’m not a snob; it’s not that I feel it’s some lower tier in any way. It really becomes about what universe you occupy as a storyteller. I’m just too earthbound to really release myself to a universe in which Newtonian physics don’t exist [laughs]. I just have a lack of imagination in that regard, which is why the one foray I had into pure science-fiction [2002’s Solaris] was essentially a character drama that happened to be set on a spaceship. Also, for a lot of these, for me to understand the world and how to write or supervise the writing of the story and the characters—apart from the fact that I can bend time and defy gravity and shoot beams out of my fingers—there’s no fucking. Nobody’s fucking! Like, I don’t know how to tell people how to behave in a world in which that is not a thing.
These universes are pretty conspicuously sexless.
The fantasy-spectacle universe, as far as I can tell, typically doesn’t involve a lot of fucking, and also things like—who’s paying these people? Who do they work for? How does this job come to be?
Right, and avoiding those practical things is part and parcel of stories that aren’t rooted in real life.
If people want to go experience that universe, that’s fine. As a filmmaker, I just don’t know where to start.
You have a lot of upcoming projects, beginning with the third Magic Mike. What brought you back to the series, especially as a director?
The live show that Channing and Reid [Carolin] and Alison [Faulk] thought and created. The live show completely blew me away. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen dancing like this, anywhere. I walked out of the theater and started calling everybody to say we need to make a third film about how Mike created that show.
So there’s going to be a life-imitating-art-imitating-life element to the sequel?
Yeah. Through a set of very odd circumstances, Mike is presented with the opportunity to make something like this happen, and the film is about another crazy collection of characters who are trying to pull this off. It’s another of my disguised procedurals, but it’s got massive amounts of dancing in it, and I’m super excited about it. It’s as close to a full-blown musical as I’m ever going to get.
What sort of challenge is that?
Talk about standing on people’s shoulders. West Side Story came out two months ago, so that now has to be reckoned with. If you’re just talking about staging, you now have to deal with that, and that’s a lot. But you have to be smart about it, in the sense that, again, you have to extract from anything that you’re watching—as an influence or reference—the things from it that you feel are really strong and within your capabilities. Then you have to find ways to add something of yourself that makes up for the ways in which you can’t compete with it. So you go, okay, I can’t do X that this person can do. But I can do Y that they can’t do. So I’ve got to make sure that Y is wrapped into this thing so that they look at this thing and go, oh, that’s interesting, I can’t do that.
Do you feel the need to live up to movies you admire from great directors, especially when they’re in a genre you want to tackle?
It depends on what you like. When you see an amazing version of something that you like, your impulse is, I want to be able to do that. I want to have the ability to do something that’s that good. But you also have to be realistic about your capabilities. I’m always watching stuff and looking for ideas that I can steal or repurpose or appropriate. I want to be better five years from now than I am today. I also know what things are beyond me, and so it’s important that I cultivate things that are specific to me.
I get excited when I see something great; I’m not jealous of it. It makes me want to go to work. But at the same time, I know what kind of filmmaker I am in the sense that, it’s possible—and probable—that I can’t make, for instance, The Red Shoes. I can’t make that. There’s so much going on, on so many different levels, and I know what it takes to make something like that, conceptually and practically. I can’t do that. Now, what I can do is have a longer career than Michael Powell, doing what I want to do the whole time. I can’t compete with him on the film-by-film basis, so I have to take a step back and go, I’m going to put together a career that adds up to something like that.
Is a sex, lies and videotape sequel still a part of that career plan?
I want to do it. I think there are legitimate ideas in it, and I really want to do it. That’s another matter of timing, but I think its origin was as pure, in terms of my idea of what it could do that the first film wasn’t able to do. It was similarly organic and written at a similar speed. It came out fairly formed, very quickly, once I’d understood what the core of the movie was. I hope I get to go back to that and revisit two of those characters.
You’re also planning the six-episode miniseries Full Circle with Mosaic and No Sudden Move screenwriter Ed Solomon. Are you interested in returning to episodic TV, or does it just have to do with opportunity?
I think it’s chance. It’s timing. It just turned out that there’s been a run of features over the last couple of years. That could have gone a different way. Ed and I have been talking about Full Circle for a long time, and I like that canvas. It’s six hours, and we’re trying to do things that six hours allows you to do. We’re trying to really take advantage of the detail that you can load into something that’s six hours, that accumulates in a way that—no matter what you pack into a two-hour, 10-minute movie—the potential for it to really get on a trajectory and throw you somewhere isn’t as pronounced. If you have 5.5 hours to take somebody to a point and push them off a cliff, that’s a lot!
I’m excited that I’m able to move back and forth, and the industry has evolved to the place where these kinds of distinctions aren’t discussed anymore. It’s more just, what’s best for this story? Some ideas are two-hour movie ideas. And some things I read and go, why shouldn’t this be a series?
Kimi isn’t your first film to deal with a pandemic—that would be 2011’s Contagion. Were you surprised that, during the early days of COVID-19, so many people revisited it? And have you?
I didn’t really need to go back to it, because it was really obvious that what we thought would be a niche voice, or a single note within a chord—the Jude Law character—we had no idea that that would become the dominant chord. That that sort of attitude, and skepticism, would really turn into the primary issue. We stupidly didn’t imagine that people, when given the opportunity to not get sick, wouldn’t take it. It just didn’t occur to us, on a mass scale. I think we always assumed there’d be a small percentage of people that would take that position, but that generally people would be happy to be immune. Yeah… we missed that by a wide margin.
Kimi is available for streaming on HBO Max from Feb. 10.