The Interview: Steven Soderbergh on crime, Elmore Leonard, and 'No Sudden Move'

The Interview: Steven Soderbergh on crime, Elmore Leonard, and 'No Sudden Move'

Even though we never see Steven Soderbergh's face throughout our 40-odd minute roundtable interview, you can almost picture his thick-rimmed glasses jostling for position on his face as he speaks in clear, unhurried sentences and never once seems to be stuck for an answer. In fact, he never once seems to be at a loss for anything. It's almost like the characters in his movies, like 'Out of Sight' or 'Ocean's Eleven'. They're impossibly clever people, seem to always know what's going on, and very often, has a quick repartee about something before slicing into the meat of the question.

His work has primarily been fixated on crime, criminals, deals gone wrong, double-crosses, heists, and schemes. Yet, for Steven Soderbergh, his own upbringing and his own experience are far removed from it. "There's really no plausible explanation for why I'd be so interested in crime films. I grew up in a suburban subdivision in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I didn't have any connection to criminal activity whatsoever, but I suppose the connection was to movies. I saw a lot of movies, and a lot of crime movies."

This is one topic that Steven Soderbergh is able to latch onto with ease. In describing his latest work of cinematic criminal activity with 'No Sudden Move', he cites deep-cut influences like directors like Nicholas Ray, 'Odds Against Tomorrow' with Harry Belafonte, 'Miller's Crossing' and Dashiel Hammet, the scores of Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith, and of course, the labyrinthine plotting of 'Chinatown'.

"All good stories are about conflict, and crime movies provide very strong conflicts with the threat of physical violence, incarceration, betrayal - so the movie feeling of crime films is something that attached itself to me even when a youngster. My continuing interest, I can't explain it," he says, with a chuckle. "I'm certainly interested in the idea of using genre films as a delivery system for some other ideas. It can function on a purely superficial level, and then there are other layers underneath that keep it from being something you forget the moment it's over," Soderbergh explains.

'No Sudden Move' sees a trio of criminals - Kieran Culkin, Don Cheadle, and Benicio del Toro - in '50s Detroit hired to kidnap a motor company executive's family with the intent of him giving them an industrial trade secret that has the potential to be worth millions in the hands of competitors, or worse. Of course, like any criminal enterprise in a Steven Soderbergh movie, there's going to be double-crosses and under-the-table dealings. And if any of this sounds like an Elmore Leonard adaptation, you'll be surprised to learn that it's a wholly original story by screenwriter Ed Solomon and Soderbergh. Yet, Soderbergh freely admits that the famed crime author looms large over any criminal enterprise.

"The trick with dealing with Elmore Leonard as an idea is not to try and copy him. That's where you get into trouble. In the case of 'Out of Sight', there's a significant amount of new material in the screenplay that doesn't exist in the book. ('Out of Sight' screenwriter) Scott Frank's great accomplishment was his ability to recreate Leonard's voice in a very seamless way. Now, Scott had adapted 'Get Shorty' years before and brought a pretty significant skillset to the table. If you look at ('No Sudden Move' screenwriter) Ed Solomon's resume, he has a very distinctive voice and is usually employed in the pure comedy context. Ed's ability to deal with character and deal with pure plot is really extraordinary. He surfs those two lanes really well, and then, y'know, you have the contributions of the cast. None of the people I'm dealing with are passive collaborators. They enhance the screenplay and the world of it as well," he explains.

He pauses, and muses on the practical realities of shooting in the middle of a pandemic, not to mention the huge cost and undertaking it took to get everything made. "Maybe it's just because it was COVID, but by the time we got shooting again, I felt like we had potentially had a project where the planets really aligned in an interesting way. You can only control that to the extent of who those people, the cast, are, and the rest is up to the cinema gods, but this felt pretty good from day one."

Of course, like any roundtable these days, the topic comes up of Marvel blockbusters, and sci-fi spectacles and their impact on cinemas. Soderbergh, so far, has managed to avoid getting too far into the blockbuster territory, yet his own practical experience of filmmaking has rendered him a much more nuanced opinion on them. He speaks in impressed tones about the very logistics it takes to keep the franchises going, the shooting schedules, and the nature of interconnected stories. "I don't have a problem with these films, as long as they're good," Soderbergh argues.

"We're all trying to figure out what to do if that becomes the only thing that people are gonna go to a theatre to see. I was saying to somebody yesterday, I wish we could convince IMAX to play some dramas. In the same way that a fantasy spectacle is enhanced by seeing it in IMAX, a drama is also enhanced in the same way. We had IMAX prints of 'Contagion' that did really well, and the movie worked like gangbusters in IMAX! There's no reason you can't put dramas on a big screen like that and get people to go. It'd have to be the right film to use as a test case to make sure it'd work, but I'm frustrated that that real estate has just been abandoned by anything other than giant spectacle films."

'No Sudden Move' is available on NOW TV, Sky Cinema, YouTube and Google Play.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.