Taylor Swift, Sex Scenes, Human Behavior 5

Steven Soderbergh has been all over the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary in recent days. On Monday, he shared his takes and insights on such topics as AI, sex scenes, movie release windows, Hollywood’s current “correction,” new projects and even the success of Taylor Swift with a group of reporters.

The prolific director, producer, screenwriter and cinematographer is a featured guest at the 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) that is running through Saturday. In its Franz Kafka retrospective, timed to the 100th anniversary of the author’s death in June 1924, Soderbergh is introducing his two films about Kafka, namely Kafka (1991) and its 2021 re-edit Mr. Kneff — both starring Jeremy Irons as a set-upon insurance man and writer.

The filmmaker has been warmly welcomed by appreciative festival audiences. In between other appearances, he took time for a roundtable conversation with members of the press that ended up as a wide-ranging discussion that also touched on Kafka, why he burned 44 years’ worth of journals and prefers books over films.

Read highlights of Soderbergh’s roundtable interview below.

How do you think Kafka would feel about all the attention he is getting here at the festival and at events around the world this year?

I think of how horrified, first of all, he would feel that [his friend and author] Max [Brod] betrayed him by publishing his work. And yeah, the idea that there would be a festival — I don’t think he would have been able to comprehend that. But I thought about that specific issue recently because I burned, a couple of months ago, 44 years worth of notebooks and journals.

Why?

I just felt I needed to dispense with the past. It was very cathartic. I would pick each one up and flip through it for a second to get a sense of when that was and would pick out a sentence or something, and then throw it into the fire. And it felt really good. And I haven’t thought about, “Oh, I should have saved this or that.” I’m still keeping a notebook; it’s not a journal, but I write down everything I watch, everything I read. If I have ideas for a project that I’m working on, lines of dialogue, or should I get rid of this scene. So I’m creating a new stack. But it did feel good to just get rid of it. We accumulate so much stuff.

I mean the thing I value the most is the books that I have. If you made me choose between being able to watch films or read books, I would pick books in a heartbeat.

Why?

Because I think I feel the thing that’s going to help me get better at my job is actually a deeper understanding of human psychology and why we behave the way we behave. And I think novels, in particular, are the closest you can get to being in somebody else’s consciousness. You know, when you’re reading a novel, you are completely enveloped in their head. I find that uniquely satisfying and engaging and I feel like I learn more. At a certain point, your technical knowledge of directing hits a ceiling. If you don’t have the extreme gifts of some filmmakers, there are only so many ways to shoot something, so I don’t feel the need to keep watching movies in order to become better versed in technical aspects. What I need is a deeper, broader understanding of why people are the way they are.

How is what happens in viewers’ brains different when taking in a film versus a book?

Well, it’s different. Each person who reads that novel is creating their own film in their mind. And that’s what makes it great. Whereas, when you make a film, it never changes. It is that film. Your response to it may be subjective, but the film itself doesn’t change, which is why I’ve fortunately never been emotional about the critical response to anything I’ve made because 10 or 20 years from now, people may feel differently — or not. I stopped reading anything that has my name in it in the year 2000.

Kafka didn’t get the greatest reception...

It was frustrating because I wasn’t happy with it either. So it was hard to be upset when people took issue with the film because I had issues with the film. I worked very hard just to get it to where it was. I reshot 20 percent of the film and huge sequences I completely reimagined and built new sets. I worked very hard just to get it somewhere. And so I was aware of the combination of the movie not feeling completely unified to me, and the expectation of what the second film would be. There is also the fact that it was not a normal biographical movie. It makes no attempt to portray the real Franz Kafka. You see a lot of biographical films, and they’re just, “This happens and this happens.”

Do you see Kafka influences in your non-Kafka films?

Sure. I think the reason he resonates is the evocation of being controlled by systems that you can’t get your hands around but that have power over you. Almost all the projects that I’ve worked on deal with protagonists who are trying to exert more control over what happens to them and usually failing. But I feel that fight is always worth engaging in to have some amount of control over your life. But at the same time, control is an illusion, and you may think you have it, but you really don’t. I’ve certainly learned in my life not to burn a lot of calories on things that I cannot control, like reviews or other people. I can’t control other people. And so when somebody does something that I am frustrated or confused by, or upset by, I remind myself I don’t control people, and I’ll just keep going.

