Like Blanche DuBois, I once relied on the kindness of strangers. In my case, They were strangers in many cities, found most every day.
Of the movies I worked on, people often ask me, which was my favorite? I never waver in my response: Traffic, Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling drug-war epic from 2000. Was it the best movie I worked on? That’s for others to determine.
During production, we traversed 13 cities in seven states and two countries, at a pace that occasionally felt equivalent to light-speed. Why did these exhausting six months — when we sometimes shot five different sets in one day — constitute my favorite movie experience? Remarkably, it was the speed, and what the speed taught me about strangers.
Filmmaking is fast, at times frantic. But Traffic was like no other. I started working on it after finishing Almost Famous. That, too, moved quickly and required some travel, but we had more time just to prep it than we did to prep, film and wrap Traffic. Considering, too, that the next movie I worked on was Ocean’s 11, whose budget and schedule felt positively luxurious, it might be surprising that I remember Traffic so fondly. Am I some kind of masochist?
Hardly. For me, Traffic epitomized the experience of making movies — which, above all else, is an astonishingly collaborative process requiring that not just the crew, but those the crew rely on, make herculean contributions in the service of the product we ultimately see on the screen.
For Traffic, we filmed a fair amount in Cincinnati. Several sets required furnishings that couldn’t be found in southern Ohio. As a result, I acquired the nickname Louisville Slugger: In Louisville, Kentucky — 100 miles southwest of Cincinnati — Southern strangers taught me all anyone ever needs to know about how to negotiate with, collaborate with and trust people whom you’ve never laid eyes on before.
Louisville is a tight-knit community, its antique dealers even more so. Success required persuading people I’d never met to let me borrow valuable items — sometimes nearing six figures — without even being able to get them a check until the following week. On no other film would this be a request you’d be required to make. Because on no other film which I worked was the sheer speed of the production such a driving and constant force. It compelled us all to create new rules of engagement.
I was laughed out of the first store I walked into. The proprietors of the second one greeted me as if I were from outer space. With each successive store, though, curiosity was clearly piquing. At my seventh stop, I heard, “Ahhh, I’ve been expecting you. We’re all talking about you, trying to figure out your story. Consider me the mayor. Let’s have a chat.”
So I sat, and we talked. The man told me he’d been hearing about me as I ventured from store to store, and the group had apparently agreed that if I passed his test, I could have what I needed from any of the stores. Thankfully, I passed.
I felt he was more jury, judge and attorney than mayor as he guided me through a series of questions about Traffic, other films I had worked on, who I was, how I had come to film and even my childhood. I was meant to win him over, make him laugh, charm him. But I wasn’t allowed to pose questions in return, as you would in a true conversation. Until my second, third and fourth visit, that is — whereupon I would kiss him on the cheek, ask how the mayor was today, inquire about his wife, his two children, the horses and how he was beating the heat.
So I began a system: I’d travel to Louisville two hours ahead of our truck, select items from stores owned and operated by strangers — but such kind strangers! — who gave us the means to furnish the sets that told the story of the characters so many of us now know.
Moviemaking, in the end, is visual storytelling. Designing spaces — what I do now — is largely the same thing. And I couldn’t do it without having done what I did in film: experiencing, and then recalling, the kindness of strangers who furnish the sets that help relay a different sort of movie: the story of our daily lives.