Steven Soderbergh On 'The Laundromat' Director Steven Soderbergh talks with Scott Simon about his new comedy film starring Meryl Streep, called The Laundromat. It's based on the Panama Papers and global money networks.

Steven Soderbergh On 'The Laundromat'

Steven Soderbergh On 'The Laundromat'

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Director Steven Soderbergh talks with Scott Simon about his new comedy film starring Meryl Streep, called The Laundromat. It's based on the Panama Papers and global money networks.


How do you make 11.5 million documents into a movie? Well, first, of course, you get Meryl Streep.


MERYL STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) So they drowned Joe and 20 other innocent people. And somebody's making money from it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It all goes back to this law firm.

SIMON: Then tell the stories of what happened to some of the people whose lives appear in the horde of documents leaked by a whistleblower in 2015. The papers exposed how a law firm in Panama called Mossack Fonseca enabled some of the richest men and women in the world to avoid paying taxes.


STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Thank you for everything. I hate to ask this. But I was just wondering when exactly the meek be inheriting the earth. It - will that be in my lifetime?

SIMON: The film stars, yes, Meryl Streep, and in no particular order, James Cromwell, Jeffrey Wright, Rosalind Chao, Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, David Schwimmer and lots of people who will make you go, hey, isn't that. The film's directed by Steven Soderbergh, the acclaimed director of "Sex Lies and Videotape," 'Traffic" and all those "Ocean's" movies. Steven Soderbergh joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEVEN SODERBERGH: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The film begins with a happy, retired couple on vacation who get caught up in a tragedy. How does that become the thread to tell all these other stories?

SODERBERGH: Well, I think the challenge, as you were saying, is how to - how do you turn a story that was basically a newspaper headline that involved activity that I think a lot of people were not familiar with into a story that somehow connects to your real-world experience. That was the trick, is, how do we convince people that, even if you don't have a lot of money, you're affected by this behavior.

And we researched the stories behind the Panama Papers. This Lake George boat accident, 21 people died. And as it turns out, there was no insurance. The insurance that the cruise company thought they had existed within another company within another company. None of them were real. And all those people got screwed.

SIMON: Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman play the real Mossack and Fonseca. You have them as a kind of Greek chorus who explain how they helped hide millions - billions probably, right?

SODERBERGH: Billions, yeah.

SIMON: They're lucid and frank. And I gather the screenwriter, Scott, Burns actually did talk to them at length.

SODERBERGH: Scott talked to them. Jake Bernstein, who wrote the book "Secrecy World," that we used as our jumping-off point, spoke to them a lot. Their position is basically look; we were following the law. We didn't write the laws. You're allowed to form these corporations.

SIMON: The phrase that I - what? - we didn't write the laws; we wrote contracts.

SODERBERGH: Exactly. So the question of how much diligence they did on each of these companies that they were forming is an open one.

SIMON: Because we're talking about criminal enterprises.

SODERBERGH: A lot of them.

SIMON: Yeah.

SODERBERGH: A lot of them.

SIMON: I mean, people harvesting body parts and trying to - tough scene in the film, by the way...


SIMON: ...Organized crime networks, all of that. Yeah.

SODERBERGH: No. That's - when people are trying to hide their money, there's usually a reason. And Mossack Fonseca is actually probably not even the largest firm enabling these sorts of companies to be created. It just turned out that this whistleblower, John Doe, whose identity is still a secret, decided they had seen enough and wanted to leak all these documents.

SIMON: The scene that shook me up I didn't expect to shake me up. The widow from Michigan, played by Meryl Streep, ends up in Nevis in the Caribbean. And she stands in front of a line of mailboxes.


STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) Can you help me? I'm looking for 556 Main Street.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, in the post office.

STREEP: (As Ellen Martin) No, no. I'm looking for the United Reinsurance Group...

SODERBERGH: At the end of the day, these companies don't really exist except as an address at a PO box. There are no employees. There's nobody working for these companies. They're just there to provide secrecy for people who have lots of money. So when this woman goes looking to talk to somebody to get some kind of resolution, there is no one.

SIMON: I have to ask you as the director of the "Ocean's" trilogy - do we need to say George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac?


SIMON: (Laughter) Fabulously successful films. Now they steal money from casinos, which looks glamorous. But we can forget the money they take traces back to the hands of just regular people who play the slots. Is there a difference between the "Ocean's" crew and Mossack Fonseca?

SODERBERGH: Well, I think the "Ocean's" crew, as you said, are probably more photogenic.

SIMON: (Laughter).

SODERBERGH: But also, you know, the trope of the loveable thieves is a very old one. It's been around since the beginning of movies. And so I always viewed the "Ocean's" films as close - they were as close to comic book movies as I can get. The difference, obviously, here is real people doing real things that have real-world effects.

SIMON: Steven Soderbergh, his new film, "The Laundromat," with Meryl Streep and a cast of scores of famous names, opens in theaters this weekend. It'll be on Netflix later in October. Thanks so much for being with us.

SODERBERGH: Thanks for having me.


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