Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker

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This is a daring and insightful speech given by Steven Soderbergh last week at SFIFF. It is one of the most perceptive and articulate commentaries on the state of cinema today and the difference between “cinema” and “movies.” For me, personally, it encapsulates so much of what I have been writing about for years and captures the very essence of why I started Off Leash Films and what I hope to achieve.

This speech comes at a perfect time for me as I have been engaged in conversation with a young filmmaker who recently commented on one of my older posts. The following is a response to several of his questions to me regarding editing choices I made on THE PLAGUE: WRITERS & DIRECTOR’S CUT and my approach and attitude toward making films and whether or not I consider the audience ahead of time:

Question: Hal, one question my friend, did you make the film for you or for the audience? That is what all filmmakers need to ask themselves. I agree with you, I need to see both films from beginning to end to judge and compare, also I’m sure the producers have taken away your characters and their emotions and made it all prokat – a recipe that works generally. I’m only saying I preferred the points where the film cut. The tightness of the shots and the fact that when it didn’t intercut it rounded up my emotional tension which is what I needed.

…I ‘m only young and learning and grown up with the fast cutting generation and think films like Amour are nerve wracking and should be respectful to the current audience and include editing – what is your view of films like Amour or Angelopoulos’s style? I love Fincher, hate Tarantino, love Attenborough, Altman, Nolan, Bergman… I love a good film, I don’t like self-indulgence and auteurs that do film only for themselves and just happen to have a good pr company behind them. I met Lars Von trier and he was horrible to us young students , full of pretentiousness and up his own. But I met Scorsese as well and he was amazing and helpful. It’s truth that I have learned from your site and take on board what you say about the intention. How do you know your intention? You shoot A and you edit B and on the way you might like C… is it always defined? Should it? If you were to do Plague again what would you do differently?

Answer: My answer is very simple: I don’t have an audience that is specific or makes any demands. I make films for myself WITH the knowledge that I am not so unique or unusual that I am going to alienate most or all of the human race. My audience are the people who will be moved and/or effected by my films and want to see more. Plain and simple. I am not a director for hire. If I were, then I would have to consider what the audience is that the producers want to reach if that is their goal. If I direct a pre-existing comic book or a James Bond film, then, yes, I must consider the audience. But if I’m making films that are an expression of who I am and tell the stories I have a need to tell and offer the experience that I want to put out there, then considering some non-existent audience makes no sense. The last thing I want to do is second-guess other people and decide what they might or might not like, what they might or might not “get.” Then I am not honoring anyone, least of all myself.

Hollywood has trained many filmmakers to think in terms of audience (males 16-25, for example). This has nothing to do with filmmaking for me. That is marketing and when marketing dictates what kind of films you make and how you are going to make them, the work itself becomes that much less personal and, as a result, that much less daring. Vittorio De Sica once said, “Art has to be severe. It cannot be commercial. It cannot be for the producer or even for the public. It has to be for oneself.” So I guess the question you need to ask is are you a director for hire or someone who has a vision they want/need to explore and share? Both are completely valid approaches. But they are not the same.

As for the directors you mentioned, AMOUR was one of my favorite films from last year. I love Haneke. I wouldn’t have changed a frame, not a beat. My other favorite from last year was the 3-hour cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s MARGARET. The year before that TREE OF LIFE and MELANCHOLIA. So yes, I love Von Trier. And I don’t care whether he is a nice guy or not. That has no bearing on the effectiveness of his work for me. And you used the term “self-indulgence” negatively. Yet I think it’s a requirement for making any kind of art. Who are we supposed to indulge in making art if not ourselves? An audience? The audience finds the art, not the other way around. At least as I see it. Coppola is still one of my heroes and his approach to filmmaking now is absolutely thrilling to me. My favorite Coppola is still THE CONVERSATION. You like Bergman. He is one of my favorite filmmakers. He did NOT make films for an audience. An audience found his films. For him, it was about him and his actors telling stories. In a way that moved and excited them.

I think Theo Angelopolis’ LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST is one of the most beautiful and moving films I’ve ever seen. Yes, I get why some people find his films too slow, same with Tarkovsky films, but I adore them. They “speak” to me. They move me to tears, excite me in their artistry, in their ability to express and touch me. Ridley Scott, on the other hand, bores me now. He made 3 amazing films early on and the rest feel very empty to me. That does not mean they are empty, only empty to me. His recutting of ALIEN removed the very thing I found to be most effective and daring about his original cut. But several years ago he went back and “picked up the pace.” Shame. He didn’t even see what he had done and why it was considered so amazing by so many. He is a filmmaker whose instincts I no longer trust. I have met the man. I have had story meetings with him. He’s very nice. I enjoyed his company. But his ideas bore me, as do most of his films.

For me, THE PLAGUE needed to linger on the moments that resonated for me. That is the experience that I wanted to share. What happens in those moments and the feelings that come up for people experiencing that. However, it will not be the same experience for everyone. Another reason I do not consider the audience or allow them to dictate my creative decisions. I have no control over what individuals bring into the screening room with them. To try and second-guess that I see as a futile mission and one that has no appeal to me.

