Steven Soderbergh on 'High Flying Bird' and Shooting on an iPhone

Steven Soderbergh on High Flying Bird and Shooting on an iPhone
I saw Soderbergh and 'High Flying Bird' and both are amazing.

In 1989 Steven Soderbergh put Sundance on the map with Sex, Lies and Videotape.

It’s 30 years later and he’s in Park City again, and while he has movies he produced playing in Sundance, he’s showing his newest movie High Flying Bird at Slamdance, where he was given the founders award.

Before screening the movie, he spoke to a relatively small audience, of which I was privileged to be among, about filmmaking, his career, this particular movie, and he took questions from Slamdance alumni near and far (via email) including The Russo brothers and Christopher Nolan.

I’ll do my best to recap it for you, and hopefully, you’ll get as much insight and inspiration from his words and his movie as I did.

High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird and Shooting On the iPhone

Christopher Nolan emailed in a question for Soderbergh about using digital. He specifically wanted to know when Soderbergh would go back to shooting on celluloid.

Soderbergh’s response was to ask Nolan when he’d go back to writing scripts with a pencil.

He added that the two directors have exchanged playful back-and-forth barbs over the shift from celluloid to the digital medium. And he also added that to each his own is the proper approach.

Can anyone take issue with the ways Christopher Nolan makes movies? The proof is in the pudding.

For Soderbergh, the ability to review his dailies immediately means he can start working on his rough cut asap. It also means that night he can call his producers and tell them who he needs back and what he has to shoot tomorrow.

Maybe for some filmmakers this would result in over doing things, but in Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird, whatever he did to get the end result was worth it.

The NBA lockout drama about the game on top of the game has a taut script from writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight), and along with Soderbergh’s directing it’s a movie-making super team.

The story replaces the hardwood with boardrooms, offices, and saunas. It replaces dribble drives, crossovers and hesi’s with quick-witted delivery, and fast-paced dialogue while characters maneuver in a game of three dimensional chess.

The result is mesmerizing.

Soderbergh said that when shooting with the iPhone everything would be in focus, so he decided to embrace that.

The visuals are stunning. Scenes in the highest corner office play out high stakes politics, and if you take your eyes off the characters you glance down far below at a boat crossing the Hudson below the NYC skyline.

The angles stay fresh. Soderbergh could place the camera in places he’d have a hard time getting it otherwise. Instead of making a hole in a wall for a camera, he explained, he’d just stick the phone to the wall.

Soderbergh loves using the iPhone and the immediacy of what it can bring in comparison to the slower process he grew up with of shooting on and developing film.

For young filmmakers and creators today, he thinks the ability to craft beautiful images so easily is a huge advantage.

But he also makes note of the big challenge that makes life so much harder for young creators today; getting eyeballs on your work when there is simply so much out there.

The double-edged sword of the digital age.

Soderbergh on Identifying and Fostering Creative Talent

Steven Soderbergh makes one thing very clear, his interest and attraction to talent is much like anyone else's. He’s a fan.

He loves seeing talent displayed on the screen and wants to see more of it.

His task, his role, in most instances, is simply getting the talent he sees and is excited about into a room.

He told the story of how a younger Christopher Nolan wanted to get a chance to direct Insomnia. But he could not even get the meeting. The people in question did not love Memento.

Soderbergh simply had to make a call telling them to meet with Nolan. He knew, correctly, that Christopher Nolan would take it from there.

Soderbergh on Inspirations and Taking Risks

In one question an audience member thanked Steven Soderbergh for taking risks and he took a moment then responded that he doesn’t believe he is much of a risk taker.

Taking a risk, in his mind, would be jumping out a plane which he would absolutely never do.

He elaborated that the only true risk in his work is that someone doesn’t like the movie. And his response to that?

“Who cares?”

He went on that a lot of critics are wrong. Even when they like a movie, they’re wrong about what they liked.

The danger, he added, is when you make 4 to 5 movies in a row that a lot of people dislike. Which he explained he had done at one time in his career, and ended up putting a lot of pressure on him to deliver Out of Sight.

And deliver it he did.

Soderbergh’s attitude about being creative and taking risks is better characterized by him as pushing. He said the two major artists he was influenced by in his formative years that he did an extended deep dive on were The Beatles and Miles Davis.

In instances, he marvels at their abilities to be restless and dissatisfied. To keep pushing and iterating on their work. To evolve it.

Steven Soderbergh doesn’t take risks, he just can’t be satisfied, and he’s motivated to create new different things.

Where Did High Flying Bird Come From?

Soderbergh said he always feels a slight discomfort when watching sports the camera pans up to the owner's box. Something about the white owners looking down below on the men in the arena is troubling. I’m inclined to agree.

In the sport of Basketball, particularly, as a game played mostly by African American men, who are stars driving all of the profit and ancillary business, it becomes increasingly problematic.

He wanted to make a movie about the business of all of that, about the game, without ever showing us the game being played.

