Steven Soderbergh Talks (A Lot!) about Che


At this point in Steven Soderbergh’s career, it’s a fruitless effort trying to guess what he might do next, so when it was announced a few years ago that he would be making some sort of biopic based on the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, considered the creator of guerilla warfare, few of his fans were surprised. It also wasn’t too surprising that Benicio Del Toro, the Oscar-winning star of Soderbergh’s breakthrough hit Traffic, would be starring in the role of the Argentine doctor who relocated to Cuba and became the military lynchpin of Fidel Castro’s coup to take over the Cuban government.

What does surprise many is that the resulting Che is a four and a half hour epic that covers two very specific moments in the life of the military leader, rather than being the traditional biopic we’ve seen in the past. “Part One” covers “Che” and his friend Fidel planning their overthrow of the government and the actual military operations that resulted, intercut with Guevara’s trip to New York where he would address the United Nations following the Bay of Pigs invasion and trade embargo with Cuba. “Part Two” covers Guevara’s last military mission in Bolivia where an attempt to throw a similar coup, which ended in disaster.

Both parts of this epic are released this coming week for a limited engagement in New York at the Ziegfeld Theater and in Los Angeles at the Landmark 12, where you can see both parts back-to-back with a 15-minute intermission. If you go see this “Roadshow Edition,” you’ll also get a very special printed program guide. You can see it at those venues for the next week, and then have another chance to see it in January when it gets its official release.

Soderbergh is an endlessly fascinating filmmaker to talk to, and attended not one but two press conferences where Soderbergh talked about this groundbreaking film. The first was at the New York Film Festival where the entire film was screened at the Ziegfeld Theater before a Q ‘n’ A session with Soderbergh. The second was also in New York at a more formal press conference with Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bechir, who plays Fidel Castro in the movie, but we decided to grab some of the more interesting things Soderbergh said there and mix all of them up to make one new thing, which follows. (You can still take a 15-minute intermission at the midway point if you so choose.)

Q: Can you talk about the original inspiration that sent you on this journey?

Steven Soderbergh: The inspiration really was from Benicio and Laura Bickford, because we were on “Traffic,” that’s when we started talking about it, and I came along. You have a different angle on a project when you haven’t initiated it and sometimes that’s good. You can be more dispassionate about it and there were definitely cases where we had to make large difficult creative decisions, and we were able to make them, or at least I felt comfortable making them, because in some way, I was the Swede coming into a culture that wasn’t mine. I didn’t have the emotional baggage that somebody else might have, and I can say something, “We’re going to cut everything that happened from the Granma to just before L’Vero because narratively, we need to do that.” There’s a lot of great sh*t that happens in the first six months of the Cuban Revolution, it just had to go, and that’s easier for me, because I can stand back and say “That’s what needs to be amputated.”

Q: Through the process of getting the screenplay together and the filming, what is it that you yourself learned about Che?

Soderbergh: Well, because the process of developing and making this film was so extended–that was eight years–what I found was sometimes you say “yes,” and you’re not sure why you said “yes,” and that reasoning changes over the course of making the film. It really wasn’t until the films were finished, around the time of Cannes, that I realized what they were really about to me or what really drew them to me was this issue of “Engagement vs. Disengagement” – that every day in our lives, on a personal level, on a community level, on a global level, we are making a decision about how engaged we want to be or how disengaged we want to be. Do we want to participate or do we want to observe? I realized that what was compelling about Che to me was once he made the decision to engage that he engaged fully; that he was able to sustain whatever it is you need to sustain every day, especially when your life is at stake. You have to remember he’s also an atheist, so a lot of times when you have figures that can sustain this level of engagement, they attribute it to a higher power, or there’s some other element they can call upon. He didn’t have that; or at least he expressed it in terms of what people were doing to each other here. So that’s where I ended up landing but as I said, it sort of changes throughout, but ultimately, it was about engagement.

Q: When was your first connection with Che Guevara?

Soderbergh: I think like most people in this country I first heard Che’s name in history class at school when you would get that sort of quick sketch of the history of Cuba. One of the great things about having this job is that more often than not I get paid to educate myself. A lot of the details of the Cuban Revolution obviously were not known to me. I thought that it was basically all Fidel; I had no idea about these other groups that were basically trying to do the same thing. And my idea of Che was from those images of him near the very end of the Cuban Revolution with the beret and the cast on his arm. I had no idea of this transformation from the medic to becoming a leader.

