On Nov. 5, 1988, the aspiring director Steven Soderbergh stood in line at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood for a screening of his favorite film. He was still editing his first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape and had just barely made the Nov. 1 deadline to submit a rough cut to the Sundance Film Festival. “It was wonderful seeing it again,” he wrote of his favorite movie the next day in his diary. “That was my 28th time seeing that film in a theater.”
That film was Jaws. At the time, Soderbergh noted, friends were surprised that a sensitive young director—whose understated relationship drama would soon win Sundance, then Cannes—would claim the Spielberg sharktacular as his favorite. “Usually people expect Grand Illusion or something like that,” he wrote. “A serious film, in other words.”
Twenty-three years later, Soderbergh’s 23rd movie, the epidemic thriller Contagion, makes sly reference to his long-ago favorite film. (When I asked Soderbergh whether Jaws was still his favorite, he replied, “It changes hourly.”) “A rubber shark will keep them out of the ocean,” sighs a CDC coordinator played by Kate Winslet, but a warning about contagious diseases won’t keep citizens inside their homes. It’s a witty note in a film that chronicles the panic caused by a mostly unseen (but still deadly) predator as entertainingly—and unnervingly—as Jaws once did.
These days, it’s less surprising to think of Steven Soderbergh watching Jaws 28 times in the theater. The director has transformed himself from an art-house underdog to the smartest of studio filmmakers—a guy who makes sleek cinematic pop but who also takes out-of-left-field artistic and technical gambles. A four-hour biopic of Che Guevara; three heist comedies overstuffed with movie stars; a sci-fi romance that’s also a Tarkovsky remake; a treatise on the war on drugs jammed with pulpy plot twists. Soderbergh’s ambition, and his workaholism, have allowed him to make serious movies and popcorn. But Soderbergh’s popcorn is also serious, and his serious films are surprisingly buttery and delicious.
For this “Completist” column, I watched (or rewatched) nearly everything Steven Soderbergh’s ever directed—not just his features but the shorts, the HBO series, even the abysmal 1985 concert documentary that was his first paid directing gig. As I worked my way through his astonishingly large and varied filmography, I realized that that breadth is key to understanding Soderbergh’s career.
Twenty-three movies in 23 years suggests an already amazing, Woody Allen-like productivity. But Soderbergh has been even more prolific than that number indicates. During the first part of his career, development struggles and the learning curve of a new filmmaker put him on a two-year cycle. His debut, Sex, Lies, was released in 1989; Kafka, in 1991; King of the Hill, in 1993. But following the movie that blew up his old career and created a new one, Schizopolis—more on that later—Soderbergh’s been on a tear unmatched by any filmmaker I can think of. In the 13 years since 1998, he has directed 18 feature films. Oh, and one of them was a two-part, four-hour epic. Oh, and he directed every episode of a five-hour HBO series. Oh, and he also read like 20 books a month.
So while it’s fun, and rewarding, to consider each Soderbergh movie on its own, and to rank them—Soderbergh, a devoted Top Ten list-maker in his journals, surely wouldn’t mind—I find considering the whole list at once as illuminating as focusing on any one film. What kind of director generates a filmography like that?
A director who’s uninterested in repeating himself. Aside from the Ocean’s trilogy, whose breezy tone and swank locations suggest they served as biennial working vacations for their director (and their casts), Soderbergh veers carefully away from genres, styles, and stories that he’s explored before. “In addition to being a great piece of material, it is like nothing I have directed before, which is exciting,” he wrote about Erin Brockovich when he was in preproduction. Since then, he’s done nothing like Erin Brockovich—or like much else he’s made before. Which means there remains but one quiet relationship drama on his IMDb page; one sci-fi film; one coming-of-age story; one noir; one documentary; one Hollywood satire; one no-budget minimalist murder mystery performed by nonactors.
An actors’ director. Contagion features a star-studded cast, and (spoiler alert!) several of those stars die early in the picture. Indeed, Gwyneth Paltrow’s most memorable scene in the film is the one in which her skull gets sawed open during an autopsy. Soderbergh has a way with stars, who flock to his movies because they know the result will never be less than interesting—and return, apparently, because Soderbergh’s sets seem pretty free-wheeling and fun, at least from the tone of every behind-the-scenes DVD extra doc I’ve ever watched. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, and a cavalcade of lesser lights (Benicio Del Toro, Elliott Gould, Peter Gallagher, Luis Guzman, Viola Davis) have all made more than two appearances in Soderbergh projects.
