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The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to Talk Shop at Film Streams Feature Event


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UPDATE: So, I went to the An Evening with Steven Soderbergh event that the following post previewed, and it proved every bit as engaging a program as I expected.  Alexander Payne handled the introductions with low-key aplomb.  Kurt Andersen was his usual studied and witty self as the moderator or interviewer. And special guest Steven Soderbergh was cool, intelligent, frank, and surprisingly self-effacing.  He even confirmed reports that have been circulating for awhile now that he plans retiring from filmmaking in a few years.  If he does indeed go through with walking away from his film career, it would be an unprecedented move considering his A-list status and relatively young age — he’s only 48.  He just completed Contagion and he has a couple more projects in the pipeline that he’s obligated to complete, Liberace and The Man from Uncle, but after those, he said, he has nothing more scheduled  to hold him down. He said he’s been turning down every project offered to him for some time.  His reason for wanting to abandon filmmaking?  He said it’s a case of feeling like he is more and more retreading the same ground and he no longer wants to feel trapped into repeating himself. He didn’t say what he might do in place of making films, though there was an allusion by Andersen to Soderbergh wanting to paint and perhaps write.  Speaking of writing, Soderbergh described one of his best decisions as coming to terms with the fact that his best potential lay not in writing films but in directing them.  He started out writing his own scripts, including the project that first brought him fame — sex, lies and videotape.  But he increasingly turned to other writers to flesh out his ideas.  I also discovered that Soderbergh ahas for some time now acted as his own cinematographer and editor on his films, often using a pseudonym rather than taking screen credit under his own name in those categories.  All in all, it was a night of stimulating conversation and judging by the packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center this fund raiser for Omaha’s art cinema, Film Streams, was a resounding success.

Omaha’s downtown art cinema, Film Streams, is presenting a Feb. 20 program featuring one of cinema’s top directors, Steven Soderbergh, who will be interviewed on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center by author-Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen.  Filmmaker Alexander Payne, a friend of Soderbergh’s, is introducing the program.  The event’s a fund raiser for Film Streams.  I didn’t get the chance to interview Soderbergh, which was a bummer, but  I still had a good time writing the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the filmmaker and his work.  I interviewed Andersen and solicited comments from Payne, from Film Streams founder/director Rachel Jacobson, and from film historian Ton Schatz.  I look forward to attending An Evening with Steven Soderbergh.  This is the third big fund raiser for Film Streams featuring a major cinema figure. Laura Dern was the special guest year one and Debra Winger last year.  Payne interviewed each on stage.  These are the kinds of cinema events that almost never used to happen in Omaha, and now thanks to Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival they happen on a regular basis.

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to Talk Shop at Film Streams Feature Event

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Steven Soderbergh may not generate the snobby, effete buzz of some name directors, yet he’s arguably the most prolific and accomplished American filmmaker over the past 20 years. As special guest for the Feb. 20 Film Streams Feature Event III, An Evening with Steven Soderbergh, he headlines Omaha’s must-see cinema event of 2011.

Skeptics must concede he has the juice to qualify as an elite director. There are the awards (the Palm d’Or and the Oscar), the glowing reviews, the productive collaborations with mega-stars (George Clooney) and the clout or charisma to get both commercial (Erin Brockovich) and fringe (Che) works produced.

He did one early game-changing film (sex, lies, and videotape) and he’s followed with some prestige mature projects (Traffic). Yes, naysayers point out, but he can’t claim a seminal work like The Godfather or Taxi Driver as his own.

What he does possess is a supple technique he applies to a broad canvas of genres he crosses and bends with equal amounts of restraint and respect and reinvention. He’s not even 50, and his oeuvre may ultimately contain more stand-the-test-of-time credits than any of his flashier contemporaries or senior counterparts.

Yes, but is he an auteur? That may be among the things novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen explores with Soderbergh during their on-stage interview-clip program at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

For now, Andersen ventures while it’s hard to instantly identify a Soderbergh film the way one can a Scorsese or Allen or Tarantino or Coen Brothers film, or for that matter a Tony Scott film, “he is an incredibly ambitious artist, and that’s an interesting combination.”

Count Andersen an admirer.

“He’s done television as well as feature films, he produces (Syriana, Michael Clayton) as well as directs, he does documentaries, he does these big kind of pure entertainment features as well as these very strange little features, and all of that range continues,” he says. “It’s not as though he did these little movies and then graduated to payday movies. That he continues to be as diverse at age 48 as when he was 25-30 is really singular.

