Soderbergh, Steven

views updated May 23 2018


Nationality: American. Born: 14 January 1963, in Atlanta, Georgia. Education: High school graduate, 1980. Family: Married Betsy Brantley, 1989 (divorced, 1994); one daughter. Career: Did odd jobs while writing scripts and directing short films, 1980–85; directed 90125, a Yes concert film, for MTV, 1986; first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, a surprise international success, 1989. Awards: Grammy Award for Best Director, for 90125, 1986; Palme d'Or for Best Feature Film, Cannes International Film Festival, 1989, and Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature and Best Director, 1990, for sex, lies, and videotape; National Society of Film Critics Best Director Award for Out of Sight, 1998.Agent: Patrick Dollard, Dollard Management and Productions, 21361 Pacific Coast Highway Νm3, Malibu, CA 90265, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


90215 (doc; for TV)


sex, lies, and videotape (+ sc, ed)


Kafka (+ ed)


King of the Hill (+ sc); "The Quiet Room" (episode of TV series Fallen Angels)


The Underneath (+ co-sc, uncredited)


Gray's Anatomy; Schizopolis (+ sc, ph, ro as Fletcher Munson/Dr. Jeffrey Korchek)


Out of Sight


The Limey


Erin Brockovich; Traffic


Ocean's Eleven

Other Films:


Suture (McGehee) (exec pr)


The Daytrippers (Mottola) (co-pr)


Nightwatch (Bornedal) (co-sc); Pleasantville ( Ross) (co-pr)



sex, lies, and videotape (journal and screenplay), New York, 1990.


Singer, Michael, A Cut Above: 50 Film Directors Talk about TheirCraft, Los Angeles, 1998.

On SODERBERGH: articles—

Minsky, Terri, "Hot Phenom," in Rolling Stone (New York), May 18, 1989.

Jacobson, Harlan, "Truth or Consequences," in Film Comment (New York), July-August 1989.

Gabriel, Trip, "Steven Soderbergh: The Sequel," in New York TimesMagazine, 3 November 1991.

Werckmeister, O. K., "Kafka 007," in Critical Inquiry, Winter 1995.

Kehr, Dave, "The Hours and Times: The (Film) World according to Steven Soderbergh," in Film Comment (New York), September-October 1999.

Johnston, Sheila, "The Flashback Kid," in Sight and Sound (London), November 1999.

* * *

Steven Soderbergh's work is difficult to characterize as a whole, considering its remarkable variety. His first four features differ considerably in both style and subject: a contemporary sexual drama/comedy, a fantasy thriller set in Kafka's Prague, a portrait of a child growing up in Depression-era America, and a remake of a classic film noir. And the next five include a farce too avant-garde even for the art-house circuit and an altogether conventional Hollywood star vehicle. Following the sensational success of his first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh was often compared to other young independent American filmmakers, notably Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. However, his film style has turned out to be much less immediately identifiable (or from a Hollywood viewpoint, less eccentric) than Hartley's in particular. Overall, one can say that in his best films, he tells stories in concise and polished ways, reminiscent of classic Hollywood models, yet with fresh, unusual structures and surprising turns from scene to scene; and his cinematography is usually superb, notably in framing and lighting, though always adaptive to the overall subject and mood.
sex, lies, and videotape is more than a highly accomplished debut film—it would be highly accomplished at any stage of a career. In portraying a budding relationship between a man who is impotent, except when watching his own video interviews with women on sexual topics, and a woman recoiling from the discovery that her husband and sister are having an affair, the writer/director manages to create neither low farce nor soap-operatic psychodrama. Actually, the film is rather touchingly romantic, in a witty, gentle, unsoppy sort of way. Soderbergh deftly introduces the four main characters through a montage of scenes linked by a voiceover of Ann speaking to her therapist; he moves the story forward with some striking close-ups and high angle shots, while unobtrusively linking each character to a special decor (mostly empty spaces in Graham's case). And he brilliantly structures the climactic scene of Ann taking hold of Graham's video camera: its second half unfolds only later, when her unfaithful but furious husband seizes her tape and begins to watch it, at which point Soderbergh cuts from the video footage to a flashback of Ann and Graham making the tape. As for the director's handling of the actors, one might simply note that the film immeasurably boosted the careers of James Spader and Andie MacDowell and gave Laura San Giacomo a strong debut. If Peter Gallagher's performance is merely solid—perhaps because his character is conceived more as a simple type than the other three—Soderbergh did later provide the actor with one of his best, most subtle screen roles, in The Underneath. Striking into new territory for his eagerly anticipated second feature, Soderbergh created a work uneasily occupying a space between a European art film and a plot-driven Hollywood suspense film. Kafka has a script that derives from two different kinds of paranoid world—the literary one of Franz Kafka and the cinematic one of the political-conspiracy thriller. Its visual style seems inspired by Carol Reed's The Third Man (rather than Orson Welles's version of Kafka's The Trial), and perhaps too blatantly by Terry Gilliam's Brazil in the color sequence inside the Castle. The film does have astonishingly handsome black-and-white cinematography, some quite terrifying moments involving a shrieking killer, and some droll slapstick humor in the antics of a pair of office assistants. But there is an awkwardness in having a protagonist who on one level is the "real" Franz Kafka—shown as a drudge in an insurance office who writes agonized letters to his father and fantastic stories like "Metamorphosis"—but on another level is a reluctant movie hero drawn into uncovering a sinister organization that turns out to be diabolical in a much more conventional way than anything in an actual Kafka story.

