Cover Story

Steven Soderbergh

'Traffic'

The script ran to 165 pages (most hit only 100 or so). There were 110 speaking parts. And the shooting schedule was just 54 days — about half what's generally allotted for ambitious Hollywood movies.

So did Steven Soderbergh try to ratchet down the degree-of-difficulty rating as he prepared to film Traffic? Nope. He upped it exponentially by signing on not just as director but also as director of photography and chief camera operator. (It's been done, though rarely on such a sprawling movie — and seldom by a Best Director Oscar nominee.) That meant no downtime on the set to strategize while somebody else rigged lights and checked lenses. While the actors were running their lines, Soderbergh would be busy trailing them around, framing an image as well as sizing up their performances.

What possessed him? ''It's really about momentum,'' says the 38-year-old director of Out of Sight. ''It meant stripping the [crew] down to a bare minimum and moving quickly, so the actors could stay in performance mode as much as possible.''

Soderbergh also wanted full responsibility for the movie's unusual visual concept — three story lines in three starkly different color schemes — because he figured financial backers would be less likely to fire him for excess experimentation than they would a separate D.P.

The gamble paid off on multiple levels. The contrasting palettes let the audience instantly know which story they're watching. The actors, from Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican lawman to Michael Douglas as the U.S. drug czar to Catherine Zeta-Jones (above) as the wife of a drug lord, do have a striking rapport with the camera. ''It made my job harder,'' Soderbergh says of his hands-on approach. ''But it's as close to the sensation of when I first started making films as I think I can get making movies on this scale.''

Originally posted Feb 23, 2001 Published in issue #583-584 Feb 23, 2001 Order article reprints