When Steven Soderbergh is asked about the state of filmmaking, he often points to the American films of the ’60s and ’70s as a counterpoint to the broken state of today’s industry. “The bottom line is that at a certain period in time, from 1966 to 1976, the most successful movies were also the best movies, and that’s just not true anymore,” the director said in a 2014 interview.
Soderbergh may complain a lot, but he’s never been passive about it. Throughout his career, he has constantly experimented with different ways to make and distribute his films by thinking outside the box and pioneering new technology. With “Logan Lucky,” Soderbergh’s finally fulfilling his plans to launch a self-distribution company capable of releasing a studio-size film, but it’s not the first ambitious effort in a career defined by risky maneuvers. Here are eight times the director broke the rules to reinvent himself as a filmmaker — and forged new rules that all filmmakers could learn from.
Stay Ahead of the Curve
It’s hard to convey just how much Soderbergh’s 1989 debut, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was a game-changer. Before the film’s breakout success, Sundance wasn’t an active sales market, the Weinstein brothers were known for smaller releases like the Errol Morris Doc “Thin Blue Line,” and the concept that an American indie could turn a significant profit ($24 million) was virtually unthinkable.
“I don’t think anything would happen [if the film came out today],” said Soderbergh. “In the 1980s, the studios took over the movies. And we showed up at a moment when, on a mass level, audiences were ready again to see movies that felt like they’re were made by hand. That weren’t committee-driven. It was just timing. It was zeitgeist.”
“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” was the only time Soderbergh’s career that he unintentionally blazed a new trail – beyond rolling the dice on his directing career by making a $1.2 million film – but he was mature enough to take the right lesson from the experience: it’s not enough to make a good film; timing matters, too. Make something that addresses the defincies in the marketplace and you’re more likely to succeed.
Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over
While shooting “The Underneath,” his fourth feature, Soderbergh knew the film wasn’t working and had fundamental problems that it was too late to fix.
“Halfway through the shoot I was sitting on the set, not happy,” said Soderbergh at a recent Q&A. “OK, if you are 31 years old and you’ve wanted to make films since you were 13 and you are sitting on a set not happy — you need to do something to change shit up, this is on you.”
Soderbergh went back to Baton Rouge with a handful of his closest collaborators and made a $250,000 (from having sold the foreign rights) experimental and bizarre film “‘Schizopolis” starring himself (and his wife at the time) over the course of nine months. Soderbergh wanted to purposely annihilate everything he done up to this point in his career and start over again, calling it his “second first film.”
“That was a really important film for me to make, regardless of how it is perceived,” said Soderbergh. “The reverberation of the freedom of making ‘Schizopolis’ absolutely resulted in ‘Out of Sight’ and everything that followed. It was just like, fuck it. You can’t second guess yourself. You can only make something you would stand in line to see.”
Following “Schizopolis’ Soderbergh found box office, critical acclaim and artistic freedom in a four-year span that led to some of his most important films: “Out of Sight,” “The Limey,” “Ocean’s 11” and Academy Award winners “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich.”
Don’t Be Afraid of Big Opportunities
Soderbergh took his first big studio assignment, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s book, because he was concerned about his employability.
“Half the movie business was off-limits to me,” said Soderbergh. “I didn’t just want to be art-house boy. But other than that, which was coming from a place of ‘I want maximum opportunities and mobility,’ I’ve never made a decision based on anything other than engagement with the material. Period. You don’t go make ‘Schizopolis’ if you’re trying to protect some idea of yourself as a filmmaker.”
Soderbergh’s first film after “Schizopolis” was vital in a number of ways. His newfound self-imposed freedom detonated any preconceived notion of himself as a filmmaker and gave him the confidence to trust his instincts in adapting author Elmore Leonard, whose themes of dishonesty and greed echoed Soderbergh’s own storytelling interests.
“The trick of that was to do a Jedi mind thing, so on the set, moment to moment, creatively I’m making decisions as if I’m on the set of ‘Schizopolis,'” said Soderbergh about making “Out of Sight.” “There is no studio, there is no clock, there is no $48 million budget. Just in the moment to sit there and go, ‘What do I want to see, what do I want to do, what do I think is interesting?’ And just block all that other stuff out.”
The result was a film that was light years better than anything he’d made before, creating an unconventional Hollywood story and editing structure that gave the cool and breezy film another deeper, more soulful layer.
This Article Continues on Next Page