Casting snags and lab gaffes hampered the Oscar nominated pic

By Steve Daly
Updated March 08, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

For months now, director Steven Soderbergh has refused to lobby for one of his Oscar nominated movies (”Erin Brockovich,” ”Traffic”) 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.”’

A frenzied negotiation began, with lawyers and agents scrambling to present an offer to Ford reportedly worth $10 million (half his usual fee). Meanwhile, the 57 year old actor met with Soderbergh to flesh out Wakefield. ”He had very cogent opinions,” says Soderbergh, ”about what might be done to sort of activate Robert a little bit.”

Ford seemed happy after screenwriter Stephen Gaghan reworked the role, adding several scenes that wound up in the finished film. (Among them: Wakefield’s ”thinking out of the box” pep talk and more conversations between him and his wife.) Then, on Feb. 20 — a few days after the American Film Institute gave Ford a Life Achievement award — the star called Soderbergh to just say no.

The trades were all over the story, and it looked as though the picture was stalled. But Soderbergh and Bickford kept their cool. The upside, says Soderbergh, was that they ”had a better version of the movie to show” to other actors. Michael Douglas reread the script, loved the improvements, and quickly agreed to star. (His soon to be wife, Catherine Zeta Jones, had already been cast as drug kingpin spouse Helena Ayala.) That was enough to move ”Traffic” from gridlocked to greenlit.

Arrested Development
The film, which marked Soderbergh’s first union accredited gig as his own director of photography and camera operator, offered surprises the very first week of shooting. Unbeknownst to his producers, the filmmaker employed a complex negative manipulation scheme for Ayala’s story line. Something went amiss, and half of the first day’s footage came out overexposed and unusable. Before the financiers or studio chiefs even knew about the problem, Soderbergh was already doing reshoots. Insurers made him agree that if there were any further lensing mishaps resulting in additional shooting days, costs would come from his pocket. He and producer Bickford got it all fixed and wrapped on schedule.

Subtitle Bout
USA Films agreed to give Soderbergh final cut on ”Traffic” and also consented to another, seemingly innocuous stipulation: Whenever any Mexican characters spoke to each other, it would be in Spanish. Translation: Almost all of the scenes featuring Oscar nominee Benicio Del Toro as a south of the border cop would have to be subtitled. Somehow, that didn’t sink in to USA execs until about a week before filming. ”I think it was when they saw the first invoice for one of the dialect coaches,” Soderbergh says.

According to the director, there was a ”three minute conversation” about possibly shooting Del Toro’s scenes in both English and Spanish. The suggestion quickly died — an enormous relief to Puerto Rican native Del Toro, who’d been cramming to master Mexican inflections and improve his own ”extremely broken” Spanish vocabulary. He still worried that some other actor would be called in to rerecord his dialogue in English if the studio balked at subtitles. ”Can you imagine?” the actor says. ”You do the whole movie, bust your butt to get it as realistic as possible, and someone dubs your voice? I said no way. Over my dead body. Steven was like, ‘Don’t worry. It’s not gonna happen.”’

Thanks to Soderbergh’s persistence and USA’s consent, Del Toro’s fears went unrealized. And on Oscar night, nobody will be prouder than Soderbergh when the auditorium echoes with las palabras auténticas in film clips. That is, if the director isn’t on the ”Ocean’s 11” set trying to fix a shot involving George Clooney or Julia Roberts: He’s scheduled to be shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday, March 25. ”We’re gonna have to start early that day,” says the double Best Director contender. ”Then I’m gonna jump on a plane to go sit next to myself.”

This is an excerpt from an EW article. For the complete story, see EW’s March 2, 2001, issue