On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Steven Soderbergh and Scott Frank talk about their new Western, “Godless,” which they made as a limited series for Netflix. The filmmakers share their perspectives on how consumers are watching more shows on smaller screens and why it’s a good thing for the industry that more people can easily make films.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here in New York City today with two guests, I normally just have one but this is a special podcast. Scott Frank has been on this podcast before. Steven Soderberg, who has not. Welcome, both of you guys.
Scott Frank: Thanks.
Steven Soderberg: Thanks, Peter.
You have both made some of my favorite things, separately and together. You guys are working on a new ... Have a new project out, “Godless” on Netflix. I keep seeing it described as a feminist Western. I think it means there’s women in it who have speaking parts.
SS: It has a little bar right now.
So Scott you wrote and directed this, Steven you’re executive producer. Scott, give me ... Give a slightly longer description of what the show is.
SF: Well, the show takes place in 1884 in New Mexico and it’s essentially ... It’s about many people but a key part of it is about a town full of women — La Belle, New Mexico — that lost all of their men in a mining accident one afternoon. And into that town and the environs rides a young outlaw who’s been wounded, who gets taken care of by a woman rancher outside of town, who’s an outcast. And looking for him, tearing up the countryside is the man who raised him, Frank Griffin, laying waste to basically any community he comes to and you know it’s only a matter of time before he shows up.
So in many ways a traditional Western, right?
It’s a western Western. Again, there’s a lot of speaking roles for women. Women play an important part of it but it’s not ... Do you think you’re deconstructing the Western or is this just sort of a straightahead ... I’m trying to figure out the best way to get people to watch this. It’s great, they should watch this.
SS: I don’t think you have to get people to watch it. They seem to be watching it based on what I’ve heard, which is the good news. Certainly everywhere I go, I’ve been traveling a lot in the last couple of weeks, all over the country. And everybody makes a point of coming up to me and saying they’ve seen it.
That’s Steven speaking, by the way. You guys will figure this out, I think, when you listen. Famously Netflix doesn’t give you any data about how any of that has performed. I think people like Nielsen as trying to sort of do some guesstimating, are you guys looking at Nielsen numbers? Anyone’s numbers?
SF: I listen to Netflix and they say, “We’re happy. We’re really happy.” To me, that ...
SS: I even heard “very happy.”
SF: Very happy, so that’s all I need.
Is that frustrating or is that liberating to sort of not have data attached to something you’ve put out in the world?
SS: [To Scott] Well, it’s your show. What do you think?
SF: I think it’s liberating. I think that they’re not trying to ... That their metrics for what defines success are different and I think a little more elastic. And the proof is in what they’re making. They’re making a lot of different things right now.
They used to say, because people would ask them, people like me would ask them on earnings calls, "Well, how is this stuff working? Maybe no one’s watching." They say, "Well, if we’re renewing it, then you can tell we like it." This a one-off, I haven’t finished. I’m halfway through episode five. This is a hard show to binge watch. I mean you could binge watch it but it’s, each episode is an hour plus, I think, it’s deliberately paced, you would want to just pile it. I guess you could, right?
SF: You could probably miss a lot if you did that.
Yeah, you kind of want to take your time with it. So this is a one off, do you think you’ll do a project with them again?
SS: We had a great experience with them. The sort of origin story of this project is fairly elaborate.
We have time.
Well, I mean, Scott wrote this script quite a while ago, early 2000s. And it was a film, it was a long film, 180-something pages. And for a long time it was envisioned as a feature. And then not too long ago when Scott was finishing a film and directed a pilot, we were talking and felt it’s time to try and wrestle this thing to the ground. And I said, “Look, instead of having these conversations where people say, ‘Can you cut 35 or 40 pages out of it?’ why don’t we blow it up and go and do it as a limited series?”
Because streaming these limited series is already a thing at this point.
SS: Yeah, the options existed that didn’t really exist when we were talking about it as a movie. And we went into Netflix and basically they read the long feature film script. We gave them a budget number and start date that we pulled out of a dark place. And they said, “Let’s go.” And that was it.
SF: And not only that, the genre was no longer an obstacle in the last 10 years, whereas with movies, Western was a tricky proposition always because in the last 20, 30 years no one was going to Westerns: They don’t travel, as they like to say. They don’t do well overseas. So this was always going to be an expensive proposition.
So even though this was a staple of movie-making in the olden days ...
SF: People don’t watch them. They do on television, though, those Tom Selleck Westerns and the “Lonesome Dove” did well, but even more recently, the “Hatfields and McCoys” was like a huge, huge rating bonanza. But for movies, they were always a tricky proposition, so it just freed me up to not worry about the economics of it so much in terms of being able to do something that you don’t care about the genre.