Q: How much did you have to go on as far as historical records are concerned to aid you in your research for the film?

Soderbergh: As many of you know who’ve read up on Che, you go to the bookstore and there’s an entire wall of Che material. There’s a lot to go through and we tried to go through all of it. We spoke to anyone who was still around – and willing to talk – who fought with him and knew him. J.G. Ballard once said, “Research is the refuge of the unimaginative,” and there were times where I thought he was absolutely right. We were overwhelmed with information, and as John Lee Anderson who was one of our consultants said at the press conference in Cannes, “Look, there are a million Ches. He means something different to everyone.” And at a certain point we, the core creative team, had to decide what to use and not to use, and frankly a lot of it was by exclusion. I went in with more of an idea of what I didn’t want to do, as opposed to what I wanted to do. At least that’s a start, and you can begin to shape it. I was trying to avoid scenes that I thought were too typical. Like I didn’t want to have that scene where someone asks, “Hey, why do they call you Che?” or have him in battle and his hat blows off, and he runs over and picks up a beret – I didn’t want to do that. But you found these crazy little stories from people. One of our favorites we found very late, and it’s from the memoirs written by the Acevedo brother who we see at the end of the [first] film driving the car to Havana and Che stops him and tells him to turn around. We found that very late in the process, and I thought it was such a perfect Che scene; a perfect expression of who he was.

Q: How hard was it finding financing for the production, and could you elaborate a little bit on the shoot itself?

Soderbergh: Well, all I can say is I’m glad we’re not looking for money right now! (laughter) It was complicated, but we knew it would be. I mean look at it. It took a couple people sticking it out for a long time and ultimately believing in the commercial viability of the brand of Che. I mean that’s the weird paradox about this guy – here he is the icon of Marxist/Leninist economic ideology, and you stick his face on anything and it sells. It’s a very weird situation. I believed that if we were just able to get the thing made, it would find enough of an audience to get its money back. The amount of money we had dictated a pretty strict shooting schedule. We had 39 days for each part, and to put that in the context of something else that I’ve made, that’s fewer days than it took to shoot the first “Ocean’s” film. We had a 10-day gap in between the shoots, and we shot the second part first, and we shot it backwards, so it was very confusing. The principal sources of funding came from Wild Bunch, which is a French sales and production company, and Telecinco, which is a very large Spanish television and film production company.

Q: Could you talk about the locations and where you shot the film?

Soderbergh: Unfortunately, as an American I’m not allowed to shoot in Cuba, but we made many trips there that were licensed through the State Department, so at least we got a look at where the events actually took place. Bolivia we were able to shoot in. Part One was [shot in] Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York, and Part Two was [shot in] Bolivia and Spain. It turned out we had somebody working on the film who grew up in La Higuera, and when they came to the set – because we built that La Higuera set on the top of this mountain in the middle of nowhere – and when he came to the set he was stunned and said, “This is exactly where I remember growing up.” So our production designer Antxón Gómez did a fantastic job.

Q: Can you talk about the decision to cut the film into two parts?

Soderbergh: At first we were doing Bolivia, and then it started to expand and really, because we started thinking, “Okay, you don’t really understand Bolivia unless you’ve seen Cuba and then he kind of went to New York, and that was cool, then we should see him meeting Fidel in Mexico City.” It became like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” it kept getting bigger and bigger, and it still at that point was one large script but it was becoming unreadable. It felt like a trailer for an even longer film. I took a cue from nature. When a cell gets too big, it divides to survive, and it felt that’s what needed to be done and once we did that, all of the solutions arrived for the various problems we were having narratively and things became a lot simpler. It became more complicated in that the deals we already had in place needed to be renegotiated. Fortunately for us, all the people that came onto this project early were enthusiastic enough about it to redo the deal for the two films. But in the back of our minds, I think we always saw it as one big thing that if you can pull it off and people could see it with an intermission, that would be the “Altered States” version of total immersion for four and a half hours. That’s the best way to get a sense of what they did, just the physical stamina required to pull this off. As it turns out, it’s just in the States where it’s going to be seen like that. Everywhere else in the world, they’re cutting it in half.

Q: What about having different aspect ratios for the different parts?

