EXCLUSIVE: Steven Soderbergh has dedicated more than four decades to shaping his legacy in Hollywood as a director, cinematographer and producer. But instead of splurging on yachts or a home in the South of France, he is investing in the future of independent filmmaking by mentoring directors like Joe and Anthony Russo, Christopher Nolan and most recently Eddie Alcazar. He and Alcazar’s second collaboration (after 2018’s Perfect) is Divinity, which hits theaters nationwide Friday after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film, set in an otherworldly human existence on a barren planet, follows Sterling Pierce (Scott Bakula), a scientist who has dedicated his life to the quest for immortality, slowly creating the building blocks of a groundbreaking serum known as “Divinity.” Jaxxon Pierce (Stephen Dorff), his son, now controls and manufactures his father’s once-benevolent dream. Society has been entirely perverted by the supremacy of the drug, whose true origins are shrouded in mystery. Two mysterious brothers (Moises Arias and Jason Genao) arrive with a plan to abduct the mogul. With the help of a seductive woman named Nikita (Karrueche Tran), they will be set on a path hurtling toward true immortality.
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Bella Thorne also stars in the feature, which is being distributed by Utopia and Sumerian.
Deadline recently spoke with Soderbergh and Alcazar about the “wacky and weird” Divinity, Taylor Swift, the future of the indie film market and more.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: Steven, at this point in your career you could be doing any myriad of things, but you choose to mentor up-and-coming artists and, in many cases, fund their projects. What is the motivation behind that?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: Let me make myself seem less gallant by saying these things have happened sort of by accident rather than design. I end up hearing about people from other people. For instance, the first time this happened was when Nancy Tenenbaum, one of my producers on Sex, Lies and Videotape, said, “Hey, I saw this great short film out of Columbia film school made by this guy, Greg Mottola. Check this out.” That’s how I met Greg and we’ve worked on The Daytrippers together.
My connection with Eddie is another example of that kind of serendipity. Chris Santos, who was one of the leads in The Girlfriend Experience movie, was on Eddie’s set for a couple of days. He texted me and said, “You got to meet this guy, I think you’d really spark with him.” And so Eddie and I went to lunch at Musso and Frank and started talking. It’s always fun to help but it didn’t emerge from some purely altruistic place. It’s just kind of been by accident.
DEADLINE: Eddie, not only have you worked with Steven but you also collaborated with Darren Aronofsky on your short The Vandal. What has having this type of support meant to you, especially at this stage of your career?
EDDIE ALCAZAR: Having Steven’s support and other folks who have had their experience throughout the industry is pretty invaluable; picking their brains and trying to understand how to make the right moves creatively, but also within the business. It could be a little bit just like dizzying at first but when you have the right people around you, you become more confident as you find the right path. Ultimately, my goal is to surround myself with the positive people that I can learn from and the greatest artists to work with. Working with Steven has been interesting because it helped me find my voice instead of standing in the way of it.
DEADLINE: So how does your relationship work?
ALCAZAR: Steven asked me if I had some ideas and that he was willing to support it for a certain amount of funding. When he offers an opportunity like this, I try to take advantage of it because this may be my only opportunity to have something made how I envision it. There are no rules in filmmaking even though people say that it has to be made in a certain way and it’s becoming formulaic. So taking a step back and just rethinking the process and trying to feel what’s natural. To me as a filmmaker, having that support allows me to do things a little bit differently and see if it works. But there’s also a big, big weight on my shoulders to make sure, No. 1, Steven gets his money back, but also that he likes the film and that I’m creating something new and fresh.
SODERBERGH: Yeah, like he said, it’s pretty random. In the case of Divinity, I just reached out and asked, “What are you doing?” And he described a few projects. And I said, “Well, if you can make one of them for X, I’ll do it.” I didn’t even have to read it. So he just started working on it and I would see things occasionally. I try to judge when to be forward and when not to be forward; I’m there to support. And sometimes, as Eddie said, we end up talking about things that may not be specific to the project itself. For instance, we met yesterday and we were talking about an aspect of directing for which there’s no class you can take to learn this, which is the sort of performative aspect of being a director and the leader of a project. That’s a very crucial component of getting great work out of people, understanding the social aspect of directing and being able to navigate that deal with all the personalities. As well as dealing with the practical issues, some of which are within your control and others not so much. It’s important to have people be confident in their ability to execute the vision. There’s nobody to teach you that; you’re just in the deep end every day. We were just kind of laughing about the psychic real estate the social aspects of directing takes up and how to deal with that.
DEADLINE: Steven, what interested you about Divinity?
