Thursday, October 9, 2008
After the recent press screening for Che, starring Benicio Del Toro as revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, director Steven Soderbergh gave a captivating discussion of the film. This was no easy feat given that we had started seeing the film at 10 a.m. and hadn't finished it until about 3 p.m. with only one 20-minute break for lunch. His discussion was so interesting, I've left most of it intact. Today, I present Part 1 in which he discusses the logistics of making and presenting the film. On what interested Soderbergh about the story of Che: "The making of this film was so extended. We started talking about it when we were working on Traffic… Producer Laura Bickford, Benicio and I started talking about it. That’s eight years ago. And what I found… why you said yes... That reason changes… during the course of the film. "It really wasn’t until the films were finished… around the time of Cannes, that I realized what they were really about to me, or what they really meant to me, was this issue of engagement versus disengagement. That every day in our lives, on a personal level, on a community level, on a local level, we are making a decision about how engaged we want to be, or how disengaged we want to be. Do we want to participate, or do we want to observe? I realized that what was compelling about Che to me was once he made the decision to engage, that he engaged fully... You have to remember he also was an atheist. A lot of times when you have figures that can sustain this sort of level of engagement, they attribute it to a higher power, or there’s some other element that they can call upon. He didn’t have that, or at least he expressed it in terms of only being concerned with what people are doing to each other here." On financing Che: "All I can say is I’m glad I’m not looking for money right now. It was complicated, but we knew it would be. I mean look at it. It took a couple of people sticking it out for a long time, and just believing in the ultimate commercial viability of the brand of Che. That’s the weird paradox about this guy. "Here is the icon of Marxist-Leninist economic ideology, and you stick his face on anything and it sells. It’s a very weird situation. And I believed if we could just get this thing made, that ultimately it would find enough of an audience to get its money back. The amount of money we had dictated a pretty strict shooting schedule. "We had 39 days for each part. To put that into context of something else that I’ve made, that’s fewer days than it took me to shoot the first Ocean’s film. So we had to move very, very quickly. There are aspects of that I really think are great. And there are aspects of it that are difficult to accept. But we didn’t have any choice. "Wild Bunch, which is a French sales and production company, and Telecinco, which is a very large Spanish television and film production company, both came in. Wild Bunch has been there since the beginning, and Telecinco came in a couple of years ago." On the logistics of shooting Che: "We had a ten day gap between the two shoots. We shot part two first, and we shot it backwards, so it was confusing. As far as casting goes, look, I was trying to stack that thing with as many well known people as I could. I put a lot of calls out. I think a lot of people see the movie, and don’t even know it’s Matt [Damon, as the American missionary]. I wasn’t really worried that it would pull them out of the film, because they were supporting characters. They didn’t carry the film on their shoulders. I was absolutely looking to cast it up. I had to. "Unfortunately, as an American, I’m not allowed to shoot in Cuba. We made many trips there that were licensed through the state department. So at least we got a look at where events actually took place. Bolivia, we were able to shoot in. Part one was shot in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York, obviously. Part two was Bolivia and Spain. We shot all over Spain in some very remote areas. As it turned out we had somebody working on the film who grew up in La Higuera [the Bolivian town where Che was executed]. We built that La Higuera set in the top of this mountain in the middle of nowhere. When he came to the set he was stunned. He said, 'It’s exactly where I remember growing up.' Our production designer, Antxón Gómez, did a really great job." On the aesthetic differences between the first part, The Argentine, and the second part, Guerilla: "I was trying to find a very simple way to create a different sensation for each part. The wider frame, what I consider to be a more 'Hollywood' format, I felt was more appropriate for the Cuban Revolution because it really had the trajectory of the classic Hollywood war film. 82 guys start out. Then they’re down to 12. It looks like they’re not going to make it, but they do. Everything that needs to go right goes right. They get all the breaks, and I obviously wanted it to have more of a traditional Hollywood aesthetic, including the music and the cutting. "In the second film, I want it to feel less settled where you felt that the outcome was not clear, even from the beginning. So I use the 1:85 frame which is a little less wide, and went all handheld. Gradually through the second part, the camera finally starts to get closer to him, until he’s in the schoolroom, and we end with the biggest shot of him in the film, which is the last time we see him. It seemed to me a very simple way of sending a different message to the audience about what each part was going to feel like." On the English dialogue voice-over used over Del Toro's Spanish dialogue in the New York sequence: "It seemed organic to me, because we used the actor who was his interpreter following him around in New York. It seemed appropriate to use that idea to continue hearing this guy translate Che. More importantly, there are sequences in which he is speaking, in which I do not want an English speaking audience to be reading. I want them to be able to watch the images, and hear the words, without having to read, especially during, for instance, the Battle of El Uvero, where he does the Tolstoy quote. I’ve seen the film with English subtitles. You cannot watch both things at the same time. You just can’t. That’s the reason I did it. I felt by bringing in his New York interpreter at least it was in line with this conceit of the interview, or the idea of this series of interviews that Che is doing throughout his New York trip." On Che's time in Africa, which is not covered in the film: "If this film makes a $100 million, I’ll make the third one [tongue-in-cheek]. We talked about it. The story of Che in the Congo is absolutely fascinating. We actually sort of sketched an idea for a very small film that would take place in the Congo, and in Prague, where he went after fighting in the Congo, to lick his wounds, and write a very self-critical book on what happened in the Congo. The answer is that we didn’t have enough money to do that. Also, it’s a fascinating chapter, but it didn’t really fall into the kind of bookend idea that we ended up with. "When the film was first being developed, it was only about Bolivia. And it was a little more than halfway through the process of working on that, that we decided Bolivia doesn’t really make a lot of sense unless you’ve seen Cuba. Because you keep wondering, why doesn’t he quit? It’s going so badly. You have to see what happened in Cuba to understand why he still thought they were going to pull this off. "So it grew from one manageable film into one giant film. Overseas it’s going to be split in half. So we just couldn’t fit that in. We read all that material, and in fact, there was a quote from one of the African rebels that fought with Che, Victor Dreke, which was fantastic. He said, 'Che would rather face a bullet than reality.' And that’s a perfect description of him I think." On the 268-minute roadshow version vs. two films: 'Here’s our plan, currently. Whenever the movie enters a specific market, New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, that for one week, on one screen, you can see it like you just saw it. There will be a specially printed program with the credits for both films. We’re referring to that as the roadshow version, the way they used to do in the fifties and sixties. "Yeah, sure, I think that’s the ideal way to see it. It’s a lot to ask of someone to throw away an entire day. I guess my only argument is, cinematically, we’re making a demand on the audience that’s very similar to the demands that Che made on the people around him [tongue-in-cheek]. It’s a big commitment, and it requires a certain kind of personality to want to experience it like that. It was certainly designed that way, so that you could get the full effect of the kind of call and response between the two parts." [Update]: Part 2 of Soderbergh's discussion has been posted. Still provided courtesy of Brooklyn Bridge.