Director Steven Soderbergh is serious about retirement. With three more movies in various stages of production—the male-stripper movie Magic Mike, due later this year, followed by the Blake Lively/Channing Tatum/Jude Law thriller The Side Effects and the biopic Liberace (with Michael Douglas in the title role)—the Soderbergh machine may be operating at full power now, but he plans to shut it down completely after next year. It would mark an abrupt end to a career that began with Soderbergh transforming the independent film business with 1989’s Sex, Lies, And Videotape and charting an eclectic and prolific path since, alternating commercial productions (Out Of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, the Ocean’s Eleven movies, Contagion, etc.) with digital experiments (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, etc.) and adventurous independent fare (Kafka, King Of The Hill, Schizopolis, The Limey, Che, etc.).
Soderbergh’s commercial and creative instincts prove to be as sharp as ever in his new film Haywire, a stripped-down and relentless action vehicle for MMA superstar/American Gladiator Gina Carano. Written by Lem Dobbs, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on Kafka and The Limey—the latter resulting in a famously contentious commentary track—the film stars Carano as Mallory, an ass-kicking special operative who seeks revenge after her employer tries to have her killed. Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor are among the pummeled, and Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas deliver fine support as behind-the-scenes power brokers. Soderbergh recently spoke with The A.V. Club about working with Haywire’s unexpected star, finding the natural rhythm of fight scenes, and why he doesn’t miss shooting on film.
Having listened to the commentary track to The Limey, I have to ask: In what ways did you ruin Lem Dobbs’ screenplay this time?
Steven Soderbergh: Well, the odd thing is, we got on really well this time, and as a result, we’re not doing a commentary, because we both decided we just couldn’t top [the one for The Limey]. I’m glad we completed our trilogy [Kafka, The Limey, and Haywire] on an up note. This was a slightly different situation, because I came to Lem, I had the basic idea, and said, “Look, I want to build the movie around this woman, here’s what I’m thinking,” and he jumped on. So the dynamic was different. I don’t think he had a very proprietary attitude about any of it, but even given that, during the editing and during re-shoots and stuff like that, he’s been happy from the get-go. It’s gotten me worried. I really thought that was a bad sign. [Laughs.]
So what were the elements that you wanted him to incorporate into the screenplay?
SS: I basically said, “Look, it’s kind of a female version of The Limey. I want it to be nonlinear, and it’s a revenge movie. I want her to beat her way through the cast.” And he said, “Got it.” It all happened very quickly. Once I started to go pitch the idea, we only went to two places. Both of them were interested, and we went with Relativity. It all happened quickly. Lem had a draft in like, five weeks.
How did you first come across Gina Carano?
SS: I saw her fighting on TV, literally by chance, channel-surfing. I’m not someone who watches a lot of MMA, UFC stuff, but just by chance I landed on it. There was a period where CBS was running these Saturday night fights, and I landed on one of her fights, and I just thought, “Wow, she’s really something. Kind of an interesting combination of elements.” She’s beautiful, she’s brutal. When she was interviewed she seemed charming, and not at all weird or freakish, or egotistical. She seemed like a very sincere young lady. I just filed that away as someone to keep an eye on. And when Moneyball blew apart, that very same week she got beat in the last fight she had. I thought, “You know, I’ve always wanted to do a spy movie in the sort of ’60s vein. Why don’t I just combine these two things? Make her the spy and build this movie around her. She can break people in half. This could be fun.”
Carano in this film and Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience strike me as similar cases in that both are seasoned performers while not necessarily being actors. How does that affect the way you work with them?
SS: My experience over the years with working with people who are not actors or not trained actors is that you have to get to know them well enough to see what they have that’s translatable onto the screen. So you’re constantly calibrating to play to their strengths. And the key is to never ask them to do things that are beyond their abilities or are really far away from who they are at their core. In both cases, even more so in this, I saw Mallory as kind of a female Clint Eastwood. From the get-go, Lem was purposefully writing very lean, terse dialogue for her, because I didn’t want her to be chatty. And I also felt that that was going to be easier on Gina. You don’t want to give her a Paddy Chayefsky monologue. That’s not what she does, and that’s not why we’re going to see her.
