Back to selection

“I Think Everything is the Director’s Fault”: Steven Soderbergh on The Laundromat, LLCs and Systemic Corruption

Meryl Streep and Jeffrey Wright in The Laundromat

Ever the productive workhorse, Steven Soderbergh has released two movies on Netflix this year. The first: High Flying Bird, a sharply scripted drama set behind the scenes at the NBA that follows a canny sport agent whose end game is to shift the financial power from white owners to black players, i.e. to seize the means (or balls) of production. The second: The Laundromat, a Big Short-style anthology film about the Panama Papers leak that explains the proliferation of offshore bank accounts and tax havens, specifically those provided by the firm Mossack Fonseca, and follows the victims of these global financial crimes. Both films are the latest entries in Soderbergh’s anti-capitalist critiques, which accounts for most of his post-00s output, that seek to shine a light on economic inequality and profile the human actors perpetrating it and those fighting against it.

However, The Laundromat features Soderbergh at his most direct, breaking the fourth wall to cheekily justify financial malfeasance, as told by Mossack and Fonseca themselves (Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, respectively), and generate outrage from the groundlings about how systemic corruption trickles down to the lowest rungs. It’s a rare agit-prop move from a filmmaker who prefers to filter ideology entirely through narrative instead of making blunt appeals. The film’s last shot in particular pushes Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns’ considerable anger front and center, stripping away the artifice and humor to shake the audience into awareness, hoping they’ll come away with something more than a good time.

I spoke to Soderbergh at the Toronto International Film Festival about the difficulties of making The Laundromat, his return to the Red after two projects shooting on an iPhone, implicating himself in the film and how corruption, next to climate change, is the greatest threat facing humanity.

Filmmaker: What was the shooting schedule for Laundromat? How much rehearsal time did you have? How much was it determined by locations and cast availability?

Soderbergh: It was a short shoot—35, 36 days—A little bit all over the place because of locations. We were trying to do a lot of movie magic. Because the whole style of the film is so theatrical and real vs. not real was built into it, I felt it was a challenge to convince the audience that we’d gone everywhere without going hardly anywhere at all. Point of fact: we didn’t travel a whole lot. That worked for this. It wouldn’t have worked for every movie. I probably would have insisted, “No, we got to actually go there.” But here, it felt like we had a lot of stylistic rope to play with.

We didn’t rehearse. What I like to do, typically, if possible, is get a series of dinners together where I get everybody in a room, in a loose environment to talk about it a little bit, but part of it also is for me to get a sense of them. In this case, I had worked with Antonio [Banderas] before, I hadn’t worked with Gary [Oldman] before, I hadn’t worked with Meryl [Streep]. I just wanted to see how they wanted to be spoken to, really, so that I’m not…I’d rather spend a couple of dinners and bank those six or eight hours of getting to know them instead of burning that on set. 

In this case, especially for Antonio and Gary, who were rehearsing together on their own, their biggest fear, which came true occasionally, was that we would rewrite some of these long scenes. Every once in a while, we did, and it was hard on them, because they had a lot, and there’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make the movie that was incredibly elaborate, probably too information loaded to survive. 

I was trying to figure out what kind of homework I should be doing. Typically, I’ll have a handful of references that I’ll watch to help build my toolkit and figure out what the rules are, what am I allowed to do and what I’m not allowed to do directorially. This was tricky because it was such a collision of modes and styles, so it was hard to find one thing that I felt was it. I watched a couple of different things, but I didn’t have as long a list as I usually have. For High Flying Bird, I watched James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross because I thought, “Oh, I wanted it to feel like that, so what was he doing?” This one, it was kind of this weird mélange that defied any one piece of reference material. But then that was exciting, too, because I thought, “Okay, I guess I have to wrestle with this as we go.”

Filmmaker: What did you watch?

Soderbergh: I’d have to go back and look at my viewing list to see what I was looking at right before we started. I wouldn’t be surprised if I went back and watched some Richard Lester stuff, just for the energy, the attitude. 

