BY STEVE POND
When Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his first film, 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, the then-26-year-old director famously commented, “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.”
Obviously, he was wrong. In a 25-year career that has swung between big hits—Erin Brockovich (2000), Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen (2001, 2004, 2007), Magic Mike (2012)—and challenging art-house experiments—Schizopolis (1996), Full Frontal (2002), the two-part epic Che (2008)—he has shown himself to be a restless virtuoso who resists pigeonholing. Roger Ebert may have once dubbed him “the poster boy of the Sundance generation,” but he’s also a proven hit maker and the only person to receive two directing nominations in the same year (for Erin Brockovich and Traffic in 2000) for a DGA Award, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe.
In recent years, Soderbergh has turned to television, a medium in which he’d briefly experimented when he directed the vérité-style Washington drama K Street in 2003. He won a DGA Award and two Emmys for his HBO movie Behind the Candelabra in 2013, and this year he directed all 10 episodes of the Cinemax series The Knick, a bloody and stylishly grimy period drama set in 1900 in a New York City hospital. And as he’s been doing on most of his projects for the past two decades, he also shot and edited the series himself, and plans to do the same for the show’s second season.
On top of all that, Soderbergh has been active in the Directors Guild for more than a decade, serving as national vice president from 2004 to 2013, a founding member of the Guild’s Independent Directors Committee, chairman of the Eastern Directors Council, and co-chair of the Creative Rights Committee. In 2014, he was awarded the Guild’s Robert B. Aldrich Award for his years of dedicated service. Although he has stepped down as an officer to make way for new leadership, he appropriately opted to meet in the DGA’s Robert E. Wise Library to talk about his career.
STEVE POND: Many directors know from a very early age what they want to do with their life. How did you get into directing?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: I got the movie bug from my father, who was a huge fan. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1975, when I was 12 and saw Jaws for the first time, that I began to look at films differently. I came out of the theater and suddenly my relationship to movies had completely changed. I wanted to know what ‘directed by’ meant. And luckily, The Jaws Log was available to read, and I immediately got a copy of that and highlighted every time Steven Spielberg was mentioned. I carried this thing around because I started to realize, hey, this is something you can do. Ironically, watching that perfect piece of entertainment resulted in me never looking at movies as merely entertainment ever again.
Q: When you found out what ‘directed by’ meant, did you think it was a job within your grasp?
A: I wasn’t sure. It didn’t appear that way as someone who was growing up in a suburban subdivision with no connection whatsoever to the entertainment industry. I didn’t start thinking about how to pursue it until I got my hands on a camera and started making things. We had moved to Louisiana and my father signed me up for a course taught by LSU students for kids to learn how to make animation. I could draw pretty well but immediately realized animation bored me. So I just took the camera off the copy stand and started shooting stuff and editing. Then I started doing research about film programs in college and very quickly decided, that’s no good. I was making stuff in 11th grade that you wouldn’t be allowed to make until your third year of film school. So I decided that I would attempt to make some headway in the entertainment business by continuing to make short films and writing. I just thought writing a script and making a low-budget feature, that’s my only way in.
Q: Your short films led to a concert movie with the rock group Yes. Can you put a directorial stamp on something like that?
A: Yeah, to some extent. There’s an attitude there, a sense of play that is consistent with what I’ve done. I got the job because someone I had done some freelance editing for hired me to follow the group around on tour and make a little film about them, and I ended up making this very idiosyncratic, cheeky 25-minute piece. They could have looked at it and gone, ‘What is this guy’s fucking problem?’ or they could have looked at it and said, ‘This is a gas. Who is this kid?’
