Director Steven Soderbergh has had a productive career over the past 24 years, making films in a wide range of genres that resonated with both critics and audiences alike. He’s ready to call it a career this year (we should all be so lucky to retire at the young age of 50), and he recently sat down with Vulture for a lengthy chat on what he’s done, what he hopes to do next, and what he thinks about, well, pretty much everything. We’ve pulled a few of the choicest quotes for your perusal.
The piece starts out with the elephant in the room that is Soderbergh’s impending retirement from filmmaking. The director is quick to point out that while it’s true he’s done making films, he’s still open to directing plays and theater productions. He’d also “do a TV series if something great were to come along.” So fears that Soderbergh is about to disappear from the theater arts while he imports liquor, reads books and paints all day are not entirely accurate. We may well see the filmmaker again.
Soderbergh does get philosophical about his decision, explaining that it wasn’t just a general malaise toward making movies that has spurred him to walk away during the prime of his career. “These things — I can feel them coming on,” he says. “I can feel it when I need to slough off one skin and grow another. So that’s when I started thinking, All right, when I turn 50, I’d like to be done.”
He elaborates further, adding:
“It’s a combination of wanting a change personally and of feeling like I’ve hit a wall in my development that I don’t know how to break through. The tyranny of narrative is beginning to frustrate me, or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere. But that could just be my form of theism.”
We can read into that a lot of ways – but the obvious conclusion seems to be that Soderbergh is hedging his bet on the whole retirement issue. Should he figure out how to “break through” this wall, it seems a given he’d return to making movies.
When asked what he thinks the worst development in modern filmmaking is, Soderbergh surprised us by not saying “3D” or some other technological gimmick and instead dropped this gem.
“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.”
From there, the conversation invariably shifts to film critics and Soderbergh doesn’t appear to have a whole lot of respect for those of us who write about movies.
“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.”
Finally, while talking a bit about projects that got away, Soderbergh mentions Confederacy of Dunces, the long in development adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s novel. There was some legal wrangling involved with Soderbergh’s plans to adapt it back in the day, but what’s really interesting is his last word on the topic.
“I ended up walking away. We had this lawsuit over the rights [against Scott Rudin and Paramount pictures in 1998], and we got the project back, and at that point—it was a good lesson to learn, actually, because I realized once we got it back that my enthusiasm had been beaten out of me. Now it was an obligation, as opposed to something that I wanted to do. I don’t know what’s happening with it. I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”
He may be right.
Check out the full-length chat with Soderbergh by aiming your browser in Vulture’s direction.