I met Mr. Soderbergh at the bar of the famous hotel Majestic during the Cannes film festival a couple years ago. Between sips of Jagermeister, I asked him if the rumors were true: Was he giving up filmmaking?
He confirmed it to be true: Mr. Soderbergh, the Oscar winner and posterchild of the nineties indie movement was finished. He was going to become a painter instead. I didn’t ask him why, but I told him I enjoyed the lesser appreciated Schizopolis as much as I enjoyed the film that made him famous.
He said, “I only knew one film executive when I wrote Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I got lucky. It was easier for me then than it will be now for you.”
I asked him if he had any advice?
“Yea. Don’t screw up. Or it's over. “
Let me back up for a moment.
I was on my way back to my family for a wedding, and then anything could happen. Maybe I’d come back to Europe, maybe I’d move to LA, maybe I’d lock myself in a basement and write the great American screenplay.
I’d had enough of chasing jobs, chasing girls, chasing dreams, chasing life. Something had to change. My last plan was to figure out a way to start making my own movies and let everything else go.
My former roommate in Prague, Andy, had told me before he left that he had a brother who worked in film sales and distribution. That previous winter, I tracked Andy down and asked him for an introduction. I was looking for any door that would take me out of my current world and into where I wanted to be.
To my surprise, his brother, Nick, was on the way, from the US, to the Berlinale within the next few weeks. I was one country away, so I asked him to meet. A little more effort and I found someone in Berlin I could stay with. With a floor to sleep on, it was now a 5 hours trip for a conversation that may or may not last twenty minutes.
Armed with this knowledge, three months later I was on my way to Cannes, in the south of France, with a short trailer for a screenplay I’d written, and months of sending emails to anyone and everyone who would take a meeting with me.
But through a handful of scrappy meetings (compared to the hundreds of emails I sent), I learned an enormous amount about the realities of the film market. It was always a recon mission, complete with staying on strangers’ couches, hitchhiking along the Cote d’Azure, and even crashing in a French friend’s car one night after getting stuck without a train back to Antibes.
This is, of course, the short, and perhaps more seemingly interesting answer. The less glamorous, but more honest answer is: “I traveled 5 hours to introduce myself simply because my roommate told me he had a brother in film distribution.“ The answer I offered gave the meeting a little extra magic. But the fact was, only now, here under the sunny French Riveria, did it sound so serendipitous. Without that initial contact that winter, I would have never known the person I would have said "hello" to was the very brother my roommate once talked about over beers. This is the reward of effort: Luck.
I was willing to hop on a train and sleep on a stranger’s floor for a twenty minute conversation, and later hitchhike across the Cote D’azur with a backpack filled to the brim of 9 years in Europe, and sleep on the sofas of kind and generous strangers. All of this for the sake of affirming a commitment to learn what I was required to know, if I was going to get where I was required to be.
“Don’t screw up, or it’s over.”
Steven Soderbergh’s words rang deep then, and they still do now.
But I have screwed up. A lot. I was willing to screw up. I was willing to not know. I was willing to fail. But I also had success. I also took chances not everyone would take. I dared to go. Always. And my life has been remarkable because of that willingness. Not only was I willing to take the chance, I looked for chances, and I followed through with all of them, precisely because I was willing to screw up, I was willing to take the hits, and I refused to believe it would be over, even if it was measured by anyone else to be a failure.
It would only be over if I decided to give up and become a painter. But that would be my choice, not the result of my mistakes.
So, for now, I’m still making my movie.
In retrospect, I think, instead, Mr. Soderbergh’s advice says more about a filmmaker who was also formerly a no-hitter baseball pitcher: Be precise and be smart, because a champion makes every chance count. You might be willing to make the mistakes, but you cannot afford them:
So, if you only know one film executive, write a screenplay called Sex, Lies, and Videotape – and send it to that one person. Do the reconnaissance, sleep on the floors, take the 5 hour trip, learn how to throw the perfect curve ball, make it important to know how to throw the strike. Know the batter you face, so you aren’t the shell shocked filmmaker who wonders why his zombie movie didn’t sell.
Last time I checked, it’s not over for Steven Soderbergh either. He is still making movies.
The Journey Continues
Tyler Gooden is making a film inspired by the legendary true story of FC Start.
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