Steven Soderbergh has completed a two-part Spanish-language epic about the Marxist revolutionary and all-time best-selling T-shirt personality, Che Guevara, starring Benicio Del Toro in the title role. The first part, The Argentine, depicts Guevara’s struggle for victory in the Cuban revolution; the second, Guerilla, hacks through the brush of his fatal last effort in Bolivia. Together, they are a peculiar project and typical of Soderbergh, who makes a habit of swerving-from his breakthrough Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) to the Ocean’s movies, from Oscar-winners like Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000) to experiments like Bubble (2005) and GFE (his forthcoming riff on high-end call girls starring Sasha Grey, the sloe-eyed Jean Seberg of porn).
Soderbergh has withstood proclamations of weirdness (Schizopolis, 1997), formalism (The Good German, 2006), and genius (Sex, Lies . . . ; the Del Toro sections of Traffic; and, in my opinion, the first of these Che movies). Now he’s taking heat for canonizing a killer and ideologue whose life raises many more questions than these movies care to address: The films barely mention the period when Guevara helped govern post-revolutionary Cuba and supervised political executions; they also omit exploration of Guevara’s reasons for pursuing a failed and deadly -experiment in the jungles of Bolivia. But they do portray a complicated figure in modern history, without sentimentality or special pleading, and allow us to make our own judgments. In an early morning conversation at his New York City office, I asked Soderbergh how he-a man who, like Guevara, is given to intense reflection and meticulous planning-gets such disparate results.
DAVITT SIGERSON: Were these Che Guevara films fun to make?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: How could they be?
DS: I don’t know. Because you really like foliage? There’s a lot of that.
SS: I enjoyed being out there in the jungle-I think it’s part of your job as a filmmaker to just take a camera and go somewhere. So I did enjoy being out in the elements like that. And I can understand how Che Guevara did, too. There was that guy who Che fought with in the Congo who said, “Che would rather face a bullet than reality.” I think that is one of the more accurate statements I’ve heard about him. One of the things that drew me to Che was that I wanted to make a movie that brought things down to his ability to sustain for such a long period of time the kind of outrage that we all feel occasionally. Being able to sustain that kind of outrage to the point of dying for an idea, in support of a group of people you’ve never met, is unusual. I find it sort of unfathomable in a way. And to do that twice-to basically construct a life for yourself only to walk away from it twice is also unusual to me. Che doesn’t work the way a normal movie character works. He has no arc. He’s a straight line, and the tension comes from the external pressures that are trying to bend him in one direction or another, and how he deals with those. So it’s kind of an inversion of the traditional movie protagonist. And that, again, was interesting to me. But I was really just hoping we could give the audience a sense of what it was really like to be around Che. That’s what it comes down to: What it was like to hang out with somebody who is that committed and that uncompromising. My impression, from talking to people who were around him, was that he was kind of a pain in the ass.
DS: Just to put my feelings on the table: I love the first movie, and I am fairly baffled by the second one.
SS: Really? That’s the opposite of most people.
DS: Did you have any films or models that were sort of talismans or inspirations for making these movies?
SS: Well, normally, when I’m making a movie, I watch a whole group of films that I feel are in the same ballpark, and I’ll watch them repeatedly, just to see how other filmmakers have solved certain problems. I didn’t do that as much here because the problems that we were facing didn’t really have to do with how I was going to shoot the film-they had to do with the script and the shape of the movie and the amount of time I had available to shoot on a given day. And those are not things that watching another film can really help you with.
DS: But do you think that getting out of your head and into the jungle helped the work?
SS: Absolutely. At a certain point, I definitely became impatient. I mean, we’d been dry-humping this project for seven years. So I wanted to get out there and get naked. It’s not really in my nature, when it comes to work, to agonize over decisions in retrospect. I’m a big believer in working quickly, because I think it’s harder-though not impossible-to be pretentious when you’re moving really fast.
DS: At times you’ve been accused of being too much of a formalist, but what you seem to revere is speed and instinct.
SS: The reason my career took such a left turn at a certain point was because I realized I was in danger of becoming a formalist. But that wasn’t the best representation of me-even as a person. It’s easy to fall into that because it’s a very isolated position to occupy and it’s easy to keep other elements-people and ideas-at a distance. So after directing The Underneath , which was an unhappy experience for me creatively because I felt going in that the film wasn’t going to work, I realized, “I’ve got to tear this thing down and start over again. I need to make a second first movie that represents this other side of me that’s been chloroformed.” And from that point forward-from Schizopolis on-I made a very conscious decision to get back to working the way I used to. The willingness to improvise had been eliminated, but I think you reach the best of all possible worlds when you’ve done enough homework to have the skills and knowledge of a formalist, and then you are forced to work really fast.
