Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who draws you back to their work continually. Whether you love or hate his movies, you have to respect his dedication to craft, his willingness to take big swings, and his unabashed courage to keep going after failures.
While all those are excellent lessons, I thought we'd focus in on what I believe to be Soderbergh's five most underrated movies and the lessons you can take from each when you prepare to direct your own films.
So let's get started.
5 Most Underrated Soderbergh Movies (& Directing Lessons)
Most of my favorite Soderbergh movies start with the word "Oceans" but I am aware his masterworks are Traffic, Out of Sight, and Magic Mike (among others). Still, we talk about these movies all the time. I could talk about them for hours and hours.
But this list was written to highlight some of his lesser-known movies.
This is not a ranking, it's numbered to make it easier.
But let's get it going.
5. The Limey
This experimental film follows Terrence Stamp through two time periods of his life. In the present, he's hunting the people who murdered his daughter. In the past, we see this former hitman becoming the menace he is today.
The lesson: It's okay to be weird.
Soderbergh had a ton of critical and commercial success after Out of Sight was released. He was an industry darling who was courting actors for Traffic and figuring out his next moves. And still, he had a little weird movie that he knew he had to make.
At times in our careers, it can be scary to take another leap, especially when you think you've made it or broken in. You want to keep the good graces.
But it's okay to chase what you think is the right move too, even if it's not that commercial.
At the end of the day, you're an artist and it's okay to be weird.
4. Behind the Candelabra
When Soderbergh announced he was doing an HBO movie I think everyone within Hollywood shrugged. While this film got a theatrical release internationally, it felt like it was ahead of its time. Not only did it completely shatter the "TV movie" stigma, but it also garnered huge stars and awards contention.
In the era of streaming, it's hard to think that just a few short years ago people were wondering what you could do on TV.
Now they know.
The lesson: Tell stories you are passionate about.
When you get to Hollywood it can be easy to chase paycheck after paycheck. The money, when it's on the table, is great. But at the end of the day, making movies requires passion. It can't just be a job or a paycheck. If it is, the end product might suck. and suck enough and you'll be out of town in a flash.
Unless your failures are financially successful. Then you're good.
Soderbergh didn't flinch at making what some assumed would be a TV movie because he cared about the story. He knew he could bring his passion and integrity to the project and make it a success.
Pick the things that give you s reason to get up in the morning.
The money will follow.
I got to see both parts of Che on the roadshow tour. It played at The State Theatre in State College, Pennsylvania, and is one of my favorite theatrical experiences of all time. While the five and half hours of film are hard to return to given the time investment, the movie remains underrated because I feel like many people haven't even watched it once.
A modern epic, the character-centric story of everyone's favorite face from your drom-room wall pushed narrative boundaries for scope and substance.
Soderbergh channeling David Lean is as good as it gets.
The lesson: It is okay to think big.
I preach a lot about making obtainable projects when you're starting out. About keeping budgets tight and script pages under 105. While that's commercial and spec advice, I also think you have to follow your heart and not your head sometimes.
If you have ab ig idea, no matter how crazy, take a swing.
You only live once, so hit that "yolo" advice and just chase the dream.
It can be liberating to write something humungous without a care in the world.
And you never know when someone will make it.
This is the complete opposite of Che. It's a tight little action movie starring a stunt woman who kicks ass in every scene. Soderbergh used this movie to challenge himself with both budgetary restrictions and a genre outside of his norm.
Haywire has an unassuming brilliance.
It's hard to imagine that the only reason he made this movie was that Sony had forced him off Moneyball. He took a general with Gina Carano, saying "She had just lost her last fight, so it seemed like a good time for the two of us to get into a room, me having been fired and her having been beaten.”
Together, they made John Wick before we knew who John Wick was, and got back up from the mat to fight again.
The lesson: Challenge yourself.
I think I lost out on 25 pitches in the last two years. I booked two of them. One is in turn around and the other got dropped.
But that shouldn't stop you from trying to hike uphill. Take projects that will be hard. Iron sharpens iron, and you'll become a better filmmaker in the long run if you're willing to try punching out of your weight class.
Don't be afraid.
Get out there and see what you've got.
Solaris is an adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem, a dense and heady story about having to go to deep space to find meaning through loss. Clooney plays an astronaut who is confronted by the manifestation of wife while aboard a remote space station orbiting a sentient alien world. The 90-minute film is a slow-burn meditation on regrets, memory, and love -- about how we never really know someone because they exist as experiences, as memories, in our minds.
It feels outside of Sodgerbegh's usual clinical execution. A movie bound by emotion and overshadowed by the original 1972 epic by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.
Still, there's a beauty and elegance here. It's a story where Soderbergh tells us about how he has a heart. That his voice is not always what we think it is, and his emotional arcs have deeper depths than we ever knew.
The lesson: Go outside your comfort zone
Soderbergh has never been afraid of a remake or reimagining. He's like that because he always finds something he wants to say. Even if you thought you knew him, he's willing to reveal more about himself to let the public know what's going on in his head.
The same goes for you on your projects.
What else do you have to say to the audience? What else do you want to explore inside yourself? Chase what you care about and tell us what it says about you. How do you see the world working?
How can you tell if you're watching a Steven Soderbergh movie? These trademarks might give you a clue.