So what about the other side of it, about the preparation for the fights themselves? She went through stunt training and special ops training. Did you as well, in terms of how the choreography was going to work?
SS: You know, I just sort of watched movies where I felt the action was well-staged and tried to sort of assimilate the language of shooting a certain kind of action. I knew I didn’t want to do handheld stuff. We had people who could really fight, so I wanted the camera to be stationary, and through editing and movement with the camera on a dolly. I wanted to use wide lenses and looser shots than you’d typically see when you’re shooting action. So I had a toolkit in my mind, and then I was just watching a lot of stuff to see how the people who do this stuff well are doing it.
What sort of stuff did you watch?
SS: Oh, you know, Fincher, Spielberg, Cameron, McTiernan. Just people who are good at staging action. I like to know where I am. I don’t like the kind of cutting where you don’t know where you are.
Was it important for each of the fights to have a flavor to them, for one to be distinguished from the other?
SS: Hopefully the environments that each take place in are different enough to distinguish them, and then the style of fighting is a little different in each one. In a couple of cases she’s attacked first, so that sets up a tricky dynamic. The first action scene we shot was also the first action scene that Lem and I spoke about. When we first started talking about the movie, he said, “Oh, you’ve got to see this Rod Taylor film Darker Than Amber. There’s this fantastic fight in a hotel room. It’s really brutal.” Thank god for YouTube. Found it on YouTube, and I said, “Yeah, what would be even cooler is if it’s in a four-star hotel room and she’s in a cocktail dress, and he’s in a suit. That combination of elements I think would be really striking.” So we were just looking for ways to distinguish each of the fights, but to a certain point, if you’re not going to indulge in bullshit, the thing’s got to come to an end. If you’re not flying people around on wires, and you’re only allowing them to do things that people can really do, it can’t go on for very long, because eventually somebody gets the drop on the other person and then it’s over. The tricky part was making sure they had a natural length and rhythm to them, and it felt like a real fight as opposed to something that a bunch of movie people threw together.
Were you ever tempted to do a They Live-style fight scene, where it just keeps going on and on and on?
SS: Yeah. And there were a lot of jokes about trying to get a zombie in here, just because zombies are huge now. Maybe the next one.
One of the distinguishing elements of the fight scenes in the film is that they have no sound other than that of people pummeling each other. Can you talk about why you did that? Is this where having someone who can actually fight plays to your advantage?
SS: I just find it annoying that in these sequences, traditionally, there’s music trying to pump you up. I don’t like that, personally, as an audience member. This just reflects my taste. And also because we had people who were really doing it, and really could do it, I felt like to drown those sounds out with music, or have them competing with music, would really diminish the fights. It was never intended that we would have music over those fights. There was some pushback over that. There were days, especially for the scene on the beach on the end, where some people were trying to convince me to put score over it, and I just wouldn’t.
Just because you’re getting the sound of waves and…
SS: Yeah. I just thought, “No, it’s great. We have the waves, we have the sound of their feet on the sand, and the sound of her punching him in the face.” Ewan [McGregor] was very excited. That scene was something we shot after I put the film together, and I thought, “She’s got to get her hands on him. It’s not really satisfying for her to ride off in a motorcycle and that’s it.” I called Ewan and said, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you get to fight Gina.” He’s like, “Oh, that’s fantastic.” He goes, “I was really hoping I would get to.” He was Obi-Wan, he wanted to get in there. I said, “The bad news is you’ve got to get that haircut again.” But he was willing to do it.
On the other side of this, you are dealing with actors like Ewan McGregor, who aren’t necessarily seasoned fighters. Is there cover up for that?
SS: No. All those guys, Channing [Tatum] and [Michael] Fass[bender] and Ewan, they’re all very agile. They rehearsed really extensively with her, and they were ready to go. It was important to me to have people who were capable of meeting her halfway, because if I’m not cheating with her, I don’t want to cheat with them, either. So it was fortunate we got guys who could go toe to toe with her. Michael got the worst of it. She really beat the shit out of him. It was two pretty intense shooting days.
And that was right away.
SS: Yeah, that was right up front.
Were there lessons about how you’d go about doing things later? Was stunt-fighting something that took her time to get used to?
