For eleven years (1998 to 2009), Steven Soderbergh was one of the kings of the audio commentary. On his own films, he breaks down his creative process in clean, simple, entertaining ways that really make you appreciate the finished products more (his Ocean’s Twelve commentary really sent me on the path to liking it from my initial dislike), is always glad to point out who he’s ripped off, and isn’t afraid to point out things he felt he did wrong. And on other people’s films, he’s a sharp interviewer of his friends and idols, asking the right questions about technique, process, and filmmaking while keeping the tracks moving at a steady clip. But if his (expectedly brief) retirement from feature filmmaking was a (once again, very brief) disappointment, his apparent retirement from commentaries was a tragedy, leaving all of his films after The Informant! without the necessary context Soderbergh could have provided them (he at least recorded interviews for the Criterion releases of his work that came without commentaries, but it’s just not quite the same, and his 2010s Hollywood movies got completely screwed on extras during this period). It was during this dry period that I detailed all of Soderbergh’s audio commentaries for my Soderbergh series (following the initial run where I just reviewed his directorial efforts). And now, three years later and just a few months after Soderbergh was for realsies confirmed to be coming out of filmmaking retirement, I am happy to be covering the first new Soderbergh commentary in seven years, brought to you by the fine folks at Arrow Video. Their initial supplements listing for their release of Suture (which Soderbergh produced) only mentioned that the disc contained a new interview with Soderbergh, among many other interviews, with me only finding out about him being on the commentary when I read a few reviews of the release. But however he reentered the booth, it’s still a wonderful development (not least because it opens the door for another verbal sparring match with Lem Dobbs on the eventual release of Kafka), and now I can finally bring back…
Two White Guys Talking About Movies
Soderbergh Interviews: Writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (What Maisie Knew, The Deep End)
(Please note that The Narrator cannot differentiate between McGehee speaking and Siegel speaking, so unless one of them is mentioned by name, their comments will be addressed to both of them. -Editor)
– McGehee and Siegel say they’ve known each other for “twenty-fiveish years”, which they admit is a rough count.
– For their initial career plans, Siegel was going to be a painter and artist, while McGehee was going to be an academic in Japanese film theory at the rhetoric department at Berkeley.
– The two began making films when they both became dissatisfied with grad school.
– The duo’s second short film goes under the category of “Burn what you don’t want to be seen”.
– McGehee’s knowledge and love of post-war Japanese cinema inspired Suture, particularly in the use of the widescreen black-and-white format.
– In addition to Japanese films, viewings of films noir and paranoid thrillers inspired Suture (they also viewed melodramas at the time, which inspired their follow-up, The Deep End).
– The film’s central conceit, where two different-race and non-identical actors play identical twins, came about halfway through the process of deciding what the story of the film would be. It was initially conceived as a joke but the two became really intrigued by the questions of identity it brought up.
– Soderbergh initially tried to get sex, lies, and videotape made in black-and-white, and is thankful nobody was willing to pay for that.
– Soderbergh is skeptical of contemporary films shot in black-and-white, and feels that Suture is one of the few films that uses that approach correctly.
– When Soderbergh saw Peter Weir’s Gallipoli in 1981, he came up with a “Three Shot Rule”, where you can determine whether or not a film knows what it’s doing within three shots.
– The first screening of the film (where Soderbergh saw the film) is seared into McGehee and Siegel’s brains as an utter disaster. They rented a tiny Sony screening room in Burbank, Soderbergh was the only one there, and they had to stop the movie three times to fix technical issues, including the film breaking(!) and the reels being out of order. Soderbergh not only has no memory of this “disaster”, he couldn’t even initially remember where exactly he saw the film.
– Soderbergh’s thought after seeing the film; “At least they know what a shot is”.
– The film was written to be shot in Arizona, because the duo wanted to incorporate a close proximity to the town of Needles in the film’s urban setting, with Phoenix and Los Angeles being the only urban options available to them.
– Soderbergh likes the shortcut the two take in avoiding actually having to blow up a car (the film cuts to TV footage of an exploded car when it’s established there’s a bomb underneath the main character’s car).
– McGehee and Siegel blew their entire music budget on Tom Jones’ cover of “Ring of Fire”, which they praise as “rockin'”.
– McGehee and Siegel have cameos in the film as ambulance workers.
– The two went into the movie without the money needed to finish it. They do not believe that they disclosed this information when casting the movie.
– Dennis Haysbert agreed to appear in the film because, at the time, his film Love Field was caught up in Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy.
– The film was lucky enough to be shooting in Phoenix when the city was hit by a depression following the Savings & Loans crisis, allowing them to use at least one empty bank as a set.
– A Phoenix VA hospital was another location used for the film. When McGehee and Siegel met with the hospital’s staff, one worker, who was Mexican, said that his uncle had worked in film. His uncle’s name was Luis Bunuel. They took this as a good omen.
– sex, lies was the only film where Soderbergh did not feel rushed making it. McGehee and Siegel did not feel nearly the same sense of having more time than was needed on this film.
– The film’s cinematographer, Greg Gardiner, worked as a gaffer for Robby Muller on a few films.
– The film’s composer, Cary Berger, currently works as both a musician and a corporate lawyer. He’s married to Suture‘s editor, Lauren Zuckerman.
– Soderbergh describes the life of the character Vincent (who the main character, Clay, is being told he is) thusly; “Everything’s great except for the murder”. McGehee and Siegel and “and he’s an asshole” to that.
– McGehee and Siegel describe their collaboration as “two buddies, one brain”, which they’re not sure is a compliment.
– Soderbergh says this whenever he visits a film class; “You need to know what you need and you need to know when you’ve got it”.
