Cannes: Soderbergh Softens Retirement Talk at “Candelabra” Premiere


Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Douglas and Jerry Weintraub in Cannes Tuesday morning. Photo by Brian Brooks

Today in Cannes, Steven Soderbergh appeared to soften his much ballyhooed declaration that he was leaving filmmaking. The Oscar-winning director of Hollywood blockbusters and independent films alike will unveil his HBO-produced feature, Behind the Candelabra, here on Tuesday evening for its World Premiere in competition. Starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, the film recounts the intimate, tumultuous and secret relationship the Las Vegas entertainer had with Scott Thorson, the book's author.

"I'm absolutely going to take a break. I don't know how extensive it will be," said Soderbergh. "I can say that if this were the last movie I made then I wouldn't be unhappy. I'm really, really proud of this film. There is a connection to my first film [sex, lies, and videotape] because, at the end of the day, it's about two people in a room. But stylistically, I think it represents a progression. If someone would have been able to flash forward 24 years ago to show me this film, I would have been able to recognize that there was a lot of experience, but also a simplicity and directness that would have made me very happy. It's been a nice run."

Last month, Soderbergh said he believed cinema is "under assault" during a speech at the San Francisco International Film Festival, saying the industry was plagued with a "total lack of leadership…that's killing cinema." Soderbergh linked the challenges facing filmmaking with the economics of Hollywood and again said Tuesday the models used by the studios made it necessary for him to turn to television in order to make Candelabra.

"When we were going around with it four or five years ago, the studios said they were not convinced that there was an audience for this other than for people who are gay. If you're going to spend $25 million in marketing, then you have to make $50 million just to get your $25 [million] back, so there was this sense that it didn't seem like a probability. And to be fair, when you look at a piece of paper, it's hard to imagine what the film is going to be like or how the performances would be. But looking back, this is exactly how wanted this to work out. We just wanted to make this movie and we got to. I'm not complaining; I'm very happy."

Also very happy was actor Michael Douglas, who played the flamboyant pianist often referred to as Mr. Showmanship. Speculation mounted that the film included a heavy-dose of intimate scenes between Douglas and Matt Damon. The press saw an early morning screening of the film today, and the film certainly includes more than a passing kiss on the cheek, though nowhere near as much erotic footage as another film that's playing here, Stranger By the Lake. "In terms of being in bed with Michael Douglas, well now I have things in common with Sharon Stone, Glenn Close and Demi Moore," joked Damon. "We can now all go out and trade stories."


Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra

"This role came along right after my cancer," said Douglas choking back tears and receiving spontaneous applause from the audience of assembled journalists. "It's a beautiful gift, this role, and I'll be eternally grateful to Steven, Matt and Jerry."

Adding his take on the state of filmmaking, he noted, "I'd say it's very difficult for films that are small. I don't think they had a problem with the gay issue; it's just that they don't want to be bothered with a small picture that doesn't have big marketing potential. It's just not in their wheel house. So on cable TV there is an option. A lot of us have worked on small independent films where you make close to nothing. The only advertising is when you go on talk shows. So I thought that this was a wonderful combination of the two and a great option that Jerry [Weinstraub] came up with."

Douglas admitted he felt "trepidation" playing Liberace, who was known by his friends as "Lee." He recalled one time meeting the performer when he was with his father, Kirk Douglas, in Palm Springs. Liberace pulled up in a flashy Rolls Royce and "didn't have a hair out of place," remembered Douglass, adding that he was a "forefather to Elton John and Lady Gaga."

Soderbergh first approached Douglas about the idea of the film years ago on the set of Traffic. In that film, the actor was playing a much different character and recalled that when the topic of Liberace came up, it seemed out of left field.

"I was playing a drug czar on the set of Traffic and I looked over and saw a pensive look on Steven's face and he said to me, 'Have you ever thought of playing Liberace?' And I remember thinking at the time, 'What does that have to do with me being a drug czar?' He had me a bit paranoid for a moment and he had me do a take off [on Liberace's voice] and then, seven years later, he had me read this book Behind the Candelabra."

Though he famously denied being gay and even successfully sued a British tabloid for saying he was, Liberace's staff and other intimates knew of the close relationship between him and Thorson. Liberace lavished gifts, travel and the promise he would adopt Thorson and take care of him. He even had Thorson go under the knife to add features to his face that would make him look like a young version of himself. After the surgeries, Thorson became addicted to drugs that were prescribed by Liberace's doctors, which, combined with Liberace's own promiscuity, sent their relationship into a tailspin.

The movie depicts a rapid evolution of appearance for Matt Damon's character. Damon noted that both he and Douglas spent a huge amount of time in make up, and he even had a Brazilian spray-tan line done in order to "fit his costumes." Damon's butt gets ample screen time.

"Everyone was laser focused on this movie," said Damon. "Every department was just great and maybe that's because they knew that Steven was going to be taking a break afterward."

For more coverage of the 66th Cannes Film Festival, click here.

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