Steven Soderbergh: A Directorial Farewell

File:Soderbergh cropped 2009.jpgLast week, I did a trailer reaction for the upcoming film, Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen,  and made a bold claim that the Coen Brothers are the most consistently diverse filmmakers actively and regularly working in Hollywood today. In the seven days since, that opinion has not changed, but I’m going to categorize another filmmaker similarly, for I find his works to be equally as diverse and nearly as successful in their attempts to be excellent genre exercises. The fifty-year-old director, Steven Soderbergh, is a bold and innovative filmmaker renowned for a handful of acclaimed films that he has either directed, written, produced, DP’d, or edited, having been one of the only filmmakers nominated for two Best Director Oscars in the same year (and leaving the ceremony with one in hand) and having strongly pioneered the independent film wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s – a phenomenon that the Coens were also a part of. Soderbergh’s career began in 1989 with the wholly original Sundance Film Festival darling, sex, lies, and videotape, which catapulted him into the limelight. While he’s always danced around stage, only casually dipping into the spotlight, Soderbergh has spent the last twenty-four years feverishly making films with a filmography that nears thirty official credits. The guy has made more movies than the number of years he has officially been in the business. With this weekend comes his newest film, the sleazy psychological thriller, Side Effects, which supposedly marks the end of his directing career (he has long been toying with the idea of retiring). If Side Effects does begin the end of his era, then we’ve found no better time than to profile the wonderfully diverse, genre-film master, Steven Soderbergh.

Steven’s nomadic childhood throughout the southern United States eventually landed him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he attended an LSU funded K-12 institution, Louisiana State University Laboratory School (Steven’s father was the LSU Dean). Like so many filmmakers that came to rise in the decade of my own conception, Soderbergh fiddled with Super 8 cameras in his youth, producing short films on $3 budgets with his good friends and whatever toys or objects he could find around him. While attending grammar school, Steven had access to the University’s animation class where he graduated from Super 8’s to second hand, 16mm film equipment. Steven waved his hand at the idea of college and immediately tried his luck in Hollywood following graduation. At first he worked as a cue card holder and game show scorer – this provided him a paycheck to make ends meet – before becoming a freelance film editor. By putting in his time, Soderbergh was offered the chance to direct a Grammy-nominated concert video, 9021Live, for the band Yes in 1985. This first dose of success gave Soderbergh a helping of confidence and he took advantage of this sliver of stardom by taking a break from the Hollywood scene and returning to Baton Rouge.

While back visiting Louisiana, Steven Soderbergh conceived his debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, which he wrote in eight days and premiered at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 to phenomenal feedback and massive critical acclaim. An Academy Award nomination for writing and a Palm d’Or win solidified the film’s importance and made Soderbergh a record holder as the youngest filmmaker, at 26, to ever win Cannes’ prestigious top award. Roger Ebert branded Soderbergh as, ‘the poster boy for the Sundance generation.’ This label could not have been more accurate as the 90s ushered in a wave of independent favorites that were given giant boosts from Sundance and Cannes. Culturally relevant film directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, and Jim Jarmusch have all found success in the wake of Soderbergh’s indie revolution.

Though Soderbergh’s talent was never dismissed, his sophomore slump spanned nearly a decade. The Jeremy Irons-starring, pseudo-biopic, Kafka, the Depression-era drama, King of the Hill, Criss Cross remake The Underneath, and the Spalding Gray monologue film, Gray’s Anatomy, all followed to extremely weak box office responses. He also worked on an ‘artistic wake up call’ film called Schizopolis, which he is credited with every single technical position, including starring in the film. The message of the concept piece came to fruition when he directed the noir-like, super stylish thriller, Out of Sight, starring a then up-and-coming George Clooney and a young, super sexy Jennifer Lopez, based on an Elmore Leonard novel. Critics adored the film, which mixing with its moderate box office take turned Out of Sight into an exemplary cult classic. Plus its huge cast of somewhat unknown actors at the time – Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Luiz Guzman, Samuel L. Jackson – along with more known and respected ones – Dennis Farina, Michael Keaton, Albert Brooks – and the fact that it gave Clooney a career has cemented Out of Sight in cinema history (two Oscar nominations didn’t hurt either). And it was here that the lucrative artistic partnership of George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh first sprouted.

