Experiment As Much As Possible
Soderbergh has always been open to new technology, especially when he saw the potential for it to open new doors of how to make and distribute interesting work. Five years before “Margin Call” was treated as a breakthrough for its success as a day-and-date release (in theaters and VOD at the same time), Soderbergh was pioneering the model with Mark Cuban. The filmmaker struck a deal to make low budget features that would hit Cuban’s HDNet cable service and his Landmark Theaters at the same time. It was a day-and-date release before the term existed.
The new model allowed the director to move fast – eight months from initial idea to release – to produce a challenging arthouse film. The result was billed as “Another Steven Soderbergh Experience” with the director once again playing with new ways to get around narrative conventions. Featuring non-professional actors who would never receive another credit (including a lead actress discovered at a KFC drive-thru window), “Bubble” captured the authenticity of workers at Ohio doll factory in story with complex formalism and deliberate pacing.
For Soderbergh, the problem with Hollywood wasn’t simply the movies they chose to make, but the inefficiency a bloated distribution model that he expected to get only more problematic. It was the first indication of an impulse he continues to explore with the release of “Logan Lucky” — to build a model where filmmakers like himself have more control.
Take Control of New Tools
With “Traffic,” Soderbergh began to serve as a cinematographer for his own films — but didn’t take any credit for it. Instead, he listed “Peter Andrews” (his father’s first and middle name) credit as the film’s director of cinematography. There was an element of ugliness and reality that Soderbergh felt belonged in his movies, but he struggled with top- tier cinematographers who spent too much time trying to make things look pretty all the time. He didn’t mind the rough look of blown-out (overexposed) windows, the green tint from unfiltered fluorescent lights, a little shakiness from the handheld approach, or the way practical lighting didn’t perfectly shape his actors’ faces.
“It’s supposed to look real sometimes,” said Soderbergh. “I’m weirdly proud of scenes where I’ve let things look the way they look. To me, it’s a sign of maturity.”
More importantly, by operating the camera himself, he was able to translate his ideas to the screen with a more fluid process. “The film would look better if, say, Harris Savides shot it because he’s a better cinematographer than I am,” said Soderbergh. “But the thing as a whole would suffer because I’d be in my head more: it would be a less intuitive experience and I’d find that frustrating. I don’t imagine injecting somebody into that role again, because it’s gotten me, especially on the occasions where I’ve been able to cut as well, so close to my original impulse to make movies. I would never want to give that up now.”
In essence, Soderbergh managed to find a mode of production that best fit his aesthetic impulses, while also uncovering a more efficient, cheaper approach to production. “I came out of ‘Che’ a different filmmaker,” said Soderbergh. “What we all learned from [that] is to strip everything down to its essence and be as simple as possible. It would be hard now, I think, to go back to a normal movie schedule.”
Think About Movies You Like, and Make Different Versions of Them
Soderbergh has put a great deal of thought into where Hollywood has went wrong over the last 40 years and he has strong opinions he’s not afraid to share. He also realizes there was an opportunity to expose the lackluster studio product by creating his own alternatives.
A perfect example is “Haywire.” Soderbergh had flirted with making a Bond movie, but preferred the spy thrillers of decades past rather than modern Hollywood’s visual effects driven-films that were a cacophony of explosions, sound effects and over-editing, which were unpleasant to watch. He posed the question to himself: “Why aren’t action movies beautiful to look at?”
Soderbergh was inspired by the idea of casting MMA fighter Gina Carano in the classic action star role of the strong, silent type. He placed her at the center of a bracing espionage thriller, in which the spectacle was Carano’s physical talent, and imbued the action with a jarring realistic quality. “Part of it was a reaction to the way action’s being done lately,” he said at Q&A. “We wanted to go in another direction…we had people that could really do this stuff, so we don’t have to trick anyone, we don’t have to indulge in the kind of movie magic that a lot of people might have to ordinarily.”
Learn How to Edit Your Own Work
The idea of re-editing a beloved classic film by a meticulous master like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” seems sacrilegious, but for Soderbergh, it’s an example of his limber approach to storytelling.
Where so many filmmakers get locked into the structure of their script, Soderbergh never misses opportunities to reinvent, innovate and improve his films. He credits this approach, in part, to a seminal experience he had as an editor for Showtime, which would task the twentysomething Soderbergh with re-editing their content.
“Let’s say they bought a two-hour show from someone, and they’d want to cut it down to an hour and have an opening built for it,” said Soderbergh. “[They would] literally lock me in a room, and I would just completely tear it apart and build a new show for them… a lot of the ideas that still show up in the films I’ve made came out of experiments I would try on these shows, because I was given free reign to rebuild these things from scratch.”
While Soderbergh often relies on a strong narrative structure, he doesn’t hesitate to seek out more concise ways of tying them together. “The key to making good movies is to pay attention to the transition between scenes,” he said. “And not just how you get from one scene to the next, but where you leave a scene and where you come into a new scene. Those are some of the most important decisions that you make. It can be the difference between a movie that works and a movie that doesn’t.”
Spike Jonze called him the “smartest, fastest editor-filmmaker I know.” On “Her” Jonze gave Soderbergh a 210-minute cut of his film and asked him to do a quick “gut-instinct” re-edit. Within 24 hours, Soderbergh returned to Jonze a 90-minute version of the film.
“It gave us the confidence to lose some big things that I wasn’t ready to lose [before]. Even though we didn’t use that exact cut,” said Jonze, whose final cut of the film ran two hours. “We were able to make connections between scenes out of connections he made. And making many of the cuts he suggested was a really good kind of pain.”
When You Think You Know It All, Try Something New
Soderbergh watched the success of “The Sopranos” with great interest. He was taken with the way creator David Chase was breaking down the accepted conventions of TV narrative and generated eager audiences as a result. Television had become a medium in which Soderbergh felt he would not only be allowed to experiment, he’d be encouraged to do so.
The problem was the film model of director-as-auteur – being the main creative boss interpreting the work of the writers – was viewed as impossible in the television arena. It seemed unlikely that he could maintain his filmmaking approach — as director/cinematographer/editor with a lean crew — over the course of 10 episodes and 570 script pages in under 80 days. But that’s exactly what he did.
“It was a sharpening of a lot of experiences that I’d had on disparate projects,” said Soderbergh. “All I know is that everything depends on whether I succeed in becoming an amateur again… It’s important to be scared. That’s right where we were with ‘The Knick.’ And that keeps you from being complacent. As I continue to work, and as I learn more, I have to keep looking for ways to be slightly outside of my comfort zone. So that’s what I’ll keep doing.”