– Siegel is the one in the partnership who talks more to the cast and who wants to go for more takes when shooting (McGehee admits that he’s usually right in that regard). McGehee is the one crew members go to in times of crisis to reason with David.
– Soderbergh cannot remember his time in Suture‘s editing room (god, this guy doesn’t remember the screening, he doesn’t remember the editing, he doesn’t even remember that he retired). McGehee and Siegel remind him that he helped them to trim some fat off the film.
– McGehee and Siegel brought Dina Merrill (who has a supporting role in the film) to a brunch restaurant, where she was disappointed that they didn’t serve Post-brand Raisin Bran there. Soderbergh notes that he’s the same way with Singani 63.
– McGehee and Siegel showed Merrill an early version of the film. Her only reaction to it was to make cutting motions with her fingers and say “Snip snip”.
– Soderbergh forgot until viewing the film right before recording the commentary that McGehee and Siegel completely stole the moment where a doctor tells Clay about his reconstructed nose from The Knick.
– Neither McGehee nor Siegel completely remember where they came up with the idea for Clay to have a birthday party (complete with him wearing a “Happy Birthday” top hat) before leaving the hospital from, although they do remember having a conversation about using four different camera angles in the scene to give the appearance that each angle would be “unwrapping the present” (only two were used in the film). Soderbergh is noticeably taken aback by this being an actual conversation they had and brushes it off with “It was your first movie”.
– Soderbergh rehearsed heavily on his first few films, but after realizing that he wasn’t looking for an in-depth analysis of the characters before shooting, he switched to having “Fellini-esque dinners” where much of the principal cast would show up to just talk.
– Soderbergh is “still, still trying to reedit and find a shape for” Kafka. He says that, upon seeing the film again immediately prior to getting the materials for the reedit (15 years ago!), he felt that it was a film only a “stupid young man” would make, stupid as in not knowing when to say no.
– Soderbergh likes to have at least one part of his films that scares him, to keep him alert. McGehee and Siegel say that the making of Suture was all scary parts.
– McGehee and Siegel became friends with Terrence Malick recently. Malick told them a story about making Badlands, where he was asked repeatedly if he wanted to do a two-shot and had to ask others what their opinions of two-shots were in order to actually find out what a two-shot was.
– On at least one occasion, Soderbergh sent everyone working on a film home because he felt he wasn’t close to having an idea for a scene he was about to shoot. The Ocean’s movies had by far the most moments like this, whether everyone was sent away or sent home.
– Soderbergh is fascinated by post-war Japanese cinema’s juxtaposition of brutally ugly subject matter and astonishing formal beauty.
– Soderbergh wants to know if the frequent use of classical music in the film was a “craven attempt” to get classical music fans in the theater. McGehee and Siegel first say that it was done with commerce in mind, and then clarify that Siegel being a big classical fan led to its use in the film.
– McGehee and Siegel did not give any mind to Clay’s taste in music. Since it’s just sound, they say, they believe that they can fix this for the release.
– After Soderbergh says that he wants to start talking about how to construct a sex scene, he deadpans “people are actually going to start listening now”.
– Soderbergh feels that a movie can be sunk when it features a sex scene without a strong idea behind it.
– When the conversation about sex scenes continues on without an answer to the original question about their construction, Soderbergh says “We really need to figure this out, soon” (there’s 15 minutes left in the movie at the time he says this).
– Soderbergh had a “send everybody home” moment when he was shooting the sex scene with Clive Owen and Eve Hewson in The Knick (“Get the Rope”, specifically), where he hated his original footage and decided after some hours of thinking (after two hours of preparing the shot, which he did one take of) to make the scene non-linear (the sex intercut with Eve Hewson’s roommate seeing her the morning after) as a way of fixing the problem.
– McGehee and Siegel call the overhead shot of Clay and Vincent facing and pointing guns at each other “the Suture moment” (it was used as the U.S. poster art, and is preserved as reversible art on the Blu-Ray).
– Mark Romanek optioned the rights to Suture and planned to remake it only a few years after its release.
– Soderbergh has a few films he believes he shouldn’t have made in English, because he believes the dialogue or scenarios would’ve been easier to swallow subtitled (he doesn’t specifically mention it, but Kafka is one of them, since part of the reedit is redubbing it into German).
– Soderbergh believes that, if he was given the chance to remake his early films, he would likely screw up parts that work in addition to fixing the parts that don’t.
– McGehee and Siegel adapted the Patricia Highsmith book The Sweet Sickness during post-production, but they never ended up making it into a film (the booklet of the releases clarifies that Highsmith was sent their adaptation and she was pleased enough by it to sell them the rights; they then sent Highsmith a copy of Suture and the offer for the rights was immediately rescinded through Highsmith’s agent).
– Daryl Hannah and John Kennedy Jr. were at the film’s first public screening at Telluride. Kennedy, despite being in a cast and with crutches after breaking his leg, walked out of the theater halfway through the film. He soon came back, because he just had to pee.
– Soderbergh ends the commentary with a little reprise of his “state of cinema” address, talking about how it’s easier than ever to make a movie and harder than ever to get those movies released. He then says that he’s glad to have ended the conversation on such a bitter note.
Final Thoughts: Welcome back to the booth, Mr. Soderbergh, you were dearly missed, and you sound like you stopped doing these for a day, at most. This track literally never pauses for a second of the film’s 96-minute running time, and Soderbergh remains an incredibly engaging interviewer who interviews incredibly engaging subjects. Please, don’t let this be a one-off, Soderbergh. You’re still needed for whenever Carnal Knowledge gets a Blu-Ray release.
Up Next: Unless Soderbergh has another one of these in the barrel (or if Lin-Manuel Miranda is able to convince all his Hamilton fans to write en masse to Soderbergh and Criterion about getting Kafka done already), Mosaic is next.