As it turned out, they had a positive reaction, and they asked me if I wanted to act as a liaison between the band and the eventual director of a concert film. I said, ‘I’m not interested in being a liaison,’ and I went back to Baton Rouge, where I was working. And then very shortly thereafter, I got a call from the manager of the group saying, ‘Would you be interested in actually directing the concert film yourself?’ It was a great opportunity—but unfortunately, while I was editing, I happened to see Russell Mulcahy’s Duran Duran concert film called As the Lights Go Down, and I wanted to blow my brains out because this thing was so electrifying and beautiful. I just couldn’t believe how much more sophisticated it was. Granted, it’s a different group, different music, different set of demands—but as a pure piece of visual material, it made me realize I should not be pursuing music videos, because I couldn’t compete on that level. For better or worse, I’m narrative driven. And that was an important thing for me to realize, what my strengths and weaknesses were. There have been a few times in my career where I’ve had real moments of assessing where I’m at, what I’m doing, and how I can optimize my skill set.
Q: Your first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and really put you on the map—but if you didn’t get great performances from James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Laura San Giacomo, and Peter Gallagher, you wouldn’t have had a movie. As a first-time director, how did you handle working with the actors?
A: I had enough exposure to actors to feel comfortable with them, whether it was through the shorts that I made, or the people I knew who had connections to the drama department at LSU. And my instinctual understanding was they all need to be talked to differently. And so my primary job was to get enough of a sense of who they were so that I could understand how they wanted to be talked to. Some people want me to talk to them a lot. Some people want me to talk to them a lot about everything but the work. Some people don’t want to be talked to. You’re keying off what they’re presenting, and as it happened in that case, it was just a great group of people. We had 30 days to shoot that film. I’ve never been in less of a hurry in my life. I never felt rushed for an instant, and that’s the last time I’ve ever had that sensation. When I look back on it, it’s kind of weird how much time we had. It’s unthinkable. [Laughs] I mean, today I could make that movie in 10 days.
Q: The next few movies after sex, lies didn’t do as well, critically or commercially: Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), The Underneath (1995).
A: Another time I had a real sit-down with myself was during and shortly after making The Underneath. I really was unhappy with where I was creatively and was trying to figure out how to get back on track. I felt lost. I felt like I had drifted way off compass and needed to essentially annihilate everything that had come before and sort of rebuild and rediscover the enthusiasm of the amateur.
Q: Hence something as odd and anarchic as Schizopolis (1996)?
A: Doing the Richard Lester book [Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw] and then making Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy (1996) was part of that. I viewed Schizopolis as my second first film.
Q: Why did you feel lost?
A: I can’t quite articulate it. During the whole Underneath period, I was feeling, What am I doing? How do I change it up? One of the things I realized was, I’m not a writer, and I needed to stop doing that. It was a huge thing for me to let go of that and realize I have the ability to talk about story and character and to suggest how something should be laid out in narrative terms—but in terms of pure writing, I’m so far behind what I know about directing that it’s really better for me to work with writers who know as much about writing as I know about directing.
Q: Isn’t this around the time that you joined the Guild?.
A: I joined the Guild in 1993, under duress. I didn’t want to join, but I was doing an episode of an anthology series on Showtime called Fallen Angels and so I had to join. At that time, my impression of the Guild was a monolithic sort of organization that wasn’t really populated by my peers. And that continued up until the late ’90s, when I got a call asking if I would like to be part of a new independent directors committee that the Guild was forming. I said, sure. And then I was encouraged to run for council, which I did. And then, when I moved to New York, Ed Sherin encouraged me to follow him as national vice president, so he started grooming me for that spot. And as I got further engaged with the Guild, I got more interested in it. I’ve always been interested in how the business works, and this was an incredible opportunity to really look under the hood.
Q: And what did you see under the hood?
A: When you think about it, especially with the agreement that we currently have, we get more data. We have a better view of the business than the studios have because the studios all give us their information, but they don’t give each other information. So we have everything and they only have their own slice. The ability to really look at the business from 30,000 feet is fascinating and obviously crucial to a negotiation.
Q: In this period when you were becoming more active in the Guild, you made Out of Sight (1998) with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and the business really embraced you.
A:That was a watershed project, obviously. If I failed creatively, I was going to be in a lot of trouble. I had made five movies in a row that nobody had seen, and I can only imagine there was some real question as to whether or not I was ever going to actually deliver on my potential. Casey Silver was running Universal, and I had made two films for him that had not made a nickel. But he still liked me and believed in me, and he said, ‘There’s an open assignment here, and I think you should pursue it. But let’s be clear: You’re going to have to wait for everybody in town to pass before you get in the room.’
