-- Win or lose, director Steven Soderbergh has already made Oscar history.
The films Traffic and Erin Brockovich earned Soderbergh Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations, making him the first filmmaker since 1938 to achieve double directing nominations for the same Oscar.
While promoting Traffic late last year, Soderbergh told journalists he knew the timing was ripe for such a film, which explores the corrupting effects of drug use on both the United States and Mexico.
"Maybe because it's an election year, I felt like this was the year to make a movie about this subject," said Soderbergh.
The critics certainly paid attention. Soderbergh's name made nearly all the "best of 2000" lists, with Traffic picking up a best screenplay award at the Golden Globes. Writer Stephen Gaghan is also nominated for an Oscar, along with cast member Benicio Del Toro. The sexy Latino star is up for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a Mexican cop trying to remain uphold the law despite pressure to assist the drug lords.
Soderbergh, who first gained notoriety for 1989's sex, lies and videotape, took on an extra job during the making of Traffic. He literally made it a hands-on process, shooting much of the documentary style film on his own with a hand-held camera strapped over his shoulder.
"It came from a desire to film as quickly as possible, and the hand-held was an extension of that. I wanted to give the impression that we were chasing the story, and that we were capturing instead of staging something," says Soderbergh.
The story is split between three aspects of drug trading: Mexican and American drug traffickers, teenage abusers in the U.S. and government officials trying to enforce laws against the illegal substances.
To enhance the distinctions between the stories, Soderbergh used different shades of color for each section, often making extreme lighting choices. He realized a professional cinematographer might have challenged his choices, which was part of why he assumed the responsibility.
"There's a lot of stuff in the movie that's just wrong. There are mistakes," Soderbergh says.
Some Hollywood studio executives may now be thinking the biggest mistake was their fear of releasing such a gritty film, in which there are no obvious good guys.
"'It will look great and get lots of attention and nobody will go see it,'" Soderbergh says the studio execs told him. "[There were] months where it seemed like it wasn't going to get off the ground."
Movie With a Message
One of his motivations for making Traffic was to bring the public up to date on what progress had been made on the war on drugs.
"I feel like people are saying, 'What's going on with the drug wars?' It's been 10 or 15 years that we've been doing things the way that we've been doing them, nothing seems to have changed," said Soderbergh.
His research only further confused his opinion.
"After spending a little over two years on this, my feelings on the issue are more complicated. I met a lot of really passionate intelligent people, who would never say to you we are winning this war."
He also wanted to make it clear that everyone is affected by this situation.
"I think people's perception is that … it [drug use] doesn't cut across class lines and it doesn't cut across race lines," says Soderbergh. "When really, most peoples' lives have been touched by drug abuse … I have friends who are not around anymore."