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Steven Soderbergh on Sex, Stripping, and Consent in Magic Mike’s Last Dance

10 minute read

The first two Magic Mike movies argued that male strippers could make straight women feel empowered and sexy. But they predated the #MeToo movement, and the Hollywood landscape has changed radically since the first film starring Channing Tatum premiered in 2012. Now, in a time of intimacy coordinators and more mainstream recognition of the power of the female gaze, Steven Soderbergh is returning the the franchise.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance still has plenty of sex appeal: In fact, Mike meets his match in the form of Max, played by Salma Hayek Pinault, and the two quickly fall into bed together. (Hayek Pinault came onto the project after the movie had already begun filming and Tatum’s original co-star, Thandiwe Newton, left the film.) But Soderbergh challenged himself to debunk the notion that consent can’t be sexy. One of the lap dances in the movie is literally set to the song “Permission.” “The goal is to retain some aspect of mystery in all of this,” he says.

Key to the goal of exploring what women really want was Hayek Pinault, who debated film choices with Tatum and Soderbergh onset—conversations that would often wind up in the script itself. As with the two previous entries in the franchise, Last Dance was written by two men and directed by a man, with Mike’s name literally in the title. But for once a woman gets a say, and Soderbergh credits Hayek Pinault with being a driving force behind the tension of the movie.

Max and Mike meet in Miami after his furniture business has failed, and she soon whisks him off to London to direct a stage show about female desire (based on the real-life Magic Mike stage show in London and Las Vegas). The two fight over the direction of the show and whether Mike’s bold assertion that he knows the secret to female desire holds up to scrutiny. Together, they create something sensual. TIME spoke to Soderbergh about why sex has largely disappeared from the big screen, how the conversation around sex has changed, and why Last Dance, originally headed straight to streaming, got a theatrical run after all.

Read More: Why Aren’t Movies Sexy Anymore?

TIME: Why did you want to return to the Magic Mike franchise?

Soderbergh: I wanted there to be a real relationship at the center of the film for the first time between Mike and a woman. And I wanted that woman to be more powerful than him.

The character of Max [played by Salma Hayek Pinault] seemed to be the perfect vehicle for discussions that we wanted to get into about men and women, about fantasy, about desire, about attraction, about love, about sexuality, about dance. Salma really pushed us into the territory because she’s so fearless and smart. It was fun to debate with Salma. It’s unthinkable if she hadn’t been there to be a second voice.

What were some of the questions and debates you were having with Salma?

Anytime in the movie where she is either challenging Channing or critiquing him, those would invariably, wind up in the movie, almost verbatim. A classic Salma moment is a scene where in a typical movie you would go, “Mike really won this scene.” He tells [another character] Harry to do a lap dance. Harry does the lap dance, and then Channing does it with all the same moves. But it’s completely different because it’s Channing, and he knows how to do this. So it feels like a mic drop.

And then Salma interrupts and just annihilates the whole thing. She goes, “We have this giant space, this amazing theater, and you’re stuck dancing in this one chair.” And she’s right, and he has to swallow that. We would have thought we solved a scene, and she would just completely rip it apart. And I’d go, “Somebody write that down.”

The first Magic Mike is about Mike hustling in the wake of the ’08 crash. This Magic Mike begins with Mike’s business failing because of the pandemic. Does it feel like much has changed since this series began?

Our conversation about men and women has certainly evolved since the first Magic Mike. But, yeah, the ability of the universe to throw catastrophe in our path has not diminished. But it provided an interesting starting point. It kind of brings him back to zero. And for somebody who has just turned 40, to now be back in a situation worse than it was when they were turning 30, that’s a weird headspace to be in.

And then he meets this woman, and they see each other in a way they haven’t been seen in a long time. But they’re not quite sure how to integrate it into this working relationship they’re about to have. We had a lot of conversations about whether the physical relationship should continue through the working process.

And we ended up where we are, which is, she says, “That was a great night, but we’ve got some work to do. Let’s stick to that.” Even though it becomes clear through the course of the movie, she’s really having trouble sticking to this. And he’s confused too.

