THOUGHT HE’D RETIRED? THINK AGAIN. STEVEN SODERBERGH IS BACK WITH A COMIC HEIST CAPER WITH A DIFFERENCE
Four years ago we did an exit interview with Steven Soderbergh to mark his retirement. Now he’s back. HR are having conniptions.
It was Memorial Day, 2016, and somewhere under the shadow of the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s vast grandstand, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig were revving up for an unauthorised lap of the famous old NASCAR circuit. Behind the wheel of a souped-up Dodge Charger or Toyota Camry on site for NASCAR’S Coca-cola 600 race, they could thunder around the 2.4-kilometre track in just over 30 seconds. Sadly, they were in a golf kart. “There was a whole thing about taking a car, so I went rogue and grabbed a kart,” remembers Driver, the wheelman in this impromptu two-man heist. “For the first two minutes Dan and I were like, ‘Yeah! We’re doing this.’ Then we spent the next 15 minutes driving really slowly in a fucking circle.” As getaways go, it was, well, sluggish.
Along with Channing Tatum, Driver and Craig form the larcenous, loveable heart of Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s big-screen return. Essentially an anti-ocean’s Eleven, it promises a fast-paced, lo-fi jolt of heist heaven. Its hayseed crew — West Virginia’s ill-starred Logan brothers, Jimmy (Tatum) and Clyde (Driver), plus hardened crim Joe Bang (Craig) — boast no cash, no high-tech gadgets, no elaborate disguises, no acrobats, and definitely no Jethros, Leon Spinks or Ella Fitzgeralds (big or small). All they have is a family curse that plagues every move. “The Logans are known for an incredible streak of flat-out bad luck,” explains Soderbergh. “They want to reverse the curse in one move.”
Oh, and the big score? “It’s tens of thousands of dollars,” says the director. “Not that much money.” High risks, small rewards, zero resources? Logan Lucky, it’s safe to say, is not your regular heist movie. Then again, Steven Soderbergh is not your regular moviemaker.
Of course, Steven Soderbergh isn’t supposed to be a moviemaker at all. Not anymore. In 2013, he gave what turned out to be a valedictory filmmaking address at the San Francisco International Film Festival that didn’t so much bemoan the state of US mainstream cinema as take a chainsaw to the Hollywood sign. If he sounded fed up — with risk-averse studios; the fixation on focus-grouping and foreign markets; the creative logjam he’d fallen victim to — he was. Rueful, too. “I could tell you a really good story of how I got pushed off a movie because of the way the numbers ran, but if I did, I’d probably get shot in the street,” he noted. “And I really like my cats.”
His cats would have been disappointed by what followed. Soderbergh’s retirement swiftly parlayed into three years of creative frenzy. First, he directed two seasons of Cinemax’s now-cancelled origins-of-modernmedicine drama The Knick, followed by HBO movie Mosaic, which will air later this year. He’s also co-produced Ocean’s 8 and co-created upcoming Netflix Western Godless. In his downtime he started licensing Singani, the Bolivian firewater he’d discovered on the tough Che shoot, for US bars.
The filmmaking itch never left, though. While he was freelancing as cinematographer on the Savannah set of Magic Mike XXL, a script put a hook in him again. A heist caper he was meant to find a director for, Logan Lucky was written by first-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt and passed to him by his wife (Jules Asner). It was too good to give away. “When someone sends you something to read, you either immediately see it or you don’t,” he tells Empire, “and, in this case, I could see it very clearly.” Enthusiasm became something more… covetous. “Imagining even friends of mine doing it, I got a little anxious,” Soderbergh admits. “I had a very specific idea for how it should be done.” He had a very specific idea for who should do it, too.
As luck would have it, he didn’t need to sound out any agents or endure laborious studio meets to find his man. He just wandered across the set. “It was the perfect Channing everyman part,” he recalls of his pick for Jimmy, the more headstrong of the Logan siblings. “It seemed to have been written for him.” Wary of distracting his old Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects mate from his work on Magic Mike XXL, he didn’t chase a decision. He needn’t have worried. “Steven mentioned this thing he said was a ‘hillbillies Ocean’s Eleven’ and that got a giggle out of me,” remembers Tatum. “A bunch of good ole boys robbing NASCAR? That sounded super-fun.” Before they’d wrapped on XXL, Soderbergh’s heist had its ringleader. “Channing being Channing, it would have been a four-word conversation, like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” says the director. “That was enough for me to start building the project.”