The biggest factor in The Laundromat being what it is was Scott Burns and I deciding it’s a comedy. That’s the fork in the road at which you really determine a lot of things. I just couldn’t figure out another way in to describing the situation to people. I know from experience to talking to people who work in the field of neuroscience and cognition that when people are laughing they’re in a uniquely open state of mind. So, it seemed like the right move to try and disarm them or soften them a little bit so I can hit them with a lot of information. Stylistically, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “funny directing.” What I wanted to make sure I was doing…I actually wanted the film to be pretty simple directorially. I wanted the ideas and structure of it to be complex, but I didn’t want to add the burden for the viewer of being directorially tricky so I’m distracting them. There are some little tricks, but I hope they’re organic and enhance the story and not just showing off. 

I knew from the get-go the film was going to be framed by those two single takes and we were going to reverse-engineer the movie to fit in between those two pillars. That was discussed early on. We were recalibrating a lot while we were in shooting. In post, the movie changed a lot. A lot of material got deleted, and I did a little bit of reshooting to accommodate a big structural shift I wanted to make. Scott and I were constantly grinding on single words. Every opportunity to increase the sense of all of these threads being connected we took, no matter how small. More than any of the other projects Scott and I have done together, this one changed more from the time we started shooting to the final product. That’s part of the benefit of the new technology, my ability to post edited scenes for the creative team to discuss so that tomorrow if we decide we want to go another way, we all know what we’re talking about. That was the routine. Shooting, cutting, posting on PIX and then having a quick discussion really helped drive the movie in the direction it needed to be driven in.

Filmmaker: Just for my benefit, the desert scene in the beginning was shot in Nevada?

Soderbergh: No, that was Joshua Tree.

Filmmaker: Where did you shoot the China segment?

Soderbergh: Studio City. It would’ve been a real waste of resources to go because the whole story basically took place in this hotel room. I found a really beautiful aerial stock shot and that was our trip to China.

Filmmaker: What was behind the choice to widen the aspect ratio during that segment and the use of the anamorphic lens?

Soderbergh: I wanted there to be a different approach for each story branch. Ellen Martin’s [Streep] is the most straightforward, camera always on a fixed device and very simple framing. Mossack [Oldman] and Fonseca [Banderas] in Panama when they’re at work is always handheld. The Beverly Hills sequence is The Goodbye Girl meets California Suite, a Herbert Ross from the ’70s thing. For [China], I thought it’s like a Bond film. It feels like a spy thing to me. This is the other great thing about being in the all-digital world now, you can do things like this and it’s not a problem. You can change formats in the middle of your movie. I felt like a different vibe would really help. 

The thing that was hopefully going to tie it all together was a combination of the interstitial cards that introduce these chapters and David Holmes’s score, that these two things would help unify it even though tonally there are a lot of shifts that happen. The biggest problem—especially for a young filmmaker, it was for me on a couple of occasions—is balancing tone, and in a case like this where the tone is shifting, giving the audience a little bit of space to make that transition, not just hitting them in the chin with it. Like I said, using those cards and the score…it’s like a little hallway between two rooms where they get to reset. That was a lot of trial and error in the edit to find that balance. 

Some movies require a very specific set of things, and this one required everything from me. I didn’t know that going in, but at a certain point, I realized, “Oh, this is going to be like creative cross-fit, A lot of different stations I’m going to have to go test myself on.” That’s great when that happens, especially when you have the kind of support that I have, whether it’s the studio or the people that I’m working with. There’s nobody to blame. I don’t do that anyway because I think everything is the director’s fault.

Filmmaker: That’s a good way to live.

Soderbergh: I think you have to take that kind of responsibility. I was given all the tools, so I really had nothing to hide behind.

Filmmaker: The last two films, you had a lighter rig for the iPhone. Going back to the Red, does the actual weight and physicality of it change the decisions you make on set?

Soderbergh: Yeah, but they’re fairly straightforward and technical. There are certain things that you can do when you’re shooting with a capture device as small as a phone that you can’t do any other way, and that’s great. But there are also other things that you can’t do that are really frustrating. Because of the fact that it doesn’t really have any mass, that can actually be a problem in some circumstances, particularly car work. The phone is so sensitive to vibration it’s kind of useless in a car context, at least for us. 

