With Laura Bickford
Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2001; 1 p.m. EST
"Traffic," the latest film from director Steven Soderbergh, has been heralded by critics as one of the best of 2000. Adapted from the British television miniseries "Traffik," the film delves into the high risk world of the Mexican-American drug trade.
"Traffic" producer Laura Bickford will be online at 1 p.m. EST, Feb. 14, to take your questions and comments on the critically acclaimed film and its multi-Oscar nominations.
Laura Bickford with Oscar Nominee Benicio Del Toro
Bickford first started producing in 1985 with the HBO film "Citizen X." The film earned a CableACE award for best picture as well as numerous Emmy and Golden Globe Award nominations. She was recently cited by Variety as one of the "10 Producers to Watch" and is currently working on "At Long Last," a film staring Steve Martin.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Exactly what does a producer do? How does one become a producer? Do you go to film school? Do you start your career as a producer or as something else? I'm curious because my teenage son want to make a career in film. He's interested in editing right now.
Laura Bickford: There is no one path to become a producer or director, but editing is a good way to start.
There are two schools of thought on how to become a producer... one is working your way up the ladder, starting as a production assistant or production manager and working that path, the other is what might be called lateral. Just start producing. Produce something small -- a five minute film with your friends or a music video. I started as a music video producer with some directors who wanted to make feature films. We started off doing small little projects and developed into bigger ones like "Traffic." the main thing is to produce as many jobs in the industry as you have access to and to keep having ideas for films you want to make. You should always have a couple stories you are passionate about making. As time goes by your passions change, but editing is a GREAT tool and a great way to learn how to make a movie.
I felt that Traffic very accurately portrayed the effects drugs can have on people. Some people experiment and end up addicts like Michael Douglas's daughter in the movie, or like the mother, take it into life as valuable experience. Was Soderbergh trying to portray the complexity of drugs and their role in our country, or was it more a jab for America to wake up and re-evaluate how we deal with drugs? Thanks.
Laura Bickford: A bit of both, but we as filmmakers didn't want to say that we knew the answer. There are many intelligent, wonderful people who are working to try and deal with this issue, but no one has ever put them all together in one story to see how sometimes they are at odds. And no one had ever put together, that I had seen, kids partying and where the drugs come from. We didn't want to say that everyone who experiments with drugs is an addict, at the same time we all know that drugs are in all of our backyards and it seemed to us that if it's in my house it's not a criminal issue, but if it's in your back yard you should go to jail.
What we wanted the film to do is inspire people to talk about the issue. We hope that maybe the movie will help people see drugs as a health issue -- as a cancer rather then a war. Addiction is a disease that doesn't have race or class or nationality.
We also wanted to make a good drama-thriller. I hope we did.
Congrats on producing Traffic - a really classy movie. Can you give us any info on the Steve Martin project - I assume our greatest living comedic actor is starring in a comedy he wrote?
Laura Bickford: He's working on the script with two women writers who are friends of ours. It's about a Vegas singer who realizes at the begging of the movie that he is infertile, and since he can't have a child, all of a sudden he wants one. He is imagining that he has been such a stud that he must have fathered many fabulous Mini Me-s. A very hot young girl comes along who is his daughter. Someone he is more inclined to date. So... he is going to play a wild a crazy guy.
A very different movie from "Traffic."
Ms. Bickford, how much did the Euro docu-film Traffik influence Soderbergh's "Traffic?" What did you/he think must be changed for an American audience? I thought the original was wonderful and taut and pertinent. What were some reasons for the changes to the original and for making it an American story?
Laura Bickford: What blew me away about the original "Traffik" was the structure of the narrative -- the intersecting story lines. Some of the story lines were more familiar than others but the multiple narratives made you understand the total story as we had never understood before. Structurally we were 100 percent like the original. On the other hand, they had six hours (because it was on TV) and they were about heroin, Pakistan and the U.K. One of the biggest decisions to make was whether to focus on the cocaine trade from Columbia and the U.S. or Mexico and the U.S. Our original instinct was to do Columbia because of the original "Traffik." We loved the farmer story in "Traffik" so our original instinct was to do the farmer's story in Columbia. But as we did our research about the cocaine trade in America we became educated (largely in part by Tim Goldin a New York Times reporter who won the Pulitzer prize for reporting on the drug trade between Mexico and the U.S.) and we came to the conclusion that Mexico was the newer story -- more important and fresher. It has only been in the last ten years, since the demise of Escobar and the Colombian cartels, that the huge profits from the cocaine trade has ballooned into Mexico, who we share a huge border with. So the story of Benicio Del Toro's policemen was completely original and not taken from the original "Traffik."
