As a movie critic, I’m always asked to name my favorite movies. Only other cinephiles ask me to name my favorite directors. For a director to make my list, they have to make a lot more great films than bad ones. The ones that pop to mind are Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Sidney Lumet, and Billy Wilder (I even liked his last movie which was a flop, Buddy Buddy). Woody Allen is on the cusp of making my list.
Some directors that have done great work, but many disappointing movies and don’t get on my list, include Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, Clint Eastwood, and Roman Polanski. The only other contemporary director that makes my all-time list with Scorsese, is Steven Soderbergh.
He burst on the scene with his indie film sex, lies and videotape. It was good, albeit a bit overrated. It changed the way indie films were done, and for the better. The follow up, Kafka, was okay, but after that — King of the Hill. Wow.
He did a few other movies before he did the best reviewed movie of 1998 — Out of Sight with George Clooney (who would do a lot of projects with him in the future). It’s one of my favorite casts, music scores, scripts, and everything I want in a movie. After seeing it, I even went out and bought the soundtrack.
He followed that up by being brilliant enough to give a lead role to Terrence Stamp in The Limey, and an Oscar win for Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich. He then had the rare distinction (which hadn’t happened since 1938) of getting two Oscar nominations the same year (for Erin Brokovich and Traffic, which he won for).
Soderbergh did the first Ocean’s 11 movie after that, and the interesting sci-fi pick Solaris. There was a TV series in there, and then a quirky indie movie experiment called Bubble. It was released on video on demand, the same day it was in theatres (movie theatres weren’t thrilled by this, of course). It was an unknown cast of non-actors, and surprisingly entertaining.
He brought his Traffic star Benicio del Toro for a strong role in Che.
Controversy would arise again with The Girlfriend Experience, casting a real porn star to play the high-end escort.
Matt Damon got a lot of attention for his role in The Informant! I liked the two FBI agents in it more (Joel McHale, Scott Bakula).
His next three movies didn’t work for me. Those are Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike. But crowds and (other) critics loved them.
After that came one of my favorite movies ever — Side Effects (with Magic Mike’s Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Rooney Mara, and Catherine Zeta-Jones). Find this movie and thank me later.
He made Behind the Candelabra for HBO, again with Matt Damon, and like we had never seen him before.
My wife and I had a blast watching Logan Lucky a few years ago, and we both enjoyed the movie he filmed all on iPhones — Unsane from last year.
And as someone that loves movies dealing with con men, the script he co-wrote for Criminal (John C. Reilly and Maggie Gyllenhaal) — that film is tied with The Sting as my favorite con film of all time. How Reilly didn’t get an Oscar nomination for that is beyond me.
Anyway, my wife, who glances over and edits my pieces before they’re published, is going to cringe that I spent all this time writing about Soderbergh’s films. Yet if I’m calling him one of the best directors of all time, I want people to know why. I also want them to understand that, when he showed up at a bar called Hundred Proof in North Park — that to me, was as big as if Channing Tatum showed up at a strip club in Kearny Mesa to dance live, or if George Clooney showed up somewhere to promote his tequila. Coincidentally, it was alcohol that Soderbergh was here to promote. And when I found out he would be there, I brought my wife there a few hours before he was set to arrive, and we walked around the place. She said to me, “It’s almost like you’re an assassin, looking for the best place to get a jump on him.”
I just didn’t want a chance to miss talking to him, and I’ve been to events before where a thousand people rushed the person and I hung back and never got to say a word. That wasn’t going to happen with Soderbergh.
After walking a 2-mile perimeter around Hundred Proof, we went in and got a table near the bar. We ordered some dinner and drinks. And it’s one of the only times I had a nervousness before meeting somebody. Paul McCartney was the other person that I was nervous approaching (and he ended up yelling at me and pointing his finger in my face; that’s another story for another time).
Being nervous to meet someone is odd for me. I’ve met and interviewed so many famous athletes, musicians, and actors. At one Critics’ Choice awards, I was in line for a drink and I turned around and John Travolta was behind me. I simply said, “I know everyone tells you how great Saturday Night Live was, and it is. But Pulp Fiction is my favorite.” He thanked me and we talked for a few minutes. I wasn’t nervous at all (well, I was a bit worried his toupee was going to slide off his head). But…talking to a filmmaker that I love, is a different thing for me. They’re writing scripts, directing, and creating a piece of art that provides endless entertainment for me. And when they do it well, it makes my job so much more enjoyable.
So just as our food arrived my wife said, “A black SUV pulled up. I bet it’s his car.”
She then said, “Yep, it’s him.”
I turned around and looked and started getting nervous. Soderbergh came to the bar and was standing by himself, about 15 feet away. I just kept eating, and glancing at him, and felt like those extras you see in movies that are eating dinner behind the main actors in the scene. I was wondering if I should let him get situated before I bombarded him like a fanboy.
Once he was finished texting and had put his phone down, I approached. There was a flyer set on the table that had his face, with the listing of his bourbon — Singani 63. Part of me thought, maybe it wasn’t him, just another bald guy with glasses. Yet I saw the “63” button on his blazer. I showed him the flyer and said, “Is this you?”
He smiled and said, “It used to be.”
I told him I was a movie critic, and he asked my name. It would’ve been nice to have given him a name like Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael, and have him say, “I loved the review you gave my last movie.”
I told him my name and said that three of his movies were on my list of all-time favorites. He looked surprised as he said, “Wow! I would’ve been happy with just one on your list.”
I told him Out of Sight, Side Effects, and Criminal. He said, “Well, Criminal wasn’t really mine.”
