Ocean’s Thirteen: Soderbergh Interview

Cannes Film Fest 2007–Director Steven Soderbergh says that he hadnt even completed work on Oceans Twelve when he began thinking about ideas for Oceans Thirteen. We were just finishing the second film, and I thought it would be fun to go back to Las Vegas for the next one. In large part, the film was motivated by everyone wanting to work together again. But it was always with the understanding that it had to be all in or we were not doing iteverybody comes back or nobody comes back.

Producer Jerry Weintraub adds, In the six years since we did the first film, peoples lives have changed. Not only are these actors all in demand, they have families and babies and new interests that had to be taken into consideration. The truth is, you cant get this large a production together unless everybody is willing to throw his hat into the ring. I also gave them fair warning. I called everyone 18 months before and said, Were making this picture in the summer of 2006. Get ready; were coming at you. And once I told them that, they knew it would happen.

Weintraub adds that the term everyone applied not only to the films cast but to the man at the helm. For me, as a producer, theres Steven Soderbergh and then theres everybody else. In everything we have done together, we have a wonderful partnership. Any accolade that can be said about the guy, he lives up to. He is simply great.

Aligning the schedules of a cast that included the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, et al, involved an operation worthy of Danny Ocean himself. But the man who plays Danny Ocean knows to whom the credit belongs. The truth is that Steven is the creative force of these movies, but Jerry Weintraub is the heart and soul of the Oceans films, period, Clooney states. You have to keep in mind that getting all these guys together isnt easynot that we dont want to, but its very hard to pull everybodys schedules together because weve all got different gigs. To find one period of time when everyone is available is tricky, and only Jerry could make it happen. He understands how to do ithe uses guilt, the actor teases.

Upping the ante of an already stellar ensemble, Soderbergh and Weintraub cast Al Pacino as Willy Bank, the unscrupulously ruthless casino owner who swindles Elliott Goulds character, Reuben Tishkoff, out of his share of a new Las Vegas casino; and Ellen Barkin as his right-hand woman, Abigail Sponder.

Much like the actors who play them, Danny Oceans gang had gone their separate ways after their last heist. But if there is one thing that would always have the power to bring them together again, it is saving one of their own. I have always embraced the idea that these guys are thieves and con men, Soderbergh acknowledges, but theyre not entirely driven by money. Certainly, in this case, they are driven by friendship and revenge. The all for one and one for all ethos dictates that when one of them is betrayedespecially in the way that their friend Reuben was betrayedits payback time. It seemed like a strong premise.

The filmmakers knew that, beyond the elements of friendship and the desire to work together again, a primary factor in reassembling their cast would be the script. To craft the screenplay for Oceans Thirteen, they ultimately chose the writing team of Brian Koppelman & David Levien, who had previously delved into the milieu of inveterate gamblers in the poker drama Rounders.

Brian and David had written Rounders, a drama about friendship and poker that I loved, Weintraub says. I spoke to Steven about them, and when we all met, Steven and I knew they were the guys to write this movie.

Soderbergh offers, I knew who Brian and David were because we had many mutual friends, and I had liked Rounders a lot. There was not a long list of people that we thought could step into this specific universe and pick up the language and the sense of humor. Brian and David got it at once. I met them for lunch and within minutes we were starting to work on the script. It really is in their wheelhouse; they like these kinds of movies and these kinds of characters.

In a way, David and I have been preparing to write this movie for most of our lives, Brian Koppelman affirms. We have spent a lot of years exploring the culture of Las Vegas and the gambling lifestyle. We read every book about con artists and thieves that we could get our hands on. So, when we met with Steven, we talked to him about the great con movies, about the nature of heists, and about how these characters have evolved since the first movie, which David and I both loved. Right away, we were all talking the same language.

One thing that makes a con movie work is how much you care about the people who are perpetrating the con and how much you want the mark to be taken down, David Levien notes. In Oceans Eleven, Danny wants to get his wife back and take down casino owner Terry Benedict, so the guys all work together to undertake this incredibly elaborate heist. Twelve is about them using their skills to literally surviveto get out of the trouble that they got themselves into in Eleven. Thirteen is all about friendship, which was a great jumping-off point for the movie. We love these characters and know how much they mean to each other, so to see Reuben brought down by an outsidertheyre going to pull together for him, and thats what drives the entire story. Its not just a heist for the sake of it.

Koppelman explains, The idea was to flip the casino so that the patrons would win every time, which would spell disaster for Bank. Its also great wish fulfillment for anyone whos ever been to a casino, he laughs.

Oceans Thirteen returns to the milieu gamblers know best: Las Vegas. First of all, we wanted to return to the setting of Oceans Eleven, Weintraub states. Vegas has cachet; its the entertainment capital of the world and a pretty incredible place.

While some exterior scenes were filmed on location in Las Vegas, the logistics of finding a new casino and then taking it over for the length of the production compelled the filmmakers to shoot the bulk of the film in the controlled environment of soundstages on the Warner Bros. lot.