King of the Hill has its terrifying moments too, notably in the figure of a snarly bellboy trying to evict the young hero from the hotel room where his father has more or less abandoned him. Indeed, all three of Soderbergh's features following sex, lies, and videotape have a single isolated male protagonist trapped in a world out of his control or comprehension. But King of the Hill also particularly recalls sex, lies, and videotape in its concern with lies and the doubtful knowability of other people. The plot, based upon A. E. Hotchner's memoir, centers upon the efforts of an impoverished twelve-year-old (Jesse Bradford) to pass himself off at school as well-to-do, and upon his need to trust that his suspiciously undemonstrative father (Jeroen Krabbe) will return to him. Overall, the story line is rather dark: the boy not only is exposed as a liar, but loses contact with everyone he loves—in turn, his kid brother, sickly mother, travelling-salesman father, the girl next door, and his roguish best friend—until he is nearly literally reduced to starvation. Yet, in Dickensian fashion, there are also warm, even comical moments and whole episodes, as well as a number of reunions. Soderbergh manages to balance the bleak and joyful elements skillfully, for the most part, though one might wish the cinematography did not have that hazy golden glow that for a time was too commonly used for period pieces.

In choosing to remake the classic film noir Criss Cross, Soderbergh had a perfect vehicle for continuing his fascination with motifs of lies, trust, and seemingly cosmic entrapment within the conventions of a genre that specializes in such concerns. Most impressively, The Underneath has the true noir feel, without aping the black-and-white visuals of the Robert Siodmak original or other 1940s films, or leaning toward parody à la Body Heat, or making a slick melodrama with an unambiguously decent protagonist and an upbeat ending (as in Barbet Schroeder's remake of Kiss of Death, which opened at the same time as The Underneath). Selecting widescreen Panavision with some very unsettling compositions, and constructing a far more complex flashback structure than the original film had, Soderbergh flawlessly plays out the drama of an ex-gambling addict still obsessed with his ex-wife (now married to a gangster) and drawn into an armored car robbery that betrays his kindly mentor. There is a telling moment when Michael's new girlfriend, sensing his mind on other things, remarks, "You're not very present tense": a perfect description of a noir hero trapped in webs of the past and fearing the future. In the film's fluid flashback structure we indeed see Michael's life fluctuating between three timelines, and only gradually put the puzzle together: his selfish or addictive past (marked by his having a beard); his ethical/familial/sexual entanglements when he returns to his hometown; and (in what may be considered flashforwards) the day of the robbery, marked by bluish lighting and time subtitles, like "6:02 p.m." Only at the violent moment of the robbery, more than an hour into the film, are we fully "caught up" in time; and at this point Soderbergh proceeds to a daring seven minutes of POV shots as a delirious Michael watches various characters address him in his hospital bed. This is followed by a set piece of suspense, involving a possible assassin, that owes something to Siodmak's film but is so superbly gauged that it is a classic in itself.

