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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Director Steven Soderbergh turns out about a movie a year: From "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" to "Erin Brokovich" to "Ocean's 11, 12, 13." Now, he's focused his lens on the iconic revolutionary, Che Guevara, played in the new movie, "Che," by Benicio Del Toro.

(Soundbite of film, "Che")

Mr. BENICIO DEL TORO (Actor): (As Che) A true revolutionary is grounded by great feelings of love - love of humanity, of justice and truth.

BLOCK: The movie is an epic - two parts - each more than two hours long. The first film shows Che meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico, then becoming a hero of the Cuban revolution. We also see Che Guevara on a visit to New York in 1964 to speak to the U.N.

(Soundbite of film, "Che")

(Soundbite of political protest)

BLOCK: Protestors pound the windows of his car, shouting: Assassin, get out of Cuba. Then, we see Che being fawned over at a cocktail party of the intellectual elite.

(Soundbite of film, "Che")

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Would the Commandante object to giving me his autograph?

BLOCK: That's part one. Part two shows Che Guevara's doomed campaign to bring revolution to Bolivia, where he was captured and executed. Director Steven Soderbergh says he went back to interview people who fought with Che - or worked with Che - to find illuminating details.

Mr. STEVEN SODERBERGH (Director, "Che"): I wasn't looking for big stuff. I was looking for small stuff like, the scene where he's asked if he wants any powder on his face before he goes on TV and he says no, and then, he sees somebody else getting powder and he says yes, I'd like a little. You know, that was a story that we got from his translator, and those are the kinds of things I was looking for.

BLOCK: What was it about those small moments?

Mr. SODERBERGH: It just made him human-scale. And so, I was trying to avoid the sort of traditional big scenes, or the sense that any of them realize what role they're playing in history. I wanted the whole thing to be happening in a very naturalistic way, because I don't think, until very late in the campaign in Cuba, that they really understood the significance of what was happening.

BLOCK: Yeah, it's funny because if we think of him as, you know, that iconic image on the t-shirt, how do you make that human? How do you get him out of that t-shirt and into something that's more real?

Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, well, I think part of the way to do that - for instance, in the opening of part one - is to both show him arriving in New York sort of in his rock star phase and at the height of his notoriety and fame, and contrasting that with him lost in the Cuban jungle, suffering from asthma - and having the audience, sort of, see those two images alongside each another and wonder how they are going to converge.

BLOCK: As you know, the main controversy over the film is the - what's left out: The period after the Cuban revolution, when Che Guevara is the prison commander in Havana, and there are executions, purges of opponents. That is not told, explicitly, in the movie. It's not shown in the movie.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, but that's what New York is.

BLOCK: This is Che's visit to New York in 1964 when…

Mr. SODERBERGH: I mean, that's the point - is he's here on his little junket, and everywhere he goes people are calling him a murderer and an assassin. And in his speech at the UN he talks about that.

This was my version of handling that. It's, obviously, not going to satisfy people who define him entirely by that period. But that's my way of handling it. And the - I think anybody who looks at the thing from a certain distance can see that my choice to show these two campaigns is driven more by artistic needs than it is by political agenda. You know what I mean? I wanted to make a sort of a diptych where these two campaigns, sort of, talk back and forth to each other. So, the center section there, between those two campaigns, just didn't fit what I wanted to do, artistically.

BLOCK: Does it run the risk, though, of becoming hagiography, to show just those periods?

Mr. SODERBERGH: I - you know, it doesn't to me - I don't know. It doesn't really matter to me. I mean, by definition, in making the film, I have to tell it from his perspective. I'm telling his story, not mine, because, obviously, I don't believe everything that he believes. But I'm making a movie about a believer, and there's a big difference between those two.

If I made - for instance, if I made a movie about John Wilkes Booth, and I put you in his experience, that doesn't mean I support the idea of shooting Lincoln. But my job as a filmmaker is to put you in his skin.

BLOCK: When you're working on a movie like this - two movies, four hours, controversial historical figure - how much are you thinking: Will audiences like it? Will it sell? Or, do you leave that to, you know, "Ocean's 19, 20, 21" to take care of?

Mr. SODERBERGH: No. I mean, I have the same question no matter what the movie is. And the answer is: I can only make something that I would want to see, that I would stand in line and pay money for. If that's not my criteria, then I'm second-guessing myself. And I think that's - that way lies madness.

BLOCK: And does it feel like a very different enterprise, shooting - I mean, it sounds obvious that it would - shooting a movie like this, creating a movie like this and, say, "Ocean's 12," "Ocean's 13?"

Mr. SODERBERGH: No, I have to say, the problem-solving aspect of it is pretty similar. And so, for me, whether it's "Che" or an "Ocean's" film, or a tiny thing I did called "Bubble" a couple of years ago - the only difference is the number of people standing around. But the problem on a day-to-day level of how to make scenes work is the same.

BLOCK: Really?

Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, I promise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Even if one is a caper and other's a…

Mr. SODERBERGH: Well, I mean, there's more - you're probably telling more jokes on the set of "Ocean's" than you are on "Che," but you know, there are times when there's fun to be had even on a very serious movie.

BLOCK: What was the most fun on this one?

Mr. SODERBERGH: You mean was there any fun on this movie?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Yeah, well maybe I should rephrase that.

Mr. SODERBERGH: No, not really, not really. It was, like I said, it was happening so fast - and you had to be careful, too. I mean, there were guns going off and bombs blowing up. I mean, you had to be very, very focused to make sure that everything was going safely at least.

BLOCK: I was watching a clip on YouTube of a Q&A you had after a screening in New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah.

BLOCK: And the audience is very divided. And you hear people shouting out about Che, he's a murderer. You know, it's 40 years ago. You have this scene in your movie. It's the same thing that happened when he went to New York.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Yeah, well and also, you know, it's - I like when art can do that. I like when the art is about something. Or, has been made in such a way that gets people animated like that. I think that's terrific. It doesn't happen very much. I think it used to happen more. When you hear about Stravinsky playing "The Rite of Spring" for the first time, and there was a riot in the concert hall, I mean, that's kind of cool.

BLOCK: So that was a good thing? It didn't look like you were having a good time at the time.

Mr. SODERBERGH: No, but, you know, it's still interesting. I remember the filmmaker Jean Renoir made a film called "Rules of the Game," which when it was premiered in France was very, very controversial. And he describes watching a man tear his newspaper into strips and light it on fire. The guy hated the movie so much he wanted to burn the theater down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SODERBERGH: I just thought wow, that's - that's awesome.

BLOCK: That did not happen in New York, we should say.

Mr. SODERBERGH: No, no. You know - I guarantee you if the Q&A at the Ziegfeld that turned into anarchy had happened after Bush had dodged the shoes, then I'd be pretty bruised right now.

BLOCK: Well Steven Soderbergh, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Steven Soderbergh's film is titled "Che," and you can hear him talk about his favorite new camera at npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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