Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh is winding down and this has been the case for a while now. His five-year plan meant retiring from filmmaking at the age of 50. Having just reached this touchstone earlier this month, Soderbergh is essentially done with the business of moviemaking. His final theatrical film, “Side Effects” starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is complete and his final, final film, “Behind The Candelabra,” is also complete and will air on HBO later this year following a likely premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. So what’s left? Aside from promoting these last two movies, he’s done… for now.
But self-imposed retirement for Soderbergh doesn’t fit the definition of what it means to you: vacations and not working. In fact, it’s more of a recalibrating pivot more than anything that means no more traditional filmmaking for the time being. It’s an opportunity to try out other creative fields without the distractions of moviemaking. He already paints, he dabbles in photography and these are two creative endeavors that he’ll explore in the future. He’s also done theater in the past and two more stage plays are also on the relatively immediate horizon. Last weekend, we spoke to the [former?] filmmaker by phone for a lengthy chat about “Side Effects,” his creative process and in many ways, his entire career. Part one of this conversation concerns itself with his final film ‘Candelabra’ starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as Liberace and his gay lover, respectively, what “retirement” means to him, and what the future has in store.
So it's happening. Your filmmaking obligations are complete except for promotional duties like this.
Yes, yes. Both movies [“Side Effects” and “Behind The Candelabra”] are delivered.
So I guess it ends with ‘Candelabra’?
Yeah, there's a lot of eye candy in it. It's fun to look at. It's the kind of thing, the kind of movie that I've always liked. “The Dresser” [Peter Yates' 1983 comedy about an effeminate personal assistant and his relationship with a deteriorating veteran actor] is one of my favorite movies. I love two handers. It's really just Michael [Douglas] and Matt [Damon], it's a real two hander. It's got a great supporting cast but the heart of the movie is the two of them and they just kind of did a “Thelma And Louise” they just jumped off the cliff together and I never had to, I never had to push them at all, they knew exactly where this thing needed to go. I think people would be surprised at how emotional it is. It's not a cartoon.
And it’s at HBO because studios wouldn’t touch it?
Apparently not. Everybody had a shot at it.
Considering its viewership, one could argue more people will see it on cable then they would have in limited release.
Oh, I think so. I don't think there's any question of that. Ultimately when this opportunity came up and I called Michael and Matt I said, “Look we all want to go do this and I could make an argument that more people are going to see it this way than any other way, so why don't we go and do it?”
I have no regrets about the way this played out. HBO have been fantastic to deal with. They're really excited about it. They're going to make sure, as they always do, that millions of people are going to see it. That was clearly just the way that this had to play out and all of us are really glad that it did. I can't imagine not being allowed to go out and make this. It's been 10 years since I did something with [HBO], so I was happy to be back.
Speaking of television, is that a draw for you post-“retirement”?
Absolutely. I think there's a lot better chance, if I were to go back to work that it would be on television than in movies. I love the long form and most of the stuff I want to see is on TV right now.
Strong, long-form storytelling has really blossomed on cable.
Yeah, and the technology these days is at the point where — look at what's happening with “House of Cards.” People want to binge. They want to watch all ten episodes in a weekend and this is the place to do it. I think that's kind of the new thing but I've done it before, it's fun.
Is there a filmmaking scenario you couldn’t refuse that would undo your plan?
I don't know.
So George Lucas didn’t call you before he ultimately settled on J.J. Abrams?
[Laughs] I did not get that call. I can say that under oath. They did not call me.
Would it have made a difference?
I don't know, I like those movies too. Like I said I don't know what that would be.
There's always going to be the added thing of, “Oh, he came back for that?” I'm just saying I can't imagine what it would be but I also can't imagine everything so I don’t know. Certainly it's unlikely for a while because I really sort of cleared the decks and I've got some other stuff I want to do that's coming up. I'm going to do this stageplay that Scott Z. Burns wrote, I'm going to try and do ‘Cleopatra’ on stage next year with Catherine [Zeta Jones]. There are projects that would be in the way even if I wanted to come back to filmmaking soon. But I’m not looking for that. I'm not hoping somebody sends me something. More often than not now when somebody says, “Can I send you [a project to read]?” I say, “No. don't.”
You had this finite period it seemed because you almost took on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and then quickly switched gears to “Side Effects” in a weekend.