Receiving mixed reviews and low attendance at its opening, The Underneath quickly disappeared from theatres—an undeserved fate for one of the best of the neo-noirs, and perhaps Soderbergh's most accomplished work after sex, lies, and videotape. Taking a break from conventional storytelling, he shot a Spaulding Gray performance piece, Gray's Anatomy, and then the curious Schizopolis, which he wrote, photographed, and starred in, playing both a minor executive for a Scientology-like firm and a dentist who is having an affair with the executive's wife. Soderbergh proves to be a deft enough comic actor, and writes some ingenious dialogue for husband and wife in the form of summaries. (Upon the wife's return home "from a movie": "Obligatory question about the evening's activities." "Oh, qualified, vaguely positive reply.") Less amusing are scenes when his character is dubbed into Italian or French, or when men in white outfits are chasing a madman wearing only a t-shirt with the movie's name on it. Parts of the film toy with narrative levels in a Monty Python manner, but the comic timing often seems vaguely off.

Soderbergh moves back into fine form, however, and critical and popular success, with the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight. Too playful to be properly called a thriller, though it features jailbreaks, crazed killers, graphic violence, and a climactic armed robbery caper, the film provides perfect roles for George Clooney as a cool and clever petty criminal and Jennifer Lopez as a U.S. Marshall trying to bring him in but (sort of) falling in love with him. The film's racial and gender politics may be open to question (black men are either villains or loyal sidekicks, and Lopez is drawn to Clooney even though he kidnaps her upon their first meeting), but the performances are accomplished, the jazzy soundtrack sets a laid-back mood, and the editing is beautifully fluid even with the film's extremely intricate flashback/flashforward structure. All of these virtues come together in a scene of seduction with snow falling outside a hotel window, a model of elegant cinematic romance.

The Limey uses flashbacks and flashforwards too, but in less fluid, more flashily self-conscious way. Here the technique and some of the plot recall John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank. Terrence Stamp is suitably hard-boiled as an ex-con taking revenge on a whole slew of younger mobsters, but Peter Fonda as the head villain seems a gimmick in casting, and the tale, despite the narrative games, is rather one-dimensional, with a weak resolution.

Perhaps the most surprising turn in Soderbergh's career to date is not his choice of the muckraking drama Erin Brockovich for his next project, but his actual direction of it. From the opening close-up of Julia Roberts the film is clearly gauged as a vehicle for the star, whose demeanor is just a little too classy, and her outfits a little too calculatedly vulgar, for her to be fully plausible as the real-life redneck lawyer's assistant who brought a successful lawsuit against a powerful utility for poisoning people's groundwater. But the casting is not the problem: it is that virtually every shot, every character's reaction to every story development, seems utterly predictable from beginning to end. One can only hope that the film's huge box-office success will not keep Soderbergh from making the deftly structured, surprising dramas he has achieved in the past.

—Joseph Milicia

Soderbergh, Steven 1963- (Peter Andrews, Mary Ann Bernard, Sam Lowry)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Soderbergh, Steven 1963- (Peter Andrews, Mary Ann Bernard, Sam Lowry)


Full name, Steven Andrew Soderbergh; born January 14, 1963, in Atlanta, GA; son of Peter Andrew (a university professor and administrator) and Mary Ann (maiden name, Bernard) Soderbergh; married Elizabeth Jeanne "Betsy" Brantley (an actress), December 1, 1989 (divorced, October, 1994); married Jules Asner (a model and television reporter), May 10, 2003; children: (first marriage) Sarah. Politics: Democrat.


Agent—International Creative Management, 10250 Constellation Way, 9th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90067.


Producer, director, writer, cinematographer, film and sound editor, and composer. Section Eight (production company), founder (with George Clooney), 1999, co-owner, 1999-2006. Member of jury, Sundance Film Festival, 1990, and Cannes International Film Festival, 2003. Provided director's commentaries for DVD releases of several of his films. Once worked at a video production house and as a video director for local bands, both in Louisiana, early 1980s.


Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Directors Guild of America (national vice president, beginning 2002).

