“I can’t sit here and tell you I think movies make any difference at all,” director Steven Soderbergh says, halfway through a bowl of soup at Pierrot Gourmet next door to the Peninsula Hotel. The easygoing 46-yearold Atlanta native, who grew up in Baton Rouge, La., came to national prominence with the release of the low-budget, high-impact portrait of husbands, wives and voyeurs, “sex, lies, and videotape.”
Soderbergh’s subsequent two-decade resume zigzags like no other in modern filmmaking, darting between mainstream studio fare, such as “Erin Brockovich,” and micro-scale digital forays, such as “Bubble.” His efforts have garnered him an Oscar (for “Traffic”), significant money (he made all three “Ocean’s” larks with Clooney, Pitt, Damon, et al.) and a reputation for civility, taste and no little nerve.
Benicio Del Toro, Santiago Cabrera, Demián Bichir, Kahlil Mendez, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Marisé Alvarez, Carlos Bardem, Franka Potente, Edgar Ramirez, Elvira Minguez, Benjamin Benitez, Victor Rasuk, Yul Vazquez, Julia Ormond, Lou Diamond Phillips, Joaquim de Almeida
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 20 Feb 2009 (General release); 2008)
He has come to town on behalf of “Che,” his two-part, four-hour experiment in dashing audience expectations. After heartening response in New York and Los Angeles, the so-called “roadshow presentation” of the film, complete with 30-minute intermission, has fanned out to a handful of other cities, including Chicago.
An eccentric, off-center portrait of a controversial revolutionary, “Che” stars co-producer Benicio Del Toro and took up several years of Soderbergh’s life. He believes in its subject. And yet, he says, “I don’t think anybody goes to a movie and has their mind changed about anything - not that we’re trying to change anybody’s mind, but when I’m asked if this is a political film, and what do I want people to come away with, all I can say is I hope they get to the end of it and ask themselves: ‘What do I have in my life that I feel this passionately about? What in my life would I sacrifice everything for?’‘’
We’re at this bistro because it serves the best coffee in downtown Chicago.
Then I find out Soderbergh doesn’t drink coffee. Ever.
The coffee: “I’ve never talked about this. When I was growing up my responsibility was to take out the garbage. This was pre-plastic bag days. My parents both drank a lot of coffee. And twice a week the grounds ate through the paper bag, and they’d get all over my hands. To this day, the smell of coffee makes me nauseous.”
The reactions to “Che”:
“They’re all over the place, which is an indication of how personal people’s perceptions of Che are. Everybody shows up with this idea in their own minds about what he was, or what he means. So the movie either upsets them because it isn’t what they wanted, or it isn’t what they expected.
“It’s purposefully ... I don’t want to say ‘blank,’ what’s the word? It is sort of a Rorschach test. It’s not taking you by the neck and making you look in one place or another. It’s very dispassionate in a lot of ways ... I was gravitating toward scenes that felt human-scale - interactions with unimportant people, regular people. The movie’s not trying to ‘sell’ him. And Benicio’s not trying to sell him.”
The train wreck:
At the end of Part 1 (“The Argentine”), during the siege of Santa Clara, Cuba, Che and his fellow rebels derail a freight train. How to film it? Soderbergh balked at the digital effects solution and managed to reallocate $500,000 from the overall $58 million budget to build a train powered by two V-8 car engines.
“We had six rehearsals. And we shot it once. I thought: ‘Do I haul out the crane shot for this one? How am I gonna do this?’ Probably I’d do it differently if I had to do it again. There might’ve been a better shot to be had.”
The Cannes Film Festival premiere last May:
“I made some trims after that, pretty minor, about six minutes out of part one and five from part two. I didn’t do anything that would change someone’s mind if they didn’t like the movie.”
Ever since Cannes, some have charged that Soderbergh and his screenwriters go very easy on Guevara’s bloody human-rights record as part of the Castro regime. “Well, the movie tells the truth,” he says.
“Those issues are addressed. I made an artistic decision to focus on two campaigns (Cuba and Bolivia). Is the Che as portrayed in the film capable of the things described as happening (during the Castro regime)? My answer is: absolutely. The person we show is absolutely capable of supervising those events.”
The nine-pound camera:
Acting as his own cinematographer, as he has done in the past, Soderbergh shot “Che” with a digital video camera known as RED. “It’s great with natural light. To have a lightweight camera that delivers an image like this, and is at its best in available-light situations, is a dream come true for me.”
Since “Che” he has shot two other films, “The Informant” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” on the same equipment. “The Girlfriend Experience” opens this spring; “The Informant,” shot in Chicago, Decatur and L.A., is likely to premiere this September at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The 1969 “Che!”:
An errant low point for an interesting director, Richard Fleischer, this precursor to Soderbergh’s version is one of his favorite camp hoots, up there with the notorious 1966 melodrama “The Oscar.”
“We watched part of the ‘69 ‘Che!’ before shooting, but I gotta tell ya, my laughter sort of stuck in my throat. I’d forgotten how many similar scenes we were dealing with. I got scared: What if we were just doing a modern version of that one, the one with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance?
“So we all watched ‘Bananas’ instead. And it helped.”