8th February: Side Effects released (US)
15th March: Side Effects released (UK)
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Released: 8th February (US)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
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NEW & UPCOMING DVDS
Now available from Amazon.com:
Now available from Amazon.co.uk:
DVDs that include an audio commentary track from Steven:
Clean, Shaven - Criterion Collection
The Graduate (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
The Third Man - Criterion Collection
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Hollywood is making intelligent movies again, thanks to
a modern-day Hitchcock who brings the best out in everyone
(The Sunday Times, August 25, 2002)
A cursory glance at the films
on release this summer in America is enough to make any cinephile head for
the video shop in search of more challenging viewing. Movies made by
committee seem to be the order of the day, with sequels such as Men
in Black 2 and Goldmember mixed in with prequels like
Attack of the Clones and films like XXX
that the studios hope will spawn the franchises of the future. On the face
of it, there's plenty of evidence to suggest the pessimists of the late
1970s were right when they predicted that the global success of Star
Wars and Jaws would result in a Hollywood dominated by
so-called "event" movies. But if that's the case, then where do
film-makers such as Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher,
Sam Mendes and Curtis Hanson fit in?
All of the above work within the same studio system that turns out the
dross that's currently clogging up our multiplexes, but they specialise in
making films that are thought-provoking and reliant on storytelling rather
than special effects. Not only that, but they're successful as well. It's
no wonder that the likes of Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Ed
Norton, Tom Hanks and Al Pacino are queuing up to work with these
directors and often at a fraction of their normal fees.
It's a situation that didn't exist 10 years ago, when movies were still
categorised as either art-house or mainstream and a thriving independent
film sector was actively challenging the dominance of the studios. The
initial reaction of the studios was to absorb the more successful indie
companies, such as Miramax and New Line, or to set up boutique operations
of their own, such as Fox Searchlight, to release low-to medium-budget
films with more adult themes than their seasonal blockbuster fare. Now
even that distinction is breaking down, with movies like American
Beauty and Fight Club - by far the most radical film
to emerge from Hollywood in recent years - being produced by the main arms
of the studios. All of which raises the tantalising prospect of a return
to the golden age of the 1940s, when the likes of Alfred Hitchcock,
Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder and, for a while, Orson Welles worked within
the studio system to create some of the all-time great films, most of them
still featuring in today's polls of audiences' top 100 films.
The key figure in this new group of studio-based auteurs is the
39-year-old Steven Soderbergh. With his phenomenal work-rate - in the past
two years he's turned out Erin Brockovich, Traffic,
Ocean's Eleven and now Full Frontal - and
impeccable credentials as the director of sex, lies and
videotape, the film that kick-started the independent movie boom of
the late 1980s and early 1990s, he's become an enormously influential, if
low-key, presence in Hollywood. It was Soderbergh that Christopher Nolan,
the British director whose tricky thriller Memento was the sleeper
success of last year, turned to when he was trying to set up Insomnia,
his follow-up. "Steven was instrumental in introducing me to the studio,"
recalls Nolan. "They took me seriously because he asked them to."
Soderbergh then agreed to executive produce Insomnia via Section
Eight, the production company he set up with George Clooney in 2000. It's
not the only time he's helped out a British director. When Ken Loach came
to LA in 1999 to make Bread and Roses, his only
US-set film, it was Soderbergh who helped him find a crew and sponsored
him for his Directors Guild card.
Soderbergh's collaboration with Clooney revitalised a career that, after
the success of the Palme d'Or- winning sex, lies and
videotape, had nosedived with a string of obscure and unsuccessful
films. They first worked together on 1998's Out of Sight,
and, as he subsequently did with Julia Roberts in Erin
Brockovich, Soderbergh demonstrated then that he has the knack of
getting the best out of his actors.
"If I do one thing well, I think it's that I have an instinct for what an
actor's strengths are and I know how to play to them," Soderbergh once
told me. "I know how to construct an environment and a sequence that will
play to what they play well." Not only that, but he and Clooney share a
similar taste in material that's both accessible and intelligent, which
are the qualities that used to define the best of the movies that came out
of the studio system. "When I look at what I consider to be the great
films of the past, like any of Hitchcock's, a lot of them are like that,"
says Nolan. "I mean, Citizen Kane was a studio movie." He
sees his own work as falling into that category too. "I always thought
Memento was a very mainstream movie. I never saw it as an art film,
and I felt that at every stage everyone underestimated how many people
would respond to it."
