Travel Companions: Steven Soderbergh on Cruise-Ship Shooting, Working with Deborah Eisenberg and Meryl Streep, and Let Them All Talk
In August 2019, when Steven Soderbergh shot Let Them All Talk, COVID-19 was not on his mind, except to the degree that his research on Contagion (2011) had convinced him that a pandemic similar to the one depicted in the film was inevitable. And yet, one of the most compelling aspects of the workaholic director’s latest feature (streaming this Fall on HBO Max) is that the eight-day Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary 2, during which most of the movie is set, now can be read as a metaphor for the necessarily transformational journey from before to after COVID. In the case of the film, a comedy more sweet than bitter, the cycle of some things ending and others beginning is hopeful but never sentimental.
In brief, the story centers on Alice, a celebrated writer played by Meryl Streep, who wants to travel to Britain to accept an award. Because she “cannot fly” (this is a film that rewards the careful listener), her young editor Karen (Gemma Chan) offers her passage on the Queen Mary 2, with accommodations for two old college friends Roberta and Susan (played, respectively, by Candice Bergen and Dianne Wiest) and her adored young nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges.) Secretly on the ship as well is Karen, whose goal is finding out what Alice is currently working on. The two old college friends haven’t seen Alice—or each other—in 30 years and differ in their memories of the past and their speculations about why they’ve been invited.
Putting aside the narrative, which is witty and exceptionally generous in its depiction of characters and their interactions, Let Them All Talk is astonishing in terms of the process of its making. It is a highly collaborative work. One of the most brilliant contemporary American short story writers, Deborah Eisenberg, had never written a screenplay when she was asked by Soderbergh to try her hand at one. Together, they came up with a combination of prose, a few conventionally scripted scenes and backstories that were given to the actors. The structure was tight because Eisenberg is a genius at story structure, but the dialogue was largely improvised by the actors, who were given a few topics they had to cover in each scene and performed with wit, economy and flights of sudden inspiration. Soderbergh, as is his wont, directed, photographed and edited, but added to that habitual high-wire act the task of shooting a film that takes place almost entirely on an eight-day crossing during that same eight-day crossing. There were no rehearsals, many scenes were covered in a single take and, obviously, there was no possibility of reshoots on the ship, although Soderbergh said he reshot some of the framing story, which takes place on dry land. It should be mentioned that the movie is gorgeous to look at, thanks to the new generation of RED cameras and Soderbergh’s ever improving cinematographer chops.
Filmmaker: Before we get to Let Them All Talk, could you talk a bit about how Kill Switch, the movie you’re shooting now, is going in relation to the new COVID-19 protocols put together by the DGA and the other guilds and the unions?
Soderbergh: We discovered that there was another film called Kill Switch, so it’s become No Sudden Move. I feel like Jeff Daniels in The Comey Rule, talking about the protocols because I was involved in putting them together, but I think it’s working. People are just so happy and excited to get back to work, and everyone is being careful and following the rules. The thing that can’t be controlled is what people do when they are off set, and if there would be a problem that’s how it would happen. But it adds about 20 percent to the budget, and I don’t know how smaller films will be able to deal with that.
Filmmaker: I also want to ask about your reaction to all the attention that’s been paid to Contagion as a prophetic film.
Soderbergh: We knew then [in 2011] that the question wasn’t if it would happen but when. We were pretty sure that there would be a wet market involved and probably bats. And that when it started, it would spread rapidly. Waiting 10 weeks to do anything would be a disaster. What we didn’t foresee was the fringe. We had the Jude Law character, but we never thought that the fringe element would turn into 35 percent of the country.
Filmmaker: One of the most interesting things about the film is that it lets us see in retrospect how much irrationality and opposition to science has grown in just 10 years. But let’s focus on Let Them All Talk. It was shot over a year ago. I noticed that you added a subtitle, A.K.A. The Fall of 2019, in which “fall” has a double meaning. I also read somewhere that you said that it’s now a period film.
Soderbergh: I don’t know what Cunard has in mind, but I think that kind of travel is over.
Filmmaker: How did the project begin?