So what is that process like? You’re taking a feature film, it’s a one-off. Are you going to expand it into a seven-part series, but it’s again still one story, where you’re using a discipline is condense things, for economic reasons but also just as a storyteller. You want to sort of strip it down to the story, so now as you’re adding how do you think about, “Well, let’s not bloat here.”
There’s cool stuff in the show where you can see you’re taking advantage of the opportunity you have there. There’s like extended scenes of like a boy learning to ride a horse. And nothing really happens, he learns how to ride ... I mean, it’s important to the story but I could see that stuff will get stripped out. So as I’m just rambling on here, how do you discipline yourselves in terms of, “Let’s add that, but maybe let’s not overindulge ourselves.”
SF: Well, this is what I would call the writer’s cut. You are able to do the reverse adaption, where you’re able to go deeper with everybody. And what I did is, it still has the same beginning, middle and end it always did as a feature script, but now each ... I’m able to tell more stories about each character. I’m able to go deeper, spend more time with people so you actually care about them a little more, create new relationships, and also I’m able to create other characters sort of outside of town that we can explore as well.
SS: Everybody gets their own movie.
SS: That’s the fun part.
Because one cliché you often hear now is that — a couple — one is that movies are now ... That TV is the new movies. All the stuff that used to be a movie — we talked about this last time, Scott — is now being turned into a TV show. And that also, something like “Game of Thrones” isn’t a TV show, it’s a 60-part movie, or 60-episode movie, 70-episode movie. But again, “Game of Thrones” is supposed to go for a long time, HBO would like it to go on forever. But this is finite, it still has the same end. So the challenge is, let’s not add too many characters and too much stuff.
SF: Yeah, and you do. It’s a bit of trial and error, especially because we were expanding it rather quickly. I mean, I wrote the extra material, some of which I had in my head for the existing script years ago but a lot of which was written in about four months. And if you figure, the first script was a year of, say, research, a year of writing, and this was four months to expand it into the full ...
SS: While we were prepping.
SF: While we were prepping. So you kind of ... You’re not sure of certain things. It all read fine but then when we got into the cutting room — and Steven was a big help in this regard — there was a lot of material that once you see it live on the screen you didn’t need. And you didn’t know until you shot it. And there was a lot of things that was too much, where we went too far.
Steven, I was reading interviews where you talk about the fact that you shoot digital, and one thing you love about that is you’re editing stuff the day you shoot it, you’re not waiting to turn it around. this was the opposite. You shot the whole thing and went into the edit room, more traditional.
Were you ... Did that take ... Did you find that ...
SS: Well, look, Michelle was putting things together as you went but they weren’t flying blind. And the scale of this, really I think wouldn’t have suited a “come back to the hotel room and spend another three or four hours working after being outdoors for 14 hours,” for 114 days.
You stay away from the set, right? Because you and horses?
SS: I didn’t like horses?
It’s a horse thing? It’s a real thing?
SS: Yeah, total horse thing
I hope it’s not a made-up story.
Do not like being around horses.
You can tolerate seeing them on screen.
SS: Yeah, they’re beautiful. They’re very photogenic. I just don’t want to be anywhere near them. I told Scott, “I’m not coming.”
There’s a lot of horse in these.
SS: Yeah, there are a lot.
SF: Well, I wrote it for him to direct originally and I never thought to ask him, A) if he wanted to direct a Western at all and B) how he felt about horses. I just said, “I’m going to write this, he’s going to love this. We had such a good time on ‘Out of Sight,’ this will be our next thing.” No, didn’t work out that way.
I watched the first two episodes on my TV, decent-sized TV, it’s beautiful, that last shot in the first episode, the bad guys are crossing a river in slow motion and the spray is coming up. And I watched the next three on my phone. It’s a new nice phone.
SF: What kind of phone?
It’s the new iPhone.
SF: I’m sure it looks great.
It’s looks great. Sitting on the plane listening, showing from my face. But you’re okay ... You rather that I watch it on TV but you’re okay with the notion that I’m going to watch it on the plane.
SF: Listen, I can always speak for myself. I’d rather watch it on TV. However people come to it, if they enjoy it on their phone, they enjoy it on their phone. I have to be open to whatever is happening with technology now. I sat on the train the other day and someone was watching a movie on their phone, and I don’t understand that. I don’t know how people can do that, but I also know why people are doing it. I know it’s great. You can watch anywhere, but I don’t think I shot it necessarily for people to watch on their phone.
So you don’t think about that when you’re shooting it. You don’t think, “What would this look like on a handheld device?”
SF: I would do a particularly big scopy shot and then I would always make a joke, “That’s going to look great on your iPhone.”
It does look great on your iPhone.
SF: I’m really happy to hear that.