Thanks for bringing us a film that gives Don Cheadle a chance to shine in a film worthy of his talent. Same for Guzman and Del Torro.
Laura Bickford: Love them all. And we all celebrated last night. We got a screen actors guild nomination for best ensemble.
First, congratulations. Let's hope the Soderbergh ticket won't split.
There was one scene, set at a dinner party, that figured some prominent Washington politicos meeting Michael Douglas. How did you go about securing these people for the film and how did you shoot it? Did you simply tell them to start talking about U.S. drug policy and let the cameras roll? What do you have to say about Orrin Hatch publicly apologizing for being in the film, saying he had no idea there would be so much violence and sex?
Laura Bickford: I wrote to many politicians and asked them to be in the film. Most of them said yes, schedule permitting. We had scripted things and cast people to say things at the party, but when the politicians and journalist came Steven asked them to be themselves meeting the new Drug Czar and asked them to tell him what they think. None of them were scripted.
I assume Orrin Hatch read the script, so I am not sure what he is upset about. But I am very happy to have him in the movie.
Traffic was by far the best flick we saw in 2000. While some thought the young girl's experience was not realistic, from some experiences we have had, it was right on. Drugs are a cancer which we may be able to make manageable by using a number of programs, with a heavy emphasis on treatment. If we call it a war, it is unwinnable. Benicio Del Toro is smashing. If you guys don't get the Oscars, there is no just God.
Laura Bickford: I agree. Thank you.
Thank you very much for talking with us. I've been looking forward to this discussion!
First of all, congrats on five oscar noms for Traffic!! I thought it was one of the best movies in year 2000.
My question: Subtitles
Did you, as a producer, have reservations/concerns about doing a quarter of the movie in Spanish with English subtitles? Growing up in Japan and watching so many American/European movies with subtitles, I personally do not have any problem with it. However, here in the States, subtitled movies seem to get less audience.
But I thought doing Benicio's story line in Spanish was one of the smartest moves of this movie. It was so convincing and emotionally engaging because it was done in Spanish. I heard it was a joint decision of Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro to do it in Spanish. What was your take on it?
Thank you for the wonderful movie and good luck!!
Laura Bickford: Yes, Benicio and Steven decided that whenever a Mexican character was speaking to another Mexican character they would speak in Spanish, as that is what would happen in real life. This script was written entirely in English and the translation into Spanish was an ongoing process. I personally never questioned the decision or worried about the use of subtitles and 100 percent agreed with them. I also felt that Benicio's emotions played his conflict so well without even reading the subtitles that you emotionally understand what is going on from his acting. The financiers had agreed in our contract to the clause that said when Mexicans speak to Mexicans they speak in Spanish but, because the script was written in English, they didn't really realize -- until someone counted the number of scenes about a week before shooting -- how much of it would be in Spanish and they certainly had concerns from a marketing point of view, as you have mentioned. But, we persuaded them that it was the only way to do it.
Perhaps this is a question more for the director, but what led to the use of those intriguing contrasting color filters for the United States and Mexican segments, and how did you decide on the tones? At first, the yellow filter for the Mexican locations bothered me because it seemed to reduce the tonal range and detail for that part of the story. But within 30 minutes of the film, I'd changed my mind and others I talked to said the same thing, mostly because they thought the tonal choices captured what was being conveyed in the different stories.
Laura Bickford: Steven decided that the three main story lines should each have a different photographic look because he wanted to help the audience know emotionally and practically when we cut between stories and where we were. The Mexican look was created because that's what it looked like to him when we were there, and then the blue was a colder contrast for the Michael Douglas story line. For the San Diego/Catherine Zeta-Jones story he used a technique that was big in the 70s called "smashing the neg" that gives it an over exposed, dreamy and highlighted quality.