My Che (Guevara) films were the most extreme example of a character trying to exert control, not only over their own lives, but the social situation that an entire country found itself in. So that was an interesting project. Everybody assumes: you made two films about Che, you must love Che. I’m like: “Che would have hated me. I’m exactly the kind of thing he was trying to get rid of.” I just am interested in a person who twice left a very comfortable life behind to go into a lethal situation to fight for people he didn’t know and had no history with.

Does being a director give you some of that control you want to have?

There’s a running joke that I have with my core brain trust: On a film, everybody’s making their own movie. You think we’re all making the same movie, and then a cast member or crew member will say or do something that makes you realize, “What are you working on?” So you just have to remember I can’t control that. It’s certainly a degree of influence over people in a situation that is not lifelike. It’s unique in that regard. But if I were to try and control it, as opposed to guide it, I would kill something in it. So I want to be surfing it, as opposed to carving it up.

You did a second version of Kafka in Mr. Kneff. People sometimes get suspicious when filmmakers return to a film.

They should. So I’ve got seven movies that I’ve made where now the rights have come back to me. And two of them, I’ve gone back and made some adjustments on, Full Frontal and Schizopolis. I’ve made them shorter. I think that’s what you should do. If you’re going to go back, you should probably make it shorter.

In which of your films would you not change a single shot?

Not a lot of them. But Out of Sight I was really happy with. The Informant! I was really happy with, Behind the Candelabra I was really happy with. Those are three where I don’t know what I would do differently. And then I was just talking a little while ago in an interview about a film that turned out exactly the way I had in my mind, but that people really hated: The Good German. I wouldn’t change anything about it. It’s just people just don’t like it.

Can you tell us about the atmosphere in Hollywood?

Well, I can tell you that everybody is terrified about everything. We’re in the middle of a correction that was inevitable, It was the Wild West for a while, you know, 2010 to 2020, where it just felt like the streaming companies emerged, and tons of shit was getting made, and people were being paid too much money. I was aware as it was happening, and I was taking advantage of it. But I was like, “This is not sustainable. This can’t continue.” So I always knew there was going to be a correction. But I also felt, or hoped, that it would be a sort of calmer, softer landing. And two things happened: COVID and then the strikes. And so the course correction has happened, but it was bumpy and fractious. And so now people I think are very anxious.

I’m not afraid of AI. I don’t view it as a threat. I think it’s an interesting tool. But it can’t replace, ultimately, it can’t replace people in a way that is threatening. I’ve worked with all the various tools. You have to remember: if you were to say, “Make a film, in which everything, the actors, even though they’re known actors, the location, everything was generated, and it looks quote unquote real, people are aware of the experiment. Audiences, I think, on some base level will never embrace a fully AI-generated movie because it feels like a threat to them. They feel like human experience has been hijacked by technology. And I feel if you showed somebody the same thing, and you told them that one was AI-generated, their reaction to it would be different. Even if it wasn’t true. We do have a sort of feral reaction to being excluded from a piece of art. So I’m just using it in ways that I think are helpful, that allow you to iterate quickly, but it cannot finish anything. A human ultimately has to finish it. It can get you a version of something.

But I’m telling you, you need a PhD in English to figure out how to write the prompt to get it to do what you want it to do. I was playing around and trying to get the simplest rough version of a shot to describe to this VFX company. I wanted a shot looking straight down from 30,000 feet over a cloud bank. Couldn’t get it. It wouldn’t look straight down. I spent half an hour. And this thing would generate, and I’d be like, “That’s not right.” I would tell it what time of day, it would ignore me. This is intense. Like I said, I’m not worried about it.

But it’s getting better and better.

Yeah, but it’s always going to hit this ceiling. Nothing’s ever happened to it. It’s never stood in line. It’s never been dumped. It’s never been drunk. It has no experience. It’s strictly built on input. But nothing’s ever happened to it. So that’s its limitation that’s never going to change. You know.

