This is ridiculously cool. I can't wait for this movie!
You Can Make ’Em Like They Used To
By DAVE KEHR
Published: November 12, 2006
IN 1989 an unknown 26-year-old filmmaker from Louisiana delivered what might have been the final blow to the shaky edifice known as the Hollywood studio system. Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” an independently financed tale of love and adultery, won the grand prize of the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or, as well as an acting prize for one of its stars, James Spader.
Acquired by the fledging distribution company Miramax, the film, made with a reported budget of $1.2 million, went on to gross almost $25 million in the United States, a spectacular figure that put Miramax on the map and established American independent film as a force to be reckoned with. As they watched their ancient hegemony crumble away, the studios rushed to establish their own “independent” divisions.
Now, 17 years later, Mr. Soderbergh is back with a movie that means to make amends. “I often think I would have been so happy to be Michael Curtiz,” Mr. Soderbergh said. Mr. Curtiz, the contract director, made more than 100 films for Warner Brothers, including “Casablanca” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” between his arrival in Hollywood from Hungary in 1926 and his death in 1962. “That would have been right up my alley,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “making a couple of movies a year of all different kinds, working with the best technicians. I would have been in heaven, just going in to work every day.”
“The Good German,” which Mr. Soderbergh directed for Warner Brothers, reimagines what it would be like to make a movie under the studio system of old. Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon — a thriller with a conscience about an American war correspondent (George Clooney) who returns to the rubble of postwar Berlin to find the German woman (Cate Blanchett) who was once his lover — the movie, which opens in limited release on Dec. 15, is both set in 1946 and, in a sense, filmed there as well.
During the production Mr. Soderbergh was committed to remaining as true as possible to the technique of the era. By reproducing the conditions of an actual studio shoot from the late 1940s, he hoped to enter the mind of a filmmaker like Mr. Curtiz, to explore the strengths and limitations of a classical style that has now largely been lost.
“For weeks, for all of us, it was like living in a time warp,” Mr. Soderbergh said by telephone from Los Angeles, where he was finishing filming “Ocean’s Thirteen,” the third in a series and an unabashedly commercial movie that will be one of Warner Brothers’ major summer releases.
There have been many attempts to recapture the look of old Hollywood over the years, most of them disappointingly superficial: films that begin in black and white but quickly bleed into color, while never straying far from a contemporary vocabulary of close-ups and meandering Steadicam shots. Not only does “The Good German” stick to its monochromatic principles throughout, it uses other elements of ’40s style that may not be apparent at first.
The strongly accented camera angles, the dramatic nonrealistic lighting, the way actors move against each other within the frame and the way the camera travels across the set — these are all elements of a vocabulary that has been lost in the post-television era. In “The Good German,” Mr. Soderbergh is trying to bring this vocabulary back.
“We set up our little guidelines,” he said. For one, he banned the sophisticated zoom lenses that make life easier for today’s cinematographers, returning to the fixed focal-length lenses of the past. “I did some research and found some script continuities for a couple of Michael Curtiz films,” he recalled, referring to records of the lens and exposure used in every shot, in case retakes were necessary. “I found that he restricted himself to at most five lenses, usually three or four. I talked to Panavision, and they happened to have some older lenses that they’d made that didn’t have all the new coatings on them and also were a focal length that isn’t really used anymore. One of them was a 32 millimeter, a wide-angle lens that nobody uses anymore but was one that Curtiz used a lot.”
For audiences the shorter lenses mean a wider field of vision, expanding the camera’s range beyond the tight close-ups and two-shots that define today’s television-influenced filmmaking. With the wider range, groups of three, four or more characters can appear together on screen, minimizing the need for cross-cutting, which creates a different kind of interaction among the actors and a more expressive sense of the fictional space they inhabit.
They also used only incandescent lights, Mr. Soderbergh said, and no wireless microphones at all. Where many, if not most, filmmakers use “body mikes” to capture the intimate whispers of dialogue, Mr. Soderbergh recorded his sound the old-fashioned way, through a boom microphone held just over the actors’ heads by a technician standing out of camera range.
“The rule was, if you can’t do it with a boom mike, then you can’t do it,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “Which was helpful to me because, in talking to the actors about this very externalized performance mode I was going to ask them to assume, it helped to be able to say, ‘You have to talk louder, you have to project more, because I’m not getting a good enough track.’ ”
Unlike the Method mumble currently in style in American movies, the dialogue in “The Good German” is spoken in crisp, clearly enunciated stage English, emphasizing presentation over interpretation.
“I don’t feel like I’m a real quiet actor in terms of my projection in the first place,” said Tobey Maguire, who plays a crucial supporting role as an American serviceman with sinister black-market connections. “So I didn’t really think much about that part of it. But what was fascinating to me is how he was cutting the movie in his head. There’s really no fat on the film. He really didn’t do ‘coverage.’ He only shot the parts of the scene he was going to use, and if he wasn’t going to use it, he didn’t shoot it.”
“The pace was unbelievably fast,” he added. “So that was great.”
If there is a single word that sums up the difference between filmmaking at the middle of the 20th century and the filmmaking of today, it is “coverage.” Derived from television, it refers to the increasingly common practice of using multiple cameras for a scene (just as television would cover a football game) and having the actors run through a complete sequence in a few different registers. The lighting tends to be bright and diffused, without shadows, which makes it easier for the different cameras to capture matching images.
