“14 Inches From a Very Personal Form of Murder”: Steven Soderbergh on Camera as Character and His Sundance Horror Film, Presence
A heady, elegantly-constructed ghost story, Steven Soderbergh’s Presence has a bunch of half-buried threads, a couple of perfectly-timed scares, and a horrific close-up of an act of violence that mesmerizes the camera—just as horror films mesmerize their audience. The camera is the star here, and not merely because its sustained, floating movements, its sudden turns and retreats, its anxious hovering display the virtuosity of the operator who is also the film’s director, but because it is the titular character, the unseen presence whose half-life is disturbed and then engaged by a family of four that moves into a suburban house where it once might have lived.
The parents are played by Lucy Liu and Chris Sullivan, their adolescent kids by Callina Liang and Eddy Maday. The actors capture the dysfunction of this nuclear family, but it’s Liang’s character—whose best friend has died mysteriously and who fears that death might be coming for her too—that is the focus of the presence, and of us as well. Liang is marvelous at expressing a turbulent inner life with every movement of her face and body. No wonder that the camera, as it were, loves her. The script is by David Koepp, whose first collaboration with Soderbergh was on Kimi (2022), a perfect movie. I’m not sure this one is perfect; that it is emotionally and formally thrilling is without doubt.
Filmmaker: I knew it would come to this as soon as you became your own DP and camera operator, that eventually you’d answer the question of what the camera does in a more radical way. When did the idea of the camera as a “presence” come to you? Before there was a script or after?
Soderbergh: It was prompted by the fact that we had a presence of some sort in the house that Jules [Asner, Soderbergh’s wife] and I own. We were told, when we bought the house and subsequent to our moving in, that the woman who owned it some time ago had died in the house. We were told by a neighbor that the woman who died in the house was killed by her daughter. The circumstances surrounding it were very murky, but everybody on the block was convinced that this was not a suicide, as the police described it, but that her daughter, who she was well known to have a contentious relationship with, had killed her. As the son of a parapsychologist, I found that fascinating. I was hopeful that there might be some sort of experience to be had, but Jules and I really didn’t have anything more than, you know, “Did I leave that light on, or…” But we had a house sitter, and one night she was watching television in the main parlor area, and through her peripheral vision, she sensed somebody in the hallway in the other end of the house. When she looked, she saw a woman crossing from the bathroom to the bedroom. She instinctively said, “Jules,” then realized Jules wasn’t there—nobody was there. So, she immediately called Jules and said, “This just happened to me.” The name of the woman [who died] was Mimi. I began to wonder what it would be like to be Mimi, and be in this house, and feel like, “What are these people doing in my house—and is there anything that can be done?” So, that was my jumping-off point.
Soderbergh: I wrote about 10 pages that basically just had a series of shots, over time, in the house, from what you sensed was some point of view, but which wasn’t clear yet. Then some people start to show up in the house. I had the idea that it’s a four-person family unit and there’s something going on, and that it [the presence] is attracted to the daughter, but we don’t know why. And the family seems dysfunctional. That was 10 pages. I sent them to David Koepp and said, “Does this spark anything?” And he said, “I know what to do with this.”
Filmmaker: In all the films you’ve made from the time you started being your own DP and operator, did you never before think of yourself being there as a person, or a character?
Soderbergh: That was what was appealing about it. Because by some measure, it’s the simplest idea I’ve ever had. If I’m speaking to students, I’ll talk about the dissolution or at least muting of your ego, so that you can listen to what the thing wants. Moment to moment, on a macro level, what does the thing want, and how does it achieve it? And this was the walking definition of asking yourself, “What does it want?” One of the reasons that I wanted to shoot in chronological order—and, except for two scenes, was able to do that—was that I wanted you to see [the presence] learn how to be. The only way to do that is to really block the scenes in sequence and then start thinking about what it knows so far, what it’s interested in, what it’s trying to extract. As the film goes on, you can see the shots get more — I don’t know if elaborate is the right word, but they get more directed. Like, it knows more about where it should be if it’s trying to pick up information. And that was a really fun thing. There would be takes where I would yell, “I don’t know, I panned, I anticipated something, but I need to be slightly behind.” And as it starts to learn, it can anticipate, and it’s not lagging as much as it does at the beginning. All that was really fun to play with.
Filmmaker: You know I come from avant-garde film, and I’ve been telling people that Presence is like if Michael Snow had decided to remake The Shining in a small suburban house. But most of those guys— Snow or Stan Brakhage—didn’t distinguish themselves from the camera, or rather they did only in terms of how camera vision was different from naked eye vision. But they weren’t interested in narrative. And in narrative films, the director disguises the fact that they are the camera. What I love about this film is that it is so undisguised.
