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Filmmaking Tips and Thoughts on the Industry from Do-It-All Director Steven Soderbergh

11.10.12 @ 8:37PM Tags : , , ,

You may have heard his name before, and you may even have seen some of his films, but Academy Awarding winning director Steven Soderbergh is the real deal, and an auteur in his own way. He’s one of the few directors working at the highest level who also shoots and edits his own films, and he’s a huge supporter of RED, having shot every single film on their cameras since his Che double-feature. He said that he’s going to retire from filmmaking in the very near future, so before he does, click through for six tips from the workaholic director, and an audio interview that contains some candid thoughts about the current film industry.

Thanks to Landon Palmer from Film School Rejects for putting these together:

  1. Avoid Getting Branded
  2. Get Out of the Way of Actors
  3. Exhaust Your Interests and Move On
  4. Don’t Fake It
  5. Don’t Give a Fuck What Critics Think
  6. Characters Don’t Have to Be Sympathetic, But They Do Have to Be Interesting

One of the great things about being a filmmaker is being able to explore the lives of other people or look at a subject you might know nothing about, and that’s why number 3 is a great one for people just starting out:

In an interview last year with Film Comment, Soderbergh stated the following about what draws him to such a variety of projects: “Filmmaking is the best way in the world to learn about something. When I come out the other side after making a film about a particular subject, I have exhausted my interest in it. After Contagion, I’m still going to be washing my hands, but I don’t ever—I’m not going to pick up another book or article about Che as long as I live.”

Soderbergh is a versatile filmmaker specifically because he sees the filmmaking process as a path to discovery. This is probably why Soderbergh doesn’t have a clear thematic thread connecting his films: while the director certainly imbues his work with a perspective, he sees filmmaking as a learning process rather than a given outcome. Thus, Soderbergh’s films are free from “statements.” Even his portrayal of a figure as politically divisive as Che Guevara is more ambivalent than didactic. Still, this statement doesn’t explain how he ended up making three Ocean’s films.

My favorite of these, though, and something I have tried in some ways to explore in my own work, is number 6. While good vs. evil stories are effective (and usually all around us), life itself is far more ambiguous, and people are more complicated than the way they might appear on the outside. In the interview below, Steven attempts to explain how he can make films with unsympathetic characters:

David Poland of DP/30 had a fantastic interview with Soderbergh a while back, but he preferred not appearing in front of the camera, so it’s just an audio interview. He goes in detail about his career and about the way the way the Hollywood machine fits in with how he likes to tell his own specific stories. If you’ve got the time, it is worth sitting down and listening to his opinion on the world of filmmaking and his own processes:

I happen to be a fan of Soderbergh, and while some may dislike many of the choices he makes (especially since he’s doing so much on the films he makes), I think one has to admire the courage that he has to not just concentrate on what works for him, but to constantly go outside the box and explore new ways of working.

Head on over to Film School Rejects to read the rest of the post and the explanations for the other tips.

What are some of your favorite Soderbergh films? If you listen to the audio interview, what do you think about his opinions on the industry and what it takes to make a film that is more risky?


[Image courtesy of Allstar/Warner Bros/Sportsphoto Ltd via The Guardian]


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  • I think he’s just 1) smart, 2) tasteful, and 3) understands the craft.

    Most people trying to do this sadly have none of those in adequate quantity, but can come to sites like this and read books to try to work on 3). After being “cultured” for years one can try to develop 2). 1) is probably set by puberty if not birth, but who knows maybe it’s developable.

    The people who have one of those can get credits, the people with two can actually lead someone’s projects. The people with all three in quantity get to do one passion project after another like this. That’s rare enough that it’s just about useless having this fellow as a role model or trying to copy his methods. The people coming up who have all three can just take it as reassurance; the people who don’t must swallow it in the sadly opposite manner. =(

    • Ha ha, great comment!

    • I agree with you if you’re trying to make $10-$20 million dollar or more feature films, but the simple fact is, even at or near that level, all you need is money to hire people around you who possess at least two, if not all three, and you can make a decent film – and if not a decent film, probably a film that will make some money if it’s targeted at the right audience.

      The thing is, you don’t have to make films at that level, in fact, you can make films for no money as long as you’re getting some people to help you for free. Does that mean anyone will see the movie? Not necessarily, but honestly, any time an industry becomes democratized, you get people who only want to pursue it as a hobby or as a pure art form. I think you’re going to start seeing more people who just want to make films as a form of self-expression, which was something usually relegated to experimental filmmaking in the past. There’s no reason those people shouldn’t try to make the best film they can make, and have resources that help them accomplish that goal.

      There is also the fact that it’s next to impossible to make money as an independent filmmaker – it’s a pretty small industry when it comes to living wages. More and more people will make money with non-filmmaking projects, but still pursue their own filmmaking endeavors on the side. With the cost of technology, this is far more realistic than it was even 5 years ago.

