Steven Soderbergh Made the Ideal 'Saturday Night Bottle of Wine' Movie
The director and screenwriter David Koepp talk the HBO Max throwback thriller 'Kimi.'
Steven Soderbergh and David Koepp can't remember when they first met. The director and screenwriter, respectively, both got their starts around the same time, Koepp with Apartment Zero and Soderbergh with the indie sensation Sex, Lies, and Videotape. They both went on to eclectic and varied careers. Soderbergh, obviously, became the Oscar-winning director of Traffic as well known for his prestige pictures like Erin Brockovich as his blockbusters like Ocean's 11 as his experiments like The Girlfriend Experience or High Flying Bird. Koepp, meanwhile, wrote huge screenplays like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Panic Room.
Now, after years of friendship, they finally collaborated on HBO Max's Kimi, a thriller starring Zoë Kravitz as an agoraphobe who spends her days scanning recordings off an Alexa type app called Kimi on behalf of the tech company that makes the product. Her work is mostly a routine system of resolving minor issues, until she comes across what sounds like a crime, she spirals. In trying to uncover the mystery, she's forced to finally leave her space. Soderbergh adds a directorial flourish to show her anxiety, switching to a handheld camera to capture the jitteriness.
The movie is the kind of fun thriller that sucks you in for its 90 minutes, a welcome throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the '70s and '90s with a 21st Century edge and a dose of pandemic. It's what Soderbergh calls a "Saturday night bottle of wine movie"—the kind of movie you want to watch on your couch with a glass of Pinot. Soderbergh and Koepp chatted with Thrillist for a lengthy discussion about making this project happen and their inspirations.
At what point did you know you wanted to work together?
Soderbergh: We just became friends. And then when was it, David, when we started talking about The Uninvited, when was that?
Koepp: That was the mid '90s. So, I tried to entice you with Death Becomes Her, I think. But it wasn't your cup of tea. I was working at Universal, and I think you were too with King of the Hill, and they had the rights to this old Ray Milland movie, The Uninvited, which is just a terrific ghost story. We had a nice little ghost story going, but sometimes they get traction and sometimes they don't.
Soderbergh: Well, my recollection is we couldn't come to terms over the inevitable explanatory scene in the end of the movie because I was resisting doing that at all, and you felt, "Well, but there's got to be some reason this all happened." And I was going, "No, there doesn't."
Koepp: I think your feeling was, "Life is hard and mysterious and sometimes you just never figure it out." I said, "Right, which is why we go to movies!"
Soderbergh: So, yeah, so we parted over that. Of course we stayed friends. I think I felt comfortable not forcing it. I felt we would eventually find something that we wanted to do.
Koepp: I think once or twice over the years, somebody would throw something up against the wall, but it didn't stick. But then, a couple years ago I was living in London and Steven was in town and we got together for a drink. And I was telling him about things I'd read about Alexa and Siri and things that are listening to us, and of course that seems like an interesting movie, but what to me seemed particularly interesting was the people who listened to the streams because they're hearing a lot more than they're telling us. And they're supposed to just delete or ignore it. But there were starting to be one or two cases, which still aren't all that well publicized, or they're publicized and squelched, about crimes that are heard on these things. And I started looking for those kinds of stories. So I told him this. You're great to work with, Steven, because you're very clear yes or no. You were very clear right away, "That's really good. Do that." And then a scant year or two later, I got around to actually typing it up.
Steven, why was Death Becomes Her a no for you?
Koepp: Yeah, why the fuck did you pass on that? That was funny.
Soderbergh: It was funny, which no one will dispute. I think it was borne out by what Zemeckis did. Honestly, it was a little out of my league on a purely technical level at that point in my career. I read that going, "There's a level of chops required to execute this at the level of the writing, and I need more experience."
What made Kimi the "hell yes" at this time?
Soderbergh: I think David and I share an affinity for thrillers like this that are based in the actual universe and don't involve violating the Newtonian laws of physics. He described it to me and I've described it to other people as the "Saturday night bottle of wine thriller," and on Saturday night, this is exactly what I am hoping I will find when I'm looking for something to watch.
What are your other favorite "Saturday night bottle of wine thrillers?"
Soderbergh: Well, obviously, anything I've made. It depends on what kind of mood I'm in, like how far back into the past I want to go. And also, I may be looking at something as homework specifically. So, in this case, I'm watching Panic Room and I'm watching The Conversation. I'm watching Rear Window. I'm watching Repulsion and The Tenant. I'm looking for thrillers that operate on a couple levels and are smart.
With The Uninvited you couldn't quite crack the reveal. How did it work figuring out the arc of Kimi?
Koepp: I love, in terms of references, all the things Steven said, particularly the early to mid-career Polanski, because he gravitated toward a thing that is my absolute favorite thing to write, which is anything that is confined in terms of time, space, or number of characters. I just love a bottle. For me, if I feel like I've got my arms around what the container is, I feel liberated. In this, I knew I didn't want to leave her apartment for the first half. Similar to Panic Room in which I wanted to do the whole thing inside the house. The director wisely said, "You got to be out a little at the beginning just to see the world."
I was feeling a lot of confinement, but I always feel a lot of confinement. It's not unique to the pandemic. I love a confined space thing. And Polanski did that in almost every movie in the beginning of his career, whether it was out on a boat or in a cul-de-sac or in Catherine Deneuve's apartment or in the Dakota. My Saturday night movie is Sorry, Wrong Number. I loved how the '40s really experimented with formalism and had crazy ways of telling stories that seemed batshit, but they did it because they made so many movies that they had to have a lot of ideas. So, that stuff really feeds me.
