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Steven Soderbergh,
master of reinvention

Steven Soderbergh, master of reinvention 01

It takes bravery to be creative and that’s a lesson Steven Soderbergh learnt on his fourth feature. Already hailed as a star of the independent film scene, he set out to make The Underneath for Universal in 1995 and found himself trapped in a project he didn’t care for and couldn’t escape from. Soderbergh admits the process of making the crime-themed film noir – based on the novel Criss-Cross by Don Tracy and a remake of the original 1949 film adaptation – led him to undertake a major deconstruction of everything he was about as a director. He now apologises openly to Universal for sliding more than 8 million dollars into a project that failed to make even a 10 per cent return at the box office, but insists the investment was money well spent. “It was worth it because it made me realise I never wanted to be in that creative space ever again.”

In reality, The Underneath isn’t all that bad in terms of plot and production, but as an overarching piece of art it feels bland, thin, underwhelming – and these are the things that profoundly offended Soderbergh.

“I’ve never felt that way about a film since and it needed for me to go through the daily horror of shooting that movie to learn a very valuable lesson in creativity and self-preservation.”

Indeed, the 55-year-old Atlanta-born director will tell you that creative evolution can only come about through artistic fall-downs. He is happy to see that period as a time when he allowed himself to stray too far from what he was as a person and a creative; that the bright lights of Los Angeles had somehow persuaded him to detach himself from the majesty and morals of what inspired him to make movies in the first place. 

“I wouldn’t call it ‘selling out’; more I had started to create art that wasn’t satisfying or, in my own head, even worthwhile. From about halfway through shooting that film I hated it… absolutely hated it; and I longed for the day when it would be over.”

Prior to the fall, Soderbergh’s star had been one of the brightest in Hollywood. At age 26, he became the youngest solo director to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his blistering independent debut Sex, Lies and Videotape. The so-called “poster boy for the Sundance generation” was at the forefront of a new era of cultural, emotional, art-led film-making, with a string of new ideas and interpretations reflecting society’s own post-1980s rebellion.

“To be labelled as a thinker in the film industry – or any other for that matter – you have to be brave enough to consider your craft well beyond what critics or even audiences class as acceptable,” he says. “You have to be brave enough to follow your convictions no matter how little the people around you understand it, because ultimately, you can see the end destination.”

“The evidence is there,” he continues. “There are many films that end up being very influential on film-makers, but were not successful when they were released. I often reference Seconds by John Frankenheimer. It was hated when it came out (in 1966) – people just didn’t see the point or the relevance. And yet you discuss it in film-maker circles and everyone will state it as a true inspiration.” 

“Then there is The Parallax View – a seminal, paranoid thriller from the 1970s (directed by Alan J Pakula). It didn’t make any money, got very mixed reviews when it came out and yet, now, every film-maker I know is ripping that movie off, every day. So, it’s an interesting process to note and respect what you get influenced by, in life in general, because it’s not always by things which were successful. And thank goodness for that.” 

Steven Soderbergh, master of reinvention 02

It’s perhaps notable that post The Underneath, Soderbergh’s so-called palate-cleanser of a follow-up, Schizopolis, was roundly panned by critics for its disturbing, confusing and unintelligible mass of scenes, characters (two of which Soderbergh himself plays) and dialogue. But for the man whose project it was, Schizopolis represented the very purest form of therapy, enabling him to blow away the cobwebs, crystallise a process and future direction, and reaffirm the craft he had set out to perfect from childhood.

We are now more than two decades on and while Soderbergh’s art still divides opinion, his status as a film-making visionary is beyond question. With every new film – and the production line in 2019 sees another three added, in the shape of sports drama High Flying Bird, CIA-themed The Torture Report and Netflix-backed The Laundromat – the director’s elegance, intensity and arrogance of characterisation continues to set him apart.

“Typically, the normal movie is interested in the idea of, let’s say, two lovers who meet in a hotel and what’s going to happen to them,” he says. “But that’s not the mystery for me. For me I feel like: ‘Yeah, but what about the person who has to come in and change the sheets and pick up the towels… what’s going on with them? What do they see?’ That stuff matters.”

