“I think that [Soderbergh’s] ‘final films’ from 2009-2013 after he announced his retirement reflect one of the most prolific and creative bursts of filmmaking in recent American cinema.”—R. Colin Tait, coauthor of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh
The following is an interview with Andrew deWaard and R. Colin Tait, authors of The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: Indie Sex, Corporate Lies and Digital Videotape
Question: What made you interested in writing about the topic of Steven Soderbergh?
Andrew deWaard: Like many, if not most students in film studies, we were interested in the concept of film auteurs and the personal visions of film directors. Soderbergh presented a dramatic alternative to this school of thought; he seemed to radically change his style and subject matter with every new film.
R. Colin Tait: There was also the strange coincidence that we both arrived to graduate school with a similar idea—to work on Soderbergh—and that collaborating on a project would allow us to push each other in ways that I think a single-authored piece couldn’t. There was also the matter of why Soderbergh’s contributions had largely been overshadowed within an era that he was hugely responsible for defining, which became one of our central questions when approaching the subject.
Q: How about your subtitle: what do you mean by “indie sex, corporate lies and digital videotape”?
RCT: Well, it’s a play on and an update of the title of Soderbergh’s breakout film, sex, lies and videotape. In the book, we wonder aloud how Soderbergh might define the running themes throughout his work from today’s vantage point. By indie sex we intend to evoke the “romantic” account of the indie era of American filmmaking in the early 1990s, and how Soderbergh, often thought of as a cold, aloof filmmaker, has filmed some of the most cinematic, non-traditional love scenes (Out of Sight, Solaris) in recent years. For “corporate lies” we evoke the anti-corporate stance of many of Soderbergh’s movies, where the “little guys” face off against big business (as in the case of Ocean’s 11). And finally, for digital videotape, we wanted to highlight Soderbergh’s essential role as an early adopter of digital technologies and his role in changing the aesthetic of contemporary films.
AD: “Corporate lies” can be seen to be a significant concern throughout Soderbergh’s body of work, including those he directed — environmental pollution and corporate malfeasance in Erin Brockovich, the lobbying industry in Washington in K-Street, global price-fixing in The Informant!, environmental destruction that leads to a pandemic in Contagion — as well as those he helped produce — the geopolitical ramifications of the oil industry in Syriana (Stephen Gaghan), the psychotropic dystopia of A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater), and the corporate and legal corruption featured in Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), among others
Q: What did you intend to accomplish with this book?
AD: Primarily we wanted to shed light on a then-underrated yet prolific filmmaker. When we began writing, there wasn’t a single book dedicated to Soderbergh; there are now five, attesting to his recently realized significance. Once we started writing, it became apparent that Soderbergh wouldn’t fit into traditional auteur formulations, so we sought to expand our analysis to include some of the other important factors in contemporary filmmaking, such as economics, publicity, and technology. Similar to Soderbergh’s own filmmaking practice, we attempt to introduce a new idea or concept with each chapter, rather than adhere to any single paradigm.
RCT: I think that it was important to build a contemporary model for considering how authorship has become much more complicated within the Hollywood industry. I’m certain that the model we constructed can be used to consider other directors as well. There has also been a tendency on the part of critics to dismiss figures that don’t broadcast their own significance or possess an obvious signature. We wanted to explain that Soderbergh was not only significant, but his career was emblematic of the shifts within the industry within the past 20 years or so.
Q: What does Steven Soderbergh’s career tell us about contemporary Hollywood?
RCT: Since Soderbergh made roughly a film a year over the course of twenty years, his career provides a much more accurate sample of industry trends than other directors, who typically make a film every couple of years or so. So, on a basic level, we can link his films to significant moments within Hollywood history, which has changed a great deal between 1989 and today.
AD: Authorship, independent cinema, genre, capital, globalization, trauma, history, technology, social justice: all of these themes recur throughout Soderbergh’s career, offering a fitting case study for the contemporary period.
Q: Soderbergh doesn’t have the same cult of personality that surrounds other contemporary directors like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, why do you think this is so?
AD: For one thing, Soderbergh has made some risky films that have proven commercial and/or critical failures. He has been willing to experiment and push the boundaries of what is “acceptable” multiplex fare, perhaps to the detriment of his reputation, as well as his financial reliability as perceived by the studios. Anderson and Tarantino and their ilk have similar styles and subject matters from film to film—their fans know what to expect and they consistently return solid box office numbers relative to their budgets. Soderbergh, on the other hand, is willing—proud even—to confound and disappoint.
RCT: I get the impression that in some cases, Soderbergh’s refusal to conform to a single identity has ultimately led to his being (at times) unfairly treated by the press, or up until very recently, ignored by scholars. In my conversations with cinephiles and in teaching some of my students (who are often would-be filmmakers), I find that there is often a deeper appreciation for what Soderbergh is attempting than in some of his peers’ works.
Q: What do you make of Soderbergh’s most recent releases?
RCT: I think that his “final films” from 2009-2013 after he announced his retirement reflect one of the most prolific and creative bursts of filmmaking in recent American cinema. Most of them are intriguing genre experiments that express his fondness for a more serious, politically engaged type of filmmaking that is often associated with the late 1960s/1970s. They are also his final collaborations with people he’s enjoyed working with like screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, Channing Tatum, and Matt Damon. It’s refreshing to see that critics seem to finally be recognizing that Soderbergh’s retirement from feature filmmaking is a great loss for the community as a whole. He has certainly proved this with these last couple of films.
AD: It’s tempting to consider Soderbergh’s work in various phases: the early independent work when he’s testing the limits of the medium, the breakthrough stage that begins with Out of Sight and peaks with his dual Oscar nominations for Erin Brockovich and Traffic, the Section Eight (his production company with George Clooney) days when he oscillated between the Ocean’s films and his more esoteric films, ending with the struggles he encountered with making the Che biopic. If you consider the fact that he was then considering retirement, this last phase seems like a much more relaxed body of work. Perhaps unburdened from the requirement to maintain some semblance of profitability, Soderbergh is able to proceed with a series of experimental films, seemingly on a whim: for Magic Mike, Tatum told him his autobiographical story of exotic dancing and Soderbergh immediately set out to produce it; for Haywire, Soderbergh saw Gina Carano on television and figured she would make a good action star. Some recurrent themes of these last films include a focus on the body and exchange, a playful engagement with genre, and a tendency toward digital experimentation.
Q: Which of Soderbergh’s films are your favorites?
AD: Out of Sight, certainly. It’s an immensely enjoyable caper film, as well as a romantic comedy (Soderbergh coaxes perhaps the only worthwhile performance in Jennifer Lopez’s career), as well as a slick, non-linear editing structure and clever rumination on the nature of crime. Oh, and it has one of the steamiest sex scenes in Hollywood history.
RCT: Soderbergh has talked about how the experience of watching certain films at certain moments in your life stay with you for good. The film that does that for me is The Limey, which blew my mind with its editing, and has Terence Stamp at his absolute best.