NEW YORK – Steven Soderbergh calls it “the boat movie” even though he’s not supposed to call it “the boat movie.”
The Queen Mary 2, on which Soderbergh filmed the majority of his new film “Let Them All Talk,” is technically a ship, and a big one at that. The thought of making a movie on the $750-million ocean liner, during an eight-day Transatlantic crossing from New York to South Hampton, U.K., tickled Soderbergh, a filmmaker who hunts quicker, less plodding methods of making movies the way some seek other shores.
If there were any doubt, Soderbergh is not a cruise guy. But despite — or maybe because of — his proficiency as a filmmaker, he likes to put himself at sea, with new problems to navigate. He shot much of “Let Them All Talk” while rolling around the decks in a wheelchair, with a camera in his lap.
The film, written by the acclaimed short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg (at 75, her first screenplay), stars Meryl Streep as an author traveling to receive an award, who brings along two friends (Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen) and her nephew (Lucas Hedges). As a travel setting now associated with outbreaks from the beginning of the pandemic, Soderbergh calls his film, on HBO Max on Thursday, “from the before times.”
That’s something Soderbergh, as the maker of “Contagion,” knows about, too. In an interview by phone, he spoke about that prophetic 2011 film, leading Hollywood’s return to production and the future of the movie industry post-pandemic. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
AP: Were you more mentally prepared for the pandemic because you had thought it through on “Contagion”?
Soderbergh: Certainly everybody that I talked to that worked with us on “Contagion” said very, very early this is very serious, this thing is — to use a technical term — gnarly. Get ready to hunker down is what I was hearing in early January. None of it was a surprise. But there are aspects of how this has played out that (screenwriter) Scott Burns and I could have never anticipated.
AP: What’s most surprising to you?
Soderbergh: We are clearly, history tells us, a deeply irrational species. We’ve never had as stark an example of that as COVID.
AP: Was part of the appeal of “Let Them All Talk” giving yourself a rigid time frame? You need to finish before docking.
Soderbergh: Yeah, I like the fact that this is happening whether we want it to or not. They’re moving at a certain pace and it takes a certain amount of time, and we have a certain amount of time to execute. The first few days were rough. We were behind. We finally caught our rhythm day three or four. But since we were going from the U.S. to the U.K., we were losing an hour a day. It was kind of the production nightmare scenario. Every day got shorter.
AP: For you, what did the setting give the film?
Soderbergh: I looked around and everywhere I looked I was like: This is a $750-million film set. Everywhere you pointed the camera, it screamed scale. While delivering the final elements to Warner, I sat down to watch it one last time. And I was just looking at it going: I still can’t believe we thought you should do that, that you should go shoot a movie on a crossing. I was shaking my head. Who would think: Yeah, we should do that. But that’s what made it so fun.
AP: You led the Directors Guild task force for on-set COVID-19 protocols, and you just returned from shooting “No Sudden Move" in Detroit. How did it go?
Soderbergh: It didn’t slow me down. We were able to get out of there safely. The bottom line — I don’t care what anybody says — if you’re shooting on a film set, there’s no version of that that includes physical distancing. It’s impossible. It’s an anthill. So what that means is: For the people that in are in that anthill, you gotta test them three times a week and you need the results within 24 hours. If you can do that, you can choke off an outbreak before it’s gotten anywhere. We created a bubble of sorts. We took over a hotel and the densest part of the anthill stayed there. It’s a production within the production.
AP: It’s lately seemed like the film industry is changing before our eyes.
Soderbergh: Yeah, it is. And it needs to. This is catastrophic what’s happening to the exhibitors right now. The only thing to look forward to is that when this starts to return to some semblance of normal there’s a more fluid approach to windowing and day-and-date. That’s what I hope.
AP: What do you think Hollywood looks like in two, three years from now? Is it radically different?
Soderbergh: At the end of the day, what’s most important and irreducible is: You need talented people making stuff that’s good. That’s the business. You can talk about economic forces and trajectories trends and all that, but the constant is you need talented people making good stuff. I’m more focused on a version of the business in which the identification of talent and the support and the freedom that talent is given is primary.
AP: This is the first of two films you’re making for WarnerMedia’s HBO Max. What do you think about their 2021 streaming plans?
Soderbergh: Somebody at Warner looked very dispassionately at what’s happening and refused to make rosy assumptions about what a vaccine means and the effect it will have on moviegoing in 2021. What people need to understand is the economics of large-scale theatrical exhibition from the studio side are such that if it’s not at 100% potential capacity, it’s really not worth doing. It’s a risky business at best. If it were even 20% off, that creates panic. You can’t risk a $200 million asset on that assumption. You have to know.
AP: Do you think the kinds of movies that get made will change if the industry permanently shifts toward streaming?
Soderbergh: Blockbusters are not going away. Anybody who thinks the studios have somehow lost faith in people going to the movies, no. When you make a movie that blows up at the box office, that’s just too lucrative to ever abandon. They would love to have movies in theaters now. They’re just trying to figure out what to do with these assets that are sitting on the shelf, getting stale. There’s a zeitgeist aspect to any movie that makes $1 billion, and it’s got an expiration date.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP