EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW! He proved independent films could be a commercial success with his very first feature “sex, lies and videotape.” He embarked on risky projects with “Kafka,” “Gray’s Anatomy” and “The Underneath.” He redefined crime films with “Out of Sight” and “The Limey.” He took time out to make “Schizopolis,” a little experimental movie he made for fun. And now he just won the Oscar for Best Director for “Traffic.” And he readily admits that he’s still learning about making movies. Steven also reveals information about his next two projects, the George Clooney caper flick “Ocean’s Eleven” and a remake of the sci-fi classic “Solaris.”
The Georgia-born director began making films at the age of 13 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he grew up. Right after graduating from high school he traveled to Los Angeles and worked as a freelance editor. Soderbergh gained attention when he garnered a Grammy nomination for a documentary about the rock group Yes called “9012Live.” His debut feature, “sex, lies & videotape,” fueled moviegoers explosive interest in independent films and its success influenced the decade of indies that followed its release. “Sex” won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 and went on to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes. His forays into mainstream Hollywood filmmaking have resulted in some damn cool movies like “Out of Sight” and Erin Brockovich. Even his somewhat self-indulgent, yet hilarious and experimental Schizopolis is a load of fun considering it was made for less than the Julia Roberts’ lingerie budget on Brockovich.
His latest project is “Ocean’s Eleven,” a remake of the Frank Sinatra caper flick Soderbergh is also at work on a script for his first science fiction film, a remake of the Russian sci-fi classic “Solaris.” (Soderbergh secured the rights from James Cameron’s company.) He’s also at the center of this year’s Oscar race with two films (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) nominated in both the Best Picture and Best Director categories. (This interview was conducted before the Oscar nominations were revealed, though we discuss the possibility of being nominated for two movies.) I received a letter years ago from Soderbergh which contained a flurry of colorful language and insults along with a check for a full run of Film Threat back issues. In fact, during our conversation, he brings up the note on his computer. Nice to know he’s still a Film Threat fan and long time reader. Soderbergh spoke to me from his Los Angeles home to discuss his beginnings and the future of his unique career…
You recently had all of your early Super 8 films transferred to video. What did you learn after watching those movies? ^ It was motivated by the fact that my mentor died awhile back unexpectedly. It made me want to look at all the material I’d worked on during the period I knew him and that he had worked on. There was a group that sort of came up together, and worked together. I called everyone and pulled all the films together and made decent copies, because none of us had decent copies of them. We’re still in the process of fixing all the sound, but just watching them was really fascinating. I was inspired in a way, because they were so full of ideas and you need to be reminded. When you’re starting out you try anything and everything, and it’s good to make sure that you stay in touch with that. It’s a trick of the mind to work on a large scale movie and still make creative decisions as if you were making a Super 8 movie with your friends. I think you have to do that and you have to block out all the things that might keep you from doing that.
Who was your mentor? ^ His name was Michæl McCallum, he was a documentary filmmaker. He was teaching at Louisiana State University, I was going to high school on the LSU campus and I hooked up with him and a bunch of his students, some of whom still work with me. My production sound mixer, Paul Edford, was in Michæl’s class, I met him when I was 13, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Isn’t it fair to say, as a filmmaker you are still experimenting? ^ Yeah, I’m still trying to find ways to push myself, and some of those ways are not necessarily apparent to people who watch movies, some of them are. “Ocean’s Eleven,” which we’re prepping now, on the surface, would seem to be just a big, glittering, star-driven, heist movie. Which it is, but it is going to require some skills on my part, which I haven’t really developed yet (laughs), to pull it off properly. So I’m very anxious about it, it’s actually going to be one of the harder tasks that I’ve set for myself in my career. On the surface it would just seem to be something that people would say, “Oh, it’s just a big wind-up toy. What’s so tough about that?”
What are some of your favorite films that you’ve seen this year? ^ I haven’t seen a lot, unfortunately, because we’ve been swamped. I loved Michæl Almereyda’s Hamlet. I usually don’t like those sorts of things, those revisionist Shakespeare movies. This one, I thought, was extremely well thought out. I found all the ideas to be organic and was really impressed by it. I saw a film under circumstances that, to me, signaled the death of the independent movement. Because I knew before I saw the film that everyone in town had seen it and declined to distribute it, which was Chris Nolan’s Memento. It’ll be coming out in March. The company that made it decided to form their own distribution arm in order to release it. It’s absolutely brilliant. And I watched it and came out of there thinking “That’s it. When a movie this good can’t get released, then, it’s over.”
Independent film is going through an evolution, a downturn. The media seems to want to continue to represent only the Horatio Alger success stories, but the reality is that these guys are filing for bankruptcy and indie filmmakers are struggling. What advice would you give to young filmmaker’s starting out? ^ I’ve always been of the attitude that I’d rather see a movie in 4,000 theaters by Todd Haynes than some hack. So, I hope there’s a middle ground to be had as there was in the 70’s. Movies that were being made by studios with stars in them were being made by really interesting directors. That would be a great thing. I think everyone would benefit. I think there’ll always be a place for arthouse cinema, but I don’t think it will ever again seem as important and vital as it may have a few years ago.
Do you have any specific advice? You yourself came from independent film. ^ I came from it, because it was my only option. I lived in Louisiana. I didn’t know anybody in the film business. My only way in was to make shorts, and to try and make something that was so cheap that somebody would give me money to make it. That was my way in. Nobody at Columbia Pictures was going to hand me a movie. So, I was just doing what I felt I had to do to get my foot in the door, and had I grown up under different circumstances and known different people maybe I would have started out differently.
Read more and get Soderbergh on sci-fi, “Planet of the Apes” and Politicians! STEVEN SODERBERGH UNLEASHED: Part 2 >>>