The other thing is, a dolly-based, multiple-destination master is a really tricky thing to do with a phone. You need a camera that you can put on a real dolly head and a real dolly. Those are the kind of things that you have to give up a little bit. And selective focus—with the iPhone, essentially, everything is in focus. So if you’re somebody who likes to create directionality for people’s gaze with focus, that tool is gone. It was nice to be back in a world where I can do that. 

What’s interesting is the film that I made since The Laundromat with Meryl that we just wrapped, I was using the new Red Komodo, which is the best of both. It’s extremely small, but it’s got a full-sized sensor. You can strip it down to absolutely nothing and it’s truly quite small and light. The lens is bigger and heavier than the body. Or you can very easily—if you need a little bit of mass because of the shot you’re doing, whether it be handheld or whatever—put some gak on it and give it a little more weight and turn it into that tool. We were the first people to get it. These bodies were hot off the bench. I was very, very pleased with what it allowed me to do. It was small enough for me to be able to put it anywhere I wanted very quickly but big enough to give me the aesthetics and the practicality that a “normal” camera would give me. It was pretty exciting.

Filmmaker: Are you going to use it going forward?

Soderbergh: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know why I wouldn’t. I guess my question for them is: are people supposed to use this now? I have three Monstro bodies. I’m wondering what I do with those. Rent them out, I guess.

Filmmaker: I read in an interview that the last shot of the film took 23 takes. Besides the obvious difficulty of shooting continuously, what specific complications behind or in front of the camera necessitated such time?

Soderbergh: There’s a lot of dialogue. You have to remember every time somebody opens their mouth, that’s something that can go wrong. The shot is also being handed off by one set of actors to another actor. Then there’s a dolly move that’s not crazy elaborate but still requires some real finesse. There were a couple of takes I busted because, even though it was a slow move, it started at the wrong moment or it wasn’t slow enough or it was too slow. Kenny, our dolly grip, it was a tricky shot for him because he had to really be sensitive to [Meryl] in this moment and what she was doing and key off of her physicality.

Then there were practical things—props, various disguises and all that. A lot of things had to go right and it’s the final shot in the film, so it’s really got to work. So there’s this big reset time, 15 minutes between takes minimum just get back to start again. Everybody was game. When I felt we had it, I told Meryl we’ve got it, and, as I’ve recounted in that interview, she kept saying, “Are you sure?” I was like, “I’m sure, I’m sure.” She reminded me today that it was earlier in the shoot than I think she would have preferred. I guess my attitude was if we have this out of the way and we know that works that’s a real confidence builder. That’s the way I was looking at it. She offered multiple times to do it again and I said, “We don’t have to do it again.”

Filmmaker: Did you do the first and last shot at the beginning of the shoot?

Soderbergh: They were, like, a week apart. We had to empty out of one those sets. One of those sets was where the veld and the club were, so we had to get that done, empty it out so we can do the last shot. But our stage work was pretty compressed.

What else can I tell you? I know Filmmaker Magazine wants practical, helpful things. What can I say that’s helpful? This was an example of the benefits of having a group of collaborators I have a history with. It was such a challenging script, and I was making so many requests or demands of Scott. We just kept going back and working on it and tweaking it. I think if we hadn’t had the history of these other projects, I don’t know if it would have been as fun or as fluid for Scott to be under siege every day. But because he knew that these were not capricious requests and there was nothing arbitrary about me asking him, “Hey, what if we did X?,” he just took it on and did it. I think in a different context somebody would have thrown up their hands and said, “Well, at some point this has to be finished. When is this going to stop?” He never did that.

Filmmaker: Was there always an activist component to the script or did that develop over time?

Soderbergh: The premise of the movie is to ask the question, “Do we think this is okay? Do we think this is fair?” That’s a moral question that sits on top of any constructed political system: “Is this fair as a human being?” Even primate studies show that they have a sense of fairness. I don’t think this is just a societal construction that we react to things that we think are not fair when we see it not happening, especially if we see it happening to somebody close to us.

