The Auteurs: Steven Soderbergh (Part 1)
One of the key figures in launching a new wave of American independent cinema in the 1990s, Steven Soderbergh is a filmmaker whose diverse array of films is unmatched. His films often focus on people who struggle with the realities of their situations. Whether it’s in polished studio releases or offbeat/experimental pieces, Soderbergh always keeps people guessing. While he announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2013, there is no question that the Steven Soderbergh had a major impact on the world of cinema.
Born on January 14, 1963 in Atlanta, Georgia, he spent much of his childhood moving around the American South before finally settling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In his teens, Soderbergh became fascinated with the world of filmmaking and made a bunch of 8mm short films using equipment from his high school. During those years, he found influence in array of filmmakers including Richard Lester and Terry Gilliam. After graduating from high school in 1981, Soderbergh went to Hollywood in an attempt to forge his career as a filmmaker.
Steven Soderbergh: 1985-2000
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In 1984, Soderbergh was asked to direct a concert video for the British progressive rock band Yes, who were mounting a tour for their 1983 comeback album 90125. Incorporating stock footage, live performances and testimonials from the road, the video was rather typical of the genre for 1980s. Soderbergh also helmed a documentary short about the band entitled Access All Areas. The documentary was eventually unveiled in the DVD release of the remastered cut of Soderbergh’s concert video. The video received a Grammy nomination for Best Long-Form Music Video, but the nomination did little to quell Soderbergh’s frustration about his slow progression in the film industry.
Sex, Lies, & Videotape (review)
After a frustrating attempt to start his filmmaking career in Hollywood, Soderbergh returned to Baton Rouge and wrote the script for his first feature, Sex, Lies & Videotapes, in eight days on a legal pad. The story follows Graham Dalton (James Spader), who is impotent, as he begins to videotape his friend’s wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), talking about sex. The film explores how these sessions impact Ann’s marriage to John (Peter Gallagher), who happens to be having an affair with his sister-in-law Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo).
Soderbergh served as editor on the film and hired cinematographer Walt Lloyd to shoot the film. The production also featured two men that became constant collaborators for Soderbergh throughout his entire career. The first was sound editor Larry Blake who helped to convey the contrast between Graham’s life and the Bohemian-yuppie world that John lives in. The second collaborator is former Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez, whose unique electronic film scores appealed to Soderbergh.
Shot in thirty days in Baton Rouge, Soderbergh managed to keep within the $1.8 million budget while staying true to his vision. Sex, Lies & Videotapes premiered 1989 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Prize. The film shocked many at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the Palme d’Or, the FIPRESCI prize and a Best Actor prize James Spader. Sex, Lies & Videotapes was released in theaters later that August and was a major hit. Considered one of the important works in the modern American Independent Film movement, the film walked away with several Independent Spirit Awards and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
After the success he obtained with his debut film, Soderbergh got the chance to make a film about the writer Franz Kafka. The first of several collaborations with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Kafka is a thriller in which Franz Kafka found himself at the center of an underground war between anarchists and a secret organization in 1919 Prague. With a budget of $11 million, a major step–up from the miniscule budget of his previous work, Steven Soderbergh shot the film in both Prague and England.
Featuring Jeremy Irons in the role of Kafka, Soderbergh filled out the supporting cast with Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Jeroen Krabbe, Joel Grey, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Alec Guinness. Soderbergh and cinematographer Walt Lloyd shot the film in black-and-white as an ode to the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. This added an extra layer to the blurring of reality and fiction that was prevalent in both Kafka’s work and personal life.
Kafka made its debut in the U.S. in November of 1991 to mixed reviews. The film was a massive disappointment from a box office perspective, making just over a million dollars. While the film eventually gained a cult following, its poor commercial reception was the first of several financial failures the director had to endure during his career. In 2013, Soderbergh and Dobbs decided to re-write some scenes and shoot a few new inserts in the hopes of creating a different version of the film for a future DVD/Blu-Ray release.
King of the Hill (review)
Wanting to shake off the disappointing reaction of Kafka, Steven Soderbergh decided to create a film version of A.E. Hotchner’s memoir King of the Hill. The film told the story of a young boy trying to survive the Great Depression by himself. Catching the attention of the fledging specialty studio Gramercy, Soderbergh got the green light to write and helm the film. He decided to shoot the film on location in St. Louis, where the original story was told, and opted to work with cinematographer Elliot Davis for the first time.
Shooting the film on a smaller budget during the summer of 1992, Soderbergh chose Jesse Bradford in the lead role of Aaron Hotchner. He reached out to the real-life Hotchner to be a consultant on the film. The ensemble cast featured supporting performances from Jeroen Krabbe, Lisa Eichorn, Karen Allen, Elizabeth McGovern, and the renowned monologue artist Spalding Gray. The film also included a appearances by Katherine Heigl, Adrien Brody, and soul singer Lauryn Hill. The production was a more enjoyable process for Soderbergh, who found his experience with Kafka overwhelming. He took advantage of shooting the film on a smaller budget, as he and Davis felt making the most of the little they had fit the film’s tone perfectly.