My desire, as well, with the editing of THE PLAGUE was to juxtapose certain images and themes, to suggest directly and subconsciously the connection between the kids and the adults. Every cut is made with purpose. Each has something to say, something that is nonexistent in the producers’ cut, which ONLY wanted to make a film with action and bloodshed. A killer-kid film. They wanted to answer as many questions as quickly as possible which, for me, reduces tension. That is something that I have no desire to be a part of. Nor do I find that to be effective in any meaningful way. I believe my cut is more frightening because of what it conjures up under the surface, those feelings that we don’t initially understand, but that rise to the surface nonetheless. I also believe that allows my cut to linger with its audience far longer than the other cut. But that is, as you know, also dependent on who is watching and what kind of experience they are open to. Again, something I have no control over nor do I have a desire to control.

You asked me what I would change if I could do THE PLAGUE again. Ironically, I would think less about audience reaction and more about what moved me personally. I would not have wasted precious energy on worrying about what others might think or how it fit into genre expectations. I would have made the film even more visceral, more abstract. I would have also trusted my instincts about the people I was working with and not talked myself out of taking the project elsewhere when I had the opportunity. And I would have never allowed myself to be talked (threatened) into miscasting the leads which, no matter how I cut the film, will always bog it down and dramatically lessen its impact. The film can never rise above the fact that they were miscast, that they were there to appease Sony’s marketing department despite the fact that they were not who or what we imagined in those roles, nor were they capable of pulling it off to the level that the film and story required in order to be what we intended and hoped the film would be.

There are so many quotes by so many artists that speak to me personally. They mirror my own feelings and articulate my own personal discoveries. They are also full of lessons and instigate thought. I want more from my films, both those I make and those I watch, than perhaps some others out there. That seems to be the case. But I also know that I am not “special.” There are so many people out there yearning and searching for the same artistic storytelling experiences that I am. Now maybe that’s not the majority of male 16-25 year olds (though it might be as so many films supposedly geared toward that audience still bomb), but I trust that what I want to say and how I want to say it has an audience. All I need do is be true to myself and follow my instincts and my passions. I feel no need to attract the largest audience possible. I am also not looking to make films for the studios or work with a budget of $200 million. So I have the luxury of not having to worry about such distracting things as what others might think and that someone might not like or respond positively to something I do. There are more than enough people who will have the opposite reaction, or simply their own complex reaction. I know what moves and effects me and that’s what drives me. I’ve written a fair amount about all this. You can find some of it at my production company site:

I suggest reading the list of quotes there as I have personally found so many of them to be inspiring and deeply insightful.

And some other blog posts I’ve written that may or may not be of interest to you. Either way, they do articulate in more detail what I have been trying to say above. And probably more accurately. If you want to read them, they are here:

Soderbergh, The State Of Contemporary Cinema, & Questions From A Young Filmmaker

Cinema Of The Infantile: Welcome To The New Millenium

HollywoodpeachesI’ve been hard on America lately, it’s true. But with people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and Lou Dobbs and Joe The Plumber and… Well, the list goes on. With these folks popping up every few minutes to force some other piece of dimensionless drivel down the throats of Americans, many of whom are waiting patiently with mouths open like hungry fledgelings, one has to wonder if this country is made up of nothing more than infants intent on not developing their god-given brains.

But maybe that’s not really the case. I mean, Obama won the election, not McCain/Palin. And though there are a lot of crazies out there spouting lies to an audience eager to carry on those deceptions to their friends and neighbors, there are also massive groups of individuals who speak out in protest, call these liars out in public, and demand more responsible, adult behavior. Come to think of it, maybe it’s really just the people yelling and screaming and spreading these lies who think their audience is far stupider than they actually are.

While there certainly are a lot of people out there who either don’t want to think or have been trained not to, there are perhaps far more who are eager to think. Some may even be doing it as we speak. Which brings us to the point of this little essay. Cinema has always been a reflection of our society. Despite previous political administrations who showed their disdain for the arts with outrageous funding cuts, film is nonetheless of social, communal, moral, and evolutionary importance.

So why has the film industry been in steady decline since the early eighties? Well, part of the reason is probably due to the odd circumstances that lead to a revitalization of film culture that coincided with both political and social upheavals in the sixties and seventies. For a while there, the “inmates” were running the asylum. And it was wonderful. A little out of control and, at times, misguided, but wonderful. But what should have been a springboard has now become a sad basis for comparison. No growth happens without risk and mistakes. None. And we’ve been growing less and less ever since.

Film critic A.O Scott in his recent article OPEN WIDE: SPOON-FED CINEMA in the New York Times commented on all the excuses used for the making and promoting of thoughtless films over thoughtful ones:

…those reliable axioms about the taste and expectations of the mass movie audience are not so much laws of nature as artifacts of corporate strategy. And the lessons derived from them conveniently serve to strengthen a status quo that increasingly marginalizes risk, originality and intelligence.

I grew up dreaming of making films at the studios. And why not? As a kid, the studios were still making films. Sure, they also had strong commercial interests, that’s always been a huge piece of the puzzle, but it seemed for a while there, smart sold. People were open to and seeking adult fare. But now it seems the studios are being run by folks who altogether missed that era and, none too bright themselves, believe their audience is even dumber.

