In Conversation: Steven Soderbergh

Henry: Seven years after he announced his retirement from directing films, Soderbergh remains one of the most prolific film directors with a new film this month, following hot on the heels of his two last year, and another already filmed and set for release in the near future, in addition to some five or six other announced projects that may or may not actually be completed. Soderbergh has been a favorite director of mine since I first saw Ocean’s Eleven all those years ago and I know he’s up there for you too but these new films are particularly exciting for me because we actually got to chat with him a bit about both last year at the premiere of The Laundromat and I’ve felt like I have insider knowledge of them even though it was really just surface level stuff that we found out. But they’re also exciting because it’s starting a new chapter of his career as he moves past his iPhone era and into a deal with HBO Max which now seems poised to be the center of film discussions for the next year and could possibly help him find a bigger audience than he normally would with his turn towards lower budget, experimental, genre fare. In the year since his last new film you and I both have watched or rewatched all of his features (or close to it since I still haven’t seen The Girlfriend Experience) so with all of that fresh in our minds I think we’re in a good position to have a conversation about his career trajectory, styles, and where we hope to see him going in the future.

Kern: Yeah, he’s been a favorite of mine for years, and it was an absolute blast to meet and talk to him last year. Like you, I’ve only recently caught up with some of his lesser known/seen work, and what really blew me away is that even his most obscure films are interesting on some level. Even Full Frontal, which neither of us particularly liked (though I skew more positive than you), is interesting conceptually, even if it looks like trash. Instead of starting by praising our favorites of his, I thought it’d be a nice subversion to begin with some of our least favorites. Mine is The Good German. Again, though it’s not very good in my estimation, it’s a fascinating formal experiment attempting to replicate the look of Old Hollywood film noir (maybe Fincher took some notes from his old buddy for Mank!) and even if I think the content is dull at best and repellant at worst, it’s still entrancing to look at. Is Full Frontal your absolute least favorite from him? What others rank near the bottom for you?

Henry: Yeah I would definitely have to go with Full Frontal as my least favorite and I believe it’s the only one of his that I actually disliked, though certainly there are others that were somewhat disappointing. I appreciate that he took the time to go back to low budget experimental stuff with Full Frontal after a few years of winning Oscars and making blockbusters and still convincing some of the biggest stars of the time to make the transition with him, but I found it so bland and uninteresting beyond the nature of what went into making it. The Good German I actually did like a fair bit. I’d mostly heard that it was one of his weaker efforts so I purposely avoided it for a while but I always go for that Old Hollywood stuff and The Third Man is one of my favorite films so seeing it sort of remade with a director and actors who I’m very familiar with was cool even if there was none of the emotional resonance of the original. You bring up an interesting point with the Mank question because the two directors are almost complete opposites in how they make films but Fincher almost certainly was familiar with Soderbergh’s own attempt at a 1940s monochrome drama. You’ve probably heard the story Soderbergh told about being in the editing room with Fincher and it stressing him out to see Fincher going over every frame and correcting it whereas Soderbergh’s approach is antithetical to that with guerilla shooting techniques being a staple of his films for decades and improvisation having a place in some capacity in many of his films. I think that’s part of why I find Soderbergh so fascinating and where many of the disconnects between me and many others on certain films come from. Not to say I can’t enjoy the work of a perfectionist like Fincher or Kubrick, and in fact I love a good many of both of their films, but there’s a certain element of spontaneity and humanity that I don’t think can ever be found in something so precisely engineered. You remove the human element and it begins to work like a machine and becomes somewhat artificial. Certainly in some cases, Soderbergh’s techniques have seemed almost sloppy and when his films fail, it’s not often that you can really attribute that to anyone but him, but even in those cases, there’s something compelling about considering the making of the film and how he always tries to push the medium forward instead of sticking to one thing and pushing it to its greatest potential. So mostly it is the films like Full Frontal, Kafka, Bubble, and Unsane that I don’t necessarily latch onto like his less experimental works, but I’ve yet to find anything that didn’t inspire me in some way.

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Kern: I think you’ve hit it right on the head. He doesn’t dwell at all. His productions definitely aren’t haphazard, but he’s far from a meticulous perfectionist. And to me that’s what makes his best work so special. I’m sure he’s very proud of his filmography, but I don’t get the sense that he would point to specific films of his own as being better than the rest. He’s always looking forward—onto the next project. It gives him a modesty that makes his films each feel like a piece of the whole body of work rather than specific films standing out from the rest. His career really is like a continuous evolution, with each film being a footnote. That’s what makes it so fun to be able to champion his films: they’re so unique and spark interesting discussions, rather than like the films of PTA or Fincher—directors I also love—which are frequently praised, but largely with the same reasoning and arguments. I love both Solaris and The Girlfriend Experience, but for wildly different reasons.

With the recent HBO Max announcement from WB, I’ve been thinking so much about Bubble and how revolutionary and forward thinking that release strategy was at the time—releasing in theaters and on VOD on the same day (and DVD a few days later). I rewatched it earlier this year and still really enjoyed it, but I believe you saw it recently for the first time. Do you think the release strategy is more interesting than the film itself? And do you think any of his other films suffer from the production/release overshadowing the film itself?