So it’s, like I said, interesting, especially in the VFX world. In the movie I’m working on now there was a scene that we shot, and there were these things on the walls that when I looked at it after I was like, “I hate those.” The ability now to use AI to just get rid of them, where you can tell it, “get rid of that sconce, get rid of all these sconces,” that’s great. That’s a great tool to have and so fantastic. Two years ago, that would have been a lot harder to do. But now it knows what a sconce is, and you can say just get rid of all of them but make it look like they were never there. I like that. But the voice thing is terrifying.

What can you tell us about your upcoming spy thriller Black Bag, directed by you, written by David Koepp, and starring Cate Blanchett and Michael Fassbender?

It’s about two people in the intelligence community. So it’s very intimate. When David Koepp and I were working on Presence, we were just thinking of general ideas. And I said it might be interesting to make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but George and Martha are in the intelligence community. What would that be like? And he said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And then months later, he’s like, “I have a draft of the script.” And it was great. So it’s a very, very specific take on people who are in the intelligence business but also have complex personal, emotional lives. It’s the kind of thing that I like a lot.

It was terrifying because there’s a 12-page dinner sequence, in which nobody even moves from their seat. And that kept me up. Because how do you do that? It’s a director’s nightmare. How do I keep this thing interesting for 12 minutes, and nobody’s moving? The good news is the scene as a piece of writing is spectacular. And what happens at the end of it, you don’t see coming. But the challenge of creating a visual scheme that evolves, as the scene is evolving, identifying where the gear shifts are, and making sure visually, where is the camera. The camera has been outside the table. Now, the camera is inside the table looking out, because of this thing that somebody said and the tenor of the room has shifted.

I had to keep coming up with [set-ups] and moves but keep it invisible. The audience just has to be locked into the characters. There’s this new app called – there was a discussion about how to pronounce this – C-A-D-R-A-G-E. It’s a sort of app in which you tell it, “I’m shooting on this camera. I’m using these lenses, and this is the shape of the frame.” And then you can see an exact replication of that. With your phone, you can either shoot video or take a still. So I brought in the cast and spent several hours. The first thing I did was think of every angle I can think of that is good, that feels appropriate for a film like this. So that turned out to be 82 separate compositions. I printed them all out, sat down with the scene and started building it. “Okay, for the first three pages, this is the plan. Next three pages, this, then we move to this.” Because there’s no universe in which I’m going to shoot 12 pages of 82 setups. That’s not fair to the actors. I should know where the cuts are coming.

You mentioned Black Bag is a love story. People still talk about Out of Sight as an example of this perfect chemistry and how that just makes sex scenes so believable, but this doesn’t happen very often.

Well, I think they confuse physical sexuality with love and romance. And they think, “Oh, if you’re making a sexy movie, there has to be sex in it.” I’m like, “No.” We all know how that part works, what’s different in every case is everything that led up to that and everything that comes after that. That’s where your individual experience and issues come out. Part of the point could be you have two people that while they’re engaged in sex, are able to escape their lives in a way that they find very intoxicating. And it turns out the problem is what’s happening when they’re not having sex. That’s an interesting approach to something. So I think it’s just a very superficial take on what love is, what a relationship is.

I don’t really care about that part. It’s impossible to shoot. It’s impossible. I won’t. I’m trying to think of the last time I actually shot two actors simulating sex because I just find it ridiculous and impossible. Nobody looks good.

I was having this conversation the other day about a project I’m working on. And the writer was like, “So then there’s this underwater sequence.” And I’m like, “Have we met?!” I hate underwater sequences. I think they’re boring as hell, nobody looks good in an underwater sequence. It’s slow. We are not doing that. Think of something else. We’re not shooting underwater. I feel the same way about actual sex scenes.

When I was growing up, if you were somebody who was turned on by that stuff, movies were one of the places where you could see that potentially. That is not true anymore. If you want to watch people having sex, you just pick up your phone. It’s, to my mind, all the more reason to figure out a way to portray this sort of emotional and psychological aspect of a sexual relationship, as opposed to showing the technical part. I think there’s no more powerful thing. If you want to portray that aspect of somebody’s life, of the look on somebody’s face immediately after, that’ll tell you everything you need to know about what’s happening.