I’ve watched some of the best films of our current generation, films that would have garnered awards and inspired lines around the block years ago, fade into obscurity and be publicly proclaimed, not just as financial failures, but artistic failures as well. Ang Lee’s masterful film LUST, CAUTION was all but ignored by legions of American critics and fans alike. Even after the commercial and critical success of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, this cinematic haven for smart, subtle, nuanced, adult filmmaking was pushed aside. Or Stanley Kubrick’s swan song EYES WIDE SHUT, a true cinematic undertaking tackling adult subject matter with more artistry than most of the films of its year put together, was battered senseless by film-ignorant critics and studio execs who declared it a failure  despite the fact that  it was Kubrick’s greatest financial success… So what happened? Have audiences just gotten dumber? Or does it just appear that way?

Well, in my experience working in this town called Hollywood, where people travel from far and wide to glimpse that magical sign on the hill, I’ve come to believe that many of the folks working in Hollywood at the studio level are among the most childish and spoiled I’ve ever had the displeasure of working beside. Not all, mind you, but certainly most. And they, like most children, think they know it all. They certainly think their audience is far dumber than they are. The studios are to film what Sarah Palin is to politics.

While directing my first feature THE PLAGUE, I had the unfortunate opportunity to work with a series of folks whose knowledge of film was pre-adolescent at best. They would throw around the occasional classic or foreign film title, usually something extremely obvious, like a movie version of a hit song, only in this case it was CASABLANCA or 8 1/2 or THE SEVENTH SEAL. Jorge Saralegui was one of these guys. Once an exec at Fox, this guy’s knowledge of film could be contained comfortably on the head of a pin. And yet he wielded the kind of power that would ultimately decide the fate of any film he oversaw. And this was a man who spoke few words of kindness about anyone he’d ever known and moved about with an open disdain for those around him. I’ve written previously about his nasty and endlessly negative comments about directors like John Woo and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, both of whom he’d worked with. And his list of credits is like a who’s who of artistic (and quite often commercial) failures. My film included. In working closely with this man, I got an insider’s view of how a film intended for adult audiences can be reduced to strained peaches on the end of a small spoon. And who is he trying to feed? Us. And there are those, like Saralegui, who will gladly eat from that spoon themselves. Just like there are those who will drink from the Sarah Palin well and proclaim “Yummy” afterwards.

But Saralegui is just one of thousands of men and women projecting their ignorance into the mouths of babes eager to consume whatever mindless drivel they are handed. Even if the original intent of the creative filmmakers behind those films were grander and more daring than the final products ultimately revealed. Just look at the glut of quality studio films out there now. Sure, it’s summer, the time of “escapist” cinema, but even before summer hit, the best films were already being coined failures while the most mindless of the batch were being lauded as successes. And if you repeat the mantra that any film that isn’t a total financial blockbuster opening weekend is a “failure” while the artistically devoid TRANSFORMERS is a success, many people will listen. Just like when we tell people that Obama isn’t really an American.

A.O. Scott again:

Commercial success may represent the public’s embrace of a piece of creative work, or it may just represent the vindication of a marketing strategy. In bottom-line terms, this is a distinction without a difference. A movie that people will go and see, almost as if they had no choice, is a safer business proposition than one they may have to bother thinking about. In this respect “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is exemplary. It brilliantly stymies reflection, thwarts argument, arrests intelligent response. The most interesting thing about the movie — apart from Megan Fox’s outfits, I suppose — is that it has made nearly $400 million domestically.

…The studios, housed in large and beleaguered media conglomerates, have grown more cautious as the economy has faltered, releasing fewer movies and concentrating resources on dependable formulas. Nearly every big hit so far has been part of a franchise built on an established cultural brand.

…What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one! …Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.

So when people ask me why I’m still fighting four years later for the release of my cut of THE PLAGUE, it’s not because I think it’s god’s gift to cinema or the holy grail of intelligent movies, but because it was meant for an adult audience and, at every step of the way, was chipped away at by its producers and ultimately the studio that distributed it until it was indistinguishable from all the other pablum out there. It’s a film that never reached its audience because its audience was never given a chance to see it. And this is just a $3.5 million thriller, mind you. Not a big-budget studio flick. I know what the film is and I know what it isn’t. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit back and have any film of mine turned into drivel without fighting tooth and nail for its life. Part of it is that I abhor the thought of my name being listed as the creative entity behind something as mindless and offensive as the producers cut of that film. The other part is that if people don’t start demanding something better now, then we should just accept Sarah Palin and stop looking any further. Let’s just put on our bibs and ask for more, please.

The conventional wisdom within the industry is to accept what has happened and to move on. We’ve been doing that for almost 30 years and I’m yearning for film and filmmakers to take back the art form, to allow the audience to have both its escapist fun AND its intelligence, its creativity, its originality, and its ability to ask some hard questions, to challenge, to assume its audience is smart with a hunger to grow. If I can’t fight for that within my own world, with my own film, then I have no right to ask more from anyone else. Not even the studios.

Cinema Of The Infantile: Welcome To The New Millenium