Drinking With Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh

The prolific director of Erin Brockovich and Magic Mike talks with Aaron Goldfarb about everything from the best bar scenes in film to his obsession with the obscure Bolivian spirit, singani.

“I could go fly an airplane!” Steven Soderbergh shouts at the end of our first night drinking together. We’d been at it steadily for four hours straight, a group of us having bar-crawled Brooklyn. And that’s kind of the joke—Soderbergh truly believes the product he’s hawking, Singani 63, has different intoxication effects from every other liquor out there.

“It only affects you from here…” he told me at the start of the night, putting a flat hand up to his eyebrows like a soldier preparing to salute—“…to here”—then raising it to the top of his head. “It never makes you slur or stumble or anything.”

Writers are always leery when a celebrity endorses a new spirit. Does the world really need another rapper-endorsed vodka or actor-backed tequila? Celebrities like Diddy and Clooney are rarely booze aficionados, yet they’re always so certain their stuff is the best. But Soderbergh doesn’t claim to be any sort of beverage geek; he’s just a passionate drinker.

The second time, we meet under quieter circumstances. Soderbergh, clad in a black hat and peacoat, arrives on time to The Roxy Hotel without an assistant, and he’s almost insulted that I’m surprised he’s traveling solo. He promptly orders himself a Singani Mule, and I ask him if he’s read the recent New York Times interview between Quentin Tarantino and Bret Easton Ellis where Tarantino notes he probably shouldn’t drink during interviews. (He had not.)

Soderbergh—the famed director of everything from Erin Brockovich to Magic Mike—grew up in Louisiana when the drinking age was still 18. (The “63” on the bottle references his birth year.) He spent a lot of his early years in Baton Rouge at The Bayou, the same bar used in his first film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. “It was a great bar—a dive, but great. And I was there a lot.” It burned down in 2002.

Soderbergh skipped college, which means he also skipped those years of drinking cheap keg beer. “I went through a Wild Turkey phase that went away when I drank so much of it one night and got so violently ill that, if now I even smell it, I have a physical…” he trails off. He has a similar relationship with tequila. He was a Gin and Tonic drinker in his late-teens (“I don’t know what I was thinking”); from there, he went to dirty Martinis before settling on vodka on the rocks—going from Stoli to Grey Goose to, finally, Ketel One.

“I really thought… That’s kinda it. I just need the hard stuff to get me into the end zone,” he says—the “end zone” being his colloquialism for getting drunk.

Soderbergh’s drinking life changed dramatically when he headed down to Bolivia in 2007 to shoot his epic Che. His local casting director welcome-gifted him a bottle of something called singani, the national spirit. He quickly became obsessed with the grape-based distillate, asking the man to get him enough to last through the entirety of the shoot. Nights in Bolivia were thus spent holed up in his hotel room drinking singani as he edited dailies. By the end of the shoot, he was determined to export the product to America.

“There will come a point where I won’t be able to do everything with Singani I’m currently doing now,” he tells me, and he’s being serious. He claims to spend entire days on the booze beat, handling everything from haggling with government agencies like the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) to finding importers and distributors to even writing much of the marketing copy. Of course, he also has the ability to hit up Hollywood buddies for an easy product placement or two.

Singani 63 appeared appeared most recently in the TV show Billions and the film Gone Girl, as Ben Affleck’s crisis companion. “I’d really love to have some bad guy crack a bottle of it and then slice a guy’s throat! Pull in on the bottle: Singani.” He uses his hands to mime a blood-soaked Singani label appearing on screen.

I bring up how drinking scenes in movies always feel phony—the bars overly lit and never nearly as noisy as they truly are. But there are notable exceptions, we both agree, like the famous bar scene from his Out of Sight, where bank robber George Clooney seduces the U.S. Marshal (played by Jennifer Lopez) pursuing him. “You can tell they are really drinkers,” he says. He likewise admires David Fincher’s directing of the club scene in The Social Network. “That was so amazing of him, to just keep in all the background noise,” he says. “You can barely hear Justin Timberlake.”

While he used to spend his days with the Damons and Pitts of the world, his foray into the booze business has found him hanging with a whole new type of celebrity. He’s now friendly with many of the country’s famous bartenders, like Ivy Mix and Jim Meehan, and is well versed in the city’s cocktail culture. But he admits that he still prefers being a regular at a few favored spots in his Tribeca neighborhood, like Brandy Library.

“When I find places I really like, I get very entrenched,” he tells me, noting how he’s a real creature of habit. “I’d be the easiest person in the world to assassinate,” he jokes, as we spin through the hotel’s revolving doors, and head back into the Manhattan winter.

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