But there’s more to being an actors’ director then just goofing off on set. Soderbergh pulls great performances from his actors, and rarely casts poorly—that is, rarely puts an actor in a position where she’s likely to fail. Clooney (Out of Sight), Roberts (Brockovich), and Damon (The Informant!) all gave their best career performances in Soderbergh films; so have James Spader, Jesse Bradford, Luis Guzman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, and Tobey Maguire. He gets ace performances from actors whose other work suggests they’re not really that talented, like Jennifer Lopez, Andie MacDowell, and Topher Grace. He’s even great with actors who aren’t actors at all: the nonprofessional cast of Bubble (one star had spent her career as the manager of a West Virginia KFC), or monologuist Spalding Gray, or porn performer Sasha Grey. (His next film, Haywire, stars the MMA fighter Gina Carano as a special-ops supersoldier.)
A director who delights in messing with the mechanics of storytelling. For instance, for every plot-driven film, like Traffic or the Ocean’s trilogy, there’s another title in his filmography in which story takes a back seat to rhythm and process. In Che, revolution earned yard by yard, hour by screen hour, feels like a depiction not only of Che’s struggle but of the patient, systematic approach it takes to make—and watch—a film this ambitious. The same story told at standard Hollywood biopic pace might be thrilling; in Che, it’s rewarding hard work. Contagion, on the other hand, is a movie told with speed—it is, in many ways, about speed, as Karina Longworth’s review astutely pointed out, befitting the asymptotic growth of a virus with a reproduction number of 4. It’s not as if it’s a mystery where the virus is going to take the world; the film is about how fast it’s going to get there.
Soderbergh chops time up and rearranges it to suit mood or storytelling rhythms. Out of Sight’s narrative is driven by its flashbacks; when Soderbergh signed on to the film, he sat down with writer Scott Frank to reorganize the screenplay, which had previously (like Elmore Leonard’s novel) told the story chronologically. Two of the 10 episodes of his HBO series K Street take place months in the past, allowing the show to build context while also explaining its mysteries in evocative fashion. Glittering shards and fragments of intercut past, present, and future tell The Limey’s emotional story as clearly as Terence Stamp’s stone face. Even Contagion, a relatively straight-ahead tale, begins, ominously, on “Day 2,” according to a caption—and ends on “Day 1.”
At times, in fact, Soderbergh’s narrative playfulness turns whole movies inside-out, undercutting the viewer’s understanding of what they’re actually watching. Erin Brockovich transforms from a yarn about a saucy single mom into a muckraking legal thriller; Soderbergh’s takes, snappy and comedic in the first half-hour, turn perceptibly longer and more packed with information as the movie goes on. Full Frontal nests films inside films, so that even the layer you believe to be “the real world” is eventually revealed to be the inside of a camera. Inside the camera is also where the transformative sequence in Sex, Lies, and Videotape takes place, as Peter Gallagher watches the video his wife made and we enter that world along with him—only to be jolted back 12 minutes later when James Spader turns the camera off and the picture goes to static.
Perhaps the most Soderberghian moment in my recent rewatching occurred near the end of the exceptional The Informant!, at the precise instant that we realize that Matt Damon’s chipper voice-over—a source of comedy for much of this weirdly jaunty tale of corporate whistle-blowing—is in fact not a filmmaking device but a signifier of actual mental illness. I can’t remember the last time my expectations were so vigorously overturned so far into a film.
A director who never wants to stand still. In his 1999 book, Getting Away With It (oh, also, he wrote a book), Soderbergh, in reference to a schedule filled with postproduction work and distribution woes, boils his philosophy of filmmaking down to 10 simple words: “The fun part is making them. The rest is crap.” It’s a philosophy that was in evidence even at the beginning of his career; in his introduction to the published journals of the year he spent making Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he wrote, “Some people don’t believe (or understand) that for me the process of making a film is the reward.”
Soderbergh’s not happy, it seems, unless he’s on the set of a film, shooting, and so he engineered a career that allowed him to be in that position as often as possible. His frequent collaborator Matt Damon recently mentioned in an interview that Soderbergh is, at this point in his career, so fluid a shooter—and so uninterested in postproduction, which doesn’t happen on a film set—that he edits the day’s footage on his laptop in 20 minutes so he can show everyone a rough cut in the hotel bar.
Soderbergh loves directing films so much that in 2009, while he was directing his play Tot Mom in Sydney (oh, also, he wrote and directed a play), his actors followed morning rehearsals with afternoon shooting for an improvised comedy called The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg. Reportedly, Soderbergh sent rough cuts to the cast but has no intention of releasing the film.
