Innovation In Action: Steven Soderbergh Talks “Haywire”

Soderbergh talks about reinventing the action genre in Haywire, what’s next as he announces his retirement and the need to push new forms of storytelling.

Innovation In Action: Steven Soderbergh Talks “Haywire”
Haywire, from Relativity Media, hit theaters January 20

“You shouldn’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.”


When the ethically challenged security contractor Kenneth (played by Ewan McGregor) says these lines partway into Haywire, it’s as a warning to Paul, an assassin sent to kill Kenneth’s erstwhile employee and lover, Mallory Kane.

We last see Paul (Michael Fassbender) between Kane’s legs, but not in a way that ends satisfactorily for him. And that’s the neat thing about Haywire. You shouldn’t think of it as making a feminist statement. That would be a mistake, as it’s first and foremost an action movie that nods to an earlier era while simultaneously modernizing the form. But you sort of can’t help it. Because it’s unusual for Hollywood to make a film that’s not a “Woman’s Movie” that’s driven by a woman–an unknown (in film circles) woman who, while beautiful, hasn’t been cast just for her sex appeal; a woman who, in fact, spends most of her screen time laying savage beatings on nearly every main male character.

But director Steven Soderbergh has, after all, done pretty well for himself–and for movie fans– by pursuing the unusual. Soderbergh has been one of Hollywood’s most consistent innovators since his 1989 Sex, Lies, and Videotape helped rekindle the independent film movement. For a director with such a track record for commercially successful films (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s 11, last year’s Contagion ), he’s also been a constant risk-taker, experimenting with content, form, talent, even distribution (The Girlfriend Experience, Full Frontal, Schizopolis, Bubble).

With Haywire, produced out of Relativity Media, Soderbergh has again departed from convention, while making a full-on action film. Haywire is a revenge-fueled thriller starring a “non-actor,” mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, and an all-star cast including Fassbender, McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Channing Tatum. Carano plays Kane, an ex-Marine and black ops agent for hire and McGregor her one-time boss. After a successful mission rescuing a hostage in Barcelona, Kane is double-crossed and must evade an array of assailants while unraveling what went wrong and then executing sweet, face-breaking payback.

While the plot is full of mysterious twists and unfolds across multiple locations including Barcelona, Dublin, New Mexico, and upstate New York, the story and the action play out simply (if it puts viewers in mind of The Limey, it should–Soderbergh teamed again here with Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs and considers the two films, along with Kafka, part of a sort of trilogy).

But what sets Haywire apart are its face- and foot-pounding scenes, which are captured in a minimalist way that makes them feel fresher–and more brutal–than your average movie melee. The action scenes–including a showstopping hotel room fight between Carano and Fassbender, a breathtaking chase through the streets of Dublin, and a sunset beach beatdown that will make you reconsider everything you once thought about cornrows–are striking (pun sort of intended) for their bone-crushing authenticity. Soderbergh filmed the scenes sans music and without the post-production bells and whistles that give a lot of movie fights their cartoonish gloss. Carano is the special effect here, and the treat is watching her do her thing in the context of a stylish Steven Soderbergh film, surrounded by A-List stars.


The director’s goal was to make an action film that evoked ’60s spy thrillers more than today’s hyper-edited, effects-enhanced variety. But then, one day while watching TV he stumbled across Carano in action and immediately wanted to build a film around her. The resulting film may be one of Soderbergh’s last, at least for a while.

After Haywire, Soderbergh will release Magic Mike, a story set in the world of male strippers (based on an idea from Haywire star Channing Tatum, himself a former dancer), the Liberace biopic Behind The Candelabra, which will air on HBO, and The Side Effects, which will also star Tatum along with Jude Law and Blake Lively. And then, he says, he’s retiring from feature filmmaking. But don’t expect him to retire from creating.

Co.Create talked to Soderbergh about the making of Haywire and what’s next for a director who’s looking for a whole new kind of story to tell.

Co.Create: Take us back to what was going through your head when you randomly encountered Gina while watching TV.

Steven Soderbergh: I saw her probably in late 2008. But (the idea for the film) was kind of a nascent idea until Moneyball fell apart. The idea of seeing her and thinking immediately, “Wow, someone should build a movie around her,” was kind of laying there. I didn’t do anything about it until I got fired and then, literally, I called her representatives and said, “I want to sit down with her.” I thought, let’s try it, and none of the things I was developing were ready to go, so I wanted to do something quick. So I just kind of pitched her the idea, and tried to get a sense of whether or not she could handle it. Not just handle it in terms of being in front of the camera, but I needed to get a sense of who she was personally. Is this someone I’m going to be happy to be spending a lot of time with.

Going back to your nascent idea–you had the idea to do a film in this genre; how well-developed was that idea before you came to her?


