WarnerMedia’s awkwardly revealed re-invention of Hollywood’s release windows has stirred anger among filmmakers and their reps, with fists clenched and threats exchanged. But then there’s Steven Soderbergh, the idiosyncratic filmmaker who reminds us that he is above it all.
Soderbergh’s response to industry discord is to sign up as co-producer of the next Oscar show, whatever that may be (more below), and to join the streaming line with a semi-improvised HBO Max drama titled Let Them All Talk (some critics have retitled it Let Them All Nap).
Throughout his 30-year career, Soderbergh has careened between moods and settings, from Erin Brockovich to Magic Mike, from Contagion to Full Frontal. He followed Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his first hit, with a period drama sexily titled Kafka about an paranoid insurance clerk in Prague.
True to form, Soderbergh “retired” for four years around 2012, then materialized once again with a self-financed, self-distributed heist movie titled Lucky Logan. Its story underperformed as did its box office numbers.
Having professed fealty to movie theaters, he nonetheless signed on to the product-hungry HBO Max streaming platform with his new Meryl Streep vehicle. Cast as a world famous novelist, Streep invites two girlfriends to accompany her on a Queen Mary II crossing to England.
Soderbergh likes challenges: This one involved shooting his film in two weeks aboard the Cunard ship, working around its rigid protocols. Fortunately, the script is skimpy; Streep’s self-obsessed character suffers from writer’s block, and her friends (Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) come aboard to exploit her rather than revere her. Streep’s agent even sneaks aboard to prod her into sequelizing her bestseller.
In post-shoot interviews, the director and actresses deliver confusing explanations of the dialogue – how much was improvised rather than scripted. Fifty pages were written by Deborah Eisenberg, a short story writer lacking film credentials. Improvised scenes have always triggered scheduling headaches for filmmakers. Robert Altman famously encouraged improvisation, while often scolding actors for delays.
Those viewers who have traveled on cruises – “crossings” is the word mandated by Cunard – know the spaces are confining, the staff unrelentingly stiff and the passenger list uniformly grey. Streep’s character seems bored, if not suffocated, by the setting. The fact that she becomes “blocked” therefore is no surprise to the audience.
For Soderbergh, always eager for filmmaking challenges, shooting on the Queen Mary II must have been more exciting in theory than in practice. One of his previous Streep projects, Laundromat, had even more bizarre settings but was, at least, steeped in political diatribes rather than novelistic angst.
Pursuing his unpredictable film agenda, Soderbergh consistently defies the rules set forth by distinguished predecessors who, having prospered in a genre, adhere closely to it. Alfred Hitchcock made no excuses for limiting himself to his formula – witness Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho.
He carefully explained to me once that every project still posed its own hazards in terms of cast and setting, not to mention second-guessing from the studio hierarchs. On Psycho, Hitchcock feuded constantly with executives at both Universal and Paramount.
Given his fondness for the familiar, Hitchcock would likely be both impressed and disturbed by the strategies forged by a restless filmmaker like Soderbergh – especially his willingness to undertake an Oscar show at a moment of cosmic uncertainty.
Soderbergh’s admirers would not be surprised on Oscar night were he to reprise a musical version of Contagion, replete with onstage vaccinations. And Streep would surely be on hand to improvise the shots.
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