Steven Soderbergh Talks Sex, Superheroes and His ‘Below Deck’ Fandom
You’re never quite sure what Steven Soderbergh is going to do next. And that mercurial sensibility is part of his charm. The man who burst onto the scene at the age of 26 with his erotic thriller Sex, Lies, and Videotape has played in so many sandboxes, from crime comedies (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s trilogy) and drug-trade epics (Traffic) to sports dramas (High Flying Bird) and breezy Meryl Streep vehicles (Let Them All Talk). He’s directed 13 feature films and created two TV series in the last 12 years alone. The man absolutely loves to work.
Soderbergh’s latest is Magic Mike’s Last Dance. The third entry in the Channing Tatum-led stripper saga sees Mike (Tatum) fall head over heels for Max Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), a wealthy single mother who wishes to stage the mother of all strip shows at her estranged husband’s London theatre. And she wants Mike to help choreograph it, thereby realizing his, and their, potential.
“She’s in the power position,” Soderbergh tells Rolling Stone. “That, for us, created a really interesting dynamic.”
Though Soderbergh abstained from directing the 2015 sequel Magic Mike XXL — he merely shot and edited it, since he was too busy fine-tuning his Cinemax series The Knick — he was compelled to return to the franchise after witnessing the Magic Mike live show get made in London.
“This is my version of a superhero movie,” he proclaims.
The Oscar-winning filmmaker had plenty more to say about everything from superhero movies to the lack of sex in movies over the course of our wide-ranging chat.
From Sex, Lies, and Videotape to Magic Mike, you’ve long harbored a fascination with the sexual desires of women. Not many male filmmakers can say the same. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. I grew up with three older sisters and was always very interested in what was happening in their lives. I spent many hours watching them get ready to go out, and usually I wouldn’t get any read on what happened until the next day. The mystery of what happened while they were out of the house, and going out on dates, really stuck with me. I wasn’t really one to interrogate them, but I would wait to see what their affect was — and how they would talk about it — later, because invariably you’d get a sense of how these excursions were going, but in a kind of oblique way. It’s also interesting to me how women navigate this dynamic with men — especially now, because there’s been such a reassessment of what the rules of engagement are. Today, the question is: How do we establish a safe environment for people to explore each other without completely killing the mystery of what the other person wants, and what they’re feeling? I don’t think anybody is overly enamored with feeling like they have to fill out a moment-to-moment questionnaire, so how do you talk to people about reading non-verbal cues so that the thing doesn’t die under the microscope? You’re right that there’s absolutely a continuum between the first film and this most recent film.
It is a different landscape. Now, you’re seeing individual scenes be picked apart online, and sometimes taken out of context. When it comes to sex, and how to handle it as a filmmaker, how have you found yourself adjusting to this new atmosphere?
To your point, from the first film forward, I’ve always operated from a position of respect — and that extends to all my characters. It begins with respecting your characters. It’ll be interesting to see where in the pendulum-swing of things we are right now, and where we’ll end up. Because you’re trying to get at this very amorphous space of: I want you to give me want I want, but I don’t want to tell you what it is. I want you to know what it is that I want. That’s tricky. It’s not like you can come up with guidelines or a template that you can overlay onto every relationship, because every relationship is different. You can operate from a place of respect, but sometimes people want something that society is telling them that they shouldn’t want. But it’s what they want. Now what do you do? Do you not tell people? Do you hide it? Do you repress it? Do you express it? What’s the rule? It’s very slippery. One of the things that was fun about this movie, and made it exciting for us to work on, is the fact that Mike is actually in a relationship during the movie, which is the first time that’s happened. That allowed for an exploration of some of these issues and some of these questions.
There is a Dickensian element to Magic Mike’s Last Dance, from the British narration to the wealthy benefactor.
I think you’re right about the narration. I liked the idea of a third party talking about the main characters and having more insight than they do, even though she’s younger. That was fun and unexpected in a stripper movie. I was thinking about the early Lubitsch films, in terms of their humor. When it comes to the character of Max, I was thinking of the Lina Wertmüller films from the ‘70s that had these very dynamic female characters who were always pushing things and challenging people. And then visually, in terms of movement and color, I was thinking about the early Bertolucci films, which are so sinuous and sensual — The Conformist, Last Tango, 1900. It was a mashup of influences, but all very much built around a process film. I like process movies, as you can probably tell, where you have a group of people who are trying to solve a problem. You can feel the Ocean’s movies sneaking into the frame here.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance opens on a jaw-dropping dance number between Channing and Salma that incorporates quite a bit of… furniture. How did you cook that up?
