Steven Soderbergh: The director's cut

Steven Soderbergh has decided to turn his back on star vehicles and slash budgets. He tells Nicola Christie how cinema will benefit
Click to follow

It is impossible to claim a film, a moment, as definitive - and that testifies to Soderbergh's breadth and versatility as a film-maker. One moment he is pushing technical boundaries to the limit on Traffic (shooting on a digital camera, the first time a feature on this scale had been shot on digital video) and interlinking three different narratives, each shot in its own colour (Benicio Del Toro's Mexican section in a hazy yellow, Michael Douglas's storyline in cold blue); the next he's delivering a perfect superficial money-spinning bland blend for Hollywood in Ocean's Eleven and Twelve.

The latter is not something he apologises for. "I love making movies like that. There are things I get to do as a film-maker in those movies that I can't do anywhere else, and it's fun. But I need to go and make something smaller, something more still, afterwards."

Bubble is the first of six low-budget films Soderbergh and producer Gregory Jacobs will make over the next five years. All will be shot on Hi-Definition (HD) cameras; each will be filmed quickly, with a small crew (Bubble was shot in 18 days with a crew of six); and each will "star" non-actors who, with Soderbergh's help, will write their own script.

The first of these six features proved compelling when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival last month. It's a weird love triangle played out in a factory making plastic dolls.

Soderbergh was looking for a setting that would ignite his imagination, and the world of plastic limbs, whirring machinery and shiny eyeballs sounded a good bet. "I found a doll factory in Ohio. It's one of the last three in the US; the rest have moved to China. And it was even better than I hoped. When we went to visit, it was even more surreal and bizarre than I could have imagined."

Showing America - "real" America, not the glossy Hollywood version - is what Bubble and the next five films are about. From as early as the age of 15, when Soderbergh enrolled in a university film school while still in high school, the director has been excited about what film is capable of - the stories it can capture, the voices it can reveal.

He does as much as he can on his movies, unusually also taking on the role of director of photography. "There are many cinematographers who are much better than I am, but it would be very difficult for me now to step back and insert another person between me and the image," he says. And there's also the screenwriting and the editing.

Soderbergh's first job in Hollywood was as an editor. Cutting and assembling, particularly in a digital age when one can hurl audio around the timeline as opposed to manually piecing it all together, has always been a thrill for Soderbergh. A highlight of the Bubble shoot was what happened at the end of a day's filming: "We had the footage in my hotel room, on my computer, so we'd watch what we shot that day. I could edit scenes and then go out and shoot it differently the next day. It was amazing."

Testing what a new technology is capable of, and testing one's own capabilities within the medium, are important to Soderbergh. He is also turning distribution on its head in a multiplatform simultaneous release that will see Bubble open at the North American cinema, on pay TV and on DVD on the same day.

"I went to Mark Cuban's 2929 Entertainment - they own a Hi-Definition channel in the States, and they have just bought the largest arthouse theatres in the States, the Landmark Theatres - and I said, 'I think it's time that we put a film out in every format at the same time. I think this is inevitable and I want us to experiment with this idea of not having any hold-back windows for these films. I think the consumer should have that option.'"

Soderbergh plans eventually to cut the studios out altogether. This, he says, is what digital technology can unleash. "You'll see named film-makers self-distributing their own films. That's where this is going to go. If I can go to the bank and get money to make the movie, and in two to four years' time the digital changeover has happened in the US and all the theatres are digitally projecting, I'll just go right to the theatres and make a deal with them. I'm certainly going to pursue that."

At the core of Soderbergh is a hungry and excited film-maker, whether he's working on 16mm shorts or on HD. The tools are just that; whatever is most suited to the story that needs to be told. In digital's case, it is a medium that allows new intimacy and immediacy. "You can work so quickly with these cameras; they're lighter, more portable. The time between having an idea and seeing it expressed has collapsed, and that's great."

But other tools - traditional film, for instance - are more suitable for other projects, such as Soderbergh's upcoming epic Che, which starts shooting next spring. Benicio Del Toro will play the Cuban revolutionary.

For this project, Soderbergh plans to return to the 35mm camera. "The advantages of the digital camera are neutralised by the scale of the movie in this instance, by the army that it's going to take to make the film. You're not able to take advantage as much of the speed."

Before the cameras roll on Che, Soderbergh has The Good German to get through. He's just started shooting the adaptation of the Joseph Kanon murder mystery novel set after the Second World War. It's another film coming out of Soderbergh's production company Section Eight, which he set up with the actor George Clooney five years ago.

Previous offerings haven't exactly set the box office alight, but this year's presence at Venice - Bubble and the Clooney-directed US news journalism tribute Goodnight and Good Luck - may indicate a change in fortune.

Yet none of this helps to define a Steven Soderbergh movie, because there is no formula. The blockbuster lives side by side with the low-budget effort - just for the pleasure of it, of doing it all, of conducting the grand, lavish display and the careful still life at the same time. "Even if one is designed to kill the other one, in a way, to me they're totally connected - that connects them."

'Bubble' shows at the London Film Festival today at 2pm and on 29 October at 6.30pm (020-7928 3232;