STEVEN SODERBERGH IS nothing if not ever-evolving—except, maybe, for tireless. After establishing himself as one of his generation’s great auteurs with movies like Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Out of Sight, and Traffic, he vowed to stop making theatrical films. During the supposed hiatus, he made HBO’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, and two seasons of prestige drama The Knick for Cinemax. Then this summer, "retirement" over, he returned to the multiplex with the heist flick Logan Lucky.
That wasn’t all, though. He’s also spent the last few years working on Mosaic, an app-based miniseries mystery that viewers navigate their way through, chapter by chapter. (At the end of each node, they can choose which character to follow or which new scene to watch.) For most other directors, it would be a dramatic career turn. But for someone as prolific as Soderbergh, it’s just one of a handful of projects he seems to be constantly working his way through with a savant-like ease.
Soderbergh sat down with WIRED in his Tribeca office (which looks delightfully like where a 1930s gumshoe would set up shop) to share the backstory on his latest project, as well as his thoughts on virtual reality, the future of filmmaking, and the sexual harassment allegations against the man who helped make Sex, Lies, and Videotape a hit: Harvey Weinstein.
Steven Soderbergh on making an app that tells a story:
I was initially reticent—as a filmmaker/storyteller, anything that feels game-y is a little scary because games and being told a story work at cross-purposes. In the game, the viewer has agency, and as a result there’s a certain kind of engagement that happens that isn’t the kind of emotional engagement you get from experiencing a story. So my concern was: Will I still have the kind of control as a filmmaker that I need to have? But what I saw was something that was not a film, and not a game. It was rubbing up against both these things, but was different enough from each to be exciting. The technical innovations that have taken place in gaming over the last decade and a half are stunning, so this seemed like an opportunity to take advantage of a form that has been around a long time—branching narrative—and have the technology be an organic part of the story, as opposed to someone coming along and saying “Oh, I got this piece of new tech, let’s jam a story into it.”
On virtual reality:
There are several things working against it. When you can’t see your protagonist, it’s virtually impossible to hook into the story. This is how we engage, looking into the eyes of the protagonist. There’s no such thing as montage. It’s uncomfortable to have that thing on your head for more than a certain period of time. Part of the joy of anything is watching it with someone else and at a certain point looking at them and going “Holy shit!” That’s gone.
To me, there are all these things working against it as a long form, narrative format. I think it’s going to work best as a combination of immersion and gaming and stuff like that, but I don’t… I wish I could short it, I could make a lot of money. But I don’t think I can. It’s going work in 10- to 15-minute bursts as an immersion into something, but it is never going work in a long-form narrative space. There are too many things that you’re giving up that are crucial to a viewer’s locking in to a narrative.”
The first problem, Soderbergh said, is the lack of a reverse shot in virtual reality. This is the film technique that puts the audience in the position of one character, looking directly at a second character, and then flips the perspective to look back at the first character from the perspective of the second.
Here’s what he said on the topic.
The ability to shoot a reverse and look into the eyes of the protagonist who is experiencing the story is the bedrock of visual narrative, and you just can’t sustain something for more than 10 or 15 minutes in which you do not have a reverse in which you are looking at the character who is experiencing it. This is the difference between a game and a story. … As a filmmaker, that’s a problem.
The other thing is, currently, and maybe they’ll figure this out, but you’ve taken the editing away from me. I can’t do a montage. That’s a gigantic problem. You’re basically talking about a proscenium. It’s a 360-degree proscenium, but you’re basically talking about staging something as a theatrical piece, in a way. You can’t think of it in movie terms.
I look at VR and I just go, great for games. Great for these short of short-form immersion things, but long-form narrative? Right now, there are serious obstacles that, with the technology as it is today, to my mind, are insurmountable. I don’t see it. Start selling your stock, whatever. Or buying, depending on what you think about that.
This sounds like a challenge to the tech industry! Who can come up with a long-form narrative virtual reality experience that satisfies the likes of Steven Soderbergh?
On the value of short TV seasons:
It’s a chicken or the egg thing, does [a short series] feel more satisfying because they’re designing them that way, or is it truly more satisfying? I don’t know. It depends on the format. Sitcoms tend to lend themselves to years and years and years, for whatever reason. Hour-long dramas, they’re hard. To keep them fresh you need to keep introducing new people and killing people off. You gotta have a universe that’s large enough to allow for expansion and contraction.
