Interview: Steven Soderbergh and “Che”

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is both two features and one work, a 4 ½-hour production that carves out what Soderbergh, producer/star Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Peter Buchman see as the two defining periods in the life of Ernesto Che Guevara: the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivian expedition. Except for a brief scene where Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and newsreel-like segments chronicling Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York and address to the United Nations. There’s practically nothing of his personal life, no effort to put his campaigns in political or social context, and no attempt to address his controversial actions (including the execution of political prisoners) as part of Castro’s government in the aftermath of the Cuban victory.

It’s not that Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman assume that spectators will arrive with knowledge of that history. You can glean some of that from the dialogues, from Guevara’s idealistic drive, and from the New York sequences and his unblinking enforcement the revolutionary code on deserters and criminals in the jungle. Che is neither hagiography nor deconstruction and its certainly not an exploration of the man behind the myth. It’s about how Dr. Ernesto Guevara transformed himself into revolutionary leader Che, an idealist with a gun, a teacher with a mission, a single-minded warrior for social justice who never betrays his feelings to his followers. And it’s a classic rise and fall, each part a different film – the underdog campaign and triumph in Cuba in Part One, the effort to repeat it in Bolivia, where it failed, in Part Two – that are reflections of one another, two parts of a whole. The rise and the fall. The success and the failure. The inspiration and the disillusionment. In Soderbergh’s own words: “Let’s put it this way: when people ask me how many films I’ve made, I treat it as one film.”

Benecio Del Toro as Che Guevara
Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara

The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as a single presentation and opened in a limited roadshow run, with both films presented back to back (with an intermission) as a single program, in New York and Los Angeles in December. Its success encouraged IFC to expand the roadshow release to ten more cities, including Seattle, on January 16. I interviewed Soderbergh by phone on Friday, January 9, a week before its Seattle premiere.

Benicio Del Toro had been trying to get this film made for some time before you got involved. What was it about the project that made you want to jump on board and do it?

Well, really him [Del Toro], because there was nothing other than his desire and [producer] Laura Bickford’s desire to see it made, but that was it. They were working off of John Lee’s book, but John Lee’s book covered his whole life and they didn’t really have a take on it yet. So I honestly said yes without really knowing what I was saying yes to.

Was there even a treatment?

Nothing.

So when you became a collaborator on the project, where did you begin?

Step one is research, going to Cuba, talking to people, reading everything that was available, and there is a lot, just trying to collect a lot of information and see what stuck. I guess I started gravitating toward… First, the movie was just going to be Bolivia and I think that’s mostly because that part of his life was the most unknown to all of us. So initially we were just going to do that but then we began to feel like, if you just see Bolivia, you’d just be sitting there saying to yourself “Why doesn’t he leave?” You don’t understand why he thought this was going to work, and that’s when we started thinking about Cuba. And it was about that time when I found out about the New York trip and suddenly I thought, you’ve to have that, that’s really good stuff. That’s the way to address that other part of Che that a lot of people have an issue with. And the thing just started to balloon at a certain point and then it got so distended that I decided we had to cut this thing in half. It’s not going to work as one piece, it needs to be… Like I said, to me it was still one movie, it just needed to be in two parts.

You focus directly on two distinct parts of his life. The film leaps over his entire life between the military triumph in Cuba and leaving for Bolivia: five years of his life.

That was a personal choice on my part. I just wasn’t that interested in his life as a bureaucrat, frankly, and like I said, the New York visit was a way to address his ideology, the criticisms that people had of him and of Cuba and the image of him. The more I heard about what he did on the trip and reading the transcripts of the speeches at the U.N., imagining that, thinking of it already in terms of black and white, I just felt that cutting back and forth to the jungle from the concrete is going to be very nice.

Che as the firebrand
Che as the firebrand

It’s a very different side of him. He’s confrontational, he’s fiery when he speaks to the UN, whereas he’s more like teacher out in the jungle, passionate but calm and removed.