SS: Yeah, it did. It took her a while to learn how to pull her punches. She hit a couple of the coordinators by accident. But she got there. That was a tricky scene for her, since we were able to give Fassbender a little bit of padding, because she’s really strong. She hits really hard. But she didn’t get any padding, because she’s in a cocktail dress. She had to keep telling him, “You can hit me harder than that. It’s not going to look good if you don’t.” Him throwing her into the TV, that’s one take. Somebody could get hurt doing that, and when we got it in one take, I said, “That’s it, we’re not doing that again.”
The particulars of what these operatives are doing is abstracted to a large degree, but there’s a distinction made between government operatives and private contractors. How much did you want to allude to the special ops game as it actually is?
SS: I wasn’t interested in making an exposé about these private security companies that are hired by governments like ours to go and do things that we don’t want to be directly associated with. That shit happens every day. But that’s not what the movie’s about, really, and I didn’t want to turn it into some op-ed piece. What I was interested in was the idea of a woman navigating her way through this world, especially when someone decides they don’t want her around anymore for reasons that are ambiguous and complicated. It would appear that Kenneth [McGregor’s character] is upset both that their relationship ended and she wants to leave his company and when she does she’s going to take all the business. So it’s a kind of, “If I can’t have her, then nobody can have her.” It’s a world in which people’s motives are questionable and shadowy. Her problem, maybe she should have spent more time asking, “Well, who is this guy? Why am I pulling this guy out of Barcelona exactly?” She doesn’t really care. All she cares about is, “How are we going to get him out of there?”
Would you then ultimately consider Haywire a feminist movie rather than a political movie, or neither of those?
SS: I wasn’t really thinking about that. All I was motivated by was, “It would be really cool to see a woman do this stuff for real.” I just feel like I haven’t seen that, and I felt like Gina Carano was the person to do it. If you’re going to take a runner on somebody, she’s the person to do it. I just felt that she had the right combination of elements. She was game. It’s a weird thing to have somebody pop up and go, “Do you want to be in a movie? And we’ll surround you with all these actors.” You could ask her, Gina would be the first to tell you that being in the movie, as scary as it was being in front of a camera, the fighting stuff was really fun, comfortable for her. She would tell you the most nervous she was was standing in front of Michael Douglas and having to deliver lines.
Was there a big rehearsal process there? Were there some extra things that had to be done to get her ready for dialogue scenes?
SS: We had people working with her, just sort of doing scenes with her and running lines, just so she’d stay fresh—because I was, you know, shooting and cutting the movie in addition to directing it—and use that time to sit with her between setups just to run lines. But a lot of the technical training she went through, the counter-terrorist surveillance training that her technical advisor put her through, was really great preparation for her. Just to get into the mindset of someone who does that for a living was very helpful to her.
You like to shoot movies pretty quickly. Were you concerned that it would be a stumbling block to have someone like that right in the center?
SS: No, I felt the opposite. The fact that we move quickly and you’re working all day, you’re not in your trailer, you’re on set all day, and things are happening—I work with the same crew pretty much from film to film. It’s a very congenial atmosphere. I was confident we could create an environment for her in which she’d feel comfortable and feel that people were rooting for her. But, to a person, all the male cast members who were working with her were very generous with their time, and generous with her when we were shooting. We all wanted her to win.
Given your collaboration with Lem Dobbs with this and The Limey, and your films in general, I was curious to know when in the process you leave the writer behind. Have there been other situations [like The Limey] where you found yourself radically altering the film as written in the shooting and editing process?
SS: The answer to the first question is, I never leave the writer behind, because you rewrite the movie in post, or at least I do. I always do, and I feel like anybody who doesn’t at least explore that possibility is short-changing themselves. Editing is the most fun and most exciting part of the process. I was showing Lem every iteration to get his thoughts, and talk about structure, and talk about, “Hey, if we wanted to shoot some more stuff, what would it be?” So that’s an ongoing discussion. Haywire is fairly close to what’s written, but when [we were in post], we tried a lot of different structures there before settling on the one we have now. And, ironically, the film that went through the most transformation in post that I’ve ever made was The Limey. That was completely built in the editing room.