When Steven Soderbergh asked NASCAR to wave a green flag over his upcoming heist comedy, “Logan Lucky,” executives for the sport had just one condition: Don’t make us look bad.
No problem, the director assured them. It’s simply a yarn about three down-on-their-luck siblings attempting a robbery at the Coca-Cola 600 race in Charlotte, with a small band of eccentric co-conspirators.
The whole idea “doesn’t benefit at all from me doing a takedown of NASCAR. That’s not what the movie’s about,” Soderbergh said as he sipped a second cucumber gimlet last week at The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte, shortly before introducing a screening at Studio Movie Grill.
“I want to treat NASCAR like the Bellagio hotel in ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ ”
So NASCAR gave the thumbs up, and the man who most famously directed “Ocean’s Eleven” through “Thirteen” set to work putting a gleeful redneck twist on those crime capers. He traded in a debonair George Clooney in a Giorgio Armani suit for a disheveled Channing Tatum in a pair of Carhartt overalls; a team of cosmopolitan career criminals for a bunch of West Virginia rednecks; and one of Las Vegas’s most storied hotels – the Bellagio – for one of auto racing’s most storied tracks: Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“Logan Lucky” opens nationwide on Aug. 18.
First-time screenwriter Rebecca Blunt picked Charlotte Motor Speedway, according to the production notes (the mysterious writer has not yet given an interview of any kind), after reading the true story of a 35-foot sinkhole that opened up there after a tropical storm in 2010, in an area of the track that was built over a landfill.
She conflated that with a childhood fascination with the pneumatic tubes her mom used at the bank drive-through, and imagined in her story that the speedway in Concord moves around massive amounts of cash via a maze-like network of the things.
Then she set the heist during the Coca-Cola 600 because it was the biggest race of the year there. And finally, she threw in a bunch of hillbillies.
In fact, her original working title was “Hillbilly Heist.” (It’s worth noting that that was also used as a nickname for the 1997 Loomis Fargo robbery, a real N.C. crime that became the basis for the 2016 comedy “Masterminds,” starring Zach Galifianakis. But that’s another story. ...)
The hillbillies, in this case, are small-town West Virginians played by an all-star cast with quirks as fantastical as the speedway’s cash-flow system: Tatum, cut like a Greek god in “Magic Mike,” sports a paunch as down-on-his-luck coal miner/divorced dad Jimmy Logan, who discovers the tubes while working a temp job repairing sinkholes underneath it. Adam Driver, so merciless as Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” sports a prosthetic limb as Jimmy’s bartending brother Clyde. Daniel Craig – best known as Bond. James Bond. – sports a peroxide buzz cut and a Southern accent as an explosives expert who can only help with the robbery if the boys break him out of prison.
Katie Holmes, Riley Keough, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank, Katherine Waterston and Dwight Yoakam also have key roles.
For Soderbergh – who in addition to the “Ocean’s” movies won an Oscar in 2000 for the drug-trade drama “Traffic” – “Logan Lucky” marks his first movie in four years, since he announced his retirement from filmmaking over frustrations with the studio process.
The 54-year-old auteur came back for this one because he figured out a way to make a movie while completely sidestepping that process (see accompanying sidebar).
Still, Soderbergh did have the NASCAR hoop to jump through.
It wasn’t a terribly tough sell – especially after Soderbergh wooed the sport’s suits by bringing Tatum to the initial meeting – but Zane Stoddard, NASCAR’s vice president for entertainment marketing, said there were definitely some concerns: “We wanted to make sure that Steven and the production could get into these fun, lovable characters while keeping big, glossy NASCAR separate from that, so that we’re on the inside of the joke, as opposed to making fun of our sport.”
Soderbergh set them at ease, but also asked them to trust him. “I’m making a comedy,” he told them. “We’re not making a documentary. You’ve gotta find a way to make it a smile.”
And so you’ll still see wackadoo supporting characters like Dayton White (Sebastian Stan), a health-conscious ace driver who treats his body like a computer operating system, and Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane), an arrogant sponsor of White’s with a penchant for picking on the disabled. But they’re not ridiculing NASCAR; they’re just plain ridiculous.
Fortunately for Soderbergh, NASCAR got the jokes, and opened its tracks to him.
Close-up race sequences were shot at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., with Soderbergh – acting as his own director of photography – manning cameras mounted to the body of a Porsche Cayenne doing 110 miles per hour in traffic on the 1.5-mile oval.
Meanwhile, anything that looks like it had to have been shot during the actual race was almost certainly shot at the actual race. In May 2016, Soderbergh brought five camera units, Tatum and co-star Riley Keough (who plays his character’s hairdresser sister, Mellie) to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600, and spent five hours fervently shooting the event and its trappings while trying to draw as little attention as possible.
