Steven Soderbergh knows who’s significantly responsible for the major success of his male-stripper romp “Magic Mike”: gay men eager to ogle the barely-covered bits of Channing Tatum and his hunky posse. The Oscar-winning director’s upcoming feature will obviously court the same audience – and not just because Matt Damon lets it all hang out, too.
“Behind the Candelabra” is so gay that major Hollywood studios would have nothing to do with the Liberace film. Premiering May 26 on HBO, the revealing biopic stars Michael Douglas as the shiny showman who died of AIDS complications at age 67 and Damon as his much younger beau, Scott Thorson.
In our interview, Soderbergh spoke in depth about their real-life relationship, the “flamboyancy scale” used to guide the actors’ gayness onset, diversity in film and why Damon wanted to flaunt the junk in his trunk.
Steven, you’ve made the gayest movie of your career.
That was my intent.
In a way. It was an opportunity to make use of all the hours that I’ve spent watching melodramas like “Sunset Boulevard” – anything connected to a certain aesthetic that we associate with camp or just glamour.
I had spoken to Michael about it conceptually when we were doing “Traffic,” but when I started researching Liberace, I was really having trouble figuring out what the angle should be. I didn’t want it to be a traditional biopic.
It was a friend of mine in New York who made me aware of Thorson’s book (“Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace”). Once I read that, it solved all my problems. That was six years ago. So we’re sort of experiencing everything through his eyes. He’s Alice going down the rabbit hole.
What did you know about Liberace before reading Thorson’s book?
I’m old enough to have seen him on TV when he was still performing. I was, however, young enough to not really be able to articulate what was distinctive about him. (Laughs) But I remember my parents always made a point of turning on that channel if they knew he was going to be on somebody’s show or if he had a special. I had this vague sense of him being a very flamboyant entertainer.
In 2000, as I started to learn more about him and gather material, what was great was discovering that he was an amazing technical musician, an incredible keyboardist. I found it fascinating that somebody with that sort of skill set was very happy to hide it behind a real genuine desire to put on a very popular and entertaining show. He wouldn’t have been as interesting to me if it turned out that he was a so-so keyboardist.
How did Michael pull off the piano-playing parts?
Oh, lots of tricks.
Then you fooled me, because at one point he’s playing 16 beats to the bar for “Boogie Woogie” and you can clearly see Michael’s hands on the piano.
In my mind, that was a very important scene. Because if we don’t sell that, then we have a problem. There was a lot of effort expended on that particular scene. Michael had to spend a lot of time making sure that he was doing the right thing so that the effects would work properly. He couldn’t just sit there. He had video of the pieces and he had to make sure his hands were very close to being perfectly placed so that we could make it work.
Did you discuss with Michael how flamboyant he could go with Liberace?
Sometimes I’d use a number. I’d go, “Oh, I think he should be at a 7 here.”
A 7 on the flamboyancy scale?
Yeah. But more often than not, he and Matt would both tell you that once you put on the outfit and the hair and everything, you’re kind of there. I don’t remember having to really talk about how gay I wanted them to be. (Michael) would just show up in that outfit with that hair and it was happening.
Was there a scene where you told them to take it to a 10?
The first meeting where Lee (the name close friends called Liberace) first meets Scott backstage, I would’ve said to Michael, “OK, this is about as far as I want you to go.” Take it as far as you feel comfortable.
The sexual tension was so palpable my screen was sweating.
(Laughs) One of the things I liked about it is this sort of “Sunset Boulevard” dynamic in terms of the age difference and the fact that Scott shows up and Lee’s giving him elevator eyes.
Matt had said that it’s a challenge creating chemistry with someone you wouldn’t normally be attracted to. As the director, was it a challenge to make this relationship seem real?
The key, which they understood intuitively, was: The chemistry was going to come from the comfort level, and the more comfortable they felt with each other and the more that it seemed, “Oh, this is how people act when there is not a camera around,” that’s what would sell it. Just being totally inside of it and never stepping out of it and looking back at it. You have to just jump into the hot tub, and that’s what I think really sells it when I see the movie. They seem so comfortable with each other.
And only one take for the sex scene where Matt is on top of Michael – really?
(Laughs) I said, “OK, Mike, you’ve gotta be able to reach the amyl nitrates, so you should be here. Matt, you’re gonna be on top of him here. I’m gonna drop the camera down here.” We did a take, there was a long pause and I was just like, “I don’t have any notes. That’s that.”
Not that I was counting, but there were three Matt Damon ass shots. When is an ass shot necessary and when is it gratuitous?
In this case, it would’ve been more awkward and distracting if you somehow didn’t show it. But none of that was planned. Matt’s in his robe and he gets into bed, and in another scene he’s getting out of the hot tub. It’s all stuff that was motivated; I guess that’s really what it comes down to.
“Gratuitous” means they’re doing something they wouldn’t normally do to create an ass shot, and that’s not how we were thinking. Though I certainly had it in mind when Matt came to the set and said, “You’re not gonna believe the Brazilian tan line I got from the spray guy. The world has to see this.” (Laughs)
Studios turned down the film because they said it was “too gay.” What exactly is “too gay”?
