Steven Soderbergh – The Master Of Experimental Independent Filmmaking

SODERBERGH

“As I continue to work, and as I learn more, I have to keep looking for ways to be slightly outside of my comfort zone. So that’s what I’ll keep doing.”

Following last year’s Logan Lucky, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s latest self-financed feature Unsane was shot  on an iPhone and is the latest example of his desire to move beyond the studio arena for good.

Unsane is a psychological horror film shot, edited, and directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer.

The ripped-from-the-headlines psycho-thriller traps unstable bank employee Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) in a mental care facility against her will, and to make matters worse, she’s pretty sure one of the orderlies is the man who has been relentlessly stalking her for years. But for whatever reason – perhaps because Soderbergh places his focus on the unsexy topic of the American healthcare-industrial complex’s myriad failings – he ended up working on a humble scale with a modest budget

In Unsane, Sawyer Valentini relocates from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape from the man who’s been stalking her for the last two years. While consulting with a therapist, Valentini unwittingly signs in for a voluntary 24-hour commitment to the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Her stay at the facility soon gets extended when doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. Sawyer now believes that one of the staffers is her stalker — and she’ll do whatever it takes to stay alive and fight her way out.

The film stars Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple, Aimee Mullins, and Amy Irving,

Soderbergh was never exclusive to bigger productions, but his studio history encompasses everything from “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels to “Magic Mike.” With “Logan Lucky,” he raised the movie’s $29 million budget primarily by pre-selling foreign distribution rights, as well as ancillary rights, and partnered with Bleecker Street on a service deal for the theatrical release.

LOGAN POSTERLogan Lucky was the first attempt at this model through his Fingerprint Releasing, and although its domestic gross didn’t reach $28 million, Soderbergh tweaked his approach with Unsane, which stars “The Crown” breakout Claire Foy alongside Juno Temple and was produced in secret last year.

“I want to be careful to not to overreact to things that I felt didn’t work and end up not being sensitive to the fact that they’re very different films targeting very different audiences.”

He recognizes that experimental releases demand patience.

“I’m playing a long game here,” he said. “I’m trying to develop an approach to putting out a movie in wide release that makes some kind of economic sense for the filmmakers and the people that have a participation in the movie. It’s going to take a while.”

However, the biggest story around “Unsane” might not be its release strategy.

Taking a page from Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” Soderbergh shot the whole movie on an iPhone. While Baker has said he used a phone instead of traditional cameras due to budgetary constraints, Soderbergh said he was so impressed with the quality of iPhone cinematography that he would likely continue to use phones to shoot his movies going forward.

Unsane-2018-movie-poster

The most conspicuous sign that he’s playing minor-league ball is the R1 Pro from Shoulderpod, a rudimentary camera rig that uses an iPhone to shoot footage. Soderbergh has insisted, however, that he appreciates the crispness of the 4K video quality and that he does not see this as any manner of concession. “I think this is the future,” he told Indiewire. “Anyone going to see this movie without any idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone.” It’s the skill of a great artist to turn a limitation into a strength, and indeed, Soderbergh has harnessed the potential of the gizmo in your pocket to create a striking and affecting new visual dialect. Bad news, fellow laypeople: we no longer have any excuse for not having completed a feature film.”

iPhone 7 Plus

Unsane was filmed using an iPhone 7 Plus

Don’t get it twisted, the iPhone’s no substitute for a 35mm camera; it’s its own thing, and all the better for it. For purists, the cinematic medium is synonymous with the warm, lived-in grain of the celluloid filmstrip. Digital video introduced a cleaner, more sanitized look that may have boasted a higher resolution, but still proved alienating to some traditional audiences. That unnatural feel has been a stumbling block to other productions, but here, that quality is precisely what makes the iPhone perfectly suited for Soderbergh’s purposes in this film. The iPhone flattens an image’s depth of focus without losing clarity, creating a disorienting effect in which something feels wrong even when the frame is all in order. At times, the amount of visual information that Soderbergh can force into the foreground is somewhat overwhelming, as the brain rushes to decide where the eyes should be drawn. How better to communicate the mental interiority of a woman losing her mind?

