Yes, Steven Soderbergh really does plan to retire, or at least take a sabbatical. One day, he may return to directing movies, but only after recharging his creative batteries with painting and photography, the passions he plans to pursue instead.
This change will begin when he turns 50 next January, which, given the speed of the 49-year-old director’s output, looks to be several films away.
When we meet December 23 at his office in New York’s Flatiron District, Soderbergh is close to finishing Magic Mike, a comedy loosely based on actor Channing Tatum’s experiences as a male stripper, set for release this June. In November, after their version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fell through, he and Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns announced a collaboration on Bitter Pill, a thriller set in the world of psychopharmacology, about which Soderbergh declines to say much. (“Something is going to happen to somebody.”) In 2013, HBO will premiere his long-gestating Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant crooner and Matt Damon as his lover.
This isn’t the lineup of someone in a rut. Or is it? “I need to rewire,” says Soderbergh, who feels as though he’s making the same kinds of choices in movie after movie. “In order to come up with solutions that are different and better, I need to become a completely different filmmaker. That doesn’t happen in stages. I need to do the Keith Richards thing where I get my blood switched.”
Until then, this month’s Soder-offering is Haywire (opening Friday 20), which was actually filmed before last year’s Contagion and which, as the director’s first foray into action filmmaking, might seem like departure enough. It stars mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano as an ex-marine turned contract soldier who’s set up after a government job in Barcelona. Sorting out the various double crosses, she tangles with Tatum, Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender—several of whom get their asses kicked.
True to form, Soderbergh has deviated from the conventions of both current action films and some of the fighting styles associated with MMA. (There’s only one lengthy choke hold.) Declining to name names, Soderbergh disdains the fragmentary editing style of recent blockbusters, which he describes as “visually, like reading a sentence in which the words are out of order.” (Hello, Transformers and Bourne franchise.)
In Haywire, when Carano’s Mallory Kane slips out of a pair of handcuffs and guns down her captors, it’s so fast you barely register what she’s done. The stunts are abrupt, no-nonsense and filmed with as few distractions as possible—perhaps a corollary for the director’s approach to filmmaking.
“We’re not blowing shit up,” Soderbergh says. “I said to the fight choreographers, it has to be something a human can do. There are no fucking wires or stuff. When you’re talking about people with this skill set, there’s only a certain amount of options. You get the drop on somebody and then it’s over. I didn’t want it to become comical, like this thing just won’t end. But I did want you to feel as much as possible what it might be like to be in that situation.”
The project began in 2009 when Sony pulled the plug on his version of Moneyball, which was eventually retooled by Capote director Bennett Miller. Soon after, Soderbergh saw Carano on TV. “She had just lost her last [most recent] fight,” he explains, “so it seemed like a good time for the two of us to get into a room, me having been fired and her having been beaten.” As homework, he watched movies by directors he regards as highly adept at staging action: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, John McTiernan (Die Hard with a Vengeance in particular) and especially David Fincher. Soderbergh’s love for The Social Network is well documented, and he reserves special praise for the Henley Regatta sequence. “It makes my head hurt just thinking about it,” he says.
Still, for someone with one eye on the mainstream, Soderbergh remains an idiosyncratic figure. The floor of his office, more of an artist’s studio, is littered with unopened boxes and tubes of acrylic paint. One wall showcases Soderbergh’s paintings: A brightly colored portrait of abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912–2004) sits just to the left of two line studies. “Rousseau started at 51,” he notes of the artwork. His own “will go back and forth between pure abstract stuff and portraits.” That arguably makes it a correlative to his filmmaking career, which ranges from the commercial (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven) to the avant-garde (Bubble, Che).
He’s also the only one there the day of the interview, which makes him the rare director unguarded by handlers. The night before, I received an e-mail from his assistant: “Just call out a ‘hello’ and he’ll come get you.” In fact, he bounded up the stairs as I was waiting for the elevator.
Part of Soderbergh’s secret is his ability to shrug off the projects that don’t pan out. “Remaining stuck in the moment of your setback, there’s no point,” he says. He hasn’t seen Moneyball, though noting the film’s box office and positive reviews, says, “Clearly, firing me turned out to be a very good business plan.” Still, he offers some insight into how his version might have differed. “If it’s anything like the script that existed when I first came on, or the book, I can say with a fair amount of certitude that [former Oakland A’s manager] Art Howe was not treated fairly,” Soderbergh says. “One of the things that I wanted to do, partially by casting him as himself, was to restore his image.”
This casting of non-actors has become a recent Soderbergh trademark: Carano joins former porn star Sasha Grey of The Girlfriend Experience (2009) on a list of the director’s leads who haven’t acted in mainstream films before—although for obvious reasons, Soderbergh notes, Grey began with a higher comfort level in front of the cameras. His last several films, beginning with Che (2008), have also been subtly political, maintaining a cool skepticism about the gap between idealism and reality. Contagion and Haywire both hinge on murky collusions between government and private industry. “It’s kind of by chance,” he says. “Look at what’s going [on] right now. It’s certainly in the air. It’s not surprising that we ended up in that area in both films.”
Soderbergh is also adept at economizing. Looking back on one of his bigger financial flops, he actually rues that he didn’t make Solaris (2002) more cheaply. When Contagion shot in Chicago, Midway doubled as airports around the world. “We try to be pretty surgical about that stuff and take advantage of the kind of cheats that you can pull off in a movie that don’t feel like cheats,” he says. “That’s fun to do.”
Haywire reunites Soderbergh with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, with whom he worked on Kafka (1991) and The Limey (1999), which Haywire to some degree inverts. Both movies deal with father-daughter relationships, and an oceanfront finale echoes the earlier film.
Although he’s worked with Dobbs roughly once a decade, their next collaboration may not be far off: Soderbergh has received an offer from a producer to re-edit Kafka, his second feature, possibly shooting new footage. “I’m going to dub it into German,” Soderbergh says. “They will all be speaking German and it will all be subtitled. It will solve a lot of issues with the tone and sort of the polyglot accents because of the international cast, which I felt in retrospect was a problem.”
He’s not sure exactly what the changes will entail, but he may incorporate a news item involving the disputed rights to Kafka’s manuscripts. “Maybe there is some modern-day framing device that would allow us to wind this thing into a new story,” he says. “I’m open to anything.”
As long as it’s before he turns 50.
Haywire opens Friday 20.