Well, at the same time I had a desire to make a spy movie of some sort, but more in the vein of the ‘60s than the way they’re being done now. But again, that was kind of latent and I wasn’t doing anything about it. And it was when I decided to put these two things together that it suddenly seemed like something worth doing. If we were going to make a sort of espionage film, I didn’t want to do a traditional version of it. And having her as the protagonist seemed to be a way of keeping it from being down the middle. And, you know, as I’ve talked about, anytime you have a female protagonist, I feel like the stakes are raised because women have an extra layer of conflict, because men run everything. So, whatever they’re trying to accomplish, they have to deal with that, on top of everything else. I like movies with women at the center for that reason. And our approach was, as Ewen says in the film, “You shouldn’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.” Our approach to the narrative, our approach to the physical action in the movie was to never patronize her by treating her differently than we would a male character. So she takes the sort of beatings you don’t really see women take. It’s a very loaded thing to have a guy punch a woman in the face as hard as he can. It’s very disturbing. The upside is that she gets to dish it out, but it’s an odd thing to ask a man to do, even on screen.

Going back to your decision to cast her: Obviously you saw her and she had a presence and a physicality that led you to believe she could do a role like this. But at what point did you go, Okay, I know now she can actually carry the “acting” part, if you will?

I was never really worried about that because I’ve had a decent amount of experience working with people who are either not actors at all, or are not trained actors. And there’s an approach that usually yields pretty good results, and it’s a combination of how you conceptualize the character, keeping it very close to the way they are, and creating an environment in which their default mode is to be who they are. You know, the first thing you don’t want to do is ask her to do something that’s beyond her capability. Lem and I viewed her very much as kind of a Clint Eastwood character–very minimal in her manner of speaking; very direct, very terse. And I had no doubts that she could handle this. And then we just made sure we surrounded her with really, really good people. They were all very generous with her; they wanted her to succeed.

As you say, you have worked with a lot of real people before–why have you been attracted to that?

They just have a quality that I think is really unique. They haven’t learned anything wrong. So, if you can sort of get them to be themselves, there’s a quality there that I think is impossible to duplicate. Most actors are thinking about the result of the scene like they have a goal, and, and these people don’t; they don’t have a goal other than to just survive, you know, get through the day. It’s a different energy, and I think a very un-self-conscious energy, potentially, if you get them in the right space. So when I look at her in the film, you know she’s not an actor, and yet she looks like she belongs there, and she has a quality that absolutely works for the film better than having an actor would. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s just compelling. It makes you want to look at her, you know, the fact that you know she’s not an actor.

You’ve got the background with real people, but was making this film also an easier proposition because reality is so much a part of entertainment and culture now?


I don’t know, because most of what’s passing for reality television now is less convincing than fiction, you know? I mean, it’s so manipulated. There’s very little of it that I can bear to watch. But, certainly a lot of lines that used to exist don’t exist anymore. For instance, television and movies—people going back and forth now. There used to be a sort of firewall between actors who were in television and actors who were in movies, and it just doesn’t exist anymore. Nobody cares. You can make an argument that the most interesting things being made right now are being made on television because the film business has become so conservative. And I think you’re right. I think that opens up when you combine that with the fact that there are so many shows in which people are becoming known for being themselves.

Were there any things that you did, just in terms of directing her, that would have been different than somebody who’s an experienced actor?

Not really, because I don’t like to get in the way of any actor. And, honestly, if I can restrict my comments to physical things, I feel like I always get a better result. Because I don’t wanna get in their head. That’s the last place you want an actor–sort of distracted, or trying to enact some intellectual idea that you’ve given them. So, I try to keep things pretty technical–about what they’re doing with their body, what they’re doing with their eyes, when they take a pause, when they don’t take a pause. Stuff that isn’t philosophical; it’s purely technical. That’s my goal. So, that was the same with her as it was with everyone. I might say, “Say that faster,” or, “Take a longer beat between those two lines,” ‘Don’t look at him until the second line.” That’s the same thing I would say to Michael Fassbender.

Obviously the action itself was a big departure from what you normally see today in that it looks so real. What was your approach to how you wanted those scenes to play out as a whole?

On every movie, I sort of sit down with myself and determine what my toolkit is going to be. What are the rules? What what’s the visual grammar of the film? What kind of lenses? What are the rules of movement? What are the patterns going to be? And in this case, part of it was a reaction to the way action’s being done lately. Because we wanted to go in another direction. Fewer cuts, looser shots–there’s only one handheld scene that’s in the film, which is the hostage extraction, and that’s in slow motion, so it’s not even normal handheld. And we wanted to take advantage of the fact that we had people that could really do this stuff, so we don’t have to trick anyone, we don’t have to indulge in the kind of movie magic that a lot of people might have to ordinarily. The other things, like having no music over the fights, and things like that, were all in aid of making it feel real–that it was really happening.

In terms of the the script–you had the basic idea and then, what was the process between you and Lem Dobbs? Did you got back and forth a lot?


Yeah. We would go back and forth because we had to generate something really quickly. So, we had some basic discussions with our technical advisor and our producer, and the four of us would just sit in a room and, again, just talk about what’s real–what is the private security world really like? What kind of things do they do? What kind of money is involved? What kind of equipment is involved? And I always thought of the film as being a sort of companion piece to The Limey–a revenge movie, with a non-linear structure that would have a kind of similar tone. So he would send me stuff, I would say, “Look, I’ll take a run at these scenes. You take a run at those scenes.” We’d switch, we’d send them back and forth. It was very fluid. We had a first draft in like five weeks.