Soderbergh: Gregory Jacobs and I had the idea in 2008. A small group of women in their 60s and 70s go on a trip together, and there was going to be water. It was intended as part of a series of six films that began with Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. But we decided to end that series early. Then, years later, when we were shooting The Laundromat, Gregory suggested that I ask Meryl [Streep, the star of The Laundromat] if she’d be interested, and she was. I had read all of Deborah [Eisenberg]’s stories and I thought, why not see if she’d write something. I think she thought it would be more fun than staring at a blank sheet of paper. I sent her what I had created, and we sent things back and forth, until I explained to her she had to get Final Draft. It wasn’t like a conventional script. It was about 45 pages, partially prose and partially script. Deborah also sent the actors pretty detailed histories for their characters. The key was for them to speak as their characters would. For each scene, we told them, “You need to discuss these three things.” I’ve never had so many shots of characters listening, and so intensely. They had to listen because no one knew what anyone was going to say next.
Filmmaker: I noticed that the actors would repeat themselves—just a few words that were like a character tic. You almost never hear that in movies. I attributed it to Deborah’s genius for dialogue, but it was the actors themselves.
Soderbergh: It’s a balance—lifelike but not annoyingly lifelike. Having improvisation be part of the design, but we didn’t want it to become indulgent.
Filmmaker: Did you rehearse the actors?
Soderbergh: No. I was so impressed by their ability to extemporize, and Deborah is great with structure. She was obsessed with who is with who. I think it was fun for them. Gemma wrote us back [after she read her character Karen’s history] to tell us the story of how her boyfriend had broken up with her. The experience was still raw for her when we started shooting. In the scene where Lucas [Hedges, who plays Tyler] is flirting with her, she starts telling him the story, and it just gets away from her. We had two cameras on them, and it was one take and done.
Filmmaker: It’s so moving, in part because of the way he is listening to her and realizing that she’s a vulnerable human being whose life was turned upside down, not a fantasy object, older woman. Could we go back to pre-production? Did you do a test crossing on the Queen Mary 2?
Soderbergh: No. We visited the ship several times and talked to some of the crew, but none of us really knew what it would be like.
Filmmaker: So, you had the eight days of the crossing to shoot a narrative that basically consists of eight days of a crossing. That must have been nerve-wracking.
Soderbergh: It met my fear quotient. I have to have that, it keeps me alert. But we were behind for the first few days, and I really don’t like being behind. We started every day shooting Meryl and Lucas having breakfast, just like they do every day in the film. The first day we had to do three takes. After that, it was all smooth, and we actually finished early. Sometimes, when I only needed one camera for a scene, I sent the other two out to other parts of the ship—below deck, the laundry room and the kitchen. Being on a ship changes your sense of time. It slows down. We’re used to getting places in a day. Here, it’s eight days. When you stand on the deck and look at the stars, you know how tiny you are. What I really enjoyed about Let Them All Talk was the level of discovery. Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience had something of that, but they weren’t as polyphonic.
Filmmaker: Susan, Dianne Wiest’s character, has that wonderful speech about how Elon Musk has sent up all these satellites that look just like stars, so we will be the last people to have seen real stars when we look at the night sky.
Soderbergh: Deborah wrote that and the climactic scene between Meryl and Candice. It isn’t fun for an actor to be responsible for writing a climactic scene.
Filmmaker: The tone of the film is so interesting. It’s basically a comedy, but there are all those hilarious names, Blodwyn Pugh and the Footland prize, that push it toward literary satire.
Soderbergh: The Realm of the Owl. What could that even mean? Deborah is great at that. We came up with about 40 names. We had such a good time with them.
Filmmaker: Candice and Dianne’s characters fall right back into behaving with each other pretty much as they must have done in college. One of my favorite lines is when Dianne is talking about Alice, Meryl’s character, and she says with genuine puzzlement, “Did she always speak like that?” Because Alice comes on like such a grande dame.
Soderbergh: I’ve always liked exploring the way people who create stories navigate the world and how they define intimacy. Some people use it as a shield to take themselves out of the mud of life. We always made sure that Alice was rounded—that she could be a monster but also human, and she adores her nephew. All the actors were so courageous in their lack of vanity. One thing we insisted on was there would not be jokes made at the expense of someone’s age. No talk about aching joints. And it’s so odd to see someone Lucas’s age having conversations at eye level with someone in her seventies, like these three women are, or in her thirties like Gemma’s character. That’s what we do all the time in life, but we almost never see it in movies.
