Revolutionary life

Director Steven Soderbergh on making his two-part epic about Che Guevara.

by Amber Wilkinson

The films that will be known in the UK as Che: Part One and Che: Part Two screened as a 'roadshow' at this year's New York Film Festival - essentially a double-bill wrapped around an intermission. Following a busy press screening at the Ziegfeld Cinema, director Steven Soderbergh answered questions about his motiviations behind the movie and his opinions of the revolutionary. The edited highlights are below. It's worth noting, regarding the comment on funding, that this press conference was held the day after the US stock market went into meltdown after the bail-out package was initially voted down by the Senate.

At the end of the process, what did you, yourself, learn about Che?

Well because the process of developing was so extended – we started on it when we were working on Traffic, eight years ago – what I found was sometimes you say, ‘Yes’ and you’re not sure why you say it and that reason changes in your mind over the course of making a film. It really wasn’t until the films were finished – this happened at around the time of Cannes – that I realised what really influenced me was this issue of engagement versus disengagement. That every day in our lives on a personal level, on a community level, on a global level we are making a decision about how engaged we want to be or how disengaged we want to be. Do we want to participate or do we want to observe?

And I realised that what was compelling about Che to me was, once he made the decision to engage that he engaged fully; that he was able to sustain whatever is needed to do that, especially when your life is at stake. You have to also remember, he was an atheist and so a lot of times when the other figures, if they can sustain this engagement, they attribute this to a higher power or there is some other element they can call upon – he didn’t have that. He expressed it in terms in only being concerned with what people were doing to each other here.

How important to you was historical documentation?

Well as any of you know, who have read up on Che, if you go to the book store there is an entire wall of Che material. There’s a lot to go through. We tried to go through all of it, we spoke to everyone who’s still around and willing to talk. JG Ballard once said: “Research is the refuge of the unimaginative.” And there were times when I thought, he’s absolutely right – we were absolutely overwhelmed with information. John Lee Anderson, one of our consultants, said at the press conference in Cannes, “there’s a million Ches, he means something to everyone.” And at a certain point, we as a core creative team just had to decide what to use and what not to use. Frankly, a lot of it was by exclusion. When I went into it, I had more of an idea of what I didn’t want to do than what I did want to do. And at least that’s a start, you begin to shape it a little bit. I was trying as much as I could to avoid scenes that I thought were ‘too typical’. I didn’t want to have the scene where someone says, “Hey, why do they call you Che?” or him in battle and his hat blows off and he rolls over and picks up a beret.

Why you didn’t you choose Africa, and why did you choose a traditional combat film style?

If this film makes $100 million, we’ll make a third one. We talked about it. The story of Che in the Congo is absolutely fascinating and we sketched an idea for a very small film that would take place in the Congo. The bullion answer is that we didn’t have enough money to do that. Also, it’s a fascinating chapter but it didn’t really fall into the bookend idea we ended up with. When we first developed the film, it was only about Bolivia and it was a little more than halfway through the process of working on that that we decided that it really doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’ve seen Cuba, because you keep wondering, why doesn’t he quit, it’s going so badly?

You have to see what happened in Cuba to understand why he still thought they were going to pull this off. So, it grew from one manageable film to one giant film and now overseas it’s going to be split in half, so we just couldn’t fit that in. But we read all that material. In fact there was a quote from one of the African rebels, “Che would rather face a bullet than reality” and it’s a perfect description of him, I think.

We just saw what was described as a ‘roadshow’ of this film – I assume it was similar to the one shown in Cannes – and there has been a lot of talk about it being released as two films? How would you like to see it released?

Five, one hours? Our plan currently is that whenever the movie enters a specific market – New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas – for one week, on one screen you can see it like you just saw it and there will be a specially created programme and credits, and we’re referring to that as the roadshow version. I think that’s the ideal way to see it. It’s a lot to ask someone to throw away an entire day but my only argument is that cinematically we’re making a demand of the audience that’s very similar to the demands that Che made of the people around him. It’s a big thing and it requires a certain kind of personality to want to experience it. But it’s certainly designed that way, so that you get the full effect of the ‘call and response’ of the two parts.

Can you tell us about your first connection with Che Guevara when you were younger and what was the most vital thing that you learned about him while researching the films?

Like most people in this country, I first heard Che’s name in history class at school, when you would get a quick sketch of the history of Cuba. And one of the great things about having this job is that, more often than not, I get paid to educate myself. A lot of the details of the Cuban Revolution were not known to me. I thought that it was all Fidel; I didn’t know about any of these other groups that were trying to do the same thing. And my idea of Che was from those images of him near the very end of the Cuban Revolution with the beret, and the cast on his arm. I had no idea how this transformation from being the medic to becoming a leader [had happened].

