Steven Soderbergh films movie during pandemic that brings 1950s Detroit to stunning life from the Detroit Free Press

November 16, 2020

“No Sudden Move,” which finished filming this week in Detroit, might wind up being one of the most visually stunning depictions ever of the city.

The fact that it was shot by an Oscar-winning director in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic only adds to the story behind the story.

Steven Soderbergh and his cast and crew completed production Thursday on a heist movie set in the Motor City that sounds as if it has some deeper twists, too.

The official description says it’s about small-time crooks hired to steal a document, a plan that goes awry and takes them across “the race-torn, rapidly changing city.”

Speaking by phone the day before shooting wraps, Soderbergh offers a few more hints by noting the criminals are three men who don’t know each other or the details of the job they’ve been assigned.

“When the whole thing goes sideways, things get pretty scary for them pretty quickly. But one of them is very, very intent on finding out who started this and where does it lead. If you start working your way up the chain, who’s at the top?”

Is the fictional narrative is tied to the era’s real automotive industry? “Oh yeah, oh yeah,” says Soderbergh, who watched a lot of ’50s melodramas in preparation. “For people who are historians of what was happening in the auto industry during that period, they’ll be pleased, I think.”

Detroit doesn’t get much respect cinematically. Often, it’s played on the big screen by imposters. Most recently, “The Irishman,” starring Al Pacino as Detroit labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, used New York locations for its Michigan scenes.

But “No Sudden Move” will be immersed in Detroit locations, plus sets that recreate the past, including the predominantly African-American neighborhood known as Black Bottom, which was destroyed by urban renewal efforts.

With a cast that includes Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, Jon Hamm, Kieran Culkin of HBO’s “Succession,” David Harbour of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke and more, expectations are high for a project that is part of Soderbergh’s deal with HBO Max.

The movie already has passed its biggest test. From late September to mid-November, a team of nearly 300 actors and crew members worked successfully under the new COVID-19 safety protocols for the film and TV industry that Soderbergh himself had a role in developing.

“We had one false positive that stopped us for a day while we confirmed the result and then discovered that it was a false positive, and then we were able to pick up again. To my knowledge, we’ve only had one true positive and it was somebody that wasn’t connected to the physical shooting part of the movie,” he says.

 If any layperson knows how dangerous COVID-19 is, it is Soderbergh. He immersed himself in research on viral outbreaks for 2011’s prescient movie “Contagion” and has since stayed in touch with the scientists he consulted.

“The characteristics of this particular virus are really, really ugly. It’s a really gnarly disease,” he says.

More than two decades ago, Soderbergh came to Detroit to shoot 1998’s “Out of Sight,” the sexy crime caper based on an Elmore Leonard novel that paired Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney as a star-crossed cop and robber.

For “No Sudden Move,” written by Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), Soderbergh pretty much insisted on shooting here again, even though a nearby city like Cleveland would have been less expensive. Ohio still offers film incentives to lure projects, while Michigan got rid of them in 2015.

“It was never a question whether the story was going to be set in Detroit. The question was, could I convince the studio to come here, when it would have been cheaper to double another city for Detroit or shoot mainly somewhere else and just do a couple of days in Detroit. I just kept pressing and telling them I thought it was important that we come back here and do it all here. And luckily they agreed,” he says.

Soderbergh traveled to and from Detroit for a few months. Then in mid-March, right before he was scheduled to move here for production, the pandemic plunged the nation into quarantine.

 “I was literally a day from getting on the plane when everything shut down,” he says.

Filming safely needed a plan

During the shutdown, Soderbergh offered to head a Directors Guild of America task force on how to resume filming safely. The effort led to a collaboration on guidelines between the major unions and, eventually, the eventual negotiation of a back-to-work deal with studios.

“My involvement grew out of my sense that someone needs to really run point. I had a lot of contacts through making ‘Contagion’ and … I wanted to see it done properly and I wanted to make sure that science was at the core of whatever protocols were developed,” he explains.

Soderbergh consulted with experts like Larry Brilliant, who had advised him on “Contagion” and is a renowned epidemiologist. Brilliant also is a native Detroiter and Wayne State University School of Medicine alum.

In September, Soderbergh connected by phone with Wayne State’s Dr. Phillip Levy, who had been immersed for months in COVID-19 testing programs for Wayne Health, a 300-doctor group practice and leading force for testing for the city.

Levy signed on as the movie’s health safety supervisor. Medical staffers from Wayne Health handled the COVID-19 testing for the cast and crew members. Using mobile testing units that were part of Wayne Health’s community testing strategy, they drove to wherever the film needed tests done on any given day, whether on-set or off-site.

Soderbergh gives Wayne Health high marks for its contributions. “The way all of the COVID aspects of the production were handled by Wayne State, it was really smooth … I was very aware that it was essentially a production within the production, just dealing with that. But it couldn’t have gone any better.”

During filming, he adds, people from other productions kept calling for advice “because they were just really having logistical problems, technical problems, personnel problems. A lot of other production were not having a good time trying to figure this stuff out.”

For certain tasks involved with shooting a film, physical distancing isn’t possible, according to Soderbergh, who says a movie can be like an anthill. His experience with the safety protocols reinforced that frequent testing with rapid results is crucial.

“The key here is aggressive testing and fast turnaround, so that if you come up with a positive, you’ve caught it before they’re shedding and you can extract them and isolate them,” he says.

During his stay, Soderbergh made a personal donation to Wayne Health for two new mobile labs. “It seems honestly like a really good way to contribute to the community, so that we weren’t just coming here and sort of extracting something without giving anything in return.”

Learn more about our Mobile Health Unit.
Steven Soderbergh films movie during pandemic that brings 1950s Detroit to stunning life from the Detroit Free Press
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