Behind the ‘Candelabra’

Steven Soderbergh knows who’s significantly responsible for the major success of his male-stripper romp Magic Mike: gay men eager to ogle the barely-covered bits of Channing Tatum and his hunky posse. The Oscar-winning director’s upcoming feature will obviously court the same audience – and not just because Matt Damon lets it all hang out, too.

Behind the Candelabra is so gay that major Hollywood studios would have nothing to do with the Liberace film. Premiering May 26 on HBO, the revealing biopic stars Michael Douglas as the shiny showman who died of AIDS complications at age 67 and Damon as his much younger beau, Scott Thorson.

In our interview, Soderbergh spoke in depth about their real-life relationship, the “flamboyancy scale” used to guide the actors’ gayness onset, diversity in film and why Damon wanted to flaunt the junk in his trunk.


Steven, you’ve made the gayest movie of your career.

That was my intent.


Was it?

In a way. It was an opportunity to make use of all the hours that I’ve spent watching melodramas like Sunset Boulevard – anything connected to a certain aesthetic that we associate with camp or just glamour.

I had spoken to Michael about it conceptually when we were doing Traffic, but when I started researching Liberace, I was really having trouble figuring out what the angle should be. I didn’t want it to be a traditional biopic.

It was a friend of mine in New York who made me aware of Thorson’s book (Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace). Once I read that, it solved all my problems. That was six years ago. So we’re sort of experiencing everything through his eyes. He’s Alice going down the rabbit hole.


What did you know about Liberace before reading Thorson’s book?

I’m old enough to have seen him on TV when he was still performing. I was, however, young enough to not really be able to articulate what was distinctive about him. (Laughs) But I remember my parents always made a point of turning on that channel if they knew he was going to be on somebody’s show or if he had a special. I had this vague sense of him being a very flamboyant entertainer.

In 2000, as I started to learn more about him and gather material, what was great was discovering that he was an amazing technical musician, an incredible keyboardist. I found it fascinating that somebody with that sort of skill set was very happy to hide it behind a real genuine desire to put on a very popular and entertaining show. He wouldn’t have been as interesting to me if it turned out that he was a so-so keyboardist.


How did Michael pull off the piano-playing parts?

Oh, lots of tricks.


Then you fooled me, because at one point he’s playing 16 beats to the bar for “Boogie Woogie” and you can clearly see Michael’s hands on the piano.

In my mind, that was a very important scene. Because if we don’t sell that, then we have a problem. There was a lot of effort expended on that particular scene. Michael had to spend a lot of time making sure that he was doing the right thing so that the effects would work properly. He couldn’t just sit there. He had video of the pieces and he had to make sure his hands were very close to being perfectly placed so that we could make it work.


Did you discuss with Michael how flamboyant he could go with Liberace?

Sometimes I’d use a number. I’d go, “Oh, I think he should be at a 7 here.”


A 7 on the flamboyancy scale?

Yeah. But more often than not, he and Matt would both tell you that once you put on the outfit and the hair and everything, you’re kind of there. I don’t remember having to really talk about how gay I wanted them to be. (Michael) would just show up in that outfit with that hair and it was happening.


Was there a scene where you told them to take it to a 10?

The first meeting where Lee (the name close friends called Liberace) first meets Scott backstage, I would’ve said to Michael, “OK, this is about as far as I want you to go.Take it as far as you feel comfortable."


The sexual tension was so palpable my screen was sweating.

(Laughs) One of the things I liked about it is this sort of Sunset Boulevard dynamic in terms of the age difference and the fact that Scott shows up and Lee’s giving him elevator eyes.


Matt had said that it’s a challenge creating chemistry with someone you wouldn’t normally be attracted to. As the director, was it a challenge to make this relationship seem real?

The key, which they understood intuitively, was: The chemistry was going to come from the comfort level, and the more comfortable they felt with each other and the more that it seemed, “Oh, this is how people act when there is not a camera around,” that’s what would sell it. Just being totally inside of it and never stepping out of it and looking back at it. You have to just jump into the hot tub, and that’s what I think really sells it when I see the movie. They seem so comfortable with each other.


And only one take for the sex scene where Matt is on top of Michael – really?

(Laughs) I said, “OK, Mike, you’ve gotta be able to reach the amyl nitrates, so you should be here. Matt, you’re gonna be on top of him here. I’m gonna drop the camera down here.” We did a take, there was a long pause and I was just like, “I don’t have any notes. That’s that.”


Not that I was counting, but there were three Matt Damon ass shots. When is an ass shot necessary and when is it gratuitous?

In this case, it would’ve been more awkward and distracting if you somehow didn’t show it. But none of that was planned. Matt’s in his robe and he gets into bed, and in another scene he’s getting out of the hot tub. It’s all stuff that was motivated; I guess that’s really what it comes down to.

“Gratuitous” means they’re doing something they wouldn’t normally do to create an ass shot, and that’s not how we were thinking. Though I certainly had it in mind when Matt came to the set and said, “You’re not gonna believe the Brazilian tan line I got from the spray guy. The world has to see this.” (Laughs)

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