Steven, people gravitated towards your work at the beginning of the pandemic when everyone was watching Contagion again, figuring out how right you got it. I did watch it later, and one thing that it missed is that in Contagion everyone lines up to take the vaccine and in real life, people have not.
Soderbergh: We never imagined that Jude Law would be the President of the United States.
Pretty much. What were your thoughts about having the pandemic hover over Kimi?
Soderbergh: The film we felt needed to be made soon because of its topicality, and if we wanted to set it in a real universe, so that meant we were forced to deal with COVID. Obviously, the movie would work without it. It just added a layer of complication physically and psychologically that absolutely played to the premise of the film. So, we kind of inherited it without asking, but it wasn't a bad thing. The questions were a year ago last March and April when we were shooting, How prevalent do we make COVID in something that's going to come out 10 months from now?
Koepp: I'll be a little less modest. You got it exactly right. It was really prescient. If you see the movie, some people wear masks, some don't. It was hard to speculate, though, at the time because I think we started talking about it when there was a script in August, September of 2020. And I'm delighted with the way you did it because it reflects life right now. And when I watch movies now, if they're new movies, if everybody's in a mask, I want to turn it off because I feel like, "No, that's a lockdown movie. I was in lockdown. I don't need to see that." And if nobody's in a mask, I say, "What world are these lunatics living in?"
Steven, the idea that corruption goes all the way to the top of corporations or the government is a theme that persists throughout your work from No Sudden Move to Erin Brockovich. Why does that idea appeal to you?
Soderbergh: You start, Dave.
Koepp: It might be the age we are. The paranoid strain in American life really came on strong in the '70s when we were teenagers. Watergate and Vietnam had a big impact on things. And to me, the unseen menace is always a hell of a lot scarier than that which is seen. It's different from today's internet-fed conspiracy mongering. There was just a generalized sense that people at the highest positions of government were lying to us. Obviously Alan Pakula made probably the definitive movies on the subject. I don't know, it's probably why I like Rosemary's Baby so much. That's not the government lying, but it's your husband betraying you. The people that we love and trust, the government, the people that are supposed to take care of us, the people that are supposed to be in charge are all lying.
Soderbergh: For me, the appeal of it is that it's a real thing, and we should demand more accountability and transparency, especially when it comes to corporations and the people that run them that have more power politically than countries do. And nobody's elected them and nobody—except for people in the inner circle—nobody really knows what their five-year plan is and what it will do to us. I find it fascinating when somebody who is not like me decides to do something about it or challenge it in some way. I think that kind of conflict is very cinematic and something that I think everybody can immediately place themselves into.
Steven, you've really embraced technology, shooting films on iPhones and putting your movies on streaming. I was wondering how your own embrace of tech feeds into your thoughts about how to portray it on screen?
Soderbergh: Well, I don't have a problem with technology. To my mind, technology is agnostic. It's the people that are the problem. And in this case, it's a philosophical dilemma that human beings consistently believe that whatever problems we're experiencing can be solved with technology. I reject that idea. But that's separate from my feelings about technology. That's an opinion that I have about human beings. But what we know is, if there is a rock bottom toxic use or expression of any idea, but especially a technological one, we will find it very quickly, and it will spread.
Why Zoë Kravitz for this role and this character?
Koepp: Because she's great.
Soderbergh: First and foremost, you need someone who can carry a movie like this. I mean, she's in 94 percent of the frames of this film, and that's a really specific skillset to me, to be able to carry a movie that's making that kind of demand and make it seem like it's effortless. I'm at the end of a long line of people who believe that Zoë is one of those people. I think she's a movie star in the classic sense.
Koepp: In the classic sense, absolutely. There are actors who flail about a lot and do a lot and make us watch them because they're doing a lot, and then there are actors who understand the power of being still. And oh my God, is she good at stillness. She's a leaning forward actor. You're always leaning forward a little to see what is she thinking, what's she going to do next? And knowing that you can do an enormous amount without doing very much of anything at all is the real gift and it's uncommon—less common these days than maybe it used to be.
What was the inspiration behind the aesthetic for the character with the dyed hair?
Soderbergh: Well, she had that idea, which I thought was great, to have a bad dye job. She just felt like that's a thing that's happening in the world, people are doing stuff like this, and that this is a perfect example of an activity or an action that she would take to keep herself interested in herself.
You mentioned the "Saturday bottle of wine movie," which does feel like it has more of a home on streaming now rather than in theaters. Where is right the place for this type of movie now when it seems like an adult thriller is harder and harder to get made?
Soderbergh: We're just following the audience that wants to see this movie, and they're not going out to the theaters. I want to go where they're hanging out because I've got something that I want them to see. Over the last couple years, the things I've been making—Laundromat, Let Them All Talk, No Sudden Move, Kimi—these are mid-range movies for grownups that have no potential theatrically, and so I can either try to make something that is working theatrically, which I think would be second guessing and not a good result, or I can go where the eyeballs are and try to make my audience happy.
Koepp: The first thing for any idea is, "Do I want to see it?" You absolutely cannot write something that you particularly wouldn't go see. And the last five, 10 years you ask, "Do I want to see it? Where would I see it?" And you write the thing that you most want to see and it'll find the right place, hopefully, if all goes well.