It was in 1989, at the age of 26 that Steven Soderbergh returned to the place of his childhood, Baton Rouge in Louisiana. After graduating from high school he had chosen not to attend Louisiana State University where he had been enrolled in and instead moved to Hollywood to try his luck. After working as a game show scorer he eventually found work as a film editor. His first major project came about when he directed the video concert, 9012 Live in 1985.
After finding himself back home in Baton Rouge, he came up with the premise for Sex, Lies and Videotape. This idea — which he scrawled down in a reported eight days — proved to be his first taste of success, going on to win the Palme d’Or in the Cannes film festival while giving Soderbergh a reputation as a sharp, edgy new filmmaker. His following projects over the next few years didn’t make much of a mark upon release — works like Kafka and King of the Hill in 1993, and his experimental comedy Schizopolis in 1996. Despite dismal box-office performances all round, this early period in the director’s career formed a cult following among fans, which still exists (on a much larger scale) today. Kafka, a beautifully shot semi-biopic outlining the life of the writer, merged with his most famous works of fiction – namely The Castle, manages to capture the essence of Kafka’s world and imagination while showing us Soderbergh at his very simplest. Schizopolis gave us a non-linear and brilliantly peculiar comedy which consisted of a budget of only $250,000 and a non-existent script – the director would scribble down a few lines just before the filming of each scene!
The mainstream success that was enjoyed after his first screenplay Sex, Lies and Videotape returned in 1999, when he came out with Out of Sight, starring George Clooney (the actor’s first major role) and Jennifer Lopez. This was followed up and subsequently eclipsed by Erin Brockovich and Traffic at the turn of the century. Both of these films earned Soderbergh nominations for best director in the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and Directors Guild of America. It was the latter, Traffic – a tenacious three-story drama that the director shot entirely by himself — which received the ‘Academy Award for Best Director’ in the end.
At this time, the adventurous nature of his work had become abundantly clear — his ability to delve into a great variety of storylines and situations while keeping everything simple, low-budget and real. Even his 2001 project Ocean’s Eleven, with impressive aesthetics and a cast consisting of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Andy Garcia and Julia Roberts, turned out to be less high-profile that you’d initially believe. He stated once, before the film’s release, that ‘it’s not going be a cheap movie to make, but I’m still shooting it myself and there’s going to be a lot of natural light. It’s going to be a hybrid of something rough and something a little more polished’. Don Cheadle (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) expressed his admiration for Soderbergh in an interview, saying, ‘whoever has the best idea in the room is the person he wants to hear from. He is confident and he makes you feel confident’. This comment may also help explain why the entire cast for Ocean’s Eleven agreed to be a part of the project despite their ridiculously huge pay cuts. The two sequels later followed, in 2004 and 2007.
As the end of the decade approached, the filmmaker continued to impress the public with his double-bill biopic Che, outlining Ernesto Che Guevara’s experience in the Cuban revolution. In 2008, he shot The Girlfriend Experience – with porn actress, Sasha Grey taking the lead role. Most recently Contagion and Haywire appeared in cinemas everywhere and with three new projects to look forward to (Magic Mike, The Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra) it seems as though we’re on no shortage of Soderbergh.
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