Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Crackpot Theories’ on How Moviegoing Has Changed

The director discusses his newest film, High Flying Bird, the allure of Netflix, and why his version of the Oscars wouldn’t be televised.

Steven Soderbergh
Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters / Cineberg / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

In 2014, Steven Soderbergh was ostensibly in retirement. He had emerged as a young pioneer of independent cinema with his 1989 debut sex, lies, and videotape. Since then, he’d worked in every genre and at all levels of the studio system. Soderbergh directed glossy franchise entertainment (Ocean’s Eleven), Oscar-winning successes (Traffic and Erin Brockovich), hard-boiled noirs (Out of Sight and The Limey), and low-budget experiments (Full Frontal, Schizopolis, and The Girlfriend Experience). He’s never been afraid to try something new.

So when Soderbergh declared that he was done making movies and had moved on to TV (directing every episode of Cinemax’s The Knick), it seemed like a fascinating new step in his career. Upon returning to film in 2017 with Logan Lucky, he’s crafted projects that bypass traditional Hollywood production and marketing formulas, targeting his advertising to find the right audience, editing trailers himself, and ignoring the usual branding paradigms. His latest project, High Flying Bird, is about an NBA agent and a rising basketball star who try to do something similar in their own industry. Written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and starring André Holland, the movie was shot using iPhone cameras (like Soderbergh’s last film, the thriller Unsane) and debuted on Netflix.

The Atlantic talked with Soderbergh about shooting movies on cell phones, the future of the theatrical experience, the Netflix production process, and what his ideal Oscars ceremony would look like. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: How did High Flying Bird come to you? Did you hear about the script or was it more organic than that?

Steven Soderbergh: It was pretty serendipitous. André [Holland] and I had been having conversations during The Knick. We started kicking around a couple ideas for projects about sports, and this one seemed to check off a couple of important boxes. The key being that the scale of it allowed for completely independent financing. They say sometimes, The budget is the aesthetic. My saying that I wanted to be able to do the movie at this [smaller] scale created a clear structure from the get-go. I talked a lot about Sweet Smell of Success and Glengarry Glen Ross—hyperverbal, short time frame, limited locations. I said [to Tarell Alvin McCraney], This is what we’re aiming for, so think in those terms. To Tarell’s credit, he really took that on and understood it.

Sims: Glengarry Glen Ross is a great movie, but people would call it stagey, and obviously it’s based on a play. Whereas High Flying Bird doesn’t feel like it could be a play, even though it’s mostly conversation, mostly in rooms. The locations and how you’re getting us inside places we couldn’t otherwise get inside—I feel like you couldn’t replicate that in another medium.

Soderbergh: I agree. As verbal as High Flying Bird is, I still think its best expression is as a movie, for the reason you cite. I wanted it to have a range of looks, in terms of locations, so that you did feel the breadth of [New York City]. One of my favorite shooting days was—we shoot the opening scene at The Standard hotel. Then we take a break—me and a crew of four or five people, and André—and we start walking downtown. I’m walking and I’ll go, “Okay, stop, we’ll put the camera here.” Shoot that, walk, walk, walk, okay, we’re stopping here. It was really fun. It took us two hours to walk and shoot our way down to the World Trade Center. You could have done it on a normal movie by sending everyone away, but in this case you were able to bring the whole crew.

Sims: Did you always envision using the iPhone for the movie, before the script was ready?

Soderbergh: No; my interest in the iPhone came from two directions. I was starting to shoot a lot of stuff on my own as a kind of experiment. And then I saw [Sean Baker’s film] Tangerine, and I was like, “That works.” Now I’m on the lookout for something that would be best served by this approach. That became Unsane, and High Flying Bird hadn’t come in at that point. When it did come in, I thought I wanted to duplicate the production method with a very different aesthetic.

Sims: Does the size of the iPhone matter to you much, to not really be able to see the camera on set?

Soderbergh: The more things you can eliminate that actors have to ignore, the better. And I certainly never saw any indication that they viewed this capture device as unprofessional, or not worthy of 100 percent effort. My attitude is, if you don’t know where the camera should go, it doesn’t matter what you’re shooting on. I’ve never been someone who has treated the capture device as the starting point for a project.

Steven Soderbergh (left) directing on the set of High Flying Bird with Bill Duke and André Holland (Netflix)

Sims: When did it occur to you that Netflix would be interested in the film?

