Why Soderbergh became hooked by Jaws

Karlovy Vary guest reflects on Spielberg, Kafka and 'retirement'

by Richard Mowe

Steven Soderbergh: 'Stupidly and publicly I announced that I had retired'
Steven Soderbergh: 'Stupidly and publicly I announced that I had retired' Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
From Palme d’Or winner sex, lies, and videotape onwards Steven Soderbergh has always been out of kilter with the studio system despite having delivered some of the most lucrative franchises ever such as Ocean’s Eleven.

Just over a decade ago his frustration led to him ostensibly withdrawing from the fray. In full flood at an encounter during the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival he declared: “Stupidly and publicly I announced that I had retired. I don't know what I was thinking. I confused the job with some other issues in the business. I said that I was stopping to pursue painting and to get serious about that. It lasted for two months and I fell back in love with the job of directing - it’s the business side that I hate.”

He appears more philosophical and concedes that movies that entertain are as important as more challenging independent fare. “The Oceans series represented an opportunity to play around with things visually. I had never made anything like that previously and it was sheer Hollywood pleasure. It wasn’t easy to make but the cast had a great time,” he said.

He has just finished shooting Black Dog in London with an impressive cast of Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett and Regé-Jean Page on board. The spy thriller, set in the UK, is written by David Koepp. Although reluctant to spill all the beans he was happy to reveal that besides being a thriller, it was also “a love story with marriage at its core. There are no chase sequences and basically it is an intimate relationship film about people who work in the intelligence business. It appealed me because it is the exact antithesis of what I had done previously.”

He is not sure when it will be released but he has handed it over to Focus Features in the belief he trusts them to act “in their own best interests when to put this movie out.”

Soderbergh strives to ensure diversity in his career: “I am always going to be attracted to something that is going to annihilate what I have just done.”

Passing through Prague en route to Karlovy Vary to present his film of Kafka as part of a focus on the German-language visionary literary giant, he was reminded of the fact that the film was not well received at the time.

Packing them in: Steven Soderbergh at Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Packing them in: Steven Soderbergh at Karlovy Vary Film Festival Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
“We were convinced that we had to film it in Prague and our conversations started early and then the Revolution happened. It was very bureaucratic. We told to fill out a form to request electricity. We filled out all the forms and sumitted them but on the first day of the shoot we discovered there was no electricity. We had forgotten to fill out another form to request a man to turn on the electricity every day. We thought that it was part of the legendary Czech sense of humour by turning in to a Kafka-esque nightmare. Directing is always an isolating job. I woke up on morning - I had a full beard at the time - and discovered I had a patch of white because I was so stressed.”

Soderbergh became sidetracked by cinema when he was teenager staying with his grandparents in Florida. “I went to see Jaws which had just come out. I had no idea who Steven Spielberg was or what a director did,” he said. He had been passionate until that moment with basketball. “I woke up one day and the killer instinct was gone. Part of me felt bereft and I wondered where I was going to channel all that energy. From 14 until I left high school at 17 I was consumed by film. I saw Jaws 28 times. I was convinced that what it takes to be a director was embedded in that film.”

The youthful Soderbergh eventually rocked up in LA with the knowledge that as a director “you are the boss and everybody is looking at you. You have to possess this ability to stay calm and not panic - panic has never solved anything in the history of the planet.

“Editing was the first thing I felt I understood and I was making money as a freelance editor. If you can stage a scene when you know where the cuts are coming you can move quickly,” he said.

Steven Soderbergh: 'I am always going to be attracted to something that is going to annihilate what I have just done'
Steven Soderbergh: 'I am always going to be attracted to something that is going to annihilate what I have just done' Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
Sex, lies and videotape was written in 28 days when Soderbergh, aged 29, was on a trip to Los Angeles and it was made for $1.8 million, won the top award at Cannes and best actor accolade for James Spader.

The late, great critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time of its premiere in 1989: “I am not sure it is as good as the Cannes jury apparently found it; it has more intelligence than heart, and is more clever than enlightening. But it is never boring, and there are moments when it reminds us of how sexy the movies used to be, back in the days when speech was an erogenous zone.”

Soderbergh has always been able to navigate the rough with the smooth. “After sex, lies and a videotape there were a couple of films that did not quite work, either creatively or commercially. Then I made The Underneath which I knew was not going to work but itwas too late to stop it. I had to sit on the set and be unhappy. I could not figure out to solve it. I was just lost and I was only 31 and wondered if I wanted to keep on doing this. I needed to become an amateur again. My marriage had broken up and I wanted to make a film about the break up and my wife and child were in the film. It was intensive but it was part of the process of rebuilding.”

Soderbergh remains optimistic about the future prospects for cinema. “I am convinced the feature length story is not going to go away. Waves of younger people in their twenties who are going to the movies, want to see something that is not a franchise. And we need stars such as Zendaya [Challengers] because people want to see her stuff so let’s see her in stuff.”

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