Soderbergh: That’s what was so appealing. There isn’t another way to do it. Whether you do it well or you do it poorly, there is no Plan B. This is the only way to do what is described. And I like that if it’s not director-proof, it’s at least singular in its request.
Filmmaker: When you gave David those ten pages, did you tell him the concept: that your camera would be the presence, the ghost in the house?
Soderbergh: Yeah. In those ten pages, everything was described as, “We go here, we see this, we follow so-and-so…” It describes the lighting, the image, that the point of view is this high off the ground, and it says “We.” He understood.
Filmmaker: In the opening scene, the camera is floating through the house, hovering in doorways and finding the light coming through the windows. And I thought, “What the fuck is this,” partly because the music is so, like, nice and neutral. It isn’t until the family moves in and somehow the presence begins to sense that all is not right here that the music changes and begins to pull me in. But the thing I really want to ask about is what could be called the climactic scene. I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll try to keep it general. What happens is extremely violent and sadistic and all the more so because I couldn’t help saying to myself, “Steven is just standing there, hovering over them and not doing fuck all about it.” It became as horrifying as Peeping Tom.
Soderbergh: Yeah. When I read that scene for the first time, I thought, “Wow, that’s, that’s rough,” and was immediately aware of the sort of philosophical point that you just made. What I didn’t know was how amplified and extreme it would be when we were actually there doing it, and I was actually making decisions about what it would be. My decision ultimately was that it had to be excruciatingly intimate. That was just where the film, starting from where it started, needed to go. Which is, you know, 14 inches from a very personal form of murder. It’ll be interesting Friday at Sundance to see how that plays.
Filmmaker: I don’t mean to imply that if you personally saw such an act happening you would behave in that way, but this camera or character or presence is absolutely paralyzed by this, can’t take its eyes off it. It’s all about why people go to horror movies. That’s extraordinary.
Soderbergh: I’m not an aficionado of horror films, but the ones that I think are good resonate after. You see a lot of horror films that feel very much like single-use plastic, where you don’t really think about them again. So, along with the ghost, part of it was to make a movie about this family falling apart. But what was really pleasurable was this whole idea of directorial presence. It’s what the whole thing is built on. It was organic. And the question you have to ask 10,000 times a minute about everything that’s happening when you’re making a movie is, “Is that better? Is that better?” And ultimately, there’s no better way to approach this than assuming that position. If you shot this conventionally, it’s not interesting. People would go, “I don’t know why he made that.”
Filmmaker: And how exactly did you make it? I mean, how much gym work did you have to do to be able to carry that camera like that?
Soderbergh: Here’s the good news; you don’t have to do any. We shot this on the newest iteration of the Sony DSLR, which is, as you know, a digital single-lens reflex camera. Its primary mode is as a still camera, but it also shoots really good video. It’s small, and this new version has a sensor that was never used in a DSLR before. I did experiments with all the digital cameras that I’d worked with before and ones I hadn’t. I stripped them down as much as I could, then put them on the smallest stabilization rig that would support them. What I discovered was that there was just a couple of pounds’ difference between the camera I could use and stabilize and be able to back into any space I wanted to, and the next step up made that impossible because of the weight. We did all these tests with the Sony and this one rig. And I’m like, “This’ll work. It’s not heavy.”
There were two real challenges. It probably weighed ten or 12 pounds, which is fine unless you have to hold it out in front of you for eight minutes. Then it gets hard. A couple of takes are that long, especially the penultimate shot, where there’s a lot going on. My arms are turning to cement. The other challenge was the stairs. I was in that house for a month and there’s no version of me going up and down those stairs without having to look at my feet. What that meant was I had to do a series of rehearsals where I got a sense of where to aim the camera and where I could just feel the level of tilt and pan that would result in the correct composition without looking through the lens. But sometimes I’d get it wrong, and I would ruin a take halfway through. It was more psychological than physical, in the sense of just not getting down on yourself when you blew a take.
Filmmaker: I take it this was your own money, so there was no one coming after you except yourself. The basic definition of a personal movie. But having done this, how will you go back to not making your camera a character?
Soderbergh: I’ve thought about that. I’m always thinking about that. And the solution now is to split in the opposite direction and make something that is equally well-served by forgetting this idea and shooting in a way that would hopefully appear seamless for the audience. It’s a pure pleasure space. Something entertaining like Howard Hawks is the best way to go.
Filmmaker: Do you have such a project or is this purely theoretical?
Soderbergh: Yes, I do. The script is great. I hope there is a way to do it, because I would get to annihilate what I just did. And the script and the cast went out to prospective buyers on Tuesday. So, at Sundance, I’ll either be happy or worried.