Steven Soderbergh tends to travel light — even when he has a movie camera tucked inside his suitcase. That's how the filmmaker set off on a recent Japanese press tour where, between interviews, he used a lightweight high-definition video camera known as the Red One to steal some Tokyo exteriors for his upcoming movie The Informant, a darkly comic thriller based on New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction best-seller.
Although The Informant stars Matt Damon and will be released later this year by Warner Bros., Soderbergh's moviemaking M.O. has changed little in the 20 years since his first dramatic feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape, won him the audience award at Sundance (then called the United States Film Festival), the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay — all before his 28th birthday. As the critic David Thomson has noted in comparing Soderbergh's film to another auspicious debut by a filmmaker of roughly the same age — Orson Welles' Citizen Kane — "There are differences." But so self-assured and preternaturally wise was Soderbergh's roundelay of sexual predilections and peccadillos among four Louisiana thirtysomethings that, coming as it did on the heels of a lackluster decade for American movies, it was hard to resist proclaiming its young auteur an indie-film messiah.
Next week, Soderbergh and Sex, Lies and Videotape will return to Sundance for a 20th-anniversary screening, a few days after his latest feature, Che, opens in wide release across the U.S. And if, by almost any standards (including those of Soderbergh's globe-hopping, multinarrative Traffic) Che qualifies as an epic undertaking, the director managed to bring his DIY-moviemaking mentality to bear even on this two-part, four-and-a-half-hour chronicle of iconic Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Guevara. Shooting on the Red One camera (then barely out of the prototype phase) and serving as his own cameraman — as he has done on all his features since Traffic — Soderbergh brought the entire production in on a 78-day shooting schedule for a relatively modest $58 million budget, or, roughly $30 million less than the reported cost of Ocean's Thirteen.
"I'm helped by the fact that I came out of the independent world and I'm used to doing stuff for cheap, or just having a 'let's put on a show' attitude," Soderbergh tells me when we meet in his sparsely appointed, paint-specked office in New York's Flatiron District a few days before Christmas. The weather outside is windy, slushy, and generally frightful, but 30-odd blocks uptown, inside the 1,100-seat Ziegfeld Theater (and at the smaller Landmark theater in L.A.), Che has been playing to packed houses for most of the past week, selling out many shows in advance on its way to a $60,000 opening weekend.
So great, in fact, was demand for Che that distributor IFC Films quickly moved to extend the movie's exclusive "roadshow" engagements by an additional week. (In most of the U.S., the film will be released in two separate parts, and will also be available via IFC's on-demand cable service.) Not Marley & Me–sized business, perhaps, but a considerable sea change from Che's lightning-rod world premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival, which saw dozens of journalists flee at intermission, and resulted in a widely circulated Variety review (since quoted for ironic effect in the film's international ad campaign) that declared: "The pic in its current form is a commercial impossibility, except on television or DVD."
Publications hungry for a Cannes cause de scandale picked up the story and ran with it, eventually spurring rumors that the Sean Penn–led jury would award Che the festival's coveted Palme d'Or just to spite the film's dismissal by Hollywood's self-proclaimed show-biz bible. (In the end, star Benicio Del Toro took home the Best Actor prize instead.) For Soderbergh, while the film's commercial performance thus far has been gratifying, he never felt that Cannes was anything but the perfect launching pad.
"We had exactly the experience that we hoped we would have," he says, pointing out that much of Che's budget had already been recouped through foreign presales before the festival even started. "We just wanted to detonate there, and that's what happened. When we went to Cannes, there were only a couple of territories left to be sold — the U.S. being one of them — and it was important for us that the people who had prebought the movie get a sense of what a publicity magnet the movie is, because we'd sort of sold them on that idea. So it was great for them to witness, regardless of the reaction, the fact that we sucked up a lot of oxygen. You can't buy that shit; you can't manufacture it. The movie either is one of those things or it isn't."
Love it or hate it, Che is a movie Soderbergh says he knew he had to make, even though by his own admission he was "totally ignorant" about Guevara when Del Toro and Traffic producer Laura Bickford first approached him with the project. "If your producer and your star come to you with a subject that you know is going to be interesting and you don't say yes, you're kind of a clown," he says.
Originally conceived as a single film about Guevara's failed Bolivia campaign to be directed by Terence Malick (who left the project to make The New World), the two-part Che evolved over a long development process among Soderbergh, Del Toro, and screenwriter Peter Buchman — an experience Soderbergh likens to Goethe's tale of a certain sorcerer's apprentice and his disobedient magic broomstick. "The more you got into it and the more research you did, the further away from the shore you felt," he says. "There were periods where I really was convinced that we just weren't going to be able to find a shape for this, that we were drowning in research."
An important breakthrough came when Soderbergh decided to focus on those aspects of Guevara's story that resonated most with his own experience of the world — the ones that suggested how guerrilla warfare is not so very different from guerrilla filmmaking. "There's so many metaphors for making a film in what we were trying to do, and that was at least part of my way in," he says. "The group of people getting together to accomplish a certain task in imperfect surroundings ... you know, all of that. There's nothing more revealing to me than being on a film crew. You put me on a crew with somebody and you put me under difficult circumstances and give me 39 days, I'm telling you I'll know that person almost as well as their spouse.