If you haven’t assumed the notion by now, Steven Soderbergh is pretty much the ideal interview subject (check out our recent conversation with him here). Witty, relatable, and willing to divulge extensive behind-the-scenes details, the director has faced his indefinite hiatus with reflections galore, the latest of which concerns his turn away from screenwriting, and more toward the cinematographer role he’s so frequently explored.
Starting with his Sundance breakout hit, “sex lies and videotape,” Soderbergh supplied the scripts for his and other directors’ films throughout the ’90s, including “King of the Hill,” “Schizopolis” and Gregory Jacob‘s “Criminal” (under the pseudonym Peter Lowry). However, he stopped after 2002’s “Solaris” to start on his trail of collaborations with other writers, and speaking with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky over at MUBI, he claims there’s a simple answer as to why — namely, that “writing is the worst job in the world.”
“I was sort of writing by default,” Soderbergh admitted. “Then I started working with real writers and I began to realize that I didn’t enjoy writing, but I really enjoyed working with writers. I feel like as soon as I started doing that, the work improved drastically.”
Soderbergh says his collaborations opened up new doors creatively and allowed him to simply enjoy his work a lot more. “It took a certain amount of very disappointed thought to realize: ‘You know what? I think I’m gonna have a better career and make better movies if I work with writers.’ I really believe that, and it’s obviously turned out to be true,” he candidly said. “For me, who never really enjoyed writing and just wrote because I didn’t really know anybody and needed to generate material, the ability to sit with people like Scott [Z. Burns] or Richard LaGravenese or Lem Dobbs is so fun and so much more gratifying and the results have been so much better that I’ve never looked back.”
Cinematography has instead surpassed screenwriting in terms of passion, as Soderbergh used the name Peter Andrews to shoot his own films. But why the shift? “I’d always been a gearhead. I knew how to work a dark room,” he said. “I’d shot short films. It was something that I felt very comfortable with, and as a result, I was probably something of a pain in the ass for the people who shot for me — although they were extremely generous with their time and their experience.”
As a result, and all the way up Soderbergh’s latest and last (?) theatrical feature, “Side Effects,” his DP work remains distinct, recognizable and rarely settling for conventionality. “I’m not Emmanuel Lubezki, but I’m quick and I’m cheap,” he says of his work, and with “Beyond the Candleabra” all that’s left for now, we may be wishing he took his time a little more.