I agree. I think that’s a side of him that is interesting and that this provided an opportunity for me to organically show this side of him, without having to open up this whole issue of five years of running the Ministry of Industry and all that stuff. That’s an interesting movie but I felt like I’d rather do shorter periods in more detail, so that’s why I restricted the scope. Also, not that I would ever claim that the two are similar in any significant way, I just felt I understood being out in the jungle with a group of people trying to do something, that at least I could wrap my head around that, because the analogies to making a film are very similar. And I think that’s why I gravitated toward those periods.

Those are very tactile scenes, shot with a more measured, observational pace and style, longer takes, focused on placing the characters within their environment and understanding them that way. There’s the physicality of the scenes, but also the attention to the time it takes for things to happen.

That’s the impression I got from reading his writings about those two periods and then talking to the people who fought with him, this sense of time passing and long periods between skirmishes, where you’d fill the days with chores and learning. I really wanted you to feel that, that they’re isolated and that this stuff doesn’t happen quickly. And I didn’t feel that I needed to employ a style that would pump the drama up because personally I found it inherently dramatic. Everyone you see on screen is carrying a gun, all the time. That mean things can happen and people can die at any moment. The stakes are high and I felt no need or desire to tart it up. And also, it would be a total violation of his ethos to just isolate Che in close-ups all the time. This was a group effort and I tried to find a way of shooting that kept him in a group, that kept him surrounded as much as possible.

I picked an aspect of his life I thought I could at least understand a little bit, but of course it’s just one aspect of his life. I wasn’t interested in his personal life at all. I felt everybody on these campaigns has a personal life, they all left families behind, that doesn’t make him special and why should I go into his personal life and nobody else’s? You can’t do the whole thing but I thought, okay, this is going to be a mosaic that hopefully will add up to an image. It may have some tiles missing but the overall effect of it, if you stand back and squint your eyes a little bit, is a picture of him. And maybe that’s enough.

As an artist, what do you think your responsibility is to history when you make a film on a historical figure, on a real person and real events?

Basically, just to not make anything up. That’s really it. There isn’t a scene in either part that I can’t source and explain to you where that scene came from. Some stuff has been combined and some characters have been combined, but literally every scene in the whole thing was sourced from either an interview or a book or public record. And in some cases declassified documents that we got access to just two years ago. A lot of the details in Part Two, about how the Bolivian government was behaving, came out of a series of communiqués written by an agent working with the United States and the Bolivian government. Those were really invaluable to us.

What kinds of insights did you get from the people you interviewed?

That he was not embraceable, really. The word ‘warm’ never came up.He was a caring person, especially when he was doctor mode, but there was also a distant quality to him. How much of that is his personality and how much of it is a function of him becoming Che and a leader, I don’t know, but you could tell that these people cared for him a great deal and there was a lot of emotion in the way that they talked about him, but you could tell he was difficult. He didn’t have an off switch. The guy never dropped the revolutionary code of behavior, at no point was that relaxed.

You don’t show his private life except from the brief introduction to him in Mexico City at the beginning, and the effect it has is that the family is simply not important to him. They don’t even register in his life as shown in the film.

Clearly. Because if your family was important to you, you don’t go off and do that, and that, to me, says a lot about him. He did it three times. He left his first wife and daughter to go on the Cuban expedition. Then he left his second wife and four kids to go to the Congo. That failed, he came back home, and he left them again to go to Bolivia. As you say, clearly this is a guy whose priority is going into the jungle and starting a revolution. That is the most important thing in his life. Which is, again, I think why I kept being drawn to these periods. If you take away all the words and just look at what he did, the guy kept going back into the jungle.

He’s a passionate man who never lets his passions show in person, but he is driven and that drive is seen in his actions.

Yes. There’s the quote in the movie when he’s doing the interview. Some of it was taken from the real interview with Lisa Howard, some of it was words of his that he wrote in various essays about Cuba and socialism and being a revolutionary, and one of his famous quotes is: “One of the most important qualities that a revolutionary needs have is love.” He goes on to say, we don’t have this in the movie, he goes on to say: “I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m talking about a love of humanity that allows you to make the ultimate sacrifice for someone you’ve never met.” You do need to have a very strong feeling for your fellow man to make that sacrifice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean on a one-to-one basis that you’re going to be a warm person.

