November 11, 2013

Steven Soderbergh: Amazing Filmmaker, King of Commentary Tracks

Steven SoderberghSteven Soderbergh is that real rarity; a filmmaker who can manage a multi-million dollar George Clooney franchise, then turn around and make a movie for about $30 (give or take.) His ability to straddle the line between Hollywood and indie has put him in an enviable position, and this is a man who has had enough ups and downs in his career to last most filmmakers two or three lifetimes. Cinephilia and Beyond put together a compilation of his best DVD commentary tracks and discussions, and they are well worth a listen. Click below to check them out.

In a career that has lasted more than 25 years, Steven Soderbergh has directed 26 films, a ratio of films per year that puts him at Woody Allen levels of prolificity (vocab word.) But while Allen is able to run and gun, having developed a shooting style and aesthetic that allows for lean, mean operations, Soderbergh turns out wildly different films, in every conceivable genre, some of them extremely low-budget, some big-budget extravaganzas.

Many forget, but this is a man whose career was over almost before it began. In 1989, with the very indie Sex, Lies and Videotape (a film which features James Spader at his James Spader-iest), Soderbergh became the hot director, able to write his own ticket in Hollywood.

And what destination did he choose with this ticket? Why, Kafka, of course, a film about the famous writer that blurred the lines between fact and fiction and has since become a cult classic, though at the time, the established wisdom in Hollywood was that he was through, finished, yesterday's papers, kaput, etc.

But, giving the lie to Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American lives, Soderbergh bounced back. A huge reason for this bounce, and a huge lesson for every indie filmmaker, is that even though Kafka was a box office stinker, as they say, it was cheap (if $11 million is cheap, but, you know, it wasn't the career-ending debacle of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, which nearly bankrupted a whole studio.) The lesson seemed to be that in Hollywood, you can do what you want, so long as you can do it cheaply.

Soderbergh took this to heart, and his films over the next two decades have been savvy to a fault. When he does big-budget extravaganzas like Ocean's 11, he really goes for it, and produces a film that makes a ton of money for the studio. Traffic cost $47 million, but it won every award in the world and grossed over $200 million.

But when he wants to pull back and make a film like The Girlfriend Experiencehe does it for $1.3 million, which is about what it earns, and no one begrudges him this, because, you know, that's pocket change, and also indie prestige for the backers. He also earns further indie points by frequently acting as his own DP (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard; Bernard is his mother's maiden name and Peter Andrews is a play on his father's first and middle names.)

All this has led Traffic scribe Stephen Gaghan to call Soderbergh "the Michael Jordan of filmmaking," for his versatility and skill at all facets of the craft. And, as it turns out, he is quite the laff riot. Cinephilia and Beyond has put together an exhaustive compilation of videos of Soderbergh's commentary tracks and interviews, and they show that beyond being a supremely talented filmmaker, he is also a very funny guy.

Here, he discusses Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the film's director Mike Nichols for an amazing commentary track. Either cue up a copy of the film, or just sit back and listen to these two banter.

And in one of the strangest commentary tracks, Soderbergh discusses his film Schizopolis by recording a commentary track that is just Soderbergh having a conversation, or rather conducting an interview, with Soderbergh. Yes. Your eyes do not deceive you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8-8vy-zZGI

Cinephilia and Beyond has several more great Soderbergh commentary track moments in their article, including The Limey's, which is intentionally disjointed to reflect the broken temporality of that film. Steven Soderbergh is a consummate filmmaker and, as these tracks can attest, a very witty and funny man (and anyone who can keep up with Mike Nichols is pretty sharp, it goes without saying.)

What do you think Steven Soderbergh's career has to teach an indie filmmaker about serving two masters, as it were? If you're a director, do you also wear other technical hats, either out of necessity or aesthetic preference? Let us know your thoughts on all these issues and more in the comments!

[via Cinephilia and Beyond]

Your Comment

19 Comments

"Hi Molinsky! What podcast are you listening to?"

November 11, 2013 at 2:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Rodrigo Molinsky

The self-interview on the shizopolis commentary is pure gold :D

November 11, 2013 at 3:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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jvdb

November 11, 2013 at 5:06PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mak

I was a huge Soderbergh fan ever since I saw Solaris and you could often tell a movie was one of his just by the look and feel. But his recent work I can't tell anymore. I think since he stopped shooting what he directs something is missing.

November 11, 2013 at 5:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Everything since 1996 (Out of Sight) he's filmed himself, under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews.

November 11, 2013 at 5:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Your right. His recent stuff I assumed it was someone else as it looked and felt different. I just looked on IMDB and they are making Magic Mike 2 :( Why?? wasn't the first one bad enough? I only watched it because it was a Soderbergh film but I won't rush to any of his new films just because it was him for a while.

November 12, 2013 at 4:48AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I've always said that if you're simply a Director... it's more of the DP's and Editor's film than your own. The only "true" authorship of a film is when you craft it all yourself.

November 11, 2013 at 9:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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bwhitz

He's a good director but a lousy cinematographer. Even Kubrick leaned he needed a DP--and he knew EVERYTHING about cameras.

November 11, 2013 at 6:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Bolex16

Only for the technical hands on stuff. Kubrick always chose his own lenses, angles, lighting, ect. His DP was more of a "super-gaffer" than a cinematographer.

November 11, 2013 at 9:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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bwhitz

Very true. But Kubrick learned he can't be entirely 100% focused on the camera department--or any other unit-- when he had other hats to wear.

November 11, 2013 at 10:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Bolex16

Yes, some of his films look almost willfully bad - eg Contagion. In any case, is he even a good director?

November 12, 2013 at 4:29AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Graham Kay

Interesting; I checked behind-the-scenes footage to see if he really films himself ... check this BTS material from Contagion ... does he light at all? (in the casino scene etc.) ? However, great filmmaker ... he finished the roughcut of "Liberace" one week after shooting :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvFn8OUyK-A

November 12, 2013 at 6:19AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Well it seems ever since he moved over to the RED camera's he's favoured natural/practical lighting.

November 12, 2013 at 1:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Grant

He's better than you, that's for sure.

November 13, 2013 at 12:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Natt

Ocean's 11 is a beautifully shot film. I've learn't a lot from his choices. Always very thoughtful.

July 27, 2018 at 10:21AM

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Surely you mean "$30m". If he's made a film for "$30" as stated, Lord won't you tell me how.

November 12, 2013 at 11:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Z

Schizopolis may or may not have been made for the same price as a gently used 1995 Geo Prizm. Nearly $30 US. If you have one presently you are in luck. Sell it, buy some film, get a sound guy.

Insert clever line here. Don't forget to write that screenplay before you follow instructions one through four.

If you don't understand this reply, we all agree that this is the reader's fault, not our own.

November 13, 2013 at 12:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Martial Miles

I hope I get paid to make so many films after I retire from filmmaking...

November 14, 2013 at 5:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Zan Shin

You forgot to add that Soderbergh doesn't want to make movies anymore because the industry ruins what he is trying to do. Plus the promotion costs more than his indie films to produce. I'd lead with that in this article, but that's just me.

November 15, 2013 at 12:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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chris