It’s 8:38 a.m. eastern time on Feb. 13 — the Academy Award nominations are about to be announced — and director Steven Soderbergh is not glued to a TV. He’s at Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, three days into shooting Ocean’s 11, and he’s having a bad morning. For half an hour, he’s been trying to nail a shot of George Clooney — cast as heist mastermind Danny Ocean — riding up an escalator and disappearing into a crowd on the gambling floor. Soderbergh is also acting as his own cinematographer and principal camera operator on the $90 million film. But he just can’t operate his way through this setup.
”The idea was to start facing George, then turn and follow him as he gets off the escalator,” the filmmaker explains later. ”We tried a dolly move in. That didn’t work. We tried it hand-held. That didn’t work either.”
In the middle of Soderbergh’s exasperation, the synchronized bleating of umpteen cell phones suddenly cuts through the slot-machine din. The whole world wants to congratulate him on the 10 nominations his 2000 releases, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, have just received. Each earned Best Director, Best Picture, and best screenplay nods — as sports-minded Soderbergh calls it, ”a triple double.”
Not that you could tell from his immediate on-set reaction. ”I just had kind of a blank look on my face,” he says. ”As if to say, ‘Will you please just tell me something that will help me figure this shot out?’ At that particular moment, I was feeling very unprofessional and very unexceptional.”
And maybe overwhelmed, given the campaigning demands of awards season. For months, Soderbergh has refused to lobby for one of his movies at the expense of the other. But execs at USA Films obviously have much more at stake in promoting Traffic‘s five nods — which helped boost the picture’s take by 69 percent the weekend after the announcement (bringing its gross to $80 million) — than Universal execs do in trumpeting the five for Erin Brockovich, which took in $125.6 million during its initial run. ”Steven can’t choose, he’ll never choose,” says USA Films president Russell Schwartz. ”And he shouldn’t, because then he’ll be accused of falling into the fray.”
Still, that won’t stop USA from trying to position Traffic as the fresher, edgier, more artistically ambitious Soderbergh film that most deserves Academy votes. And there’s no question that what Soderbergh, USA Films, and Laura Bickford, one of the producers, went through to get Traffic made is a much juicier, dramatic, nothing-will-stop-us tale than the relatively smooth ride of Erin Brockovich.
”Twelve months ago, it looked like the whole thing was going to fall off a cliff and just crash on the rocks,” says Soderbergh.
What almost pushed it over the edge? Let’s flash back, like Soderbergh often does in his movies, and zero in on three crucial production moments when Traffic hit red lights.
A Ford Escort
Harrison Ford first considered playing drug czar Robert Wakefield in January 2000, after reading an early script draft — the same version Michael Douglas had declined a few weeks earlier. Producer Bickford was at home one morning when Ford’s manager, Pat McQueeney, called to pitch his interest. ”I told Pat, ‘Nothing would make us happier,’ ” says Bickford. ” ‘But we hear you never cut your price, and we don’t have three months to wait to hear a no.’ ”