On Nov. 5, 1988, the aspiring director Steven Soderbergh stood in line at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood for a screening of his favorite film. He was still editing his first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape and had just barely made the Nov. 1 deadline to submit a rough cut to the Sundance Film Festival. "It was wonderful seeing it again," he wrote of his favorite movie the next day in his diary. "That was my 28th time seeing that film in a theater."
That film was Jaws. At the time, Soderbergh noted, friends were surprised that a sensitive young director—whose understated relationship drama would soon win Sundance, then Cannes—would claim the Spielberg sharktacular as his favorite. "Usually people expect Grand Illusion or something like that," he wrote. "A serious film, in other words."
Twenty-three years later, Soderbergh's 23rd movie, the epidemic thriller Contagion, makes sly reference to his long-ago favorite film. (When I asked Soderbergh whether Jaws was still his favorite, he replied, "It changes hourly.") "A rubber shark will keep them out of the ocean," sighs a CDC coordinator played by Kate Winslet, but a warning about contagious diseases won't keep citizens inside their homes. It's a witty note in a film that chronicles the panic caused by a mostly unseen (but still deadly) predator as entertainingly—and unnervingly—as Jaws once did.
These days, it's less surprising to think of Steven Soderbergh watching Jaws 28 times in the theater. The director has transformed himself from an art-house underdog to the smartest of studio filmmakers—a guy who makes sleek cinematic pop but who also takes out-of-left-field artistic and technical gambles. A four-hour biopic of Che Guevara; three heist comedies overstuffed with movie stars; a sci-fi romance that's also a Tarkovsky remake; a treatise on the war on drugs jammed with pulpy plot twists. Soderbergh's ambition, and his workaholism, have allowed him to make serious movies and popcorn. But Soderbergh's popcorn is also serious, and his serious films are surprisingly buttery and delicious.
For this "Completist" column, I watched (or rewatched) nearly everything Steven Soderbergh's ever directed—not just his features but the shorts, the HBO series, even the abysmal 1985 concert documentary that was his first paid directing gig. As I worked my way through his astonishingly large and varied filmography, I realized that that breadth is key to understanding Soderbergh's career.
Twenty-three movies in 23 years suggests an already amazing, Woody Allen-like productivity. But Soderbergh has been even more prolific than that number indicates. During the first part of his career, development struggles and the learning curve of a new filmmaker put him on a two-year cycle. His debut, Sex, Lies, was released in 1989; Kafka, in 1991; King of the Hill, in 1993. But following the movie that blew up his old career and created a new one, Schizopolis—more on that later—Soderbergh's been on a tear unmatched by any filmmaker I can think of. In the 13 years since 1998, he has directed 18 feature films. Oh, and one of them was a two-part, four-hour epic. Oh, and he directed every episode of a five-hour HBO series. Oh, and he also read like 20 books a month.
So while it's fun, and rewarding, to consider each Soderbergh movie on its own, and to rank them—Soderbergh, a devoted Top Ten list-maker in his journals, surely wouldn't mind—I find considering the whole list at once as illuminating as focusing on any one film. What kind of director generates a filmography like that?
A director who's uninterested in repeating himself. Aside from the Ocean's trilogy, whose breezy tone and swank locations suggest they served as biennial working vacations for their director (and their casts), Soderbergh veers carefully away from genres, styles, and stories that he's explored before. "In addition to being a great piece of material, it is like nothing I have directed before, which is exciting," he wrote about Erin Brockovich when he was in preproduction. Since then, he's done nothing like Erin Brockovich—or like much else he's made before. Which means there remains but one quiet relationship drama on his IMDb page; one sci-fi film; one coming-of-age story; one noir; one documentary; one Hollywood satire; one no-budget minimalist murder mystery performed by nonactors.