Film interview: Steven Soderbergh on his new heist movie Logan Lucky

Steven Soderbergh has bypassed the studio system and put together a crack team of stars '“ including Channing Tatum and Daniel Craig '“ for his heist movie Logan Lucky. If it's a hit, the artists, not the suits, will share the spoils, he tells Alistair Harkness

Daniel Craig as Joe Bang in Logan Lucky

There’s a moment in Steven Soderbergh’s new film Logan Lucky that feels like a sly reference to his career of late. It concerns a list of rules for pulling off a heist. As the film’s protagonist, Jimmy Logan (played by Channing Tatum) pins it to the wall of his trailer, the camera lingers over the last one: “Know when to hang up and walk away.”

That’s something Soderbergh knows all about. In 2013 the mercurial filmmaker made good on his well-publicised declaration that he was stopping directing feature films.

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He wasn’t retiring exactly. Indeed, in the years since, he’s directed two seasons of period hospital drama The Knick; served as a cinematographer on Magic Mike XXL; produced the TV shows Red Oakes and The Girlfriend Experience and launched his own drinks company.

Steven Soderbergh PIC: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

But when it came to directing movies, he knew the time had come to hang up and walk away. At least for a little while…

“I wasn’t burned out creatively; I just didn’t know where my place was,” says Soderbergh. “I wanted to make movies that were mass appeal movies, but I was obviously completely out of synch with what the studios wanted to do. I got fired off of Moneyball. I got sort of shoved-off Man from U.N.C.L.E. I was just baffled as to what to do. As someone who wants to make movies that are not obscure or ‘arty’, where do I go to work?”

Though he found an immediate answer in television, his bafflement was understandable. As recently as 2012 he’d turned a $7m film about male strippers (the ridiculously entertaining Magic Mike) into a $170m-grossing hit. He’d also ably demonstrated his commercial instincts over the course of his prolific 24-year directing career, be it kick-starting the 1990s indie film boom with Sex, Lies and Videotape, making George Clooney a viable movie star with Out of Sight, directing the Oscar-winning films Traffic and Erin Brockovich (in the same year) or launching a billion-dollar-grossing franchise with Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen. If someone like Soderbergh had no place in the studio system, then the studio system was clearly broken.

Instead of sitting around complaining – “Which I’ve done. A lot” he quips – Soderbergh, in typically laser-focused style, decided to do something about it. A couple of years into his hiatus, he realised that the technology now existed to create a small company that could put a mainstream movie into wide release, thus circumventing the prohibitively expensive costs that have seen mid-budget films that don’t have awards potential disappearing from cinemas (and mostly ending up on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime). “Essentially, with the right piece of material,” he explains, “I could do what the studios were doing on my own and do it for less money, with fewer people, and a better economic structure for the creative pool.”

Steven Soderbergh PIC: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Which is where Logan Lucky came in. Charged with finding a director for debut writer Rebecca Blunt’s script – about a trio of hillbilly siblings who decide to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race – he realised not just that it was perfect for him (at one point the cut-price heist is referred to as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”), but he could use it as a “test-case for a new distribution paradigm”.

“It is, to all intents and purposes, a studio film,” he confirms. “It’s got very broad appeal, it’s got movie stars in it. And that was the point.”

At the time he was working on Magic Mike XXL. So he explained the plan to Channing Tatum, gave him the script and said: ‘Is this something you want to do?’

“And then we were off and running,” he says.

Funding the film by pre-selling foreign and streaming rights, he’s effectively set up his own distribution company in the US to release it, cutting out the middleman to give himself complete creative and financial control. It’s a structure he’s hoping will function as a “flying wedge”, opening up opportunities for himself and other filmmakers who want to use it. “The money is going straight from the exhibitors into an account that is then divvied up among everyone who worked on the film, because everyone worked for scale.”

This helped him secure a large name cast, which in addition to Tatum includes Adam Driver and Riley Keough (as the other two Logan siblings), Hilary Swank as a dogged FBI agent, and one Daniel Craig as an explosives expert called Joe Bang who has to be sprung from jail with no one noticing.

Soderbergh knew the Bond star a little having produced him in The Jacket. “When this came in I emailed him and said, ‘I think I’ve got something for you.”

Given carte blanche to create the character, Craig arrived on set with a Southern accent, bleach-blond hair, tattoos, a striped prison outfit and – in a nod to Cool Hand Luke – a penchant for hard-boiled eggs. “I was very surprised and happy when he showed up. I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be fun…”

Fun was certainly the operative word when making the film and it’s the operative word for the end result. Logan Lucky is a proper summer movie: entertaining as hell, slickly made, and without a superhero or animated character in sight. There may be a lot riding on it in terms of what Soderbergh needs it to do, but that also makes it doubly appropriate that he’s made his return with another heist film.

“The obvious analogy is making a movie,” he says, having only recently made the connection. “As someone who is very interested in process, it makes total sense why I keep returning to this kind of movie because it’s a variation on my day job. You put a team together. It may work. It may not. The chances are it probably won’t, and if you lose, you go to movie-jail.”

Does that make Hilary Swank’s character in Logan Lucky a proxy for the film industry then? Is Hollywood waiting to see if he’ll slip up?

He thinks for a second. “Well, yeah. But I still have the best job in the world.”

Logan Lucky is in cinemas from Friday.