, Soderbergh on Hollywood: ‘It’s not crooked – it’s the most transparent industry going’ | Film

Every good movie is a heist movie at heart, whether the heist is committed on or off camera. Steven Soderbergh suspects that is what he likes about film-making: the chance to play the role of a criminal mastermind, assembling a gang of diverse talents for a high-stakes adventure. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes not – it’s all part of the thrill. “The life not lived,” he says with a grin.

Soderbergh has made films about dashing, lawless outsiders: bank-robbing George Clooney in Out of Sight; the rackety brothers in Logan Lucky; the whole star-spangled crew from the Oceans franchise. His latest picture tackles a different breed of crime – one that is industrialised, anonymous and altogether less romantic. Inspired by the 2016 release of the Panama Papers, The Laundromat lifts the lid on a culture of tax evasion and financial skulduggery, bent accountants and shadowy lawyers. Soderbergh prefers underdogs; white-collar crooks make him sick. But it may be that he is swimming in the same dirty water.

Seated by the window in his Venice hotel, the director holds court with the easy authority of a seasoned campaigner. Soderbergh has shot scores of movies and met hundreds of reporters. The interview junket is bread-and-butter to him. So he says that he chose to frame The Laundromat as a black comedy because that was the best way to get the information across. And he explains why he installed the disgraced lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca as the film’s Greek chorus, plundering their own words in order to power the script.

“They are not portrayed doing anything in the film that they didn’t do in real life,” he points out. “I mean, if I had one of them grabbing a woman’s handbag on the street, they could say, ‘Well, I didn’t do that.’ Whereas they have, essentially, been grabbing women’s handbags in a global sense, on every street.”

, Soderbergh on Hollywood: ‘It’s not crooked – it’s the most transparent industry going’ | Film



Meryl Streep in The Laundromat. Photograph: Claudette Barius/Netflix

His creative choices feel sound to me. The Laundromat uncoils as a barbed and stinging burlesque, a film that schools us in the intricacies of shell companies and “the secret life of money”. It casts Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as the twinkling Mossack and Fonseca; Meryl Streep as the innocent pensioner who represents all their victims. But Soderbergh’s crime scene is so vast that it risks spilling over the sides. One of the revelations of the Panama Papers was that Pedro Almodóvar, Banderas’s old friend, was briefly a client of Mossack-Fonseca.

At one stage, intriguingly, The Laundromat veers even closer to home. On-screen, Oldman’s anti-hero outlines a scheme involving 26,000 tax-exempt companies registered in the US state of Delaware. “The director of this movie has five,” he adds.

Soderbergh has five companies in Delaware? The director shrugs. “I have six now,” he says.

Well done, I say. Congratulations.

“Well no,” he says. “Not congratulations. But when I make a film like Logan Lucky, I form an LLC [Limited Liability Company]. It generates no revenue. It’s essentially an entity that can enter into contracts and get insurance cover for the movie. It’s open when we start production and as soon as I make delivery, it’s defunct. For someone like me, whose intention is to make a product and sell that product, it’s perfect – a very helpful tool.” Another shrug. “Of course, it’s open to misuse. A hammer is a great tool for a nail. But you can also use it to beat someone’s head in.”

Fair enough, it’s how the business works. But might this qualify as a kind of soft corruption? The film industry is reliant on tax breaks and sweeteners. But its management arguably shades into the voodoo accounting that was Mossack-Fonseca’s specialty. Soderbergh has always been ambivalent about Hollywood. I wonder if he views it as outright crooked, too.

The Laundromat is a black comedy about white collar crime.

The director sits up. “Oh no, it’s not,” he insists. “Given its scale, it’s about the most transparent industry going. Do you know why? It’s because it’s completely unionised. The studios and independent producers have to report everything they are doing. And unlike other businesses, where people are just making money off the making of money, Hollywood’s assets are real. You can’t fake if the product worked or it didn’t. It either made $100m or it made $100.”

He points out that he spent nine years as vice president of the Directors’ Guild. He went in a sceptic and came out converted. “I grew up with a default mode of being embarrassed by being in the entertainment industry. Not any more. These days I think, fuck, I wish more large-scale enterprises worked like this.”

Or to put it another way, the Hollywood interloper has become the insider. Undeniably Soderbergh landed with an almighty splash. He was 26 when his debut picture, sex, lies and videotape, won the Palme d’Or in 1989, prompting the critic Roger Ebert to dub him “the poster boy of independent cinema”. But the 90s were a bust. Soderbergh was flailing, experimenting, sometimes falling flat on his face. “I made five films that tanked,” he admits. “And then Out of Sight saved my ass.”

I’m glad he brings up Out of Sight. The 1998 thriller remains a joyous tour-de-force. He says it’s the one film he has made that he has no desire to change, but his golden comeback almost didn’t happen at all. He was nobody’s first choice to direct. So he had to sit on the sidelines until everyone else turned it down. “Then when I did get the job, it was the most anxious I’ve been. I had to do a Jedi mind-trick on myself just to step out on set. I knew that if I fucked this one up then it was all over, I’m done.”

, Soderbergh on Hollywood: ‘It’s not crooked – it’s the most transparent industry going’ | Film



Gary Oldman, left, and Antonio Banderas as Mossack and Fonseca, whose law firm was at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal. Photograph: Claudette Barius/Netflix

From time to time, it appears, the man still suspects that he is done. Film-making is exhausting; he would like to try other things. In 2013 he even announced his retirement. He cleared the decks and began to train as a painter. Then the script for the Cinemax television drama The Knick landed on his doormat and, hey presto, all at once he was right back on the scene.

“Yeah, but I had legitimately stepped away,” he insists. “Nothing in development. Tabula rasa. I was working with this painter in New York, doing portraits, and I was three months into the process of re-orienting myself when the script for The Knick showed up. I thought, ‘Let’s get real for a second. Who the fuck is waiting for my paintings?’”

The issue, he feels, was that he had lost sight of what was really important. “Then, sitting back on the set, I realised yes, this is where I belong. I’d conflated my frustration with the movie business with the actual job of directing. I’d confused the two, which was stupid of me. I hate the business. But I love the job.”

It must be embarrassing, though – dropping the mic with a flourish only to hurry back on the stage. Soderbergh snorts. He supposes it was. “But OK,” he says. “I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me.”

By this point he’s laughing but I think he might mean it. “Oh, it will be scorched earth,” he vows. “I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”

The Laundromat is on Netflix from 18 October

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