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Interview: Steven Soderbergh on Magic Mike

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Steven Soderbergh knows what women want — and, conversely, what most dudes don’t. His latest feature, Magic Mike, is an, ahem, intimate look at the world of male strippers. Obviously, the very subject potentially alienates a large segment of the population. Obviously, this is not what a director aims for.

And yet: “I think it’s not for men,” Soderbergh admits in a deadpan voice. “We have edited together the full-length versions of all the routines [for the DVD]. They’re pretty disturbing…it made me really uncomfortable to watch them.”

He’s aware of the possibly box-office-eating problem. “It’s been a concern that…the movie was so driven toward the female audience, that there would be nothing in it for [men],” the director says. “And of course I knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Some of the issues the male characters are going through are issues that all men confront. Men tend to define themselves by what they do. And so if you’re dealing with the characters trying to figure that out, then there’s something there for guys, too. The trick, I think, is getting them to come.”

Thong-rocking aside, fumbling your way toward your path in life — while avoiding the subversive pitfalls of the club scene — is Magic Mike’s predominant theme. The film, based on the real-life experience of star Channing Tatum (who shares a producer credit), is about Mike (Tatum), a 30-year-old stripper/”entrepreneur” who works odd jobs besides taking off his clothes in order to save money to start a custom-furniture business. Other than sleeping around a bit (Olivia Munn co-stars as his regular booty call), Mike is generally on the straight and narrow, focused on his future even if he’s the star at Tampa’s Club Xquisite and has perhaps worked there a tad too long.

“I wanted to make sure there were a lot of conversations in the movie about money and work because I feel like, for most people, these are issues that dominate their lives, especially lately,” Soderbergh says. “So we were always looking for ways to bring that conversation into the film….I think this issue of what you’re willing to do to be paid is interesting. And at a certain point, when Mike starts to feel that what he’s doing is undervalued, he has to make a decision about whether he can accept that.”

Of course, Tatum eventually did quit, though his tenure wasn’t nearly as long as his character’s. He cites the drugs and debauchery that sinks Mike’s protege, the Kid (played by I Am Number Four’s Alex Pettyfer), as part of the reason.

“I was 18 years old,” Tatum says. “I really enjoyed performing — it was my first performing job. I really like to dance. But I didn’t really love taking the clothes off at the end. And the world in itself was just a very dark world. I don’t think we even scratched the surface of really how dark that place can get and how slippery of a slope it can actually be. This was probably the most palatable version of this movie. Otherwise, you wouldn’t want to see it twice. You’d just think, ‘OK, I feel dirty now.’”

“Palatable” doesn’t exactly do the film justice — Magic Mike is pure fun, a testament to the fact that, really, male strippers can’t be seen as anything but ridiculous. (Regarding the difference between male and female strip clubs, Tatum does an excellent impression of a typical customer of the latter, hunched over and emitting a low mutter like “hehhhhhh…”) Soderbergh says that he didn’t sense any sort of competition among his crew of dancers (which also include Matthew McConaughey, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, and Joe Manganiello), who, it must be said, put on an excellent show. (Though Tatum’s co-stars readily admit his dancing dominance: “Chan’s in a dancing movie,” Manganiello says. “The rest of us are in a dry-humping movie.” Tatum adds, “I just respect these guys for jumping into the thong with both feet.”)

“I think the fear of doing it just bonded [these] guys very quickly,” Soderbergh says. “They’re all sort of jumping out of the plane together. As soon as I saw the routines for the first time, I knew we were going to be fine. Because they were funny. They weren’t dirty. They were fun.” As far as wardrobe malfunctions, Soderbergh says that McConaughey had to improvise a “tuck and roll” after overzealous extras tore the string of his undergarment.

The director also praised his cast’s ability to physically relate to the camera. “In my mind, a movie should work with the sound off,” Soderbergh says. “You should be able to watch a movie without the sound and understand what’s going on. That’s your job, is to build a series of chronological images that tell the story.

