Filmsmiths ‘Essentials’ Series: Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh began directing films as a teenager in Louisiana, using a Super 8 camera, with friends and family standing in as his actors. He co-enrolled at LSU during high school (where his dad was the Dean of Education), but bypassed a college education to move to LA and work in Hollywood. He began his career holding cue cards for live-to-tape TV shows, then got his break doing editing work, and eventually was given the chance to direct the concert film Yes: 9012 Live in 1985, when he was only 22 years old.

Soderbergh is an auteur who regularly writes, directs, edits and serves as the director of photography for his films. He gets around union rules using pseudonyms such as Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard in the credits. But what makes Soderbergh different from other Hollywood auteurs is the breadth and depth of his work. He consistently reinvents himself, working on a variety of genres, and with a variety of actors. He makes big-budget Hollywood films, as well as low-budget independent films. He works with big name actors, and unknown amateurs with no previous acting experience. More than anything, Soderbergh avoids boredom, taking on new challenges.

Several years ago, Soderbergh announced he was retiring from filmmaking, but it’s unclear whether it is more of a sabbatical.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Steven Soderbergh actually has a film set to be released August 18, 2017. The film is titled Logan Lucky and has a stacked cast featuring Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Adam Driver, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank, Sebastian Stan, Katie Holmes, and Seth MacFarlane. -NP

Since turning 50, he has transitioned away from feature films, instead turning his attention to television projects. He even recuts versions of classic films by other directors to keep himself entertained. Check out his website Extension 765 for examples of some of his quirky passion-projects that he does for fun.

If you’re unfamiliar with Soderbergh’s work, here are some suggestions as to his essential films to help get you started.

 

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)


This is Soderbergh’s feature film debut, and it captures the spirit of the changing times, as conspicuous consumption and trickle-down economics of the 1980s gives way to a Generation X slacker rebellion in the 1990s. The film stars James Spader as a video camera-wielding fetishist and Andie McDowell as a slightly repressed, not-all-that-happily-married woman, with great supporting roles featuring Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo. Soderbergh’s integration of video footage within the film is a precursor to the independent film techniques that became commonplace in the 1990s. Soderbergh both wrote and directed the film, and his original screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. The then 26-year-old also became the youngest ever winner of the Palme D’Or, the top prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

 

Schizopolis (1996)


By the mid-1990s, after some positive critical attention and moderate box office success, Soderbergh worried that his filmmaking was becoming too safe. To combat complacency, he decided to do a stripped-down comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in (playing dual roles). Soderbergh also served as cinematographer for this movie, as he nearly always does, but under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. The film was shot over 10 months with a skeleton crew of five people, all who worked both in front of and behind the camera.

The film deals with relationship problems and infidelity, the pressure to be creative, and as in all Soderbergh’s films, there was a spotlight on communication issues. Soderbergh often deals with the impact of poor communication on interpersonal and work relationships, as well as the banal nature of everyday small talk. In the film characters often speak gibberish. At times characters’ voices are over-dubbed in other languages, and there are fantastic scenes in which every day formulas for speech are explained out loud.
“Generic greeting.”
“Generic greeting returned.”
“Imminent sustenance.”
“Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.”
“Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement.”
It’s probably the least produced and roughest film of Soderbergh’s career, but it’s also his most personal. Don’t watch Schizopolis expecting a slick commercial film, but watch it to get a glimpse inside the mind of this auteur filmmaker.

 

Out of Sight (1998)


For my money, Out of Sight is the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel ever made, beating out some solid contenders. Soderbergh brings out great chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez as Jack Foley and Karen Sisco. Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Albert Brooks, Luis Guzman, Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington are all fantastic in their supporting roles. In fact, without exception, every role is played to perfection. The dialogue is crisp and clever. The action is as engaging as the budding romance between Jack and Karen. And to top it off, there are some beautiful shots of the Ren Cen in Detroit.
At this point in his career, Soderbergh is perfecting his ability to tell a non-linear story, moving back and forth within the characters’ lives with ease, never losing the audience. There’s a nod to aging in the film, and a clear theme of “time,” whether it’s characters who are “doing time” as punishment for their crimes, or the notion of running out of time, which ties into the inconsistent timeline within the film. Soderbergh’s use of color adds richness to the storytelling.

 

The Limey (1999)


This little known Soderbergh gem deserves far more attention than it received when it was released in 1999. Terence Stamp stars as Wilson, an ex-con who comes to Los Angeles to avenge his daughter’s death. This is a new take on the “fish out of water” story, as Wilson, a British ex-con, tries to navigate his way through the party scene of Southern California. Along the way he begins to realize his failures as a father may have contributed to his daughter’s fate. Stamp’s nemesis is Terry Valentine, played by Peter Fonda. A contemporary of Stamp’s, the two aging criminals are a contrast in lifestyles. Stamp’s face tells the story of the working class thug life he embodied, while Valentine’s well-coiffed hair, whitened teeth and young girlfriends symbolize his contrasting style of criminality.

 

Erin Brockovich (2000)


Of course, this is the film everyone has seen. It’s often dismissed as just a Julia Roberts vehicle. But it’s more than that. Roberts is fantastic in the lead role, moving her away from the America’s Sweetheart rom com image and toward more serious subject matter. The film is based on the real story of the woman who stumbled into a career as a litigator and helped nail PG&E for poisoning the water of a small California community. Aaron Eckhart is a stand out as Erin’s biker-boyfriend and babysitter. Albert Finney is lovable as Ed, the attorney whose life is turned upside down after agreeing to represent Brockovich (unsuccessfully) in small claims court. Roberts won an Oscar for her work in this film.

 

Traffic (2000)


This film is one of Soderbergh’s most critically acclaimed films, and he was awarded the Best Director Academy Award for it. It was also a box office success, bringing in more than $200 million worldwide. What’s interesting is that the film was almost never made. Soderbergh’s financial backers initially pushed him to cast a big name actor in one of the key roles (Harrison Ford’s name was most notably thrown around), but he refused. He had a vision for the film that did not fit the cookie-cutter version of a Hollywood crime drama. The story involves a complicated intersection of seemingly unrelated characters, which confused Hollywood executives, and many balked at the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. But Soderbergh made the movie he wanted to make, and kept in the political statements that he felt were crucial to the film’s narrative. Besides Soderbergh’s directing Oscar, Benicio del Toro picked up a statue for Best Supporting Actor, Stephen Gaghan won for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film is based on a British television series from 1989), and Stephen Mirrione won the Oscar for Best Film Editing.

 

For more of Soderbergh’s work, also check out Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Solaris (2002), The Good German (2006).

Patty Williamson

I teach media-related stuff at Central Michigan University, and have been ruining film for students for nearly 20 years.

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