My 50th birthday [which just occurred on January 14th] was my hard out and so that's why when “Magic Mike” came up I told them, “We've got to jam this thing into a September shoot or I can't do it.” And we did. I had a five year plan around the time I was finishing “Che.” I was like, “I want to be out of here January 2013.”
I saw “Upstream Color” at Sundance and it reminded me of you and what you’ve said was your problem with filmmaking – the tyranny of narrative.
Oh boy, it's good. Look what he did with that movie for – I know what it cost and I can tell you it looks like 20 times that but that's because he's very talented and very specific. He and I have been in touch for years and I happened to email him out of the blue when he was halfway through shooting and he sent me this script and even that, which I loved, didn't really show you what he ended up doing with it. I was really happy to see somebody taking advantage of all of the things that you can do like Shane [Carruth] was doing in that movie. There's so many ideas packed into it. You know? If you love movies there's a lot to be happy about. You know I'm very curious to see the sort of general response to it.
That’s what I mean. There are so many ideas in it and it seems to do exactly what you’re talking about – breaking free of the tyranny of narrative. Could you ever see yourself taking that approach to filmmaking that’s more about fragmented imagery?
Well, the question will be, “Where's the line?” How far can you push it before people go, “I need more than that?” And you know the other thing that’s possible – I could make something that isn't designed to be seen by more than four people at a time, you know? And you have to go to a museum to see it and you sit in a certain environment and that's how it's built to be seen and experienced. That's quite possible.
“Schizopolis” seems, in retrospect, similar to what you’re doing now: a self-imposed way to try and recharge your creative batteries.
Yeah, but it certainly was an act of terrorism as it was deigned to annihilate everything that came before it and that's why it needed to be done. I didn't know if that was going to work, I just knew that it had to happen. This time, the good thing is I have time to think about it, work on some other stuff and see if I can come at it from a different angle. But it's clear to me that I need to just literally be away from [filmmaking] in order to clear my head and see if I can find a back door into being a different filmmaker.
In that sense it does strike me that "Schizopolis" was reboot number one and this is reboot number two.
Yeah, I hope there's another one. I hope there's another reboot. The difference there was I had drifted off compass and that was the way to radically get myself back on track. This isn't that. This is something else. I knew what I had to do to get to where I wanted to get back then. In that case I'm not sure what to do other than to just drop off the grid for a while. I'm sure one of the things that I'll consider as I try and rebuild or reboot or sort of come to some different place about filmmaking, I’ll consider is see if working backwards helps at all.
Conceptually starting with some images and then working with those images to see if I can create meaning out of them and a narrative out of them even though on the surface they wouldn't seem connected and then work my way backwards to see if I can build something out of it that will hold your attention. Do you know what I mean? It's sort of starting at the end and going back to the beginning. That may be one way of, of taking away some of the crutches and the tools that as a director you have when you start the other way.
You're writing a book, is that similar to some of your lectures?
Yeah, it's another attempt to download whatever I can about this job.
Is it going to be similar to your last book at all [Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw]?
Yeah, I think so. I don't know how many other characters are going to appear in it, but it will have a similar tone.
I started re-reading it briefly. It reminds me of your commentary tracks with other filmmakers. You seemed fascinated by other people's creative process.
Oh yeah. That's where I end up colliding with another filmmaker or anybody. You know the first thing I start doing is asking very kind of rudimentary questions about just how they work like, “What kind of hours do you keep? Where do you work? Do you have an office/ Do you have an assistant?” I want to know the nuts and bolts of how they make stuff day today you know? I think inspiration comes from everywhere if you're looking for it, if you're antennae is sensitive enough. I don't really need to talk to them about that. But I love hearing you know how something is made, “How long did it take? Were there multiple versions, did you throw stuff out?” I love hearing that stuff, just demystifying it making it human scale. When you see something that blows your head off, you know asking those kind of almost banal questions helps you to keep going. You think “Okay, they started somewhere too.” You kind of start and then you keep going.
So are you quizzing people in the fields of photography and painting then since those are two fields you’ve said you want to move into? [ed note: Soderbergh already paints and has his own studio]
Yeah I haven’t yet but I've gotten a couple of contacts that as soon as I'm done promoting this movie I'm going to pursue people that I’ve run into that I’ve said, “Can I come talk to you? Can I come see your studio,” who have said, “Yeah absolutely.” So as soon as all this wraps up that phase is going to start.
“Side Effects” opens in theaters on February 8th. Much, much more from this lengthy interview next week.