“When you look at the body of work and career there’s nobody of his generation who comes close I think in having all of that, as well as the half dozen or whatever master works you can argue about and point to.”

Before the auteur theory messed with cinephiles’ conceptions of where ultimate film authorship lies, name-above-the-title directors were rare. Today, even hacks are accorded that once privileged status. Soderbergh is anything but a hack. Indeed, Andersen calls him “the anti-hack.”

Alexander Payne, who approached Soderbergh to headline the Film Streams fundraiser and will introduce the program, summed up his fellow artist with:

“I count Steven as a friend and colleague, and I have tremendous respect for his career and his purity — and certainly for his work ethic. He admires the directors of classical Hollywood who honed craft through continuous work, and he has miraculously enabled himself to equal their prodigious output. Some hit, some miss, but craft sharpens and roves. And he supports other filmmakers without question.”

A great filmmaker doesn’t have to also be a screenwriter like Payne. John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock produced great art with recurring personal themes and motifs without scripting a word. Soderbergh has writing credits on a third of his features.

Neither is a clearly defined style a prerequisite for a great director. Witness John Huston and Elia Kazan, whose subtle styles changed from film to film in service of story while their own preoccupations shone through. Soderbergh is in their chameleon tradition.

The fertile mid-1960s through 1970s era saw personal filmmaking flower in and out of Hollywood with Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, et all. In the 1980s this trend retreated in the face of mega pics, sequels and special effects.

Soderbergh is a bridge figure who helped usher in the independent film movement with his 1989 debut feature sex, lies, and videotape. A searching period followed that film’s breakout success. Since the mid-‘90s he’s evolved as a director of high gloss studio projects, including the Oceans series, that win critical and industry praise — and also make money — yet also as the maker of art pieces that exercise other creative muscles.

University of Texas at Austin film scholar Tom Schatz says Soderbergh’s arrival one the scene marked a turning point.

“1989 was perhaps the most important year for Hollywood in the past half-century,” says Schatz. “It was the year of the Time-Warner and Sony-Columbia mergers, which began the trend toward conglomerate control that now defines the movie industry. It was the year of Batman, the first modem blockbuster. And it was the year of sex, lies, and videotape, which ignited an indie-film movement and alongside Batman set a dual trajectory that continues to this day.

“Interestingly enough, Soderbergh is among the very few contemporary Hollywood filmmakers who can move effortlessly and successfully from one of these tracks to the other, segueing from modest, innovative, character-driven films to big-budget franchise blockbusters. In the process he has steadily produced a body of work that is unmatched in contemporary American cinema.”

Andersen says Soderbergh shook things up around the same time the Coens,Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee emerged as a brash new guard.

Kurt Andersen at microphone

Andersen wonders how sex, lies, videotape plays to 2011 eyes inured by YouTube, Web cams and reality TV. When the film came out, voyeurism was not the ubiquitous leisure activity it is now.

“It was the germinal moment of a certain era of American films that were strange and singular and idiosyncratic and that everybody was suddenly talking about in a way they hadn’t since the ’70s,” notes Andersen. “What’s so kind of heartening and praiseworthy about Soderbergh’s career is he continues really risky formal experiments.”

Take the director’s choice of revolutionary Che Guevara as the subject of a four-hour-plus, two-part film in Spanish. The sheer length and scope leaves Andersen wondering, “Why do you do that? It’s almost a different thing than a conventional feature film. At one point in the process did he decide this needs to be this epic thing?” He plans to ask Soderbergh that very question.

Andersen’s also fascinated by Soderbergh’s take on the ferment of that time.

“I’ve just written a novel, much of which is set in the ‘60s, and about politics. I’m eager to talk to him about how we’re maybe now just getting far enough away from the ‘60s, with all their power and electricity and iconic resonance, where we can make interesting art about them and talk about them in ways that are not quite so hot and bothered.”

Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson says she appreciates Soderbergh’s “transparent awareness of the commercial pressures that “compromise the art of film” by his jumping back and forth between the two extremes of feature filmmaking.

She adds, “He’s also interested in challenging traditional distribution channels. Both Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience were released On-Demand and on Blu-Ray the same day and date they were released theatrically. His visit is such a terrific match for us as an art house theater dealing with these issues from the other end.”