Awards, Honors:

Grammy Award nomination (with others), best long-form music video, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1987, for 9012 Live; Audience Award and nomination for grand jury prize, both dramatic category, Sundance Film Festival, 1989, Golden Palm and FIPRESCI Prize, best feature-length film, Cannes International Film Festival, Independent Spirit Award, best director, Independent Features Project West, Academy Award nomination, best original screenplay, Golden Globe Award nomination, best screenplay for a motion picture, Writers Guild Award nomination, best original screenplay, Film Award nomination, best original screenplay, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and Cesar Award nomination, best foreign film, Academie des Arts et Techniques du Cinema, 1990, all for Sex, Lies, and Videotape; nomination for Golden Palm, Cannes International Film Festival, 1993, for King of the Hill; Golden Satellite Award nomination (with others), best comedy or musical motion picture, International Press Academy, 1999, for Pleasantville; National Society of Film Critics Award, best director, 1999, for Out of Sight; Independent Spirit Award nomination, best director, 2000, for The Limey; directing awards include Toronto Film Critics Association Award, 2000, Phoenix Film Critics Society Award, 2000, Academy Award, Golden Globe Award nomination, Directors Guild of America Award nomination, Golden Satellite Award, Southeastern Film Critics Association Award, Chicago Film Critics Association Award, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association Award, Kansas City Film Critics Circle Award, Vancouver Film Critics Circle Award, nomination for silver ribbon, best director of a foreign film, Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, and Online Film Critics Society Award nomination, all 2001, and Kinema Junpo Award, best foreign language film director, and Empire Award nomination, both 2002, cinematography awards include Golden Satellite Award nomination, Best Cinematography Award nomination, British Society of Cinematographers, Chicago Film Critics Association Award nomination, and Online Film Critics Society Award nominations, all 2001, nomination for Golden Berlin Bear, Berlin International Film Festival, 2001, Amanda Award nomination, best foreign feature film, 2001, Cesar Award nomination, best foreign film, 2002, Bodil Award nomination, best American film, 2002, and Kinema Junpo Award, best foreign language film, 2002, all for Traffic; Screen International Award nomination, U.S. category, European Film Awards, 2000, Amanda Award nomination, best foreign feature film, 2000, and Academy Award nomination, London Film Critics Circle Award nomination, Golden Globe Award nomination, Directors Guild of America Award nomination, and Golden Satellite Award nomination, all best director, all 2001, for Erin Brockovich; Sierra Award, Las Vegas Film Critics Society, National Board of Review Award, New York Film Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award, 2000, and National Society of Film Critics Award, Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, and Florida Film Critics Circle Award, all best director, and nomination for David Lean Award for Direction, British Academy of Film and Television Arts, all 2001, for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich; nomination for Golden Berlin Bear, 2003, for Solaris; Cesar Award nomination, best foreign film, and Empire Award nomination, best director, both 2003, for Ocean's Eleven; National Board of Review Award and Golden Globe Award nomination, both best picture, 2005, for Good Night, and Good Luck; nomination for Golden Berlin Bear, 2007, for The Good German; Independent Spirit Award nomination, best director, 2007, for Bubble.


Film Director:

Winston (short film), 1987.

(And film editor and uncredited sound editor) Sex, Lies, and Videotape (also known as Sex, Lies …), Miramax, 1989.

(And film editor) Kafka, Miramax, 1991.

(And film editor) King of the Hill, Gramercy, 1993.

Underneath, Gramercy, 1995.

Gray's Anatomy, 1996, Northern Arts Entertainment, 1997.

(And film editor and uncredited cinematographer) Schizopolis (also known as Steven Soderbergh's "Schizopolis"), Universal, 1996.

Out of Sight, Universal, 1998.

The Limey, Artisan Entertainment, 1999.

Erin Brockovich, Universal, 2000.

(And cinematographer, as Peter Andrews) Traffic (also known as Traffic—Die Macht des kartells), USA Films, 2000.

(And cinematographer, as Andrews) Ocean's Eleven (also known as 11 and O11), Warner Bros., 2001.

(And cinematographer, as Andrews) Full Frontal, Miramax, 2002.

(And cinematographer, as Andrews; and film editor, as Mary Ann Bernard) Solaris, Twentieth Century-Fox, 2002.

(And cinematographer, as Andrews) Ocean's Twelve, Warner Bros., 2004.

(And cinematographer, as Andrews; and film editor, as Bernard) "Equilibrium," Eros, Warner Independent Pictures, 2005.

(And cinematographer, as Andrews; and film editor, as Bernard) Bubble, Magnolia Pictures, 2006.

(And producer; and cinematographer, as Andrews; and film editor, as Bernard) The Good German, Warner Bros., 2006.

