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Soderbergh on why Netflix wanted 'The Laundromat': Meryl Streep is key to its algorithm

Director Steven Soderbergh, from left, and actors Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman at the photo call for the film "The Laundromat" at the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy on Sept. 1, 2019. Before director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns were looking for a distributor for "The Laundromat," Netflix jumped out of the gate and made a plea for the film. The reason: Meryl Streep and her importance to the streaming service's algorithm. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Joel C Ryan/Invision

TORONTO — Before director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns even started looking for a distributor for “The Laundromat,” Netflix jumped out of the gate and made a plea for the film.

The reason: Meryl Streep and her importance to the streaming service’s algorithm.

The three-time Oscar-winning actress plays a widow who falls down a rabbit hole of shell companies and offshore accounts in the star-packed comedy-drama, which hits Netflix Friday and outlines the Panama Papers scandal from 2016.

“One of our producers ran into one of the bigwigs at Netflix, and when he was told that we were getting ready to go out with this project, he said, ‘Well we have to have that, because Meryl Streep is at the centre of the algorithm that we have. She’s the missing piece. She’s like the Venn diagram of all of our viewership. We have to have that,'” Soderbergh said in an interview at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Laundromat” screened.

“They kind of put themselves in not a great negotiating position, because they made it so clear that they had to have this and they wanted her. So it all happened very quickly. I think it’s great that somebody who’s 70 years old still has that kind of economic power in the film industry — that she got this movie made.”

Streep was also a key element of “The Laundromat” in many other ways, said the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind such revered dramas as “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.”

The venerable actress was originally only in the storyline involving her character, who becomes entangled in the scandal while tracking down insurance money from the death of her husband, played by James Cromwell.

But as Soderbergh and Burns watched cut footage, they realized she had to be in the final scenes in order for the ending to work, said the director.

He and Burns rewrote and reshot some parts so Streep’s character would be present throughout the film, which plays out in various global vignettes.

The filmmakers also created another role for Streep that isn’t revealed until the end in a key scene that the actress helped shape.

“I was honestly wondering like, ‘Where’s the button on this? How does it end?’ and she solved that,” said Soderbergh, who also released his 2018 film “High Flying Bird” on Netflix and executive produces the upcoming “Bill & Ted Face the Music.”

“So if we didn’t have her, I don’t know that the movie works, frankly.”

Antonio Banderas, Gary Oldman, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright and David Schwimmer are among the other stars in the film, which is based on Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.”

Banderas and Oldman play the founders of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm at the centre of a complex offshore business operation that was leaked to a group of journalists by a whistleblower in April 2016. Their characters serve as the narrators leading the audience through the convoluted subject matter and kaleidoscope of subplots. 

Soderbergh said he wanted to find a creative way into the subject matter so audiences would realize that the complicated world of offshore tax avoidance touches their day-to-day lives.

Legal offshore accounts are being used not just by the financial elite to hide earnings but also by some for criminal purposes and tax evasion, allowing the world’s wealth to remain in the hands of a select few while everyone else gets financially crushed, he noted.

“I think there are two very serious issues that we humans are confronting right now: climate change is one of them, corruption is the other,” Soderbergh said.

“Something is going to have to change, and it’s either going to happen peacefully or violently, but this structure and the trajectory of this kind of behaviour is not sustainable.”

Soderbergh said he cares so much about the issue because of its pervasive nature during a time when the U.S. is heading into an election cycle, public school systems are under-funded, and there are more displaced people on the planet than ever. He said it’s an indication of systems in collapse but added it’s a “people problem” with no easy solutions. 

“I just look around and go, ‘Wow, this could turn into ‘Mad Max’ like really fast,'” Soderbergh said.

“The fabric is so thin right now. People are just ready to snap. So yeah, I think it’s terrifying.”

Soderbergh hopes “The Laundromat” will raise awareness about corrupt systems that create major class divisions.

“That’s the mantra that we should be chanting to all of our elected officials and to these people that have this outrageous wealth, is to demand transparency,” Soderbergh said.

“I don’t think it’s inappropriate to want to know where somebody got their money. I think that’s a fair thing to ask, is like ‘Where did that obscene wealth come from?'”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2019.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press