“Whatever I’m Working on Sort of Annihilates Everything That Came Before It”: Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of Erin Brockovich
Twenty years ago this month, director Steven Soderbergh achieved what most filmmakers dream of but rarely experience when his Erin Brockovich proved to be that rarest of movies: an artistic success that was also a box-office smash embraced by critics. An aggressively linear drama following the structural gymnastics of The Limey, Erin Brockovich was nevertheless every bit as smart, adult, and distinctive as Soderbergh’s other recent work; combining the journalistic detail of All the President’s Men with the working-class character study of Norma Rae and the entertainment value of a 1940s Howard Hawks comedy, it proved that 1998’s Out of Sight was no fluke – Soderbergh knew how to calibrate his material in a way that was as accessible as it was sophisticated. Revisiting Erin Brockovich two decades later, the movie plays better than ever, not only inviting but earning comparison with the Ken Loach films that Soderbergh viewed for inspiration. Like Loach, Soderbergh is acutely aware of the economic constraints and obligations that dictate most people’s daily lives and decisions, often for the worse, and his sensitivity to actors makes Brockovich both a tour-de-force star vehicle (for Julia Roberts, never better than she is in the title role here) and a rich ensemble piece filled with fully realized supporting performances by actors (Marg Helgenberger, Aaron Eckhart, Cherry Jones, Tracey Walter, and many more) who imply entire lives lived outside the frame of the narrative. On the eve of the film’s 20th anniversary, I spoke with Soderbergh by phone to ask him about the movie’s genesis and his approach.
Filmmaker: You’ve told a story about how you were offered Erin Brockovich before The Limey and thought it was a terrible idea, then came back to it again after The Limey and thought it was a great idea. Why did you think it was a bad idea initially and why did it look good to you after The Limey?
Steven Soderbergh: I guess I was seeing the bad version of that idea in my mind. I hadn’t read it. They were just pitching it to me, and my first thought was, “This is a cable movie at best. I don’t see how to turn this into a piece of cinema.” Based on what was being described to me, I think I leapt to conclusions about what the end product would look like – very, very un-hip and not cool. Not that I want everything to be hip and cool, but it seemed really down the middle to me. I remember where I was standing when we had the conversation on the set of Out of Sight. We were on the mansion set on the Universal lot, and I was kind of baffled as to why they even pitched it to me, or why they thought I would be good for it. I hope I was not too mean about it, because obviously it’s nice to be wanted, and at that point Out of Sight wasn’t done and nobody even knew if it was going to be any good. So the fact that they were already proposing another project made me feel good, and I hope I showed that I appreciated it. But yeah, at that time, I just was like, “Why would you think I would want to do this?”
Flashing forward, with Out of Sight finished a year and a half, and having The Limey happen in the interim, suddenly the simplicity of it, which I had viewed as a negative, felt very much like a positive. And then I actually read what they had, and felt, “Oh, there’s definitely something here.” And then when it was discussed that maybe Julia would be approached, I was very interested in her, so I did a total 180 and said, “This seems like the perfect thing for me to do.” And got on a plane and went to Baltimore, if I remember correctly, where Julia was shooting Runaway Bride, to talk to her about the movie and how I saw it.
Filmmaker: Although you had worked with stars before, this was your first real megastar at that level. Is your job any different when you’re dealing with A-list stars like that, both in terms of the politics of dealing with them and in terms of dealing with the studio and their expectations?
Soderbergh: Well, I hoped that it wouldn’t be, and in this case, it wasn’t. Julia was at the absolute apex of her fame and power within the industry at this point, so I was very much aware that if she had an issue with me, I would be the one vacating the project, not her. I met with her and talked to her as I would talk to anyone, and my sense after meeting her was that we were going to get on fine. What was interesting to me was the degree to which she really wanted to be directed. She felt like her job was to, as Tom Hanks said in his Golden Globes speech, “Learn your lines and show up on time.” She showed up expecting me to tell her what I wanted. And that was an ideal situation for me, because I knew exactly what I wanted. I had a very clear idea of what the film was and where she fit…I don’t even want to say within it, because she’s essentially the whole film. But her attitude was like, “You’re the director. Tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And I did that, and honest to God, if we had the project open, we could go and check, but I’m telling you, I don’t think there was any key dramatic scene in that movie where I did more than three takes.
