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Steven Soderbergh on Turning the Story of the Panama Papers Into a Dark Comedy

Steven Soderbergh is a festival favorite, having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989 for “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” The director’s “The Laundromat” debuts at the Venice fest Sept. 1, plays Toronto, then opens in theaters before being streamed by Netflix. Starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, the fact-driven film — based on Jake Bernstein’s nonfiction book “Secrecy World” — centers on the Panama Papers and legal scheming to avoid financial responsibilities (such as paying billions of dollars in taxes). As Streep’s character says, it’s a tale of “massive, pervasive corruption.” And, by the way, it’s a comedy.

“Secrecy World” wasn’t funny, so when did the dark-comedy approach begin?

The intention was to keep you entertained while we get into these issues. [Screenwriter] Scott Burns reached out to me and said, “Tell me if you’re interested.” Jake’s book is a compelling, beautifully written retelling of how the story broke from the journalist’s side. I said, “Jake is going to be really important to the film, but I don’t want to make a movie about journalists uncovering a story. That’s been done multiple times, and done very well.” Scott and I had each seen [Argentine Damián Szifron’s film] “Wild Tales,” a series of stories jumping around the globe, and Scott suggested something similar. I said, “That sounds like fun,” which is not a word usually associated with such a topic. It’s been funny to read some stories about the movie; people assume it’s “All the President’s Men.” I always think, “Boy, are they in for a surprise.”

Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca headed the Panama law firm that oversaw thousands of global shell companies. It was cheeky to make them the narrators.

It’s too easy to make them villains. I wanted them to have every opportunity to convince the audience they’re not the bad guys. I’ve described “Laundromat” as the ultimate mansplaining movie. But this approach necessitated two preternaturally charming performers to get that idea across. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas connected instantaneously. The actors’ joy of doing their job is always present, and we needed that.

The film opens and concludes with long, complicated tracking shots. How tricky were they?

If the first and last shot don’t work, the movie doesn’t work. In the first case, you’re setting up the style of movie and downloading a lot of information. With the last shot, if everything leading up to that doesn’t work, the end doesn’t matter. With continuous shots, this can’t be sorted out in the editing room. My job as director is to make it work, and I had everything I needed, in front of and behind the camera, to execute it. We did 23 takes of the last shot, plus it took 15 to 20 minutes between each take to reset. At the end, Meryl was “Are you sure? Are you sure?” I was sure.

Things You Didn’t Know About Steven Soderbergh

Age: 56 Birthplace: Atlanta Next project: HBO Max’s “Let Them All Talk,” with Meryl Streep Multiple talents: Acts as his own editor and cinematographer Oscar feat: Nominated as director twice in 2000 (the first time since 1938), for “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic,” winning for the latter Work schedule: “I’m still movie to movie, project to project.” Soderbergh recommends: “Moneyland,” by Oliver Bullough

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