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Sundance: Steven Soderbergh Reveals the Auteur Rule He Broke to Make Ghost Story ‘Presence’

Steven Soderbergh was convinced that films shot with a first person point-of-view simply would never work. That is, until he made one.

The veteran filmmaker arrived in Park City for the 40th Sundance Film Festival this weekend to show off the results, a spooky ghost story titled Presence shot entirely from the ghost’s perspective. During the post-premiere Q&A, he explained why he backtracked on his edict.

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“I’ve been very vocal about the fact that [visual reality], one person point-of-view VR doesn’t work, is never going to work as a narrative. Nobody wants this thing on their head. They want to see a reverse angle of the protagonist with an emotion on their face experiencing the thing,” Soderbergh detailed from the front of the Library Theatre after 11 p.m. “I’ve been beating this drum hard for a long time, that it’s never going to work. Then, I’m like, the only way to do it is you never turn around. You never turn around. I’ve been saying for years you have to turn around or it doesn’t work. And now I’m like, or…”

When he landed on the decision, “it was really fun because there was no other plan, no other plan. That’s it. Live or die with that.”

The film stars Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang, Eddy Maday, West Mulholland and Julia Fox, all of whom were on hand at the screening. The plot follows a family who moves into a new home only to recognize an unsettling presence in the house. The story was filmed from the POV of the ghost, with the camera moving throughout the house as the apparition.

Soderbergh wore martial arts slippers while sliding around the house “as a ghost” to make as little noise as possible while manning the camera (using at14 mm lens). He said his favorite part of the filmmaking process is the editing, and there were gasps of surprise when Soderbergh revealed that it was a three-week shoot.

He elaborated: “[Editing is] where it’s all happening. There’s no analogous sort of tasks in any other art form. You’re bringing it all together, all the elements. Sound, picture — it is the best. It’s the reward for being on set. The power of it still amazes me. How you can change the intention of something just by reordering shots or holding them at a certain length, pulling out lines, giving a line to somebody else.”

His cast was certainly impressed with what he put together. The Sundance screening marked the first time they’d seen the film, and when asked for their reviews, Liu said, “My body is having a reaction like I wasn’t in the movie.” Added Fox, to big laughs: “I’m traumatized. I hadn’t even read the script, I am gonna be honest. But when Steven calls, I trust him.”

Later, Liu explained that Soderbergh “really didn’t give us notes” beyond geographical moments. “There was no extraneous direction,” she said. “Theater was my first love in that way, and it was like going back to that time again.” Sullivan, who plays her husband, agreed. “No one has ever shot a movie like this before,” the actor said of the shoot, which took place on location in a home in New Jersey. “It was Steven running up and down the stairs in martial arts slippers trying not to make any noise.”

The film also marked yet another collaboration between Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp, both of whom were in Park City in 1989, Soderbergh with his career-catapulting Sex, Lies and Videotape and Koepp with Apartment Zero. (One audience member was overheard saying, “Steven Soderbergh at The Library? What year is this? How cool!”)

Presence was one of the festival’s more anticipated titles as it’s available for acquisition and The Hollywood Reporter spotted a number of buyers in the audience, including Neon’s Tom Quinn (and several of his top marketing executives), Searchlight’s David Greenbaum and Roadside’s Howard Cohen, among others.

Koepp detailed the origins of Presence by saying that the two of them were throwing around ideas when Soderbergh suggested that he defy everything he’d ever said and do this project only from the ghost point of view. “He wrote a few pages and said, ‘Here it might look like that.’ I was in right away. I love confinement. I love when a story takes place in one place or a short period of time, or you set up arbitrary rules for yourself that confine you. In that, I feel like you can actually be a lot more creative than having the whole world as your option.”

The other suggestion Soderbergh offered about the family living in the house is that “they’re really fucked up,” to which Koepp replied, “Oh, that sounds interesting … so that was my guidance. It was like: Point of view of the ghost, I’m in this house, this family’s really fucked up, and I went from there.”

At the end of the Q&A, Sundance director Eugene Hernandez noted how nostalgic the festival is this year with presenting its 40th edition. As such, he expressed his gratitude to Soderbergh, Koepp and crew for returning to their old stomping grounds. “I hope he won’t mind me saying that when we invited the film, he said he was clutching his pearls with appreciation,” Hernandez explained. “You’ve been such an important part of the story of this festival and to have you guys, the two of you here on this 35th year of the time you were here with a film for the first time is super meaningful for us. I hope it was rewarding for you to watch it with all of us tonight.”

With that, Soderbergh replied, “It’s great. Now, if it could all end right now.” And it did.

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