Director Steven Soderbergh on Bolivian Liquor, The Knick and Why He’ll Never Direct a Comic Book Movie
You gotta respect an incredibly in-demand filmmaker who stills makes time for booze.
Steven Soderbergh has never been busier. TheMagic Mike director just wrapped the second season of The Knick, his critically acclaimed period drama that returns to Cinemax in October. He’s also adapting his Sasha Grey-headlined indie, The Girlfriend Experience, into a 13-episode series on Starz, and producing Amazon’s ‘80s coming-of-age comedy Red Oaks. But the Oscar-winning director’s latest passion project is his Bolivian-style liquor, Singani 63. That’s right, as if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Soderbergh is also hawking a booze brand. We spoke to him about Singani 63, the new season of the The Knick and why he’ll never direct a comic book movie.
What exactly is Singani 63?
It’s distilled from a single variety of grape, the white Muscat grape of Alexandria. It was brought into Bolivia 500 years ago and it’s grown and distilled at 5,200 feet in the Bolivian Andes. I can only surmise that its bouquet and smoothness have something to do with the extreme temperatures that the grape undergoes, very hot during the day because it’s so close to the sun and very cold at night. Before this, I was primarily a vodka drinker which I would drink straight, on the rocks. What I was really surprised by was that it didn’t have this sort of secondary burn. Anything that strong, you’re sort of waiting for that after burn when it goes down and it just didn’t have that.
How did you end up bringing this fine Bolivian spirit to the United States?
I was in Madrid in June of 2007 at the start up party for my movie, Che, and my Bolivian casting director brought me a bottle as a gift. I said, “What’s the story with this? What is it?” and he gave me a very brief background on how it was the national spirit of Bolivia and how he had a sort of familial connection to the supplier.
And how should we be drinking this stuff?
I asked him, “How do you drink it?” and he said, “I just drink it on the rocks”. So, I had a couple on the rocks and sought him out very quickly and said, “Really, what is this stuff? What is it? I want to know more. How is it made? What is it made out of? What’s the history of it?” Because I literally never tasted anything quite like it. So, my short term concern was whether or not he could keep it supplied during the shoot, which he was able to do. Near the end of the shoot, the members of the camera crew who had gotten hooked on the stuff started bugging me about bringing it to the States.
How can it compete with other more established spirits like vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum and gin?
It’s incredibly versatile. I would argue that you can use Singani to replace more spirits than any other single spirit can replace other spirits. The list of classic cocktails that you can make with Singani by switching it out with vodka, gin, rye, tequila it’s very versatile. In our initial forays out into the mixology world, we were very excited that we stumbled onto something that you can push into a lot of different directions. That’s been a real selling point for us.
The advertising for Singani 63 is pretty wild…especialy that ad of you and the sheep.
I’m creating all the content in collusion with a couple of designers I’ve worked with. There are only six of us working on this whole thing. We’ve been lucky in a couple of ways. One is the product itself. It occupies a space that is not being occupied by anyone else right now. It’s not a vodka, it’s not a gin, it’s not a rum. At least I’m not going head to head with companies that have a billion dollars.
The length of time it took me to get it here kind of worked to my advantage. If this stuff had landed in 2008 and I had started the process then instead of 2013 and 2014, I think I would have gotten a very different response. What’s happened in cocktails culture in just the last five years has resulted in a much more open reception to Singani than it would have gotten five years ago. I feel like our timing has been fortunate. It was accidental, but in my experience that’s a really crucial part of success.
Ok, moving on to your many TV projects. What does The Knick represent for you?
The Knick represents the sabbatical that never happened. After I directed Behind the Candelabra, I was supposed to just disappear for a long time. The script for The Knick showed up. I was the first person to get it and I knew that the second person to get it was going to do it. I just felt like it was ridiculously entertaining. There is no more durable genre in television than the doctor show. But, I felt setting it in New York in 1900 gave it a feeling and a look that I hadn’t really seen before. The writers did such a good job of making you realize that for these characters in 1900, they felt like we feel now. They felt like everything was happening too fast and there was too many people and it’s too crowded. New knowledge was changing our lives in ways that we couldn’t control and maybe that wasn’t a good thing. They felt like we feel and there was something really appealing about that.
Did you have any fear that you’d put your soul into it and the Cinemax audience just wouldn’t get it?
Absolutely. That’s always a possibility no matter what you’re doing. In the case of a movie, you can only make something that you would stand in line to see. In the case of television, you can only make something that you would tune into every week. If I start second guessing than I have no compass. I don’t know where north is. The good news is if you make a movie and 3 million people see it, that’s not necessarily a hit. If you make a TV show and 3 million people see it, everybody’s happy.
Tell me a little bit about the other TV shows you’re involved with.
We just turned The Girlfriend Experience over to Starz. I’m an executive producer on Red Oaks that was created and produced by my friend Greg Jacobs. I’ve been sort of a consigliere on that and letting Greg really ride that show. On something like GFE [Girlfriend Experience], I’m in there with my head under the hood with the film makers so it’s a little more hands on. That show is fucking crazy.
For those who haven’t seen the awesomely ’80s Amazon pilot, what is Red Oaks about?
It’s set in a country club in 1985. It’s about this 19 year-old kid and he’s the club tennis pro. It’s really funny. We got some really good directors and I think people are really going to like it. That drops in October also.
Would you ever direct a big comic book franchise movie?
I’m not a comic book person and so I have no feel for it. I don’t have an issue with it. I’m not in line for those because I’m not a comic book person. I don’t know what to compare them to. I remember a couple of years ago, I got a call from the Russo brothers because they wanted to direct the new Captain America: The Winter Soldier and they wanted me to call Marvel and put in a good word for them. I had produced one of their first films and I liked them a lot. I said, ‘Guys, why do you want this job?’ and they both said, ‘Well, we’re comic book freaks. We have like hundred thousand dollar comic book collections. This is a dream project for us.’ I wanted to make sure their motivations were pure. Which they were, and they’re doing another one. My own thing is, if you love it do it. I’m just not that guy because I didn’t read them.
How do you prepare differently for movies like the gritty drug drama Traffic, which won you the Oscar in 2001, and a comedy like Magic Mike?
It’s kind of the same, in a way. You’re trying to figure out what the tone of the piece is and then you’re trying to figure out what the visual grammar of the piece is. That’s an example of two movies with very different tones and two very different visual styles. Traffic is all hand-held, very sort of run and gun, where you feel like things are being captured instead of staged. Magic Mike is where the camera is never hand-held and very much designing and staging action to sync up with the movement of the camera. Those are two diametrically opposed pieces with their own questions that have to be answered.
I’m a huge fan of Traffic. How soon did you know that movie was something truly special?
There was a feeling on the part of everyone involved that that was the right movie to be made at that particular moment in time. It was an election year. It was something that we all felt was in the zeitgeist and needed to be talked about. For a long time it looked like it was not going to happen. We were financing it on our credit cards. We didn’t get a green light until three weeks before we started shooting. There was always a sense of if we can make it, people will show up. The move ended up making over 100 million dollars here and it was never number one. It just stayed in the top ten for like three months. Movies don’t do that anymore. Stuff flashes out and burns out a lot faster now. That would never happen now, that you could have a film in the top ten for three months.