With Insomnia, which is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian thriller about
a sleep-deprived detective on the trail of a brutal murderer, only
transposed to the permanent light of the Alaskan summer, Nolan says he was
consciously trying to revisit the era that gave us classic movies like
Double Indemnity and Notorious. "My interest in remaking
the film was to make it as the kind of Hollywood morality tale, the kind
of cop drama that studios used to be really good at making 50 years ago. I
wanted to create a sympathetic protagonist who would be the iconic cop
figure of American movies, but with a slightly more modern underpinning. I
mean, we do go into some very murky waters."
With Al Pacino, who's certainly an icon, and a surprisingly effective
Robin Williams as his nemesis, Insomnia doesn't pander to audiences
by offering them the traditional resolution such stories tend to have. "To
me, what's important is the idea of redemption," points out Nolan. "That's
the way these studio movies were always deceptive in the past, because
they weren't so much about punishment as redemption." Audiences seem to
have responded to this more complex model because Insomnia has
taken $ 70m at the US box office so far and is still performing strongly,
despite having to compete for screens with the summer blockbusters. In
doing so, it's following in the recent footsteps of similarly challenging
movies, such as Traffic, LA Confidential, Three
Kings and Fargo.
Not that Soderbergh seems too bothered by whether the films produced by
Section Eight, or indeed his own, do well in a commercial sense. "I'm not
a result-oriented person," he says with a smile. "I'm a process-orientated
person, so when one process ends, I look to the next process. The result
is interesting to me and makes for good parlour conversation, but I can't
control it." That's heresy in LA, where studio executives spend their
Friday nights driving from one multiplex to another to check out the size
of the queues for their latest offerings. But there's also a growing
awareness in Hollywood that not every cinema-goer is a 15-year-old who
wants a big bang in return for his nine bucks. Then there's the fact that
the stars are well aware that they don't win Oscars for appearing in the
likes of MiB2. Perhaps Tom Cruise has signed up for Mission:
Impossible 3 because David Fincher is directing it.
However, it's often foreign film-makers who prove to be the best at making
superior American movies. Nolan and Sam Mendes are just the latest Brits
who've jumped to the top of studios' wishlists, but Hollywood now looks
further afield than Europe. Ang Lee, who's shooting The
Incredible Hulk, and Shekhar Kapur, who's just finished the
umpteenth remake of The Four Feathers, lead the Asian
charge, while the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron is following the exuberant Y
tu mama tambien by directing the third Harry Potter film.
Nolan believes that it's entirely natural that he and the rest of the
foreign legion should be taking on such projects. "I don't think Hollywood
belongs to America, I think it's a universal language that just happens to
have an American accent. The people who make the films have always come
from all over the world."
Perhaps because he's half-English and half-American, he's never subscribed
to any nationalist theories of cinema. "In England there's a very false
notion of trying to assert national character in film-making, and I think
that can't be productive. It means that you're being told that you should
tell a particular kind of story, which is an utterly false premise from
which to embark on a film- making process," he notes. "Hollywood asserts
only business as a national characteristic - that has to underpin
everything that gets made in the studio system, and in a weird way I think
that's more honest."
As for Soderbergh, he's still working at a rate that leaves every other
current director in the dust. With the sly and rather too self-referential
Full Frontal, which he wrote while making Ocean's
Eleven and shot in a mere 18 days, already out in America, he's busy
finishing off his remake of Solaris, the Tarkovsky sci fi classic.
That's in addition to his producing duties on George Clooney's directorial
debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and
Welcome to Collinwood, a crime caper that will be the
next Section Eight film to hit our cinemas. "I think it's good to be busy,
because it keeps you from being precious about the movies," he says.
"There's a healthy, dispassionate viewpoint that comes from moving quickly
and knowing that once I'm finished I'm going to do something else. You
make decisions based on instinct, and you don't agonise over stuff." And,
of course, that's exactly what the best directors used to do back in the
heyday of the studio system.