You’re known for being a fast, efficient director. How does that manifest itself in the way you work?

It depends on what the shot is, depends on what the scene is. But, going in, no matter what I’m doing, my attitude is: How few shots do I need to pull this off? Not how many. I want a reason for every angle. I want a reason for every cut. One of the things that I was really proud about with Contagion is I just feel like there’s zero percent body fat on that movie. There isn’t a wasted image or moment. I think most movies are too long. So in this case, it was again, sort of a similar attitude. I guess that’s my attitude in general–why should this be more complicated than it needs to be? Sometimes it needs to be complicated. Sometimes you need a lot, you know. In the beach scene, you do need a lot of shots. But, there’s still a way to be really efficient about that. And some of it’s just experience. Knowing, especially if I’m cutting it myself, and I’ve got a complicated master I’ve set up with multiple destinations. I know what pieces need to work for me to have the scene to work. And really, in terms of the crew, and the cast, and just the viewpoint of people who are not the director, the most important thing you probably need to know is when you’ve got it. When to move on.

There are multiple locations in the film that give it a sweep but the way the locations were shot also contributed to the real feeling. How did you approach that?

One thing is I’m not a big believer in establishing shots. I like the visual context of where we are to sort of be revealed gradually. I can’t imagine doing a helicopter shot in the city. Like, what do you do with a helicopter shot that hasn’t been done? So, even though we’re in Barcelona, which is the most beautiful city in the world, there aren’t any establishing shots. You’re just with her. It’s something similar to the kind of rules we had around Contagion, which is, we can’t show a city where our characters haven’t been. We can’t have shots of Paris with a bunch of people sick and dying that we’ve never met. You can’t have shots of the President. We sort of had rules on that movie from a narrative stand point about what we were willing to do, and what we weren’t, in order to keep it feeling real.

So what about the next phase of your career; you’ve said you’re retiring. Are you going to explore different ways of telling stories?

Sure. I’m sure I’ll do some theater. There’s a musical that I wanted to do as a film, but that I think maybe is better off being done on stage. And just making things that can’t get stolen, you know. Either handmade, one-of-a-kind things, or experiences that cannot be pirated. It’s a real problem. This whole debate going on now is really interesting.


It is interesting–you have the problem but you have lot of industries that haven’t done a good enough job of confronting the reality of what the Internet brings and finding ways to make money within that…

I think the whole thing is going to be, we’re going to have to redefine what success means. I think it’s going to get harder and harder for bigger companies to survive the way they used to. I think what the Internet is going to bring about is the return of the smaller company.

My whole idea is at some point in the near future to have a site, a destination to go and there’s just a lot of stuff on it. A lot of different things, but they’re all sort of hand made one of a kind items. I don’t have to make a lot of money to survive on that. I don’t have a crazy-ass lifestyle. If I can just keep generating a decent amount of stuff that’s available at a pretty reasonable price that’s a good business model for me.

I’d love to make an industrial film. I used to work on those when I was younger. I was a cameraman and editor. I loved them. People say what are you going to do and I have a long list of things I’m interested in doing. Ideas that aren’t movie ideas. They’re just ideas for other stuff. I would have no problem just identifying a company that I think is really interesting and contacting them and going you guys should let me make something for you about your company. And we’ll put it up. People can see it. It would be a blast. I didn’t get into this to make money. I didn’t get into it to accumulate power. I didn’t get into it to cultivate acclaim. I got into it because I like the act of making something. Start with a great product and everything flows from that. You start by making something you like, that you would go to see, that you would buy and see what happens. I’ve never made something because other people would like it. I don’t know how to do that. That seems like a waste of your life.

Do you see yourself putting stuff out there directly? You’ve seen what people like Louis CK and others have done in terms of controlling the distribution process…

It could be. My issue is more my own evolution as a filmmaker. I’m trying to envision a different kind of film. And I don’t know what that would be–if I knew I’d be making it now. So, it’s conceivable that I could go off and do that on my own and not have to deal with anybody between me and the people who want to see it. That, philosophically, would be great. The issue for me is more–what is the film? What kind of film is it? Is there a new kind of film? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I’m trying to see if I can work around the tyranny of narrative. Not that I don’t want to tell a story. I just wish there was a different way to tell it. I feel like we haven’t pushed this thing, this form into its next phase yet. I don’t think that’s an incremental process. I think I need to tear down, I need to destroy everything I’ve done so far and start over again. See if I can become a primitive again. I don’t know if it’s possible. I think that’s why working in another medium for a while will help. Because you get trapped into a certain way of thinking because of the system and all that. You go to these default ways of showing things. I need to get out of that.

About the author

Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Co.Create. She was previously the editor of Advertising Age’s Creativity, covering all things creative in the brand world