The second step was to recruit Jimmy’s crew, and every good crew needs a cool-as-ice sidekick. Logan Lucky doesn’t have one of those. It does, however, have Clyde Logan, Jimmy’s more measured, ex-soldier brother, played by Driver. “They’re very different people,” Driver explains of the brothers. “Clyde is organised, Jimmy is not. He owns a bar, while Jimmy is fighting for work. Clyde is more thoughtful. But they’re a tight-knit family.” Completing the clan is Mellie Logan, played by Magic Mike’s Riley Keough. “She has the most going for her,” cedes Driver of the pair’s altogether more together back-up.
It’s not, in truth, an especially high bar. Jimmy Logan has lost his job and his brother a hand. The ‘lucky’ part of their moniker is definitely missing an ‘un’. Typically, Clyde’s mishap happened in a traffic accident on the way back from war. “It’s another obstacle [for him] to overcome,” says Driver, who picked up an unusual new skillset for the role. “I think Adam’s somebody who likes having something to learn,” suggests Soderbergh. “He really enjoyed figuring out how to play scenes with a prosthetic arm, or essentially no arm at all.” The most awkward of them required him to mix a martini one-handed. “I literally tied my hand behind my back and tried to figure out how to make a martini,” Driver recalls. “But when I got on set, the countertop was two feet higher than the one I’d practised on at home. It was anxiety-producing!”
Having never previously met, Driver and Tatum took the fast track to brotherly bonding: a bunch of drinks and a yarn about Star Wars. “The first night I met the guy, he came over and we ended up hanging out ’til 2am,” Tatum remembers. “We drank too many bottles of wine and just bullshitted. It was an all-night conversation about Kylo Ren.” He laughs at the memory. “He only wanted to talk about Star Wars… no, I’m kidding. Though he will bring it up occasionally and then say, ‘Oh, I thought you were asking about Kylo Ren.’ He’s really good at making fun of himself.”
The brains of the operation — and likely cult hero in-the-making — is Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang. A legendary local criminal, he and his brother Sam (Brian Gleeson) are “even more country than the Logans”, according to Soderbergh. Craig was given free rein to create his hick con from scratch. “I told him, ‘There’s no wrong answer here,’” the director recounts. “‘Joe Bang is a blank slate for you to draw on.’” Draw on him Craig did. He pitched up on set with the most extreme look sported by a 007 since Sean Connery’s Zardoz introduced the world to latex mankinis. “He did some research and found some tatts he was excited about,” says Soderbergh of the world’s most surprising redneck. “They’re… interesting. I think he enjoyed it.”
Tattooed, peroxided and in stripes, Joe is banged up when the brothers tap him for help. All they need to do is spring him from prison — and they’ve got just the plan. “It’s probably ill-advised,” says Soderbergh.
If you’ve seen The Hot Rock, Peter ‘Bullitt’ Yates’ 1972 crime caper, you might guess at how this phase of the heist will play out. In the William Goldman-written movie, Robert Redford, George Segal and a small band of half-competent thieves break into a museum to steal a priceless gem, only to find themselves pursuing the feckless object in and out of penitentiaries, police stations and bank vaults. It’s a Soderbergh favourite and a key influence on Logan Lucky (and not just as another of those rare films to feature people breaking into prisons). “It’s got a very three-cushion sense of humour,” he explains. “It’s funny because the characters are funny, the situations are funny. The laughs come at you in a very indirect way, and that’s what we’re trying to recreate. Hopefully we can generate the same kind of smile as that movie.”
