Steven Soderbergh Is the King of the Sequel

Steven Soderbergh is the rare filmmaker who views a sequel as a chance to do something different. In a moviemaking era suffused with safe and predictable follow-ups, Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve remains a sterling example of a strange, surprising left turn from its predecessor’s formula. The biggest challenge is always expectations, he told me in an interview: “What is the expectation from the audience? … How do you not find yourself handcuffed by that and yet not change [the story] so radically that the foundations for everyone’s positive feelings are destroyed?”

In Magic Mike’s Last Dance, the third film in the male-stripper-centric Magic Mike series, Soderbergh is once again looking to reinvent rather than just play the hits. The film is a devilishly funny romantic comedy, pairing the preternaturally talented chill-bro dancer Mike Lane (played by Channing Tatum) with a firecracker financier named Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), who impulsively bankrolls a striptease extravaganza in a London theater and installs Mike as the director. Between the culture-clash humor and the sparkling chemistry between Mike and Max, Last Dance is a major tonal shift from the franchise’s previous two movies.

Soderbergh directed the first Magic Mike, which was released in 2012. That dark workplace drama is filled with spectacular dancing but is more focused on Mike’s efforts to leave his stripper life behind and stay away from drug deals and other shady business. The 2015 sequel, Magic Mike XXL, which was shot and edited by Soderbergh but directed by his frequent collaborator Gregory Jacobs, takes an entirely different tack; it largely abandons narrative and is instead a gleeful road-trip movie in which Mike and his pals dance their way from Tampa to Myrtle Beach in order to attend a stripper convention. XXL is a triumphant work and was an instant cult classic.

But I loved the further reinvention of Last Dance, which was inspired by Soderbergh seeing a performance of the live Magic Mike show that Tatum directed in London. Last Dance will arrive in theaters this week, despite initial plans to debut it only on HBO Max. I spoke with the director about that shift in release strategy, risk-taking, and the bevy of influences he drew on for this release, including Bob Fosse and the master of the Golden Age of Hollywood rom-coms, Ernst Lubitsch.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: How did Magic Mike’s Last Dance come together?

Steven Soderbergh: I attended the live Magic Mike show in London, which I’d never seen in its finished form. And I immediately got on the phone and said, “I want to make a film about how this was created”—we’d have Mike essentially be [the choreographer-director character played by] Roy Scheider in the film All That Jazz. The new movie is going to look at the anatomy of a show. We wanted to take Mike out of Florida and plop him down somewhere unfamiliar. We got pretty far down the road on a version in which he would’ve gone to South Korea, and then it was decided that London would be better for the story.

Sims: Is the setting of London where the comical side of the movie comes from? Mike feeling out of place in a hoity-toity world, and even being needled by a butler?

Soderbergh: It was fun to play with the idea of someone trying to do a strip show and being confronted with a sense of propriety. The butler idea grew out of watching early Ernst Lubitsch films for research.

Sims: Okay! I’m not bragging, but the first thing I said to the person next to me as we walked out was “That felt like a Lubitsch movie!” Were you inspired by any in particular?

Soderbergh: I was very interested in Design for Living—one of the last movies to slip in before the Production Code.

Sims: A very horny film.

Soderbergh: You watch it now, and you’re like, Wow, what did people make of this? So probably that and Trouble in Paradise, because the repartee in that one is so good. I was also thinking about [the director] Lina Wertmüller; I wanted Salma’s character to feel like she’d stepped out of a Wertmüller movie in the 1970s—someone who was very brash and charismatic and strong.

And visually, I was thinking about early Bernardo Bertolucci movies—The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, and 1900, specifically. I was watching those on a loop, because the way he moved the camera was so distinctive and sensual.

[Read: Magic Mike’s Last Dance is as sexy as it is romantic]

Sims: What theater venue did you use in the film?

Soderbergh: The Clapham Grand—it’s a legitimate, storied theater, well over 100 years old, where Charlie Chaplin used to perform. Compared to some other places where we’ve had to shoot dance sequences, this was much more visually friendly. It provides a fresh backdrop for the numbers.

Sims: How long were you shooting for?

Soderbergh: The whole shoot was 29 days. That’s a day less than it took to shoot [my debut film] Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which I could shoot in a week now. But for Last Dance, there were days when you really just had to take a deep breath. It’s not ideal to have only hours, sometimes, to shoot a sequence. But it forces you into a pure, instinctual space. The momentum for the dancers and the crew is very palpable.

Sims: You watched a lot of Bob Fosse’s films and read books about him to prepare. All That Jazz, his semi-autobiographical opus, is definitely not about a fish out of water; the theater-director character in that film is the master of his domain. So was it just the “we have to put on a show” energy that you wanted to carry into Last Dance?

Soderbergh: Our film is like a procedural about how to solve creative problems. Fosse really developed a grammar that was new to shooting musical and dance sequences. With All That Jazz, the self-indulgence and self-mythologizing is just shocking. Yet the film is also uncompromising and fairly self-aware. West Side Story I was also watching repeatedly, both the original and Steven Spielberg’s remake. Spielberg’s level of imagination and dexterity is beyond me.

Sims: Were you worried about the potential whiplash between XXL, which is energized by the ensemble, and this film, which is Mike-focused and has a totally different tone?

Soderbergh: No, we just wanted to make sure the story evolved. We really wanted to finally see Mike in a relationship, and with someone older and more powerful and extroverted than him. But that didn’t really ignite until Salma came on board. So many of the scenes of Max and Mike arguing about the revue are almost verbatim conversations we’d have with Salma about the movie itself. There’s so much of her in it. That’s what it’s like to be in a room with Salma. You’ll get your face burned off if you’re not bringing your A-game.

Sims: The original plan for the film was a streaming release, not a theatrical one. Was it an argument to change it to theatrical, or were the winds obviously shifting?

Soderbergh: That was all Warner. They saw the movie and, within minutes, said, “We would be stupid not to put this out in theaters.” I think their willingness to shift course on a very high-profile [HBO Max] movie is smart. There’s the potential that you’ll actually make some money; it’s never good to leave money on the table. More people will watch a new movie on a streaming platform if it also has a theatrical release. That’s just a truism. Viewing it as a very sizable marketing campaign, it’s worth doing.

Sims: Is that becoming a more prevalent belief in the industry in general, that the upside of a theatrical release is that it gets a movie into people’s brains?

Soderbergh: There’s no reason not to do it. Treat every film discretely. The perception of what the thing is is altered by whether it was in theaters or not. I’d love to see businesses moving into this space with more fluidity.

[Read: Steven Soderbergh’s ‘crackpot theories’ on how moviegoing has changed]

Sims: I feel like post-pandemic, the rigidity of release strategies has been shattered a bit. You see all kinds of new models being tried out.

Soderbergh: Absolutely, and that’s challenging for everybody but also provides opportunities to learn new stuff. It’s helpful for everybody to have a sense of what’s working and what’s not, theatrically. It’s very encouraging when something like Everything Everywhere All at Once blows up—an original screenplay, not a typical hit lately.

Sims: You’ve been making a movie every year, practically, and with every movie, you seem to be asking, What can we do differently?

Soderbergh: I’m willing to fail. I’m willing to try something—and if I come out the other end and say, “That didn’t work,” and I spend some time analyzing why, then that’s helpful. It’s not pleasant, but it’s helpful. For a movie like Last Dance, we feel like this is a good time for it to roll up. We’ll see if we’re right, but I feel like it’s a real movie experience.