Steven, it seems you’re more amenable to that stuff.
SS: Yeah. To me at the end of the day it’s ... story is story. So I’m pretty agnostic about the venue. And certainly when we did Mosaic, which is an app, I was very aware that this was going to be primarily seen on phones, maybe iPads, possibly Apple TV, but I didn’t do anything differently.
And in fact ... I was reading one of your interviews, I expect that you’re going to be touching on different stuff while you’re looking at this. Let’s talk about what Mosaic is. And we can come back to “Godless” in a minute. But Mosaic is ... I’m not going to trigger you by calling it a “choose your own adventure.”
SS: Good. Don’t make me come over there.
It’s a branching narrative.
SS: Branching narrative I like.
SS: Well the difference is that your choices as you navigate your way through Mosaic do not affect the story. It’s a fixed universe.
So it’s a narrative, there’s a murder.
No matter how you consume it, the same thing happens.
SS: Yeah. Although, depending on whose path you choose, your interpretation of who is responsible could be very different.
So this is an actual thing you made. It’s ... How much content did you make for this?
SS: If you watched everything, it’s about seven and a half hours.
So it’s as long as “Godless” if you wanted to consume the whole thing.
Sharon Stone is the star.
You can eventually see a version of this on HBO?
SS: Yeah, there will be a linear six-hour version, end of January.
So why did you want to make a branching narrative?
SS: Well, I’ve always been interested in how to lay a story out. Form, I think, is a fascinating subject to play around with. And as someone who’s experimented in the non-linear space a little bit, this seemed like a natural progression for me.
Plotted movies move around in time.
SS: Yeah. And this was a way to have it both ways, to sometimes be on a linear track but in a macro sort of philosophical sense to be in a non-linear space. Again, as was “Godless,” for the writer in this case — Ed Solomon — a very, very intense process.
So this is an experiment for you or do you think we’re going to do a lot of these and this is something ...
SS: We have two more that we’re developing. I want go to back and do another one but I want to wait and see what other people do with it.
So the idea is, you built this app and so it’s ... I’m guessing that it’s a platform so other people can ... So you can tell different stories using the same technology now that you built?
SS: Yeah. I mean, you can’t copyright branching narrative, as a concept. But I think a lot of the technology that we created specifically for Mosaic is copyrightable, protectable and, I think, good. What I’m hoping to do is attract some talent to work with us and take it further and create their own versions of this. I view it as a very open source project.
So Mosaic is the app that you financed yourself and the murder mystery is the first story you’re telling through it.
SS: I mean, HBO paid for the whole thing.
Was that always the plan?
Or they paid for app and ... How do you like being an app developer? It’s a tough world.
SS: It is a tough world but interesting. I think in this case, the trick is going to be continuing to develop the format so that it doesn’t feel sort of static creatively. And then down the road, what’s the future of it? Like how do you turn it into something that becomes a business?
It’s 2017, 2018, it’s interesting that there aren’t that many more experiments with shape and delivery of this stuff that you guys are making. There’s streaming — and that’s a big deal — but generally these are TV shows. In the case of “Godless” it’s a one-off movie, but there’s two-hour-long movies, there are hour-long TV shows. You’re not seeing a lot of like short-form stuff or odd lengths.
SS: You are though.
SF: If you think about it. And you’re thinking primarily about the hardware and delivery but look at podcasts. Look at what’s happening in the documentary world. There’s so many different kinds of stories being told right now. The interesting thing about Mosaic for me as a storyteller is that it allows you not to have a gimmick but to go deeper in places you want to go deeper and have it for people if they want to have it. People when they come to you and talk about your story, often you’ll hear, “I really wanted more of this character, that character,” or, “Too much of that. Too much.”
And so can control that experience in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re in an amusement park. It feels like you’re really ... It’s a three dimensional novel, almost. You feel like you’re part of it in a way, and experiencing it in a way that’s different.
All kinds of stories ... You look at true crime right now, it’s exploding and there are I don’t know how many podcasts about that. And the documentary world has become I think for feature film, the best filmmaking and storytelling is happening in documentaries, not in the world of movies, which is all superheroes all time.
But you’ve done well with superheroes.
SS: [To Frank] Yeah, what are you complaining about? It’s, you know.
The last time you were here we talked about “Logan.”
SF: Yeah, and not to bite the hand at all, it is what it is, but I also would like to do other things. And it’s not what I want to see all the time, but if you go for good storytelling you’re not always going to the theater anymore.
Still, storytelling, I think there was a period ... You’ll still hear people talking about special VR, like, “Oh, we want an open world and it’s going to be interactive and you’re going to create the story yourself moving around.” That doesn’t interest you guys, you want to still tell a story.
SF: I don’t know that that’s storytelling so much as an experiential kind of thing.
