Steven Soderbergh's retirement: a bad sign for Hollywood?

Feature NP Horton 5 Feb 2013 - 06:57

As director Steven Soderbergh again talks about his imminent retirement, Nick wonders whether it's a sign of Hollywood's creative decline...

First mooted by the director himself back in 2011, it seems this time Steven Soderbergh is serious – the wunderkind of Sundance is really retiring. He has one last theatrical release, the medical thriller Side Effects, and then it’s off to pastures new and away from Hollywood.

Sitting down for an in-depth conversation with Vulture, Soderbergh has stated that that he wanted to retire before he was 50, and that he feels like he’s hit a wall and can no longer develop the way he wants. It’s a sentiment he's expressed before, particularly after the gruelling making of Che, but this time he's also expressed his distaste with the Hollywood process, and the treatment of directors in the modern filmmaking world.

“The worst development in filmmaking - particularly in the last five years - is how badly directors are treated. It’s become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen, to put it bluntly. It’s not just studios - it’s anyone who is ­financing a film. I guess I don’t understand the assumption that the director is presumptively wrong about what the audience wants or needs when they are the first audience, in a way. And probably got into making movies ­because of being in that audience.”

Make no mistake, Soderbergh's retirement is a big deal. He burst onto the scene with 1989's Sex, Lies & Videotape – a film which not only won him the Palme d’Or at the age of 26, but has often been cited as the film which ushered in the 90s rise of Miramax, Sundance and indie filmmaking. Pretty heady stuff for a debut picture.

Twenty-six films and 24 years later, and Soderbergh still looms large over the landscape. A chameleon-like director who flitted from genre to genre with apparent ease, it's hard to find a more impressive hot streak than his three years between 1998-2001, where he produced Out Of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven. His later career has always been intriguing, if not always as successful – Che is ambitious but bloated, Haywire magnificent in places, while Magic Mike was an entirely unexpected artistic and commercial success.

Even his unheralded films are worthy of exploration – Solaris manages to express the philosophical themes and emotional impact of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation in about half the running time, while neatly homaging the Soviet classic. As with all of Soderbergh’s films, it looks absolutely gorgeous, too – in fact, the director has often been accused of concentrating on style over substance, something Soderbergh answered by saying “That’s a reflection of my personality, probably, and I would argue that some of the things I’ve done that frustrated people upon a first viewing, ten or 15 years later you’re happy that they’re that way. I remember describing making movies as a form of seduction and that people should look at it as though they’re being approached at a bar.”

Whether or not Soderbergh was more a visual artist than a storyteller, one thing everyone can agree was his skill with actors. He's responsible for Jennifer Lopez’s best (and maybe only good) performance, sent Julia Roberts to Oscar glory, turned George Clooney into a star, and convinced everyone to take the porn star Sasha Grey seriously as a dramatic performer.

But from his own words at the top of this article, it seems that a successful and prolific career is no longer rewarding or appealing to him - which is perhaps a damning indictment of modern moviemaking. Soderbergh would seem to have it all from one perspective, and many would no doubt argue that he's throwing away a dream career. But he’s not alone in his feelings of disenchantment with the film industry, and the feeling that the passion is no longer there – just look at the similar situation fellow indie sensation Kevin Smith is in: similarly disillusioned, he's set to retire after making Clerks III.

The suspicion is that there's something rotten at the heart of the industry, and politics and egos are now more valued than creativity and craft. Soderbergh has also expressed his distaste for movie audiences these days. "An alarming thing I learned during Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync" - which suggests that he's well and truly done with the whole shebang. Perhaps this is the natural end for all unique talents, unwilling and unable to go through the motions demanded of them from studios, financers, and audiences alike.

So what's next for Soderbergh? Although he’s announced his retirement from film, he was clear to point out it wasn’t a retirement from directing. He has expressed a desire for theatre, and more prominently, television.

“I think that the audience for the kinds of movies I grew up liking has migrated to television. The format really allows for the narrow and deep approach that I like, and a lot of people […] Well, the point is, three and a half million people watching a show on cable is a success. That many people seeing a movie is not a success. I just don’t think movies matter as much anymore, culturally.”

He's recently finished shooting an HBO movie about Liberace. Called Behind The Candelabra, it stars Michael Douglas as the flamboyant musician, and Matt Damon as his lover. Turned down by numerous studios, only HBO would pick it up – perhaps a figurative straw that broke the camel's back. Soderbergh has expressed how much he enjoyed working the HBO way, and sensing the cultural shift of dramatic and complex drama to the small screen and away from the big, might he be the first household name to decide to switch allegiances completely?

I guess only time will tell if he is serious this time – after all, in 2011 he ended up making another four films after his retirement notice, but for a director who rivals Michael Winterbottom for work ethic, that’s not too surprising. Either way, cinema's loss is television's gain, and Soderbergh’s words are a potentially worrying insight into where Hollywood is heading (if it's not already there...)

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