Steven Soderbergh is one of the most prolific filmmakers of our era. Though his early retirement is immanent, he’s released more films – and a greater variety of films – in his twenty-three years of directing than some filmmakers helm in a lifetime. Since bursting on the American independent film scene in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has made studio blockbusters and micro-budget experiments, strange remakes and films that blur the line between narrative and documentary, not to mention semi-biopics of public figures as diverse as Spalding Gray, Che Guevara, Erin Brockovich, and Channing Tatum. He’s been a leader in exploring the possibilities of new digital filmmaking technologies, and it seems there isn’t a genre or scale of filmmaking that he hasn’t yet touched. He’s even made a film that you’ll never see.
Last week, the trailer for Side Effects, Soderbergh’s last theatrical film and his penultimate film project (the final, final one being the made-for-HBO Liberace biopic Beyond the Candelabra), made its debut on the web. So with the supposed final days of an impressive career by a prolific filmmaker upon us, here’s a bit of free film school from a guy that considers both George Clooney and Sasha Grey his muses.
Avoid Getting Branded
In a 2009 interview with SuicideGirls.com before the release of his minimalist The Girlfriend Experience, the director explained why he doesn’t take possessory (“a film by”) credits on his work: “The fact that I’m not an identifiable brand is very freeing because people get tired of brands and they switch brands. I’ve never had a desire to be out in front of anything, which is why I don’t take a possessory credit.”
Soderbergh’s name might be instantly recognizable, but it hardly suggests that an audience is going to get a particular type of film (in contrast to, say, the synonymous association between Scorsese’s name and the gangster film). One would think that a lack of a brand in filmmaking prevents a director from attaining a certain degree of clout (un-branded filmmakers are often perceived as “directors for hire”), but Soderbergh has turned his lack of brand to his advantage, and it’s allowed him to develop an incredibly versatile oeuvre. Avoiding branding closes off the possibility a limiting framework for expectations (see: M. Night Shyamalan’s career) and opens up possibilities for making many types of films during a single career.
Get Out of the Way of Actors
In a 2000 interview with Hollywood.com around the time of the release of Traffic (and a few months before Soderbergh’s dual director nomination and eventual win at the Academy Awards), the filmmaker explained his method of working with actors: “I try and make sure they’re OK, and when they’re in the zone, I leave them alone. I don’t get in their way.”
This might explain in part how Soderbergh has gained the trust and repeated contributions of some of the most powerful, bankable, and talented actors in studio filmmaking, including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Benicio Del Toro, and Don Cheadle. After all, it’s hard to cast Julia Roberts in a micro-budgeted digital film that satirizes Hollywood like Full Frontal unless you’ve built some trust along the way.
The same can be said for Soderbergh’s use of untraditional actors. The director cast unknowns for Bubble, porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, MMA fighter Gina Carano for Haywire, and even himself as several characters in Schizopolis. Soderbergh has developed an eye for seeing the particular utility of certain performers for certain roles, be they movie stars or non-actors, and simply lets them do what they already know best with minimal guidance.
Exhaust Your Interests and Move On
In an interview last year with Film Comment, Soderbergh stated the following about what draws him to such a variety of projects: “Filmmaking is the best way in the world to learn about something. When I come out the other side after making a film about a particular subject, I have exhausted my interest in it. After Contagion, I’m still going to be washing my hands, but I don’t ever – I’m not going to pick up another book or article about Che as long as I live.”
Soderbergh is a versatile filmmaker specifically because he sees the filmmaking process as a path to discovery. This is probably why Soderbergh doesn’t have a clear thematic thread connecting his films: while the director certainly imbues his work with a perspective, he sees filmmaking as a learning process rather than a given outcome. Thus, Soderbergh’s films are free from “statements.” Even his portrayal of a figure as politically divisive as Che Guevara is more ambivalent than didactic. Still, this statement doesn’t explain how he ended up making three Ocean’s films.
Don’t Fake It
In that same Film Comment interview, Soderbergh discussed how and why he created such realistic fight sequences for Haywire: “I hate cheating. I like a certain kind of cheating – figuring out how to cheat this interior for Rome, and having people believe it. I don’t like cheating where you’re doing something editorially or visually because you can’t deliver the real thing. So this was an opportunity to have everything happening within the frame without any kind of monkey business going on.”
While Soderbergh has been a pioneer through his exploration of the possibilities of new digital filmmaking technologies, that doesn’t mean he’s as big a fan of digital façades appearing onscreen as the studio system he (sometimes) works in. For Haywire, Soderbergh avoided the choppy editing that has characterized much of mainstream action cinema in favor of simply placing the camera in positions that allow the convincing action choreography to be seen in all its detail. In fact, this aesthetic characterizes much of Soderbergh’s recent work: in everything ranging from Bubble to Contagion, Soderbergh frames his events in medium and long shots that allow audiences to witness everything that occurs with minimal intervention. This approach requires a skill that few filmmakers have: total trust in the source material and its eventual outcome.
Don’t Give a Fuck What Critics Think
Soderbergh stopped reading reviews of his films after Traffic. But the good thing is, he stopped on a high note, as he explained in the aforementioned SuicideGirls interview: “After Traffic I just stopped completely. After winning the LA and New York film critics awards, I really felt like, this can only get worse.”
The fact that Soderbergh doesn’t read reviews likely emboldens the experimentation in his approach to filmmaking. A remake of Solaris or an attempt to re-create the limitations of Classical Hollywood filmmaking styles with The Good German certainly aren’t popular ideas, and much of Soderbergh’s more risk-taking films have received a mixed reception (the most common critique of Soderbergh is that he’s a cold stylist). But whether brilliant or underwhelming, alienatingly stale or strikingly original, Soderbergh’s career has been one of constant invention. And it’s hard to embrace originality when you’re invested in the ways that others assess your work. This is, after all, the man who made the mind-fuck that is Schizopolis.
It also doesn’t hurt that many of Soderbergh’s studio films are made under-budget and receive decent returns. Not giving a fuck has to be earned at some point.
Characters Don’t Have to Be Sympathetic, But They Do Have to Be Interesting
In the first question of the interview below, Soderbergh answers why/how he could make a movie about a character that is as big an asshole as Mark Whitaker, the real-life figure portrayed by Matt Damon in The Informant!…
This point also speaks to Soderbergh’s versatility. Pick characters/people that are interesting to explore. Thinking of protagonists as role models or exemplars of some moral compass limits far too many opportunities. In fact, many of Soderbergh’s memorable characters – James Spader in sex, lies, Benicio del Toro in Traffic and Che, Terrance Stamp in The Limey – are complex, ambiguous, even contradictory.
What We Have Learned
You might be inclined to call Soderbergh an auteur, but it’s difficult to state exactly what worldview connects all his films. His career makes more sense when one thinks of him as a formalist: a filmmaker interested in a variety of possibilities of cinematic expression depending on the scale, style, and genre of a particular project. His films are all visually sleek (the director shoots most of his own work under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), but his filmography can be better characterized by its difference than its similarity. Soderbergh is a filmmaker engaged in constant experimentation, and that’s the primary reason why his impending departure from filmmaking is bad news: not all his films work, but it’s fascinating to see him work with film in such an incredible variety of ways. But maybe Soderbergh’s unique methods can inspire new visionaries to experiment even further across genres, styles, and budgets. Just make sure not to brand your talent.