Soderbergh’s passion for unearthing those deeper elements patterns his work, irrespective of whether he is operating as director (in, for instance, the voluptuous Ocean’s Twelve, Che or wonderful throwback The Limey), writer (Solaris, Eros, Criminal), cinematographer (Side Effects, Contagion), editor (Haywire and much-heralded Logan Lucky) or producer (35 films at the last count) or, as in many cases, multiple roles across each project. Soderbergh is an obsessive who craves the thrill of input, be that in film or television work. His most recent project, Mosaic on HBO, starring Sharon Stone, offered ground-breaking conceptualisation in which, via an accompanying app, the audience could watch the action from a series of character perspectives and play detective in order to find the killer. 

While Stone and the rest of the cast were working off a 500-page script and only received their lines the night before each day’s shoot, the series successfully embraced Soderbergh’s omnipresent passion to move forward with an eye on technology, rather than just the script.

“We are in an era of experience and involvement and it seems perverse that movies should continue to be one-directional,” he says. “I cannot foresee a future where we are not all enveloped in every element of a film and where technology doesn’t draw in and enhance our understanding and appreciation for art. We need to continue to find ways to build familiarity into the aesthetic of movies, because when we do that, that kind of voyeuristic nature – that idea that we’re watching something we shouldn’t be, sometimes without knowing it, consciously – enables us to build a kind of intimacy that really works.”

Another milestone in Soderbergh’s own evolution came this year with Unsane – a film shot entirely on Apple iPhone 7s, something that contributed to a total movie budget of just $1.5 million. “It really was a creative choice,” says Soderbergh. “It wasn’t a budgetary issue as I could have shot it on anything. I felt like this movie would be well served by my ability to put a lens anywhere I wanted in a matter of seconds.” 

“Unsane needed the sort of physicality that a small capture device can provide. So, it was a legitimate – to my mind – creative choice. I look at the movie now and I don’t think it would be as good if I had to shoot it in a conventional way.

But everything produces new challenges and obstacles. There is never a correct solution without causing other issues. For us, one of the big things was that the phone was so light and very sensitive to vibration. We also found that nobody has invented extreme telephoto lenses for these cameras yet. So when I wanted to use a 300mm lens, I had to pull out a DSLR [camera] and shoot it with that. 

“But other than that, and remembering to pull the SIM cards out mid-shot, I was pretty happy!”

Soderbergh’s ability to reinvent not just himself but the way he makes movies is key to why those films are worthy of such rich acclaim, irrespective of whether the audience understands or even likes them. We are now in a dangerously bland era of film-making where those being typecast aren’t just the actors but the writers and producers, too.

“Really, what I hope, just through many hours of being on a set, is that I’ve improved my process of decision-making and filtering. It’s all a process. I have evolved just as my films have evolved, and where they go from here I don’t know… but they won’t stay the same, that is for certain.”

Discussing the dichotomy that has developed between TV drama and cinema, Soderbergh is keen to draw back to the viewer’s experience. “There has been a real trend to categorise whether something is made for Netflix or for cinema, or whatever. Of course there are differences, but for a producer the idea is much the same – I want to offer an experience to the viewer and for them to learn from what they see. Similarly, in terms of characters, it doesn’t matter to me whether they’re on the movie screen or the TV screen, I just want everybody to have a moment to shine.”

Soderbergh’s other passion right now is use of the most basic of components: light. “Think about it: it’s a very inexpensive way to create an effect for the audience. For someone who looks at light, I’m very conscious when I move from one physical space to another of the feeling that I’m getting based on what the light is, where it is, what the source is, what colour it is, how intense it is. 

You’re trying to transport somebody into a universe that doesn’t exist; but creating that place doesn’t need much more than imagination and experience, and that willingness to make a mistake in the process of getting to where you want to be.”

And in that philosophy, Soderbergh continues to stand as one of the leading visionaries in independent creativity. We can reassure ourselves that for as long as he continues to succeed in elegantly shifting the paradigm of what the cinematic experience should represent, the artistic integrity of the industry remains in safe hands. 

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