In 1989 Steven Soderbergh put Sundance on the map withSex, 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 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?
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.