New York Film Festival Dispatch #2: Che Day

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    Steven Soderbergh talks about his larger-than-life epic about a larger-than-life historical figure.

    Of all the films premiering at this year’s festival, the one I was most looking forward to by far was Che, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, 268-minute (that’s 4 hours and 28 minutes, folks) history of controversial revolutionary Che Guevara (brilliantly portrayed by Benicio Del Toro).  The film premiered to mostly mixed reviews at Cannes back in May, but considering how divisive a figure Che is, I’m not surprised that a movie devoted to his life generated such a wide range of opinions.  I’m not going to share my own take in full now—you’ll have to check out GIANT’s December/January issue for that—but I will say that Che is a striking achievement and the exact opposite of the muddled bore some reviewers described seeing at Cannes.  And while the film’s length is daunting, for me at least, it was never dull.  In fact, I can’t imagine not seeing Che in one sitting.  Both parts of the movie—Part 1 deals exclusively with the Cuban revolution while Part 2 focuses on Che’s failed campaign in Bolivia nearly a decade later—need to be seen closely together in order to appreciate how the two events mirror each other.  But enough from me.  I’m going to turn the mic over to Soderbergh, who appeared after the screening for a lively 20-minute press conference.

    On how the movie came about
    “Benicio and I first thought about making Che eight years ago while we were shooting Traffic together.  Sometimes you say yes to something and you’re not sure why.  Around the time the movie premiered at Cannes, I finally realized what drew me to the story: it was engagement versus disengagement.  Do we want to participate or observe?  Once Che made the decision to engage, he engaged fully.  Often people attribute that to a higher power, but as an atheist, he didn’t have that.  I found that very interesting.”

    On the research involved
    If you go to any bookstore, you’ll find an entire wall of Che-related material.  We tried to go through all of it—we were overwhelmed with information.  He means something different to everyone.  At a certain point we had to decide for ourselves who Che was.  I tried to avoid scenes that are too typical for biopics.  Stuff like someone asking “Why do they call you Che?” or Che putting on a beret for the first time.

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    On his memories of Che
    Like almost everyone, I first heard Che’s name in school.  “One of the great things about this job is that I get paid to learn more about people and events.  For example, I thought the Cuban Revolution was all Fidel—I didn’t realize how many factions there were.  I also didn’t know what a hard-ass Che was.  He was a strict disciplinarian and never dropped the ideology.  He only reserved his warm side for his doctor mode.  The weird thing about this guy is that he’s an icon of Marxist ideology and yet you put his face on a T-shirt and it sells.”

    On the film’s production
    “We shot both parts in about 39 days each.  To put that in perspective, that was fewer days than the first Ocean’s film.  We had a 10-day break between parts and we actually filmed Part 2 first and filmed it reverse, which was confusing.  But we didn’t have a choice thanks to the limited budget and time.  To just have it done was the point.  I knew that I wanted to create a different sensation for each part.  I shot the first part in widescreen, so it resembles a more classic Hollywood war film, which is appropriate for the Cuba stuff.  For the second film, I wanted it to feel less settled—the outcome wasn’t clear from the beginning.”

    On what was left out
    “The story of Che’s experiences in the Congo is fascinating.  If this film makes $100 million, I’ll gladly make another one that deals with that.  We just didn’t have enough money.  When the film as first developed, it only focused on his time in Bolivia.  But we realized early on that you can’t show Bolivia without showing Cuba.  So it grew from one manageable film to one giant film.”

    On the film’s release plan
    “Whenever the movie enters a specific market—New York, Chicago, L.A. etc.—the four-hour version will be shown on one screen.  I think that’s the ideal way to see it, but it’s a lot to ask and requires a certain personality to see it like that.  Otherwise, the two parts will be shown separately.”

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    On Che’s legacy
    “Che probably would have hated me.  There really wouldn’t be a place for me in the society he wanted to create.  But I can still find him one of the most compelling figures of the past century.  And the Cuban revolution was really the last analog revolution.  Technology makes it impossible to fight that kind of fight today.”

    Che screens at the NYFF on Tuesday, October 7 at 6pm and will open theatrically in December and January.

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