I’M A BIG BELIEVER IN WORKING QUICKLY, BECAUSE I THINK IT’S HARDER-THOUGH NOT IMPOSSIBLE-TO BE PRETENTIOUS WHEN YOU’RE MOVING REALLY FAST.Steven Soderbergh
DS: What I like about the first Che movie is that it’s a procedural, it’s a work movie-like, “Oh, so that’s how 80 guys get off a leaky boat, go into the mountains, and change the world.” But you said that people tend to prefer the second one to the first. Why do you think that is?
SS: I don’t know-maybe the linearity of it. There are certainly fewer moving parts to the second film. I think, for a lot of people, the second film is more emotional-at the end at least-and so it’s more satisfying. That’s just the general sense we’ve gotten when we’ve screened the films: People like the first film, but they really like the second one.
DS: In the second film, once we’ve left civilization we never return to it.
SS: No. And it’s kind of a slow-motion And Then There Were None .
DS: There was a point where I was rooting for a land mine, I have to tell you.
DS: Yeah, because with the second film, you know you’re not going home until the last guy dies.Why did Che keep fighting in Bolivia when he must have realized it wasn’t working?
SS: Well, when you read Che’s writing about the Congo, it’s very self-critical-he sort of lays out why the attempt to start a revolution there didn’t work. There are some of the same elements involved as there were with what happened in Bolivia. You also have to remember that it was while Che was in the Congo that Fidel Castro read his farewell letter. This was a guy who couldn’t go anywhere-there was no home to go to. I really feel like he believed the choice was either to win or to die. He couldn’t go to Argentina, obviously. He couldn’t go to Cuba-it would have been too embarrassing because he’d renounced his citizenship and said he was never coming back. The CIA had labeled him the most dangerous man alive. I think part of him must have known that it was going to come to what it did. I mean, in having these conversations with people who don’t like Che, I find myself having to explain one aspect of making any film that I think isn’t necessarily clear to people. They say, “You’ve made him look heroic. You’ve presented him in a certain way.” I have to do that if I am making a film about his experience. I am trying to re-create his experience, so by definition I am adopting his attitude. In essence, I am adopting the attitude of anybody I portray onscreen, whether they’re viewed as being a good character or a bad character. I can’t have one foot in and one foot out. Che is just one of those figures who forces people to think about how they feel about certain life issues. The way that they bounce off of him says as much about them as it does about him.
DS: Well, I think what you did is make the movie of the T-shirt.
DS: But I don’t entirely buy the stuff about having to make a movie from the character’s view.There are other viewpoints. You’re the one selecting the material-you’re presenting your Che. And you dig the guy.
SS: Yeah, but let’s be clear: Politically, I think that Marxist-Leninism doesn’t work. I understand why Che was so drawn to it because it does superficially seem to address some core social issues that he cared about. But I think that Che believed that you can change people and that you can somehow eliminate this aspect of them that results in things like imperialism and hegemony. I don’t believe that. I feel that we are hardwired to be -competitive and to compare ourselves to other people and that what you have to do is create a system in which that -energy is channeled in a direction where it does the least amount of damage. But you are never, ever going to be able to eliminate that element from people in any significant way. You just can’t. The result would be robots. Even if you could pull that off, would the cure be worth the medicine?
DS: Going back to the paper of record, Interview magazine . . .
SS: I hope this is as good as my interview with -Danger Mouse [August 2008].
DS: Well, I’m going to quote from your interview with Danger Mouse, where you said the following: “I recently decided that I’m not an originator. I’m a synthesist.” Is that what you really believe?
SS: Yeah, totally.
SS: Because it’s true, at least by my standards. If I can’t watch a film like Persona  and realize, Oh, Ingmar Bergman is an originator and I’m a synthesist, then I don’t know what I’m doing. Part of knowing what you’re doing is understanding, Okay, I can’t drive the lane. But I can shoot from the outside. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your abilities, but there are certain things . . . I mean, I can’t jump 100-meter-high hurdles. No amount of training is going to solve that.
DS: Well, not to get bogged down in the finer points of the definition, but Sex, Lies, and Videotape felt like a really original movie when it came out.
SS: I don’t think it is one. I think it’s my regurgitation of Carnal Knowledge .
DS: You could say that Bob Dylan owes a lot to Woody Guthrie, so Dylan is not an originator. But you’d be wrong.
