Soderbergh Really is Retiring… For Real… Probably…

by | Aug 30th, 2011 | 7:07PM | Filed under: News

For those keeping score at home, last winter Matt Damon said director Steven Soderbergh was seriously considering retiring.

At the time Damon, who’s starred in all three of Soderbergh’s Oceans 11-13 movies and The Informant!, was shooting the upcoming virus-thriller Contagion with Soderbergh in Chicago.

Soderbergh, who’s 48, confirmed Damon’s statement in March, saying that after Contagion he wanted to make a Liberace biopic with Damon and a Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake with George Clooney, then he was calling it quits.

But last month at Comic-Con, after finishing both Contagion and the action-thriller Haywire (out in January), Soderbergh told the crowd that rumors of his retirement were blown “way out of proportion;” that he’d been drunkenly grumbling to Damon last winter; and joked that in blabbing the discussion to the media, the actor showed “all the discretion of a 14-year-old girl.”

Now Soderbergh, who’s been hinting about retiring for several years now, has told the New York Times that he is in fact planning to hang up his director’s cap after one or two more films and pursue a full-time career in painting.

“I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and ability to do so,” the Oscar-winning director told The Times. But he half-jokingly added, “I’ll be the first person to say if I can’t be any good at it and run out of money, I’ll be back making another Ocean’s movie.”

Clooney has since dropped out of Man from U.N.C.L.E. so Soderbergh may or may not go ahead with that one, and the director is already in pre-production for Magic Mike, a film about a male stripper, starring Channing Tatum. So it’s not entirely clear if after Mike he’ll do Liberace and be done.

(In the meantime, Soderbergh was down in North Carolina earlier this month shooting second-unit footage for The Hunger Games as a favor to his pal, director Gary Ross.)

Soderbergh is one of my favorite working directors in part because he’s so good at his craft and at getting naturalistic, nuanced performances from his actors. (He also acts as director of photography on most of his films.) That’s true whether he’s making big, crowd-pleasers like the Ocean’s films (I think 11 is a masterpiece, and yes I’m the guy who also really, really likes Ocean’s Twelve); mining a ’70s independent integrity in works like Solaris, Out of Sight, The Limey, Che, and The Informant!; or experimenting with small-scale, low-fi projects like Full Frontal, Bubble, or The Girlfriend Experience.

But what I really love about Soderbergh is his dedicated and intensely intelligent approach to movies as an art form, even when making genre entertainments. And that’s present in his films because he cares about filmmaking.

With his 1989 breakout indie debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh raced into the industry and made three more Hollywood narrative films (Kafka, King of the Hill, and Underneath) before he burned out on the system and the movies it created.

So he went off on his own and made 1998′s Schizopolis, a low-budget, experimental, avant-garde film in which the director played with non-linear narratives, chronological loops, and impressionistic editing.

The result isn’t the easiest film to watch or understand, but Schizopolis rejuvenated Soderbergh, directly influencing the styles and approaches of his next two films, some of his very best: Out of Sight and The Limey.

There followed the Oscar-nominated works Traffic and Erin Brockovich, and even Ocean’s 11 is so entertaining because it approaches its fairly lightweight genre with the same loose-but-focused, off-kilter feel as Schizopolis.

All of which is to say that Soderbergh is a very self-reflective and attentive artist, and if he’s reached a point where the medium no longer excites or challenges him, where his films aren’t driven by a deep and energetic love of film, then by all means–as much as I’ll miss his movies–I respect that choice and am all for him going off and trying something new. I love the Renaissance notion that an artist isn’t siloed into a single medium, that art, the drive to create, and sometimes great talent can spill over and flow into other forms.

And if somewhere along the way Soderbergh accidentally rekindles his love for cinema (or his tolerance for working in the Hollywood industry) and comes back to filmmaking again someday, I’m very cool with that, too.

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