Filmmaker: You often talk about what is uniquely a movie idea. What was the movie idea here?
Soderbergh: The methodology of shooting on a ship that’s making an eight-day crossing. You couldn’t have as much of the experience of the crossing in a novella. So, in a way, the crossing was the movie idea. And the ship is very photogenic. I sent Meryl an early cut, and she sent back wonderful notes, more like a producer’s notes than an actor’s notes. She said, “What I’d love to see is the ship small on the ocean.” We couldn’t have done that because we didn’t have a second ship to shoot from. But I did have a shot of the Queen Mary 2 in the harbor, and I cut and pasted it, and that image is one of the things I’m most proud of in the movie. And the other sequence is what happens when Meryl…
Filmmaker: No, no. Don’t give it away. Could we say Alice has her transcendent moment toward the end of the movie and writes something, which later will be referred to as “experimental”?
Soderbergh: I didn’t know how I was going to do it until the day came. We were at the country house where they go after the crossing, and I walked around outside for about an hour, just shooting, trying to create some object. I saw a hand with a wedding ring, and I thought that must mean something. Bees, but not the same bees I eventually used, which was a stock shot. I was just shooting what my eye was attracted to.
Filmmaker: For me, it’s the great thing in the movie. At first, I thought, it’s Steven’s Brakhage movie, and then, it’s his Nathaniel Dorsky movie, but no, it’s just Soderbergh’s avant-garde movie, and it made me tear up. And it’s the perfect expression of what, at that point, we hope Alice is writing. The other moment that made me weep was Meryl in voiceover, singing “The Ash Grove” near the very end.
Soderbergh: I told her I wanted to hear her voice in that scene, and she said, “I have an idea.” She recorded the song on her phone and sent it to me.
Filmmaker: It’s perfect. I’ve heard that song dozens of times, but the way she sings it is incredible. It’s not just her phrasing, but her voice is so ethereal and yet grounded in her body and being. I keep talking about weeping, but the movie is a comedy about the possibility of renewal. All the characters by the end have found a way to change their lives. Which makes the movie apropos to our current situation. Are you unhappy that it won’t have much of a life in theaters?
Soderbergh: As you know, I’m agnostic about screens. It’s every filmmaker’s dream to see their movie in a theater with 400 other people. We’re social beings. I see that on this set. It’s very hard for people to keep social distance. They are all so happy to be together. But I think it’s possible when we come out the other side of this, the only movies shown in theaters will be fantasy spectacles. It will be that or the Metrograph. It was already going in that direction. You know, Traffic didn’t open in [box office] first place, it didn’t do well until later, but it hung on. That can’t happen anymore, and so it’s a problem for the kind of movie I make, medium-budget movies for adults. But I’m flexible. I got lucky in terms of my parents. Both of them lived that way. So, it’s not scary for me, it’s how they lived. You know, in our world people get fixed on the moment of their first success, but there is nothing inherently special in that. It’s a matter of timing and luck. What’s happened with COVID—what’s become more overt—is things ending and other things beginning. I’ve been thinking about The Rules of the Game.
Filmmaker; The greatest movie ever made.
Soderbergh: And Renoir is such a great actor.
Filmmaker: If you have another minute: You got a remarkable amount of work done holed up in Tribeca during the lockdown. You said that among other things, you wrote a sequel to sex, lies, and videotape and did a re-edit of Kafka.
Soderbergh: When I thought about sex, lies, and videotape, I realized that what I wanted to see is a movie about the two sisters 30 years later. One of them has had a child who is about the same age that she was in the original. Both Andie [MacDowell] and Laura [San Giacomo] have agreed to come on. And I got back the rights to seven of my films, so I want to put them out as a set with the original versions and the re-edited versions. One of them is Kafka. You know I don’t read what critics write about my films anymore, but in those days I did, and when I looked at Kafka again, I thought they didn’t see what was there. It’s a young man’s film, and it’s far from perfect, but it’s also a much more ambitious film than sex, lies…. And I think you can see in it the kind of career I would go on to have.