Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from film

Steven Soderbergh is on a roll. His epidemic-thriller film Contagion was released a few months ago to both critical and commercial success and Haywire was released Jan. 20. Judging from the preliminary reviews, he might have another hit on his hands. And yet, Soderbergh seems content to walk away from it all.

Soderbergh recently announced his intention to retire from filmmaking in 2013 to focus on another medium close to his heart: paint. Soderbergh stated that the decision to retire from filmmaking was made in order to pursue a career as a painter, an attempt to explore another art form while he still has both the time and the ability to do so. While many people may see Soderbergh’s decision as puzzling and unexpected, for those who have followed his work, this is just another decision in a career that continues to defy expectations.

Soderbergh rose to international prominence in the early 90s with his first film Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which would win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Soderbergh’s Cannes win would make him the youngest director to walk away with the festival’s top prize. Sex, Lies, and Videotape would also help revolutionize the independent film movement and proved instrumental in the 90’s independent film boom. Following the critical success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape Soderbergh went on to direct a series of low-budget “commercial” failures.

Films like Kafka, Gray’s Anatomy and Schizopolis all missed their target audiences and were plagued by middling reviews. This string of failures would end with 1998s Out Of Sight, which Soderbergh credits as helping him “climb [his] way out of the arthouse ghetto.” The film was a commercial success and marked the first of much collaboration between Soderbergh and the film’s star, George Clooney. Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, Out Of Sight starred Clooney as a bank robber who’d broken out of prison and captured a federal marshal (Jennifer Lopez). The film makes excellent use of its source material and is bolstered by the chemistry of its two leads.

Buoyed by the success of Out Of Sight Soderbergh entered what many would call the pinnacle of his career. In 2000 he directed two films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, both of which were hailed as critical and commercial successes. Soderbergh picked up Best Director nominations for each film and walked away with the award for his work on Traffic. Despite the success of Traffic and Erin Brockovich Soderbergh hasn’t been content to rest on his laurels and has continued to pursue commercial and independent projects.

Che is a recent project that stands out as excellent example of Soderbergh’s willingness to take risks. Che is an epic four-hour bio-pic on ‘Che’ Ernesto Guevara and his role in the Cuban revolution as well as his campaign in Bolivia. The film, shot entirely in Spanish, took over eight years of researching and writing before Soderbergh was satisfied — it shows. The attention to detail and scope of the storyline is immense.

Soderbergh’s willingness to take risks and push himself in ways that most directors normally wouldn’t comprises much of his appeal. It’s a Scorsese-like daring, a willingness to pursue a project regardless of its commercial potential and regardless of the project’s subject matter. I can think of few directors that have shown such eagerness to do a complete 180-degree turn from project to project.

Even with his self-imposed retirement looming, Soderbergh isn’t content to slow down. The director seems intent on packing as many films as possible into his remaining time in the film industry. After Haywire comes Magic Mike, which focuses on an upstart male stripper shown the ropes by his more experienced colleagues. The film stars Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Joe Manganiello and Matthew McConaughey. Following Magic Mike is a project referred to as “The Side Effects.” Details on the project are scarce but it seems that the story will focus on a depressed woman who, nervous about the imminent release of her husband from prison, takes a severe amount of prescription meds to deal with her problems.

And lastly, Soderbergh is circling is a biopic on the life of world famous pianist Liberace as his final project. Tentatively titled “Behind the Candelabra,the project has long been gestating. Michael Douglas, it has long been rumoured, is marked to play the role of Liberace and Matt Damon is also connected to the film and is rumored to be playing Scott Thorson, Liberace’s boyfriend and personal assistant. The film will be released through HBO Films and will make its worldwide premier on HBO sometime in 2013. The film is based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace, written by Scott Thorson about the time he spent living with Liberace.

Despite Soderbergh’s intent to retire, all is not black. With four films coming out in the next two years there is still plenty of Soderbergh left to explore. The director isn’t saying how long, or how permanent his retirement will be, even going as far as to leave the door open for a possible return stating that: “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.”

Here’s hoping that he’s not any good at it.