The myth of the visionary director fighting with avaricious studio bosses is a popular one in movie culture, and often self-serving – but when Steven Soderbergh says he's getting out of the movie business because the system is broken, alarms should go off, and people should pay attention.
In 1989, a 26-year-old Soderbergh made his debut feature, sex, lies and videotape, a talky drama of betrayal and alienation that seemed to speak to the era. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, ushering in a new American indie-film movement that flourished until a few years ago, when the studios began closing down their boutique divisions. In the near quarter century since then, Soderbergh has been one of the most reliably interesting and productive American directors making movies. With more than a feature a year over 24 years – and with a diversity that has stretched from documentary, to micro-budgeted films like Bubble, to star-stuffed blockbusters like the Oceans series, he has helped keep the movies interesting.
Now he has formally declared that Side Effects, a thriller starring Jude Law and Rooney Mara, is his final feature film. He wants to spend more time painting. Perhaps he'll work in television – his HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson – will be released later this year. Meanwhile, he's re-editing and doing some re-shoots for his 1991 sophomore feature, Kafka, and planning a Broadway musical, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra – but, by Soderbergh's standards, "I've got nothing on my plate. I'm just sitting around."
Over the course of a 45-minute phone conversation (he insisted it be that long), Soderbergh talked about how the movie business has changed, and why he has changed in regard to the business.
We start off talking about Side Effects, his first conventional thriller, which he says is surprising since it's a genre he has "always loved." He is candid about his influences and artistic thefts.
Roman Polanski's 1965 film, Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as a woman descending into homicidal insanity, played into how he shot star Rooney Mara.
"I tried to get inside her experience, not quite as subjectively as [Polanski] got, but how he photographed her, looking down at her from just above the eye line. And then, of course, I watched the eighties films – Jagged Edge, Presumed Innocent and Fatal Attraction from a stylistic and a narrative standpoint. … I thought of Side Effects as really three movies. The first one is about 35 minutes, focusing on Rooney's character, then to Jude's and then there's the third part, but stylistically, I had to retrofit it and make it work as one."
But it's another title Soderbergh drops in our conversation that has me intrigued: John Frankenheimer's Seconds, a 1965 film starring Rock Hudson as a middle-aged man who has achieved career success, but lost his passion for life and work. The man is approached by a secret organization called The Company, which helps wealthy people disappear and assume new identities. Soderbergh mentions Seconds as an example of film he considers very influential, but not widely recognized. As far back as the mid-nineties, Frankenheimer (who died in 2002) had already decided cable television offered far more creative latitude than movies.
It's hard to ignore the parallels. Soderbergh, now 50, says things in the movie business have gotten much worse even in just the past five years, for both cultural and economic reasons, but the result is that the status of the director as an artist has fallen.
"There's an attitude now, in a lot of corners, that the director is a footage-gatherer, not a story-teller, and it extends to the lowest budget film. There's a sense of ownership that goes beyond any accepted notion of collaboration. It's about rounding the edges, removing anything that's ambiguous or polarizing. And I'm afraid I'm not sure the movie audience has a problem with that any more."
Perhaps the most dramatic example of this came in 2009 when Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal dismissed Soderbergh from the movie Moneyball just days before the film was ready to shoot, rejecting his plan to include documentary elements in the film. The dismissal was almost unprecedented in recent Hollywood history. But Soderbergh said it wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back.
"It was more like another piece of writing on the wall that confirmed my timing to get out," – a decision, he says, that goes back to 2007.
The beginning of the end, so to speak, was Che, his two-part Spanish-language film. Both films eventually had to be financed without any American money or distribution deal and the four-hour film was shot quickly – over 78 days – to meet the budget, which it did not recoup. Soderbergh later said in an interview with The Guardian that he regretted making it. "It was a "necessarily difficult film," he says now. "It's an uncommon piece of work but it left a lot of roadkill, though by the end, it left me with a sense that, if this doesn't kill me, nothing will."
Doubts about the business, and his place in it, go back even further than that. After his early success with sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh made a string of five movies in a row – Kafka, Underneath, King of the Hill, Gray's Anatomy, Schizopolis – that pushed the artistic edge but had relatively small audiences. He felt then he had reached a cul-de-sac, but he consciously studied mainstream directors, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron – before making his own more mainstream films, including Out of Sight, Traffic and the Oceans trilogy.
"The difference between then and now is that then I knew what I needed to do to get where I wanted to be. Here, I don't see a way forward."
Is he just too cerebral for the business? He doesn't think so: "I've been accused of being anti-audience but I think I'm the exact opposite of that because I respect the audience. When I was young and hanging out with other filmmaking friends, we always had the idea that 'You're the audience' Anything you can understand, they can understand. I mean, I have a high-school education. I always made the kind of movies, whatever the budget, I'd line up to see."
He's open to cable television work where he thinks there's more room for in-depth, narrower studies than movies allow. He has nothing but praise for his experience with HBO executives on Behind the Candelabra, "but that was a project we got turned down by every film company. A $5-million film, with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas and a script by Richard LaGravenese [the screenwriter of The Fisher King] and nobody could get behind it."
Apart from a downgrading in respect for the director, says Soderbergh, the most creatively inhibiting factor in movies is cost. Almost any movie, he says, costs at least $25- to $30-million to distribute and market in the United States and Canada alone, and perhaps another $75-million to distribute overseas. An animated film or a 3-D special-effects extravaganza can earn money overseas, but a small movie isn't small enough to justify the risk.
But wait a minute. Didn't Soderbergh, just last year, direct the $7-million Channing Tatum stripper movie, Magic Mike, that grossed more than $167-million worldwide? Surely, he's proof that the system can still work.
"You're talking about Halley's Comet," says Soderbergh. "I'm not dumb enough to think that can happen twice. That happened because I was standing next to Channing and asked what he was working on and he told me he was trying to develop this movie about when he was a stripper. And I said, 'We don't want to talk to anyone else about this' and we went to Cannes and presold it overseas, which theoretically covered our cost and we put everything we had into it. If it had failed, we would have been wiped out. Unless you have Channing Tatum and a stripper movie, that's not a model anyone else should follow."