She was completely dialed in and prepared to give that performance, so I made sure the camera was in the right place and that she was surrounded by terrific talent. And I have to say, it was not a hard shoot, at least it wasn’t for me, to the point where near the end of it, I was concerned about its prospects. I thought, “Well, it can’t be that much fun. It can’t be that easy. Something is going to have to go wrong at some point.” And it just never did. It was a complete pleasure. The first four weeks of shooting in particular, we were all staying in the same Holiday Inn in Barstow. There was only one bar to hang out in, which was across the street and had pool tables and stuff, and there was a multiplex across the parking lot from the hotel. And that was the happiest I’ve ever been on a film shoot, that first month. I was having such a great time, and it just seemed to be flowing and all you had to do was not interrupt that flow. We wrapped early. We were $5 million under budget. I mean, it just seemed to work. I have very, very happy memories of the whole thing.
Filmmaker: You mentioned knowing exactly what you wanted the movie to be, and I’m curious, what were some of your reference points in terms of other films?
Soderbergh: I was looking at a lot of Ken Loach movies, because of their social component. All of his movies, I think, are ultimately about fairness and justice and ideas that are worth fighting for. So I went back and watched a lot of Ken’s films, which was a pleasure. And then he came and visited the set once when we were out in the desert. Maybe it was Palmdale or something, he and his producer came out to visit the set when we were shooting the scenes with Julia and Cherry Jones. He was about to go shoot Bread and Roses in L.A., and we had a nice on-set chat. But that’s who I thought of more than anything. I mean, clearly, Norma Rae was also a movie that I watched again, and that I enjoyed a lot. But my homework was pretty concise.
Filmmaker: Well, something that Loach’s work and Erin Brockovich have in common is that they’re both concerned with people who don’t have a lot of power. And that’s something that’s also characteristic of some of Richard Lester’s work, and you had done your Richard Lester book, Getting Away With It, just a few years before this. How did that book and knowing Lester and revisiting all of his films inform the next few movies you made after you did that book?
Soderbergh: It made me more fluid in terms of responding to what was in front of me. It’s always good to have a plan, so that people know a general direction to work toward. But the real lesson that came out of the Lester book and making Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy was to be more instinctual in my on-set decision making. Erin is a perfect example; I reverse engineered every creative decision regarding the directing of that movie back from what Julia and the cast were doing. At no point did I set up a frame and then tell them where to stand, or try to impose on them some preconceived idea that I rolled up with. All I cared about was the performances. I was working with Ed Lachman for the second time, and Ed and I had a very good shorthand. We were very much leaning into available light, or practical lighting. Meaning I could bring the actors to set, already having gone through the works, already wired for sound. We would start to block the scene, rehearse the scene, talk about the scene. And as soon as I knew what the first shot was, we would just start shooting and then keep going until we were done. Like I said, my role was to capture her and everything else was secondary and so if that’s your MO, it really simplifies a lot of things, you know?
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the casting of a couple of the other parts. I’m a huge Albert Finney fan, and I love him in this movie. What had his previous work meant to you, just as a movie fan, and how did you come to cast him?
Soderbergh: Well, like a lot of people, I was just terribly in love with Albert’s screen persona, or personas, because one of the things that I loved about him was the range of characters that he played. And there’s a sort of joy in performing that Albert has, that I felt needed to match hers. I needed somebody that wasn’t just going to get blown off the screen by her and that could be both a foil and a complement, and Albert was somebody that we thought of early on. I did have a conversation with Sydney Pollack about playing that part, because I was also a fan of Sydney’s onscreen work, but he declined the privilege. [laughs] So I went back to the normal conversation that we were having, and Albert was at the top of that list. And as it turns out, the joy of performing sort of extends in every direction. I felt like, here’s a guy who’s just got it all figured out. He seems to be having fun from the moment he wakes up until he passes out at night. He’s just a really positive presence and has that ability to stop in mid-joke, do a very intense scene, and when you say, “Cut,” go right back to the second half of the joke he was telling. He could just switch it on and switch it off. It was kind of amazing.
Filmmaker: And when you’ve got a movie like this, where there’s a lot of information and exposition, how does that impact the casting of the ensemble? I’m thinking about all the townspeople who are part of the case.