Henry: I would say in the case of Bubble he definitely found a release strategy that overshadows the film in light of recent developments. He’s always been ahead of the curve but now he got onto the streaming service recently that will be host to Warner Bros doing day and date streaming and theatrical releases almost like what he did all those years ago. As the film goes, it’s another of those messy projects of his that was more interesting as a specimen than a film so it’s much more interesting for me to see how he was the forerunner of the current system, albeit for entirely different reasons. Apart from that, I don’t think any of his films really had strange release strategies for the types of films they were so I wouldn’t say they overshadow the films. As for the production though, I think his recent turn towards making films with his iPhone has not only been more interesting than the films themselves in most cases, but is another perfect example of how he’s breaking new ground that will become more commonplace in the near future. Sure there’s still a gap between what an iPhone and one of those obscenely expensive cameras they use on other movies can do but an iPhone is something that is widely available and decently inexpensive, at least comparatively and when considering other functionality, so it makes filmmaking easier than ever. I saw an estimate that said 100 million people have iPhones in this country alone and now these things have those triple cameras and can shoot in 4k. At least a few people from that number now have something they never could’ve had before that’s in their pockets that they can use to shoot and even edit a film with greater ease than was ever possible in the past. Some of them will certainly make great films with that technology and his showing that it’s not only possible but something worthy of the talents of one of American cinema’s most daring directors behind the camera and the likes of Meryl Streep in front of it is a wonderful way of proving it isn’t some lower art form but a worthy endeavor for anyone up to it. I’ve actually liked all of his iPhone shot films (The Laundromat somewhat included), and in the case of Unsane especially, I thought the use of an iPhone did well to highlight the themes, but I would definitely say the potential impact of someone like him making films in that manner overshadows anything they contain on their own.

Kern: Yeah, it inherently runs the risk of being more interesting to talk about the film’s production and impact on the industry rather than watching the film itself, but I do agree that it suits Unsane well and adds to that manic, claustrophobic energy. I prefer High Flying Bird overall, but it doesn’t serve the narrative nearly as well there. He’s all about making it an even playing field for artists everywhere and limiting the control the industry has over the art it puts out, and I think you could really point to any of his films as an example of him pushing boundaries in that regard. I remember reading/watching a bunch of early interviews when I was trying to write that career retrospective piece on him which I abandoned, and he cited his experience on The Underneath as having fully turned him against the studio system, and it shows in his follow-up Schizopolis, which I think is easily his most idiosyncratic film. It’s a pretty exhausting exercise in absurdism and social satire, but still very entertaining. I’ve got to say though, I did not anticipate you really liking it. Are there any others of his that surprised you, or ones that you put off so long because you figured you wouldn’t be interested that you wish you hadn’t?

Henry: Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape are three that I feel like I should’ve gotten around to years ago but put off for one reason or another until the last few months and I ended up liking them all a lot but it wasn’t really a surprise to see some of his most acclaimed works turning out to be good. His two films about Spalding Gray were ones that somewhat surprised me though. I’m not a particular fan of Gray’s type of humor but both of them managed to be compelling watches nonetheless as the stories were told, both through his narration and through the filmmaking, in a way that kept me wanting more up until the end when I realized I didn’t really care. I saw recently that the rights to seven of Soderbergh’s films reverted back to him and he’s been working on restorations. Mostly those films are his early independent stuff which I just recently watched for the first time so I would say I actually wish I had put some off a bit longer so I could see the restorations because he’s said he’ll release them all in a set in the next year or two. I’ll still definitely buy that set and rewatch them though. Che was another that I’d built up in my head as something that I wouldn’t really enjoy and I’m not exactly sure why since I can usually get behind a historical epic. I still wouldn’t say I loved it but I thought Benicio del Toro was incredible and I would happily watch another four hours of them working together. Soderbergh has a pretty diverse lineup of regular collaborators and I think all of them fit perfectly into his films but his collaborations with del Toro have all been breathtaking performances and the announcement that they’re going to work together again on his next film has me very excited.

Kern: Definitely the best thing about Che is del Toro’s performance, and the two make a great pair. Traffic is populated with great performances, but his is probably the best, so that’s exciting that they’re working together again. I remember a while back there was the announcement of a Solaris 4K, but when I spoke to him about it, he said it almost certainly wouldn’t be physical, which disappointed me, so that’s great to hear some of his early work is on the horizon. It’s crazy that he even has time to work on his older films still, with how many ongoing projects he seemingly has at any given time. I typically don’t care for when artists tweak their own work or offer up different versions, but he’s an exception, because often he’ll include alternate cuts of his or other films (he mentions an early cut of Solaris on the commentary which I’d die to get my hands on) and they’re always fascinating in how structurally different they are. Especially for me since I’m a massive nerd for narrative structuring. I wonder if he’ll end up including alternate cuts of his older films in that set, since he’s been open about being somewhat unhappy with the finished products. I’ll for sure get it either way though.