How do you think about film release windows? These days, it sometimes gets announced that a film will be out in cinemas for only 10 days or whatever.

My take is, why are you announcing that? We had a whole plan for Let Them All Talk pre-COVID, where we were going to put the movie out and do a sort of platform rollout release and never announce whether it was going to be on streaming or when. Because if you’re telling people that in 10 days, they can see it at home, well, of course, they are going to stay home. Put the movie out, let it be. What if it’s a hit? If it’s a hit, you want it to play. What I don’t understand is why are you announcing the window before the window.

The two films that I self-distributed, that we self-distributed, to see if you could put out a movie in wide release for less money, Unsane and Logan Lucky, it didn’t work. We knew by Friday at noon that it wasn’t working. That is a situation where I wanted desperately to say, “This thing is going to be on a platform in two weeks.” Because it’s over. We’ve spent all the marketing money, it didn’t work. And now at least I have a chance if I get it on a platform quickly, that the residual effect of the marketing is still there. At that time, you couldn’t do that. You couldn’t do that. We had to wait four months. And now how do people know that it’s out there? I’ve spent all the advertising money that I had.

So what I was always looking for is flexibility. I’ve been frustrated by this belief that there’s one template for windowing that you just put on everything. On Friday, when Unsane and Logan Lucky opened not well, the theaters were already trying to kick us out. In a week, we’d lost like a third of our screens. They were already like, “Please go away.” So why are you blocking me? Why are the exhibitors blocking me from trying to save my ass by putting this thing up on a platform. I just don’t know why you’re telling people when it’s going. It just makes no sense to me.

Steven Soderbergh

Courtesy of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Can I come back to your love for books? Why did you choose movies instead of books?

I think that was by chance. My father loved movies. So I saw a lot of movies as a kid. And then I got exposed to some college student filmmakers when I was in high school, and I just got the bug [to start] writing. I wrote to get into the business because nobody can stop you from writing scripts. And I didn’t know anybody. So I felt I needed to learn how to write scripts in order to get into the film business. Prose is a different thing. You can fake your way through a screenplay. I can tell you that. Absolutely. You can’t fake your way through a novel. You just can’t sustain that level of bluffing for 250 pages.

What are you trying to say? Like? Are you bluffing when you write?

No, I was doing the best I could. I picked up a script not long ago. It was the first paying movie writing job that I ever had. It was an urban musical set in Indianapolis. The producer at TriStar [Casey Silver] later became the head of Universal and I made some movies for him, including Out of Sight. And he’s produced Black Bag. This is somebody I’ve known since I was 23 years old. And I was moving some boxes around recently. And then one of them was all the early scripts that I wrote, and I pulled this thing out. I was reading through it. And I was like, “Wow, I worked so hard on this thing.” I wrote all the lyrics. I wrote all the descriptions, whatever. I don’t remember what I wrote. I took this very seriously probably too seriously. But I just was, page after page, “Who was that person?” But I felt, “This is a huge opportunity, and I really need to work on this.” And I did. So, no, I would never bluff my way through that.

But it’s just to say that it’s a bastard format, screenplays. There’s a reason that published screenplays are not in the top 10. It’s just a terrible format. Books are also a way for me to de-stress. This is my way of calming down, decelerating, disconnecting from whatever the thing is that I’m working on.

What do you read? Kafka?

New stuff. I have a group of friends — we’ll do a screen grab of the cover of the book and just send them around. I read fiction, nonfiction, anything. But two-thirds of them tend to be novels. And then biographies and history,. I read a lot of books about cognition, how our brains work, how we make decisions, why we’re so irrational, why we often act against our self-interest repeatedly. What is that about? Where does that come from? Our fear, why we experience a loss more than we experience a good thing that happens, which drives a lot of these decisions. We’re acting because we’re afraid of something bad happening. And it turns out, you know, that’s not the best way to think.