Soderbergh: There are a lot of people in there that I knew either from their other work, or who had worked with me before, and I was very conscious that all of those supporting characters needed to come across as people that would fit in with a bunch of regular people. When they have that big town meeting, when they’re trying to explain to people how the lawsuit works and how settlements work, for example. I think it was really helpful to be out there and shooting near the plant, because it was strange to stand in a place and know that, “Oh, underneath us is the contaminated water that this whole movie is about.” I think it put everybody in a certain frame of mind.
Filmmaker: The movie has an atypically large number of scenes with groups of people just sitting in rooms talking. And I’m curious, how do you keep that kind of material visually interesting without forcing effects onto it that might be gratuitous?
Soderbergh: That’s always the trick. You think, “We have a lot of people talking. Do I need to directorially sort of dress this up a little bit to make it more visually interesting?” To be honest, I completely resisted that impulse. Not to say that I think the film looks boring, but I reminded myself what the priorities were for the audience, for people watching the movie. And so, my attitude was, as long as everybody has interesting stuff to say, then keep it simple and don’t distract the viewer from what’s really important, which is these characters and this story. And again, it was coming off The Limey and Out of Sight. It was really nice to sort of sit back and go into a much more classical mode of representation than I had gotten out of. It was one of the things that appealed to me about it, to say, “Okay, no tricks. No tricks at all.”
Filmmaker: I’m curious how you decide what mode of representation you’re going to go for. This was the first of a bunch of “based on a true story” movies that you did over the years, and you’ve taken a lot of varied approaches to that kind of material. What kinds of factors go into deciding whether you’re going to come at a non-fiction piece straightforwardly, like you do here, or more comic, as in The Informant, or in that kind of self-reflexive mode that you do in The Laundromat?
Soderbergh: Well, Erin Brockovich seemed to be something, because of who she was, that would not benefit from any kind of ironic pose. That wouldn’t fit her. She’s a very sincere, straightforward character, and I wanted to make sure that I was in lockstep with her mode of being. And you also have to contend with things that have come before you. Part of the reason that The Informant ended up being told the way it was told was that The Insider had come before it. And I said to Scott Burns, “Well, we’re not going to do any better than that, so we’d better take a different approach here or we’re going to get our heads taken off.” In the case of Erin, I thought, “I haven’t seen a movie like this in a while in that sort of Norma Rae vein. Yeah, let’s do that.” If Norma Rae had come out two years earlier, maybe I’m not making Erin Brockovich, but it seemed like some time had gone by since there was a true story that was built in a similar fashion around a very, very strong central female performance. I guess I felt there was a little bit of space there to work in.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting, because the movie is very straightforward and classical, but there are still things that are very surprising about it. When I watched the movie again to prepare for this, I was kind of shocked to realize that for something that I had remembered as kind of courtroom movie, there’s almost nothing in a courtroom. I’m curious, what kind of work did you do with the writer to get the script to what this movie ended up being?
Soderbergh: When I came on board, Richard LaGravenese was working on the script, and he and I spent some time just going back through the real story and trying to identify points where the audience needed to really understand the scale of the legal hill they were trying to climb. I think the most significant new thing that came in while we were working on the movie was this long scene between Albert and Julia in their office at night. He’s got all the pushpins and Post-It notes up on the board. And she’s basically going, “Well, why can’t we do this? And why can’t we do that?” And he’s trying to walk her through it: “Well, here’s why, and it’s really expensive, and they have more money, and they’re just going to bury us.” It’s a six or seven-minute scene of the two of them talking about these very technical things, but it was incredibly important for the audience at that moment to have a real understanding of the stakes that were involved, personally and professionally. I just remember that scene, the two of us saying, “We need a scene that does this,” and trying to figure out where that should fall and what the exact discussion should be. Thinking of it as a key scene and leaning into that, not being afraid of the fact that it’s six or seven minutes of dialogue between two people. I thought, “Well, if I think it’s interesting, I hope other people will.”
Filmmaker: When you’re shooting a scene like that, in terms of the way you work with Ed Lachman, how many cameras are you shooting with?
Soderbergh: I would’ve been shooting two cameras there, and that scene in particular, we lit practically. There were little track lights to light up the wall, which were already in his office, and then we had bulbs in the lamps that were strong enough for us to be able to just walk in and shoot. More often than not, I was running two cameras on everything.