SODERBERGH: With Divinity, the reason that I didn’t need to get granular about what it was upfront, I knew it was going to be crazy and that’s all that I was banking on. Part of what’s been interesting about how we sell Divinity to a potential audience is creating the right kind of expectation, so that when they go see this wild, weird movie they’re happy because they expected to see something wild and something weird. When I was growing up, this was the kind of film that I would stand in line for an hour on a Friday or a Saturday at midnight to go see. If I’d seen this, I would have been very happy. Watching it evolve and then seeing the final version was akin to seeing El Topo for the first time. I’ve never seen anything like that. As soon as he said, “Okay, low-budget 16-millimeter science fiction,” I said, “Well, that sounds fun.”
ALCAZAR: The comeback of the midnight movie.
SODERBERGH: What I’m trying to support is a movie that feels as though the person who made it was just utterly possessed; like they were infected with this thing and that it all comes out. It’s almost like a fever dream. That’s what was fun about watching Divinity evolve, and it really did evolve. He would shoot for a while, he would stop, he’d shoot some more, he’d stop. He’d put stuff together. He’d rewrite. You know, it changed. I watched it change and I watched it continue to get better every time he moved it in a different direction. That’s the kind of freedom that you can have when you’re working at this level. This isn’t a process that a normal financier would be able to wrap their mind around because it’s not built in a schedule, or budget way, like a normal movie. I was fascinated to watch that process as well. Even though I’ve made some very low-budget things like Schizopolis, a movie that I shot off and on for nine months. It kind of had a very similar process in which I would shoot, put stuff together, talk to the sort of creative brain trust, rewrite, reshoot some more. Again, you can do that when you’re working at a certain budget level with a small group of people. Bigger is not always better at solving a creative problem. In low budget [projects], context forces you to think laterally instead of vertically. And when the solution to a problem is not throwing money at it, that’s when things get creative.
DEADLINE: The industry has gone through an upheaval with two strikes that were preceded by a streaming bubble burst of sorts, among other things. What does the future of indie filmmaking look like?
SODERBERGH: In every situation of disruption, there’s an opportunity to build a different version of what existed before. What I would like to see — and Taylor Swift’s premiere was an example — is more fluidity in terms of exhibition. I would like to see the theater owners start to consider different ways of doing what we’ve all been doing forever—different kinds of programming options for audiences. We live in an almost exclusively digital world now in terms of exhibition. So that means these theaters have access, basically to almost any movie that’s ever been made. And there are a lot of really good movies from the not-so-distant past that young people have never seen on a theater screen before, that could potentially do some business.
It would be great if the programming in chain theaters could be more creative and tailored to the specific town or city in which the theater exists, but that involves thinking about theatrical distribution in a different way. What Taylor Swift did was interesting; she went straight to the theaters and she cut everybody else out. We tried to do that on Logan Lucky and Unsane and we were able to do it. What we discovered was without the truckload of resources for marketing … the issue wasn’t getting screens it was the awareness. Taylor Swift isn’t spending any money on a marketing department; she’s just her. This is a new development in terms of the selling of a movie that’s going into theaters. I look at it and go okay, well, what can we extract from this example and scale it out so that it isn’t only Taylor Swift that can take advantage of this kind of efficiency? It’d be great if we experienced over the next six to nine months a wave of independent films.
Twenty years ago, independent films took up a lot more market share than they do currently. It would be nice to see a resurgence. But it also it also just comes down to filmmakers. As we’re having this conversation, there could be a filmmaker working on something that in six or nine months could turn the industry upside down. That’s what’s exciting about it and that’s what I continue to have faith in, filmmakers’ ability to solve their own problems.
DEADLINE: Eddie, why was important to you that Divinity be watched on the big screen?
ALCAZAR: I made the film for the theaters with the biggest possible screen. That’s where I fell in love with films. Making something that is big cinematic with the sound and the visuals is exciting to me — the immersive experience. But most most things these days just land on streaming and that’s successful for a lot of folks. I was really excited that [our distributor] Utopia had that strong interest in putting Divinity out theatrically; they even made a 35mm print for some screenings. They respect the cinematic experience.
DEADLINE: What can help bring the indie market back to the forefront?
SODERBERGH: One of the things that I would love to see happen, Eddie and I were talking about this yesterday, nothing would shift the indie landscape faster than a bunch of A-list actors being part of and supporting some young and up-and-coming independent filmmakers — this is how you get things financed. When you go to get finance for something if you’re an independent filmmaker, they’ll go okay, what’s the story about and who’s in it? They’re more interested in who’s in it ultimately. And so what’s needed is a real kind of concerted effort on the part of A-list actors who have the juice to make this happen.
