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.”