King of the Hill premiered at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival to a poor reception. Steven Soderbergh later revealed that Cannes was the wrong venue to premiere the film. Though another commercial failure for the director, the film was well-received by critics upon its release.
The Underneath (review)
Despite back-to-back commercial failures, Soderbergh jumped at the chance to helm a remake of the 1949 film noir thriller Criss Cross. The modern-day update, written by Daniel Fuchs, involved Michael Chambers (Sex, Lies, & Videotape’s Peter Gallagher) trying to restart his life following a prison sentence. In hopes of reuniting with his ex-wife, Chambers risks his new found freedom by taking part in a robbery. Though the filming took place in 1994 in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Soderbergh’s own personal life was unraveling behind the scenes.
At the time he was going through a divorce with actress Betsy Brantley. He felt like he was shooting on autopilot, and had to hire Stan Salfas to edit the film as Soderbergh was not emotionally invested to do it himself. While his mood was not quite into the film, the final product – which featured Alison Elliot, William Fichtner, Joe Don Baker, Elisabeth Shue, Paul Dooley, and Shelley Duvall in supporting roles – turned out better than he expected. However, the director still considers the stylish noir thriller to be one of his weakest efforts.
Gray’s Anatomy (review)
After being touted the new wunderkind following his debut feature, only to fall flat with a series of commercial failures, Steven Soderbergh felt it was time to take a step back and reassess himself as a filmmaker. It was around this time when Spalding Gray asked Soderbergh to film one of his monologue performances about Gray’s experience of nearly going blind. Taking a different approach from his previous films, Soderbergh shot Gray’s stage performance while also intertwining interviews with other people who had similar experiences.
The project was an artistic wake-up call for Steven Soderbergh, as he felt reinvigorated by working with Gray. There was a liveliness to Gray’s Anatomy that had been lost in his previous works. The film made its premiere in 1996 and received raved reviews. Though it was given a limited release, the film was a very important moment for Soderbergh from a creative standpoint.
Inspired by his collaboration with Spalding Gray, Soderbergh’s next film was a low-budget feature that he wrote, directed, shot, co-scored, co-edited, and starred in. Schoizopolis is a daring comedy that revolves around a speechwriter for a New Age guru who discovers that his doppelganger is plotting against him. Steven Soderbergh cast himself in the two main roles, and brought in his ex-wife Betsy Brantley to play multiple roles in the film.
Soderbergh employed a myriad of shooting styles to create something that was extremely offbeat. He added scenes that defied conventional narrative – such as the strange appearances of an exterminator named Elmo (David Jensen) – and purposely re-dubbed the film in various languages to subvert the audiences traditional notions of cinema. The film’s playful tone and risk taking renewed sense of confidence in Steven Soderbergh as an artist and as a filmmaker.
Schoizopolis made a surprise appearance at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and, as Soderbergh had anticipated, garnered a poor reaction. Playing the festival circuit, the film continually divided audiences and critics. In its limited theatrical release the film only made $10,000 against its $250,000 budget. Steven Soderbergh was not bothered by this though, he was riding high on a new creative wave of energy.
Out of Sight (review)
With the novels of Elmore Leonard becoming popular again – thanks to the successful adaptation of Get Shorty – Soderbergh was approached to helm a film version of Leonard’s Out of Sight. The story revolved around a bank robber, Jack Foley (George Clooney), whose plans for a robbery get complicated when he falls for the U.S. marshal, Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), trying to arrest him. Soderbergh used the film to explore the sexual tension, and the undeniable chemistry, between the Foley and Sisco. Featuring a script by Scott Frank, who also wrote Get Shorty, Soderbergh’s pulled together a tremendously talent group of actors that included Don Cheadle, Catherine Keener, Luis Guzman, Viola Davis, Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames, and Albert Brooks.
Soderbergh knew that there was one character in particular that he needed in the story, ATF agent Ray Nicolette. The character was also being featured in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, an adaptation Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, which was filming at the time Out of Sight’s production began. Tarantino had cast Michael Keaton in the role and Soderbergh wanted the actor to reprise the role in his film as well. Soderbergh and Universal asked Miramax if they could borrow Keaton for a day but, since they owned the rights to the character, Miramax wanted to charge Universal for the appearance. Fortunately Tarantino stepped in and told Miramax not to charge Universal for un-credited cameo.
Out of Sight received excellent reviews upon its release in 1998. The film grossed more than $77 million worldwide, against its $12 million budget, and ended Soderbergh’s commercial slump. Out of Sight even gained a couple of Oscar nods for Frank’s script and Anne V. Coates’ editing.
