Despite their best efforts—and launching during a pandemic probably didn’t help—the mobile streaming service Quibi has called it quits. Last month, chiefs Jeffery Katzenberg and Meg Whitman made the difficult determination that after spending nearly $2 billion, it was time to shut down the endeavor. Quibi will be up and running until the end of the year. We still maintain one of the best things you can see on the service is “Wireless,” from director Zach Wechter and executive producer Steven Soderbergh. This deeply unique and inventive single-setting tech thriller transports you into the protagonist’s phone and employs the portrait and landscape perspective shifts of a phone in a way you’ve never seen before.
In my long conversation with Soderbergh, we talked about “Wireless” in-depth, upcoming sequels to “The Knick” and “High Flying Bird,” and the fact that his next film, “Let Them All Talk,” starring Meryl Streep, would come to HBO Max in December. But the conversation tapped into so much more, including “No Sudden Move,” which was about to shoot at the time, and the way COVID-19 has completely disrupted the industry on every level, production, theatrical, streaming, and what a new landscape might look like.
The full conversation has been delayed—I blame election anxiety—but I wanted to preserve the parts that didn’t run for posterity and because, well, who doesn’t want a nice long distraction from the election like a Soderbergh long-read Q&A? Note, this conversation took place in late September, before Quibi’s closure was announced, before COVID-19 had spiked back up to record highs, and before films like “Black Widow” and “Dune” were pushed back into 2021.
When Quibi was first announced, your name was one of the first that came up, and I thought, of course, you’re always an early adopter. What’s the draw for you with something like this?
Well, beyond just trying something new, I think taking even just a cursory glance at my resume would tell you, I’m not afraid to fail. I’m just interested in having an experience as a filmmaker, and as a viewer, that isn’t identical to the one I just had. So, when somebody has a new piece of technology or a new way of doing things, I’m always interested to see how it works, if some of it works, or, “Is there an aspect of this that does work, that I can borrow from? or retrofit into something else that I’m doing?” Sometimes things don’t work at all, and you still learn from that.
But I’ve always felt that part of the job is to evolve. And the only way you evolve is to try new things. Sometimes, they don’t work. Anything that works that we experienced in our lives—whether it’s a piece of technology or a game that we play—there were a hundred iterations of that before it became the thing that we liked. Those mistakes are usually hidden from us, but as somebody who’s in the business of making things, they’re not hidden to me; I see them behind everything. And I don’t view them as the enemy. I view them as the bridge to the new thing.
I suppose it’s much like being totally ok with letting go of celluloid and embracing digital or jumping into Netflix and HBO Max early to see how they work as companies for filmmakers, how they do business.
Totally, there’s no other way to really understand what’s happening without being inside of the thing. And I’m just not satisfied with watching from the stands. I want to be down on the field and in the middle of it. For example, I looked at what the [“Wireless” filmmakers] did, and I’m filing away mentally for things that could potentially show up in a future piece of work. At the very least, I met some young filmmakers who I think are really talented, and there may be something else that we get to do together down the road. So to me, that experiment is all upside.
I remember reading an interview with Michel Gondry ages ago where he said he would try things out in other formats and then potentially apply them to movies. He did that with dream elements in a Foo Fighters video that he applied to “Science Of Sleep.” The idea feels the same.
Absolutely, some people do that; some use commercials to do that. So, in an ideal world, you would always get to have experiences like this that are new, with new people that were unknown to you beforehand. That would be the way you go about your day every day. So when these opportunities do present themselves, I try to make sure I don’t let them go by. Because I know from experience, in this case especially, if these filmmakers have this idea, you can guarantee somebody else is having a similar idea, and we better get cracking soon.
Much of this makes me think of your 2019 limited series “Mosaic,” which was an HBO series, but also a terrific narrative app experience that pre-dated Quibi. I’ve got to imagine on some levels, the app, ahead of its time, was considered a quote-unquote failure, but it was an awesome experience and kind of a Quibi forerunner, and I’m sure both lay the groundwork for something even more inventive.
Yeah, I think it was successful on its own terms, in the sense that it did what it was supposed to do. I think what I would do differently now is use a very different story that would allow for a more accelerated series of choices. I think the overall, slower-burn rhythm of the show was such that the pleasure of the branching narrative wasn’t as front and center, as it should have been. It just should have made more moves faster and more often.
A lot of these newer platforms, that ask a little bit more of the audience than just watching, a bit more interactivity, often require an acclimation period for the audience. Like even Quibi, its reception wasn’t exactly warm in the press so far.