I waited and then I went in and talked to George and to Jersey Films and described what I thought the tone of the film was. It was developed for Barry Sonnenfeld, and Barry had read it and said, ‘I don’t understand the tone of this.’ And when I read it, I felt like I did understand the tone. I said, ‘I think it’s a Hal Ashby movie, in terms of its tone and its balance of drama and humor.’ I thought of The Last Detail. And everybody seemed to agree with that, and that’s how it started moving forward. But that was the most self-imposed pressure that I’ve ever felt.
Q: You said people were asking, ‘Is this guy ever going to fulfill his potential?’ Were you thinking that, too?
A:Well, I just was wondering, where am I going to fit? I didn’t want to be art-house boy. I like specialty films, for lack of a better term, but I didn’t want to only do that because, in a weird sort of way, that’s too easy. It’s much harder to go make a studio movie with movie stars in which you have to be good and clear than it is to go make a little obscure independent movie that, if people don’t get it, you go, ‘Well, that’s your fault.’
I really wanted access to the other half of the business, and so I was very conscious that this better come off or I’m really going to have a tough time. The good news is that creatively people responded positively to the film to the extent that now it’s viewed as being a success, even though it wasn’t. But it did for me and for George what it needed to do. And that started a good run: The Limey (1999), Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven all in a row in a little over three years. I was feeling really good. I was seeing the ball really well.
Q: You were nominated for Oscars and DGA Awards for 2000 for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich, and won the Oscar for Traffic. It seems as if the latter film was the challenging one, juggling three narratives and three different shooting styles, whereas films like Erin and the Ocean’s movies were more straightforward.
A: Actually, Ocean’s was the hardest for me. Not even close. Traffic was not hard. I knew exactly what it was, and I never had a moment’s hesitation. The schedule was tight and there were a lot of locations and speaking parts, but it wasn’t hard. And Erin is probably the most pleasurable shoot I ever had. It was the kind of movie I hadn’t made before, and just sort of bearing witness to what [Julia Roberts] was doing every day was so much fun. For the first four weeks, we were all in this Holiday Inn in Barstow and I’d come back covered in dirt every day, just smiling.
But I had days of real agony on Ocean’s. It was a kind of shooting that I hadn’t really attempted before. I hadn’t built a whole film that needed a very designed, bravura visual approach. And I don’t like to storyboard, so I had days of telling [1st AD] Greg Jacobs, ‘Just send everybody away. I don’t know how to do this. I need to think about this.’ I think it’s Whistler, the painter, who talked about the labor required to eradicate all traces of labor. That’s the trick of those movies. I wanted them to have a baroque visual palette and style to burn, and yet be breezy. I didn’t want anybody to feel me sweating, even though I was sweating a lot.
Q: Can you remember specific scenes that stumped you?
A: Yes, and you’d be surprised at how simple the scenes were, ultimately. There’s one scene in the third Ocean’s where there are a bunch of people in a hollowed-out cave, and they’re all looking at schematics of the hotel. You’ve got eight or nine people around a small table in a small space. And I just keep saying, ‘Run it again. Run it again. Run it again.’ I’ve got a viewfinder with a lens on it, and I’m trying to work my way around the space to find the shot that’s going to form the central visual premise of the scene. And I just can’t come up with a shot. It was horrible. I say to Greg, ‘What time is it?’ And he goes, ‘It’s 10:30.’ ‘So it’s too early to call lunch?’ ‘Yeah, it’s too early to call lunch.’ ‘Well, just send everybody away.’ And I’m sitting there and the cast is gone, and I say, ‘Can somebody move this table? I’m sick of looking at this table.’ So they take the table out, and I’m walking around and I sit down where the table was and then I realize, oh, the camera is the table. That’s it. We called everybody back in and put the camera basically where the center of the table was, and I did a series of two-shots. Shoot, turn, shoot again. We literally did the scene in an hour.