Nothing would shift the indie landscape faster than a bunch of A-list actors being part of and supporting some young and up-and-coming independent filmmakers
Backing some independent filmmakers who haven’t yet made a name for themselves would be the single biggest sequence of events that would result in a resurgence of commercial, independent films. The problem we have right now is there’s no middle. You’ve got sort of the fantasy spectacle big-budget movies, then you’ve got the sort of specialty films. Occasionally, one will break out. But more often than not, there’s kind of a cap to how well they perform that you might be able to break through if you were able to cast bigger names. But that takes real fortitude on the part of that actor because the current of the industry is not flowing toward them doing a low-budget movie for no money with an unproven director. The river doesn’t flow in that direction. It will take somebody deciding they want to support a young filmmaker and really back their vision. To see a real wave of that kind of support would be transformative.
ALCAZAR: The Hollywood system has become so corporate. Steven, you’ve spent so much more time in this industry than I have, in recent years, the studios have been selling off to bigger conglomerates. How has this changed the industry?
SODERBERGH: The biggest factor I would argue is the decision-making process for a studio is the skyrocketing trajectory of marketing. It costs so much money to create awareness to penetrate through to a potential audience member — that’s a problem. When you’re in an environment in which financial risk is outpacing the performance of even some movies that do well, that’s an issue. And so what happens is you get a lot of fear-based decision making, and that’s not a great environment to make good art.
ALCAZAR: What one Marvel movie costs could fund maybe 100 indies like Divinity? Wouldn’t it be a good decision to diversify?
SODERBERGH: Potentially. It’s an interesting study for somebody to do. There’s a psychological block. In the decision to spend large amounts of marketing on films that don’t cost much money. A studio is much more comfortable spending $40 million or $50 million in P&A on a movie that costs $100 million than they are on a movie that costs $5 million. Even though financially, if that $5 million movie is commercial and it has broad appeal, even though that’s a way better economic paradigm to be working with. Psychologically, they have a problem with that. It seems weird and wrong to them. It’s just really hard for them to wrap their minds around that.
One of the things that we have to do is to stop using the studio metric for what constitutes a success. They operate on a different scale, as do the theaters and mainstream exhibitors. The fact of the matter is, the Metrograph Theater in New York, that’s a good business. So the question is, how do you scale that business? How do you have a Metrograph Theater or the equivalent in every major college town in the U.S.? If you’ve got 30,000 students on campus, you can make a theater like the Metrograph work. We need to start thinking about profit without thinking about obscene profit.
ALCAZAR: I find that the word independent is a little blurry. I know Ferrari is technically an independent film but I don’t see how Divinity and Ferrari are in the same category. Maybe there’s a new word that needs to come out for what we’re doing.
SODERBERGH: What it’s doing is it’s using the assets definition because the sole criteria for calling something an independent or a studio film is the source of the financing. The fact of the matter is there are independent films in which the directors have to withstand the kind of intrusion that people associate with the studios. And then there are studio movies in which the filmmakers have the kind of freedom that you just had on Divinity. It’s not as binary as people want to make it seem. So you’re right, if we’re only using the definition of independence [as] the source of the funding, that’s a pretty myopic way to look at filmmaking.
DEADLINE: Steven, are there any other filmmakers you’re working with?
SODERBERGH: There’s a movie that I’m producing that is editing right now. It’s the feature film debut of Rachael Holder, who’s made some wonderful and funny shorts and web series. Andre Holland had this script with Rachael attached to direct. When Andre and I spoke on the phone, he was agitated. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “I’m talking to these people about this movie and they’re just being kind of difficult.” So I asked, “Well, what are we talking about here? What kind of scale?” After he told me I said, “Call them back and say, ‘Thank you, you have the money from somewhere else.’” They should just be saying yes, and not giving him a hard time.
So when he called them back and let them know, that was the best use of whatever juice that I have. Which is, to be able to make that situation happen and give this filmmaker an opportunity. There’s nothing in my life that I want that I don’t have. I don’t need a boat. I don’t need homes in the South of France. What I like to do with whatever resources I have is to see stuff happen. What’s maddening is when you see these stories in the press about these hedge funds and crypto companies bailing and the money’s gone. My attitude is if I finance a project and I lose every penny on it, at least at the end of the day, we have a thing that was made. These other people that have these companies that make money on the making of money, when it all collapses it all goes away. There’s not even anything there. It’s just like devastation and people who’ve lost a lot of money without anything to show for it. So for me, it’s worth it. At the end of the day, we can see what we made, and that to me is the best part. It’s a wonderful perk of being in the situation that I’ve found myself in.
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