HBO's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra" has generated so much buzz thanks to its subject matter (the tormented relationship between the pianist and his much younger lover, Scott Thorson) and its well-known leading men (Michael Douglas and Matt Damon), it's easy to forget it also happens to be the last film directed by Steven Soderbergh before he goes into self-imposed exile from moviemaking.
Twenty-four years after his low-budget drama "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" took Cannes by storm and helped usher in a new age in independent cinema, Soderbergh, 50, is done with the medium — at least for now.
"The phone’s not ringing as often, which is fine," said the (former?) director in his paint-splattered Chelsea office this year, just a few days after putting the finishing touches on "Behind the Candelabra."
He opened up about the film's tortuous journey to the small screen, his frustration with the Hollywood machine and his plans. (Spoiler alert: He's keeping pretty busy. )
“Behind the Candelabra” took something like 13 years to come to fruition. Can you walk me through the development process?
I’d talked to Michael about it during “Traffic.” It was sort of in the back of my mind for a while, and I did some rudimentary research on it. I didn’t want to do a biopic in the traditional sense. I wanted to go narrow and deep, but I couldn’t figure out what the narrative idea was going to be. I didn’t want to do one of those things where you have like four different people playing him Liberace at different stages in his life.
A friend recommended the book, and it solved the problem. It’s Alice going down the rabbit hole. That’s a much more elegant way to get into Liberace’s life. That’s when I called [executive producer] Jerry Weintraub and asked him to secure the rights. Let’s hire Richard LaGravenese and let’s get going. I’d given Matt the book to read in 2007, and he said he was up for it. Jerry and Warner Bros. had split the cost of the draft, and they decided they didn’t want to do it. So we started this process of selling foreign rights and looking around for a domestic distributor to fill out the rest of the financing. We just couldn’t get anybody else to say yes. It was around that Michael got sick. When he started feeling better and we picked up speed again. In the interim, Jerry had made this documentary about himself that HBO had bought, and he must have had a conversation with somebody over there about this. They said, "We’ll do that tomorrow.” And it was kind of done.
Did Matt and Michael take much convincing?
I said: “Look, here’s my attitude. We want to make the movie. That’s priority No. 1. And I can also make an argument, given the landscape of the theatrical film business right now, that more people are going to see it if we go this way.” And they said, “Fine.”
What about Liberace interested you?
I have memories of seeing him on TV, my parents liked him. As a kid, there’s obviously something about him that you’re not quite able to articulate. I found him very entertaining but also sensed that he was atypical. And now of course, I can have a much broader appreciation of what a talent he was, and understand that he sort of created a kind of persona that a lot of other people appropriated. This was before Elton John, before Cher, before Madonna, before Lady Gaga, before all of these often single-named, flamboyant, very entertaining performers. The guy was a real groundbreaker in terms of presentation. Nobody had really done it like that before. That combined with what everyone acknowledges as a profound technical ability — Marvin Hamlisch said he’s technically the best keyboardist he ever saw — that made it more compelling.
How do you think people who knew Liberace will respond to your portrait?
I don’t see any scenario in which they can be happy, not because it’s a hatchet job but because it focuses on an area of his life that he didn’t really share with anyone. I think it will be very difficult for them to take a 30,000-foot view of the piece as a whole. But I think ultimately it’s a very generous movie toward both of them. It takes the relationship seriously, and it takes both of them seriously. Look, if you offered a million dollars to somebody who had a bad story about Liberace, you could do so secure that you would never have to write that check.
Did Warner Bros. give you a reason for passing?
The consensus was that there would be no audience for the movie outside of a gay audience, and that given the costs — not necessarily the money we needed from them for the rights, which was in the $5-million range, but the cost of putting a movie out, which is in the $25-million range, they’ve got to do 60-plus to get out — they just felt like, "We are not convinced, even with these elements involved, that there’s an audience for this outside of gay people." None of us thought that was true; we thought there was a much broader audience for it, but that was what was coming back to us pretty consistently: “This seems so gay that only gay people will like it.” There’s not a lot you can say to that. They’re just looking at the economics of it.
Do you think maybe it was the wrong kind of gay — too weird and out there? The relationship between Scott and Liberace is pretty unusual, regardless of their sexuality.
I don’t know. Honestly, or maybe naively, I wasn’t really looking at it that way. It was just a relationship to me. The dynamic of the relationship that he had with Scott was very volatile, but it’d be the same story no matter what the gender: Older powerful figure, younger beautiful person with no power. Add showbiz and you’ve got a pretty complex mélange of elements.
I guess I felt that it was so entertaining, and that there was so much eye candy in it, that obviously you were going to be able to cut the best trailer in the world because of all the fun visual stuff, and the subject matter and the people involved would get you the kind of attention that you just can't buy. And as soon as the thing was announced, it’s a real chatter magnet. Maybe that’s why it is a better fit for HBO because their model is different. That’s why for them I think this was a no-brainer. In essence as soon as they announced they were doing it, they won. Hopefully people will watch it and like it and it’ll work for them in that regard, but in having this experience and talking to [David] Fincher about “House of Cards,” suddenly the subscription model seems really appealing.
Did you have any reluctance about taking the movie to HBO rather than having a theatrical release?
Not at all. I’d worked with them 10 years ago [on the series “K Street”] and had a good experience then. Most of the stuff that I’m looking forward to seeing is on TV now. Almost exclusively due to “The Sopranos,” there’s been a resurgence in long-form television. That’s great for someone like me, the ability to play out a narrative with a very long arc and explore complicated characters and have the audience be happy about that, it’s very enticing. I have this John Barth novel [“The Sot-Weed Factor”] that I’ve had written as 12 one-hour segments. If I were to go back to work I’d probably set that up.