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Q&A: Steven Soderbergh talks 'Behind the Candelabra,' retirement

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HBO's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" has generated so much buzz thanks to its subject matter (the tormented relationship between the pianist and his much younger lover, Scott Thorson) and its well-known leading men (Michael Douglas and Matt Damon), it's easy to forget it also happens to be the last film directed by Steven Soderbergh before he goes into self-imposed exile from moviemaking.

Twenty-four years after his low-budget drama "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" took Cannes by storm and helped usher in a new age in independent cinema, Soderbergh, 50, is done with the medium — at least for now.

"The phone’s not ringing as often, which is fine," said the (former?) director in his paint-splattered Chelsea office this year, just a few days after putting the finishing touches on "Behind the Candelabra."

He opened up about the film's tortuous journey to the small screen, his frustration with the Hollywood machine and his plans. (Spoiler alert: He's keeping pretty busy. )

“Behind the Candelabra” took something like 13 years to come to fruition. Can you walk me through the development process?

I’d talked to Michael about it during “Traffic.” It was sort of in the back of my mind for a while, and I did some rudimentary research on it. I didn’t want to do a biopic in the traditional sense.  I wanted to go narrow and deep, but I couldn’t figure out what the narrative idea was going to be. I didn’t want to do one of those things where you have like four different people playing him Liberace at different stages in his life.

A friend recommended the book, and it solved the problemIt’s Alice going down the rabbit hole. That’s a much more elegant way to get into Liberace’s life. That’s when I called [executive producer] Jerry Weintraub and asked him to secure the rights. Let’s hire Richard LaGravenese and let’s get going. I’d given Matt the book to read in 2007, and he said he was up for it. Jerry and Warner Bros. had split the cost of the draft, and they decided they didn’t want to do it. So we started this process of selling foreign rights and looking around for a domestic distributor to fill out the rest of the financing. We just couldn’t get anybody else to say yes. It was around that Michael got sick. When he started feeling better and we picked up speed again. In the interim, Jerry had made this documentary about himself that HBO had bought, and he must have had a conversation with somebody over there about this. They said, "We’ll do that tomorrow.” And it was kind of done.

Did Matt and Michael take much convincing?

I said: “Look, here’s my attitude. We want to make the movie. That’s priority No. 1. And I can also make an argument, given the landscape of the theatrical film business right now, that more people are going to see it if we go this way.”  And they said, “Fine.”

What about Liberace interested you?

I have memories of seeing him on TV, my parents liked him. As a kid, there’s obviously something about him that you’re not quite able to articulate. I found him very entertaining but also sensed that he was atypical. And now of course, I can have a much broader appreciation of what a talent he was, and understand that he sort of created a kind of persona that a lot of other people appropriated. This was before Elton John, before Cher, before Madonna, before Lady Gaga,  before all of these often single-named, flamboyant, very entertaining performers. The guy was a real groundbreaker in terms of presentation. Nobody had really done it like that before. That combined with what everyone acknowledges as a profound technical ability — Marvin Hamlisch said he’s technically the best keyboardist he ever saw — that made it more compelling.

How do you think people who knew Liberace will respond to your portrait?

I don’t see any scenario in which they can be happy, not because it’s a hatchet job but because it focuses on an area of his life that he didn’t really share with anyone. I think it will be very difficult for them to take a 30,000-foot view of the piece as a whole.  But I think ultimately it’s a very generous movie toward both of them. It takes the relationship seriously, and it takes both of them seriously. Look, if you offered a million dollars to somebody who had a bad story about Liberace, you could do so secure that you would never have to write that check.

Did Warner Bros. give you a reason for passing?

The consensus was that there would be no audience for the movie outside of a gay audience, and that given the costs — not necessarily the money we needed from them for the rights, which was in the $5-million range, but the cost of putting a movie out, which is in the $25-million range, they’ve got to do 60-plus to get out — they just felt like, "We are not convinced, even with these elements involved, that there’s an audience for this outside of gay people." None of us thought that was true; we thought there was a much broader audience for it, but that was what was coming back to us pretty consistently: “This seems so gay that only gay people will like it.” There’s not a lot you can say to that. They’re just looking at the economics of it.

Do you think maybe it was the wrong kind of gay — too weird and out there? The relationship between Scott and Liberace is pretty unusual, regardless of their sexuality.

I don’t know. Honestly, or maybe naively, I wasn’t really looking at it that way. It was just a relationship to me. The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile, but it’d be the same story no matter what the gender: Older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power. Add showbiz and you’ve got a pretty complex mélange of elements.

I guess I felt that it was so entertaining, and that there was so much eye candy in it, that obviously you were going to be able to cut the best trailer in the world because of all the fun visual stuff, and the subject matter and the people involved would get you the kind of attention that you just can't buy. And as soon as the thing was announced, it’s a real chatter magnet. Maybe that’s why it is a better fit for HBO because their model is different. That’s why for them I think this was a no-brainer. In essence as soon as they announced they were doing it, they won.  Hopefully people will watch it and like it and it’ll work for them in that regard, but in having this experience and talking to [David] Fincher about “House of Cards,” suddenly the subscription model seems really appealing.

Did you have any reluctance about taking the movie to HBO rather than having a theatrical release?

Not at all. I’d worked with them 10 years ago [on the series “K Street”]  and had a good experience then. Most of the stuff that I’m looking forward to seeing is on TV now. Almost exclusively due to “The Sopranos,” there’s been a resurgence in long-form television. That’s great for someone like me, the ability to play out a narrative with a very long arc and explore complicated characters and have the audience be happy about that, it’s very enticing. I have this John Barth novel [“The Sot-Weed Factor”]  that I’ve had written as 12 one-hour segments. If I were to go back to work I’d probably set that up. 

When I went to David [Fincher]’s “House of Cards” premiere here in New York, I was talking to the Netflix people and they said, “You have to remember, there’s no box here. We don’t live in that world,” and I thought that’s really interesting, just how we end up by default putting things in a box where this kind of technology is really taking the box away. We, the filmmakers, have got to start thinking differently.

So it sounds like you’re not exactly done with the moving image just yet.

Well, I never said I was done directing. I said I was going to stop making movies. I’m hopefully going to be doing a play this fall that Scott Burns wrote. It’s a really interesting piece, that’s all I’ll say right now. I think we’ll be able to get it up this fall.

And you’re learning to paint?

There are a couple of painters I’ve run into over the years I’ve been asking for help. Some people have been very kind with their time. I’ve offered in each case to teach them what I know in exchange, and I could probably teach them what I know a lot quicker. It’s fun to not only be a student again but also to talk to somebody else about their process and how they problem solve.  It’s scary to be at the beginning, but I feel lucky to have the luxury of time to try.

It’s easy to imagine how “Behind the Candelabra” could have gone terribly wrong. How did you manage to get the tone just right – to make it funny and ridiculous but not campy?

You’re aware whenever you’re making anything how close you are to the bad version of something. I just wanted to make sure that the behavior seemed human. Stylistically, I felt like I didn’t have to get too crazy, there was so much to look at anyway. I guess I felt that at the end of the day, it would really live or die on Michael and Matt. It was immediately apparent to me how committed they were and how unafraid they were, and I never worried about it after the first couple of days. It’s very intimate. My favorite things in it are the scenes in which it’s just the two of them.

You edited the movie while it was still in production. Tell me about that process.

Each day as soon as we wrapped, within an hour and a half we’d have the footage, and I would do a very quick assembly of that day’s material and post it [to a secure website] that night so we could all take a look at it and see if there’s anything we wanted to change or fix. It's better than dailies. The idea of just posting a bunch of dailies I find very frustrating. It doesn’t really give you an indication of what you have. It’s terrifying to think now that in my first three movies, which I cut myself, I didn’t start editing until we finished shooting. It’s unthinkable to me now, and I think those movies would be a lot better if I were able to work like this. I always think about dying if we’re like too far into the shoot for them to take a write-off if I drop dead, but before I’ve been able to do the first assembly, that’s like the scary period for me. Like they’ve shot too much just to get a check from the insurance company, and somebody’s going to go “But we’ve only got a few more days. Steven would want you to finish this.”

Did you spend a lot of time talking with Matt and Michael about their onscreen relationship?

I kind of leave it to them to indicate how much they need of me. I’m trying to not make it an intellectual process because I think that’s really not helpful to an actor. A lot of the questions were pretty technical and had to do with hair, prosthetics, makeup, wardrobe. I think if you ask them, being in the outfit with the hair, it puts you in the space that you needed to be. For them, it’s a real physical transformation. 

How do you think people will respond to their performances?

No one can accuse them of being shy about any of it. I don’t think either of them feels like "I didn’t go far enough." There just doesn’t seem to be any part of them that was outside looking in, and the fact that two of them were like that makes it into this third thing that you couldn’t have if they weren’t both just perfectly matched in terms of their commitment. I think that’s sort of undeniable. For me it was great because I started out with a movie that’s about two people in a room, for the most part, and the heart of this movie is really two people in a room, although it’s a weird-looking room.

The word that people often use when straight actors play gay characters is “brave,” which is kind of problematic. Do you think about it that way?

I’ve thought about that too. I guess it depends on how you want to define someone’s willingness to appear emotionally vulnerable and to show you something that’s private. To me it has less to do with the fact that it’s two men, it just has to do with being willing to be that open. Even if the genders were mixed, those are still very emotionally vulnerable scenes, physically vulnerable too. That’s where I felt that they were really fearless was in their lack of hesitation.

In some ways, Liberace's star has faded since his death. Do you think this will help revive his artistic legacy at all?

I have to think that most people upon seeing the movie are going to want to check out some of the material that’s available, to see him perform, which would be great. But I guess he didn’t need to be rehabilitated in my mind because I didn’t define him by how he died. There’s a layer of melancholy to the piece for me because of the knowledge, if it were today, he wouldn’t have had to hide all this stuff — he could be Elton John. It’s sad to think of how much effort went in to keeping these things hidden and how much stress it caused for him and the people around him, and there was no reason for it.

In some ways this is also a movie about living in the fish bowl of fame. Liberace’s first impulse when he meets Scott is to put him on the payroll, which seems like the kind of thing only a very famous person would do.  

I can only tell you that directing is a very isolating job as well, so I can understand to the power of 10 how he must have felt because in many ways it was all on him. That is a very isolating context to live in, so I get that.

ALSO:

Television review: 'Behind the Candelabra' an all-that-glitters caveat

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HBO sees the light in Liberace biopic 'Behind the Candelabra'

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