Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh wants you to know that there is more to his new movie Magic Mike than the trailers and TV ads would have you believe.
“I really like the marketing campaign,” says the Oscar-winning director of Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovich. “I was the one who wanted to sell the movie like it’s fun, because it is mostly fun.
“It may not be exactly what people expect. But I don’t think the film is different in a way that’s antagonistic to the audience.”
Then, after a pause, Soderbergh addresses the elephant in the room.
“Look, this is not a movie that is exclusively aimed at women and gay men. To what extent are women going to be able to talk their boyfriends into going? I don’t know. But I don’t think guys will be sitting in the theater thinking, ‘This is torture.’ Ten minutes into the movie, they’ll realize they are not being excluded from this experience at all.”
Magic Mike, which opens Friday, is a comedy about male strippers — about how men think and behave when they become objects of desire, a privilege usually reserved for women in popular culture. The ads promise playful debauchery, but the movie’s real focus is the male psyche. Compared to the protagonists of Shampoo or American Gigolo, the guys in Magic Mike are relatively chaste. Mostly, they’re just drunk on the thrill of getting paid for being the center of attention. Naturally, it goes to their heads.
The film sprang from a casual conversation between Soderbergh and actor Channing Tatum on the set of the action movie Haywire in 2010. Between takes, they talked about Tatum’s production company and the projects he was developing.
The actor revealed he wanted to make a movie based on his experiences working as a stripper and dancer in Tampa for a few months when he was 18 years old.
“Some people go to college. Some people go to acting school. Some people go to business school. I threw myself into a bunch of different jobs — I feel like I went to the school of life in a way — and stripping happened to be one of them,” Tatum says.
“It was a crazy one. I really enjoyed dancing. That was my favorite part of the job. I didn’t really like taking my clothes off. But I made good money and it kept the party going. It was great — for a while.”
In the film, Tatum plays the eponymous hero, the main attraction at the ladies-only Club Xquisite managed by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), a happy-go-lucky Svengali figure who introduced Mike to the business and turned him into a star. As the movie opens, Mike does the same for a young man named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) he meets at a nightclub. But Adam isn’t quite as adept as Mike was at circumventing the darker side of the industry.
Although there are plenty of musical numbers — i.e., scenes at the club where Tatum and his fellow dancers perform for screaming hordes of women — Magic Mike is less Showgirls and more Saturday Night Fever, another character study of a working-class guy who hits a crossroads and must decide which path to take.
“I’m not ashamed of this period in my life,” Tatum says. “I’m not proud of it. I would never tell anyone ‘Hey, man, you should go try this!’ Because this kind of work is a slippery slope. It’s a very intoxicating world, on a lot of different levels. And it can be a bit of a rabbit hole, and you can get mired in it. I think I was lucky enough to be able to enjoy what it gave me — it was my first performing job ever — and then able to get out.”
Owning your past
Tatum began his acting career the usual way, with bit parts on TV shows that led to independent films. His breakthrough role came in 2006’s Step Up, in which he played a white kid from the slums who was built like a linebacker but could move like Tony Manero. He used that success to explore various genres, including big-scale action ( G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), comedy ( The Dilemma) and melodrama ( Dear John). Two earlier films released this year – The Vow and 21 Jump Street – have grossed more than $385 million worldwide.
But despite his snowballing popularity, the actor decided to revisit a chapter in his past many others might deem too embarrassing.
“Channing’s attitude was you gotta own it — and use it. That’s the smart play,” Soderbergh says. “I had a great experience with him on Haywire, and he immediately became one of those actors in my repertory who I can call upon to do stuff. I became a fan.
“He’s interested in a lot of different things, and he’s well aware of the difference between taking yourself seriously and taking your work seriously. I like his attitude, and I think he’s really got it together. We’ve already shot another movie together [ Bitter Pill] that will be out in the spring.”
Tatum had originally been in talks with Nicolas Winding Refn ( Drive) to direct Magic Mike. When the deal fell through, the actor immediately called Soderbergh to see if he was interested.
“Steven is one of the two or three directors who made me want to make films,” says Reid Carolin, a longtime friend and business partner of Tatum’s who wrote the screenplay for Magic Mike. “I was awestruck at getting the chance to work with him. And he’s truly a mentor. There’s a culture of respect. He doesn’t care who you are; he values your ideas, listens to them, gives you the feedback that you need, and you construct the story along with him. I think that’s why his movies are so distinct: He’s in every frame and every line of dialogue.”
Magic Mike is being released on 3,000 screens by the same studio that is distributing The Dark Knight Rises in July. The film is getting the usual blockbuster treatment: Magazine covers, primetime TV spots, media attention and an online viral campaign featuring racier, naughtier clips. But the movie turns out to be far different than the typical summer multiplex fare: The film is subtle, funny, focused, earnest and a little weird, never quite heading in the direction you’d expect.
Even the first few seconds of the film — the red and black Warner Bros. logo designed by Saul Bass and used in all of the studio’s movie from 1972 to 1984 — tip you off that the picture you’re about to see is not just more of the same-old.
“It’s cool, right?” Soderbergh says, sounding pleased. “The association for me was very powerful because of all the great movies that used that logo. I convinced Warner to let us use it on the film. They didn’t want to confuse people with regular advertising and trailers and TV spots, but they let us have it for the movie. I told them it was good karma.
“ Magic Mike is so clearly a child of movies from that era. When we were writing the script, we talked a lot about Shampoo and Hal Ashby, because he had such an incredible run during the 1970s. He literally didn’t make a bad movie through the entire decade. He gave his performers so much freedom, and he was such a great editor, obviously, that you never felt there wasn’t a purpose to what you were looking at. His movies had this beautiful, shaggy quality that we really wanted to capture.”
Where no movie has gone before
More than paying homage to a cherished filmmaker, though, Soderbergh wanted Magic Mike to feel revelatory, to take the viewer to a place that he had never seen explored in a movie before.
“When Channing brought up this idea, I instantly thought ‘Oh God, that’s so good,’ because I hadn’t seen it,” Soderbergh says. “This is a good movie idea. It is an idea best served by being in a movie as opposed to a book or magazine article or documentary. It had never even occurred to me that these kinds of places existed.”
Unlike regular strip clubs, where men silently leer at women from a distance as they pole dance and gyrate, Club Xquisite is a boisterous, lively place, a veritable animal house for women.
“Part of the difference is that men tend to go alone and women go in packs,” Soderbergh says. “Women have a much more realistic fantasy in their heads than guys. Men look up at a stripper and start thinking ‘Is she trying to work her way through medical school? Maybe I can save her.’ They imagine something going on beyond the performance.
“I don’t think women go to these things thinking that at all. They’re just like ‘I’m going out for two hours to do this, and then I’m coming home.’ They see it for what it is. It’s funny how that works. The way women behave in these clubs, no guy would ever do at a strip club. They are completely out of control! They are no boundaries or sense of propriety.”
“It’s a free-for-all in those clubs,” says Joe Manganiello ( True Blood), who plays one of Mike’s fellow dancers. “With female strippers, it’s more serious. You can’t touch the girls. There’s the threat of sex and violence always going on. But it’s tough for a guy to be sexy while wearing an American-flag thong and a strategically placed sparkler.
“I come out in a fireman suit stroking this ax, and you’re gonna laugh. The sexiness comes in the boldness or the confidence or the swagger. Female stripping is about really turning that guy on. Male stripping is about making a girl blush in front of her girlfriends and make them all start screaming ‘Oh my God!’ You would learn a lot about women with a job like this. I think people would be amazed at how women behave when they think no one’s watching.”