Filmmaker: And do you have a preference in terms of the number of cameras you’re shooting with at once, or does it vary from film to film?
Soderbergh: It really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. On the film I’m just finishing now I was shooting a lot of three-camera stuff, because there was a fair amount of improvisation and I was working with some even lighter and smaller equipment than I’m used to working with, so it was easier to get three cameras going and get good shots on all three. But the movie I’m about to start in April is going to be the opposite of that. It’s a highly scripted, much more planned piece, in which the shot making will, more often than not, demand that it be a single camera, because the multiple destination moves will make it impossible to get other cameras working. So it just depends. That’s what that film needs, and the film I just finished really needed to capture something that might only happen once.
Filmmaker: Getting back to Ed Lachman, you’ve got one of the great all-time cinematographers there, and you’d worked with him a couple of times, as you said. But then after this movie, if I’m not mistaken, you pretty much exclusively worked as your own director of photography. When did you start thinking that that was the way you were going to go, and what do you think the pros and cons of doing it yourself are, as opposed to doing it with somebody like Lachman, who clearly is a fantastic cameraman?
Soderbergh: I was very lucky to work with terrific cinematographers, all of whom taught me a lot, not only about lighting and cinematography, but also about how to run a crew and how to be a director of photography. I think it was something that was starting to form in my mind before Out of Sight as I was coming back from the wilderness, and then was beginning to really take on more critical mass after The Limey. When it became clear that Traffic was actually going to happen, I said to Ed, “I think I’m going to do this one myself.” And he said, “Yeah, I had a feeling that was coming.” Because I might’ve been even more attentive to him during Erin than I’d been before. Meaning, I was probably shadowing him and asking him more questions than I had previously, and he must’ve sensed that there was a reason for that. I mean, I was already somebody who came in with ideas, but I remember on Erin, I really started drilling down on some deep technical knowledge, which Ed has, and which I was looking to appropriate. And this was just born out of a desire for me to have a more intimate experience with the film and with the actors. It wasn’t because I didn’t think there were good cinematographers out there. I’m not Roger Deakins, and I am not Emmanuel Lubezki, but the compromises that are involved in not being one of those people, for me, are made up for in the momentum and the closeness of my relationship to the movie and the actors. That’s a trade that I’m willing to make.
Filmmaker: Well, I guess I would extend the same question to the editing, because…well, first of all, on this movie, you worked with Anne Coates, who’s kind of a legendary editor. How did you come to work with her?
Soderbergh: It was funny, when we were crewing up on Out of Sight, there was a polite, but kind of comic, dance going on between myself and the producers about which department heads I was going to get to pick and which ones they were going to get to pick. And in the case of editor, I think they really wanted a weighted vote in that area. And I said, “Okay.” And they showed me the list of people that they were thinking, and it was a very good list. And I said, “Anne V. Coates. Can’t go wrong with that.” So we offered her Out of Sight, and she and I had a terrific experience on that. Since it was the same producers and it seemed like a good idea to reunite, we asked Anne to be involved again. There were more times on Out of Sight where I had to walk Anne through some very specific ideas that I was trying to execute than there were on Erin. There are huge swaths of Erin that were essentially untouched since Anne’s first assembly. She understood the movie so well that there was never a time where I had to pick a scene apart and then put it back together with her. She understood it completely, and I would just come in and go, “That’s great. I might have one or two thoughts.” And then Anne being Anne, she would continue to work on it when I wasn’t around. She would stay late after I had left and just keep working on it, keep grinding on it, keep tweaking. On Erin, my ratio of input compared to Out of Sight was completely inverted. That is really her work, and like I said, a lot of her first instincts about how things should go are represented there. Again, it was another circumstance, where I thought, “This can’t come to a positive outcome. This has just been too easy.”
Filmmaker: I was wondering if the fact that the movie is so persistently linear creates any kind of challenges in the editing, especially because Erin is in pretty much every scene of the movie. Does that create any challenges, or does it make it easier?
