Steven Soderbergh isn’t going anywhere. He may be quitting Hollywood to pursue other artistic ventures but the director who has given us 26 films since his 1989 debut, still has a lot to say for himself. "Just to be clear, I won’t be directing ‘cinema,’ for lack of a better word. But I plan to direct—theater stuff, and I’d do a TV series if something great were to come along," Soderbergh told Mary Kate Schilling in an extensive and thought-provoking interview with the 50-year-old director in conjunction with the release of his second to last film (possibly ever) Side Effects.
The article offers a pretty fascinating look into the mind of someone who has not only made some of the best films of the last few decades but has been able to morph his aesthetic into whatever genre his films play into while always giving us his signature fierce, layered, and thrlling sense of life that continues to intruige audiences. Although I reccommend you read the interview in its entirely, here are some of the highlights.
Soderbergh’s thoughts on film criticism:
It’s what Dave Hickey said: It’s air guitar, ultimately. Was it helpful to read Pauline Kael’s work when I was growing up? Absolutely. For a teenager who was beginning to look at movies as something other than just entertainment, her reviews were really interesting. But at a certain point, it’s not useful anymore. I stopped reading reviews of my own films after Traffic, and I find it hard to read any critics now because they are just so easily fooled. From a directorial standpoint, you can’t throw one by me. I know if you know what you’re doing, and, “Wow, critics”—their reading of filmmaking is very superficial. Look, nothing excites me more than a good film. It makes me want to make something good. But I have certain standards, and I don’t grade on a curve. If you want to be a director, I’m going to treat you like I treat everybody. So it’s frustrating when critics praise things that I feel are not up to snuff.
I think [Kael] reading of that stuff was pretty superficial as well. She had a great gift for setting movies in cultural context, but what set her apart from most critics—and especially a lot of critics today—was that she was at her absolute best when she loved something. And that was exciting to read. Nowadays, I find critics to be very facile when they don’t like a film, but when they do like something they get tongue-tied.
On being a filmmaker:
On the few occasions where I’ve talked to film students, one of the things I stress, in addition to learning your craft, is how you behave as a person. For the most part, our lives are about telling stories. So I ask them, “What are the stories you want people to tell about you?” Because at a certain point, your ability to get a job could turn on the stories people tell about you. The reason [then–Universal Pictures chief] Casey Silver put me up for [1998’s] Out of Sight after I’d had five flops in a row was because he liked me personally. He also knew I was a responsible filmmaker, and if I got that job, the next time he’d see me was when we screened the movie. If I’m an asshole, then I don’t get that job. Character counts. That’s a long way of saying, “If you can be known as someone who can attract talent, that’s a big plus.”
The worst development in filmmaking—particularly in the last five years—is how badly directors are treated. It’s become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen, to put it bluntly. It’s not just studios—it’s anyone who is financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies because of being in that audience. But an alarming thing I learned during Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync. I remember during previews how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, “Oh, that’s interesting, I’m not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.” People were really annoyed by that. And I thought, Wow, so ambiguity is not on the table anymore. They were angry.
On transitioning to directing theater:
We’ve talked about what skill set is transferable from one to the other. But whatever I do in the theater, the pieces have to be original pieces. In order for me to take advantage of what I can do, it would be pointless for me to do straight plays or revivals. The projects have to be something that I’ve been involved in creating from scratch, so I can use the sensibility I’ve developed as a filmmaker. I don’t have the background in pure stage craft.
I just saw this great production at the Irish Rep—“A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” starring Julian Sands. I like Pinter a lot, maybe because his work reminds me of my own home growing up. There was all this unspoken heaviness going on, but everything happened off camera. We knew my parents weren’t getting along, but they kept it to themselves, which was in fact a very generous thing for them to have done. And good for my career!
On the inspiration for Magic Mike and Matthew McConaughey’s character:
Saturday Night Fever was our model. It’s one of those movies people remember differently than what was actually true. Going back, we were startled by how dark it gets. This girl is being raped in the back seat of the car, and Travolta doesn’t really do anything, he just drives around. He does things that you probably wouldn’t want your protagonist doing today.
Matthew understood the part so well and had such good ideas that I had no desire to box him in. So I just said yes to everything, which turned out to be the right way to go. I think the only note I gave him, when I first pitched him the part on the phone, was that his character believed in UFOs…It wasn’t a way of diminishing the character. It was actually the opposite. My mom was a parapsychologist, so I grew up around that stuff.
On his upcoming HBO film Behind the Candelabra:
It was really fun. The world of it was just bananas. It was great to see Michael [Douglas] and Matt [Damon] jump off the cliff together. Nobody can accuse them of being shy. They just went for it. It’s pretty gay.
On other filmmakers he’s interested in:
Shane Carruth. He did the film Primer, and he’s got a terrific new movie at Sundance. And I’m acting as a presenter on the new Godfrey Reggio film [Visitors], which is exciting. I mean, this is a guy who doesn’t build a film based on other things he’s seen, like I do. It’s his own thing.
Everyone works in their own way. And as is often the case with people who are unique, the problem isn’t Terrence Malick or Quentin Tarantino, the problem is all the people who came after them and want to be Terrence Malick and Quentin Tarantino. But that’s the way it’s always been.
On his work as a painter:
I go back and forth between portraits and abstracts. I’m not really interested in landscapes or still life. I’m more attracted to faces. In fact, whenever I think of a film I’m about to make, I see a face with a certain expression on it. For my photography, I’ve been studying the work of Duane Michals. He’s famous for these photo sequences, which tell stories in a cinematic way. I bought a few of his books, and I’ve begun to think about sequences of my own that suggest a narrative.
I’m always curious to hear how something was made—though I have no interest in why an artist did something, or what his work means. Like with Jackson Pollock: I’m always interested in what kind of paint and canvas he used, I just don’t want to know what he meant. You’re supposed to expand your mind to fit the art, you’re not supposed to chop the art down to fit your mind.
Read the rest here.