Q: Is that how you typically solve problems? Send everybody away?
A: What I’ve learned in those situations is to slow everything down. You need to put yourself in that sort of pure space in which time doesn’t exist, money doesn’t exist, nobody’s waiting around, and it’s just a pure problem to be solved. It’s like a Jedi mind trick where you just convince yourself, I’ve got all the time and I can stay here as long as it takes until I figure it out. And once you’ve truly convinced yourself of that, you figure it out. And I’ve had that happen a couple of times.
Q: After your hot streak, and even while you were doing the last two Ocean’s movies, you made a string of smaller, odder films: Full Frontal (2002), Bubble (2005), The Good German (2006). Were you looking to get out of the mainstream every so often?
A: I’m sure part of me was thinking I should have just quit after the first Ocean’s. I was very conscious of the fact that I wasn’t going to be leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop for the rest of my career, that there are going to be valleys. And so, yeah, I was certainly looking for new experiences, looking to change things up. K Street was a big part of that. Making that show was terrifying but also really helpful. And I was anxious to take advantage of the opportunities that were being presented because of past success. You know, people used to say, ‘Oh, sex, lies, that must have been such a burden, because of the Palme d’Or.’ No, it wasn’t. It presented me with opportunities, that’s all. I didn’t look at it like some sort of objective anointment of a greatness. I just looked at it as, wow, this is going to buy me X number of opportunities. And so the ability to use whatever juice I accumulated to go off and make a deal with HDNet to make those movies, or to make The Good German or Solaris (2002). I very much felt like this is what you should do with whatever momentum you’ve accrued: Try something that you couldn’t get made under any other circumstance.
Q: You’ve somehow managed to keep your career moving in spite of those peaks and valleys.
A: Reputation helps. Unless you’re somebody who can make one massive hit after another indefinitely, treating people well is a good way to remain employed. Of course there’s a chain of command, but that doesn’t mean there’s a chain of respect. I’ve only raised my voice once on a film set and it was because somebody showed up late two days in a row, which is not acceptable. I don’t know if I’ve ever even held a megaphone.
Q: Since Traffic, you’ve shot and edited almost all your movies yourself. Why?
A: I was trained in high school as a still photographer, and I shot most of my shorts myself. I was a gearhead. I loved equipment and all that stuff. It was, in essence, a way to return to how I began, and also a way to increase the intimacy between myself and the cast. To me, what I gain by being the cinematographer and the camera operator is worth the fact that I’m not Emmanuel Lubezki or Roger Deakins or Harris Savides. And with editing, in some cases I feel so clear about what I want and it’s so specific that it seems inefficient to spend time describing it instead of just doing it.
Q: You’ve made a number of movies where the audience is led to believe something that they later find out is not true: all of the Ocean’s movies, certainly; The Informant! (2009), which has the most unreliable narrator imaginable; and Side Effects (2013) among them. What do you enjoy about pulling the rug out from under the audience like that?
A: Well, I love when a movie resets and you have to unbelieve everything that you thought you believed. I love when the whole edifice crumbles and you’re back to zero, and I think it’s really satisfying when you can do it in a way that’s organic and it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Look, directing is having an approach. Like, what are you bringing to this that’s unique? Everything’s been done, all the stories have been told, so what do you bring to the table? And so, in the case of something like The Informant!, [I thought,] what’s the best voice-over movie of all time? Sunset Boulevard, probably. So if you can’t top ‘It’s a dead guy,’ what are you bringing to the table? In this case, what [writer] Scott [Z. Burns] and I proposed was, What if the narration not only didn’t help but actually made everything harder for the audience? What if it was obfuscating instead of clarifying? Now, some people found that really frustrating, but that story to me was constructed entirely out of a subjective place. And I look back and from a creative standpoint, I view that as a very successful endeavor in the sense that it is exactly what we all were attempting to do. Most of the time, you look back on something and you feel, okay, I would do that differently. That’s a very polarizing film, but I don’t think I’d do anything differently.
Q: Are there any other films of yours where you feel the same way?