The iPhone is not a fully democratizing tool, instantly freeing the unknown auteurs-in-waiting from technical shackles; the film only works as well as it does because Soderbergh knows his stuff. (A lifelong fan of aggressive color-grading, Soderbergh also owes a lot of Unsane to a sophisticated post-production touch-up.) But every year, the gap between the capability of knowhow and the limits of capital gets a little smaller. This development has allowed for lots of amateurish dreck, but Soderbergh and director Sean Baker – who also employed the iPhone for 2015’s Tangerine, his outstanding predecessor to The Florida Project – help to set a higher standard. They’re forging a new film marketplace, where a film artist’s only impediment to realizing their vision is the drive to do so.

“I think this is the future,” he said. “Anybody going to see this movie who has no idea of the backstory to the production will have no idea this was shot on the phone. That’s not part of the conceit.”

The filmmaker has experimented with digital cinematography for years, going back to 2002’s Full Frontal, but found that the iPhone offered unparalleled quality. “People forget, this is a 4k capture,” said Soderbergh, who was long a passionate advocate for the high-end RED cameras. “I’ve seen it 40 feet tall. It looks like velvet. This is a gamechanger to me.”

Asked at a press conference if he would commit exclusively to shooting on iPhones going forward, he replied, “I’d have to have a pretty good reason not to be thinking about that first… There’s a philosophical obstacle a lot of people have about the size of the capture device. I don’t have that problem. I look at this as potentially one of the most liberating experiences that I’ve ever had as a filmmaker, and that I continue having. The gets that I felt moment to moment were so significant that this is, to me, a new chapter.”

None of this means he has abandoned his television connections — he recently produced and directed Mosaic for HBO, and served as an executive producer for Netflix’s Godless. Though he has yet to collaborate with the platform himself, he said he supported Netflix despite its disconnect from the theatrical release he prefers for his movies.

“Getting upset about Netflix to me is like getting upset about the weather,” he said. “It’s just something that’s happening and we have to decide what we feel about it. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon. For as many instances as you can say, ‘Oh, they’re being destructive or cannabalistic in this space,’ they are absolutely providing eyeballs for filmmakers in another space that just wouldn’t exist, period. I don’t see any benefit on partisanship within this arena of storytelling and trying to reach an audience. You don’t make these things to be seen in a closet.”

With Logan Lucky, Soderbergh’s finally fulfilling his plans to launch a self-distribution company capable of releasing a studio-size film, but it’s not the first ambitious effort in a career defined by risky maneuvers.

Read More: Steven Soderbergh’s Game-Changing Plan to Give Directors the Creative Control They Deserve

Stay Ahead of the Curve

SEXSoderbergh’s 1989 debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a game-changer. Before the film’s breakout success, Sundance wasn’t an active sales market, the Weinstein brothers were known for smaller releases like the Errol Morris Doc “Thin Blue Line,” and the concept that an American indie could turn a significant profit ($24 million) was virtually unthinkable.

“I don’t think anything would happen [if the film came out today],” said Soderbergh. “In the 1980s, the studios took over the movies. And we showed up at a moment when, on a mass level, audiences were ready again to see movies that felt like they’re were made by hand. That weren’t committee-driven. It was just timing. It was zeitgeist.”

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was the only time Soderbergh’s career that he unintentionally blazed a new trail – beyond rolling the dice on his directing career by making a $1.2 million film – but he was mature enough to take the right lesson from the experience: it’s not enough to make a good film; timing matters, too. Make something that addresses the defincies in the marketplace and you’re more likely to succeed.

Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over

schizopolis-movie-poster-1996-1020196516While shooting “The Underneath,” his fourth feature, Soderbergh knew the film wasn’t working and had fundamental problems that it was too late to fix.