The advantage for directors is that they no longer need to make hard and fast decisions about where the camera will go for a particular scene or how the performances will be pitched. The idea is to pump as much coverage as possible into the editing room, where the final decisions about what goes where will be made.
The danger for a director is that with so much material available, the original vision may be drowned or never really defined; and the sheer amount of exposed film makes it possible for executives to step in (after the director has completed his union-mandated first cut) and rearrange the material to follow the latest market-research reports.
During the studio era it was more typical for directors to arrive on the set, block out their shots and light them with the use of stand-ins; the actors were then summoned from their dressing rooms and, after a brief rehearsal, they would film the lines needed in the individual shot. The crew would then break down the camera and move it to the next setup, as determined by the director.
“That kind of staging is a lost art,” Mr. Soderbergh said, “which is too bad. The reason they no longer work that way is because it means making choices, real choices, and sticking to them. It means shooting things in a way that basically only cut together in one order. That’s not what people do now. They want all the options they can get in the editing room.”
While the editing process now routinely takes months, “I had a pretty polished cut of ‘The Good German’ two days after we wrapped,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “It was shot to go together very, very specifically.”
“The geography of the scene — to me, that’s the job,” Mr. Soderbergh added, “carrying all of that around in your mind. Sure, I’ve used multiple cameras on other pictures. On ‘Traffic,’ which was from the get-go designed to be a run-and-gun movie, we were using two cameras a lot, but even in those situations you can make choices in terms of the placement of the camera, and how you think the stuff will cut together.” And because Mr. Soderbergh works both as his own cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews) and editor (as Mary Ann Bernard), he can make spontaneous decisions: “There’s no gap between figuring out what we want to do and executing it.”
“The Good German” has turned out, in its way, to be a highly experimental picture, but one that grew out of economic necessity. “They bought the novel in 2001, thinking the role of the reporter might make a good vehicle for George Clooney,” said the screenwriter, Paul Attanasio. “I got the novel in April of 2001, and I think we sat down for the first time in May. From the beginning Steven was talking about it as a film noir, which if you’ve read the novel, is not really what it is. The decision to make it as a film of the period came later, when he got down to deciding to make the movie.”
Mr. Soderbergh added: “For a while I thought about doing it normally. And then I realized that actually the most economical way to do it would be the way we ended up doing it, shooting it in black and white, so we could incorporate all of the stock footage we had found. Because if we’d shot it in color and tried to go to Germany, it would have cost two and a half times what it did. Luckily the studio went along with it. Our budget was for $32 million, and they felt the number was not dangerously high.”
Mr. Soderbergh’s team combed the studios for stock film of postwar Berlin; one trove was Paramount, where he found some of the background scenes used for “A Foreign Affair,” a Billy Wilder film set in Berlin in 1948. But it was left to Mr. Soderbergh’s longtime production designer, Philip Messina, to build the rest of Berlin in Hollywood — or Burbank, to be more precise, where they took over some standing sets on the Universal back lot and dressed them in appropriate rubble.
“There’s very little computer graphics used to extend the image, and mostly what you see on the screen is what we were able to accomplish practically,” Mr. Messina said. “The heaps of rubble were made from steel armatures with carved foam on top of them and rocks stuck on them. We moved them from the back lots to the sets and used them over and over, like a kit of parts we were constantly rearranging.”
Louise Frogley, who has worked as Mr. Soderbergh’s costume designer since “The Limey” in 1999, assembled the wardrobe much as it would have been done in the ’40s, first raiding the costume warehouses at Warner Brothers, and later traveling to the Sturm costume factory in East Berlin, where military uniforms of various periods are copied and reproduced for films.
“It’s in an old sugar factory, and each floor is a different army, a different military setup,” she said. “We found quite a lot of original police uniforms. All sorts of things came up: I didn’t realize that the uniforms the police wore were the same as they used under the Nazis, but they shaved off the swastikas.”
Ms Frogley continued: “The civilians were much easier to dress. George Clooney was great, because he really gets how people wore their trousers high during that period, instead of pushing them down to their hips like they do now.”
Both Mr. Messina and Ms. Frogley are already at work on Mr. Soderbergh’s next project, a two-part biography of Che Guevara that will star Benicio Del Toro and be shot entirely in Spanish (another notion unlikely to thrill the Hollywood establishment, which likes foreign-language films almost as much as it likes black-and-white ones). Such leapfrogging is typical of Mr. Soderbergh’s methods: he likes to keep working constantly and is happy to use the down time on one movie to get a head start on the next. In 2006 alone he has served as an executive producer on two films (Richard Linklater’s “Scanner Darkly” and Scott Z. Burns’ “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin”), completed and released “The Good German” and filmed “Ocean’s Thirteen.”
Studios may no longer be in the business of providing long-term employment for filmmakers, but Mr. Soderbergh seems to be functioning as a studio all by himself.
“You hope that there’s a way of putting a film like this across,” he said of “The Good German.” “And just not for yourself. If a movie like this can get made and actually bring in a little bit of money, it means that someone else can make one too. I’m just hoping that we can find a way to the audience so that the person in line behind me who’s trying to get Warners to do something off track can point to ‘The Good German’ and say, ‘You know, that worked, let’s try this now.’ ”