Steven Soderbergh on Producing ‘Godless’ and the Shifting Storytelling Model for Film and Television
As the lights dimmed at New York City’s Metrograph and cast of “Godless” filed into the theater, the bar gradually emptied out. But one person remained. Dressed all in black, wrapped in a lengthy pea coat, was famed director and “Godless’ executive producer Steven Soderbergh. Seemingly relieved to get away from the hustle and bustle, Soderbergh quietly sipped from his glass as a couple of ice cubes bobbed inside.
The director of the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, “Traffic,” “Out of Sight” and “Magic Mike” has a very distinctive view of the forces that are shaping the current film and television climate. As an auteur and an indie filmmaker, Soderbergh has a lot of insight into the industry, but these days he tends to stay away from the major studio films. That doesn’t mean he’s not opinionated on the topic of big Hollywood blockbusters. “Justice League,” which just opened to $96 million dollars, was considered a flop. Soderbergh balked at this concept, declaring Hollywood’s economic model outrageous.
“When you hear ‘Justice League’ is ONLY going to do 93 million, I’m like, alright, whatever structure you guys have set up where 90 million dollars is described as ‘only’, that’s crazy,” Soderbergh said incredulously. “That’s crazy. Like, come on, that’s a ridiculous amount of money. And if we’ve set up a system in which that’s not a ridiculous amount of money, you need to rebuild that system.”
Soderbergh was at the Metrograph to promote Netflix’s “Godless,” a seven-episode limited Netflix series which he executive produced. “Godless” was written and directed by Scott Frank, who also penned the Oscar nominated screenplay for Soderbergh’s caper film, “Out of Sight.” As Soderbergh sipped from his glass, he talked loosely about the process of getting “Godless” to Netflix — a topic which excited him as much as Hollywood’s economic model agitated him.
“Godless” was originally written as a three-hour film, which would have been incredibly difficult to make. But as streaming television became a more palatable option, the opportunities for “Godless” grew. “The good news is since we last talked about it, everything has changed,” said Soderbergh with a smile. “Instead of cutting this down, why don’t you blow it up and go bigger and deeper and we’ll do it as a limited series. We met with Netflix and, to their credit, they greenlit the project based on Scott’s original one hundred and eighty page script, his description of how he was going to expand it, and a [hypothetical budget] number that we invented. They said yes.”
During the production of “Godless,” a decision was made to expand it from 6 to 7 episodes. While most studios would have balked at this kind of development, Netflix took it in stride — much to Soderbergh’s delight. “There aren’t a lot of places where you go to work where you can drop something like that,” Soderbergh reflected. “You have to go back and renegotiate actor deals. Because the [contract] is based on 6 hours. And then you go back and [suddenly say] no, its 7 hours. There are a lot of people who would have pushed back. And Netflix was like – if you think creatively that’s the way it has to go, then just do that.”
“Godless” is coming right at the crux of a crucial period of transition in the film and television industry. As a one hundred and eighty page script, “Godless” was too big for a film, but it fit perfectly into television’s newly flexible streaming model. Soderbergh, like many independent filmmakers, has recently crossed the gap between film and television himself. His critically acclaimed series “The Knick” ran for 2 seasons on Showtime to great acclaim, and he’s already set for another experimental TV series entitled “Mosaic,” which premieres in January.
Given Soderbergh’s wide experience in both film and television, the state of the industry was a subject rife for exploration. As the topic shifted, Soderbergh took a long pause between sips. He swirled his drink a bit, mulling it over.
“You know, I’m sort of agnostic about the medium and the format, because it’s all just storytelling to me,” Soderbergh said. “A directorial voice and an approach to me has nothing to do with the size of the screen or where you’re seeing it. When I was growing up there was a big difference between watching something on television and watching it in a movie. Now at home on a big monitor, watching something in 4K HDR, the gap in what you see at home and what you see in a movie theater is closing. We’re at a very interesting point right now where there are more people who can have a unique experience at home potentially than in a theater and that’s an interesting space to be in right now.”
Despite Soderbergh’s insistence on film vs. TV agnosticism, there was surely more to Soderbergh’s opinion than he was letting on. After all, he went on a filmmaking hiatus between 2013’s “Side Effects” and 2017’s “Logan Lucky.” But he worked on a lot of television in between. There must have been something about the television medium he found to be preferable.
