I Watched Every Steven Soderbergh Movie
Notes on one of the most varied careers in the history of cinema.
An actors' director.Contagion features a star-studded cast, and (spoiler alert!) several of those stars die early in the picture. Indeed, Gwyneth Paltrow's most memorable scene in the film is the one in which her skull gets sawed open during an autopsy. Soderbergh has a way with stars, who flock to his movies because they know the result will never be less than interesting—and return, apparently, because Soderbergh's sets seem pretty free-wheeling and fun, at least from the tone of every behind-the-scenes DVD extra doc I've ever watched. George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, and a cavalcade of lesser lights (Benicio Del Toro, Elliott Gould, Peter Gallagher, Luis Guzman, Viola Davis) have all made more than two appearances in Soderbergh projects.
But there's more to being an actors' director then just goofing off on set. Soderbergh pulls great performances from his actors, and rarely casts poorly—that is, rarely puts an actor in a position where she's likely to fail. Clooney (Out of Sight), Roberts (Brockovich), and Damon (The Informant!) all gave their best career performances in Soderbergh films; so have James Spader, Jesse Bradford, Luis Guzman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro, and Tobey Maguire. He gets ace performances from actors whose other work suggests they're not really that talented, like Jennifer Lopez, Andie MacDowell, and Topher Grace. He's even great with actors who aren't actors at all: the nonprofessional cast of Bubble (one star had spent her career as the manager of a West Virginia KFC), or monologuist Spalding Gray, or porn performer Sasha Grey. (His next film, Haywire, stars the MMA fighter Gina Carano as a special-ops supersoldier.)
A director who delights in messing with the mechanics of storytelling. For instance, for every plot-driven film, like Traffic or the Ocean's trilogy, there's another title in his filmography in which story takes a back seat to rhythm and process. In Che, revolution earned yard by yard, hour by screen hour, feels like a depiction not only of Che's struggle but of the patient, systematic approach it takes to make—and watch—a film this ambitious. The same story told at standard Hollywood biopic pace might be thrilling; in Che, it's rewarding hard work. Contagion, on the other hand, is a movie told with speed—it is, in many ways, about speed, as Karina Longworth's review astutely pointed out, befitting the asymptotic growth of a virus with a reproduction number of 4. It's not as if it's a mystery where the virus is going to take the world; the film is about how fast it's going to get there.
Soderbergh chops time up and rearranges it to suit mood or storytelling rhythms. Out of Sight's narrative is driven by its flashbacks; when Soderbergh signed on to the film, he sat down with writer Scott Frank to reorganize the screenplay, which had previously (like Elmore Leonard's novel) told the story chronologically. Two of the 10 episodes of his HBO series K Street take place months in the past, allowing the show to build context while also explaining its mysteries in evocative fashion. Glittering shards and fragments of intercut past, present, and future tell The Limey's emotional story as clearly as Terence Stamp's stone face. Even Contagion, a relatively straight-ahead tale, begins, ominously, on "Day 2," according to a caption—and ends on "Day 1."
At times, in fact, Soderbergh's narrative playfulness turns whole movies inside-out, undercutting the viewer's understanding of what they're actually watching. Erin Brockovich transforms from a yarn about a saucy single mom into a muckraking legal thriller; Soderbergh's takes, snappy and comedic in the first half-hour, turn perceptibly longer and more packed with information as the movie goes on. Full Frontal nests films inside films, so that even the layer you believe to be "the real world" is eventually revealed to be the inside of a camera. Inside the camera is also where the transformative sequence in Sex, Lies, and Videotape takes place, as Peter Gallagher watches the video his wife made and we enter that world along with him—only to be jolted back 12 minutes later when James Spader turns the camera off and the picture goes to static.
Perhaps the most Soderberghian moment in my recent rewatching occurred near the end of the exceptional The Informant!, at the precise instant that we realize that Matt Damon's chipper voice-over—a source of comedy for much of this weirdly jaunty tale of corporate whistle-blowing—is in fact not a filmmaking device but a signifier of actual mental illness. I can't remember the last time my expectations were so vigorously overturned so far into a film.
A director who never wants to stand still. In his 1999 book, Getting Away With It (oh, also, he wrote a book), Soderbergh, in reference to a schedule filled with post-production work and distribution woes, boils his philosophy of filmmaking down to 10 simple words: "The fun part is making them. The rest is crap." It's a philosophy that was in evidence even at the beginning of his career; in his introduction to the published journals of the year he spent making Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he wrote, "Some people don't believe (or understand) that for me the process of making a film is the reward."
Soderbergh's not happy, it seems, unless he's on the set of a film, shooting, and so he engineered a career that allowed him to be in that position as often as possible. His frequent collaborator Matt Damon recently mentioned in an interview that Soderbergh is, at this point in his career, so fluid a shooter—and so uninterested in post-production, which doesn't happen on a film set—that he edits the day's footage on his laptop in 20 minutes so he can show everyone a rough cut in the hotel bar.
Soderbergh loves directing films so much that in 2009, while he was directing his play Tot Mom in Sydney (oh, also, he wrote and directed a play), his actors followed morning rehearsals with afternoon shooting for an improvised comedy called The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg. Reportedly, Soderbergh sent rough cuts to the cast but has no intention of releasing the film.
But if he's such a set rat, why is Soderbergh threatening to hang it all up? Much has been made of his revelation that he plans to retire, or take a hiatus, or teach himself to paint, or something, once his current slate of movies is finished. (That slate includes two thrillers, Haywire and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; a beefcake stripper drama with Channing Tatum, Magic Mike; and a Liberace biopic with Michael Douglas.) Damon told the Los AngelesTimes that Soderbergh is flat-out bored with the mechanics of movies: "If I see another over-the-shoulder shot," he quotes Soderbergh as saying, "I'm going to blow my brains out."
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.
Still of Matt Damon in Contagion by Claudette Barius, © 2011 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.