READ MORE: Why Steven Soderbergh Will Never Return to Making Feature Films
1. Following Up a Groundbreaking Debut With an Experimental Biopic
Steven Soderbergh is credited with singlehandedly starting the 1990s independent film movement with “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” which also saved the struggling Miramax and set it on course to be the dominant indie distributor of the decade. With his remarkable debut inspiring no shortage of groundbreaking results for the industry, Soderbergh had the world by his fingertips, yet, staying true to his unconventional vision, he decided to follow it up with an experimental and challenging biopic of 20th century literary icon Franz Kakfa.
By today’s standards, where breakthrough indie directors quickly move on to mid-budget studio films or blockbuster franchises, Soderbergh’s decision to go a polarizing route for his second feature is almost unheard of, but it’s decisions like these that prove his daring tenfold. “Kafka,” starring Jeremy Irons in the title role, revolves around an insurance worker who joins an underground rebel movement after one of his co-workers is murdered. Far from a traditional biopic, the movie finds Soderbergh blending the reality of Kafka’s life with the fictional elements of his stories, creating a bizarre whole that can only be described as “Kafkaesque.”
The movie was hard to penetrate and alienated many of the viewers who found much to get excited about in “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” Grossing a mere $1 million opposite an $11 million budget, “Kafka” was a complete economic failure, though its vision can’t be denied. The movie ultimately proves Soderbergh plays by no rulebook and follows no career path but his own.
2. Telling the Same Story From Three Different Perspectives
Soderbergh is a master of narrative ingenuity. Look no further than his Oscar-winning “Traffic,” in which he splits the narrative between three interconnected stories (he tried something even more expansive with his epidemic thriller “Contagion”). But while much of the attention surrounding his experiments with narrative have used “Traffic” as a shining example, Soderbergh made an even riskier gamble in his 1996 experimental comedy “Schizopolis.” The director stars as Fletcher Munson, an office employee working for the leader of a Scientology-like religion. Munson bizarrely sees the underlying meaning in everything, which makes his assignment to write speeches for the religion’s leader a bit challenging.
We begin to learn about Munson’s home life as well, but it’s not long before Soderbergh rewinds the clock to show the same events from a different character’s perspective in Act II. Slowly but surely, Soderbergh creates a confounding three-act experiment, starting off with biting satire but ultimately exploring our tragic sense of miscommunication. “Schizopolis” is the most daring narrative Soderbergh has ever invented, and with it he packs a wallop of a thematic punch that makes it all pay off (on multiple viewings, of course).
3. Filming Without a Script and With Non-Professional Actors
The low-fi Soderbergh experiment to end all low-fi Soderbergh experiments (see “Full Frontal” and “The Girlfriend Experience” for more examples), “Bubble” uses high definition video and a cast made up of West Virginia/Ohio locals to ground its twisted tale of three people existing in the shock and boredom of everyday life. In what might be his most daring casting choice to date, Soderbergh found lead Debbie Doebereiner as she was working a KFC drive-thru window. She had no prior acting experience whatsoever, but it was a decision that paid off in spades, as her natural cadence and resolve work wonders in the role of Martha, a worker at the local doll factory who indirectly (or directly, depending on how you see it) becomes an integral presence in the relationship between co-workers Rose and Kyle.
As the story unfolds, Doebereiner runs the gamut from unassuming worker to frantic victim, and her rustic appeal strengthens Soderbergh’s unassuming vision. The freewheeling script helps, too, in which the actors riff their dialogue based on improv-friendly script treatments. “Bubble” has an authenticity that is grungy, worn down and shockingly lived in. No wonder it’s one of Soderbergh’s most surprising works.
4. Casting an Active Porn Star and a Female MMA Fighter in the Lead Role
Casting non-professionals in “Bubble” was a daring move, sure, but it was one that was feasibly possible given the movie’s incredibly low financing and rugged, DIY production. Because there was not much at stake financially, or a studio that Soderbergh had to please, he was free to cast whomever he needed. The same is true for his 2009 drama, “The Girlfriend Experience.” Blending fiction and reality even more, Soderbergh cast active porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role of Christine/Chelsea, a Manhattan call girl juggling her career, her boyfriend and her clients. While one would expect a sultry, erotic drama in the tradition of “Sex, Lies and Videotape” based on the casting choice, Soderbergh is relatively subdued here, focusing on the conversations that take place during Chelsea’s meetings and using Grey’s presence and career to unmask an observation on the effects of human desire.
What was even riskier was casting MMA fighter Gina Carano to lead his $23 million action movie “Haywire.” With serious money on the line, Soderbergh had a lot riding on the untested and non-professional Carano to carry the picture. Soderbergh, of course, knew the role demanded a ferocious amount of physical strength, making Carano more or less the ideal casting choice. Over a brisk 93 minute runtime, Carano becomes a feminist action star, going head to head with some of the industry’s leading men — Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor — and bringing the pain in ways both visceral and rousing.
