DUSTIN JAMES ASHLEY IN STEVEN SODERBERGH'S BUBBLE.
There’s a passage in Sidney Lumet’s essential book Making Movies in which he talks about his motivation to take on a particular project: “I’ve also been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all my work. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reason I don’t know is that when I open to the first page of a script, I’m a willing captive. I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea.”1
Steven Soderbergh may very well be this generation’s Lumet, albeit with a mischievous streak. Like Lumet, Soderbergh is more of a restless craftsman than a true auteur; the one constant in his films is not a consistency of style but a mastery of whichever stylistic identity his films assume, whether it be the grainy Mini DV format of Full Frontal (2002), the genre storytelling perfection of Out of Sight (1998) or the nonlinear editing structure of The Limey (1999).
Fresh on the heels of the very entertaining but equally forgettable Ocean’s Twelve, Soderbergh signed a deal with HDNet Films to make six low-budget movies on high-def video. For his first project, Bubble, he eschewed the trappings one might expect from an Academy Award–winning power player: armed with only a skeleton crew and a cast of nonprofessionals from locations in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Belpre, Ohio, Soderbergh shot a murder mystery in 18 days. He also served as his own d.p. and editor, cutting so quickly that a rough cut was screened for the cast and crew the night the film wrapped.
PHOTO: TREY BATCHELOR.
But Bubble does not come off as an experiment or stunt. Combining elements of film noir, understated comedy and naturalism, the film is an altogether compelling examination of small-town life and the small-town crimes of passion that sometimes go along with it. Clocking in at just 72 minutes, the film tells the story of Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a lonely middle-aged doll-factory worker whose obsession with her best friend Kyle (Dustin James Ashley) becomes threatened by the arrival of the pretty, amoral Rose (the unforgettably named Misty Dawn Wilkins).
Filmmaker spoke with Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough, who had previously teamed up on Full Frontal, at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.
Can you talk a bit about how the idea came about?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, we started with two ideas really, which were the triangle idea and the factory idea.
Coleman Hough: [It was] more about the characters, though; it wasn’t about working in a factory. So we were trying to think what the setting would be.
Soderbergh: What were some of the places we considered?
Hough: Your idea was...
Soderbergh: Initially [the idea] was animal testing.
Hough: Animal testing. A meat-packing factory. Meat processing.
Soderbergh: Right, meat processing.
Hough: Dog food, cat food.
Soderbergh: Right, that’s right.
Hough: And then I was researching Midwestern industries, and I found this doll-parts factory, and...
Soderbergh: That was the one.
Hough: I just loved the notion of that.
Soderbergh: Because when we talked about animal testing or meat processing, our concern was that somebody’s going to read in a political context we’re not really interested in. Manual, repetitive labor — that’s what we were interested in, regardless of what it is. And when Coleman said, “Hey, I found a doll factory,” I just thought, Wow, visually you’re not going to get any better than that.
I found the dolls to be incredibly beautiful. They weren’t ugly dolls. They’re very striking to look at.
Hough: Well, they are sort of surreal, because a lot of them are like real babies. The head is the weight of a baby, and the body — that’s what they’re known for. They put a Bible in each diaper.
Are you serious?
Soderbergh: Isn’t that where you keep your Bible?
Only when I travel.
Hough: It’s a Christian company. It’s pretty wild.
Did you do the location research together?
Soderbergh: No, she went down on her own with our location manager [Carlos Moore] and hung out for a couple of weeks and just started talking to people.
Hough: We stayed in a really cheap motel, absorbed the culture, ate really bad food and interviewed the plant manager, talked to him for three hours, and he told me a little bit more about the town and the famous crimes and things that had happened to people that worked in the factory.
How did you find the cast?
Soderbergh: Our casting director, Carmen Cuba, was there for a month pounding the pavement in a very kind of informal way. She was just keying off what we had described to her. We described the characters to her in our minds, like how old they were and what they kind of looked like. And she just went off of that. We narrowed it down — it wasn’t like we saw a ton of people. She was very selective.
Can you tell me a bit about the process of working with these actors? I know you got some stuff from their real life and then incorporated it into the story. Was there a methodology, or were you just sort of loose?
Hough: It was pretty fluid. I was feeling insecure because I wasn’t on the crew, but I was coming to the set every day. So I just started hanging with the actors. We started smoking together and talking and having so much fun. And then they would tell me these wild stories about their lives.
Soderbergh: And then Coleman would come over to me and go, “I just got a good one” [laughs], and we’d decide that we would just tell that story in that scene.
Hough: I found my job by accident.
Did you coach them a lot, or is that what their personalities are really like?
Soderbergh: That’s really them.
Hough: They just were so brave and so themselves. And they trusted us. It was sort of a combination of my interaction with them and putting them at ease a little bit, and talking to them person to person. And then they’d go in front of the cameras. Steven was very easy when he’s working on the set...
Soderbergh: You were the human greenroom. [laughs]
Did you shoot the film in sequence?
Soderbergh: Pretty much, yeah, we tried to.
How long was the shoot?
Soderbergh: Eighteen days total, because we went back and did two days after we’d put it all together.
And you were cutting the film as you were making it?
To see the challenges over your career that you’ve set out for yourself, it seems like you are always adding additional challenges to your role as a director. You went from working with cinematographers to shooting your films yourself. What was the motivation for, this time, cutting the whole film yourself while you were shooting?
