Movie Talk

Steven Soderbergh talks about his retirement, becoming ‘a primitive’ and 'the next iteration of cinema'

Movie Talk

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Soderbergh on the set of 'Magic Mike' (Photo: Warner Bros)

Steven Soderbergh will talk to you only in 45-minute chunks of time. For most press junkets, the standard interview time is a mere 4 minutes. So when I got a chance to interview the director of "Magic Mike," we had plenty of time to talk.

Soderbergh has had one of the most enviable careers out there. The director has made Oscar favorites like "Traffic," Hollywood blockbusters like "Ocean's Eleven," and art-house flicks like "The Girlfriend Experience" and "Che." Most remarkably, he navigates these very different spheres of filmdom without changing the way he makes movies. Soderbergh not only directs but also shoots and edits his films, no matter what the scale of the project.

Recently, Soderbergh has been making movies at a breakneck rate. Since 2011, he's cranked out five flicks, including "Side Effects," which comes out this week, and a Liberace biopic for HBO, "Beyond the Candelabra." When the latter airs sometime later this year, that will be it, according to the director. He's either retiring from big-budget movie making or he's taking a long extended break. He's not sure.

In this interview, the first of two parts, Soderbergh talks about what he wants to do during his retirement. It looks as though a Hawaiian vacation or catching up with his stamp collection isn't at the top of his priority list. No, Soderbergh wants to take time away from the Hollywood rat race to reinvent the language of cinema.

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JC: I just got done with the "Stoker" junket. So I'm still a little fried.

SS: Yeah, yeah. Press junkets are a very specific form of psychological torture for everyone involved.

JC: Yes, I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the other side of that. Answer the same questions every four minutes.

SS: It's really bad. There's no scenario once you don't hate yourself. It's impossible. Matt [Damon] and I talked about that when we were doing "The Informant." We're talking about waterboarding, and he was like, "F*** that. You get the worst terrorist zealot and junket him for three days and we'll break him. We will totally break him."

JC: I believe it.

SS: That's why I have these rules about doing long interviews, because you can't get anywhere. I wanted it to be a dialogue. When I was in the U.K. doing press for [his fourth feature] "The Underneath," I was very upfront with how frustrated I was with the movie. It turned out to be a very important film for me because I realized that I was, as a filmmaker, heading in a direction that I didn't want to be heading in. It led to me to stop. And then I was able to make "Schizopolis" and "Grey's Anatomy" and then "Out of Sight" and all that. I needed to have that experience to break me out of this rut. You should've seen the looks on people's faces when I would say, "I'm not a fan of this movie."

JC: So what direction were you afraid of going?

SS: I was becoming a formalist. The movies were becoming very, very sealed off. Life was being sort of kept out of them somehow. I knew the solution was to go back to grass roots and start over. Go off and make these little weird things just to blow it out. That was what I needed to do. Now, what I'm going through is different. Then I knew what the solution was to my dilemma. I know I have to just stop. I can't slough off this skin while I'm in the middle of making a movie.

JC: By all accounts, you're really at the top of your game. Not everybody would think of retirement at this particular moment.

SS: Five years ago, as we were finishing "Che," I said, "OK, when I turn 50, I want to be done. I'm going to jam in as much as I can, but when I turn 50, I want to be done." This movie is done. "Liberace" is done, delivered. So, other than doing press like that, I've already started working on other things.

Basically, I'm not getting better at the things that I think are really important ultimately. There's a new grammar of cinema out there. I'm convinced that there's another sort of iteration to be had, and I don't know what it is. If I knew, I would do it.

JC: What does this next iteration of cinema look like?

SS: I'm looking for something in which you get to the end of it and you know exactly what you saw and you have no idea how the information hit you. It's so indirect, but clear, that you're like, "How did I land here?" That's what I'm trying to get into. Maybe I need to just start with a series of images that feels loaded and pregnant and unsettling and just start collecting those images and start arranging them and see if I can create something. Do you know what I mean?

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JC: I haven't heard many mainstream filmmakers talk like this …

SS: Well, I feel like we're not taking advantage of how sophisticated we've gotten at reading the images. It's not about the number of images or how fast those images come. It's about loading each one with so many preexisting associations that the audience is doing a lot of work. No one has really challenged them before to mine all of these associations they have from seeing the images their whole lives.

So you can take a shot of somebody sitting in a hotel room. Let's say this person looks like he comes from a part of the world that we associate with a lot of violent activity. You put him in a hotel room sitting on a bed, and next to him on the bed is an open suitcase. Then you cut to a shot of a bunch of cables coming out of the back of terabytes of hard drives, and then you cut to a shot of the president in the newspaper. Now immediately, you start to imply a narrative here that suggests this guy is going to do something to the president, but he's being controlled somehow by whoever built that machine with all those cables coming out of it. Immediately, we connect a narrative to those images, and you haven't done anything. It's standing on the shoulders with so many other images, with so many associations, and you can take advantage of that.

We've fallen into a default mode, a standard of visual storytelling that's based on the most obvious editorial principles. That kind of stuff is frustrating; I feel like I want to bust out of that a little bit. I have to become a primitive again. I remember in one interview saying that if I have to set up another over-the-shoulder shot, I am going to kill myself.

[Related: Soderbergh Interview Part 2: On making ‘Side Effects,’ working in Hollywood and scaring Matt Damon]

JC: Your movies are really lean. You don't have the extra movements; you don't have any extra cuts. You've mastered a very economical style of filmmaking, but now you're saying that you're getting bored with that same stuff …

SS: I've been trying to be as lean as I can. I enjoy figuring out how few shots I need to get through this. That's separate from this whole other larger conversation of how we transmit information to an audience. I think, one way, I'm practicing half of what this other language might be because I know what it's going to involve. Like, I think this whole new thing may be a series of less than a half dozen shots that set up a very complex universe. I really need to throw the tool kit up in the air and go, "All right, I am 3 years old, and I have no idea what any of these rules are."

Check out the second part of my interview with Steven Soderbergh, in which he talks about his new movie, "Side Effects," and how he scared the bejesus out of Matt Damon.

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