Iain Blair
Issue: January 1, 2009


HOLLYWOOD — Che, the epic film biography of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, is the latest labor of love from director Steven Soderbergh. The two-part saga runs four hours, 30 minutes — with an intermission, and is almost entirely in Spanish. It was also shot digitally, using the Red camera.

But then maybe only someone like Soderbergh, whose eclectic work ranges from Sex, Lies and Videotape, Kafka, and The Good German to Erin Brockovich and Traffic, which won him the Oscar for Best Director, would follow up the frothy success of Ocean’s Thirteen with a serious look at an asthmatic Marxist revolutionary.

The film stars Benicio Del Toro, the Oscar-winning co-star of Traffic, as Guevara, and the two films are titled The Argentine and Guerrilla. Matt Damon, one of the stars of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, also appears as part of the large ensemble cast.

Whatever the reaction in the US, it’s got to be one of the more interesting and provocative films to surface this year, cementing Soderbergh’s reputation as one of the most versatile directors in the world.

Here, in an exclusive interview, Soderbergh talks to Post about making the film, shooting with the Red camera and post.

POST: Critics always complain that most biopics are too conventional. So you make a long film in Spanish and they say it’s too difficult. Does that drive you crazy?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: [Laughs] “The only thing more predictable than the films being made are the things being written about them, and none of it surprises me. It’s just so odd for someone who purports to write about cinema to not support the idea of the film. Whether or not you think I did it right, I don’t know how you can’t support the idea of it. How can this be bad for cinema culture — that we went out and did this? But you’d think it is, sometimes, when you hear how angry people get. But if you’ve made this movie and some people aren’t upset, then you probably made a mistake.”

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?

“It just happens to be something for me that ended up being defined mostly by what I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want it to be typical, and it also reflected the aspects of his life, based on my research, that interested me. So it ended up being a procedural about how to wage a guerrilla war.

“I was always looking for detail and hoping to amass a mosaic from a series of tiles, so I was looking for stories and incidents that were sort of human scale and expressed something about him that I felt was central to his ethos. A good example is the scene at the end of Part One where he tells some other guerrillas who have ‘liberated’ a car to take it back. When I heard that story, I thought, ‘That’s so perfect on so many levels.’ It’s funny, and just classic Che. So I wasn’t so much looking for big scenes that would set up and pay-off in a typical way. I just wanted these little tiles I could piece together and then stand back and go, ‘It’s kind of Cubist, but you can see him in it.”’

You shot it with the Red camera. How did that help in terms of speed and efficiency?

SODERBERGH: “Just practically, in terms of the film we were making, it enabled us to move much more quickly and easily than if we’d been shooting film. We shot the second part first, and we shot that part backwards, so the first material we shot was the big gun battle in the Yuro ravine. And if we’d been trying to shoot it with film and hauling magazines up and down all the time, we’d have gone nuts.

“Also, there are only a few scenes in the entire film where I actually used a light. It’s almost all available light, so huge savings right there. I didn’t even order a film package, which had everyone on the production freaked out. I was adamant that we use the Red.”

POST: What made you decide to shoot with the Red camera?

SODERBERGH: “I’d done a test. Jim Jannard had brought the camera to my house a few months before shooting, and as soon as I got my hands on it I knew I had to have it, and that it’d be crucial to the film. Otherwise I was going to shoot Part Two on Super 16mm, and it wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact, especially when I think of scenes like the car going through the mountains in Bolivia.”

POST: Who edited the film?

SODERBERGH: “Pablo Zumarraga, a Spanish editor based in Madrid, so he and I were bouncing timelines back and forth and tag-teaming while I was in New York. We started cutting as we went and we had to use Final Cut Pro since Red had done a deal with them. I had one at my office in New York, he had one in Madrid; we had identical media and I’d just send him a timeline, he’d work on it and then send it back to me. It was great.
“Some of the locations in Puerto Rico on the first film were kind of remote, so I had a Flash drive in my laptop in the car. So I’d cut scenes in the car, going back and forth to locations. We had a ton of material to cut, but we got it all done in about five months.”

