So the other day I was reading this transcribed speech from Steven Soderbergh, which he recently gave at an event. The speech was significant because Soderbergh hinted that he would be dropping some bombs on Hollywood. Soderbergh has become an interesting topic of discussion over the last year or so because he’s a successful filmmaker who’s decided to retire at a relatively young age, which NEVER happens. Hollywood decides when to spit YOU out. Not the other way around. If someone’s still giving them money, most directors direct until they die.
However, strangely enough, Soderbergh’s career has picked up to an unfathomable pace, with him directing more movies than Woody Allen. It’s almost like everyone out there wants to get him before he’s gone. I’ve heard about this guy retiring 6000 times yet he’s STILL making movies. He’s even discussing Magic Mike 2. Which leads me to believe that he’s not going to retire at all. He’ll just keep this charade going because it keeps getting him work.
However this is a man who DID say to Matt Damon awhile back, “If I have to do one more over the shoulder shot, I’ll slit my wrists,” so let’s assume he IS going to retire. This means this was sort of his “going out” speech, the one where he says fuck you to everybody who was an asshole to him during his career. Well, it wasn’t exactly that, but he did take out his frustrations on the Hollywood machine, a machine he believes has lost touch with the very art it’s trying to produce.
It all started when he saw a random guy on a plane load up a video that was two hours of ONLY action scenes. This freaked him out because it convinced him he was completely out of touch with the movie-going public. If people aren’t watching full films anymore, but only the “good parts,” then where are we headed? To a place where only Michael Bay is allowed to make films?
Here’s the thing. I know people like that guy on the plane. I have a couple of friends who watch stuff like that. I make fun of them. But they make fun of me too, calling me a film snob who would rather watch an audio commentary track than the actual film (note: this is only occasionally true). The thing is, these people are just as rare as the people I see going to artsy foreign films. They’re the extreme, not the norm. You’re just as likely to see someone pop in a rare indie film on the plane as you are someone who only watches two hours of edited action scenes.
Soderbergh goes on to say that the meetings he’s been taking are getting stranger and stranger. He keeps running into executives who don’t know anything about movies. They’re way more concerned with the business side of things. Well yeah, that’s because since the beginning of cinema, movies have been a battle between art and business. People don’t just give money away (except for on Kickstarter of course). They want some kind of return on their investment. So if you tell them you want to make a movie about a sheepherder who lives a life of solitude called “Solo Sheepherder,” they’re going to ask you if you can include a girl, no matter how “stupid” that sounds since “solo” is in the title. It’s the nature of the business.
Soderbergh even went so far as to say if he were running a studio, he wouldn’t have all these restrictions on directors. He’d just find talented filmmakers and let them make whatever they wanted. He even used Shane Carruth as an example. I think this exemplifies how off the mark Soderbergh is in this speech. You’re going to give people who make movies about psychic pig people money to do whatever they want? You’ll be broke within six months.
As much as it sucks, movies are a collaborative effort. Too many people are required for them not to be. This means you’ll ALWAYS have to deal with other humans. True, sometimes you’re going to run into idiots. But is that any different than if you were working at Wal-Mart, Facebook, or Pink’s Hot Dogs? I’ve found that idiots are everywhere. So of course you’re going to get them in the movie business.
All you can do is try and understand their perspective and work through it. You might be upset that they only see two movies a year. But so does the average American. Which gives them a perspective you don’t have. They want that extra explosion scene because the person coming to that theater never sees explosions. They’re not like you or me, film nerds, who have seen every movie known to man and therefore see 20 explosions a week. Maybe giving them a little more of that could be a good thing. Your job, then, is to figure out how to make it work inside your specific story.
I mean yeah, it sucks that not everyone has free reign to do whatever they want. But that approach hasn’t exactly proven successful either. I mean take Soderbergh’s Bubble, where he had 100% creative freedom. I dare you to watch that movie without being bored out of your mind. Or Upstream Color, a nonsensical badly written film about psychic pig people. No, that’s not a good thing. Or look at the granddaddy of indie film, George Lucas, who had 100% creative freedom to do whatever he wanted with his Star Wars prequels. How did those stories turn out?
I think part of the problem here is that Soderbergh has always been an insider/outsider. He’s an indie guy first who struggled mightily after his breakthrough film, Sex Lies and Videotape, making strange movies with no commercial appeal like the black and white “Kafka.” Because Hollywood rejected him after those films, he came back to it with only one foot in. And I think everyone who deals with him approaches him with that information. Executives are going to treat him differently than a guy like David Fincher because they know what kind of movie David Fincher is going to make. With Soderbergh, you don’t know if you’re going to get Ocean’s 11 or Bubble 2.
So I think Soderbergh is telling this side of the story from a very unique perspective, from a guy who’s in an industry he’s never completely been comfortable in or understood. For example, another part of his speech was how he couldn’t figure out why his most recent movie, Side Effects, didn’t do well. It was a thriller. It had two young stars. Why the heck didn’t it pull in better numbers? Well to me, the reason it didn’t do well was obvious. Every ad and trailer I saw showed a dark indie “smart” thriller.
Tell me the last time a dark indie smart thriller made a lot of money at the box office. They don’t. Contrast that to, say, Halle Berry’s latest movie, The Call, which did way better than expected at the box office. People went to that movie because it was a clear thriller. No pretense. No artsy undertones. It knew it was a thriller so people knew they’d get thrilled.
I’m not saying there’s any right or wrong here. I really liked Side Effects and although I haven’t seen The Call, I’m pretty sure I’d dislike it. But if I remove the screenplay enthusiast and cinema lover in me and place my producer hat on, which one of these films would I make? Probably The Call. That’s the one that keeps my production company open. That’s the one that allows me to make more movies.
Of course, I’d hope that it wouldn’t come down to just those two movies. My ambition in life is not to make movies like The Call. One of the points Soderbergh skips over, here, is the potential for a happy medium. Money guys never get exactly what they want. Filmmakers never get exactly what they want. But you work hard enough and learn enough about the craft so that, hopefully, you can make both sides relatively happy. If someone wants an action scene in your drama, sit down and see if you can use the note to your advantage. Sometimes the best ideas come from the most nonsensical suggestions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about screenwriting, it’s that if you only do what you want to do, your scripts tend to be boring. Being pushed outside your comfort zone forces you to explore new areas, which leads to new ideas, which often leads to a more interesting screenplay.
I think what bothers me most about Soderbergh’s speech is that it spreads this message that Hollywood is this evil hopeless business where it’s impossible to do what you want to do, even if you’re one of the top directors in the world. But I’m a firm believer that life is what you make of it. If you tell yourself everyone’s a moron who doesn’t see how good your product is, you attract morons who don’t see how good your product is.
And I believe the same thing applies to screenwriting. If you think Hollywood is run by nepotism and it’s impossible to get your script read or sold, then you’re never going to get your script read or sold. Why? Because you’ve convinced yourself it’s impossible, and therefore stop trying. If you believe it IS possible, you’ll explore every single avenue until you find a way in because you KNOW it’s achievable and therefore won’t quit until it happens. With the rare exception, these are the people who I see breaking in the most. They work hard and never stop believing. Which is exactly what you guys should be doing. Hollywood is not an evil place. It’s what you make of it. Never forget that!