Soderbergh: It certainly felt easy at the time. The movie’s two hours and ten minutes, I think, and the first cut was around two and a half hours, so I think everybody felt, “Yeah, we’ve got to get some time out of it, and the very, very end isn’t landing.” We previewed and had one of those fantasy previews just felt like a revival meeting. Everybody loved the movie and it scored ridiculously high. But at the same time, we all felt that the very, very end wasn’t quite there. It wasn’t like we wanted a raised fist moment, but we wanted something stronger than what we had. And that’s when the idea for that final scene came about, and once we had that, then we felt like we’d done our work. Seeing the first cut, and then having the first preview, nobody was worried about it; the things that needed to be done were calibrating as opposed to triage. It all just seemed to work. The only time I remember getting sort of emotional, or raising my voice and getting sort of forceful during the entire process, was in a marketing meeting a few months before the movie opened, where somebody on the studio side said, “Okay, so can we talk about what we’re changing the title to?” And I said, essentially, “What the fuck are you talking about?” And they’re like, “Well, this title is a problem. Erin Brockovich, what is that? Nobody knows who this woman is. It’s weird.” Et cetera, et cetera. And I said, “Well, the title of the movie in my mind, and in the mind of the public, will be Julia Roberts is Erin Brockovich. That’s the title of the movie. So if you want to generate a list of potential alternatives for me to look at, please do, and I will look at them and give you my honest opinion. But I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”
Filmmaker: So, I guess I want to ask a similar question as the one I asked about Ed Lachman. You had edited your first three films yourself, and then I think somewhere around Solaris you went back to that. What are the benefits of working with another editor, and why did you ultimately decide to take that job back on yourself?
Soderbergh: I don’t know that it’s something that I ever consciously analyze. I guess there are just times when I feel like the project will benefit from another set of eyes, and then there are times when I feel so specific about what I have in mind that sitting over somebody’s shoulder and dictating to them how I want something done seems pointless and insulting. I’ve been doing it a lot myself lately, but that doesn’t mean that I might not get on a project and go, “You know what? I’d love for somebody else to be in the room on this.” It’s really a kind of instinctual thing that’s dependent upon the project. Now, I will also say, it is the part of the process that I enjoy more than any other. I love it. I feel like it’s my reward at the end of a shooting day to sit with the material we shot and start to put it together. It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s why I do it in my spare time, those mashups and things that I post. That’s how much I like it, I do it for fun. So, I’m sure there’s part of me that is very selfish in that regard and doesn’t want to share it with others.
Filmmaker: Looking at your career from the outside, it seems like you alternate between movies that connect with a large audience in a big way, and then ones that don’t, in a way that keeps you from ever losing momentum. In other words, you made sex, lies, and videotape and that bought you a lot of movies that didn’t work commercially. And then Erin Brockovich and Traffic coming back to back did the same thing. Is that structuring of a career strategic, or is it luck, or something in between?
Soderbergh: I don’t know if it’s strategic. A lot of it is luck. Look, it’s rare that you don’t have some hope that whatever you’re doing will reach a large audience. At the same time, nobody goes and makes Bubble thinking that’s going to make $65 million domestically at the box office. But still, you always think that they will find an audience. What I’m looking for is a combination of things. I want a new experience. In an ideal world, whatever I’m working on sort of annihilates everything that came before it, or at least annihilates the most recent experience, the way that making Erin completely annihilated the whole experience of The Limey. I’m always trying to find something fresh, and there’s got to be something about it that scares me. I’ve got to have some kind of pocket of fear about the whole thing. It can be a practical fear, it can be a creative fear. When we were doing The Knick, the fear was, “Can I shoot nine pages a day for 73 days?” That was an open question that didn’t get answered until we started shooting, but that scared the hell out of me. A movie like Che was just scary in every direction. So I need something to keep me alert and sort of feral, but so much of it is timing. Things don’t happen on the calendar that you’re hoping will happen. Something shows up unexpectedly, and I’ve learned to be fluid about that process too. If something shows up, and I feel like, “I want to do this, and I want to do this now,” then I pay attention to that. And then there are other things where I go, “That’s interesting. I’m not there yet, but I want to keep it nearby, so that when I am ready, it’s all teed up.”
Filmmaker: Well, thanks for talking with me. I know there’s no real PR benefit for you to talk about a movie that’s 20 years old, but I thought it would be fun to look back on it.
Soderbergh: Look, that is the dream outcome. I did some fun interviews and screenings for The Limey at the end of last year. And to be still talking about Erin as well, that’s what you hope for. You make decisions creatively, hoping that 20 years from now, people will be watching. So thank you for your patience.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.