The reason we end the movie the way we do is to leave you after all of the jaunty, breezy information gathering with some sense of outrage at this kind of subterranean economic behavior driving a lot of very serious problems we’re confronting right now as a species. Almost every terrible situation that we’re facing right now that’s causing real suffering can be traced back to some form of corruption. Along with climate change, systemic corruption, countries in which you basically have…they’re almost narco-states. They’re completely compromised and controlled by people who are not democratically minded at all. It’s a real world problem. The genre of a comedy was the Trojan horse to get into these other issues, but I also felt it was important at the end to kinda come clean and strip all that way and really say something directly to the viewer.

Filmmaker: Right. A lot of your films obviously have a political conscience, that’s nothing new, but the call-to-arms at the end of The Laundromat felt very new. Not to sound too skeptical, but do you believe that the film can achieve some political efficacy?

Soderbergh: Oh, uh…no. 

Filmmaker: Okay. [Laughs.]

Soderbergh: Change occurs in a variety of ways. Here’s what I do know: do I think this movie is going to affect public policy? No. But what it can do is raise the level of awareness about this issue and make you come out of the movie and look around and go, “Wow, I wonder who owns this building? I wonder who owns most of the real estate in downtown Toronto? I wonder what Starbucks’ tax situation is. Are they avoiding taxes?” I think vaccinating people with that information is a good thing. What that awareness will turn into out in the world, I have no idea. I think the inoculation is worth something.

Filmmaker: I was impressed that you implicate both yourself and Scott in the movie [by noting in the dialogue that both have off-shore companies]. When did that come up?

Soderbergh: That was pretty late. It just seemed like the natural thing to do and the fair thing to do.

Filmmaker: I think a lot of other directors wouldn’t feel that way.

Soderbergh: You have to! You’re going to get asked that question. I’m like, “Let’s just do it. Let’s lay it out there.” Also, there’s nothing nefarious here. These are entities that get formed to make a specific project. So when I’m going to make Unsane, I form an LLC to make Unsane. That’s the copyright holder. That makes deals with vendors. That makes deals with the unions. That’s just so somebody doesn’t come after me and I get wiped out because I am the company. So I’m the president of that entity, but the thing that was formed to make Unsane just sits there. It doesn’t generate revenue. It was just a company to make that film. That’s not a big deal. In fact, I have six now. I formed another one to make the movie I just made with Meryl. That’s another wall that you’re breaking. They’re already breaking the wall by directly addressing the viewer and now, I think, “Here’s another wall behind that we can jump over. Let’s do that.” It always gets one of the biggest laughs because people don’t expect it.

I’ve gotten more questions like, “If the movie comes out, do you think something will happen to you?” Because, look, journalists get killed over this stuff. In this case, the woman from Malta [Daphne Caruana Galizia] who was chasing a story very directly connected to the Panama Papers leak was blown up in her car. I guess my attitude was, I’m not really crawling up anybody’s ass here. This is all information that’s already out there.

Filmmaker: There’s a book.

Soderbergh: Yeah, it didn’t feel to me like anybody was really going to care. I’m very curious to hear what Mossack and Fonseca think of this. Scott talked to them, and Jake [Bernstein] has talked to them a lot. Scott and I were very adamant that they not be stock villains, because we felt they as people were more complicated than that and the situation itself was more complicated than that. They did not invent these structures. This has been going on for a long time. They just figured out a way to do a high-volume business in creating these kind of entities. I wanted them to have every opportunity to sell us their side of this story.

Filmmaker: You give them a lot of runway to do that.

Soderbergh: They get a lot of screen time to tell it their way. If you’re going to go after this system, I think you need to understand why it’s there and why the people in it are in it. I’ll be very curious what they think. Again, that’s the whole thing at the beginning of the film where they’re explaining, “We didn’t write this, but we’re real.” The whole movie operates on this weird, fused state of reality and theatricality and stylization. 