On what happened to The Knick:
One of the ways we were going to keep The Knick [going] was that it was conceived from the beginning as six years. The idea was that every two years you would leap forward in time. Brand new cast, new characters. The institution was the only common element. That’s because we were very concerned about this issue of just running out of things for people to do.
We knew we were going to kill [Dr. John Thackery]. From the get-to I told Clive [Owen], “Two years. I need you for two years; we’re going to kill you.” So Seasons 3 and 4 were going to jump forward 50 years and then Seasons 5 and 6 were going to take place in the near future. That was always the master plan. It went away not because of anyone’s desire to step on its throat. Season 3 got written but when Cinemax decided, “We wanna go back to Cinemax’s pure genre roots,” Season 3 and 4 of The Knick—which were going to be in black-and-white—didn’t really seem like a good fit there.
On shooting his upcoming movie Unsane on an iPhone:
I’ve been shooting stuff on my phone with intention and purpose for a couple years. I started seriously thinking at the end of the year last year that I gotta find something that really works for that. And just by chance a writer friend of mine called me up out of the blue looking for work. I said, “I don’t have anything for you, but if you can write me a super low-budget thriller/horror type thing, I’ll shoot it June 1.” This was mid-January. Three weeks later, a script shows up, and I love it. I said, “Let’s go.”
It was so liberating. I’m going to do it again. … The ability to put the lens anywhere I wanted in a matter of seconds, if not minutes, was incredibly freeing. You want to put a camera above somebody’s head, you’ve got to lash a rope to it and tie it to something so it doesn’t kill them. This, you just stick it on a piece of velcro and shoot. If I literally want to lay it on the floor, I can. It’s a 4K capture. I’ve seen it on a giant screen; nobody, if they didn’t already know, would ever suspect. It looks like a normal movie.
On his next project with the men behind Moonlight:
The next thing I’m going to do is, at the end of February I’m doing a small film that I’ve been developing with Andre Holland, who was in The Knick, and is being written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play that Moonlightwas based on. He and I started talking during the first season of The Knick about a project and the script just came in and it’s great. It’ll be shot here in New York.
On producing the all-female Ocean’s 8:
We’re finishing Ocean’s 8 now. I’m keying off [director] Gary [Ross]. He’s a friend of mine, so when I need to be forward, I’m forward. And when I feel like I need to disappear, I disappear. But the movie’s really good. To see [that cast] all together in a frame, it’s kind of amazing. Because they’re so different. It’s really fun. It’s a great group.
On his Panama Papers movie:
That script just came in and it’s insane. Scott Z. Burns, who’s written three scripts for me, wrote it. He pitched a very unusual approach to telling that story, and he really delivered. I’m trying now to see if I can do that next fall.
On the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein:
Obviously a lot of people approached me to talk [about it], but my attitude right now is that the voices that matter the most are the victims and I prefer that we not muddy the water yet. Let the people talk who are the targets. I see a lot of people weighing in and I don’t really care to see them weigh in.
I don’t know how anybody now thinks they can get away with this kind of behavior. Now that people who are the targets of this kind of behavior feel they can speak, I think it’s game over for that shit. And I’m sorry it took so long.
I was just lucky that I wasn’t raised in an environment where this kind of behavior was indulged in or viewed as acceptable. The people who mentored me didn’t behave like this. When people are like, “How can this have been going on?” you have to understand, everybody creates the version of the entertainment industry that they want to be a part of. I tried, and have always tried, to avoid people who were known to be toxic. In this instance, I do think there weren’t as many people as you think who had a real understanding of the breadth and the depth of what was going on. I didn’t. You can find yourself in that territory, especially if you’re someone like me who has absolutely no interest in the social aspects of the entertainment industry. I don’t go out; all I do is work on stuff.
It’s been really interesting to see all of that energy that’s been built up over all of these years reassembled, channeled, and focused on a person. And to see how powerful it is. The energy that’s generated from those kinds of encounters, in my mind, doesn’t just like disappear. It’s out there. It’s in the people it happened to. And to watch it reassemble and fire on one person has been kind of incredible.
Buried within most tragedies are opportunities for transcendence. I’m hoping this is one of those situations. I think everybody feels upset that it took this long and it took this much. Nobody feels good about any of it, but I think it’s going to be different.