(And executive producer; and cinematographer, as Andrews) Ocean's Thirteen (also known as 13), Warner Bros., 2007.

Film Executive Producer:

Suture, Samuel Goldwyn, 1993.

Insomnia, Warner Bros., 2002.

Far from Heaven (also known as Loin du paradis), Focus Features, 2002.

Naqoyqatsi (documentary; also known as Naqoyqatsi: Life as War), Miramax, 2002.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (also known as Confessions d'un homme dangereux), Miramax, 2002.

Able Edwards, 2004, Heretic Films, 2007.

Keane, Magnolia Pictures, 2005.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, 2005.

Good Night, and Good Luck, Warner Independent Pictures, 2005.

Syriana, Warner Bros., 2005.

Rumor Has It …, Warner Bros., 2005.

A Scanner Darkly (animated), Warner Independent Pictures, 2006.

The Half Life of Timofey Berezin, Picturehouse Entertainment, 2006.

Wind Chill, TriStar, 2007.

Michael Clayton, Warner Bros., 2007.

Leatherheads, Universal, 2007.

Film Producer:

The Daytrippers (also known as En route vers Manhattan), 1996, Cinepix Film Properties, 1997.

Pleasantville, New Line Cinema, 1998.

Welcome to Collinwood (also known as Safecrackers oder diebe haben's schwer), Warner Bros., 2002.

Criminal, Warner Independent Pictures, 2004.

The Jacket, Warner Independent Pictures, 2005.

Film Appearances:

(Uncredited) Smoking guy at concert, The Underneath, Gramercy, 1995.

(Uncredited) Fletcher Munson/Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, Schizopolis (also known as Steven Soderbergh's "Schizopolis"), Universal, 1996.

Interviewee on television, Waking Life, Fox Searchlight, 2001.

(Uncredited) Vault-bombing thief, Ocean's Eleven (also known as 11 and O11), Warner Bros., 2001.

Man reflected in digital screens, Naqoyqatsi (documentary; also known as Naqoyqatsi: Life as War), Miramax, 2002.

(Uncredited) Full Frontal, Miramax, 2002.

Television Executive Producer; Series:

(And film editor) K Street, HBO, 2003.

Unscripted, HBO, 2005.

Television Executive Producer; Specials:

Who Is Bernard Tapie?, 2001.

Tribute (also known as Tribute: A Rockumentary), Showtime, 2001.

Television Director; Episodic:

"The Quiet Room," Fallen Angels, Showtime, 1993.

Television Work; Other:

Film editor, Games People Play (series), 1981.

Television Appearances; Specials:

Independent's Day, Sundance Channel, 1998.

Lesley Ann Warren: A Cinderella Story (also known as Celebrity: Lesley Ann Warren), 2000.

Spotlight on Location: Erin Brockovich (also known as The Making of "Erin Brockovich"), 2000.

Inside Traffic: The Making of "Traffic," 2000.

"The Making of ‘Ocean's Eleven,’" HBO First Look, HBO, 2001.

"Inside ‘Solaris,’" HBO First Look, HBO, 2002.

Intimate Portrait: Erin Brockovich, Lifetime, 2003.

"The Making of ‘Ocean's Twelve,’" HBO First Look, HBO, 2004.

Bleep! Censoring Hollywood, AMC, 2005.

"Ocean's Thirteen" HBO First Look, HBO, 2007.

Television Appearances; Awards Presentations:

The 73rd Annual Academy Awards, ABC, 2001.

Presenter, The 2006 Gotham Awards, 2006.

Television Appearances; Episodic:

American Cinema, 1995.

+ de cinema, 2002.

Sen kvaell med Luuk, 2003.

MovieReal, Arts and Entertainment, 2004.

(In archive footage) Cinema mil, 2005.

20 heures le journal, 2007.

Stage Director:

Geniuses, Swine Palace Productions, Baton Rouge, LA, 1996.



Director, 9012 Live (concert performance; also known as Yes: 9012 Live), 1986.

Inside "Out of Sight," Universal Studios Home Video, 1998.

Day for Night: The Making of "Insomnia," Warner Home Video, 2002.

"Ocean's Eleven:" The Look of the Con, Warner Home Video, 2002.

"Solaris:" Behind the Planet, Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment, 2003.