Are you especially excited for his new one?

Henry: I think the problem with Solaris has to do with who owns the rights and the potential profitability of putting out a physical copy right now but luckily with these other films, the rights have reverted back to Soderbergh because they weren’t studio films and he has the ability to decide to put them out and just last week he said it was his intention to create a limited edition seven film box set. He probably lost money on all or most of those films once so I don’t get the feeling he’s trying to do it as a moneymaking venture like Solaris would be. He actually also said he made some major reedits to Kafka so maybe we’ll both end up liking it more. Also there were minor changes to Full Frontal and Schizopolis that made them shorter. The others are the same apart from being remastered. As for his new film, Let Them All Talk, I can’t quite say I’m as excited as I am for this set of his old films or the next film he’s got on the horizon but I’m always hyped to see new Soderbergh. It sounds like this one was conceived during The Girlfriend Experience to make something similar but with professional actors. As you know, that’s the last of his I haven’t seen but I know you’re a big fan so I’m most excited to see how well it plays for you. His next film, No Sudden Move, is one I’m very excited for beyond just knowing he’s involved though. Not only does it have del Toro, as I mentioned earlier, but it’s also reuniting Soderbergh with Don Cheadle and Matt Damon and introducing loads of other talented actors to him for the first time, all in a crime film which is where I think he has found his greatest successes in the past.

Kern: That’s another strength of his: his ability to use big name actors without it being distracting. Most huge ensemble casts I see of A-listers just makes me nervous, because it breaks the immersion for me when I’m watching a plethora of celebrities sharing the screen, but Soderbergh has gotten some of the best performances out of his actors, and even star-studded ventures like the Ocean’s Trilogy works perfectly with that cast, because it plays perfectly toward their talent as actors and in some ways their public personas. I think it helps that he treats his productions like a collaboration and works *with* his actors rather than just using them as tools for his vision. I have to say I’m with you on this new one, though I’ll absolutely watch it day one. The brief description I read doesn’t inspire much interest, and even when we were talking with him, we were way more interested in hearing details about No Sudden Move than Let Them All Talk. Still though, I’m willing to be surprised. Interesting to hear that bit about The Girlfriend Experience, because a large part of what works about that one is that it is unknown actors in those roles, which makes it feel more grounded. It was also very non-linear and flowed more tonally than anything else, though I can’t imagine he’ll treat his new one with Meryl Streep as an abstract experiment like that.

Henry: I think part of what helps him use those actors is the specific ones he chooses more than his particular style. With Ocean’s Eleven, some of those guys weren’t big enough back then to become distracting but generally it’s all people who have worked with him on other films and were willing to take pay cuts for that to work with him and not take center stage. Clooney especially works well with that sort of thing I think. He’s a great actor and definitely a brand at this point but movies he’s in rarely become the George Clooney show and he always shares the screen well with other actors and the directors’ visions. I think he’s been particularly good in Coen brothers films for that same reason. Clooney is a much bigger name than John Turturro or some others from those films but he doesn’t bring the movie star persona with him when it isn’t necessary and just lets the material wash over him. Beyond Clooney, many of the big names keep coming back to work with Soderbergh over and over again with some like Damon being in something like seven of his films. I think there’s a respect for the way he works and as you know he’s a nice guy to chat with so it seems like the consensus is he’s an easy guy to work with but I also think his style prompts a lot of that. He always does things on schedule, which is pretty necessary so he can constantly be working on all his projects, so they know exactly what they’re getting into with one of his films and there aren’t extreme amounts of takes or anything like that. A lot of the time he leaves some room for improvisation and lets the actors take scenes where they want or at least he’ll shoot them a few different ways so they get to try it out differently and there’s a level of creative control that he gives to the performers that some certainly seem to appreciate. I wouldn’t imagine he would try anything with Meryl Streep that’s as abstract as what you described but she is becoming another of his regulars, having just made another film with him, and with one shot on an iPhone and this one apparently being mostly improvisation on Streep’s part, it definitely sounds like it could be one of the more experimental roles that she’s done and a turn towards a different type of film for him.

Kern: The best part is even if it ends up being marginal (like The Laundromat), you don’t have to wait very long for the next one. We’ll just have to push harder next time we talk to him for an Ocean’s 14.

Henry: His retirement work ethic is great like that. Unfortunately, I think he’s over the Ocean’s films and that was pretty set after Bernie Mac died so I can’t imagine it’s any more likely now that we’ve also lost Carl Reiner. Still, we can hope for more spiritual successors like Logan Lucky or a sequel to 8 that he’s more involved in. Or even better, he could go the Magic Mike route and maybe hand it off to someone else who does an even better job then move into live theater and make something better than either film. His suggestion that I go see Magic Mike Live is still one of the greatest things anyone has ever done for me because I wouldn’t have gone otherwise but it’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had. Ocean’s 14 the Live Experience will be even better I’m sure.

Kern: I forgot about Carl Reiner. You’re right though maybe Ocean’s 9.

In Conversation

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