Soderbergh: Well, I needed a visual corollary to the difference in the voices between the two texts we were working from. The reminiscences to the Cuban Revolution was written after the Revolution ended and there’s a sort of macro-hindsight at play here that results from writing about a victory that I wanted a visual version of and that means a wider frame, a more classical approach to framing, a more traditional approach to the music. The Bolivian Diaries were contemporaneous. There’s no perspective, he’s isolated, he doesn’t know what’s going on, and so visually, I’m looking at a style that makes you feel that the outcome is unclear, the outcome of the scene isn’t even clear, the color palette is less inviting, the terrain is less inviting, the cutting is a little more arrhythmic, just everything to give you the sense of dread, just as you’re heading into the mountains. Normally, you wouldn’t want to do that because you’d feel like you’re tipping the outcome but you have the opposite problem here than you usually have in that Che has no arc, he’s a straight line, so the tension is in whether he will bend so the earlier to me you set up this sense of dread, the stronger he appears throughout, and that was my idea. But yeah, it is a drag for the projectionist. During the intermission, they have to scramble to change everything, scary.

(Insert 15-Minute Intermission Here)

Q: Why did you decide to exclude Che’s exploits in Africa?

Soderbergh:: Well if this film makes $100 million, I’ll make the third one. We talked about it. The story of Che in the Congo is absolutely fascinating. We actually sort of sketched an idea for a very small film that took place in the Congo, and then Prague where he went after fighting in the Congo to lick his wounds and write a very self-critical book of what happened in the Congo. The glib answer is we didn’t have enough money to do that. And also, it’s a fascinating chapter but it didn’t really fall into the bookend idea that we ended up with. When the film was first being developed, it was only about Bolivia. And it was a little more than halfway through the process of working on that that we decided Bolivia doesn’t really make a lot of sense unless you’ve seen Cuba, because you keep wondering, “Why doesn’t he just quit when it’s going so badly?” You have to see what happened in Cuba to see why he thought they were really gonna pull this off. It grew from one manageable film into one GIANT film, and overseas it’s going to be split in half. So, we just couldn’t fit that in. We read all that material, and in fact there was a quote from one of the African rebels that fought with Che, Victor Dreke, which was fantastic, he said, “Che would rather face a bullet than reality,” and it’s a perfect description of him I think.

Q: One of the differences between the Cannes cut and the current incarnation is that the voiceover is in English, instead of Spanish. Why did you decide to change it?

Soderbergh: Here’s how I justified it: it seemed organic to me because we used the actor who was his interpreter following him around in New York, and so it seemed appropriate to use that idea to continue hearing this guy translate Che. More importantly, there are sequences in which he is speaking in which I do not want an English-speaking audience to be reading – I want them to be able to watch the images and hear the words without having to read. Especially for instance the Battle of L’vero where he does the Tolstoy quote. I’ve seen the film with English subtitles and you cannot watch both things at the same time. You just can’t.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about how this four and a half hour film is being released but what would be your preference? As one massive 4-hour epic?

Soderbergh:: Five one-hour films? (laughter) Here’s our plan currently: that whenever the movie enters a specific market – New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas – that for one week, on one screen, you can see it like you just saw it [at 4 hours+]. There will be a specially-printed program with the credits from both the films, and we’re referring to that as “The roadshow version,” the way they used to do in the ’50s and ’60s. I think that’s the ideal way to see it… It’s a lot to ask of someone to throw away an entire day, but I guess my only argument is that cinematically we’re making a demand on the audience that’s very similar to the demands that Che made on the people around him. (laughter) It’s a big commitment, and it requires a certain kind of personality to want to experience it like that. But it was certainly designed that way, so you get the sort of “call-and-response” between the two parts.

Q: Will you be taking the film to Argentina?

Soderbergh: As far as going to Argentina, we’re trying to figure that out now… the South American tour. The release dates for the film are sort of staggered – the film has opened in Spain so far and that’s it – so we’re trying to figure that out now.

Q: If Che were alive today, how do you think he would view contemporary Cuba, and since he’s not, how do you view it?

Soderbergh: (laughter) That’s the question that everyone wants to know the answer to, and of course it’s one we can’t answer. As far as what’s going on in Cuba now, I don’t think we’ve been very smart in how we’ve played this. I think there could have been other moves made on our part in order to make a dialogue more inevitable. I’m still stunned that this embargo is still going on – it’s just shocking to me, and doesn’t seem to make much sense. It’s my personal belief that if you want the embargo to end, and you want to see some change there, you should flood the place with tourists. There’s nothing like exposure to new ideas that get people thinking about new ideas. So in fact our policy is the opposite to what I would be doing, but of course I’m not running the country.

