Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Presence’ Was So Intense That Some Sundance Viewers Walked Out: ‘I Cannot Take This Stress’

The not-so-secret fact about premieres is that the actors rarely watch, usually ducking out when the lights go down. They spend the film’s duration smoking cigarettes and reciting the cinema’s version of the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, i.e. the director’s predilection to use my worst take.”

That was not the case at Sundance’s world premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s “Presence,” a ghostly thriller about the Payne family, a bougie clan with a significant number of problems including a spectral, uh, presence that could be friend or foe. On multiple trips to the washroom—blast the diuretic qualities of Diet Mountain Dew–I spied the entire cast watching the film with edge-of-the-seat anxiety, much like the rest of the theatre. (There were a couple of walkouts in the otherwise rapturous audience, one who whispered, ‘I cannot take this stress so late at night.”).

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Lucy Liu, who plays the family’s checked-out mother, looked genuinely shook as she stood with the film’s cast after the screening. “I’m just devastated,” said Liu. “My body is having reactions as if I wasn’t in the movie.”

Liu wasn’t alone. Co-star West Mulholland grabbed the mic at the Library Theatre first to make clear that he was nothing like his James Spader in “Pretty In Pink” meets Ted Bundy character. “I’m not like that,” said Mulholland, running his hand nervously through his thick blond hair. (The cast also features Chris Sullivan, Callina Liang, Eddy Maday and Julia Fox).

When the shot-in-three-weeks film hits the big screen or, perhaps more likely, the small screen, there will be much talk about where it ranks on the “holy fuck” scary scale. But this was a gathering of film nerds, and the buzz was all about how “Presence” was told from the ghost’s point-of-view, you’re watching the ghost watching everyone else. Soderbergh is the cinematographer, so he is essentially the ghost. The film is completely shot inside the Payne’s home from skewed angles that Soderbergh captured while pursuing his actors in martial arts slippers, a camera with a 14 mm lens in his hands.

“I had real questions about the choice that was at the center of this,” said Soderbergh with a wry smile. “I’ve been very vocal about the fact that VR, like one person, POV VR, doesn’t work, it is never gonna work as a narrative. They want to see a reverse angle of the protagonist with an emotion on their face experiencing the thing. I’ve been beating this drum for like a long time. It’s never gonna work.”

He paused dramatically for a moment. “The only way to do it is if you never turn around.”

The crowd laughed. And he’s right. There’s no camera flip where you see that the shooter is freaking out as much as everyone else in the film. “I was just thinking about my reaction as a viewer to a choice like that. How would I feel about that? I felt there wasn’t another way to do it.”

Soderbergh had David Koepp, an old friend, pen the screenplay. They have known each other for decades going all the way back to 1989, when they both had films at Sundance. (Koepp’s “Apartment Zero” and Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” the original recipe Soderbergh project of playing with the cinematic form).

“He had the idea of ‘What if I deny everything, I’ve ever said about this and we do this only from the ghost’s point of view,’ said Koepp with a wry smile. “I love when the story takes place in one place or you set up arbitrary rules for yourself that confine you.” (I guess we could call Koepp’s “Jurassic Park” work as taking place in a confined space).

Koepp laughed when he recalled the two friends’ first meeting on the film. “He said, ‘One thing you should know about the family: they’re really fucked up.’ I said, ‘That sounds interesting,’ and he said, ‘No, they’re really fucked up.’ So that was my guidance: Point of view of the ghost, I’m in this house, the family’s really fucked up, and I go from there.”

The director mentioned how much he loves editing, going so far as to say the reward for having to be on set is that he gets to edit the footage.

“The power of it still amazes me,” says Soderbergh. “How you can change the intention of something just by reordering the shots or holding it longer or a certain way. The trick really is when you get into the editing room is not to get lost in what’s possible and stay focused, because it’s really a multiverse. You can go anywhere, but at a certain point you have to go somewhere. I have friends who I show things to early. So, it’s the Pixar thing, be failing as fast as you can.”

There was more praise for his contribution to the Park City economy, but Soderbergh, ever the editor, was done.

“Great. Could we call ‘end’ right now?”

Everyone laughed and Soderbergh made a quick exit, fading to black.

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