SS: Yeah, I think in terms of long form, it’s got serious obstacles.
SS: You can’t do a reverse. You can’t look into the eyes of the protagonist. That’s a problem. Currently, I can’t do a montage, which is a problem. Editing in general is kind of not really on the table in the way that is central to creating, I think, a visual story. It is an incredibly arresting immersive technology. I don’t like having that thing on my head for more than 10 or 15 minutes.
Yeah, some people get ill.
SS: I can’t experience it with someone else in the sense that, even when you’re at home, if I’m watching something with my wife and something happens on screen, you get to look at each other and go, “Uh oh!” That’s a big part of watching stuff. So I think there’s a space for it, I just don’t see it as a long-form narrative play.
So we’re going to break up this long-form interview with a quick word from a sponsor. We’ll be right back, Scott Frank, Steven Soderbergh.
We’re back, we’re drinking water with Scott Frank and Steven Soderberg. We talked about “Godless” — I want to go back to that for a second because it’s Netflix. The Netflix pitch ... When they started getting into making their own content there was a lot of talk about how they had this data and they were going to use that to inform choices about what they made. You guys were describing a process where you came and then said you want to make a Western, and they said, great and you did it. How much input did they have either before you made it or as they were making it in terms of what you might want to do with that project?
SF: Well, first of all, they actually reached out to us and said, “We’re looking for a Western, I heard you wrote one.” And that’s the way it happened.
They knew they wanted a Western.
SF: They knew they wanted a Western. They were looking for different kinds of material and that was something that they hadn’t yet done. And they also wanted to experiment in the limited series. They had bought, acquired limited series before but they had never done any in-house. So this was actually their first official in-house production. They responded to the feature script. Their input went like this, they responded to the feature script, they said, “We want to do this, we want to make it our first official miniseries, we’d like to shoot it next year. Come in and talk about it.”
I went in and spoke to them about what I might want to do to expand the script, to how I thought I would be shooting it and so on and so forth, and they said, “Great, let’s do it.” We invited them to every ... I believe in hiding nothing from anyone, so they were a part of every piece of prep. They went on early scout, so everybody from the company, I had all kinds of people from business affairs and post-production. All of them wanted to come and be part of the production, and they were all there and they always knew how we were shooting, what we were shooting, how we were spending the money.
I even told them that it would be hard to lock down a budget before I had all the scripts written because I didn’t want to be penalized for something I didn’t know ... I couldn’t budget it until it was all written and I didn’t want to back into something I couldn’t deliver. And they said, “Okay, we won’t hold you to anything until the scripts are all written.” And I said, “We won’t know the final budget until the first day of shooting,” and they said, “Okay.”
What’s the catch?
SF: No catch.
SS: Hasn’t been one so far. I mean, even the editorial process, which — and this was very complicated, because when you start to make structural changes, unlike a movie .... It’s one thing to sit through a two-hour movie a half-dozen times. When you start making structural changes in a piece like “Godless,” you kind of have to watch the whole thing again to get a sense of whether it worked. That’s hard. It’s hard to watch it, beginning to end, over and over and over again, but if you don’t you can’t judge if these big structural moves that you’re making are working. So it was tricky, that was the trickiest part of it.
SF: It was really hard. And they were in it the whole time. And they would never say, “You have to do this or have to do that.” They would say, “This is how we’re experiencing the show, here’s our input. These are thoughts we have. These are things you might want to do but do what feels right to you.”
Did they ever say, “Look, we have all this data that we’ve amassed over a number of years of streaming, so we’re not telling you to do this but we have noticed that our audience seems to like X more than Y. This casting more than that kind of casting.”
SF: The only thing that they broached that with, and even then it was not ... it wasn’t with any real careful ... It was, “We just want you to know people tend to skip title sequences,” and I wanted a title sequence. And I said, “Well, we’ll just have to do one they don’t want to skip.” They said, “People tend ... We find that people ...” Because it was when I was talking about wanting to do something for the beginning. There was that.
And they do have that button.
SF: In terms of casting, they said we want the best possible actor. If anything it would be like a traditional studio. They said, “Listen, if somebody can go and get on a couch somewhere with somebody like Colbert or Seth Meyers, that would be terrific.” But ideally you want to cast people who work for the role and they never wavered from that.
And where the metrics come in, their algorithms and so on, is in marketing. It’s a whole new way of marketing, and Steven could probably speak to this as well. A traditional studio is going for a date. They’re going for Friday, that weekend, everything, all the money is spent for that date, whereas Netflix, once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.
There’s still push, it’s coming up before Thanksgiving, there’s billboards.