“A year from now people can go ‘oh my god I saw this show,’” Soderbergh said about “Godless,” referring to Netflix’s capacity for infinite viewing. “That’s the good news about this kind of format and this kind of way of putting things out. There isn’t this pressure of somebody calling you on a Friday and going, ‘It’s not working. It’s over.’ I’ve gotten those calls. I’m like wow, really? 2 years of work? And its Friday at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon and you’re telling me it’s over?… It’s nice to be in a world where that doesn’t apply.”
Soderbergh was halfway through his drink by now. As the ice cubes slowly melted away, the conversation topic began to widen. Soderbergh, who has had experiences with the big studios directing the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, shared his frustration about the current Hollywood filmmaking model.
“When you start talking about the figures that we’re talking about to make a big studio movie and release it wide around the world, the pressure to have it become something palatable for all humans increases,” Soderbergh said, his implied eye-roll evident. “At the same time, we all know that’s not gonna work. There’s this weird paradox of like, when you try consciously to make something that appeals to everyone, often they can kind of sense that and they reject it, because I really think at the end of the day the audience does wanna see something specific. They wanna see something that has a vision, that’s unified and that has a point of view.”
Soderbergh has dipped in and out of the Hollywood studio system for years, making movies both large and small. But regardless of the kind of movie he makes, whether an intimate romance like “Solaris,” or a big crowd pleaser like “Ocean’s Eleven,” Soderbergh maintains that all of these films were ones he was wholeheartedly invested in.
“I’m not anti studio, I’m just anti bad movie,” Soderbergh said emphatically. “You know, I don’t care who’s writing the check, I really don’t. and I’ve made movies obviously that were designed to be broad appeal commercial movies. But when people are like ‘oh its one for them and one for you,’ I go no, they were all for me. The ‘Oceans’ movies were for me because I love heist films. I feel like there is a way to do both of these things where you can make a movie that has broad appeal… but also reflects the specific intention of a filmmaker.”
As Soderbergh got closer to the bottom of his beverage, he began to share a surprising and delightful story about the time he helped the Russo brothers get hired to direct “Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Though it seemed like just a fun anecdote at first, it became clear that Soderbergh was still talking about the importance of a unified filmmaking vision.
“I remember I got a call from the Russo brothers when they were being considered for ‘Captain America,’” Soderbergh said, taking a nice long pause for his drink. He seemed to be savoring the memory. “They reach out to me and they go ‘will you call Kevin Feige and say nice things about us? And I call them back and I go of course, but I wanna confirm something. You’re doing this because you love this, not because you think it’s a career move? And [they say to me], no, you don’t understand, we have a one hundred thousand dollar comic book collection… And I call Kevin and I [tell him]… these are nice, good, talented guys, you’ll have a great experience with them. And they did. The [Russo brothers] are so deep into that universe now. Every time a movie opens I call them and I go ‘where’s my car?’ And they’re like ‘oh, the next one. When we do the next one, we’ll buy you a car.”
Soderbergh may not yet have received his shiny new car from the Russo brothers, but he has picked up his filmmaking camera once more. Despite his thoughts on the industry, Soderbergh remains as zealous a filmmaker as ever. Soderbergh’s eyes gleamed as he began to talk about his new film, “Unsane,” which he shot exclusively on an iPhone.
“It was something I’d been working my way up to,” Soderbergh said of the film, which opens March of next year. “I’ve been shooting a lot of stuff on my phone and really playing around with what’s available to do in terms of apps and filters for a couple years, with this notion that at some point I’m gonna find a piece of material that is best served by being done this way. Then this script [for “Unsane”] showed up and I decided this is it. I’m really happy with it. I’m doing that again, for sure.”
Tilting his head back, Soderbergh took the last sip of his drink. He had run the whole gamut of industry talk. From film to television to Netflix to iPhone movies, there was a vast spectrum of outlets that Soderbergh viewed as palatable for filmmaking. What then, was Soderbergh’s ultimate view of storytelling? What did it need at its core?
“In this day and age with all the choices that people have to see stuff, you gotta start from a place of ‘good.’,” Soderbergh said, setting down the empty glass. “As soon as they even hear that it’s not good, they’re like ‘well I’m just not gonna see it, cuz I hear this other thing was good.’ So that’s the good news. We may have cycled back after 25 or 30 years of things that weren’t good being able to make their money [back] in ancillary [ways]. We may have now finally circled back to a place where [the finished product] actually has to be good. And that’s not a bad thing.”
All seven episodes of “Godless” premiere Nov. 22 on Netflix.