Soderbergh: Well, it’s normal on any movie to be cutting while you’re shooting. I guess when you’re your own editor, it just means the days are a little longer. But whether I’m cutting or we have somebody else cutting, I’m always a day or two behind the camera. In this case, we were able to be really up to date because we’d shoot and then that night I would have the material on a FireWire drive and then my laptop, so it was really great.
How does that improve the movie, that fast-paced process?
Soderbergh: The one time that I directed a play, what I loved about it was the ability to see the whole play before anybody else has seen it. You can see the macro and make adjustments. Usually on a movie, you can’t see the whole mosaic; you’ve just got pieces. Being able to cut right up close to the camera increases your ability to see the macro of the movie and determine if you, for example, need another scene between this scene and that scene. Or there was some discussion at one point of [the movie being] 72 minutes long. We talked about whether we should fill it out, add some stuff. And we just decided, Nah, this is a good length for it.
In terms of shooting a feature on video, I found it interesting that you do a lot of things that people say not to do, like long shots, a static camera — things that make it more “videolike.” How did you decide upon this style?
Soderbergh: The stillness — that was what I was interested in. The stillness of digital.
The quietness of it?
Soderbergh: Well, literally the fact that there’s not film running through a camera, so there’s no movement in the image. I wanted to accentuate that. So, very purposefully, I knew going in, the camera’s always on a tripod, there are no dollies, there’s no handheld — there’s none of that. [I also wanted] to create a frame for things to happen in, so the actors didn’t have to worry about where they were moving. I never wanted to tell them where to go.
What was it like in terms of the consistency of their performances when you would change angles? They seemed very, very poised.
Hough: It was funny, because they sort of learned as they went. Debbie would get really good at saying, “Oh, in this last [take], I don’t think I was holding my fork like this.” She would make adjustments. It was amazing — they were very professional and very present.
Soderbergh: And also I was shooting two, sometimes three cameras for that reason, so they didn’t have to...
Hough: We did one or two takes tops.
There’s a real cleverness to the writing and the structure. You get this funny tone, but you never seem to fetishize your characters. Was that mild comedy the plan going in?
Soderbergh: We don’t make fun of people. I guess the trick is that when you’re making something this simple, by definition everything that you show becomes really important. You’ve got to make sure that all the narrative elements that show up are paid off in a certain way.
Hough: And it’s also indicative of how we really married into that culture. We weren’t just a truck from Hollywood pulling up to the curb and making a movie. We got to know these people and really loved them.
What was it about working with non-actors that excited you?
Soderbergh: They’re so easy. They’re so happy. And look, you can’t do it forever, but for this it was the only way to go.
Hough: Also, they’re so unaffected. Keeping with the stillness that Steven was working on, they don’t do actor stuff. They don’t think like, “Oh, I have to fill in a wink, or subtext or a moment.” They just drink their water, and if they forgot their line they’d go, “Can you give me a line?” and they’d resume. And it was exciting. Their silences were amazing.
Soderbergh: It was fun to watch. You never knew what they were going to do because their reference points were not other movies. There’s a layer of self-consciousness that they don’t have.
Hough: There was one guy who had it, but we cut him out of the movie.
I’m curious about the structure of the film. It became an investigation at a certain point into the psychology of one character’s rationalization about the murder. Was that something that you planned to do from the very beginning? Was that structure already there, or did that develop more over the course of the film?
Hough: It developed, because we had originally thought that [character] had a brain tumor, and that that was the reason [she committed the crime].
Soderbergh: We kept dropping these hints that she was having these headaches. The only one that remains [from this motivation] now is when she first wakes up in the movie and she’s rubbing her temple. We had a lot of those references in. And in the scene in the jail cell, where she is brushing her teeth — that shot used to continue, and she freezes. Then we cut to her on the floor and she’s passed out. They take her to the hospital and she’s got this inoperable tumor. We showed the film the first time, and everybody went, “I hated that! Why are you explaining it?” So we cut it out.
Hough: I think it remained in the consciousness of the movie as it developed because my original version is about a trapped woman who committed this crime and totally denied that she did it.
Do you want to do this kind of film again?
Soderbergh: Yeah, there’s supposed to be five more.
Are the five more also going to be with non-actors?
Soderbergh: Yeah, I think so.
For you, as a director, are there any more frontiers you want to conquer?
Soderbergh: I want to make a musical, and I want to make a movie about sports. And I want to make a horror movie. There’s still stuff to do.
Do you have any of them set up yet?
Soderbergh: I’m developing a musical, I’m developing a sports movie.
What’s right up next for you?
Soderbergh: In two weeks we start on The Good German. It’s a murder mystery set in Berlin in 1945. It’s based on a novel. It’s got Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire. All non-professionals. Or I should say, all unprofessionals!
And what are you up to, Coleman?
Hough: Nothing official, but I’m writing a script about my mother.
Soderbergh: Don’t say that for publication.
Soderbergh: That you’re writing a script about your mother.
Hough: Why not?
Soderbergh: Because you’re going to hear from your mother.
Your mother doesn’t know?
Soderbergh: She does now.
Hough: It’s a surprise Mother’s Day present. No!
Well, I’m sure she has a subscription to Filmmaker magazine, so that’s how she’ll find out.
Soderbergh: She’ll find out.
Hough: She’ll find out. No, it’s a comedy about my mother. My mother is hilarious. She says the most amazingly outrageous things, and I’m writing a movie about that.