A lot of things had to go right. I always had it in my mind that it would take place in the time of day of dusk going into night. It’s beautiful. It’s sexy. What that means is, I have to shoot pieces of it in sequence over the course of three different days where I have an hour at most to get three different takes of each angle. That’s stressful because if you don’t get it, you’re screwed. Then there’s the choreography, which Alison Faulk and Channing worked on, and then brought Salma into it. The first time I saw what they were going to do I said, “I don’t think Salma’s going to do that.” When I came back to see it again after Salma started rehearsing it it got worse, so that was good news. Salma said, “At a certain point, I need to take it over. I’m fine with him doing stuff to me to a point, and then I have to drive it.” We wanted an original piece of music, and Lucky Daye is somebody that Alison Faulk and Season Kent both liked. They called him, described the scene to him, and not very long after this piece of music shows up and I’m like, “Holy shit. This guy crushed this.”
I’m curious what happened with Thandiwe Newton and her being replaced with Salma. There were reports that she and Channing got into an argument over the Will Smith slap at the Oscars and it spiraled out of control.
[Laughs] Nothing I ever saw was accurate, and there’s really no upside for anybody involved in litigating this or excavating it, because I consider it private. Everything I saw publicly was wrong. It was just… I don’t think anybody sees any benefit in running through this publicly. It becomes something you can’t control. Right now, to keep it private means all of us can control it, and I think that’s where it should sit for the time being.
The daughter of Salma’s character resembles Thandiwe, and you made her be adopted in the film. Was this one of the changes you had to make when you replaced her?
That one aspect of it we had to finesse, but I think it played to the dynamic she has with her daughter and resulted in one of my favorite lines in the whole movie — when she says, “Mom.” Now I look at it and go, that’s how it always should have been. We had to recalibrate. There’s no question. We all spent hours and hours in rooms rebuilding it, rethinking it to make it specific. At a certain point, you have to surrender to what the cinema gods want for you. You really do.
I wanted to return to sex in cinema. I recently returned from Sundance where, to my pleasant surprise, there was quite a bit of sex onscreen. It seems to be a response to the lack of sex we see in mainstream cinema. Are you surprised by how chaste the movies have become?
Everybody has a different attitude about that. To me, it’s about sexy. It’s not about the sex, per se, and whether the movie is explicit. There’s no nudity in Out of Sight. There’s no nudity in Magic Mike’s Last Dance. There’s not even a thong. And yet, it was our desire to make a sexy movie. What’s sexy is intimacy and genuine emotion. Something that feels alive, and electric, and has the potential for vulnerability. That can be sexy. You’re letting somebody inside your heart, and that’s scary. You can get hurt. The really radical thing to do right now, it seems to me, as opposed to showing the beginning of the relationship when there’s all this heat and light because of the attraction — that’s easy — is to show people who’ve been married for twenty years for whom that’s still true. Where you don’t even make a big deal of it. They’ve been together for twenty years, and they’re still into each other in that way.
You can direct it with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
There ya go.
There’s a business element to this too, right? That studio movies are sanitized now — sexless — so that they can play internationally and open in certain countries.
I hadn’t thought about it in that context, but you may be right. The things that I tend to make don’t inherently have a ton of appeal overseas. As you will be told when you’re trying to make something at a certain scale, cultural specificity can be an obstacle to success outside of the U.S. And I tend to lean into making things that are hyperspecific culturally, because I believe there’s a universality to that. But there are significant territories outside of the U.S. where that’s an issue — especially if it’s not heterosexual sex.
Any sex and you’re gonna have a tough time opening in parts of Asia.
If I had any potential to have a movie released in China, Contagion killed that. And then after The Laundromat, for sure. What are you gonna do.
I saw your list of everything you’ve seen and read in 2022 and didn’t see any superhero movies on there. Have you hit a wall with those?
I have no philosophical issue with those movies. The fact of the matter is: I’m not the audience for that. I never was. When I was growing up, I never had comic books. I’m not a fantasy person. I’m too stuck on the ground. So, I’m just not the target for that. I’m agnostic about them. I can tell you right now, just as a filmmaker, they’re really tough movies to make in terms of the stamina required. The Russos are friends of mine. Who knew when I first met them that this was what they loved to do and had a real feeling for? I didn’t know this until they called me and said, “We’re up for this Captain America movie [Captain America: The Winter Soldier]. Will you call Kevin Feige and say nice things about us?” And I said, “Yes, if you will answer me this one question: Is this something you’re dying to do or is it something someone told you you ought to be doing?” And they said, “Oh no, we have this massive comic book collection. This is our dream job.” And I said, “Oh, then of course I will.” And it turns out they weren’t kidding. I’m happy for them. That shit’s hard. I couldn’t do it.