It’s the residual effect. You have to remember, in terms of deep time, this version of ourselves hasn’t existed for very long. The development of the prefrontal cortex is a recent thing. We’re still basically being ruled by our amygdala. And we make decisions that are based on a threat assessment in group dynamics. We’re still in many ways on the savannahs of Africa. It’s just now we have the internet. We are still acting, in terms of how we engage with people, like we’re in a tribe. And then we’ve run into another tribe that we’ve never run into before, and it lights up our limbic system in the same way it did 200,000 years ago.

I am deeply frustrated by the fact that we can’t collectively agree to understand that and behave differently to what we perceive as a threat. And then, on the other hand, airports. Why do airports work? This is an incredibly complex organism. And yet, every day, they basically work, and people show up and submit to what the airport asks them in order to accomplish getting you from here to here without dying. … Look at all these people coming from all over the world, speaking all kinds of languages. And yet, we all agree when we walk in, it’s going to be done this way. And there’s 47,000 registered airports in the world. At any given moment, there are 600,000 people in the air, and it works.

I’m thinking about a project in which I analyze large-scale cooperative endeavors. And how do we extract from those ideas that we can place in another context? Alcoholics Anonymous, why does this work? There are people I know who without AA are dead. It’s decentralized, no money, nobody’s in charge of it, it’s all self-generated and self-structured. And it works. And it’s always worked. Why?

Why can’t we figure out Syria, or any other conflict that seems impossible to unwind? It’s clear, we know how to cooperate. So why are we still killing each other at this rate? There are more displaced people on a percentage basis as an aggregate right now in the world than there’s ever been. We have all this technology we have. Why is it going that way?

It’s clear we can do it. You look at a Taylor Swift concert, well look at that whole tour, and just go, “Okay, it works.” All these people, all this effort, the coordination of it, and it works. Why can’t we do that over here?

Do you see that project as a documentary?

I don’t know. If it feels like vitamins, nobody’s going to want to watch it. Here’s the thing I’ve learned in talking to people who work in the cognition space, in neuroscience, when I’ve asked them in what state is a person most likely to give up or alter a deeply held belief. And all of them said when they are laughing. Something happens to you when you’re laughing that unlocks you and opens you up for a minute, because the person who made you laugh, surprised you, and you’re impressed and you lean in. “I need, I want more of that.” So humor is a great delivery system for an idea. Also, nothing lights up the brain in exactly the same way as music. Music lights up all the areas of your brain. The only thing that comes close, actually, is when you read a novel. But music is more powerful. It goes everywhere. So as part of the stew that I’m trying to contemplate for this project, I’m factoring in it better be funny and there should be some musical component to use as a way to open people up to what I’m trying to show.

Anything else you have been developing?

One of the things that I’ve been working on is creating a box set of seven films, the rights of which have come back to me. These aren’t the hits. These are like the B-sides. It’s stuff like Kafka, Mr. Kneff, Schizopolis, Gray’s Anatomy, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience and Full Frontal. It’s an unusual group. But I’ve spent the last three years remastering, in some cases re-cutting. And I’m going to put out this limited edition with individually stamped numbered box sets. It’s not going to make any money. It [will be ready] maybe around the end of the year if it keeps going in the right direction.

Can we go back to Taylor Swift?

Look, people laugh at how there’s a college class being taught about her in business school. There should be. What she has done, what she’s doing in the way she’s doing it, nobody has ever done this before. The amount of control that she has taken. And she’s doing this all herself. Nobody has ever done this. It’s working. And it’s a great model.

She’s obviously relentless, in terms of doing the whole show on a treadmill just to make sure she can do it. I would like to know more about how she is on a granular level, how is she doing all of this? How does the business work? What’s her brain trust? How is the money? How does all the money move? How does it work? I’m fascinated by that because it’s a success story.

Here’s where AI could help us to analyze every conversation that’s happening everywhere in the world and tell us on average how many minutes go by when a conversation starts before Taylor Swift is mentioned, I would be curious to know because I have a feeling it’s not very many minutes.

David Koepp took his teenage daughter to see this show. And he was like, “You cannot believe what it’s like to be there. It is elemental. To be with that many people with that level of emotion. You cannot not be a part of it. It’s just overwhelming.” He loved it.

When are you going to a Taylor Swift concert?
I’d go if I could. I can’t get in [because tickets sell out so quickly]. But I watched the film.

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