Five Directors on "The Battle of Algiers," Criterion Collection, 2004.



Winston (short film), 1987.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (also known as Sex, Lies …), Miramax, 1989, published with journal, Harper (New York City), 1990.

King of the Hill, Gramercy, 1993.

(As Sam Lowry) The Underneath, Gramercy, 1995.

(And uncredited composer) Schizopolis (also known as Steven Soderbergh's "Schizopolis"), Universal, 1996.

Nightwatch, Miramax/Dimension Films, 1998.

Solaris, Twentieth Century-Fox, 2002.

(As Sam Lowry) Criminal, Warner Independent Pictures, 2004.

"Equilibrium," Eros, Warner Independent Pictures, 2005.

Leatherheads, Universal, 2007.

Television Episodes:

K Street, HBO, 2003.


(With Richard Lester) Getting Away with It: or, The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, Faber, 1999.



Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 43, Gale, 2002.

Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 25, Gale, 2005.

International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 4th edition, 2000.

Newsmakers, Issue 4, Gale, 2001.


Entertainment Weekly, February 23, 2001, p. 105; March 2, 2001, p. 20; November 15, 2002, pp. 43-50.

Film Comment, July-August, 1989, pp. 22-28; January, 2001, pp. 26-31.

Interview, July, 1998, p. 60.

Los Angeles, January, 2001, p. 82.

Madison, September, 1999, pp. 126-129.

Movieline, December, 2000, pp. 62-66, 118; December, 2001, pp. 50-62.

Newsweek, January 8, 2001, p. 62.

New York Times, July 23, 1989.

New York Times Magazine, November 3, 1991, pp. 34-40, 83.

Rolling Stone, April 12, 2001, pp. 120-122, 152.

Time, January 8, 2001, p. 62.

Soderbergh, Steven

views updated May 23 2018

Steven Soderbergh

American film director Steven Soderbergh (born 1963) came to fame with his 1989 feature debut, sex, lies, and videotape. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was largely responsible for the escalation of independent films in the 1990s. In 2001, the eclectic filmmaker reached new heights by being the first person in over 60 years to receive double Academy Award nominations for best director, and the first ever to have both those films, Traffic and Erin Brockovich, nominated for best picture as well.

Baseball to Movies

Soderbergh was born the second of six siblings on January 14, 1963, in Atlanta, Georgia. When he was still very young, his family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father was a professor and dean of Louisiana State University's College of Education. As a boy, Soderbergh was an avid and talented baseball player, but the gift suddenly deserted him at the age of 12. "I woke up one morning, and I didn't have it," he told Jess Cagle of Time. "And I knew that I wasn't gonna be able to get it back. Whatever the thing was, it was just gone." Happily, he had another natural aptitude lying in wait.

The teenaged Soderbergh became interested in making movies, and started taking film classes at Louisiana State. Finding he had a flair for the medium, he obtained some secondhand equipment and began making short 16mm films, including his short film Janitor. Still immersed in this newfound passion, upon his graduation from high school Soderbergh decided to pass up college and head directly to Hollywood.

Music Video to Feature Film

Soderbergh began his Hollywood career as a freelance film editor, working on such projects as television's Games People Play, while subsidizing himself by working in a video arcade. He also continued to write scripts and make short films, both in California and back home in Baton Rouge. One of those films, a documentary about the rock band Yes, led to Soderbergh's first big break when he was asked to direct a full–length concert film for the group. The resulting video, Yes: 9012 Live, earned the young director a nomination for a Grammy Award in 1986.

Next up was a 1987 short subject movie called Winston, which evolved into the project that put Soderbergh on the cinematic map. That project was his writing/directorial debut feature film, sex, lies, and videotape, an intimate and innovative exploration of personal relationships starring James Spader and Andie MacDowell. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, the movie took both critics and audiences by storm. It garnered Soderbergh the coveted Palm d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival (at only 26, he was the youngest director to have received such an honor at the time) and an Academy Award nomination for the best original screenplay. Not incidentally, sex, lies, and videotape, which was made for $1.2 million and went on to earn nearly $100 million worldwide, lent a financial viability to independent and independent–like movies that precipitated a huge upsurge in the genre and propelled them from art houses into mainstream theaters. Soderbergh, however, never took the acclaim, or himself, too seriously. In 1998, he commented on the picture to Dennis Lim of London's Independent Sunday. "It's OK," he said. "It's better directed than it is written, and better acted than it is directed. It is a film that is of a very specific period. There was something in the air that I managed to grab hold of, something that must have been on other people's minds as well."