Film poster with five people shown from the neck up. The man on the left has his pointer finger pressed against his lips; the woman to his right has long hair and is smiling; the three man at the right have grim looks as they stare to the right. Below them are several vehicles and a man holding a gun that is getting shot. The top of the image includes the starring credits, while the bottom includes the title of the film and the main credits.As 1999 came to a close and the 21st Century began, Soderbergh decided to bask in the cinematic spotlight. He closed production on The Limey – another stylish caper starring Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda – and released two movies in 2000: Erin Brockovich and Traffic, both became two of his most acclaimed films to date. Brockovich reignited Julia Roberts’ career, earning her an Oscar for Best Actress, and both films earned Soderbergh nominations for Best Director (he won for Traffic). Though Traffic was beaten by Gladiator for Best Picture, Traffic’s social importance and its ambitious script from Stephen Gaghan has allowed the drug epic to become a highly recognized and recommended piece of educational cinema. It’s a technical masterwork that, in my opinion, is a true milestone in the directorial work of Steven Soderbergh. But Steven didn’t stop there, he leapt right into work on another film, one that wouldn’t get the Academy recognition like his last two, but would get the box office heat that none of his previous commercial films ever earned.

Proving that he could handle ensembles with ease in Traffic, Soderbergh helmed a remake of the Rat Pack favorite, Ocean’s 11, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, and Andy Garcia. I don’t have to explain exactly how huge this heist film was, but it was here that Soderbergh got a taste of what a commercial box office success was like and people started to realize just how much of a genre chameleon Soderbergh is. Soderbergh never seemed like he was out to prove this truth, and for someone whom has always been incredibly humble when it comes to his work, his pace of work could have easily been translated into someone who wanted so desperately to prove his worth in every filmmaking faction possible.

In 2002, Soderbergh directed George Clooney in the underwhelming, American remake of Solaris before experimenting with improvisation and digital film with the oddity that is Full Frontal. His 10-part HBO series, K Street, proved a little more controversial as it was a quickly made project (each subsequent episode was shot and completed in five days time in order to capture the constantly changing political atmosphere) that created a stir during the 2004 Democratic Primary. A black-and-white romantic, period drama, The Good German, again starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett made little noise in 2006, while Soderbergh’s gang of thieves returned for both Ocean’s 12 and Ocean’s 13, which replicated the financial success of the original film.

As the back half of the early 2000s came to pass, Soderbergh continued to indulge in far more personal and experimental works that have still gone unseen by the majority of the moviegoing public. A less-than-$2 million project called Bubble, starring nonprofessional actors, was the first film to ever be released in theaters and on VOD simultaneously.  The film’s turnout was observed for its prediction of how future films could potentially be released, but this process was also scrutinized for it threatened the sanctity of the theater-going experience. Soderbergh replied bluntly, “I don’t think it’s going to destroy the movie-going experience any more than the ability to get takeout has destroyed the restaurant business.” Yet, Bubble hardly created any buzz within the moviegoing or living room community, and Soderbergh is still under contract to release five more day-to-date films. 2008 welcomed Soderbergh’s epic Che Guevara biopic starring Benicio Del Toro. Che was a four-hour, double billed work that competed in the major competition at the Cannes Film Festival. On the down low, Soderbergh quietly filmed The Girlfriend Experience, an 80-minute film starring porn star Sasha Grey as a high-priced prostitute who creates an intimate experience so realistic that she makes the client feel like he or she is in a full blown, romantic relationship with Grey’s character. It was shot on location in New York City and provided Grey’s first non-adult feature film credit (she was later seen in the seventh season of HBO’s Entourage).