SF: The bulk of the marketing budget isn’t dumped before. What they do is, they put out billboards and they create trailers, some of which I think is just to make the filmmakers happy because I don’t think they need it. I think 60 percent or 70 percent of the people that come to the website, they told me, don’t know what they’re going to watch until they get there. That means the little thumbnail images they’re looking at are hugely important to what they’re going to watch.
Again, is that sort of unsettling? Do you sort of not know how this is being received and not knowing if people are even ... Because it’s possible that there are Netflix subscribers who won’t know this exists because they won’t show it to them.
SF: It’s not unsettling, it’s just new. I think that they take the data and they don’t ... What studios do is they begin to create content based on marketing, so all their content looks the same. I think you and I talked about this, it becomes the snake that eats its own tail. They’re just making the same shit over and over again because their testing has told them what people want to see and so it’s all marketing driven.
You also said they’re very good at it.
SF: They’re very good and frequently, sadly, they can be right. What Netflix does is they use all this marketing, they want to study how people are actually coming to the thing, what were they watching before? What other shows do they also watch? So they watch it, they release it, they put it out there, they definitely target certain people they think might be interested in it. But then they sit back and watch, and then you see a second push.
I noticed this on “Mindhunter.” Tons of advertising spent, three weeks after it’d been out, I’m seeing lots and lots of ads. And same with Netflix, they’re pushing “Godless.” I see it at a football game, you see ... Because now they know who’s watching. Now they have a better sense and it’s actually better rather because they’re not telling you how to make it, they’re taking what you’ve made and figuring out how to sell it.
Steven, this is something that you spend a lot of time thinking about for traditional films now. You did “Logan Lucky,” we were talking about this before. This is a film you basically financed yourself, right? You didn’t pay out of pocket but you assembled this with a team.
SS: Yeah, it was an independent production.
And the idea was you were going to presell all the rights to people like Netflix to cover the cost. And then you were very interested in sort of how the marketing money was going to be spent.
SS: Yeah. It was an opportunity to experiment little bit with how a feature film going out in wide release is handled both creatively and financially. And we learned a lot. And it’s a model I want to continue to use and continue to recalibrate.
What did you learn? Because from the outside ...
SS: And again, it’s tricky. This is where I have real sympathy for anybody who’s in the wide release distribution business. You have to be very careful to not make wholesale assumptions that may be only applicable to the kind of film that you just made.
For instance, here’s what we learned on “Logan Lucky.” We spent — at my request — a hugely disproportionate amount of money in social media in the digital space as opposed to television. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. I think the potential audience for “Logan Lucky” doesn’t really hang out in that space and probably would have been better reached through a certain kind of television, because I think that audience also believes, if they don’t see a lot of TV ads for the movie, the movie is not real.
This is a heist movie, intersects with Nascar...
SS: Yeah, it’s got movie stars in it. But it’s just ... I think for the crowd we were chasing, if they don’t see a lot of ads on TV they just don’t feel like it’s a real movie. They feel like it’s JV. Again, that’s something I felt in retrospect.
What I did learn — again, in the case of that film — was that people in the social media digital space find that activity, circulating in that world, liking stuff, pushing it around, watching it, to be a pleasurable activity in and of itself. It is a discrete form of entertainment for them that does not necessarily lead to buying a ticket to a movie.
“Let’s look at the trailer,” “Let’s discuss the trailer,” or, “Let’s share the trailer.”
SS: No, the number of eyeballs that we got on all the content we dropped was ridiculously high. We were successful in that regard. What we learned was, people just like doing that to do it. Because if 1 percent of those people had bought tickets, we’d have made an obscene amount of money.
That was a good lesson to learn, so going forward what I have to be careful about doing is going like, “Oh, screw digital. We’re going all TV.” That might work for a certain kind of film but it might not. I think you just have to be really clear about where’s your audience that is going to buy a ticket hanging out?
I was reading an interview of you. I think it was before the movie had come out but you were talking about it and you were saying, “Yeah, traditional marketing is stupid and we should compress all the time between when a trailer comes out, when the movie comes out, because it’s dumb to have a trailer come out four months in advance.”
SS: That I still believe.
You still believe that.
SS: On the film that we have coming out in March, we tightened that window significantly.
And that’s a horror movie?
SS: Yeah. Sort of. Psychological thriller. It’s called “Unsane.”
So I won’t see a trailer until end of January. It comes out in March. And normally, that would be ... I’d see one now?
Yeah. And that’s your call.
Interesting. And then the other part of “Logan Lucky” that was interesting was that you were saying, “In addition to how we’re financing and how we’re making, we’re going to provide real transparency to everyone who’s participating in this about how much money they are going to make or not going to make.” How did that part work?
SS: It’s working. We’re still in the middle of it. We’re still collecting from theaters. The Amazon deal that we made for the ancillary rights and streaming rights, that money comes in over time. DVD money comes in over time. Still making TV deals. But it all goes into a central account that anybody can access.
