Steven Soderbergh loves a good thriller—most people do, he knows. But he’s always conscious of making sure that whatever it is, it isn’t just “single use plastic.”
“It’s got some aspect to it percolating underneath that keeps it from being completely disposable after you’ve watched it,” he said.
Needless to say, he was especially happy that the timing worked out for “KIMI,” a classic, edge-of-your-seat thriller about a home assistant device that records what may have been a murder and the tech worker (Zoë Kravitz) who hears it. It debuts Thursday on HBO Max.
Screenwriter David Koepp (“Panic Room”) had floated the idea years earlier after reading about the debates over whether Amazon Echo recordings could be used as evidence in crime cases. The script, which he wrote early in the pandemic, had shades of “Rear Window,” “The Conversation” and “Blow Up,” and was irresistible to Soderbergh.
“Thrillers allow you license to do things stylistically that you can’t really get away with in a straight drama or a comedy,” he said. “It demands a sort of bravura visual approach because that enhances the story.”
He even helped design the device.
“I rarely have specific design ideas. But for whatever reason a shape occurred to me” he said. “I took one of them home with me and I have it at the office as a memento.”
But this film he knew would live and die on its main character, Angela Childs, a prickly, agoraphobic analyst with her own personal traumas who the camera is on most of the time. Kravitz was not someone he knew personally, but he’d been of a fan of her work for a while, especially in “High Fidelity.”
“I was convinced early on, that’s a movie star,” he said. “There’s a specific challenge in having one person dominate the entire enterprise that I think is really fun if you have the right person and she just has all the tools. In addition to being a natural beauty, she radiates intelligence. And she has molecular control over her body and voice and face. She just can do it all and this movie needed it all.”
Kravitz was directly coming off of “The Batman,” a shoot that, because of COVID-19 complications, ran over a year. She’d wanted to work with Soderbergh, but she could also relate to Angela, having been essentially trapped in her own apartment for six months over the pandemic.
Because things moved so quickly, they didn’t meet until the first day on set, though they had gotten a chance to bond over text. It was mostly “Mariah gifs,” they said, but they also realized they had a similar working style when they decided to cut out the middlemen during one particularly ridiculous back and forth about scheduling a fitting. They solved in two minutes what had already taken more than a week of emails. Still, Kravitz wasn’t entirely prepared for the “Soderbergh experience.”
“The first day I came on the set to meet him thinking that we were going to just kind of shoot the (expletive) and talk about the weather. And I’m nervous and excited and I’m like, ‘So nice to meet you in person.’ He’s like, ‘Yes, you’re going to start there and you’re going to come out here,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re doing the movie now? Ok,’” she said. “I walked on set thinking I was just going to meet him and I left having shot the first scene of the movie.”
She’d known from friends that he worked fast, but she didn’t quite appreciate just how unique his process was until she was there. And it was a refreshing change of pace from a massive blockbuster like “The Batman.”
“It’s a whole experience,” she said. “Obviously the result is so amazing. But the opportunity to actually see the way this happens is a trip. The Steven Soderbergh experience is a trip. … ‘Batman’ is such a big film and Matt (Reeves) is such a wonderfully tedious director — we do so many takes.
“It was cool to pivot to a very different style of filmmaking.”
Soderbergh appreciated Kravitz’s commitment to really behaving like someone who is alone. She contributed ideas that they’d end up using about having bad hair dye, since, she knew, a lot of people stuck at home were experimenting.
“She has this fearlessness,” he said. “She isn’t protecting anything, and that’s rare.”
Though they filmed “KIMI” about 10 months ago, it feels current in the way it deals with the pandemic, where some people have moved on and some are still masking. He’d spoken to his “’Contagion peeps’” who predicted a hybrid world.
Soderbergh often finds himself in the position of predicting what the future will look like, especially for his own business. For one, he’s good at it. But perhaps most importantly is he isn’t just talk either and he’ll take risks on new formats. “KIMI” is his thirdmovie debuting on HBO Max in the past two years.
“My current home is where the people who like mid-level movies for grown-ups are hanging out,” he said. “It makes sense for ‘KIMI’ to go where the audience for ‘KIMI’ is looking at things.”
It is, he thinks, a great time to be somebody who makes things. But, at the same time, he sees that the uncertainty in the industry is “absolutely unprecedented.”
“People are overwhelmed and overworked,” he said. “I think it’s really difficult to be a company trying to figure out what the five-year plan should look like. Here’s what solves all your problems: Making some good stuff. That solves everything. I’ve always encouraged anybody that I talked to at Warner to adopt the curation approach. It’s better to make fewer really good things, then a lot of things that are OK. You’ve got to define yourself as a place to go to see something good. Whether or not I’m right, that, I believe, is how you separate yourself from other platforms.”