“OK, if you are 31 years old and you’ve wanted to make films since you were 13 and you are sitting on a set not happy — you need to do something to change shit up, this is on you.”

Soderbergh went back to Baton Rouge with a handful of his closest collaborators and made a $250,000 (from having sold the foreign rights) experimental and bizarre film Schizopolis starring himself (and his wife at the time) over the course of nine months. Soderbergh wanted to purposely annihilate everything he done up to this point in his career and start over again, calling it his “second first film”.

“That was a really important film for me to make, regardless of how it is perceived,” said Soderbergh, “The reverberation of the freedom of making  ‘Schizopolis’ absolutely resulted in ‘Out of Sight’ and everything that followed. It was just like, fuck it. You can’t second guess yourself. You can only make something you would stand in line to see.”

Following “Schizopolis’ Soderbergh found box office, critical acclaim and artistic freedom in a four-year span that led to some of his most important films: “Out of Sight,” “The Limey,” “Ocean’s 11” and Academy Award winners “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich.”

Don’t Be Afraid of Big Opportunities

OUTSoderbergh took his first big studio assignment, Out Of Sight, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s book, because he was concerned about his employability.

“Half the movie business was off-limits to me.  I didn’t just want to be art-house boy. But other than that, which was coming from a place of ‘I want maximum opportunities and mobility,’ I’ve never made a decision based on anything other than engagement with the material. Period. You don’t go make ‘Schizopolis’ if you’re trying to protect some idea of yourself as a filmmaker.”

His newfound self-imposed freedom detonated any preconceived notion of himself as a filmmaker and gave him the confidence to trust his instincts in adapting author Elmore Leonard, whose themes of dishonesty and greed echoed Soderbergh’s own storytelling interests.

“There is no studio, there is no clock, there is no $48 million budget. Just in the moment to sit there and go, ‘What do I want to see, what do I want to do, what do I think is interesting?’ And just block all that other stuff out.”

The result was a film that was light years better than anything he’d made before, creating an unconventional Hollywood story and editing structure that gave the cool and breezy film another deeper, more soulful layer.

Experiment As Much As Possible

bubble-movie-poster-2005-1020350688Soderbergh has always been open to new technology, especially when he saw the potential for it to open new doors of how to make and distribute interesting work. Five years before “Margin Call” was treated as a breakthrough for its success as a day-and-date release (in theaters and VOD at the same time), Soderbergh was pioneering the model with Mark Cuban. The filmmaker struck a deal to make low budget features that would hit Cuban’s HDNet cable service and his Landmark Theaters at the same time. It was a day-and-date release before the term existed.

The new model allowed the director to move fast – eight months from initial idea to release – to produce a challenging arthouse film. The result was billed as “Another Steven Soderbergh Experience” with the director once again playing with new ways to get around narrative conventions. Featuring non-professional actors who would never receive another credit (including a lead actress discovered at a KFC drive-thru window), “Bubble” captured the authenticity of workers at Ohio doll factory in story with complex formalism and deliberate pacing.

Read More: How Sundance Is Trying to Make Smaller Films Profitable With Self-Distribution

Take Control of New Tools

TRAFFIC3With Traffic, Soderbergh began to serve as a cinematographer for his own films — but didn’t take any credit for it. Instead, he listed “Peter Andrews” (his father’s first and middle name) credit as the film’s director of cinematography. There was an element of ugliness and reality that Soderbergh felt belonged in his movies, but he struggled with top- tier cinematographers who spent too much time trying to make things look pretty all the time. He didn’t mind the rough look of blown-out (overexposed) windows, the green tint from unfiltered fluorescent lights, a little shakiness from the handheld approach, or the way practical lighting didn’t perfectly shape his actors’ faces.

“It’s supposed to look real sometimes,” he said. “I’m weirdly proud of scenes where I’ve let things look the way they look. To me, it’s a sign of maturity.”

More importantly, by operating the camera himself, he was able to translate his ideas to the screen with a more fluid process.

