And cut… time for Steven Soderbergh to change direction

The Times

January 16, 2012


Evidence of Steven Soderbergh’s new life is spread around his New York office so profligately — canvases of painted stripes (“very Paul Smith” he jokes), the odd portrait, walls spattered with paint — that I ask if he really is, as reported, giving up film-making for painting. “Among other things. I’ve got a book idea, I may do photography,” the 48-year old director says in a loft filled with vintage movie posters, directors’ chairs, dusty cameras, even a Farrah Fawcett Barbie doll. He has a catalogue of images of “great clothes” from films made in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, “like Steve McQueen’s jacket from The Cincinnati Kid, which is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I might get 50 of the items made, then sell them.”

Why is he leaving movies? Soderbergh is one of the least categorisable directors around, at first deep in the art house with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), made for nearly nothing, which won the Palme d’Or and helped to redefine independent film-making. Later came the bigger-budget Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic (for which he won the Best Director Oscar), Ocean’s Eleven and Contagion. Darting around genres and themes, even his flops, such as The Good German, were intriguing. His latest film, Haywire, is an action thriller, starring the mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano as a covert female operative pummelling a group of no-good men, including Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor. It is a bone-crunching hour-and-a-half of eye gouges, painful kicks and men being hurled like rag dolls against walls by Carano.

Soderbergh’s next movie, Magic Mike, is about male strippers. This spring he will film a thriller, The Bitter Pill, and after that HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as the pianist’s lover Scott Thorson. And then . . . cut.

“I just need a change, it’s time to burn everything down and start over. I’m out of new ideas, how to do things, solve problems.” Dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, he sounds sanguine rather than downbeat. “Everything is feeling really familiar and that’s not good. The solution is to tear down my process and rebuild it from scratch. It’s not an incremental process. It has to be scorched earth. I have to stop making films and maybe later come at it from a different angle. It would be abnormal to keep going, an insult to the art form.”

The last time he “scorched earth” was in the almost ten-year spell between the successes of Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Out of Sight, “where I made five movies that nobody saw”, including Schizopolis and The Underneath. “I felt I drifted away from my core, the best version of myself as a film-maker. Now I’m at the end of a particular road.” Could the dust-ups he’s had with major studios be a factor? He was fired from directing Moneyball, starring (and co-produced by) Brad Pitt three days before shooting began, he says. “We’re in a film-making environment where people are willing to take certain risks — they’ll spend $200 million on making a comic-book movie, but would not accept me saying, ‘The best part of the movie cannot be written down.’ I was planning something unorthodox. I had confidence in my ability to pull it off, but I get it. Film-making used to be fun, it isn’t any more.”

Soderbergh also dropped out of directing the big-screen version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in November. Soderbergh says money was the surface reason: the studio offered him $54 million to make it, he wanted $56 million. “It was going to cost less than Contagion,” he says. $2 million doesn’t sound a deal breaker. “I really wanted to do it,” Soderbergh shrugs, “but the bottom line was they weren’t excited about doing it with me, so fine, I’ll do something else. I’m feeling hemmed in by the language you have to adhere to if you’re going to make a movie that’s going to be seen by more than ten people. Maybe I’ll make stuff that’s not designed to be seen by large audiences. I don’t want to abandon narrative, I’m just frustrated at the restrictions around structure, casting, exposition and payoffs.” Why, because there’s a premium on big stars and simple plots? “Even on smaller movies you get given a list of people your backers would like to see in the movie.”

It’s “increasingly difficult”, Soderbergh says, for any director to shepherd “anything good” through the Hollywood system: preview audiences, “a quarter of whom think all films are too slow, even the Bourne movies”, gave Traffic and Contagion relatively low scores, but he didn’t change anything in them. “It’s not going to get better until it gets worse. The economics of the business are heading back to an era when film-makers didn’t have the kind of control I think results in good movies.” Big movie companies are so “vertically integrated”, with various marketing and product offshoots, box office failures are absorbed, Soderbergh claims; in the Sixties and Seventies big losses were felt by the studios, and new film-makers encouraged to innovate, hone their crafts and experiment. Soderbergh tells young directors pitching to studios to avoid certain words (“elevated”) and “even if they’re making the darkest film ever to say, ‘But at the end of the day it’s about hope’.” He smiles. “They love that line.”

Soderbergh’s father, a professor of education, introduced him to film and signed him up to animation classes. The young Soderbergh learnt “the grammar” of film-making, like wide-shots and close-ups. By the time he filmed Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he had immersed himself in “30,000 hours of watching, making or reading about film-making”. He’d meant Sex, Lies . . . as a “resumé”, and hoped its shock success would “buy me the room to make some mistakes” — which he did. “I was frustrated with myself for a while. With Out of Sight I said, ‘If I don’t get this right it’s over.’ It’s still the best, or least flawed, thing I have ever done. George [Clooney] and I were in the same position. People were asking if he could really be a movie star and were saying about me, ‘Is he ever going to make anything anyone ever wants to see again?’ It wasn’t a financial success, but it was a creative one.”

He is almost unique in directors for being Oscar-nominated twice in one year for two films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic (which won). “I didn’t expect to win. I hadn’t prepared a speech. I was drunk on double-vodka cranberries.”

Soderbergh doesn’t wallow or get frustrated. He stopped therapy when he realised that he wasn’t “really that self-destructive or depressed”. In 2010 he fathered a child after an affair.

“Anyone looking from the outside can well imagine what that was like,” he says; he and his second wife, Jules Asner, remain happily married, he says. Hollywood will take him back if it is deemed that his films can make money, he says plainly. He truly doesn’t know if he’ll return to directing; something will emerge “organically while I’m doing something else”.

This is no pity party: he accepts he has been “luckier than most. Twenty-five movies? That’s plenty. I’ve done a lot more than I thought I would.” He’s balanced mainstream and art house “because I like them both. My rule was never to make anything I wouldn’t buy a ticket to see. I didn’t want to do a western, I almost did a musical and still might on stage.” As for what might be his final film, Soderbergh says of Behind the Candelabra: “I don’t want to take an obvious farewell bow in front of the audience and I don’t want to be that athlete who should have left the track a long time ago. I want to go out strong.”