So if I’m an actor I can get a log-in.
SS: Just call us up. Here you go.
Traditionally that has been very difficult, that you end up usually having to sue someone to get those ...
SS: Well look, my experience has been, each studio is different. You end up auditing ... I think in most cases this isn’t mendacity, it’s they are overwhelmed. There are only a ton of people in these departments tracking this stuff. And they have hundreds of projects out there in various phases of their cycles of revenue generation, and I think ... You always find stuff when you audit but it’s usually just ...
You don’t think it’s going well because people will say that’s part of the business plan. It’s actually to make this stuff difficult to track.
SF: No. One thing to keep in mind, the whole conversation has to be sort of contextualized and it’s for studios to market movies, the machine they have to keep oiled is so expensive. So if they make a movie, even if they make a movie that’s a $5 million movie, they’re spending $30 million to market it, or 25. It depends on the film. They’re spending a ton of money because they have all these ... they have the factories. They’ve got to feed the factories and it’s super expensive. Whereas if you rent the distribution, if you rent the marketing, it’s a lot cheaper for you.
Are you guys interested in that Jason Blum model where the marketing is sort of traditional but then the innovation is just in keeping things to a super-tight budget, then letting you do what you want? Or is that sort of what you’ve always been doing?
SS: Yeah. I mean, no. That’s a great model. I just want to do it without Jason. I think he set up something that’s really smart and is working really well creatively and financially. The difference in our model is there’s just ... There’s no studio.
So you’re sort of a poster child for the indie film movement of the late ’80s. When did you break in? “Sex, Lies” was ’89. I’m that old. And that was the era where, I don’t know if it’s your case, but the story would be, film X goes and finances a thing on his credit card and eventually gets bought up. There was a big boom of that stuff, and that seems to have gone away for the most part.
SS: Well, it’s just different. It’s difficult now for an indie movie to burst out the way they could back then. It’s just harder. I remember during “Sex, Lies,” at our peak we were all like unbelievably excited because the movie was making a million dollars a week. And we just thought that was an outrageous sum of money.
It’s actually not bad now, right?
SS: That today, that’s a career-ender. I’m just saying that in 1989, we called each other on the phone like, “Dude, we’re making a million dollars a week.”
Well, because they would pull it. They wouldn’t be in a theater after Week Two, right? ... after Week One.
SS: Well, it’s just that for an independent film platform release, I don’t know what our ultimate screen count was. That just seemed like an incredible amount of money to us. Like Scott said, it’s sort of an inverted pyramid now and I think it’s why ... There’s a psychological barrier, I think, to the idea of making a movie for $5 million and then spending $35 million to market it. I think a lot of people think, “Isn’t that kind of weird?” Whereas, actually, it’s potentially more lucrative.
So depending on where you hear this, we’ll see, I think it’s going to come out really soon, but it seems like Disney is going to buy part of Fox. If they don’t buy Fox, Comcast is going to buy it. There’s going to be consolidation throughout the media landscape, definitely in the big studios. What does it mean for you guys?
SS: I don’t know. As long as there’s more than two I’m happy. But the other thing you have to remember is, we live in a world now where if you want to go off completely on your own you can do that. I mean, for people that say, “Wow, they’re really bottle-necking distribution now, there’s fewer companies.” Yeah, but you know what? At the end of the day, I can go out and make a movie and create my own platform and charge people $4.99 to watch it and I can do that.
SF: Also, if you don’t care about screens, if you don’t care about seeing it in the theater, everybody is creating content and financing content: Apple, YouTube, there’s the guys who used to mail you your DVDs, they’re now in production. It’s a whole new world. The studios are not ... It feels like a library move to me. They’re trying to do what Netflix is doing. They’re trying to have all this content at their disposal. And so I don’t know that that affects ... They’re still making, what is it? 400 shows or 500, some insane number of productions.
SS: I think it’s 800. Their total script ... It’s a crazy number.
SF: Whatever it is, it’s a huge number compared to what it used to be. They’re looking for material. The hard thing, if you’re going back to the independent film world, because of technology you can make a movie on your phone, you can cut it on your laptop. It’s not hard to make a movie, but getting it seen is really difficult. And so lots of independent movies get made but getting seen with any larger audience or distributed into theaters, that becomes the problem. Even getting them on pay-per-view, a lot of them go straight to pay-per-view. That’s still not many.
SS: Which is where festivals come in. Festivals become a kind of filter in terms of the curation of the programing and then people responding to the film, and that’s one way ... Anybody can go out and make a movie and anybody can submit it to a festival. So at a certain point, talent is still talent. And the democratization of that means, I think, hasn’t shown that there are a significant number of secret geniuses out there that were never going to get a shot, but it has in a couple of cases I think provided opportunities for people who were truly talented.