Right. Jeffrey’s spoken about this, but to paraphrase, they arrived right at a moment when their most plausible viewer, a commuter, is not commuting. Literally, it was a weird set of circumstances, but at the end of the day, these things always have to live or die on just the quality of the content. So, I think you always have to bet on that; you always have to bet on the talent. That’s what Jeffrey’s tried to do; it’s certainly what I was doing here, essentially throwing my lot behind Zach and Jack.
You were said to be selected by the DGA to weigh in on COVID safety protocols for a minute. How did that turn out?
Well, I was the co-chair of the DGA committee. And then I’ve been a participant in the union, the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) negotiations on occasion.
What are your thoughts on all of this as we stand now, given that one of the biggest movies in the world recently shut down because its star tested positive for COVID? That must have felt disheartening for everyone in the industry.
Yeah, it’s tricky. We’re running into issues that are central to what being a human being is. By that, I mean— do I feel confident that I can keep my cast and crew safe for the 11 hours that they are on set with me? Yes, absolutely. However, what they do in the 13 hours that I do not have control of them is the issue. They’re not going to catch COVID at work unless they get it from somebody who got infected outside of work. And so that’s really the issue. All said and done, the protocols and the guidelines that are currently in place are very strong. The question is, people. So how do you control what they do when they’re not with you?
I imagine someone must have floated the idea— at least for bigger projects with the budget— of a production that lives like a self-contained village for a few months where exits are extremely limited, and reentries are cautiously screened?
Like Tyler Perry? That’s essentially what he’s doing. He’s got that massive complex, and everybody lives there. If you could create a bubble that big, that’s certainly ideal from a risk standpoint, but there’s a huge psychological component to this that is still kind of an unknown because we’re slowly getting back to work. For instance, that idea of a larger bubble that could work, but psychologically for how long? Two months, four months, six months? Like at what point do people go, “I can’t take this anymore!” That’s a real-world question that we won’t know the answer to until many shows are up and running. But currently, I think the biggest issues are scaling. Can you get the resources and the personnel to execute the protocols, right?
And even if it’s not true, will you be perceived publicly as cannibalizing resources and personnel from the health community? All this stuff’s being privately sourced. But people might say, “why aren’t those tests going to other people?” This negotiation that we’ve been involved with has never been anything complex before in the film industry. It’s incredibly complicated; there are real-world issues. The problem is, it’s not just an economic negotiation. There are real, serious stakes here if you get it wrong.
Sure, Warner Bros. must have absolutely felt that themselves late in the summer, bringing back “Tenant” to screens and potentially putting audiences at risk and opening too early. There was obviously a lot of discord around that opening, at least in the press.
Well, it’s frustrating for everybody. There are two levels, at least, of uncertainty here. One is what you’ve described, which is, “when will the theatrical movie business return? And then the second is, on a story level, if you’re making a project that is set in the present day, how prevalent is COVID? How prevalent is Black Lives Matter? We’re in such a chaotic period, that most of the conversations I’m having with people on the shows that I’m working on as a producer are, “How do we portray the present?” Right? I don’t know the answer. Like, do you wait and see how this shakes out? Do you wait until things seem…okay? Are we going to have a vaccine, or is this President going to… I don’t know. There’s a lot of unknowns.
Well, how are you feeling personally? I mean, it does not look good for “Black Widow” and Dune” right now, and then if so, what happens to the theatrical business? What happens to the movie business? Anxiety is high for a lot of people.
Well, if I were running the studio, I’d be very anxious. There’s no question that [COVID will spike back up again]. It’s really a matter of trying to judge— with incomplete, conflicting data— when that’s going to be. And so do you basically hunker down and, say—with some exceptions, like the drive-ins and things like that— are we going to assume most theaters are closed until June 2021? Is it better to literally just put some movies in the freezer until then, or do you navigate your way through this minefield of uncertainty? I don’t know, but one thing we do, though, is that people still want to watch things.
Now more than ever, arguably.
Yeah. Look, there is always the potential for new ideas to emerge in every dire situation that were either unanticipated or weren’t on the table when things were okay. There’s no question in my mind that this period should prompt a wide-ranging discussion in a more fluid discussion about windowing than we’ve been able to have before now.
Ok, how do you feel about that? Windowing?
Well, I feel like part of the problem is treating it all the same. Having a blanket template that you will apply to every film. To me, that’s one of the key flaws in this discussion. Because if I have a movie opening— and we all know by Friday at two, o’clock what the future of that project will look like financially for a theatrical release.