A Fresh Start

Soderbergh followed up his tremendous initial success with 1991's Kafka and 1993's King of the Hill. The former, starring Jeremy Irons, was both a critical and box office failure. And although the Depression–era King of the Hill caught the critics' attention, audiences did not generally notice it. In 1994, Soderbergh reached his nadir while filming The Underneath, a remake of the 1948 film noir classic Criss Cross. "The most sobering aspect of making The Underneath," he told Lim, "was to sit on a set and not feel excited about what I was doing. I realised it was just because I'd drifted into an area that wasn't very challenging or ambitious." But unlike his childhood epiphany about baseball, Soderbergh's career doubts were only temporary. This time, he recognized what had happened and what was needed to rally. The director told Cagle that his film talent "had left the building, but I knew it was still within the city limits. I just needed to tear down everything and start over." So he did.

Soderbergh got his creative juices flowing again by packing up a small group of friends and heading back to Baton Rouge to make the wacky autobiographical comedy Schizopolis. Acting as director, writer, cinematographer, and star, Soderbergh used the movie as a professional and personal catharsis. (Among other things, he cast his soon–to–be ex–wife, Betsy Brantley, and their daughter, Sarah, as his film family). The result, along with Gray's Anatomy, (both released in 1997) worked the magic Soderbergh had hoped for, but their lack of commercial appeal left an unexpected side effect. He recalled that time for John H. Richardson of Esquire as, ". . . having done those two films and having them seen by no one, I found myself in this weird spot of being excited about working again, but not being able to get a job." The next year, however, both creativity and gainful employment would again coincide.

Mainstream Success

In 1998, Soderbergh was launched into mainstream cinema with the release of his screen adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. While his recent creative and professional challenges made him feel a great deal of pressure while making the movie, the experience was also rather liberating. As he told Graham Fuller of Interview, "It was such a relief to be working on something that wasn't important with a capital I. Not that I've made important movies in my career, but its lack of pretension was nice. I'm glad it wasn't a serious, self–important piece of drivel. . . . If you go into a piece of Elmore Leonard material with the idea that you're making a substantial social statement, I think you're going to ruin it." The movie was a critical and box office success, giving Soderbergh's career a new lease on life.

The Limey, a smaller scale gangster film starring Terrence Stamp, was released in 1999. The following year, Soderbergh made a pair of pictures that cemented his name in the movie business. The first movie was Erin Brockovich, with superstar Julia Roberts, which was based on the true story of a single mother who discovers an environmental scandal. The second movie was Traffic, a thriller about the illegal drug trade that starred Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta–Jones. Although Traffic, based on a British miniseries, was slow getting off the ground, the films were mainstream Hollywood movies with stellar casts. And they were big hits. Soderbergh was nominated for Academy Awards for best director for both pictures in 2001, the first time a double director nomination had happened since 1938. In addition, both movies were also nominated for best picture, the first time such a "double–double" nomination had ever occurred. Credibility firmly back in place, Soderbergh won the 2001 Oscar for best director for Traffic.

Eclectic Visionary

Throughout the years, Soderbergh acquired a reputation for being an "actor's director," culling impressive performances from big adult stars and unknown child actors alike. He also was known for working in the trenches (he joined the cinematographers' union in order to wield his own camera and was the cinematographer, for instance, onTraffic) and for his ability to unify his casts. "A lot of people can tell stories," actress Julia Roberts told Cagle, "but a lot of people can't rally the troops the way Steven does. He's the most fun guy to make a movie with." Equally important, the body of Soderbergh's work was impossible to pigeonhole.

