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Why you shouldn’t text while watching Steven Soderbergh’s ‘No Sudden Move’

Don Cheadle talks on a phone inside a phone booth. Benicio Del Toro leans against the booth.
Don Cheadle, left, and Benicio del Toro in Steven Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move.”
(Claudette Barius / Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival)

Like any heist — or any heist movie — it started with a simple plan. Then, as inevitably happens, things got complicated.

A few years ago, Steven Soderbergh, having directed such critically and commercially successful crime thrillers as 1998’s “Out of Sight” and the “Ocean’s 11” series, found himself itching to try for another big score. He sat down with screenwriter Ed Solomon, with whom he’d just worked on the HBO murder mystery “Mosaic,” at the 101 Coffee Shop in Los Angeles to start hashing out ideas for a heist movie, not really knowing where the project might lead.

“I described a very simple setup: Three people who don’t know each other are brought together to do a very specific job. Then everything goes wrong,” Soderbergh remembers. “We just started with that. And the first question after those two sentences, is, ‘Well, what’s the MacGuffin? Like, what’s the thing?’”

Figuring out that thing would prove no easy feat, as Soderbergh’s kernel of an idea sprouted into a sprawling, labyrinthine period noir thriller set in 1954 Detroit, packed with double- and triple-crosses and themes of systemic racism and corporate greed. And actually making the film — “No Sudden Move,” which debuts Thursday on HBO Max — would involve an off-screen plot twist that no filmmaker could have foreseen: a global pandemic.

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“No Sudden Move” stars Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro as a pair of small-time criminals who are brought together with another petty crook (Kieran Culkin) to steal a document from the office of a low-level auto-industry executive. After things go terribly awry, the two begin a search to find out who hired them and why, taking them on a twisty journey that eventually leads to the upper echelons of the city’s criminal and business worlds — worlds, it turns out, that are not so far apart.

To reveal much more of the plot would spoil some of the fun of the film, which costars David Harbour, Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz and Brendan Fraser, as the viewer discovers along with the characters the dimensions of the web in which they’re entangled.

“The original impulse from Steven was, ‘Let’s tell a story where the audience has to essentially follow along and trust us that it’s going to add up,’” says Solomon. “We resisted the temptation to do those movie-writing tropes where everything is set up and over-explained. That means people have to pay closer attention to the story. For people who are used to texting while playing a video game while watching a movie, that ain’t gonna work for this one.”

In director Steven Sodebergh’s 1950s Detroit-set thriller, starring a well-matched Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro, automobiles play a leading role.

Soderbergh has long been drawn to the noir genre and, as one of Hollywood’s most experimental big-name filmmakers, is no stranger to managing complicated stories and brain-scrambling plot lines.

“You’re constantly trying to calibrate how information is released, what characters know what when,” the director says. “You’ve just got to keep grinding until you find this sort of balance where people are reaching for understanding but you haven’t gotten so far out in front of them that they become despondent.”

For Cheadle and Del Toro, the ever shifting cat-and-mouse dynamic between their mistrustful and morally murky characters proved a heady challenge.

“Every day in the hair and makeup trailer, we were talking about that: ‘Well, if we do this, do I trust you? Can you trust me?’” says Cheadle. “Sometimes as an audience we want to feel like there’s clear-cut good guys and bad guys because we can sit back and not have to really work. But I don’t have to root for a character — I just have to be intrigued by their behavior.”

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After initially conceiving the film as a cross-country caper, Soderbergh and Solomon decided to set the story entirely in Detroit. The two found fertile thematic ground in the Motor City’s once-mighty auto industry and its history of racial discord during the ’50s, which saw the clearing out of the city’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods, which for decades had been the heart of its once-thriving Black middle class.

“We knew we were doing a fun yarn, but we wanted to set it against something real,” says Solomon. “Once I started to research that time period in the city of Detroit, I came upon the whole history of the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. That was such a powerful backdrop as a microcosm for what was happening across the country at the time, and it gave a kind of moral imperative to Don’s character.”