Film Streams Feature Events I and II guests, Laura Dern and Debra Winger, respectively, discussed acting and offered anecdotes about projects and collaborators. Alexander Payne, who directed Dern in his first feature Citizen Ruth and admired the commitment Winger made to her roles, conducted soft interviews with the stars. This time, with a director in the spotlight and a veteran journalist asking penetrating questions, a different dynamic is in the offing. Both Payne and Andersen serve on the art cinema’s Advisory Board.

“Having had two terrific actors at past Features, I feel like the acclaimed director’s visit is a terrific way to mix things up,” says Jacobson. “Everyone has seen a Soderbergh film but not everyone pays attention to the director. It’s really important to our mission of promoting film as art that people think about the artist with the vision behind the work, the decisions that go into every shot, and the talent it takes to create a good movie.

“We’re thrilled that Kurt is coming to do the interview this year.”

The balancing act of Soderbergh, who’s publicly bemoaned the unwieldy, antiquated system for getting films made and released, intrigues Andersen. He says he’s eager to ask “how he convinced-persuaded the money guys to let him do what he wanted to do” in that limbo period following sex, when the perceived failures of Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath and the TV series Fallen Angels seemed to signal a fall to irrelevance.

Then came five films that made Soderbergh not only relevant again but gave him cachet: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. From then till now Soderbergh’s moved from obscure projects like Solaris and The Good German to star-vehicles like The Informant and the forthcoming Haywire.

As Andersen says, “there’s talent and luck and then there’s the personality-temperament things that allow you to make that Hollywood ATM machine cough up the money.” Andersen’s curious to kknow how artists like Soderbergh “actually manage to have other people pay for the courage” of their “private, quirky convictions.”

 

 

Even when Soderbergh has played it “safe” with forays into genre themes and variations, whether the caper buddy pic (Oceans) or the romantic suspense flick (Out of Sight) or the revenge story (The Limey) or the underdog-against-all-odds chestnut (Brockovich), he’s made the conventions his own.

“He’s broad enough in his vision of interesting material that he can take something that’s been seen a thousand times and make it a memorable thing,” says Andersen.

The Good German finds Soderbergh taking the duplicity and intrigue and look of Casablanca or The Third Man and at once remaining true to it and tweaking it. His black and white milieu and mis en scene boast mystique with a modern edge.

“You see him setting up a particular kind of obstacle course for himself. He’s doing not just a modern version of a film noir,” says Andersen, “but he’s actually trying to do it in a virtual simulation way — to try and figure out how movies were made then in ways that we don’t now, and yet trying to make it work as a film that comes out in 2006.

“It’s interesting to me to talk to an artist about the kinds of puzzles he sets for himself.”

Andersen admits to being a sucker for spy stories anyway and he says Soderbergh’s riffs with the well-worn form made it a must-see for him.

“That’s interesting in a personal way for me,” says Andersen. “I’m fascinated by the intelligence agencies. In this new novel of mine the serious research I had to do was about how the intelligence business works, so I actually was thinking about The Good German. I rewatched that film in anticipation of talking to Soderbergh.”

Traffic is another example of an overused, often cliched subject — illegal drug trafficking — that in the hands of an imaginative filmmaker becomes a kind of elegiac opus about human greed and frailty told in overlapping storylines.

“A really interesting film,” says Andersen. “It’s the kind of movie that in description could be such a hack work thing. If in a blind taste test that film was simply described to you, you’d think, Yeah, maybe, but you’d expect it to be mediocre. But again with this kind of genre material he brings both this interesting, complicated structure — TV-like in a way because of course it’s an adaptation of a television series — and turns this pulp material into something so much better. Into a work of art.”

Andersen says The Informant portrays business management’s “moral ambiguity” and “murkiness” in a way “that fiction and film seldom do. It’s so unpigeonholable. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? What is it?” He likes too the improvisational and enigmatic qualities of The Girlfriend Experience.

In the end, Andersen says, Soderbergh distinguishes his work above the fray.

“There’s so many like big tent pole movies that get made just because the deal was made,” he says. “He’s s one who clearly takes seriously the fact that somebody’s going to pay 10 bucks and spend two hours of their life, and so I better try to entertain them. He kind of gives more than necessary. When any artist over-delivers in what they’re strictly required to do, it makes for a great artist and for a career that really lasts.

“You never get the sense he’s phoning it in in any sense, which isn’t to say it always works. I mean, he has lesser movies and greater movies, but he’s always trying. His work never goes off the rails. There’s always a sense of rigor about it.”

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. concert hall interview are $35 and available by calling 933-0259 or visiting www.filmstreams.org. A post-party and private reception cost extra.

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