Soderbergh: I had pretty serious conversations with them about Unsane as well. Both projects seemed like potential good fits for their platform. It just turned out that on Unsane, I unexpectedly got an opportunity to [experiment with distributing and marketing the film through my own company, Fingerprint Releasing], and I took it. With High Flying Bird, I felt that I would probably go to Netflix first. I got a couple of calls from other people who are in the theatrical-release business, and we had some conversations. I decided, ultimately, that I’d rather it dropped on Netflix. I felt, for this, that being everywhere at once was the move.

Sims: You tried [a simultaneous in-theaters and home release] with Bubble in 2005, back before anyone thought that was a thing you could do. You tried it with The Girlfriend Experience in 2009. Were you just inventing the wheel before there was a car to put it on? What’s changed in the past 15 years?

Soderbergh: Well, I ran into the problem that all platforms are having, which is that the big chains don’t want to engage with this. I know [the National Association of Theatre Owners president,] John Fithian well, and have had a lot of interaction with NATO, and I am sympathetic to this issue. What I don’t understand is why everyone in this business thinks there is one template that is gonna be the unified field theory of “windowing” [or how long a movie screens in theaters]. The minute that I knew, which is usually around Friday at noon, that Logan Lucky wasn’t going to work and that Unsane was definitely not gonna work—as soon as that happens, the studio should let me drop the movie on a platform the next week. There should be a mechanism for when something dies at the box office like that.

Sims: A backup option of, You know what, if it doesn’t hit this number on opening weekend, then release it online.

Soderbergh: I think in abject failures, they should let you do whatever the hell you want. If Unsane drops and doesn’t perform, who’s harmed exactly by me 10 days later putting this thing on a platform? You can’t prove to me that that’s hurting your business.

Sims: With Netflix, what does an opening weekend look like? Are they going to call you up and say, “We’re happy! Lots of people are watching it!”?

Soderbergh: I think it’s that. I know from working as a producer on [the Netflix show] Godless that they were really happy [with the viewership for that show]. I have enough moles around town who let me know that that performed really well. And I’m like, “Great, that’s all I want.”

Sims: When people talk about the theater experience dying, it feels facile—it’s more that it’s evolving in ways that nobody’s really prepared for.

Soderbergh: I don’t think it’s dying. They have to deal with the fact that there’s a lot of competition for eyeballs now. And the difference between your home experience and your theater experience isn’t as large as it was when I was growing up. It’s still vibrant, and it’s still the No. 1 date destination for people. I don’t think it’s going away. It’s hard for an organization of that size, NATO, to be nimble. When you’re talking about the major chains, everyone’s got veto power. That doesn’t help their situation, the fact that getting them to do something differently can be like turning around an aircraft carrier.

Sims: Whereas Netflix can be like, “Sure, release Roma in theaters three weeks early, let’s give it a shot.” They have that nimbleness.

Soderbergh: There’s a lot to be said for that. Both on that end, and on the creative end before the thing’s even made. Godless existed as a 175-page film script that wasn’t viable. So Scott [Frank, the director] and I thought, Instead of chopping one of its limbs off, why don’t we turn it into a series? We went to a couple places and the response was, “Sounds interesting, let’s do a development deal. Show us what the first episode is going to look like.” Netflix, in the room—with a number that we’d pulled out of our ass, and a start date that we pulled out of our other ass—said, “Go. You’re starting tomorrow.” The ability to move that quickly and that definitively, that’s a big advantage.

Sims: Most of the studio movies you made were in the the mid-budget tier that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. What happened to it?

Soderbergh: Look, I have a lot of crackpot theories about how moviegoing has changed and why.

Sims: I would like to hear your crackpot theories.

Soderbergh: One of the most extreme is, I really feel that why people go to the movies has changed since 9/11. My feeling is that what people want when they go to a movie shifted more toward escapist fare. And as a result, most of the more “serious” adult fare, what I would pejoratively refer to as “Oscar bait,” all gets pushed into October, November, December.

Sims: And people have become conditioned, in the fall, to go and see a couple of serious movies.

Soderbergh: Put on a heavy coat and go see something serious. What that creates is what you see now, which is this weird dichotomy of fantasy spectacle; low-budget genre, whether it’s horror or comedy; and the year-end awards movies. I guess that’s a trichotomy.

Sims: From January to March, you can have some cheap fun, then in March, here we go …

Soderbergh: The big shit’s coming.

Sims: When did Logan Lucky come out? In August? Were you trying to find a spot where that movie could exist?

Soderbergh: It felt like August, historically, was a good time to show up with something of quality. There’s typically a dead zone before Labor Day. The big summer movies have played out, and there are three weeks with some breathing room. You just need a lot of marketing money, more than we had. I was aware it might not work. I learned a lot, and it was absolutely a worthwhile thing to do, to try and create an avenue for projects that don’t fall in any of these tiers or to want to have creative control over everything, with more financial transparency.

Sims: A lot of the movies you made in Hollywood were star-driven, convincing audiences and a studio with a recognizable face. Does that matter much anymore?

Soderbergh: I think it does. There’s a reason the movie business was built on movie stars. Scott Burns’s movie The Report [which I produced] is a perfect example of this. The reason it works is that Annette Bening and Adam Driver are fucking great. You need them. And All the President’s Men is the same way. Without Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, it’s a lot of scenes of people sitting around talking. When it’s them, it’s great. And Annette and Adam fill that necessity. What people are allergic to is when it feels forced, and you’ve got a movie star playing a part that just seems weird.

Sims: I assume you saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech [in part for its shortness]. Did you have a reaction to that at all?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.”

Sims: Please tell the story!

Soderbergh: Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley [Scott], Ang [Lee], or [Stephen] Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge ... I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.

Sims: How do you feel about the fact that the Oscars are in a panic about their own existence?

Soderbergh: I know people that are on the board of the academy and all that stuff. There are too many board members. It’s like NATO—you can’t make a move you have to make because eight people will shout it down. The other thing is the proliferation of all the other awards shows and the fatigue that comes in. When people call it “awards season,” I’m like, there’s no season in nature that lasts this long. There’s a reason for that. Because it’s unnatural.

Sims: I was just at Sundance, and that’s where awards season begins now.

Soderbergh: It’s like having a friend that comes up to you every other day and says, “It’s my birthday.” And you’re supposed to act like it is. It’s just kind of numbing. I’ve only been at the Oscars twice, the first time for sex, lies, and videotape for Best Screenplay. [The film lost to Dead Poets Society.] This was in 1989; there wasn’t the craziness there is now. There would be screenings around town and that was it. You didn’t go. We were nominated for three Golden Globes, and nobody even called us and asked if we wanted to go. By the time Traffic and Erin Brockovich rolled around [in 2000], it had gotten pretty intense. I, being the luckiest bastard you’ve ever met, was kind of in this sweet spot. I was shooting Ocean’s Eleven, and I had two films going head-to-head, so I could not appear to be choosing either one. So I did nothing.

Sims: Well it won you an Oscar; more people should try it.

Soderbergh: I had the best version of what you can have. The show itself is clunky and weird sometimes. But the work that the academy does, in terms of archiving alone, I don’t care what kind of show they’ve gotta put on to make the money to pay for that stuff. The academy library is one of the most amazing resources in the United States. As a filmmaker, understanding what they’re doing for cinema culture, I’m very sympathetic to their problem, and part of me doesn’t get that worked up about it because I’m like, Look, they’ve gotta put on this show. It pays for all this great stuff. All of my stuff, all the prints, negatives, it’s all there, for nothing. I used to have that shit in a climate-controlled vault in Hollywood. It wasn’t cheap.

Sims: What do you think of the Oscars potentially excluding some categories from being televised live?

Soderbergh: There was some discussion for a minute about the Oscars doing what the Emmys do—having two ceremonies. Everybody shouted that down and said they would be creating two tiers. What I wanted to do was produce that show: We’ll go back to the Roosevelt Hotel, every nominee can bring a plus-one, and that’s it. Super intimate, food, drink, all that, you can get up there and talk all you want. It’s not televised. It’s a private event for the nominees and their significant others. Make it fun and cool. ’Cause here’s the dirty secret: Going to the big thing is not fun. It’s more fun to watch on TV. The trick would be doing something super cool and small.

Sims: And then everyone shouted that down.

Soderbergh: All awards often end up being defined by what they got wrong. But I have no desire to go through that again. I’m giving myself a bit of a pass, having been through it. I was a movie nut as a kid; I grew up watching the Oscars. Having said that, I’m not big on repeating experiences. Where I am in my career, I’d rather have a hit than an award.

Sims: Keep making movies!

Soderbergh: I’m trying. I’m trying to make one every nine months. Look, it’s still the best job in the world, if I’m being honest. I complain, because Homo sapiens complain. This is what we do.