Steven Soderbergh's newest film, an epic biographical look at a couple of episodes in the life of Che Guevara, is a departure. It’s in Spanish, it’s four and a half hours long, and, and he explains it, it’s a very personal project.
Steven Soderbergh burst onto the scene two decades ago with an art house hit – the lean and lusty “sex, lies, and videotape” – and has been directing a mix of small independent films (“The Limey,” “Full Frontal”) and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters (“Erin Brockovich,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Twelve” and “Thirteen”) ever since.
His newest, an epic biographical look at a couple of episodes in the life of Che Guevara, is a departure. It’s in Spanish, it’s four and a half hours long, and, and he explains it, it’s a very personal project.
What made you say yes to making “Che”?
My relationship to this movie is different than any other movie that I’ve made. I felt obligated to make it, and that’s different from wanting to make it. I had a feeling that it was going to be difficult, and that made me feel more obligated to say yes. I was like a lot of people – I didn’t know a lot about him at the beginning, but I felt like when these sort of opportunities present themselves, if you say no, then I don’t know what you’re doing making films.
So many people only know of Che because of his face on T-shirts. Did you take that kind of popularity into consideration?
This is our version of the Che movie. It’s a very subjective, personal take on a subject that there’s a lot to learn about. We wanted to find out why this iconic image is still plastered on everything from tote bags to beer bottles. Why, after 40 years, is this image still resonating?
To talk to the people who lived through this history was pretty intense and fascinating. And in talking to them – people who actually knew him and fought alongside him – we were trying to latch onto details, small things that would be indicative of his ideology. Che’s attitude, based on what I read and heard, was that if you’re a real revolutionary, every aspect of your behavior had to follow a certain code. He was very uncompromising about this, and for many people, he was difficult to be around. There were a lot of people that did not want to be in his column because he was such a strict disciplinarian.
So do you think that a lot of people who are wearing that T-shirt are only doing it as a fashion statement?
I think that for many people it’s no different than wearing a T-shirt with the Rolling Stones tongue logo on it. I’m not sure how you sincerely wear a T-shirt but I’m sure that some people do. But none of that really matters as long as some people are a little bit curious. We’re hoping the combination of curiosity about Che and that identification will get people to show up, and we hope that people who see the film say, “Oh, I didn’t know that about him.” That would be great.
The film runs at four and a half hours, with an intermission in the middle, but the first part is only about Cuba and the second part is only about Bolivia. They really feel like two different films.
When we started, it was going to be one two-hour movie about Bolivia. But as we developed the script, we began to feel that Bolivia without the context of Cuba didn’t make a lot of sense. You didn’t understand why Che thought [revolution in Bolivia] would work. Suddenly overnight it was also about Cuba. We had to go back to distributors and do the deals all over again, explaining that it was two films. But I think it was the right call. The two campaigns are sort of mirrors of each other. My attitude at the end of the day is that it’s an unusual commercial proposition. But I felt that some books are 180 pages and some are 650 pages. Every once in a while, if you’re going to do this kind of detail, you just have to do it.
It’s also entirely in Spanish. How’s your Spanish?
I speak very little Spanish, but I found that I had a great time not knowing what the actors were saying most of the time. I’m dead serious. I’m convinced I’ll make some other films in other languages that I don’t speak. It’s a great way to work, because you’re hearing something that’s sort of musical, and even if you don’t know the lyrics, you can feel if a note is wrong. I had a great time, I felt very Swedish being around so many Latinos. I felt very alone, but that was a good thing.
Do you want to show this to Castro?
I’ve heard that when Fidel watches movies, he pauses them so that he can talk about it. He’ll stop the movie and have a discussion with whoever he’s watching it with, so it can take him many hours to watch a film. So I’ve been wondering how long it would take him to watch this, because he’s gonna have a lot to talk about. But we’re hoping that we’ll get the film to the Havana Film Festival, and I’m sure there would be some attempt to get the Castro brothers to see it.