Soderbergh followed up his triumph at the Academy Awards with the 2001 superstar vehicle Ocean's Eleven. A remake of the 1960s movie with the old Hollywood Rat Pack (including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.), the new version featured such contemporary big names as Brad Pitt, Clooney, and Roberts. The next year, he did another abrupt turnaround with Full Frontal, an experimental art film with Roberts, Pitt, and Blair Underwood. Working under a $2 million budget, the director convinced his stars to work for union scale and handle their own driving, hair, and makeup. The movie was shot in 18 days. Then it was back to the big budget world, with the 2002 science fiction picture, Solaris. Along the way, Soderbergh also founded a production company, Section Eight Productions, with Clooney, and produced such movies as 2002's Insomnia. Indeed, by 2004, Soderbergh's films had run the gamut from independent to mainstream, big money to shoestring, disturbing to playful, and most points in between. But, as Soderbergh explained to Fuller, he would not have had it any other way. "I go for whatever engages me at the time," he said. "I have no rules about what I will or won't make. I'm certainly hard put to remember when a filmmaker has gone from a $350,000 movie to a $49 million movie, but I think doing either of those kinds of movies exclusively could be stagnating."

Soderbergh also cultivated a certain lack of ego that allowed him to roam freely among film styles and forms. He outlined the reason for that ability to Richardson, "I'm not a visionary. I'm just not . . . Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, you know, those are people who alter the landscape. David Lynch I would put in that category. Altman I would put in that category. But I'm not one of those people. What I am is a dedicated, passionate craftsman who is trying to get better."

At least as telling were Soderbergh's hopes about probing the possibilities of his chosen medium in the future. "I think the reason I've jumped around so much is . . . there's a kind of film out there that I can't even quite articulate, but I think can be made and should be made," he told Richardson. "I may go to my deathbed feeling like I never figured out what it was. I feel like there have been leaps made during certain periods of time and that there hasn't been a leap made in a while. I think that it's too rich a medium for there not to be another level to go to. First, I've got to try and figure out what it is."


Cincinnati Post, March 20, 2001.

Esquire, August, 2002.

Houston Chronicle, July 27, 2002.

Independent Sunday (London, England), November 22, 1998.

Interview, July, 1998.

Time, January 8, 2001.


"Biography for Steven Soderbergh," Internet Movie Database, (December 28, 2004).

"Steven Soderbergh," Who2, (December 28, 2004).

"Steven Soderbergh: Man of Promise," BBC News, (February 13, 2001).

"Steven Soderbergh's Biography," Steven Soderbergh Online, (December 28, 2004).

Soderbergh, Steven

views updated May 21 2018


SODERBERGH, STEVEN (1963– ), U.S. film director. Soderbergh was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the second of six children. The family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Peter Soderbergh, his father, was a professor and dean of Louisiana State University's College of Education. As a teenager, Soderbergh enrolled in film classes at Louisiana State. In 1978, at age 15, he made a short film titled Janitor. After graduation from high school in 1980, he skipped college and went directly to Hollywood, where he worked as a freelance film editor. He wrote scripts and made short films, including a documentary about the rock group Yes. Soderbergh was asked to direct a concert film for the band, Yes: 9012 Live (1986), which earned him a Grammy nomination. His next project, the Southern drama sex, lies and videotape (1989), debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and earned Soderbergh the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nod for best original screenplay; the film would go on to earn $100 million worldwide. Soderbergh followed his acclaimed debut with Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), and The Underneath (1995). After Soderbergh filmed the Spalding Gray performance piece, Gray's Anatomy (1996), and the low-budget Schizopolis (1996), he returned to the mainstream with Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight (1998), starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Following the Terence Stamp-Peter Fonda thriller The Limey (1999), Soderbergh received Academy Award nominations for his Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich (2000) and the illegal drug trade thriller Traffic (2000); it was the first time a director had received a double nomination since 1938, and Soderbergh took the Oscar for Traffic. In 2000, Soderbergh and Clooney founded their production company, Section Eight. Soderbergh's next film was an all-star, big-budget remake of the Rat Pack film Ocean's Eleven (2001), which he juxtaposed with the remake of the Russian art film Solaris (2002) and the more independent-minded Full Frontal (2002), an unofficial sequel to sex, lies and videotape for which stars like Roberts, Clooney, and Brad Pitt agreed to work union scale. In March 2002, Soderbergh was elected the first vice president of the Directors Guild of America. He married a second time to model and tv host Jules Asner in 2003, and one year later reunited the Ocean's Eleven cast for the sequel Ocean's Twelve.


"Soderbergh, Steven," in: Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, vol. 25 (Gale, 2005); "Soderbergh, Steven," in: International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 2: Directors (20054). website:

[Adam Wills (2nd ed.)]

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