In a way, the movie serves as a perfect companion piece to our founder and CEO Ryan Koo’s movie Amateur.

Amateur focused on the game on top of the high school pre-college game. High Flying Bird is almost like a sequel.

Summing Up Soderbergh and High Flying Bird

As I’ve been mentioning, this is my first trip to Park City. There has been a whirlwind of screenings, interviews, events, and parties.

For me, Steven Soderbergh always served as a sort of beacon of light within the madness of Hollywood. He’s an artistic filmmaker. Pushing himself, and the medium to do more, without too much concern over the consequences on the business end.

He’s also been a champion of new talent. Helping find and foster some of the great directing talents of the last few decades.

So when I walked out of High Flying Bird at The Treasure Mountain Inn (where Slamdance lives) and I saw Steven Soderbergh standing alone on the sidewalk I decided to say hi. Why not?

So I gushed a bit to the man, about High Flying Bird, as well as his work in general. He smiled, nodded, thanked me, shook my hand etc.

I don’t fanboy out too often (I sat next to Leonard Nimoy who played Spock on Star Trek at a wedding once, that was pretty intense. I still feel bad for him).

But when I do fanboy out, I try to thank someone for doing the work that I’ve loved. They mostly seem to appreciate that.

So why go to Sundance?

Because maybe you’ll get to thank one of the filmmakers who most inspires you.


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Your Comment


Great read, great man.
The Russo Brothers question wasn't interesting?

January 29, 2019 at 7:56AM


Thank you so much, it was a lengthy Q&A he did prior to the film, and I took the best notes I could and tried to get this up quickly and accurately to the event and what he said. The Russo Brothers question was a great one, it was about the lenses, stabilizer and other gear he used associated with the iPhone on High Flying Bird. I very much WISH I had gotten it all down but he rapid fired the answer and I wouldn't want to misrepresent that information, and I know our readers are very aware and interested in such things so it would be bad to get it even a little wrong. I wish I had the answer.

January 29, 2019 at 7:12PM

George Edelman
Producer and Screenwriter

I still draw on the many things I learned from Soderbergh and use them in my own filmmaking. Would love to work with him again someday because I am sure I could learn a lot more.

January 29, 2019 at 8:05AM

Kevin Wines

I hate to sound like a pedant, but I really want you to take more pride in your work and read what you've written more carefully before you publish it.

You are in a privileged position to have your thoughts and ideas read by such a large number of people and without getting too Spiderman, with that great power comes great responsibility!

Your article is being lessened by a lot of errors which make the reader feel like you couldn't care less about them or its content, which I know is untrue. I bring this up as I think it's also pertinent to the content of the article.

Soderbergh has long championed indie film making and the idea that anyone with simple technology can make a film. He is however also a master and a large part of that mastery lies in maintaining high standards regardless of what camera he is shooting a film on. He wouldn't release a film in the same state as this article - which is good, but still at the rough cut stage - and neither should you.

Whether it's film making or journalism, craft is about doing a thing as well as you can - care as much as your heroes do and you take one step closer to becoming them. I say this in an attempt to be constructive not unkind because I really liked what you had to say and I often struggle with written construction and grammar myself.

I've included the problematic sections below. I hope that's helpful and I look forward to reading your next article.

- Soderbergh’s response as to ask Nolan when he’d go back to writing scripts with a pencil.

- He added that the two directors have had exchanged playful back-and-forth barbs over the shift from celluloid to the digital medium. And he also added that to each his own the proper approach.

- The story replaces the hardwood with boardrooms, offices, and saunas. It replaces dribble drives, crossovers and hesi’s with quick-witted barbs, and fast-paced dialogue while character maneuver in a game of three dimensional chess.

- Soderbergh said that when shooting in the iPhone, everything would be in focus, so he decided to embrace that.

- Soderbergh simply had to make a call and tell them the meet with him

- In one question and audience member thanked Steven Soderbergh for taking risks

- Soderbergh said he always feels a slight discomfort when while watching sports

- He’s a filmmaker as an artist.

- Pushing himself, and medium to do more

January 29, 2019 at 1:21PM

Paul fern
Film maker


January 29, 2019 at 6:19PM

Clay Smith
Wannabe screenwriter, film editor, director

Thanks for pointing these out. We wanted to get this one up quickly, and we didn't copy edit it properly. I appreciate your candor and your input. I take this to heart, and respect the place it is coming from. Thank you for being a good reader, and being honest in your feedback.

January 29, 2019 at 7:07PM, Edited January 29, 7:09PM

George Edelman
Producer and Screenwriter

Thanks George.
I felt very mean-spirited after posting my comment on your article last night as I realised, too late, that you must have been, understandably, very busy. Please accept my apologies and thank you for being so gracious.

Oh and kudos for talking to Mr Soderbergh in the street. I think I would have been too nervous as he's a bit of a hero of mine!

January 30, 2019 at 2:13PM

You voted '-1'.
Paul fern
Film maker

Great reading, thanks a lot for sharing.

January 30, 2019 at 2:25AM