The thing I learned about him that was interesting to me was what a hard-ass he was. Talking to the people that fought alongside him. One of the doctors who fought with him said: “You had to love him for free.” And he just described how uncompromising he was. Most people wanted to be in Camilo’s [Cienfuegos] column because he was fun. Che was just a very, very strict disciplinarian and there was no moment when he dropped the ideology, even in a one-on-one, personal situation. A lot of people found him cold and distant. So Benicio and I talked about that a lot. He really on reserved the warm side of his personality for when he was in the doctor mode and when he was the sort of leader/comandante mode he was really, really harsh. And I can understand – the stakes were pretty high.

The very real difference from when the film screened in Cannes to now is the translation of the voice-over in the first part into English. How did you reconcile on an ideological level having Che speak English?

It seemed organic to me because the character we used was his interpreter, following him around in New York. So it seemed appropriate to use that idea to continue hearing this guy translate Che. More importantly, there are sequences in which he is speaking in which I do not want an English-speaking audience to be reading. I want them to be able to watch the images and hear the words without having to be reading.

How hard was it finding the finance and can you elaborate a bit about the shooting itself?

Well, all I can say is that I’m glad we’re not looking for money right now! It was complicated but we knew it would be – I mean, look at it. It took a couple of people sticking it out for a long time and just believing in the ultimate commercial viability of the ‘brand’ of Che. That’s the weird paradox about this guy. Here he is, the icon of Marxist economic ideology and you stick his face on anything and it sells. It’s a very weird situation and I believed that if we could just get the thing made it would ultimately find enough of an audience to get its money back. The amount of money that we had dictated a pretty strict shooting schedule – we had 39 days for each part. To put that into context of something else that I’ve made, that’s fewer days than it took me to shoot the first Ocean’s film. So we had to move very, very quickly. And there are aspects of that that I really think are great and there are aspects that are really difficult to accept, but we didn’t have any choice.

Can you talk about some of the visual differences between the films – the widescreen and not-so widescreen – what was the rationale behind that?

I was trying to find a very simple way to create a different sensation for each part. So the wider frame for what I considered to be a more Hollywood format. I thought that was more appropriate for the Cuban Revolution because it really had the trajectory of a classic Hollywood war film – 82 guys starting out, then they’re down to 12, it looks like they’re not going to make it but they do. Everything that needs to go right, does go right. And I wanted it to have more of a traditional Hollywood aesthetic, including the music and the cutting. In the second film I wanted to feel less settled, where you felt that the outcome was not clear even from the beginning. So I used the 1.85:1 film, which is less wide, and went all hand-held. Gradually through the second part, the camera finally starts to get closer to him.

Can you comment on the political nature of the film?

I believe that any movie that accurately presents anyone’s life or any situation – any movie that’s not a fantasy or a pure entertainment – any movie that makes an attempt to show things as they are is, to me, by definition a political film. Whether it be a cop movie or Erin Brokovich. Any movie that attempts to look at things in a straightforward fashion, not polished up, I think you could argue is a political film. These are political films in the sense that there is an ideology that is being expressed but that isn’t what drew me to them ultimately. I’m obviously not a Communist. As I said to someone a couple of weeks ago, there isn’t even a place for me in the society that Che was trying to build, literally. He says in Man And Socialism In Cuba: “There is no great artist who is also a true revolutionary.” He didn’t have a lot of use for the kind of stuff that I do and, personally, he would probably have hated me. But I can still look at him and find him one of the most compelling political figures of the last century and I do think the ideas are fascinating to debate and look at in the context of the world we’re living in now.

One of the things that interested me about the Cuban Revolution is that’s the last time you’re going to ever see a revolution like that. It’s what I call the last analogue revolution. Today that would have been over in two weeks. Technology just makes it impossible to fight a revolution the way they did. That doesn’t mean revolutions don’t happen, I’m just saying I don’t think they’re ever going to happen that way again. That was kind of interesting, to make a period film about a type of war that can’t really be fought any more.

Given the situation in Cuba today, where it is estimated that 40 per cent of the population goes hungry every night, if Che was alive today, how do you think he would view that country and, since he’s not, how do you view it?

That’s the question everybody wants to know the answer to and the one we can’t answer. In so far as what’s going on in Cuba now, I don’t think we’ve been very smart in how we’ve played this, let’s put it that way. I think there are other moves that could have been made on our part to make a dialogue more inevitable. I’m still stunned that this embargo is still going on, it’s shocking to me, it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s my personal belief that if you want the embargo to end and you wanted to see some change, you should flood the place with tourists. There’s nothing like exposure to new ideas to get people thinking about new ideas. In fact, our policy is the opposite of what I would be doing, but today I’m not running the country… but November 4th is coming.

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