Do you like the post process?

SODERBERGH: “Yes, and I like that it’s getting a lot more streamlined. I bought a Scratch system [from Assimilate], which is basically an affordable version of a da Vinci, so I was able to do some basic timing before I handed it over to Technicolor, but I wasn’t able to get it as close as I wanted because I didn’t have a good enough projector.

“For [my next films] The Informant and The Girlfriend Experience, I’m bringing in a proper projector so I can time both films on the Scratch. So hopefully in an ideal world I’ll be able to do this in my office and just hand them the file and we can film it out.

“So you take your raw Red files, load them into the Scratch, time them, and then they get ‘baked’ into the DPX format which, in this case, the Cinevator [at Technicolor] can handle. I can see a day where Flash cards come back to the office, and the next time anything leaves the office it’s a DPX file that goes to the lab for film-out.”

POST: Where did you do the post?

SODERBERGH: “We did part of the mix in New Orleans with Larry Blake at Swelltone Labs, and the rest in Madrid at —12dB studios. Larry’s my post sound guru; he’s done all my films, and he’s based in New Orleans.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there, and how did you go about dealing with them?

SODERBERGH: “There are more than you might think, about 100 in all, all done by El Ranchito in Madrid. Because of the deal, we had to spend as much of the budget in Spain as possible, so it made sense to do a lot of post in Spain, and of all the VFX places I looked at, I liked them the best. Those guys are great — I love them.
“One of the obvious effects is what we called ‘The Dorian Gray’ effect on Benicio in the first film, to make him look younger whenever we could. So there was some massaging there.”

Do you like working with visual effects?

SODERBERGH: “It’ll probably surprise a lot of people, but no. I hate it. I mean, I like the power of them and the fact that visually, you can do anything you want now. But I just don’t enjoy it, and I don’t like working with physical effects either. As soon as stuff leaves the performance realm I start to get antsy.”

POST: How important is music and audio for you?

SODERBERGH: “It’s a gigantic tool, and at the same time, music is obviously one of the most abused aspects of modern motion pictures, and that’s very frustrating since I try to be very careful about how I use it. And I’m very, very picky about sound. One of the big problems on Che was the variety of accents that had to be straightened out, so there was a lot of looping — far more than Larry Blake [supervising sound editor] and I like to do. It was quite a task, and we had an army of dialect coaches on set and in post to deal with this.”

POST: You also have a ton of subtitles.

SODERBERGH: “Over 3,000, and the process of just creating a database that would track along with the picture cut was a very intense process, too. Look, I knew this film was going to be trouble. Every aspect of it was hard — and continues to be. I just heard about a screening the other day where — since it only exists digitally — the projectionist forgot to turn on the subtitle mode, so the film played without English subtitles and the audience just got up and left after 20 minutes. So there’s always something [laughs].”

POST: How important is the DI for you?

SODERBERGH: “Usually it’s very important to me, but to be honest, I don’t really know what you’d call it on this film. I guess, yes we did do a DI in the sense that there was a file created that then ended up being worked with in a DI suite at Technicolor in New York, with [Autodesk Lustre] colorist Tim Stipan. But then it’s not quite the same as the traditional DI, and it seems like a term that should be relegated to movies that originated on film.

“There’s this great new machine, the Cinevator, that Technicolor has to scan out from digital to film that is very impressive. The film-outs I’ve seen on Che are, as far as anything I’ve ever done, by far the best I’ve ever seen. They finally have the tonal range we’ve been waiting for on the high end.”

POST: Did it turn out the way you hoped?

“It’s so hard to say since I haven’t seen it since I did the last round of cuts last May. I just can’t be objective about it anymore. I can’t divorce myself from the experience of making it. It’s going to take me a while to figure it out. Ultimately, you do the best you can given the time and money limitations.”

POST: You seem to love bouncing between the big studio films and small, indie-type films. So what’s next?

“I want to keep moving up, down and sideways. They feed each other, and I have this pet theory that each film should annihilate the one before it, so I’m always looking for that contrast.”