SS: Dylan would be the first to admit he was standing on somebody else’s shoulders. But he pushed the ball so far down the field. The point is that he did something that I don’t think the people on whose shoulders he stood could ever have imagined. That’s why he’s an originator. I don’t think I’ve done anything that anybody who’s influenced me would look at and say, “Oh, my God, I never imagined somebody would make that.” I’m talking about stuff that really just feels new. I mean, Jean-Luc Godard talks about seeing Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour , and going, “I literally didn’t think that was possible. I didn’t think you could do what he just did.” It feels like there was this whole group of filmmakers who really did push the ball forward. And it’s frustrating trying to figure out how to do that. You start running into this issue of what people will accept. Film is a very public art form. Is there a point at which you just become too abstract and oblique? Watching a movie inherently brings out in people a certain set of narrative demands that you can push to a certain point but you can’t break or they’ll just get angry. And that’s frustrating to me because I’ve always had this sense that there’s a new language and a new grammar that we haven’t found yet.
DS: Talk to me for a moment about the period after Schizopolis, a film that felt very much like someone pushing the reset button.
SS: That was a fertile period. I felt like, at least conceptually, I’d gotten myself out of a funk. I had a -really good experience on Out of Sight . And I had a lot of energy. I had a lot of ideas about narrative that I didn’t get to explore, and I was trying to think of ways to explore them. Then with The Limey -what was great about The Limey was that the time it took from the moment of meeting to discuss the movie to me delivering the finished film was nine months. The good news was, that fed in me a desire to then do something very normal, and it was during that period of making The Limey that I committed to doing Erin Brockovich, which was a project I had turned down during Out of Sight. And then I went right into Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven , which was a good run. Then I went through a run of doing stuff that was not as well liked, but for me, really important-Full Frontal , Solaris , the K Street series , the second Ocean’s  movie, Eros , Bubble, The Good German. The reason that I can jump out of bed every morning and stay happy is that even if you take the list of movies that people don’t like, that didn’t work, either critically or commercially or whatever, even if you just showed me that list, I’d go, “That’s not a bad list.”
DS: Which brings us to GFE [Girlfriend Experience], the Bubble-style call-girl movie you’re starting to shoot.
SS: It’s about control. I had someone the other day, a woman journalist, say, “Oh, God-here we go, a guy making a prostitute movie. Why are men so interested in this subject?” And I said, “Well, I can understand why that would be your initial reaction, but I’m making a movie about someone who feels as though she is in absolute control of the way that her life works and, over the course of a week, comes to realize that’s not true.” It’s a subject I’ve been totally interested in since the beginning of my career. This is just a milieu that I’ve never explored before.
DS: Have you cast it?
SS: Yeah. Sasha Grey is playing the girl. And the rest are all nonprofessionals.
DS: But Sasha Grey is a porn star, not a call girl. But she’s a Godard fan.
SS: When we first met, and I told her, “I want you to look at this Godard film, My Life to Live ,” she said, “Oh, I’ve seen that. Yeah, that’s a really great movie.” She has a lot of the qualities that I want this person to have, and when I described the working process on Bubble and how that played out, she said, “I think I’d be very comfortable doing that.” I said, “Look, we’re going to have scenes-there are sort of topics to each scene, and I’m gonna give you bullet points that I want to have addressed here, but how you address them is totally up to you.” I wanted to give each character as much information as they needed to get through each scene, but not the same information that I’m giving the other characters. The key is to just stay yourself throughout. She’s attractive, but not that sort of unreal beauty that pulls you away. She still looks like somebody who lives in your neighborhood. And it’ll be really fun to make a movie in New York and shoot Manhattan, even though it’s been done a lot. But I haven’t gotten to do it.
DS: Finally, I have a craft question for you. Having seen the different versions of the Che movies and watched them evolve, it seems to me such a difficult thing to know what people know. Do you think that’s true?
SS: Well, it’s the thing that you spend your whole life trying to figure out. How does an audience receive information? How much can they take? When can you play off of their expectations? When do you have to fulfill their expectations? It can be really fascinating, and it can be really frustrating. I mean, there are times when you just can’t believe that something is not coming across the way that you think it is-you have those situations where somebody says, “Oh, I had no idea that was his brother.” And you go, “How could you not? They said ‘brother’!”
DS: I ask because, writing fiction, you never get to be in the reader’s head, reading it.
SS: Oh, that’s really hard. Well, who do you rely on in that case?
DS: You’re fucked.
DS: Yeah, you just do it.
SS: You may talk to people who say they’ve figured it out-and maybe they have-but I don’t see any evidence of that. The evidence around me is that we are all starting over every time we make a movie.