Steven Soderbergh is the Academy Award winning director of Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Ocean’s Eleven. At 26 he was the youngest winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Sex, Lies and Videotape. As a writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor on many of his projects, the success of his films is to a huge extent dependent on his ability to make efficient and effective decisions.
When in Australia for Tot Mom, Soderbergh’s STC play about media attention in the case of the missing toddler Caylee Anthony, he generously answered some questions about his decision making processes for our UNSW College of Fine Arts, Masters of Art Administration, Organisational Psychology class. This is an excerpt from that interview.
Interview by Eliza Muldoon
How do you make efficient decisions?
Well, I think the most important thing is to remember what your goal is overall, in the case of a film, what the overall intent of the film is. You have to have a 30,000 feet view of the entire project in order to successfully filter out all the potential parallel answers. You have to be able to filter out the ones that are not going to get you to your goal.
I think that efficient decision making becomes difficult when you are in a pressurised situation and you may be leaning towards a solution in the short-term, one that is going to get you to the next step but in the long term it is going to actually disrupt the overall piece.
Staying calm is a big part of it. There has never been a situation in the history of the world where panicking has helped. Sometimes I will slow everything down and send people away so I can think on my own and not feel the pressure of the external factors. I have done that a lot.
Film-making involves many thousands of decisions. How do you reduce the amount of decisions that you need to make?
What happens in a film is that there are 10,000 little questions that get answered in the pre-production period. If you have chosen correctly, that will result in a situation where a lot of potential questions have already been answered.
In my experience decision-making really becomes important when things are not going well, when you have to make decisions about how to get the piece back on track. That is where having a really good support system helps a lot. Being surrounded by people who also understand the film and make suggestions that tip you in a certain way. It is actually where my philosophy about how people are treated comes into play. If you do not treat people well and they are not having a good experience on the movie, they would just clam up and enjoy watching an arsehole wallow.
I also tend to work with the same people a lot and that also makes the decision-making easier.
Have you ever found that you have had to prioritise the project over people’s feelings or needs?
There is usually a way to handle a situation with humour: even when you have to move quickly, move people in a very different direction or correct them in a way that might seem severe. You do not want the way you have made or communicated a decision to affect the execution of that decision. If people feel they have not been diminished in any way by your decision or the way it was made, then they are more committed to its’ implementation.
How do you know when your decisions are satisfactory?
Usually, the indication that you have made the right decision is that things happen very quickly. The solutions to everything are right in front of you. When that is not happening it might be an indication that you did not make the right call.
That is why I am willing to slow things down when it is not working. I had a two-day scene once that I had such trouble shooting, that on the first day I sent everyone home – we did not shoot anything. I figured out that night how I wanted to shoot it and the next day we had finished the scene by lunch-time. So we actually saved half a day. It was better choice than trying to grind through it.
You seem to have a lack of angst when making decisions. Why is that?
It just does not help. Worrying is not going to get you to the solution. In my experience of problem solving, I need to be in a relaxed state. I also do not want to create anxiety around me. It is infectious and it really locks people up.
Another reason is that I had a mentor when I started making films, a documentarian, and he worked in a very similar way. If you had seen him work and then watched me work, you would see where I get my approach.
Interested in more on decision-making?