Soderbergh managed to find a mode of production that best fit his aesthetic impulses, while also uncovering a more efficient, cheaper approach to production.

“What we all learned from [that] is to strip everything down to its essence and be as simple as possible. It would be hard now, I think, to go back to a normal movie schedule.”

Think About Movies You Like, and Make Different Versions of Them

HAYSoderbergh has put a great deal of thought into where Hollywood has went wrong over the last 40 years and he has strong opinions he’s not afraid to share. He also realizes there was an opportunity to expose the lackluster studio product by creating his own alternatives.

A perfect example is Haywire. Soderbergh had flirted with making a Bond movie, but preferred the spy thrillers of decades past rather than modern Hollywood’s visual effects driven-films that were a cacophony of explosions, sound effects and over-editing, which were unpleasant to watch.

Soderbergh is optimistic about finding audiences willing to go see the movie in theaters, despite the cluttered market and rise of home entertainment.

Learn How to Edit Your Own Work

Where so many filmmakers get locked into the structure of their script, Soderbergh never misses opportunities to reinvent, innovate and improve his films. He credits this approach, in part, to a seminal experience he had as an editor for Showtime, which would task the twentysomething Soderbergh with re-editing their content.

“Let’s say they bought a two-hour show from someone, and they’d want to cut it down to an hour and have an opening built for it, [They would] literally lock me in a room, and I would just completely tear it apart and build a new show for them… a lot of the ideas that still show up in the films I’ve made came out of experiments I would try on these shows, because I was given free reign to rebuild these things from scratch.”

While Soderbergh often relies on a strong narrative structure, he doesn’t hesitate to seek out more concise ways of tying them together. “The key to making good movies is to pay attention to the transition between scenes. And not just how you get from one scene to the next, but where you leave a scene and where you come into a new scene. Those are some of the most important decisions that you make. It can be the difference between a movie that works and a movie that doesn’t.”

Spike Jonze called him the “smartest, fastest editor-filmmaker I know.” On “Her” Jonze gave Soderbergh a 210-minute cut of his film and asked him to do a quick “gut-instinct” re-edit. Within 24 hours, Soderbergh returned to Jonze a 90-minute version of the film.

“It gave us the confidence to lose some big things that I wasn’t ready to lose [before]. Even though we didn’t use that exact cut,” said Jonze, whose final cut of the film ran two hours. “We were able to make connections between scenes out of connections he made. And making many of the cuts he suggested was a really good kind of pain.”

When You Think You Know It All, Try Something New

the-knick-poster-surgeonsSoderbergh watched the success of “The Sopranos” with great interest. He was taken with the way creator David Chase was breaking down the accepted conventions of TV narrative and generated eager audiences as a result. Television had become a medium in which Soderbergh felt he would not only be allowed to experiment, he’d be encouraged to do so.

The problem was the film model of director-as-auteur – being the main creative boss interpreting the work of the writers – was viewed as impossible in the television arena. It seemed unlikely that he could maintain his filmmaking approach — as director/cinematographer/editor with a lean crew — over the course of 10 episodes and 570 script pages in under 80 days. But that’s exactly what he did with The Knick.

“As I continue to work, and as I learn more, I have to keep looking for ways to be slightly outside of my comfort zone. So that’s what I’ll keep doing.”

The big studios refused to release Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra unless he first recut it, so he bypassed US theaters entirely and found a welcome home at HBO. He managed to free himself from overseer shackles entirely by selling all the streaming and TV rights to Logan Lucky ahead of its release last year, using that capital to finance the film, and then divvying up the box office proceeds among his collaborators instead of suited investors.

Is Moviegoing Dead?

“Look, the people who are saying moviegoing is dead are the people who don’t have an investment in moviegoing,” he said.

“When people say that moviegoing is dead, I go, OK, so the makers of ‘Get Out’ should’ve sold that movie to a platform? Then they don’t have this insane, crazy success theatrically all over the world. At the end of the day, it’s the filmmakers that have to figure it out.”