Benicio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh at the Cannes debut
Benicio Del Toro and Steven Soderbergh at the Cannes debut

You must have worked very closely with Benicio Del Toro to develop the portrait of Che we see on screen.

After seven years in the same room and talking about what to show and what not to show, by the time we were shooting there wasn’t much left to say, to be honest. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. There was only one moment where I think he was feeling anxious and I said, “Look, just know that this is impossible to do, so let’s just do it.” It’s like, you can’t be worried about it. The only thing worse than doing it and screwing it up is not even doing it so don’t worry about it. Let’s just give it a run and we’ll do what we can.

You brought Peter Buchman in to write the screenplay. His listed credits don’t suggest this kind of film. Why did you choose him and what did he bring to the table?

Peter, as sometimes happens in Hollywood, is very well known for a script that didn’t get made. Peter had written a script about Alexander the Great that was going to be made on a very, very big level until the Oliver Stone movie came along and got greenlit and then Peter’s didn’t get made. But he had a good reputation for grappling with historical figures on the basis of this terrific screenplay that he wrote. Christopher McQuarrie was someone we talked to early on about maybe getting involved and Peter had been working with Chris and Chris highly recommended him. He was also a playwright. He had what we needed. He’s really, really diligent, very open… It took a certain kind of person to work on this for years for not much money and go through draft after draft and sit in a room with me and Benicio and listen to us spitball for hours on end about, “What if we did this and what if we did that and etc.” It took somebody with a certain kind of personality and skill to keep this thing focused and on track. And Peter is also very, very good at structure. “Part Two” was less difficult of the two parts to write because it’s pretty linear and there are less moving parts. Peter is really the person who came up with the general blocks of “Part One” and once we had those big blocks, knowing that New York was going to be the mortar between them, then we could start to pull out things that we’d read or gotten from interviews that would fit in those sections and the thing started to take shape. That was really Peter saying, “I think we’ve got to chop these things up into sections and here’s what I think they ought to be.” I can’t give him enough credit for not only having good ideas but just being cool, hanging through this and never losing his temper, always being in a good state of mind. A lot of people could not have taken this. It was like a campaign. They just would have, at a certain point, thrown up their hands and said, “I just can’t continue to generate draft after draft for you guys.” He never complained about anything.

“Che” is a massive production, just in terms of the amount of story you tell and characters in the film, not to mention so much shooting in the jungle. That must have been a difficult film to make without the studio resources you had on something like the “Oceans” films.

Yeah, look, it pushed everybody to the limit. The whole thing cost $58 million. $4 million of that is the cost of the money, the bank charges and the interest and all that, so it’s really $54 million. That’s $27 million for each part. I can tell you right now, that’s significantly less than – what opened today, Bride Wars? I guarantee you that’s $15 million less than Bride Wars. At least. And Gary [Winick] is a buddy of mine. I’m just saying, we did not have a lot money and we did not have a lot of time relative to what we were trying to do, but everybody knew that going in. That is was just going to be one of those and had to put your head down and lean into it.

It’s an amazing looking film. I was caught up in all those jungle scenes.

I have to say, difficult as it was at times, I liked being out there. You know what I mean? I liked being out there. We had to drive a long way and then walk a long way, but you get something by being out that far that you can’t get any other way and I really liked that. There were times I’d look around, exhausted but feeling, you know, this is kind of great, just being out here. Let’s put it this way, I could imagine how he felt being out there. In spite of the fact that they could be killed at any moment, there’s something so pure about being that isolated and everybody focusing on one task, there’s something really clean about it. I could see why he would be drawn to doing it again and again.

There was a utopian feeling of sorts in their existence outdoors. Not an overt Eden, but they didn’t feel like intruders in the jungle, they co-existed within the wild.