“We’d spent a lot of time prepping the shoot. ... I’d made the list of all the shots that I wanted, and we drew out on a map where everybody should be at what point during the day,” Soderbergh said. “NASCAR’s only concern was that we be low-impact and that we be safe. ... They’re in the middle of a (sporting event). You don’t want to be the thing that somebody points to and says, ‘Something went wrong because these guys were in our way.’ ”
In fact, at an event like that, there are cameras everywhere all day, so Soderbergh and his crew were able to blend in somewhat easily. The surprise was that Tatum did, too.
“He’s never really looked like that in a movie,” said Soderbergh, whose A-list star gained weight and drew from a disheveled wardrobe for “Logan Lucky.” “So no, he was just walking around; people didn’t even recognize him.”
Soderbergh took the establishing shots from Charlotte and the action shots from Atlanta, then mashed them up with scenes he filmed in the catacombs of the Georgia World Congress Center (subbing in for the track’s underground tunnels) and scenes he filmed in a warehouse soundstage where his effects team had built a fully functioning pneumatic tube system.
The end result makes it look, via movie magic, like the entire heist was shot at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In the process, Soderbergh – who was born in Atlanta and grew up in NASCAR-friendly states like Louisiana, Texas and Virginia but never took to the sport – spent time getting to know some of the drivers, and eventually cast Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson in low-profile cameos.
“I didn’t know before, like, what is the gateway for people? And I realized: It’s the drivers,” he said. “They get hooked by a driver, they follow a driver, and that’s why they watch. I became the same way, except I have six.”
For the record, though, Soderbergh has managed to wind up in one little (friendly) dispute with NASCAR.
“Zane (Stoddard, the NASCAR VP) will give interviews where he goes: ‘Absolutely that technology does not exist,’ ” Soderbergh said. “We’re like, OK, dude, I get it, but it’s a movie. That’s like saying Oz doesn’t exist.”
And it’s true; when asked about the pneumatic tubes in “Logan Lucky,” Stoddard said, with no hint of irony: “That system is not sophisticated enough for what actually happens at our tracks. So we actually wanted to lean into that and make sure that everybody knew that this was super-lo-fi and something that almost certainly doesn’t actually exist. ... We didn’t want something that people thought, ‘Huh, is that actually the case at Charlotte Motor Speedway?’ We’d rather have something where they understood that it was fantastical and kind of crazy and not likely to be the case.”
Soderbergh laughs when Stoddard’s quote is read back to him.
“What’s hilarious is at CMS, along the mezzanine, there are these multiple giant tubes that we shot, that look like (pneumatic tubes). They’re exactly the same size. I have no idea what they’re for.
“They’re saying that it’s not for cash. And that’s fine,” the director said, with a wry smile. “But I can’t imagine what else it would be for.”
Getting ‘Logan Lucky’ made took more than luck
Director Steven Soderbergh’s dream of coming out of retirement to bring a movie to more than 2,500 North American screens without involvement from any major studios is about to come true.
The question is, will this potentially potentially game-changing gamble pay off?
▪ Soderbergh raised the $29 million needed to make the film by setting his A-list cast in place, then selling off the overseas distribution rights.
▪ He raised the $20 million needed to market the film by selling off a portion of the film’s nontheatrical rights (e.g. Amazon purchased streaming rights). Bleecker Street Media, a small independent company, took less than $1 million up front (with back-end incentives) to carry out the marketing campaign.
▪ By subverting the mainstream process, Soderbergh retained complete creative control over “Logan Lucky,” free from the pressures of studio heads trying to exert their influence on script changes, casting choices, release dates, movie posters and trailers, etc.
“With nearly everything prepaid, and no hefty distributor fees coming off the top,” the Times’ story said, “even a modest $15 million opening would be a win.”
Also promising is the fact that many critics who have gotten an early look at the film have good things to say; the first 20 reviews aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes have been unanimously positive.
But Soderbergh won’t claim victory just yet.
“Is it gonna work? Is it not gonna work? Does it work enough? I’ve got other stuff of my own that I want to push through this model if it works, and I’ve got other filmmakers calling me saying, ‘Can I do this, too?’ And I’ve told ’em all, ‘Let’s wait. You need to wait and see if this works. I don’t want to drag you into something that doesn’t work.’
“It’s gonna be a long two and a half weeks,” he told the Observer back on Aug. 1, referring to the wait till opening day (Aug. 18). Then he leaned forward in his seat in the lounge at the Ritz to grab his drink, and raised it high. “But with the power of a cucumber gimlet, I’ll make it.”