But if he’s such a set rat, why is Soderbergh threatening to hang it all up? Much has been made of his revelation that he plans to retire, or take a hiatus, or teach himself to paint, or something, once his current slate of movies is finished. (That slate includes two thrillers, Haywire and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; a beefcake stripper drama with Channing Tatum, Magic Mike; and a Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas.) Damon told the Los AngelesTimes that Soderbergh is flat-out bored with the mechanics of movies: “If I see another over-the-shoulder shot,” he quotes Soderbergh as saying, “I’m going to blow my brains out.”
To understand why Soderbergh’s taking up painting, it’s worth looking back at his last creative crisis, in 1995, and the movie that cracked it: Schizopolis. “I was tired of making ‘normal’ movies,” he writes in Getting Away With It, and, inspired by Help! director Richard Lester (whom he interviews throughout the book), he set off to make something truly not normal with a crew of five and some leftover spools of film.
Schizopolis is nothing like the four “normal” movies he’d made up to that point. Soderbergh plays a number of the roles himself, and surely this is the only film made by an Academy Award-winning director to feature multiple shots of the filmmaker furiously jerking off. He also cast his ex-wife as his wife, and his daughter as his daughter, and a whole lot of friends as subsidiary characters. The movie itself is a series of blackout sketches revolving around issues of language and romance; its characters speak in boilerplate, clichés, dubbed foreign languages, and nonsensical phrases. It’s as if the Monty Python gang filmed a Caryl Churchill play. At times, it’s borderline unwatchable; other moments and shots are among the funniest in Soderbergh’s filmography. (This throwaway joke might be my favorite.)
The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias wrote a very smart consideration of the film recently, and he’s right to note that Schizopolis serves as the dividing line between Soderbergh the frustrated indie director and Soderbergh the master of the studio system. Before Schizopolis, the director was in, he says, “the arthouse ghetto”; Out of Sight, the movie he released immediately after Schizopolis, proved “you could fuse the independent world with the studio world, and come up with something that was fun to watch.” That’s been Soderbergh’s defining aesthetic ever since.
But now, once again, directing is wearing thin. In a way, Soderbergh is a victim of his own virtuosity; when your filmmaking is as smooth and self-assured as his, it’s not hard to imagine that it might be getting difficult for him to find a project that really feels like a challenge. Every couple of years, he takes a break from the studio world entirely to shoot something small and unmarketable, like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience, but perhaps even those movies are starting to feel familiar to Soderbergh: same game, different playing field.
It may be that Soderbergh’s next four films will be his last. I think it’s more likely, though, that after an interlude with canvas and brush Soderbergh will return behind the camera, reinvigorated, ready to make something surprising and great and fresh. It happened last time; his first two post-Schizopolis films are, I think, his best. If I’m right, I’m awfully excited to see what he makes next. So give the man some space! Give him a couple of years behind locked doors to do what he needs to do. Paint, read, watch Jaws for, presumably, the 50th time. When he comes back, he’ll be refreshed and ready.
For what? Maybe he’ll finally make a true children’s movie. (King of the Hill is wonderful, but it’ll be a while before I show my daughters a harrowing tale of Depression-era deprivation and abandonment.) I could even see Soderbergh experimenting with animation as a way of telling stories he’s never told before. Sadly, his relationship with the animator Henry Selick (Coraline) was damaged when Soderbergh never quite cracked an assignment to rewrite a story called Toots and the Upside-Down House. (His struggles with, and procrastination on, that screenplay make up much of the action, such as it is, of Getting Away With It.) But if I were Pixar’s John Lasseter, I’d be on the phone with Soderbergh tomorrow, offering him the chance to paint surrounded by some of the best pop artists in the world—and if he happened to have any movie ideas, of course, it never hurts to talk them out!
In its own way, getting into painting isn’t that different a response to artistic malaise from shooting Schizopolis. It’s image-making, after all, and like that film, painting on a canvas isn’t beholden to any of the many masters—corporate, financial, and narrative—that weigh on the films of even as respected a director as Soderbergh. It’s completely self-indulgent, yet harms no one. It’s like masturbation—it clears out the pipes. (The man knows from masturbation; indeed, he’s a devoted connoisseur of pay-per-view hotel porn.)
At times in his career, Soderbergh’s tried replicating some of the self-indulgences of Schizopolis, with Bubble and Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience and The Good German. But those movies still had actors and crew and screenings and distributors and audiences; they were never just about him. Steven Soderbergh’s spent most of the past 13 years pleasing everyone else. Isn’t it time he pleased himself?
Also in Slate: See a ranking of all Soderbergh’s films and a consideration of Soderbergh’s obscure, non-movie works.