Steven Soderberg’s Wilderness Years

Steven Soderbergh’s Wilderness Years

The Dissolve’s Movie of the Week is Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 classic “Out of Sight,” a small, taut and unyieldingly charming adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel—that also happened to reignite the director’s career. Its success put Soderbergh back onto Hollywood’s A-list, and in the decade and a half that followed, he went on to create a string of both big budget Hollywood blockbusters and fascinating indie experiments—one of the finest bodies of film work of the early 21st Century.

Celebrating “Out of Sight” is worthwhile, but even more interestingly, editors at The Dissolve use its Movie of the Week spotlight to look at the period that immediately preceded Soderbergh’s triumphant return. In an essay appropriately titled “Soderbergh: The Wilderness Years,” writer Jason Bailey goes into considerable detail about how the director seemed to peak early with his 1989 debut, “Sex, Lies & Videotape,” which he made at just age 26 and which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Almost immediately after its success, the director ran aground.

Bailey expends almost 3,000 words critically reappraising the movies that Soderbergh made between 1989 and 1998, and the analysis is insightful. But in actuality his essay is a chronicle of failure, of how a talented director wrestled with great expectations and repeatedly flailed, misfired and lost his sense of true North. Bailey quotes Soderbergh’s particular dissatisfaction with his 1995 neo-noir “The Underneath,” which was made at a low point for him both professionally and personally.

‘It’s a very unpleasant feeling,’ he explained recently, to ‘see everybody working so hard, the cast and the crew, to give you what you want every day. And you know that this thing’s just dead on arrival.’ The issue was not problematic collaborators, or studio interference, or lack of funds. ‘I had everything I needed,’ he said. ‘I’m the one that didn’t show up’…‘I can’t say that I would recommend it to anyone,’ he adds, ‘other than to look at it in the context of a career.’

What’s interesting is that though Soderbergh regards it as a nadir, he also recognizes that “The Underneath” is possibly his most important work. His dissatisfaction with its process and end result were the impetus for a new creative chapter; even before the film was done he knew he had to find new approaches and more fertile ground to work from. Almost immediately after that film wrapped, he made the highly experimental “Schizopolis,” an odd, intentionally unorthodox project filmed on a tiny budget and with no stars, but that reignited his drive and provided templates for many of the ideas that would fuel his later successes.

I’ve been a devoted fan of Soderbergh’s work since “Out of Sight,” so I’m probably predisposed to being captivated by this story. Nevertheless, I think there are a lot of lessons in this essay for anyone who still operates under the misconception that careers are direct trajectories, or who has experienced the valleys of trying to forge a career of personal work. Read the full article here.