Salma Hayek Pinault and Channing Tatum in Magic Mike's Last DanceCourtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

At its core, it’s a movie about sex and desire. That’s rare to see in a movie theater these days. Sex seems to have migrated to streaming. Have you noticed that?

I miss it. It’s a thing we all have to reckon with, an axis we all have to navigate in our lives as creatures on the planet, so I don’t know why it isn’t addressed in a more matter-of-fact way.

Its interest seems so narrow and seems so focused on the act. There’s just a lot of missed opportunities there. And we all liked the idea of making a sexy movie in which there’s essentially no nudity.

Do you have any theories as to why that is?

I don’t have any evidence to suggest that the studios or the people that finance movies are afraid of that. So if that’s not true, it’s the filmmakers who need to explore or re-explore some of this territory. I’m not the only person doing this. There are other people out there doing this as well. But in a mainstream studio wide release movie, it’s not often front and center.

You had said in an interview that nobody wants to have sex in superhero movies. And I find it’s true. Everyone is hot, but no one is interested in sleeping with each other.

You can imagine the reaction to those comments. I was talking about it in the context of my ability to engage with a fantasy world. This is as close as I get to a superhero movie [with Magic Mike’s Last Dance.] Look, Marvel’s doing fine. I don’t think it’s hurting them that this part of the universe is kind of offscreen.

Steven Soderbergh on the set of Magic Mike's Last DanceClaudette Barius—Warner Bros. Entertainment

I recently spoke to an academic who studies film, and she theorized part of the reason we’re not seeing sex in movies is the death of the movie star. People go to see movies now because of a particular superhero or character, not a particular actor. Are you worried about the state of the movie star?

It’s certainly a conversation that’s been happening in the entertainment industry. How are we going to make new movie stars if people’s primary motivation for going to the movies is the IP [intellectual property], not the actors? Nobody has the answer.

You used an intimacy coordinator for Magic Mike’s Last Dance. I’m wondering how that changes your process while you’re filming.

I don’t find it really changes things. I would hope if you talked to actors I’ve worked with before in situations that would now require that that they would say they were well taken care of and that I was very sensitive to how difficult those kinds of scenes can be. In this case, I think basically this person is just checking in with Channing and Salma.

I think it’s great. I know a lot of people roll their eyes at it. But why wouldn’t you just have that option? It doesn’t slow me down. I don’t want any stories about people being coerced. I don’t want that sh-t.

The way we think about sex has changed drastically in the last 11 years since the first Magic Mike movie premiered. This movie talks a lot about consent. Why was that important to include?

We wanted to reflect the conversation that we’re hearing. You want a situation in which nobody feels like something could go horribly wrong. But you also want some mystery. You don’t want a situation that feels proscribed. That’s the trick. And every two people are different, looking for different things. So it’s not like there’s a course you can take to solve this.

But we’ve had too long of women not being listened to either literally or in the body language they’re presenting. It’s understandable that there is a period of, “How do we put a stop to this stuff?” And now, “OK, how do we put a stop to it and keep the fun stuff?”

You are the rare filmmaker who seems agnostic about whether your movies play in theaters or on streaming. Do you think about where the audience will be watching the movie as you film?

No, not really. It doesn’t affect how I am going to approach something. Cinema, to me, is an approach. It has nothing to do with where it’s being shown. It’s the approach the director is taking to the material. I’ve seen commercials that are cinema, and I have seen Oscar-winning movies that aren’t.

That being said, everybody would like to see their movie on the big screen. Kudos to Warner Bros. saying, when they saw the film for the first time, we have to go out theatrically even though the film was financed by and being made for [the streaming service HBO Max]. That was thrilling because it was unexpected.

Having seen a preview with 400 people in a room, it’s a very active, participatory experience for the audience. They’re hungry.

There was a joke going around the set when we were shooting the first dance with Channing and Salma if it was possible to track the data to see how many people paused the movie at, like, the 15-minute mark at the end of that scene. And then if they started up again. Like, I wonder if you’re home by yourself and watching that scene, what are you doing.

Somebody on the back end at HBO Max can probably find that out.

I’m sure HR would call me in a heartbeat.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com