There’s not a million people making their own movie but instead of 100 making their own movie maybe it’s 200.
SS: This is a theory that I think probably can’t be proven, but I think there’s just a certain amount of great art that can exist in a calendar year. And if you make 600 movies or you make 60, there’s still only going to be five or six that are really great. It’s not a linear equation that is tied to volume. That’s what I’m saying, it’s like if everyone is out there making movies, I still think there’s still only going to be a couple that are great that we would not have seen otherwise, but that’s still a couple.
SF: And two other good things happen as a result of that. One, you begin to develop more artists, the people who might not be good now, maybe they get a shot to figure it out and become better. But also you get more and more people in the habit of watching things. Look at what’s happened with television right now. People’s attitudes toward it — or going back to podcasts, that’s like old radio.
This old radio, here.
SF: Yeah. That’s really what it is. And that whole world is huge now. So the more that happens, yeah, there’s a definite limited number of people who still really are truly talented and definitely a limited number of really good pieces of material, but something about it shakes it all up in an interesting way.
SS: What I love about this technology is the liberation of it. The fact you don’t need to wait for permission, it has become in terms of filmmaking ... If you’re a painter, you have an idea, you just go to the wall and you start, and I feel like you can just do that now. You can just go to the wall. Like you’ve got your phone and you’ve got an idea, start.
So if you were starting and you wanted to do “Sex, Lies,” you’d make it on your phone.
SS: Absolutely. I wish I had had this stuff when I was 15.
So you’re absolutely of the mind that technology seems like a net plus for what you do.
SS: The bottom line is you get better by making things, and the more time you spend making things, the better you get. And so to be able to iterate this quickly and learn, I just think that’s a gigantic gap.
I was trying to figure out a smooth segue for this. There’s no smooth segue for this. How has life changed for you post Harvey Weinstein? Every day there’s a new story about terrible behavior throughout the world, but a lot of them are happening in Hollywood, in entertainment. What does it mean for you?
SS: Well, it doesn’t change my life at all. I think hopefully it’s going to change the lives of a lot other people. I think it’s one of those situations in which for a long time people have known that something needs to change and yet it doesn’t, until suddenly it does. And we reached the point, like whatever the convergence of events needed to take place happened and now we’re in a new landscape and great.
Have you been on sets or in working conditions since these stories that are coming out where you can see, there’s a change in the way people are interacting with each other or that has not filtered down yet?
SF: Well, it’s changing the conversation, certainly. I haven’t been on a set since all this has been happening, but definitely there was a change in the conversation. I think another result of all this, I think, would be just opening the doors more. I think a lot of people who’ve been in charge are sort of been shown to be what they’ve always been, in a way, and I think a lot of people have been held back in certain ways and I think it’s just going to stir up things up in a way that it will ultimately be positive.
SS: Oh no, it’s huge. I think that shit is over. Like, it’s over.
To be clear, you’re talking about both sexual harassment and predation and every other variation that, and general sort of tyranny?
SF: Also, access to other people, letting in more and more women filmmakers and African-American filmmakers and everybody. Again, this sort of idea that only this person can do it or that person can do it. Again, talent ultimately wins the day, I think, but they’re not even looking in this direction or that direction but I think they are now.
SS: Yeah, but to your point, there’s a larger issue here beyond the specifics of these cases that have come out, which is the abuse of power. The fact that, as soon as you had two sets of human beings with caves, one of them looked over at the other and said, “Why is there a cave bigger than ours?” This is a human problem of status and ego. And it’s always been around and it’s always going to be around, and the question is how do we deal with it? But you see it everywhere you look. I’m glad that this conversation has now sort of taken on critical mass, and now we’ve been sort of vaccinated, you can’t not think about it now. And I think that’s fantastic.
So you guys have status and power and you’re gatekeepers, you’re the kind of people that can abuse other people traditionally in Hollywood and in entertainment. You seem like nice fellows, I’ve talked to Scott now twice. I like Steven’s movies but I don’t know what you’re like. Are you spending time sort of rethinking how you’ve interacted with people and thought, “I think I’m a good person but I should have done this differently or maybe I’ll do this differently going forward.”
SS: Look, I’ve tried to operate under a belief system that I was raised with, by my parents, by my father who was a teacher and who taught other teachers, by people who mentored me early on, who luckily for me had a very egalitarian attitude about power structures and believed in a chain of command but not a chain of respect. That’s the way I’ve always tried to treat people.
And I’ve never believed that you get the best out of somebody by creating tension or by diminishing them or by abusing them. I’ve never seen it, I never grew up around it, so I never saw it “work.” Guillermo del Toro is a perfect example. This is one of the nicest people that I’ve ever met in the film business and certainly one of the most talented people working right now. So it’s clear, you can make great work and be nice.