The Limey (review)
The success of Out of Sight, and a renewed sense of confidence, gave Soderbergh the opportunity to get back in the good graces of the film industry while still remaining an independent artist. Teaming with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh’s next film was a revenge story about a former criminal, Wilson (Terence Stamp), from Britain who arrives in Los Angeles to find out who killed his estranged daughter. Soderbergh was drawn to the film because it had elements of the great British crime films of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
One of the interesting choices Soderbergh made behind the scenes was asking British filmmaker Ken Loach if he could borrow footage from Loach’s film Poor Cow. Soderbergh used the younger footage of Stamp from that film to help craft Wilson’s backstory. This not only added a stylish layer to the film, but also worked well with the colorful visual textures that cinematography Edward Lachman gave the film. The Limey’s non-linear narrative further enhanced both Wilson’s own regrets and his coming to terms with the past. The film did have its moments of humor to help lighten the gritty tone. There is a nice recurring gag, poking fun at Wilson’s accent, in which Eduardo (Luis Guzman) keeps asking Elaine (Lesley Ann Warren) “do you understand half the shit he‘s saying?”
The Limey played out of competition at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival to an an excellent reception. Though the film was not well-received commercially, it was a hit on the festival circuit. The rave reviews helped to reignite Terence Stamp’s film career.
Erin Brockovich (review)
Based on the clout he had from two critically lauded films, Soderbergh was approached to direct a film about Erin Brockovich, a real-life woman who, despite her lack education, famously fought against a powerful energy corporation. The script by Susannah Grant appealed to the director because it allowed for his artistic flourishes while still being accessible enough to draw in audiences. Julia Roberts was given $20 million to play the titular character, which was considered groundbreaking for an actress at the time.
The eleven-week shoot began in 1999 with Steven Soderbergh creating a biopic that also had elements of comedy as well. To handle the delicate mixture of comedy and drama, he ensured that he had actors who could handle the subtle tonal shifts in the film. The supporting cast featured notable actors such as Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Cherry Jones, Conchata Ferrell, Marg Helgenberger, and Peter Coyote. The real Erin Brockovich even made a small cameo in the film. Though the supporting cast was strong, it was Robert’s charisma that was at the forefront. Her me-against-the-world mentality truly captured the wildcard nature of the very unlikely heroine.
Debuting in March of 1999, Erin Brockovich was a smash hit as it made $250 million worldwide and received rave reviews. Julia Roberts won numerous Best Actress awards including a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a Critic’s Choice Award, and an Academy Award. Speaking of the Oscars, the film received four additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Finney, and a Best Director nod to Soderbergh. In regards to the latter, Soderbergh would lose this category to himself as another film he directed, Traffic, was also released in 2000.
Steven Soderbergh had long been interested in doing a film about the world of drugs. He was eventually approached to do a film version based on 1989 British television mini-series Traffik. The series explored the world of illegal drug trade. Traffic featured a multi-layered narrative that focused on three different storylines set in different locations within North America. The first involved a newly-appointed drug czar trying to win the war on drugs while coping with his own teenage daughter’s drug addiction. The second involved the pregnant wife of a drug lord who takes matters into her own hands in hopes of stopping two DEA agents from building a case against her husband. The third story is set in Mexico and revolved around a police officer who struggles to deal with the corruption within the police force, and seeks help from the DEA. The three connecting stories all helped to show the fallacies and complexities of the war on drugs campaign.
While searching for a writer for the film, Soderbergh discovered the works of an unknown television writer named Stephen Gaghan. Given a budget of $46 million, Soderbergh fronted some of money himself to ensure that he got final cut privileges, Gaghan was hired to adapt the story for the big screen. With help from casting director Debra Zane, Soderbergh assembled a massive ensemble that included: Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio del Toro, Miguel Ferrer, Dennis Quaid, Steven Bauer, Clifton Collins Jr., Erika Christensen, Topher Grace, Amy Irvin, James Brolin, Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman Albert Finney and Viola Davis to name a few. To maintain a sense of authenticity Soderbergh decided to shoot the film by himself. He gave a polished look to scenes in Los Angeles and contrasted them with a more grainy, and hand-held camera rawness, feel to the sequences shot in Mexico.
Arriving in December of 2000, Traffic went on to be a major hit for Steven Soderbergh. Grossing more than $200 million, and being adored by critics, the film marked the beginning of a new era for Soderbergh. He began serving as his own cinematographer on films – though under alias Peter Andrews due to rules of the Director’s Guilds. Traffic won four Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Editing, a Best Supporting Actor for Benicio del Toro, and Best Director for Steven Soderbergh. The film also received a nomination for Best Picture but lost to Gladiator. After being viewed a one-hit wonder nearly a decade earlier, the Oscar win capped off a fantastic year for the director. It also marked the beginning of a period where he would move back and forth between art-house cinema and mainstream Hollywood films.
© thevoid99 2014