For the Mexico sequences he used tobacco filters and put all the film in a digitized process -- degenerating and desaturizing the image.
What a film. Definitely deserve the Oscar, but I fear that Hollywood likes big budget like Gladiator. It was good, but you are the clear winner to this film goer. Here is my question. I still don't understand what a producer does! I thought they found the money (or just have the money) to get a film made, then stand back and let the director do the work. Sure, a producer finds funding (maybe out of their own pocket), so they have some say so, but then you don't get a good director, who believes strongly in artistic freedom... so do I have it wrong? Is producing any more than that? Whatever it was for you, it worked! Thank you.
Laura Bickford: Producing can be many things.
For all of the movies I've done, including "Traffic," I found the story. When Steven agreed to direct it, we both read many many scripts and found a writer we both agreed had the right voice for the project. I did a lot of research with Steven and the writer. We went to San Diego and Tijuana and met the DEA, FBI, Mexican cops, etc., all of which I arranged and participated in. Steven worked closely with Stephen Gaghan on breaking down the original "Traffik" and worked on deciding what should be in the screenplay. Then Gaghan wrote the first draft which Steven and I would both give him notes. Gaghan did many drafts based on actors notes as well. When Fox put the movie in turnaround I raised the financing, which was one of the hardest parts of making this movie, because no one wanted to pay for it. I was on set every day. We shot in ten city's over three months with 135 speaking parts. Steven was the director of photography as well. My role there was to help him get what he wants, which can involve taking actors to dinner, getting the politicians in the movie, finding a new location to casting while we were shooting. Then the director has a period of time when he works with an editor on his first cut -- which was three hours and ten minutes. Then we spent from August to Thanksgiving showing the film to people and whittling it down to what you see now.
I think a "creative producer," which is what they call a producer who doesn't just get the money, is like a book editor for a writer. A successful collaboration is when you trust each other's tastes. At the end of the day someone has to have the final decision and on my films it is always the director.
A director probably has to make 300 decisions a day, if a producer can help make 20 of those a better decision then you are a valuable contributor.
Beside the Orrin Hatch comment, have you gotten any political flack on your end? From the little I know about the "drug war", I loved the film for telling some truths, but thought it could have gone further. From some of the things I've read, I have the impression that the govt. consciously perpetuates the drug war for a multitude of reasons, like economic and "democracy preservation" reasons. (especially that Columbia fiasco). Thoughts?
Laura Bickford: One of the great satisfactions for us is that both people in law enforcement and treatment loved the film. The DEA wants Don and Luiz to host a screening because they feel it was the first time they have been accurately portrayed in the media.
I have heard from the Drug Czar's publicist that they think that there is a media spin saying that the movie shows how the war on drugs has failed and they want to point out the many advances they have made. They think some people in the MEDIA are saying that the film gives the impression that the war on drugs has failed, not the film itself, and they don't like that.
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada:
Hi. I enjoyed your movie "Traffic" very much.
It was the most impressive film I have watched lately.
By the way, I became the biggest fan of Benicio Del Toro, whose career has been definitely on rise.
He seemed to have a tendency to play similar roles in the past films (most of the characters are intimidating). What kind of face does he have offscreen?
Laura Bickford: I lovely one.
I read that Traffic went through several directors before Soderbergh. Were there several incarnations of the script as well? Though I understand that the script was based on a documentary, did you ever have concerns that the script might become inadvertently dated as time passed? Certainly the drugs of choice among teenagers change almost every year.
Laura Bickford: Two corrections:
I had the rights to the BBC miniseries from 1989, two years before Soderbergh came on board. He was the only director attached to the film.
It was not based on a documentary.
I know what you mean about news stories in movies becoming out of date, but I don't think we are in danger of that with the war on drugs. It speaks to human nature which, essentially, never changes.
Laura Bickford: As a filmmaker it is a dream come true to have been able to make the movie you wanted to make and still feel like you made a really entertaining popular film that, at the same time, inspired people to talk about an issue you feel strongly about. To have award nominations on top of that is as good as it gets. I am very grateful that people like it.
That was the last question. Thanks to all who participated and to Laura Bickford for taking the time to come online.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company