You don’t need to be an asshole to make art.
SS: No. And in fact, in the long run, it’s a detriment, because people shut down, you can’t do this stuff alone. When you’re trying to solve a problem you need help. People shut down.
I worked on crews before “Sex, Lies” where there were directors who were prima donnas or egotistical to the point of people deciding, “I’m just going to let you flail, I’m not going to help because you’re being kind of an asshole.” So there’s the short-term effect, which is people don’t want to help you. There’s a long-term effect, which is, unless you have the Halley’s Comet gift of creating one massive hit after another and you’re just leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop, at a certain point people are just going to go, “I don’t want to work with that person anymore, it’s unpleasant. Everybody comes away bruised and the movie bombed.”
Casey Silver, our producer on “Godless” who I’ve known for 30 years, I got in the room on “Out of Sight.” I had to wait for a lot of other people to pass, I had made two movies for Casey that didn’t make a nickel, “King of the Hill” and “The Underneath.” He put me in that room because he liked me, and he was like, “Well, at least if Steven is on that movie, I’m not going to get calls about problems. He’ll call me when he’s ready to show it.” And so that’s a direct result of being known as someone rational and respectful.
It does seem like, the landscape we’re talking about and how technology is changing and the industry is changing, helps in this regard because there’s less concentrated power. We were just talking about how the studios are going to concentrate, but there’s more opportunities for people to do more work, you don’t have to work with a Harvey Weinstein if you don’t want to, or it’s easier to work without having to go through them, where 30 years ago that was the pipeline.
SS: Well, like I said, it’s this thing you meet somebody who behaves in a certain way, let’s say in an unpleasant sort of abusive way. You talk to them and they go, “I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved because I am that way.” And I look at you and I go, “No, you’re half of what you could be because you behave that way.” That’s my attitude.
SF: And having worked for a lot of great directors, the whole director-as-tyrant thing, I’ve never seen it and I’m not good around it. I’m not good being around people who are that way or treat other people that way. I’ve never done good work, I can’t imagine how people do good work when they’re afraid all the time. And when I started directing, I could feel myself losing hold of my better self whenever I started to become afraid and then I realized, “No, what I need to do is, I actually need to get help.” And that’s what I need to do, I need to ...
I think the worst advice I ever got when I started directing was from someone who said to me, “If you’re standing on the set and you don’t know what to do, don’t let anyone know that you don’t know what to do. Fake it. If you’re stuck and you have a problem, don’t let anyone know that you’re having a problem.” It’s the worst advice ever, because once people know that you want help and you’re the kind of person that’s not afraid to ask for help, I think you get ... The collaboration becomes much better.
SS: Yeah, and I think, look, you articulate that. We’ve all been on a set and watched something rehearsed or whatever and you feel like it’s just not working, and when somebody says, “So what’s the plan?” You go, “I don’t know.” I mean, it’s a conversation, you go, “I don’t know because if we do it this way it doesn’t work. If we do it that way it doesn’t work.” Like, you explain, “The reason I’m stuck here is because all of the options to me seem unacceptable.”
There’s a flip side if you go to a person in charge and say, “What do you want to do?” and they go, “I don’t know.” You go, “...” That’s not confidence-building.
SF: Yeah, that’s not good either. But it’s not that you don’t know what you want, it’s that it’s not working. It’s just not working. And you have a conversation about why isn’t this working and this is what it’s supposed to be and this is what it is right now. I think walking onto a set and not knowing what you want is kind of death, I think.
This is a kind of nice positive way to end an interview. This is good. We talked about “Unseen” is ...
“Unsane,” sorry. “Godless” you can watch whenever. It’s with ...
SF: Right now it’s running on your TV box. I don’t know.
What would you like to do next?
SS: Well, we’re going to lunch and talk about this, actually. I’m blissfully unemployed right now.
When you’re at lunch or dinner or whenever, you can also buy liquor from Steven.
SS: You can if you’re predisposed to do that kind of thing.
SS: Singani 63.
It does not have your name on it?
SS: Not anymore.
Does not have your face on it?
SS: No. It never did, thank God.
And it’s a brandy-ish?
SS: Technically it’s a brandy. It’s a clear spirit, mixable, drinkable.
And this is not a vanity project for you. Like, your name is not on it, it’s an actual business.
SS: No, it’s not a hobby.
Thank you for doing this.
SS: What we got to do is go get some and then do a podcast. It’s very tasty.
There’s a liquor store right next door. I’m going to check it out.
Deal. Steven, thanks for coming. Scott, thanks for coming again.
SF: Thanks for having us.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.