They are pushing a lot of other movies out of the cinema though. You go to the multiplex now and it’s just dozens of showings of the latest superhero movie.
The issue of what happens to the audience is truly a chicken-and-the-egg thing. The reason they are pushing other movies off the screen — mid-level adult dramas for grownups — is because people are spending more money to see those movies than mid-level adult dramas. The exhibitors are just trying to survive, which is becoming increasingly difficult for them, so it’s this weird mélange of forces, both economic and cultural, that have landed us here. Now, every time I lament, “Is this the way it’s always gonna be? Are we stuck here?” Somebody, unbeknownst to all of us, is out there making something that’s gonna come out six months or a year from now that’s gonna invert the trajectory we think we’ve been on, and things will start moving in another direction. I always believe in the ability of filmmakers to turn the direction of the industry around. I believe in artists’ ability to figure shit out.
The Oscars are coming up, and you produced the show under quite unique circumstances. But what do you think of the Oscars as an institution? They seem to be chasing the Titanic ratings dragon. Do you feel it can ever capture its former glory?
I don’t know. This year is going to be very telling. You cannot this year say, “Well, they didn’t nominate any popular movies!” You cannot say that. So, we’ll find out if that’s really the issue or if it’s a deeper philosophical problem, which is the fact that movies don’t occupy the same cultural real estate that they used to. They just don’t.
Because of the rise of television?
I’m sure that’s part of it. But they just don’t. In cultural terms, they don’t matter in the same way that they did twenty years ago. As a result, especially for younger viewers, it’s not as compelling as it once was. They’re going to learn a lot this year. We all will.
So, I’m a Below Deck superfan and I know you are as well. What about the show captivates you?
It’s about work. It’s about problem-solving at work when you’ve got huge personality clashes, class issues, and talk about intimate! The way that these people live on these boats, even these big boats, is crazy! If you designed a psychological experiment like this you would, like Stanley Milgram, be thrown out of academia. It’s crazy what a pressure cooker these trips are for everyone involved. I like the work aspect of it. These people work hard.
And they party hard too. I’m in awe of how they can drink their faces off until three in the morning and then be on deck at seven or eight in the morning.
And they’re expecting five-star service all the time. For anybody who has any kind of job, how you get along with your coworkers and how you feel about getting along with your colleagues is a big part of your life. We spend a lot of our lives at work. I’m fascinated by the group dynamics in watching the show — especially when you watch somebody self-destruct. You watch a person, and you go, “If you’d literally done nothing, you would be in a better situation than you are now. You actively made this worse.” That’s fascinating to me. Like, you can’t keep your mouth shut or you can’t do this. You just look at them like, “Dude, you’re making this worse! Just shut the fuck up!”
Do you have a favorite chief stew?
I’m a big fan of Daisy Kelliher on Sailing Yacht.
I never got to that one. That’s too crazy. It’s too small. It’s too… That one made me break out in hives. I was like, I can’t take this. That one was too intense. I’m like, “Why would you want to be on a sailboat and trying to eat a meal when this thing is rocking all over the place?” It seemed like a real recipe for too many things to go wrong. I’m like, that’s crazy. But that’s a tough gig and they’re all different. My wife bought me a T-shirt that says, “June, June, Hannah.” Because that was one of the big storylines when I was first getting into it. Hannah [Ferrier] is chief stew and June [Foster] was one of the members of the interior crew and she would just never answer her walkie, and they would keep cutting to her ignoring it! And so, “June, June, Hannah,” even on set among those on my crew who are Below Deck freaks, that’s a running joke for when somebody’s not paying attention.
Hannah also always says, “Bon appétit!” when she’s serving her guests dinner in this beautifully passive-aggressive way.
[Laughs] Oh my god. Oh yeah. My side hustle, which is this Bolivian hooch [Singani63] I import, we had this event that we were going to stage at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in the summer of 2020, and we had hired Chef Ben [Robinson]. I was excited. He was excited. He sent me a knife and said, “This is gonna be fun.” I was so looking forward to it and it broke my heart that we had to cancel it. But we’re going to bring it back. I need the Chef Ben experience.