Soderbergh: The Obscure Works

A closer look at the Oscar-winning director’s shorts, TV series, plays, and the improvised movie he shot but has no plans to release.

Also in Slate: Dan Kois watches the entire Soderbergh film canon and ranks of all Soderbergh’s movies.

Steven Soderbergh

Soderbergh’s workaholism generates problems for someone who intends to watch every single thing he’s ever directed. In addition to his 22 released feature films, Soderbergh’s worked on any number of other projects that I’ll call nonmovies—short films, TV series, plays, other people’s movies, and even an entire feature film that becomes a nonmovie by virtue of the fact that Soderbergh won’t let me, you, or anyone else see it. Here’s the rundown.

1977-82: Six short films. They’re described in such detail in Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape diary that I’m convinced he’d never lose track of them entirely, but they’ve never received release. All in black and white, they range from a documentary about his high school to a 20-minute experimental collage to his first film, “an untitled exploration of the aftereffects of Ex-Lax, starring my brother-in-law.” The last, Rapid Eye Movement, explored Soderbergh’s unsuccessful first stint working in Hollywood (as an editor on a short-lived Bryant Gumbel-hosted NBC series called Games People Play).

1985: Yes: 9012 Live. Soderbergh’s first directing gig was a concert film for the prog-rock band Yes, viewable on Netflix. Aside from the pleasures of hearing “Owner of a Lonely Heart” once more, there’s little to recommend here—it’s capably directed and edited with, seemingly, a Video Toaster.

1985: Access All Areas. An abysmal behind-the-scenes video doc accompanying 9012 Live in which Soderbergh, possibly already a fan of Richard Lester and A Hard Day’s Night, tries valiantly to make the world’s most boring band into a fun-loving bunch like the Beatles. (You can watch it in two parts on YouTube.) Notable mostly for the brief appearance of the director’s Michael Stipe-ian hairdo in a mirror at the 2:33 mark in part two.

1986: Winston. A sweet, if slim, black-and-white short about a young man’s obsession with a romantic rival. I like its air of melancholy, upon which Soderbergh would expand in Sex, Lies. It, too, is available in two parts on YouTube.

1993, 1995: Fallen Angels. Soderbergh directed two episodes of this stylish, unjustly-forgotten Showtime noir anthology. One, “The Quiet Room,” stars Joe Mantegna and Bonnie Bedelia in a nicely twisted tale of police corruption. (You can order a VHS copy online.) The other, “The Professional Man,” features Brendan Fraser as a hit man; never released on video in the United States, it’s available as a U.K. DVD under the title Perfect Crimes. Twenty bucks and one illicit region-cracking software download later, I thoroughly enjoyed this sad, bluesy story of love, betrayal, and wounds to the heart.

1996: Geniuses. Between Schizopolis and Out of Sight, Soderbergh directed this play, a Hollywood satire by Jonathan Reynolds, at a small theater in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “Soderbergh used some special effects from the movies to give additional interest to this show,” wrote the Baton Rouge Advocate approvingly in its review. “Lights flash and the trees blow when a helicopter is heard landing off-stage.”

1998: Pleasantville. “I, as a producer on Pleasantville, hired myself to be the second unit director for a high-school montage to be shot in Valencia. … Basically we just ran our asses off and shot a ton of stuff for [director] Gary [Ross] to play with, and I had a blast. There’s nothing like having a camera in your hands and shooting on the run to give yourself a little charge.”—Soderbergh’s diary (as published in his book Getting Away With It), March 25, 1997. Last month, he spent some time shooting second unit on Ross’ new film, which just happens to be The Hunger Games.

2003: K Street. Soderbergh directed all 10 episodes of this HBO political drama. Between its James Carville lionization and its Crossfire segment, it now seems astonishingly out of date, but it does feature a sad, weaselly performance from Mad Men’s John Slattery, and a nicely opaque one from the long-underused stage actor Roger Guenveur Smith. Soderbergh’s direction is jittery, handheld, and only occasionally notable.

2004: Equilibrium. A 25-minute short released as part of the anthology film Eros, this delightful black-and-white dramedy features Robert Downey Jr. as a 1950s ad man (before Mad Men), Alan Arkin as a distracted therapist, and some sexy disrobing. See it on Netflix streaming!

2009: Tot Mom. Written by Soderbergh, this play about missing toddler Caylee Anthony—and the media circus that surrounded her disappearance—went up at Cate Blanchett’s Sydney Theater Company in Australia. Essie Davis starred as Nancy Grace. Boy, do I wish I’d seen it.

2009: The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg. The most curious Soderbergh nonmovie of all is, in fact, a movie—reportedly mostly improvised, and shot with his Tot Mom cast in the afternoons after morning rehearsals. Because when you’re Hollywood’s most talented workaholic, why not? Apparently Soderbergh sent a rough cut to the cast and no one else, and when I requested a chance to see it, Soderbergh politely declined. He has no plans to release it at this time.

Also in Slate: Dan Kois watches the entire Soderbergh film canon and ranks of all Soderbergh’s movies.