They figured out how to adapt to the environment and built in to it. I think you’re right and, again, I think that must have been a feeling that he found very satisfying and wanted to keep recreating. As opposed to, like I said, being behind a desk in Cuba with people going, “Why isn’t the economy working?”

That’s the feeling that I got from those scenes, that he was really in tune there.

I think that’s where he was at his most natural, where he felt, “This is the best version of me, when I’m out here.” That’s what I got out of it.

Why is Che so important to us culturally or historically or socially?

Because some of the core ideas are still very compelling, especially when you look around at what’s going on now. It’s his methodology that generates all the debate. But the fact that he’s a Marxist is really the issue. I’m not a Marxist, I don’t think it works and it’s been proven not to work for any length of time on any real scale. It’s an interesting idea that fails completely as soon as you add live human beings into it. But his desire to see a society in which the strong don’t prey on the weak to generate profit, who doesn’t agree with that? The question is, what do you replace it with and what method to you use to bring it about? That’s where the arguments start and those arguments are still going on.

Che is still a very enigmatic figure. A few years ago The Motorcycle Diaries came out focused on a very different part of his life and it’s a portrait of a very different person than we see here. And you’ve left plenty of room for other people to explore the more controversial parts of his life with their own takes on him.

Oh I think so. Absolutely. I hope so. I would be absolutely horrified if this were the last work on any real scale that was done on him. This is my contribution to an ongoing conversation.

You’ve been shooting your films as your own cinematographer for some time now. That seems like a lot of added burden while directing. Who do you continue to shoot your own films?

It simplifies the process for me and enables me to move a little faster, and it creates an intimacy with the cast that I think is beneficial to the movie. You could ask Benicio and he’d say: “Well, it’s like Steven’s one of the people in the scene with us, because he’s there with the camera and it feels like he’s the sixth man all the time.” And it’s nice. The cast knows I can see what they’re doing, I’m close to them, I’m physically close to them, and I think they like that. It gives you the illusion that all of the energy is right there, that that’s where everything is happening. I’m there, the camera’s there, the actors are there, and that is the heart of the whole thing. And it’s a good feeling. It’s not because I think I’m a great cinematographer, there are a lot of people better than me working, but what it buys me in terms of momentum and intimacy is worth it to me.

Even with the added burden of the issues involved with the camera and the lighting?

It’s sort of how I started. I was trained in high school as a photographer, I know my way around a dark room, I shot all my short films. I feel very comfortable with anything that has to do with imagery so it doesn’t feel to me like another layer of responsibility, it feels totally organic.

You also seem very comfortable moving between different kinds of projects and genres and types of filmmaking: big budget films like the “Oceans” films, micro-budget experiments like “Bubble,” a quasi-improvised TV series like “K Street,” which I saw all of.

Oh, so you’re the one. (laughs) We got very little support on that. I have to say, personally, taken as a five-hour piece, I came away from that creatively very happy. That happens to be something I was really happy with that is forgotten about, literally. And if I hadn’t have made K Street, we could not have made this movie this fast, with the schedule that we had to follow. And I knew, based on K Street, “Just tell me how many days I have and I’ll do, I’ll make it work. It can’t be worse than K Street.”

Does it give a creative boost to be able to try such different things?

They all feed each other. I know it seems from the outside that there must be some big distinction between them all but there really isn’t and they all feed each other. There are things I take from the experiences of the smaller films to the bigger films and vice-versa. It’s all being done in the hopes of just finding better solutions to the everyday problems of making a movie.

Do you mean in terms of storytelling and working with actors…?

Storytelling and what the scene should be, for one. And how it should be presented. The more practice you get, the better you are. It’s really that simple. And I also feel that doing studio movies all the time, for me would feel like a trap, and doing small, more independent experimental movies all the time would also be a trap. I want all aspects of my game, all of my muscles being worked on. I don’t want to be a specialist in one area, it that’s even possible.


One Comments

Comments are closed.