Twenty years after he burst onto the scene with “sex, lies, & videotape,” Steven Soderbergh, dressed in black casual clothes, sits back on a couch in a Toronto hotel and considers what’s changed in the intervening decades.
“I don’t feel that different, really – but then I don’t feel different from when I graduated from high school,” Soderbergh, 46, says. “I know more about my job now, by virtue of having practiced. I’d say the only thing I know now for sure is that people don’t change. For a while, I labored under the illusion that people did change or that you could change them. I let go of that fantasy, which was a healthy thing to do. I’ve realized that they can change, but they have to do it on their own. They have to want to.”
Soderbergh was in Toronto for the premiere of his film, “The Informant!,” opening Friday. Based on a true story, the film stars a toupeed, overweight Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a real-life whistle-blower who helped the government bring a major price-fixing case against agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland – before being caught himself for embezzling from ADM.
It’s a studio picture, but hardly a mainstream movie. Whitacre is an oddball central character who’s never quite trustworthy – and Soderbergh emphasizes this with a voice-over narration that frequently digresses into Whitacre’s random musings about whatever comes to his mind, often in the middle of a scene.
“Traditionally voiceover is there to hold your hand,” Soderbergh says. “But this is misdirection. It was (screenwriter Scott Burns’) idea to have the narration bear no relation to what you’re looking at, so that it didn’t help explain things. I was very taken with that.
“Tangentiality is an aspect of bipolar behavior that’s the most common. What’s fascinating is how closely it mimics Mark’s own thought process. What gives it the spin in the film is the placement, the fact that it happens in the middle of scenes in which he’s talking about something else.”
The film’s music is also hilariously disconcerting. Marvin Hamlisch’s score seems pulled from a 1970s’ sitcom, though most of the film is set in the 1990s. Again, Soderbergh says, it was a specific choice he made, based on the character.
“I wanted the music from a ’70s TV show,” he says. “It had to function as his soundtrack, his music for his movie of himself. It’s not meant for the audience. For me, it doesn’t function in the way that a score does traditionally, which is as a path for the audience into the movie. If you take the music and the voice-over away, the performances are pitched in a natural way because I knew we would have other layers. It’s crucial that we experience his emotional state musically –and the voice-over gives you the mental landscape.”
Where “Erin Brockovich” cast a corporation as a villain in a David-Goliath story, “The Informant!” only superficially explores ADM’s massive misdeeds (for which the government fined it hundreds of millions of dollars and sent its executives to prison). Instead, this is Mark Whitacre’s story, as told from his extremely skewed perspective.
“His character is what got me into to it,” Soderbergh says. “I didn’t see it as a movie about corporate crime or price-fixing. My sense was that he would be this guy no matter where he worked. This place was just a terrarium for bipolar behavior, combined with his own ambition.”
“The Informant!” is decidedly unconventional, a major release that goes willfully against the grain. But Soderbergh had few problems convincing Warner Bros. to let him follow his instincts about how to portray Whitacre’s odd little world.
“The studio was willing to believe in me,” he says. “When they saw the film and realized I was telling the truth and making a comedy, they were relieved. They saw the dailies and were not seeing that. It’s not an expensive movie, but they were taking a chance.”
Taking a chance: That’s something Sony Pictures ultimately was unwilling to do with Soderbergh early this past summer. In June, two days before Soderbergh was supposed to start shooting a film based on Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt, Sony pulled the plug. The studio reportedly was unhappy with a rewrite Soderbergh had done of the Steve Zaillian script they had approved, because it would include documentary-style interview segments.
“It wasn’t surprising to me,” Soderbergh shrugs. “It was frustrating, because there were 200 people who thought they were going to have a job. But there’s always that possibility. I don’t want to be shackled economically. I have to be able to make what I want to make. That’s the only way I know how to work.
“I guess I expected to be allowed to make the best version of the movie in my opinion. That’s the way I work. But it required a real leap of faith. By design, an important part of the film was never going to be written down and that’s an unorthodox approach.
“It’s an indication of where the business is going. It’s getting very conservative. It’s a business run primarily on fear.”
Soderbergh’s career is impossible to pigeonhole, by design. Starting as an independent, he purposely made a point of veering from arthouse fare into the mainstream in 1998 with “Out of Sight.” Along the way, he’s collected a trio of Oscar nominations and won as best director for “Traffic,” the same year he became the only director in Academy Award history to be nominated for that award for two different films (“Erin Brockovich” was the other).
Since then, he has casually swerved back and forth between the commercial and the experimental, directing everything from blockbusters (“Ocean’s Eleven” and its sequels) to tiny digital films that are released on pay-per-view the same day as their limited theatrical run begins (“Bubble,” “Che”).
“They’re designed to sort of be for people who want to have a slightly different experience than usual,” he says of the small, personal films. “They’re cheap, so they don’t have to make a lot of money. I don’t find them as odd as some people. I grew up during a period when it was not unusual to see movies like that.”
Among the films on his schedule for the near-future are a small action film (“Knockout”), a Liberace biopic (to star Michael Douglas), a miniseries based on the John Barth novel, “The Sot-Weed Factor,” and “Cleo,” a 3D rock musical about Cleopatra, with music by Robert Pollard of the band Guided by Voices.
“I don’t have a system of how I choose, other than trying not to force things,” he says. “As soon as something becomes ready to go to the next level, I try to focus on that and push it through. I try to vary my experience so I don’t feel like I’m making the same movie twice. It’s just me wanting to mix things up.”
A cineaste with a true love for the form and its possibilities, Soderbergh gradually has decided that, in the end, the movies maybe are just that – movies, and not vehicles for social change.
“I don’t think movies change anything,” he says. “When I was growing up, they seemed to matter. I don’t think they do matter. They are still influential – but I can’t say they matter. I sometimes wonder if there is a role that movies have, other than to just entertain us. Maybe that’s enough.”