Profile: Steven Soderbergh – Independence in a Commercial Industry

As of late, there seems to be a growing trend with independent filmmakers who manage to break through in Hollywood. Upon their big breaks, the pattern is very much the same: the filmmaker becomes acclaimed for said film, takes on a studio project, and continues to work on films and projects funded by those major studios. This is not so much a criticism as it is an observation. After all, a few terrific filmmakers have come from independent backgrounds and now consistently turn out quality studio backed films. Once they hit it big time, they may maintain independent sensibilities in their work, but the budgets and scales of their films function on higher levels. However, it is less likely that most of those filmmakers ever turn back to their roots to make additional independent features. An exception here is Steven Soderbergh, who over the past twenty years has maintained a fascinating juggling act, going back and forth from the independent and commercial worlds of American cinema.

With his 1989 breakthrough sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh became the youngest director ever to win the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Very much an independent feature, Soderbergh’s film explored risky issues outside of Hollywood’s comfort zone, such as the deeply personal, psychological forces that shape the nature of relationships. Of course, with such a hit from the festival circuit, Soderbergh could have easily opted for the studio path, but he nevertheless maintained his own independence. He would continue making smaller films throughout the mid-1990’s, until he had a commercial hit with Out of Sight in 1998. Funded by Universal, the film was guaranteed to have a wider audience. However, Soderbergh once again chose to go towards independent studios for his next two films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Once again, both films dealt with tougher issues in America like drug trafficking and corporate corruption that a major studio might not be willing to risk funding.

Ever since both films went on to win Academy Awards, Soderbergh has been maintaining a steady balance between independent and commercial fare, ranging from the popcorn perfection of Ocean’s Eleven, to the much smaller and largely unheard of projects like The Girlfriend Experience. Some other directors in Hollywood follow a similar path of doing “one for me” and “one for them,” but Soderbergh refuses to make that distinction. “There’ve been a lot of questions about commercial films and non-commercial films, and I’ve never really made that separation in my mind. There’s no question that when you read a piece of material, you have ideas about how it should be realized.” For Soderbergh, the process of filmmaking is very much about knowing his audience for each film. Hence, he is never bothered about whether his films’ popularity will be consistent. “If you’re sitting around thinking what other people think about your work, you’ll just become paralyzed.”

This is one of the reasons why Soderbergh is willing to take risks as a filmmaker, even if every film he makes is not perfect. Take, for instance, Che, Soderbergh’s chronicling of the infamous Che Guevara, who led the successful Cuban revolution and the subsequently failed Bolivian revolution in the 1950’s. Clocking in at over four hours, Che has a pretty epic length, even if pacing inconsistencies bog the narrative down. Nevertheless, the film is bolstered by a genuine, soulful performance by Benicio Del Toro as well as Soderbergh’s evenhanded approach to the material. Che never idolizes its title character like a face on a t-shirt. Rather, it simply shows him as a man who had a deep concern and passion for humanity, regardless of his political ideology. It is this type of ballsiness that separates Soderbergh from the pack.

Lately, Soderbergh has been as prolific as ever, and with his most recent hit Contagion, he seems to be taking more risks on the studio front. Next year, he has two films on the docket for release: first is the action thriller Haywire, and currently in production is Magic Mike, a film about the world of male strippers. Oddly enough, the film just secured distribution with Warner Brothers, an unusual choice given the film’s expected explicit content. Nevertheless, perhaps we need more intelligent filmmakers like Soderbergh, those who can balance back and forth between the fabricated “commercial” and “independent” realms of cinema. After all, as Soderbergh surely sees it, there is only cinema, no adjectives required.

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~ by romancinema on January 17, 2012.

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