Soderbergh on Soderbergh
By Jerry Portwood
Matt Damon and Michael Douglas in "Behind the Candelabra" / Photo courtesy of HBO
CS: Their relationship in the movie has the dynamic of any relationship. You could have taken that dialogue and plugged it in anywhere. After seeing the movie a couple more times, you pay more and more attention to their relationship, instead of, “Wow, it’s Liberace.” Or “It’s Michael Douglas and Matt [Damon] making out.” You’re actually in their story, rather than getting goose bumps because they’re in a hot tub together.
SS: Halfway through the movie, I sort of forget it’s two guys, and I’m just in the relationship. I wanted the movie to be very generous to Lee and Scott. I took them seriously, and I took the relationship seriously. It was a real relationship that was derailed because of some very odd external forces, some of them social and some professional. But there was an extended period where they were fat and happy. And if Lee hadn’t worked in a business where he thought that was a problem, or being gay was a problem, I think there would have been a very different outcome. It’s compelling to watch the two of them together. It’s sort of a Thelma & Louise thing—they decide to jump off the cliff together.
Out: One of the most distinctive scenes, perhaps because it’s so rare to see it portrayed honestly in a movie, was the argument they have about who will be a top or a bottom.
SS: Whenever you’re in a sexual relationship that lasts long enough, at some point someone is going to hit on something that they want to do and the other person doesn’t want to do. That’s unfortunate, because it’s really hard to put that genie back in the bottle once it’s come out. If you’re lucky there’s some synchronicity that works out, and on the second Tuesday of every month, you get to do that. That’s absolutely a conversation straight couples have all the time. It doesn’t necessarily have the same significance, but oh, absolutely.
CS: I’ve been privy to conversations between a married male and female couple when one of them wants to try it and the other is balking. And the physical implications are the first thing they’re afraid of, and the social implications are the second thing. So we have two layers of fear. And I just stand there with a smile on my face, thinking, I can’t wait to see how you work this out.
SS: It’s one of my favorite scenes in the film because it is so blunt and so funny. “Why am I the Lucy in this relationship?”
CS: “Because I’m the bandleader and have the nightclub act.”
SS: That’s [screenwriter] Richard [LaGravenese] really hitting one out of the park. But it is fascinating, because you have Scott saying, “I’m OK with this, but I’m not OK with that.” And Lee doesn’t understand, because to him it seems like hypocrisy. I find that really true to life, in the sense that our feelings about sexuality aren’t necessarily linear. Everybody’s got some dot on a line with 10 points on it, and one is out of sync or in the wrong order. It’s a very complex, powerful area of our lives, and it creates really fascinating emotions and delusions and omissions. And I thought, What an interesting conversation, especially if Lee’s the one in the power position.
CS: Another part of that scene is, “I don’t know how you can watch that stuff,” referring to the porn on the TV. “How does he get it in his mouth?” I’ve talked to gay and straight couples who say, “I don’t know why you watch that stuff, it makes me feel unloved.” And the other one is like, “It’s no big deal!”
SS: Yeah, porn’s a big thing. Even to the point where I know couples who will watch it separately but they have no desire to watch it together.
CS: Or I know people who say, “When you watch porn, that’s cheating on me.”
SS: I was really interested in the sorts of power dynamics in this relationship. You’ve got wealth, a certain kind of fame, and that presents a certain power; and Scott’s power is that he’s young and beautiful and amenable. Where’s this going?
Out: We see that with the plastic surgery Scott undergoes.
SS: I managed to get a hold of the depositions, some of which are in the film, and Scott and Lee tell completely different stories about how Scott’s surgery came to be. So somebody is not telling the truth. We went with Scott’s version because I love the image of Lee bringing the painting over and saying, “I want him to look like this.”
CS: I thought about it as a gay man: What it would be like to step into Scott’s shoes, someone who doesn’t have much stability, and all of a sudden, you’re sitting in this wealthy man’s house, and he’s just made a big meal for you. You’re eating it, and he’s looking at you adorably and goes, “Come here, you.” I thought, Oh shit. Here we go—what a wild ride. I texted Steven after I saw it: “Thank you for making this, I just loved it.” He called, and I told him, “Wow, what a great thing to go out on. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s beautiful to look at.”
Behind the Candelabra premieres May 26 at 9 p.m. EST on HBO.