5. Editing a Studio Crime Film into a Slick Study of Attraction
Soderbergh has touched the mainstream on numerous occasions, his most successful being the critically acclaimed and star-studded “Ocean’s Eleven” remake, which spawned a successful franchise. Back in 1998, however, Soderbergh pulled quite the studio fake out. Teaming with Universal Pictures for an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s crime novel “Out of Sight,” it seemed on paper before the film’s release that Soderbergh’s more experimental tendencies would have to be put on hold. After all, this was a $50 million adaptation for a major motion picture studio with a cast headed by George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. It was pretty clear that more people were going to see this movie than “Kafka,” “Bubble,” “Haywire” and “The Girlfriend Experience” combined. But anyone foolishly thinking the director would play it safe in the studio system clearly didn’t know Soderbergh.
Relishing in the atmosphere of Leonard’s novel, Soderbergh uses experimental editing techniques (from cross-cuts to freeze frames and more) to take what could’ve been a mainstream crime movie and spin it into a subversively slick and provocative study of sexual attraction. You’d think Clooney and Lopez would have enough heat between them to sizzle the screen down (and they do, of course), but Soderbergh and editor Anne V. Coates create a more sensual atmosphere through key edits, one where lust and chemistry seem to blend reality and fiction into one hazy whole.
Much of the movie boils down to whether or not Lopez’s Karen Cisco is in love with Clooney’s convict or just stringing him along, and the editing teases this duality in every experimental cut, making it all intoxicatingly unclear. Looking back, it’s sort of miraculous “Out of Sight” is a studio film; it’s the kind of artistic masterstroke the studios would no longer dare to touch.
6. Hiding a Drama About Depression Inside a Male Stripper Romp
“Magic Mike” is one of Soderbergh’s highest grossing films, and that’s hardly a surprise considering it was sold as a raunchy male stripper romp starring hunks like Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello. What was surprising, however, was that the film was really not a raunchy male stripper romp at all, but instead a serious meditation on fame and addiction, one that just happened to involve some lively scenes of male stripping. Alex Pettyfer’s “The Kid” is an 18-year-old college dropout who gets recruited by Tatum’s Mike into the world of male strippers, but the movie is less concerned with his profession and more with his rags-to-riches storyline. Falling down the rabbit hole of excess, “The Kid” threatens his life and those around him. Critics found much to love in this sly approach to the material, though it was a misdirection that many fans felt betrayed by. The sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” went full-blown romp last summer to quell audience’s complaints, but it couldn’t quite match the involving substance of the original as a result.
7. Making a Liberace Biopic Despite Studio Rejection
One of Soderbergh’s most fearless projects, “Behind the Candelabra” premiered on HBO to vast critical acclaim and quickly secured a title wave of hardware, from the Emmys for Outstanding TV Movie and Outstanding Lead Actor to the Golden Globes for the same two prizes. The movie was a complete and utter success after its release, but it was anything but in the years leading up to it. Soderbergh always wanted to make a Liberace biopic, and his discussions with Douglas date back to their time making “Traffic” in 2000, but he constantly found opposition from studio honchos.
If wanting to tackle LGBT subject matter in an industry notoriously scared of releasing such material to the mainstream wasn’t daring enough, Soderbergh wanted to do so in a way that would reject the traditional biopic structure. He found his source in Scott Thorson’s memoir of the same name, but even with an exciting approach and two big name stars on board (Douglas and Matt Damon), no major studio wanted to touch the film because, as many rumors suggested, it was simply “too gay.” Soderbergh persevered in the face of rejection and found an eventual home at HBO, locking down a $23 million budget and creating one of the best films HBO has ever released.
8. Retiring From Filmmaking and Resurrecting Himself on Television
There was a time when Soderbergh kept floating around the idea that he was going to retire from feature filmmaking, but it wasn’t like many cinephiles necessarily believed him. By 2013, the director was enjoying the success of his Liberace biopic and his Hitchcockian thriller “Side Effects,” and he himself kept being coy about his future plans, citing he was only going to take a “filmmaking sabbatical” in various interviews. And yet, by the time the buzz on Liberace was settling down towards the turn of the year, it became clear that Soderbergh really did have issues with the Hollywood system and really was leaving feature films behind as a result.
Cinephile depression kicked in across the country, but it was remedied rather quickly when the director became reborn as a television creator, showrunner and all-around multi-hyphenate. His Cinemax medical drama “The Knick” is one of the most visceral things airing on the small screen, and it’s racked up its own collection of awards and critical accolades to match any movie the director has ever made. While he’s recently talked about planning “The Knick” for a six-season arc, he’s also joining Starz this winter to turn “The Girlfriend Experience” into a television series. Soderbergh has thrown himself head first into the world of long-form storytelling, and he is thriving like it’s the 1990s all over again. Let’s hope it’s awhile before he speaks of retiring again.