He may not have directed it, but he co-wrote it, and was very instrumental in getting it made.
I asked him about the scene at the end, where Diego Luna gives a piece of jewelry to Gyllenhaal. I said, “Did you guys get the idea for that scene from House of Games, where Lindsay Crouse steals the lighter?”
He started to think about it and I added, “Did you see House of Games?”
“Oh yeah, I know the movie. I’m very familiar with it” he responded. “I don’t think it was. because we were adapting the movie from a Spanish film.”
“That’s right! Nine Queens, I forgot about that.”
I then told him about meeting director Paul Feig after a screening of The Heat (Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy). I said, “It wasn’t that great a movie, but…he started the film playing the Isley Brothers song ‘Fight the Power’ and I told him that that’s a great song and cool way to start the movie, except that it reminded me of when the song was used in Out of Sight when they go into Detroit.”
Feig grabbed my arm and said ‘Oh no, I was hoping nobody would notice that! I totally stole it from that, but didn’t think people would remember’.”
Soderbergh laughed and said, “We all borrow from each other.”
I asked him to autograph my Informant DVD, which made me nervous. My friend Gerald is a huge fan of the band Tool, and when their singer Maynard started selling/producing wines, he bought two bottles which Maynard signed, but when he asked him to sign the ticket stub from the first show he saw them at, Maynard refused. Luckily, Soderbergh was fine with signing it and mentioned how long ago that was, with a smile reminiscing about the experience. I said, “Yeah, it was so long ago, Matt Damon was really fat and hadn’t gotten into shape.”
As he laughed I said, “I always think it’s crazy when actors do that for a role. Ever since De Niro in Raging Bull, they do that. It doesn’t seem like a good thing to gain weight for a part and do that to your body.”
He responded, “I agree. It’s just insane.”
“Did you see Christian Bale and how much weight he lost in The Machinist?”
“I know. And also how much he gained in American Hustle. I wouldn’t be able to lose that weight again. After Matt Damon did Informant, and went and lost all that weight for Invictus. It was amazing.”
“Yeah well…they all have trainers and personal chefs that can help.”
Soderbergh replied, “Even with all that, I don’t think I’d be able to lose that kind of weight.”
“Me neither,” I responded, as I glanced back at all the food and drinks I had sitting at my table.
I thought I should probably ask him about the Singani 63, but since I’m not much of a drinker, I felt like I’d be in over my head. I would end up talking about Clooney and his tequila, or Sammy Hagar and his Cabo Wabo. Both are things he probably wouldn’t have wanted to talk about. So I thanked him for his time and went back to my dinner. I figured instead of asking about his Singani 63, I’d try the cocktails they were serving that featured it. I first asked the waiter if we could buy a bottle. He told us the liquor laws don’t allow a bar to sell entire bottles. So, we decided to try the six drinks they had. My wife ordered the Singroni 69. It had the Singani 63, cocchi rosa, yzaguirre, and Blanco vermouth. She loved it. I didn’t want something that tasted like a strong cocktail, so I opted for the Chuflay. It had Singani 63, lemongrass, orange flower, ginger, and lemon. It was not only delicious, but…with those ingredients, I felt like it was also probably healthy (hey…let me kid myself). I later had the Lo-BV, which was Singani 63, fino sherry, ginseng tea, berries, lemon, and soda. It was very enjoyable on this hot day. My wife did something she rarely does (no, not that). She had a second drink, and went for the Room 150. That had Singani 63, mango, carrot, spiced honey, coconut milk, and lime.
Reading up about Singani 63 was interesting. With San Diego becoming home to so many craft brews and IPAs, I’m usually not impressed with alcohol. Singani 63 was given a DO (Designation of Origin) and a GI (geographical indicator), which is rare among spirits. That means the grapes are grown at an altitude of over 5,000 feet and only in the historic home of Singani in the Andes. Ha, and I thought only the delicious Andes mints came out of there.
Soderbergh fought to get this clear, mixable liquor into the U.S., for six years. He first tried it in Bolivia while filming CHE.
This 80 proof spirit is distilled from a single variety white grape — the Muscat of Alexandria. Missionaries were the first ones to bring the booze with them on the road. Ah well, it’s so much easier these days when I can just drive to the store and pick some up.
When we were getting ready to leave, I figured I’d ask for a picture with him. I usually don’t get photos with people, but someone else had asked him and he was receptive to it.
As my wife and I approached, she said, “In Italy before we drink we say ‘cin cin’? What do you say in Bolivia before toasting?”
He said, “Salud.” (She felt sheepish having expected so much more.)
I asked if he wanted to hold a bottle of Singani 63 for the photo and he said, “No, we don’t need to do that.”
After we snapped the picture I said, “My wife told me not to bring up anything negative, but I have one complaint.”
He said, “Oh no.”
I continued, “We both loved Logan Lucky, but on a few different radio stations when I was reviewing it, I called it ‘Lucky Logan’ and had to correct myself. Why couldn’t you have called it that instead? It sounds better.”
Soderbergh explained that there was a scene in the movie at the bar where Adam Driver and the people in town talk about his bad luck and say it’s “Logan Luck” as a negative. I edited that line out of the movie, though. But there’s still a scene in it where it’s mentioned.
I thanked him for coming out to San Diego, and he thanked me. And although the bar had a lot of customers, I think most of them were regulars, that had no idea they were sitting in the presence of a genius.
As I drove home, I was excited thinking about his next movie The Laundromat (with Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman), and how I’d be going to Bev Mo to pick up a few bottles of Singani 63.