For instance, I get the call on “Unsane” at two o’clock on a Friday. And the conversation is, basically, “Okay, it’s not working.” I’ve spent tens of millions of dollars on P&A [promotion and advertising]. It’s not working, so I should be able to drop this movie wherever I want, whenever I want, because I’m already going to be kicked out of theaters. Right. So what do the chains care about?
Should that apply to all films? No, but when you’re in a situation like that, and you realize like, “wow, the theatrical is not working” and, but you’ve got this entire big marketing spend in play, you should be able to do 180 and get it out there somewhere. My big thing is, if you’re going to put this thing in a theater and it’s ultimately going to show up on a platform, why would you announce when? Why would you do that? Why would you have an ad that says in theaters now and on this platform two weeks from now?
Because most people will wait.
Yeah. Why not go, “we’re gonna let it play”? Maybe it’ll be for two weeks; maybe it’ll be for six weeks. Let’s let it play; let’s try and make the theatrical work. Just withholding that piece of knowledge from a potential theater goer, because otherwise… I don’t understand that. You’re basically just telling them to wait.
You were talking about things being put on ice, which made me think of “Kill Switch” (since retitled “No Sudden Moves”), which was going to shoot in March and then pandemic happened, and “Let Them All Talk,” which I imagine under normal circumstances we would’ve seen at one of the recent fall film festivals.
Yeah right. We were going to be [at] Toronto [International Film Festival]. For “Kill Switch,” I’m supposed to drive to Detroit on Sunday to start up on the movie again, which is going to have a new title, by the way. We didn’t realize there was a movie that came out recently to use that title.
I’m very obviously anxious to get back to work, and I’m very curious to see how we will function under the new guidelines. Everybody involved really wants to shoot this thing correctly under the new protocols. I’m certainly going to be making notes in real-time about how the protocols work, how they don’t work, and what could be adjusted.
The industry, in general, needs to be very transparent about these issues. I understand it’s complicated because of privacy, but it’s beneficial for everyone to know when there’s a breach and how it happened. You want to share that data, and you’d want to do it because it benefits everybody. I think the conversations right now are, how do we do that and keep it appropriately anonymized?
In the case of “The Batman,” it would be constructive to know how it happened. Clearly, there was a breach somewhere. If everybody knew, “Oh, here’s how it went from here to here to here,” everybody could readjust, to make sure that not gonna happen again. And that’s a good thing. So, it’s another reason why these conversations are so detailed and fraught with personal issues on top of the practical issues.
It’s super loaded, right? Warner Bros. is a big company, and surely they don’t want anyone to know where Pattinson messed up, or a P.A. did. Sharing on that level gets tricky.
Totally. And does anybody have the right to know what Robert Pattinson is doing on his time off? No, not really. None of it is simple. I plan to be as transparent as possible because I want people to know if there’s any recalibration that needs to take place to make these things work better. And the economic surcharge to protocols is significant.
During the height of the pandemic, you were trapped like the rest of us and wrote several screenplays, including a sequel to “Sex, Lies, And Videotape.” Do you intend to shoot and make all those things?
I hope so. I’m trying to find a spot for each of them. Of the three things I was working on, two would be for me to make, and one I would produce. And they all need to be revised too. I just sat down and banged out a draft of each, one after the other, and I’ve not gone back and revisited them. So, rewrites and figuring out when they would get made. And then I have this archival project that I’ve been working on because the rights of seven of my films have reverted back to me. I’m remastering, in some cases re-editing and preparing those to be unleashed on the public.
Right. “Kafka” is the radical re-edit, right, and then the others are?
There was one which also now has a new, a completely new iteration of itself and has a new title. So let’s say let’s go through them. So “Kafka,” “Gray’s Anatomy,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” “Bubble,” “Everything Is Going Fine,” “Schizopolis,” and “Full Frontal.” Kafka,” “Schizopolis,” and “Full Frontal” are all being re-edited; the rest are remasters.
Those sound like good pandemic projects at home.
Yeah, I was just desperate to stay busy. And as it turned out, the scripts were an unexpected development. The editing, I’d been working on this collection for a long time now, but they wouldn’t move forward because of other obligations. So, after the first three months of sheltering in place where I was writing the two months, that just turned into just editing eventually.
The rest of the conversation just touched upon previously mentioned items, the release date for “Let Them All Talk,” the (potential spiritual?) sequel to “High Flying Bird,” the confirmation of more “The Knick” on the way, and a little bit about the third season of “The Girlfriend Experience” that shot in August, (“no one got sick… the footage looks spectacular”). In Detroit, Soderbergh is finishing up “No Sudden Moves” and “Let Them All Talk” debuts on HBO Max in December. Hopefully, we’ll see a trailer for that one soon.