Soderbergh attests, To film everything on practical locations in Vegas would have taken twice as long and, in order to get the shots that I wanted, I needed to completely control the environment. When you added it all up, it made sense to build it.

The directors longtime collaborator, production designer Philip Messina, came onboard to orchestrate the transformation of a cavernous soundstage into a lavish Las Vegas hotel and casino. I told Phil I wanted it to be beautiful but in a slightly mad way, says the director. The whole idea is that Willy Bank has designed an entire casino to his own crazy specifications.

I thought, This may be the only time Ill ever get to design and build something of this scale, so Im going for it, Messina grins. The motif for The Bank hotel and casino was Messinas original concept. The aesthetic of the hotel was a quasi-Asian theme. It had to be bold because Vegas is all about spectacle, and we needed to create that. I find Vegas to be visually overwhelming, but there is also a freedom of style in the city that is exciting from a design perspective.
The designer relates, One of the first major rules we broke was having a multi-level gaming floor. Everyone said, They dont do that in Vegas, and I said, Thats exactly why I want to do it. Most casinos are all about real estate, they go on for miles. We didnt have that opportunity, so I decided that going up vertically would multiply our footprint.

The multi-level casino set was constructed on Stage 16, one of the largest soundstages in Los Angeles. The sheer size of the soundstage made it perfect for the large set; however, much of its floor is taken up by a gigantic water tank, which presented a challenge to Messina and his team. Because it was a hollow floor and because our set was so big and the weight on it was going to be huge, it had to be structurally engineered, Messina explains. There were a lot of things we had to do to the stage before we even began to build.

One of the larger set pieces is the casino elevator, weighing in at 37,000 pounds with one car that worked on each level of the casino. Messinas crew had to dig down into the stages foundation and put special footings in to hold it. It turned out to be one of the most complicated pieces on the set.

Lighting the casino was also a massive undertaking. All the lighting was built into the set, so that once the director, the cast and the extras were in the room, no additional lights were employed. Messina incorporated light fixtures into all of the gaming tables, which, he offers, worked well, especially to cast light on people around the tables. We knew the fixtures hanging from the ceiling would create enough broad ambient light, so it was a matter of injecting specific areas of light so you didnt just have that big flat light.

Soderbergh and Messina also utilized several large and distinctive chandeliers in lighting the sets. Hanging over the craps tables is a 9,000-pound fixture made of handblown Austrian glass which arrived at the studio in ten packing crates. Each strand of glass was numbered and it took a five-person team an entire week to install it, hanging each strand individually. Supports had to be added to the stage roof to hold the weight. As decorative as the chandelier was, it served an even more practical function for the director as a key light.

Over the lobby area is a sculptured chandelier made by well-known conceptual artist Jacob Hashimoto, who came over from his studio in Italy to personally supervise the installation. The chandelier was made up of thousands of individual pieces that had to be placed one by one onto the sets ceiling.

One of the more spectacular lighting fixtures was in the Diamond Room, where Willy Banks five diamond necklaces are stored. Called The Cascade, the chandelier was borrowed from the Swarovski Crystal Company. It was twenty feet tall and two feet in diameter and each crystal had to be individually hooked onto the hardware holding it to the ceiling.

The lights hanging over the main casino floor were designed by Messina and his wife, Kristen Toscano Messina, the set decorator. Made of a fiberglass resin, they were carved and molded by the art department. Inside the fixtures are movie lights with gels and diffusion. Essentially, Messina notes, it was a way to mask film lights and, at the same time, have a sculptural element.

The casino set was furnished with a wide variety of slot machines, provided by Aristocrat Technologies, Inc.all working, though no actual money was usedand 32 gaming tables, including roulette, craps, blackjack, pai gow and, of course, the newest game in town, Nuff Said. Each table was branded with The Bank emblem, as were the thousands of chips and even the dice. The hardest part was to keep the extras and crew from gaming during down times, Messina winks. I think there were more than a few side games going on during filming.

Weintraub states, Phil created one of the most believable sets Ive seen in my life. We brought people onto the casino set and theyd forget they were on a soundstage. He designed everything in such complete detail that we could have opened it for gamblingif only I could have figured out how to do it, he laughs.

Soderbergh agrees. I dont think any of us will see a set like that for a long timeperhaps never. Its just one of those rare opportunities to do something extraordinary, and Phil was the perfect person to do it.

Location filming also took place in and around Southern California, most notably the high desert town of Rosamond, which became the location for the Mexican dice factory. In addition, the company traveled to Las Vegas for several key scenes. Terry Benedicts office was in the Bellagio Hotels corporate offices, and the hotels Fontana Bar doubled for the convention center where Frank Catton introduces the game Nuff Said. The filmmakers also took advantage of the fact that an addition to the Venetian hotel was under construction during filming, using the site for The Bank construction zone where Danny Ocean offers Bank a Billy Martin.

Another practical location was the Southwest Airlines gate area at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, where a scene was filmed with George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.