Around this time, Soderbergh started to claim that the end of his filmmaking career was on the horizon, but this didn’t stop him from churning out five more films (including this weekend’s Side Effects). A loony character comedy called The Informant!, starring Matt Damon, was released in late 2009 creating buzz for Damon’s winning comedic turn and Scott Z. Burns’ adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald’s book. He then began work on two films nearly simultaneously: The straight-forward action vehicle for MMA fighter, Gina Carano, called Haywire and the virus epidemic/disaster thriller, Contagion. Though completed later, the strength and style of Contagion allowed it to be released first amidst the Oscar competitors of 2011 and Haywire was dumped in the early weeks of January 2012. While both are highly successful forays into their respective genres and excellent examples of Soderbergh’s directorial range, they are not as prolific as Soderbergh’s early work of the 2000s.

For those of you keeping tabs on the box office of 2012’s summer, you’ll remember one of the biggest surprises of the season being a Channing Tatum-starring, stripper comedy (based on Tatum’s own male stripping experience) that grossed well over $100 million and scored better reviews than the supposed career reviving works of Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone. Tatum’s strong relationship with Steven Soderbergh was what allowed Tatum to secure the filmmaker for the full frontal sleaze, Magic Mike, and Soderbergh turned the film into an incredibly competent, charming, and endlessly entertaining character comedy with deep insight into an underground world with its own ring of corruption and evil indulgences. Having braved the battle and watched Magic Mike in its entirety myself, I can assure that the praise the film earned is completely accurate and it’s a film that I will always point to in an argument concerning either Channing Tatum’s competence as a leading man, or Soderbergh’s limitless skill as a motion picture director.

Steven Soderbergh has had a very busy career, one that has left him surely exhausted but ultimately fulfilled. In interviews where the idea of his retirement has come up, he has replied with variations of this quote, “When you reach the point where you’re saying, ‘If I have to get into a van to do another scout, I’m just going to shoot myself,’ it’s time to let somebody who’s still excited about getting in the van, get into the van.” He’s readdressed his so-called retirement as a filmmaking ‘sabbatical,’ but as goes one of my favorite sayings, ‘Man plans, God laughs.’ There are nearly a dozen abandoned ideas that Soderbergh had been attached to including a 3D-live action rock opera Cleopatra musical biopic starring Catherine Zeta-Jones with a Guided By Voices score and Hugh Jackman playing Mark Antony (they hope to continue the production one day as a Broadway show), as well a biopic about controversial Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl that was deemed to uncommercial. Soderbergh also left the Moneyball adaptation after complications arose with the studio.

Whether the director actually does decide to take a sabbatical or not, and whether the sabbatical has an eventual end date or continues endlessly, Steven Soderbergh has created a filmography showcasing a talent that is never dwindling and a technical skill that has a range comparable to very, very few. He’s a technician that wears many hats (he was Second Unit Director on The Hunger Games and invented the camera that David Fincher used for The Social Network) and a writer with talent to bring both his own stories and someone else’s to life. He’s one of the finest working directors that I ever had the pleasure of watching his work in the theaters and analyzing them on my own time. I remember when my dad sat me down to watch Traffic and I was stunned by his use of coloration – hazy yellows, muddy browns, transparent blues – and his Altman-like ability to juggle such expansive ensembles. Then I watched Ocean’s 11 for the first time and honestly couldn’t believe that the same guy helmed both of these drastically different projects. The man is truly a master of genre and will be enormously missed if this does in deed mark the end of his Hollywood career. With the direct-to-HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, still in the tube, there is a little left to cling to in hopes that Soderbergh changes his mind. But there’s solace in knowing that Soderbergh has decided to change the route of his artistry and claim the next fifty years as something new and, probably, just as fulfilling and noteworthy. If he succeeds in retiring, he will again be a pioneer just like he was twenty-four years ago when people first started uttering the name, Steven Soderbergh.

Article by Mike Murphy


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