Q: Can you comment on the film’s political nature?

Soderbergh: Well I guess I believe that any movie that accurately presents anyone’s life, or any situation – any movie that’s not a fantasy, and isn’t just a pure entertainment – is to me by definition a political film, whether it’s a cop movie or “Erin Brockovich.” Any movie that attempts to look at things in a straightforward fashion and not polish it up I think you could argue is a ‘political film.’ These are political films in a sense that there’s an ideology being expressed and acted upon, but that’s not what drew me to them ultimately. I’m obviously not a communist. As I said to someone a couple of weeks ago, “There isn’t even a place for me in the society that Che was trying to build.” He says in “Man and Socialism in Cuba”: “There’s no great artist who’s also a true revolutionary.” He didn’t have a lot of use for the kind of stuff that I do, and I think personally he probably would have hated me. But again, I can still look at him and find him one of the most compelling political figures of the last half-century, and I do think the ideas are fascinating to debate and to look at in the context of what we live in now. One of the interesting things to me about the Cuban Revolution is that is the last time you’re ever going to see a revolution like that fought. That’s what I call “the last analog revolution.” Today, that would have been over in two weeks. Technology just makes it impossible to fight a revolution the way they did as we see seven or eight years later. It was interesting to make a period film about a type of war that can’t be fought anymore.

Q: What was the most valuable thing that you learned about Che Guevara while making this film?

Soderbergh: I think the thing that I learned about him that was interesting to me was what a hardass he was. Talking to the people that fought alongside him, one of the doctors that he fought with also had a great quote. He said, “You had to love him for free,” and he just described how uncompromising he was. Most people wanted to be in Camillo’s column because he was fun. Che was just a very, very strict disciplinarian, and there was no moment where he dropped the ideology, even in a personal, one-on-one situation. A lot of people found him cold and distant. So Benicio and I talked about that a lot – that he really only reserved the warmer side of his personality for when he was in the “doctor mode.” When he was in the “leader/Commandante” mode he was really, really harsh and I can understand why; the stakes were pretty high.

Q: Was there anything residual from making this movie that has stayed with you or changed any of your attitudes about filmmaking?

Soderbergh: For me, there’s no way to come out the other end of this without constantly being aware of your physical surroundings and what they mean. Being in this room, being in this hotel, taking the cab up from Chelsea, paying with a credit card, wearing a Paul Smith shirt, you’re constantly thinking about what all of that stuff represents. Who made it? How much did it cost? Where did it get made? How did it get here? And that’s good and bad. It’s good because you should think about these things, it’s bad because you can’t stop thinking about them once you start. I’ve been working on trying to figure out what to do with that, because I think something should be done with it and when I have tangential interests that sustain over a long period of time, they end up as something. I don’t know what this will end up being. A lot of it’s in the movie, and yet, I came out of this feeling less that movies have the ability to really change how people think. So when people say, “So what are people supposed to think when they get out of this film?” Because it’s certainly not made to be a recruitment film. And I say, “Look, all I would hope is that somebody comes out of the movie going, ‘Is there anything I feel that strongly about? Is there anything in my life I feel that passionately about that I would engage at that level?'” That’s really it. So there’s a lot of residue. When we were talking about motivation, I felt so lucky to be able to talk to people who were actually with him is pretty intense. To be that close to history that’s that significant is really something.

To not take one of the hundreds of opportunities we had to just let this thing fall apart. There were so many times where literally by not picking up the phone or answering an Email, I could have let the movie crater, and to just make the choice, “No, pick up the phone, write the check, do whatever you gotta do, keep this thing going…” That’s why getting to the end of it was all we needed out of this, frankly, because there were just so many times where you thought it wasn’t going to happen or you had friends say it’s not going to happen. “Why are you investing yourself in that? It’s not going to happen. You’re not going to get the money.” But there’s this vague feeling when you get out of it of was it enough in a larger sense? Was it enough?

You can’t come out of this, having spent eight years on it and watch what’s going on and not start thinking about that. What does a dollar represent? Does it represent anything and if it doesn’t, where are we going? There’s a residue that stays with you, it has to, if you’re paying attention.

Che opens exclusively in New York and L.A. for a single week’s Oscar consideration run, then reopens on January 9 and expands through January.