      So the reason sites like this exist, is not to discourage people from pursuing filmmaking, but to encourage them to be as good as they can be at whatever it is they want to do. I think the problem with defining people in the manner you did above is that with technology the way it is today, there are far more varying degrees of success, and plenty of those people may be perfectly happy doing whatever it is that they’re doing, but would like to make a film when it fits into their schedule. It’s no different than discouraging people from forming a band. The chances that your band will make any money are slim to none, compared to how many musicians are out there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a failure just because your level of success doesn’t meet a predetermined criteria.

      Will anyone ever do what Soderbergh has done again at his level? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t admire him or take advice from him, especially if you’re realistic about your own personal goals and the budget levels with which you might be working.

      • Good comment as well :)

        I would say a more important top 3 on our level of film making would be: resourcefulness, perseverance, and talent.

        Knowledge of craft comes if you have the first two. Ideal to have all three and IMO, all three can be obtained over time. NO one is born without talent. That’s just a fact. It just takes perseverance to find out what that talent is.

        • Definitely, if you’re trying to make movies for no money it’s going to be infinitely harder if you don’t know how to work through problems and you have a tough time being resourceful. It’s one of the reasons independent filmmaking is actually a lot harder in many ways – at higher levels you can just throw money at these issues.

      • Yes I apologize for my moment of candor and I appreciate your encouragement. I think people should fill their lives with everything they envision and strive for the best they can do and learn what they can from those who have done the same.

        The specific formula in use is best customized to the individual…and I suppose my point is that the arc of one’s career depends more on intangibles that aren’t directly addressable than the details of any specific approach or skill. And so I think the best advice is to simply trust yourself. =)

      • no offense, and i love your comments, but this sentence doesn’t make much sense “Will anyone ever do what Soderbergh has done again at his level? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t admire him or take advice from him…”

    • looool, agreed

  • Sex, Lies and Videotape, Bubble and Traffic… all excellent.

  • schizopolis is his best.

  • Out of Sight is my favorite movie of all time. Dude actually made Jennifer Lopez a good actress for 90 minutes.
    The Limey is also a favorite.

  • Really enjoyed the video interview, he was very real and upfront on his style of film making and I really appreciate that.

  • I believe having seen only his Erin Brokovich film, so I can`t comment all that much on his work. But in summary all he says is: “I do what I want to do”, I mean, a lot of self taught people read books, watch movies and talk a lot about film making with others while we should just do what we want the way we want to do it and don`t give a sh*t what others say. Okay, it can leave you “unsuccessful” in financial terms but trying to adapt too much to conventions is a more or less straight way towards mediocre and replaceable work…

  • Sometimes his cinematography looks almost wilfully bad – ie trying so hard not to conform to convention that he forgets that it might actually matter to the audience how the film looks. Contagion is a good example, the flat pictures correlating with the weirdly paratactic plot.

  • Soosan Khanoom on 11.11.12 @ 6:25AM

    Soderbergh, you either love him or you hate him. Most people (at least the ones I’ve encountered) hate him, be it because of him being a director or a cinematographer or an editor. I lve his style and the way he deals with his passion for filmmaking. I direct and photograph my films partly because of him. But I do agree that from a visual point of view, some of his movies do not compare to movies made with a designated cinematographer but his cinematography fits his movie from my point of view.

    Love him or hate him, he is one of the filmmakerz who have a distinctive style and vision. A auteur if you may.

  • Axel Wiczorke on 11.11.12 @ 6:28AM

    The best way to get to know him and his approach (and very funny!) is the book “Getting Away With It: Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw” – talks & Interviews with Richard Lester.

    • Absolutely, that was one of the first books I read on filmmaking. Hilarious and self-effacing.

    • Reading the screenplay for SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is also very informative. The book you get isn’t written as you might expect. It contains a fairly detailed production diary that details the process of him starting to work on the script, and changes that were made along the way. It certainly gives some insight into the writing process, and how the story can change along the way. It’s been awhile since I last read it, and now that I’m thinking more about it I need to go find it…

      You can get your own copy here:

  • great interviews. Che and The Girlfriend Experience are the two films that really got me drawn in to Red cameras.

    • I dont mean to be condescending, I enjoyed both of those movies very much, but I really can’t see how they would lead someone to inquire about the camera they were captured with.

  • john jeffreys on 11.12.12 @ 5:49PM

    i like sasha grey so naturally i liked the girlfriend experience

  • Talking about his digital works, I fukken loved Che. Despite the obvious early R1 build flakes it really convinced me that you can shoot filmic images with digital camera. I love the look of The Informant with all haze-filters and stuff. He often make very uncommon choices when it comes to color grading (“faded photo” sunlight look in Magic Mike, wtf?), but I find most of his films interesting, at the very least.

  • My apologies if the answer to this is somewhere in the videos, which I didn’t watch all of, but why is he quitting filmmaking and what else will he do?

  • Pierre Samuel Rioux on 11.15.13 @ 12:08AM

    It’s when i seen the film Che the 2 part at first i was sure it’s was shot on film.
    And it’s was a RED !