A: I think Out of Sight is probably the least flawed thing I’ve done. Most of the others, there’s always something. If there’s a call to trim something for TV, if I have the time, I’ll get the files and try and do it myself. And there have been a couple of occasions where I’ve knocked five minutes out of a movie and thought that’s better. I know that happened on Full Frontal. I did a cut for Bravo where I took six minutes out. It was way better.
Q: You’ve obviously set yourself a task in some of your films: ‘I’m going to do this genre,’ or ‘I’m going to do a 1940s World War II movie and I’m going to use these rules,’ or ‘I’m going to set myself these constraints when I make this.’ What appeals to you about that?
A: I’m a big believer in limitations that force you to think laterally instead of vertically. Whenever I start to think about something, I think, What are the rules? What lenses am I using? What are the rules of movement? What are the cutting patterns? What am I allowed to do and what am I not allowed to do? In the case of The Good German, I thought it was really fun and interesting to restrict my visual choices to those that would have been available to Michael Curtiz, and what would he do content-wise if he didn’t have to deal with the Hays Office. I enjoyed working in that box—but as it happens, I was the only person who was interested. That film’s not even polarizing. People just hate it.
Q: One of your most ambitious films, the two-part Che, led to some pretty strong statements from you about whether film was even worth pursuing anymore.
A: That was the third time I really had to assess what I was doing. Around Che, I kind of developed this idea that, in five years, I want to be doing something else.
A: My relationship with movies had reached a point where I felt I needed a trial separation. I would hate for people to think that it was out of some sense of, ‘Oh, I’ve figured it out.’ It wasn’t that; it was actually the opposite. It was, I’ve just reached a point where I’m not sure how to get to another level with this in terms of my abilities. I feel there’s another iteration in terms of my relationship with cinema, but I don’t know what it is. All I know is there has to be something else, and until I can figure that out, I’m going to step off because I don’t want to go to work feeling stuck. And the good news is that I’ve been able to work on The Knick and have a lot of fun and continue to learn, while in the background I’m thinking about my relationship to cinema and whether or not there is another version of me that can evolve and come back. I didn’t know at the time of Che what I would be doing in five years would turn out to be TV, but I just knew it wasn’t going to be movies. And now the only area of growth in the entire entertainment industry is one-hour original content. That’s exploding, while everything else is shrinking. So from a Guild standpoint, that means we now have to be especially diligent about how directors who work in that medium are being treated both economically and creatively, because that’s become a real power base. And now I’m part of that world as well.
Q: You’ve moved from film, a director’s medium, to television. Yet you directed every episode of The Knick’s first season, and put your stamp on the series. Is the outlook for directors changing on television?
A: Our situation was atypical: There was a single director, and the show was scheduled, budgeted, and shot like a 10-hour movie. I’m hoping we’re going to see more situations where directors are involved earlier in conceiving and building the universe of a show, and that the idea of parachuting in a guest director to do an episode becomes less the norm than having a smaller, cohesive group of directors that essentially are part of the creative team and are working on the show the whole year. I think you get a better result that way.
Q: But producing 10 hours of content in one shoot must have been brutal.
A: Well, until we started, I was really, really scared. I’ve worked on some shoots in which we had to move quickly, or shoots that were tricky. You know, trying to portray the Cuban Revolution [in Che] in 37 shooting days was tricky. But this was on a whole other level. It was nine pages a day for 73 days, but we very quickly fell into a rhythm that was not unpleasant at all. And I began to really enjoy the challenge of coming up with an interesting way to shoot that much material that fast, and I watched Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and World on a Wire to look for ideas. Ultimately, the reason we were able to do it was nobody was second-guessing how we were doing it. If I determined that I could shoot a three-page scene in a single take, I could do that without anybody complaining. Which brings up another point: The editing patterns of television need to evolve. I was watching a very well-made show the other night, and it was a scene of two people in a conference room. The shots were interesting and really well thought-out, and I’d say there were probably eight angles. But they used all eight angles within the first 25 seconds, so for the remaining three minutes of the scene, they were just bouncing around to these eight angles instead of doling them out gradually so that there was a sense of increased momentum and design. It was literally just cutting on every line and using all of the angles as many times as you could in three minutes. That’s a very TV mentality in terms of how to cut a scene together, and that needs to change.
