Sunday, January 11, 2009
a revolutionary film undertaking
January 11, 2009
Steven Soderbergh's new film, "Che," which opens Friday, has been nearly nine years in the making - or more than 40, if you date it to the execution in Bolivia of the film's title character, Che Guevara, in 1967, which made him an international icon. The Cuban revolutionary has figured in some two dozen movies and television shows, not to mention at least one Broadway musical ("Evita").
In Soderbergh's film, Benicio del Toro plays Che. Both men won Oscars for "Traffic," Soderbergh as best director and del Toro as best supporting actor. The first half of "Che" focuses on the Cuban revolution, with flash-forwards to Guevara's visit to New York, in 1964. The second half shows his ill-fated attempt at a Bolivian uprising. (The film was produced as two separate installments but will be shown locally as a single four-hour movie with a 15-minute intermission built in.)
Last week Soderbergh, 45, spoke about "Che," by telephone from New Orleans.
Q. Why Che? Why now?
A. We kind of got lucky with the timing, I must say. We started this in the year 2000 when there wasn't a script but just a desire on the part of [producer] Laura Bickford and Benicio to do this. I really didn't know when we began where this thing was going to end up. Because I really didn't know anything about him. I was a blank slate as far as Che was concerned. I knew who he was and that was about it.
Q. Why then were you drawn to it?
A. There was a sense of the right actor at the right time. And coming off of "Erin Brockovich," it seemed to make sense. It was the only time the project felt like that [laughs]. It stopped feeling like that almost immediately - in the sense of "Erin" being one of the most fun jobs I ever had, and this not being one of the most fun jobs I ever had.
Q. This really is an epic undertaking - not just the length of the film, but there are so many setups in it.
A. This kind of just turned into the sorcerer's apprentice at a certain point. I really had to pick arbitrary dates for things to keep it from turning into [a plague like] the Andromeda strain. Part of me will always feel that it's somewhat incomplete. Part of me will think we just should have gone and done a 10-hour miniseries.
Q. Over the years, there have been a lot of films about Che. Did you make a point of seeking them out or avoiding them?
A. No, I watched them. I saw the Andy Garcia movie. I saw the Omar Sharif movie. I saw "The Motorcycle Diaries," of course. And they were all very helpful. Even the Omar Sharif movie, which had some crazy, ridiculous stuff in it. Everyone has his own take on the guy.
A. Because everyone, including me, has in the back of his mind some sort of unified-field theory of how to build the perfect society. All of us do. And this was his. It's not mine, but we're not making a movie about mine. Everyone relates to that idea. Che was totally uncompromising. He was young. He was beautiful. All the marketable elements are there for him to become that T-shirt. But at the core of it, I think, it's that wish for something better.
Q. Your approach is more of a mosaic than a standard portrait.
A. I actually did make that analogy to Peter Buchman, the writer, and Benicio. "I want to gather enough tiles to put together a mosaic to give you a sense of the shape of the guy." So I wasn't necessarily looking for big scenes that would pay off later maybe.
Q. This is a political film, obviously. "Traffic" was political. "Erin Brockovich," in certain respects, was political. You did the HBO series "K Street," about lobbyists. When Rick Lyman asked you to view a film with him for his New York Times interview series you chose "All the President's Men." What's the appeal of political movies for you?
A. They're tricky. The best ones find a balance between ideology and cinema so that you're pulled in by the ideas, but the story plays out like a movie. So one of the reasons I keep going back to "All the President's Men" is that it seemed to find that perfect balance. I think everyone involved on that film would tell you it's kind of accidental in a way. You surround yourself with the best people and see what happens.
In this case, I was trying to think of it as a movie rather than in terms of biography. I was more concerned with accurately depicting how he lived than with telling a story in the strict sense. Because the story to me was pretty defined already. Once you've decided which part of his life you're going to show, the story is dictated to you in that respect. You have to be careful, especially now, because certain kinds of films are really turning people off.
Q. Give an example.
A. The fact that nobody's been able to come up with a movie about Iraq that anybody wants to see.
Q. What would Fidel Castro make of the movie? Or do you even care what he thinks?
A. First, I have no idea. Second, I'd be very curious, if only on a practical level, because I hear that when he watches movies he stops them whenever he has a comment. So I'm wondering how long it would take him to get through this one. It would take days.
Q. Do you feel you know Che?
A. I know him enough to know he would hate me. I don't know if we could be in the same room. You have to remember that in his society I have no place. Literally. I think he would find me really, really frivolous.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.