They weren’t convinced that anybody who’s not gay is going to want to see it. That was really their attitude. It’s not like, “We don’t like gay people.” They had concerns about how to sell it. And when you’re just looking at it on paper, and then when you see what Michael and Matt did, I get why they couldn’t see it. I was just frustrated that they didn’t believe that “we” could see it.
What do you think it says about Hollywood and society when a movie about two gay men won’t get picked up by a major studio but a movie that exploits violence does?
That’s more about the culture at large than it is about the studios. They don’t give a shit. If movies like this were making a lot of money, that’s all they’d be making. The reason you don’t see more movies made with non-white protagonists as leads is because, in our culture, non-white audiences go in significant numbers to see movies with white protagonists, but white audiences do not return the favor. It’s not reciprocal, and that’s the only reason that movies lack so much diversity.
Did you know going in that a movie about Liberace would be a tough sell?
Yeah, I knew it would be tough, but I didn’t think it would be impossible. If it wasn’t for HBO, I don’t think we would’ve been able to get it made.
How did you perceive their relationship?
I took the relationship at face value, and I believed that it was a real relationship and that they did love each other. It’s a very weird environment in which to maintain any relationship, but I felt that it was a sincere relationship and that they were both broken but in different ways, and so there was a kindred feeling somehow.
And that last scene really brings authenticity to the relationship.
When I read the book, it convinced me that this was worth doing, because it really surprised me. The way the movie lands emotionally is really unexpected – and in the book, I just found that scene incredibly moving and sad.
Do you see this film and Liberace’s life as a cautionary tale at all?
No. I guess when I look at it, there’s just more of a frustration that there was this added pressure because of the time period – the pressure of hiding the relationship and then, of course, the threat of mortality that was circulating amongst the gay community during that period. I mean, I lived for nine months with my sister in San Francisco during the summer of ’80 through the spring of ’81 on Market Street. If I was gay, I’d be dead. That was ground zero.
What was that experience like for you?
It was interesting to be 17 and walk down the street and have somebody look at me in the way that I’d be looking at girls. (Laughs) That was the first time being exposed to that, but it wasn’t a problem. The friends I did have that were gay and sexually active were really, really paranoid and being super safe. They were scared.
It’s a classic case of everybody realizing everything too late. I always wish we could think 50 years in the future when we look at what’s going on right now in terms of equal rights. I’m just sitting here going, “50 years from now, we’re going to be wondering why we were even arguing about this.” Why can’t we just pretend that it’s 50 years later and just end it now?
On behalf of the gay community, I would like to thank you for “Magic Mike.”
(Laughs) It’s so funny, because that was such a huge part of the success of the film – the attention it was given from that community from the minute it was announced. It was such a chatter magnet and, honestly, that was part of the reason why Warner Bros. came in while we were shooting and picked the movie up. This is not something they typically do.
This was an independently financed movie that they came and bought while it was shooting. I can’t even tell you the last time they did that, and that was because they had a feeling that this thing was going to have some cultural traction because of all the Internet attention it was getting.
With “Magic Mike 2,” have you thought about where you want the story to go?
We actually just had a meeting about it the other day. It’s getting pretty far along. They’ve got a good idea. There were some stories and events that Channing lived through that we just couldn’t fit in the first one. One of them is a really hilarious and very cinematic idea that we reluctantly didn’t put in the first film, because it was such a big idea you could build a whole film out of it – but we didn’t want to build “that” film out of it. It’s perfect for this, though.
How involved will you be?
I want to help. I have some proprietary feelings about it, obviously. I want to make sure it gets done and done well, so we meet every couple of weeks to talk about where it’s going. But it’s gonna be good. It’s a good idea. It’s not a retread. And there will be more time spent with the characters – all of them.
You’re not gonna tell me the idea, are you?
Yeah, I don’t want to share the details.
Is the original cast returning?
What did you make of the flack you received for the lesbian-killer character in “Side Effects”?
I knew that was coming. I thought, “Look, these kind of things swing in both directions.” You get people who are so on guard that it’s hard for them – especially, when they’re looking at a piece of art – to drop the ideology and look at the macro of it. They’re just reacting with their amygdala instead of their prefrontal cortex and they’re crying foul and you go, “No, actually, if you break this down, you only got halfway there before you started yelling.”
Yeah, there was a bit of a flash mob about it initially. I was trying to explain that – actually, she’s not a lesbian. She’s just a fucking opportunist! (Laughs)
“Side Effects” was supposed to be your last film. What made you put retirement on hold for “Behind the Candelabra”?
The movie was supposed to happen earlier and it didn’t. I decided that, actually, this is great if this were – and I’m not saying it will be – the last movie I ever made. I would be very happy. I feel like it’s connected in a lot of ways to the first film I ever made, and it’s also a progression.
Can you talk about the connection between this film and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”?
The connection is that it’s completely relationship driven, and most of it is about two people in a room … except the room is now a hot tub. (Laughs) It’s a progression in the sense that it’s a much more mature piece of work than my first film – obviously, it ought to be – but I’m able to do things, having done it for 24 years, that I wasn’t able to do back then.
Are you still retiring?
In terms of movies, it’s going to be a break. I don’t know how extended. I’m just taking a break from that specific kind of work for a while to see if I can tear everything down and rebuild it. See if I can come back different.