Q: By contrast, one of the early episodes of The Knick has a dining room scene where the camera simply sits at the end of the table for almost the entire scene, before you cut to a few close-ups at the very end. Do you know how you’re going to shoot a scene like that before you go to the set?
A: Well, no. After I’ve seen the scene rehearsed and we’ve blocked the actors, then I’ll decide. In that instance, for the front half of that scene, the environment was more important than what was being said. It wasn’t important that you’re close to them until a certain point, when it becomes very important. So shooting that scene, I would shoot the wide shot, and as soon as we reached a point where I knew that we were going in, I would cut and then we would go in and I would pick up right from there. It’s the old John Ford thing: Don’t shoot anything that you don’t want seen. It’s a very efficient way to work.
Q: Let’s go back to your work with the Guild. You were national vice president for nine years. What were the key accomplishments during your time in office?
A: I became co-chair of the Creative Rights Committee, and most of my attention and energy went into creative rights, canvassing the [various] committees and the membership to determine what issues people were confronting most often. In this last round of negotiations, we were able to clean up a couple of creative rights issues that I was really happy to see restructured. One was the pseudonym process and the other was some language regarding the replacing of editors.
Q: How involved are you going to be with the Guild now that you’ve stepped down as an officer?
A: I’ve made it clear to people that I’m available to talk, but it’s somebody else’s turn. I’m a big believer in turnover, new blood, new ideas. I did my time and now it’s somebody else’s turn. But there was so much work done over the last 10 or 15 years that I was present for, and I’m anxious to make sure the Guild is still moving in the direction that we feel it should be moving in.
Q: You were a member of the negotiating committee on several occasions. What did you learn from that experience?
A: When you go into a negotiation, there are two things that have to happen. The first is identifying your central issue, because most of the time there are five or six potential issues that could be core. And having a detailed snapshot of the entire industry, the way the Guild does, makes the process of determining what your core issue is going to be a lot easier. We spend a lot of money on analysis, on data, on gathering data. [Laughs] I wish our government worked as well.
Q: That’s funny, to hold up Hollywood as the model of efficiency. But compared to the government...
A: I used to be somewhat, I don’t know if embarrassed is the right word, but I often had the feeling that a lot of the work that we do is nonessential, in that people can theoretically live perfectly normal lives without watching TV or going to the movies; it’s a leisure activity. But one reason I stopped being embarrassed was that the entertainment industry is an incredible economic engine. You know, it’s our third-biggest export and, considering its size, it’s remarkably transparent. I don’t think there’s any other business that’s this big in which there’s this level of economic transparency. We all hear stories about studio books—and I’ve participated in audits, and they always find something—but it’s hard to screw somebody out of money that they’re owed these days. And so, yeah, I’m not embarrassed about it anymore. It’s also one of the few things we do better than anybody else in the world.
Q: Was there something that changed your mind about the industry?
A: My thinking might have changed with [Hurricane] Katrina, watching how that was mishandled and thinking, nobody in the business I work in, if they handled a situation like that, would survive for five minutes. The obvious lack of problem-solving ability from the top down was so glaring. And I started to think, my whole life I have been around creative people solving problems. And if you had tasked people who work in this industry to solve that particular problem, it would have been solved in a much more efficient way than it was..
Q: So that’s the director’s job, problem solving?
A: Yes, and it’s both terrifying and exhilarating. When you think about it, you go into a room and you say to somebody, ‘I see this, and I need you to give me this much money so that I can go make this thing that I see in my head.’ And then they do, occasionally, and it’s the best virtual game imaginable. You’re dealing with hundreds of people, dealing with time, money, environment, confidence, health issues. And it’s a great job, and a totally unique job. Malcolm Gladwell said that the characteristics of a great job are complexity, autonomy, and a direct connection between effort and result. That’s this job.