No sooner had they gotten their twisty tale locked than things took an unexpected swerve. Soderbergh and his cast and crew were just two weeks away from shooting in Detroit last March when the worsening COVID-19 pandemic suddenly shut down production.

‘Contagion,’ a 2011 film, has become a hit on streaming sites as the world grapples with the coronavirus. For many watching now, it hits a bit too close to home.

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Determined to push forward, Soderbergh, who a decade earlier had made the thriller “Contagion,” placed a call to epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, who had consulted on that film. “I go, ‘Should I be telling people we’re going to pause for a couple of weeks?’” the director says. “There was a long pause and he said, ‘Go home. Hunker down. We’re in for it for a long time.’ ”

After a six-month shutdown, “No Sudden Move” finally started shooting in September under strict COVID safety protocols that Soderbergh had helped develop as head of the Directors Guild of America‘s back-to-work task force.

“As you can imagine, it wouldn’t have been a very good look for the director of ‘Contagion’ to preside over an outbreak on his own film,” Soderbergh says dryly. “That’s too sexy a clickbait headline. There was no universe in which somebody was going to get sick on this set.”

Del Toro, who won a supporting actor Oscar for his performance in Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Traffic,” felt confident in the measures that were put in place to prevent the virus from penetrating the film’s production bubble.

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“I trusted Steven on it, and I also knew from my brother, who’s a doctor, that the masks and the washing hands did help,” he says. “I had total trust in the whole system. And you have to remember, during the pandemic there was no work for actors. Here was a movie that was going to happen, that was going to just give you a chance to make a living.”

Cheadle, however, had deep concerns about going back to work in the midst of a devastating pandemic that had personally touched him.

“My dad had just passed that April,” the actor says. “I was fortunate enough to be with him when it happened and to be on the COVID ward with him and be in the room. But I was shellshocked, and I put Steven through it. I was very, very nervous about it, up to and including when I got there.”

Soderbergh defended this year’s controversial category change-up, saying ‘there would be nowhere to go’ after a potential Chadwick Boseman win.

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Just weeks after the film wrapped in November, Soderbergh was tapped to produce the Academy Awards alongside Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, a job that would involve its own series of twists and turns, for better and worse, right up to the climactic (or anti-climactic) final moments of the April 25 telecast. Although the show ended up receiving all-time-low ratings and decidedly mixed reviews, Soderbergh has no regrets.

Wreaking havoc on business as usual in Hollywood, the pandemic forced the industry to make many sudden moves, shifting release dates and upending modes of distribution that had stretched back decades. Although theaters are now open again across most of the country, it remains still unclear whether the movie business will return to where it was pre-pandemic — and whether mid-range, adult-oriented films like “No Sudden Move,” which were already fading from cinemas, will find a place in the newly emerging landscape.

As much as he cherishes the big screen, Soderbergh has proved more willing than many of his peers to delve into television and streaming. Having released last year’s dramedy “Let Them All Talk” on HBO Max, he says he’s more than happy to see “No Sudden Move” roll out on the platform.

“We’ve got to get people back in the habit of going out and seeing movies,” he says. “But I’m absolutely thrilled that, come July 1, this movie is there and I know it’s going to look the way it’s supposed to look. This is the lane that I like to drive in: this mid-range film for grown-ups. And if that’s what [the popularity of streaming] results in, that sure is good for me.”

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That said, in Soderbergh’s mind, as in his films, nothing is ever entirely black-and-white.

“Let’s say ‘No Sudden Move’ performs well on the platform,” he muses. “Is there a scenario, inverting the model, where you say, ‘We’re actually going to roll it out in some theaters months after it’s been on HBO Max because we’ve seen a lot of chatter that it would be cool to see [it] in a theater’? I’d be curious to know, like, is that a possibility?”

It would be quite a twist.


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