For a director who has announced his retirement, Steven Soderbergh has been keeping busy. His female-led action thriller Haywire hits screens less than three months after his killer-virus tale Contagion. His next film, Magic Mike, set in the world of male strippers, is already in the can. Perhaps he feels the need to get through as much as possible before he hits 50 next year, puts on his slippers, and whiles away the days with a paintbrush in his hand.
"Look, I didn't announce my retirement, Matt [Damon] did!" And so begins the inevitable backtrack. It was during promotion for The Informant!, a year ago, that Damon let slip Soderbergh's plan to stop making films when he turned 50. Today, the director insists that he is just taking a sabbatical rather than quitting altogether – time out to recharge his batteries after making 25 feature films in 23 years. He wants to spend some time painting – how long the break will be depends on how much he enjoys exploring the new art form. Judging from his career and his desire to make movies, the chances are he'll be back directing sooner rather than later.
Born in Atlanta, and raised in Baton Rouge, where his father was Dean of Louisiana State University, Soderbergh was only 26 when he won the Palme d'Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival with his debut film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. A difficult decade followed in which he made a series of idiosyncratic choices before redefining his career with Out of Sight in 1998. Since then Soderbergh has lived up to his early promise to become one of the most highly regarded American directors, making an eclectic and diverse range of films, from the Ocean's Eleven franchise to two Che Guevara biopics and the occasional small-budget independent, such as Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience.
Soderbergh peppers his conversation with anecdotes about superstar actors, many of whom are willing to jettison their usual salary demands to work for him. The director once had a production company with George Clooney, with whom he has made six movies. For Haywire, he decided to cast an unknown, Gina Carano, in the principal role of an assassin who is wanted dead by her paymasters. Carano is a mixed-martial-arts expert best known to fans of cage-fighting in the US.
"She's awesome, she's the real deal", enthuses Soderbergh. "When Channing Tatum saw Haywire, at the end of the film he said, 'I can't tell you how satisfying it is to watch a woman beat men up'. And she really does it. It's not like there are any tricks. She's a cage fighter; she's really something." Soderbergh, smartly, surrounds Carano with a plethora of stars including the now ubiquitous Michael Fassbender, as well as Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor and Tatum. Part of the fun with Haywire, as it was with Contagion, is that Soderbergh is not afraid to kill off his biggest stars.
"It's always good to kill movie stars," he says. "I think that the two most important things that have happened to that aspect of movies in the last 50 years are Hitchcock killing off Janet Leigh in a way that nobody had ever dreamed of doing – taking his heroine and killing her off after 40 minutes – and... Mike Nichols casting Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. That changed everything.
"Now it's back to the way it was before that single decision totally turned the world upside down in terms of what was people's idea of a movie star. That one stroke ushered in the great actors who followed, De Niro, Pacino and Nicholson." He clearly likes actors who play with the notion of movie stardom. Talking about his recent collaboration with Jude Law on Contagion, he describes how the British heartthrob came up with the concept of his character having a false tooth: "It was shocking how much it changed his expression – he went from being Jude Law to being Jude Law's brother who's never going to become a movie star unless he gets his tooth fixed."
He continues: "Kate [Winslet] has this running joke where she mimics someone who is incredibly vain, and so, in Contagion, when we were shooting this scene when she was dead, shooting her close-up with a bag over her head, just as we're getting ready to roll she looks over and says, 'do I look thin?'"
While Soderbergh can joke about his work, frustrations with the studio system are one of the reasons why he wants to take a break. The director was due to make a reboot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series for the big screen, but left the project in November, reportedly over the size of the budget. Now he almost begrudges having to work with the studios.
"Who else is going to have $60m for a picture?" he questions. "I think part of the reason movies aren't getting any better is that people that are making mistakes on a studio level aren't being punished. The losses are being absorbed by advertising and so they don't pay for it when they mess up... Look, everybody makes mistakes, but I look around and see the same mistakes being made over and over again. The model's not right. They actually increase their chances of being wrong when they try to decide whether a specific project is commercial or not. They should just find a film-maker that they think is talented and responsible and set up a situation where that person can make a group of films with a certain economic parameter and let them do what they want to do. That's the way to make money in the long haul. Sort of the Clint Eastwood model."
Unsurprisingly, he would like to see more power given to the director, and it's this romantic way of looking at movies that seems to have defined his career. Soderbergh often works his own camera, under the moniker Peter Andrews, and, when he edits his own films, he calls himself Mary Ann Bernard, after his parents.
His directing break came in 1985, when he made the Grammy-nominated video 9012Live for the band Yes. In 2000 he became the first director since Michael Curtiz in 1938 to receive two Best Director Oscar nods in the same year, when he was nominated for Erin Brockovich and won for the drug drama Traffic. For independent film-makers, Soderbergh is often seen as a champion of low-budget film-making, working with digital cameras and a small crew and going around in a van shooting scenes on real locations. Haywire will be the lowest-budget action movie with big stars to hit our screen over the next 12 months.
Like Martin Scorsese, Soderbergh has mastered the trick of doing one film for the studio and one for himself. Magic Mike promises to be an eye-opener. The idea for the film came from a conversation he had with Tatum on the set of Haywire.
"That's how I got into the male-stripper project," he explains. "When he started talking about it on set I thought it would be a good idea for a movie. Okay, we all like Saturday Night Fever, we like John Travolta dancing in that movie – imagine if he was naked. That's what we're talking about. It's going to be crazy."
'Haywire' is out on 18 January
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