Filmmaker: I liked that you tie money into the 2001 homage. It’s been in the Earth forever, and therefore corruption has been in the Earth forever.

Soderbergh: That’s exactly how I looked at that. It’s the cut from the bone to the spaceship except that it’s two-and-a-half minutes long. That’s the journey that I’m asking people to take. When I see something where I go, “There is no organizing principle here. This filmic universe is incoherent. It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” that can make me crazy. The risk when you have something that’s got this many plates it’s trying to spin is that the china won’t match. The cups and the saucers and the utensils will feel like they came from three different places. That was the challenge.

Filmmaker: Did you guys talk about The Big Short at all?

Soderbergh: Yeah, I really liked that. I felt it was very successful in entertaining and telling you something at the same time. They found a really good balance. I was very happy for its success because I felt, like…great.

Filmmaker: Now we can do this.

Soderbergh: Well, it’s just great to have something that’s a cousin to this that is viewed as being successful because that helps open people up a little bit. We talked about that a lot. In order to not just do what they’re doing, I wanted to really push the abstraction of it. It just seemed like if we’re standing on the shoulders of that, we’ve got to push this someplace. That’s when Scott started talking about, “Let’s have them be game show hosts that take us on a tour,” and I thought, “That sounds fun.”

Filmmaker: How much information did you pare down in the edit?

Soderbergh: It was a lot. There was about 35 minutes of edited material, a lot of which was information based, that got pulled out because it was just too much. People just choked out. They couldn’t stick with it. There’s no formula for that. We would do screenings with friends and family, screenings of different versions, and each time you’d learn a new thing that people would tap out at different places. Then you have to be careful about, “OK, they tapped out there, but is it really because of what was happening there or was it because of something that happened 15 minutes in?” You’ve got to be forensic about why they’re having that reaction at that moment. It’s interesting but it can be scary.

Filmmaker: A lot of your films are about economic inequality and dispossession, including some, like the Ocean’s films, that are literally about moving money around. This feels like a thematic culmination in terms of those interests, why hiding money, infrastructurally, is bad. Do you see yourself continuing on this path?

Soderbergh: That under a larger umbrella that has “power” written on it. I continue to be interested in how power works, how it’s accrued, how it’s maintained, how it’s shared. I’m also not just like, “Look how bad everything is.” I like to make projects in which you see the good version of some of these very powerful forces, that if aimed in a different direction can actually be incredibly positive. But when I think about the stuff that I’ve got coming up, they all deal with that issue, because when you talk about power it can be institutional power and it can be intimate. It can be two people in a room. I like two people in a room, that’s how I started my career.

Filmmaker:Do you ever see yourself taking on a project where, aesthetically or creatively, it makes sense to shoot on film, or can you not see yourself doing it because it limits so many options?

Soderbergh: I would never say never. It would really depend on what specific effect I was trying to achieve and if I felt like the only way I can really make that look exactly the way I want is to order some celluloid. I’m not dogmatic in that sense. It would have to be something really, really specific because what you’re able to do now is so incredible. It would just depend. It could be infrared. It could be Super 8. I’ve seen the other attempts to recreate that and they’re not quite there.

For me, the new technology has been such a benefit for the way I like to work. For me, it’s just really ideal. I wish I had it sooner. But I’m glad I have it now. It’s got to be exciting for a young filmmaker to be able to produce, for a very small amount of money, something that looks truly stunning. It solves a lot of problems for me. People come up to me at film festivals who want to make movies and ask, “How do I get in the movie business?” If you have a smart phone, you’re in the movie business now. I don’t have to answer those questions anymore.

When the film school question used to come up, I’d say, “Why don’t you use that tuition money to go make something?” Which is, I think, a legitimate suggestion. The other thing I also argue when people ask me, “Should I go to film school,” is: you need a gang. If the only thing you got out of going to film school was that you became a member of a filmmaking gang, then it was worth it. Those are important relationships. You can’t do this stuff on your own, or at least it’s very hard to do entirely on your own. There’s still an argument to be made for formal film education.

© 2019 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF