Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh is becoming a modern Robert Altman. He gathers casts that are the envy of the entire industry. Whether it is his current effort Contagion with stars Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston and Kate Winslet or his soon-to-be-filming Magic Mike with Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey and Olivia Munn, Soderbergh is a Spielberg of the new century — versatile, veracious and beyond visionary.
Soderbergh first conquered the ensemble drama with his debut film Sex, Lies and Videotape. Since that Cannes-winning movie, the filmmaker has amassed a resume about which all who dreamed of wielding a camera can only fantasize. From Oceans 11, 12 and 13 to Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight and The Good German, Soderbergh is the eyes and ears of happening cinema for the last two decades.
His latest, Contagion, tells the story of how the simplicity of human contact can destroy us all. Soderbergh took a moment out of his demanding schedule to talk to Movie Fanatic about the magic of filmmaking and his course for Contagion.
Movie Fanatic: Did you have any rules making Contagion to avoid other disaster movie clichés?
Steven Soderbergh: The one rule that we had was we can’t go anywhere one of our characters hasn’t been. We can’t cut to a city or to a group of extras that we’ve never been to, that we don’t know personally — that was our rule! And that’s a pretty significant rule to adhere to in a movie in which you’re trying to give a sense of something that’s happening on a large scale. But we felt that all of the elements that we had issues with prior when we see any kind of disaster film were sort of centered around that idea, that suddenly you cut to Paris where you’ve never been and something happens and it’s a bunch of people you don’t have any emotional engagement with. We were trying to have it be epic and also intimate at the same time. So that was rule number one.
Movie Fanatic: How do you balance the spectacle of an international thriller versus keeping the film intimate with characters we care about?
Steven Soderbergh: Honestly, I was just trying to keep it very, very simple. And that meant the entire film’s shot with two lenses, basically. When I would look at a scene I would try and figure out how few shots I needed as opposed to how many. I really wanted it to be, in terms of style, one of the simplest movies that I’ve ever made. Often that can require more thought than just walking in and saying, “I’m just gonna cover the hell out of this and I’m gonna figure this out later.” When you’re going in saying, “I really wanna keep this simple and I want every shot to have a purpose and I want every cut to have a purpose. I don’t want any waste.” If you pulled one shot out, it meant something would be diminished. That was my approach. That was really it, you know, eye level, no crane shots — no like throwing the camera around — just keep it simple so that all you were paying attention to was the performances.
Movie Fanatic: How game was Gwyneth Paltrow for shooting that autopsy scene?
Steven Soderbergh: Gwyneth is a trooper because we got into that room and we had an actual medical examiner there who does this sort of thing all the time. We asked her to walk us through the steps in which somebody has died under these circumstances. When she got to the part where she said, “We cut here and then we peel the skin over the front of the face,” I immediately turned to Greg and said, “OK, we need to find a flap of something that looks like pizza on one end without the sauce that we can attach some wig hair to so that we can do this.” [Laughs] We scrambled around and we were able to do that. It took about 40 minutes of having Gwyneth in that position. Greg actually ended up being the person that put the skin flap over and she was stock still, didn’t say a word. She had contact lenses in and she asked the medical examiner, “OK, talk to me about the rest of my face. What about my mouth?” And the woman said, “Your tongue would be extruded just a little bit. You would have some sort of yellowish fluid coming out of your nose.” She wanted it to be exactly right. I think she had a feeling this was going to be some sort of weird, iconic image somehow. It’s kind of jarring. There were no tricks there, no freeze frame — no high speed frame rate. That was just Gwyneth being stock still with some really good effects.
Movie Fanatic: What did you see in Jennifer Ehle that made you want to cast her in Contagion?
Steven Soderbergh: I’d known who Jennifer was for a long time and it didn’t take a lot of thought, honestly. I have a long list of people I’ve seen over the course of my career that I’ve thought, “Wow, they would be great to work with.”
Movie Fanatic: Was there something that made her right for that role in particular?
Steven Soderbergh: I knew by her saying yes that she was willing to take a run at some very complex language. One of the most difficult scenes in terms of the language in the movie is the explanation when she says, “Look, we know what it is now. The green part is this and the red part is that.” Scott had written it in sort of general terms and then (film consultant) Ian Lipkin was on the set and we wrote it right there. It’s not really fair to throw dialogue at someone like that at the last minute. I was hoping that the fear of having to say it would translate as excitement and high emotional stakes for the world because it was a lot and it was hard.
Movie Fanatic: Why was the timing perfect for a movie like Contagion in 2011?
Steven Soderbergh: Well I guess we’re gonna see if the timing is perfect or not [laughs]. The reaction from Warner Bros when we presented them the script, everyone felt there was a place for an ultra-realistic film about this subject. Nobody hesitated. It all happened very quickly uncharacteristically actually considering what the business is like now for adult dramas. That made me feel like maybe we’re onto something.