In the best traditions of a Goldman screenplay, Rebecca Blunt’s script takes its time introducing its ensemble (look out, too, for Seth Macfarlane’s obnoxious British energy-drink magnate, Max Chilblain, and Hilary Swank as an uptight Fed), before cranking up the tempo — and the stakes — for the climactic race-day heist. Nailing the characters, stresses Soderbergh, is the essence of any heist worth its vault. “It’s something the Ocean’s films really concentrated on, and we’re doing that here,” he says. “People get hung up on the technical aspects of the job itself, but I think it’s the characters and their relationships that audiences take away from the film.” Soderbergh’s posse aren’t just Cletus-like rednecks on the make or dumbed-down Danny Oceans. They’re likeable, real and smart in their own way. “Danny Ocean will always be a criminal,” says Tatum, “but I don’t think that’s Jimmy Logan. He’s just seen an opportunity and jumped on it.” It may not be Ocean-sized, but this score could make all the difference for the Logan clan.
If anything, Soderbergh’s small-screen sojourn has sharpened his moviemaking edge. He shot faster than ever, packing a state-hopping shoot into 36 blistering days. “It was only possible because I’d been through the mill on The Knick and Mosaic,” he points out. “The first Ocean’s movie was 80 days. The scale was bigger, but we were moving very, very fast [on this].”
At times, even the actors were breathless. “Steven shoots so fast, you only get one or two tries,” says Driver. “It’s very complicated stuff.” Soderbergh mixed up his toolkit too, dispensing with the zoom lens so integral to Ocean’s style. “It’s a glossy piece of equipment that didn’t apply here,” he explains.
Capturing the heist’s NASCAR backdrop tested his ingenuity further. To do it, he set up five cameras around the racetrack as 2016’s Coca-cola 600 unfolded, filming for five hours. “I’d mapped out where each camera would be at a given time,” he explains, “and people would send me images of what they were shooting via iphone.” Under a sky smudged by the distant tropical storm Bonnie, he filled Logan Lucky with 320km/h blurs, 89,000 fanatical fans, and all the deafening buzz of American stock-car racing. No-one even knew they had an Oscar-winning filmmaker in their midst. “The event is so massive, we were like an ant on an anthill,” he says.
Much to Soderbergh’s relief, the script only required him to keep the race in the background. “I was thankful [for that],” he confesses. “I watched Days Of Thunder and I didn’t want to go head-to-head with Tony Scott. That guy was a real shooter.” Eagle-eyed petrolheads will have to content themselves with cameos from racing heroes like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kyle Larson, though none are actual NASCAR drivers. Ryan Blaney, a 23-yearold rising star of the sport, pops up as a birthday-cake deliveryman. “When I watch a race now, I’m pulling for Ryan,” says Soderbergh.
Released via Soderbergh’s new indie distribution company, Fingerprint Releasing, Logan Lucky is the spearhead of his new effort to wrest some creative control back from the current studio system and return it to filmmakers (for example, in May a two-year deal was struck with Amazon that will see the e-commerce giant support the theatrical marketing of Fingerprint projects in return for streaming rights).
Budgets have remained in check, too. The film was made quickly, relatively cheaply and with a cast working for a share of its takings. “By any definition, Logan Lucky is a studio movie with movie stars and a very commercial subject,” he stresses of this self-made antidote to his previous travails. “It was the right thing at the right time. We’ll soon see if it works.” His stars may have worked for scale this time, but in truth they might have done it for free. “I usually equate [making] films with torture, self-doubt and anxiety,” confesses Driver, “but we had such a good time.”
Tatum, meanwhile, found himself in a T-shirt and Carhartt overalls daily, hanging out with new friends and having a “glorious” time. “I ate pizza and drank beer and was pretty much as comfortable as I could possibly be,” he laughs. “I’ve always said I needed to become a better actor so I don’t have to work out so much.”
As he gears up to unleash his maverick heist movie on the world, only a few questions remain. Will Jimmy and Clyde get away with the loot? Will Soderbergh score big? Is this his one last job or the prelude to a fullyfledged comeback? Time will tell. One thing we can predict: the Logan boys are going to leave you smiling.
LOGAN LUCKY IS IN CINEMAS FROM 17 AUGUST
Clockwise from far left: Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang is collared by Dwight Yoakam’s Warden Burns; Soderbergh and Craig get down and dirty; Riley Keough as Mellie Logan; Katie Holmes as Bobbie Jo Logan Chapman; Close up on Channing Tatum (Jimmy Logan) and...
Above: Bang brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). Left: On the circuit with David Denman (Moody) and Sebastian Stan (Dayton White) Right: Clyde and Mellie bust out with vault-blaster Joe.