“I also like to stage scenes in which you see a lot of people in the frame at once. And so physicality becomes a really important part of that aesthetic. You need actors who understand how to use their bodies….So their sense of knowing how to dance with the camera needs to be pretty pronounced. In this case, I think everybody fell into that very quickly and understood what I was trying to do.”

And was it difficult to work with the costume department in choosing what revealing outfits his dancers would wear? Not really, Soderbergh says. “I know what I like.”

Tropic Thunder

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Jungle fever

Tropic Thunder may have first appeared on your radar last August, when Owen Wilson dropped out of filming after his suicide attempt. Or maybe you heard about it earlier this year, when word got out that Robert Downey Jr., in the film’s movie-within-a-movie, would be playing a black character.

But the premise for this Hollywood-skewering war spoof has reportedly been roller-derbying around writer-director Ben Stiller’s brain since 1987. That’s 21 years spent marinating in the comedian’s twisted psyche, eventually co-molded by scripters Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen and, certainly, further shaped by an A-list cast that includes Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, and Danny McBride.

The result? A comedy beast that’s nearly impossible to dissect. At least not without giving up the goods, anyway. Whereas the details about Downey’s racial transformation, for example – his character, Kirk Lazarus, is actually an Australian actor so celebrated and Method he’s hired to portray an African-American soldier in a Vietnam flick – might have comprised 75 percent of the gag in lesser hands, here the concept is a mere launching point for a performance so brilliant, it’s fair to regard Lazaurs as August’s Joker. Another not-so-secret cameo may help rinse the ick off a superstar’s recently tarred reputation. (Though, in my opinion, not quite.)

There are fake trailers, surprise violence, layers upon layers of film-industry mockery, and rampant offensiveness that’s attracted cries for boycotts from more than one activist group. You can hear Stiller’s diligence to his vision in the dialogue: “More stupid!” demands a villain who takes the director’s character, Tugg Speedman, hostage and orders him to re-create one of his broad critical flops. He complies, delivering this nugget as a mentally challenged man talking about bad dreams: “This head movie makes mah eyes rain!” Earlier, Lazarus discusses craft with Speedman, declaring that his commitment to the aforementioned part must have left him feeling “moronical.”

The thing about moronicality is that it takes loads of intelligence to get it right, and in this regard Tropic Thunder can sidle up to classics from Some Like It Hot to The Jerk. For all its comedic density, the plot is simple: A memoir by Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), Vietnam’s Pvt. Ryan, is being adapted to the big screen by clueless British director Damien Cockburn (Coogan). He can’t control his cast, which besides Lazarus and action-hero Speedman includes rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), drug-addled star of Eddie Murphy-esque franchise The Fatties, Jeff Portnoy (Black), and still-level-headed newcomer, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

Tayback suggests that Cockburn “take them off the grid” to scare the artistes out of his actors and elicit more believable performances. But Cockburn’s orchestrated dumping of his cast into the jungle for a guerrilla shoot goes immediately wrong, and soon well-armored poppy farmers assume the actors are DEA agents. The thespians’ survival skills kick in – eventually – as they try to fight their way back to the world of gift bags and Booty Sweat (Chino’s energy drink).

Unlike last week’s Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder’s blood-and-guts angle is introduced early and graphically, so its combination of action and yucks never feels disingenuous. All of the big players have ace moments – even Matthew McConaughey,who took over Wilson’s part as Speedman’s agent – but Stiller and Downey steal it: Stiller’s Speedman is a superior Derek Zoolander, hilarious whether he’s wriggling his body while dramatically taking bullets or quietly going nuts in captivity.

And it’s all of 30 seconds before Downey kills, in this case in his character’s trailer, without even uttering a word: Dressed as a monk – and still white – his expression during the preview’s narration is a dead-on imitation of every pretentious performance ever captured onscreen. As far as his guttural delivery and mannerisms when “black,” it’s too thorough, ridiculous, and well-plotted to be offensive (and Chino calls Lazarus on it repeatedly for good measure).

Speedman’s “Simple Jim” character – with buck teeth and a peroxide Prince Valiant cut — isn’t as excusable. But the script’s ingenious argument of the drawbacks of an actor “going full retard” — as well as the movie overall – will make your eyes rain.