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'Magic Mike' director Steven Soderbergh working now, not later

Christopher Borrelli

4:06 PM CDT, June 27, 2012

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There are moments amid the cheerful sleaze of Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike" when, no matter how much fun you're having, it becomes extremely clear this is never going to be the Channing Tatum male-strip-club movie Warner Bros. promised. It's as exuberant as promised. It's just not as clear. By design, it's not as clear.

Where another filmmaker might see musical numbers as opportunities for dream sequences, for the tawdry Florida night to recede in the minds of the dancers — in their heads, they're on Broadway! Dancing for Tonys! Not ones and fives — Soderbergh's numbers are intentionally amateurish, crassly sexual, badly lit. There are moments when Tatum's Superman grin is lost in the shadows, moments when there are six dancers onstage and the lighting is so haphazard not a single one is clearly registering on the screen.

There are moments, in other words, when Soderbergh wants you keenly aware this a Tampa strip club.

This is a dead end.

At moments like those, you can almost feel bad for a corporate entity like Warner Bros. Every jump cut, overlap of dialogue and nugget of social realism is probably worth $5 million less at the box office. Not that you should feel too bad: "Magic Mike" is a better movie than it might have seemed like two months ago, and it's not as if Soderbergh hasn't left behind about 25 or so filmed precedents. The director famously popped out of nowhere in 1989 with "Sex, Lies and Videotape," then went on to make a heady variety of Hollywood blockbusters ("Ocean's 11," "Erin Brockovich"), Oscar favorites ("Traffic") and ambitious experiments ("Che").

He's also semiretiring. He swears "The Bitter Pill," the Rooney Mara-Jude Law thriller he's shooting now in New York, will be his last film for a while, possibly forever. We spoke recently; here are a few highlights.

 

On allowing imperfection

"Since I act as my own cinematographer, one thing I've had to learn is how to make things look not so good, to be able to go into a space and recognize this is the way this looks, and it's not always my job to make everything look pretty. It's supposed to look real sometimes. I'm weirdly proud of scenes where I've let things look the way they look. To me it's a sign of maturity. In terms of lighting the club (in 'Magic Mike'), I said: 'Let's pretend there's no movie shoot. I want it lit that way.' The gaffer (aka the electrician) worked with a guy who lights clubs, not a guy who lights movies. So there are shots in this movie that no self-respecting cinematographer would allow, but remember, the place doesn't have good lighting. Because it's a strip club."

On good influences and getting fired

"A lot of what I do is based on things I saw and liked in movies while growing up, during what is often thought about as the Golden Age of American Movies, which is roughly 1966 to 1976. It's funny how the film grammar (used in those movies), by a lot of the filmmakers I admire, is not used as often as it used to be. ... My attitude, though, is that it's always 1971 and what would I be doing with this scene in 1971. Still, if you talk to any filmmaker these days, they'll tell you: Things are more prescribed than ever. There is less freedom in terms of what (studios) are willing to let you do. Look, I got fired off 'Moneyball' and kind of pushed off (a planned remake of) 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,' and both times I think it's because I was taking those projects in directions that were making people uncomfortable. I saw them as commercial movies, but even within that context, people got nervous. ... It's pointless to talk about (how he would have made 'Moneyball'). Let's say the approach was not typical. I knew exactly what I was doing, but people got uncomfortable. If that's the case, they should fire me. I can only make it in the way I think I should make it."

On working fast

"Working fast enables you to be less precious and think only about what the movie wants as opposed to what you want — which can be different. 'Magic Mike' was made in 25 days. Fifteen years ago, I couldn't have done that. 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' took 30 days. I could make that movie in 15 days now, and do it better too. I just know how to get to solutions faster now. If I move fast, it's because the answer to how something should look or be set up, that answer is at hand. When something is not working, I tend to stop and send everyone away until I've figured out the good version of what I'm doing. Then nobody goes slower than I do. You never figure out stuff if you're tense. Sometimes you're just stuck and can't insist on solving the problem right then. On one of the 'Ocean's' movies I sent everyone home at 11 in the morning."

On choices and camaraderie

"One of the reasons I am able to go from one (movie) to another so far is because I am interested in a lot of different things. When I hear a filmmaker say they can't find something to do, I think they need to get out of the house more often. I can't make all the things I have ideas for. There are ideas everywhere. ('Magic Mike') got made because I asked Channing what his production company was developing. I thought 'Wow, I haven't seen that world in a movie.' I thought of it as — and the people at Warner Bros. will have blood squirting out of their eyes at this — as an (Robert) Altman movie. It's a party. It's about vibe, camaraderie. I've made a handful of movies (such as 'Ocean's Eleven') in which camaraderie was front and center. ... Camaraderie should never be difficult to capture. Casting is the most important part. But then you let people be loose, providing a basic structure and rule book. It's a controlled improvisation. One of my favorite scenes is when we finally go backstage and meet everyone. We did it in 10 or 11 takes, which is a lot for me, but if you watched each take, you'd notice tiny adjustments, until it seemed as though that camaraderie was happening before you."

On retiring happily

"It's important to me to have done a lot of work. Around 'Sex, Lies,' if you had told me that from 1989 on I will have made almost 30 movies, I'd say 'Really?' I place a lot of value in getting work done, period. ... Of course I've looked at other careers and thought 'Couldn't I have had Rainer Werner Fassbinder's career? But without the coke and hookers and the heart attack?' But my career has been all over the place, and I like that about it. I think back on the movies I've made, and I think that that's plenty, that that's a body of work."

cborrelli@tribune.com