Trojan Horses and Immaculate Math: An Interview with Steven Soderbergh

The prolific filmmaker—who is retiring from directing this year—talks about money, intuition, digital style, and betraying the audience.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

The plot of Steven Soderbergh's new film, Side Effects, sets into motion when an ER shrink (Jude Law) is assigned a patient (Rooney Mara) who has crashed her car in an apparent suicide attempt. From there, the movie shifts and twists. What begins as realist portraiture transforms into legal drama before turning into a cat-and-mouse corporate thriller. 

The film is Soderbergh's fourth in 18 months—and will also reportedly his final theatrically-released feature. An HBO production, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, will premiere later this year. After that, Soderbergh—who recently turned 50—claims that he will retire from film directing.

Since bursting on to the international stage with his Palme d'Or-winning debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh has produced a vast and profoundly eclectic body of work which includes blockbusters, low-budget experiments, and everything in between.  

I spoke with Soderbergh by phone in late January. He's about as close to a perfect interview subject as you'll find: smart, quick, warm, and well-spoken.

NOTEBOOK: Side Effects switches genre a few times, and over the course of these turns, it ends up covering a lot of ideas and themes that are central to your work. There's the fascination with therapy and psychiatry, which goes back to your first feature. There's economics and economic forces and the market—something that you've been dealing with a lot in the last few years. And toward the end—and this is something that'll be difficult for me to put across to a reader without spoiling too much—is the fascination with conmen and performers. 

STEVEN SODERBERGH: Well, it certainly seemed to hit a lot of the markers that light me up.

It's kind of interesting how, if you made sex, lies, and videotape today, there would have be a discussion about what pills to put [the Andie MacDowell character] on. That attitude didn't even exist then—except for with people who were dysfunctional to the point of being suicidal. It's interesting how, in two decades, the approach to treating people has shifted. 

You're right, I always like when you can find a piece of material that has  some sort of layer in it that deals with money, because it's something that cuts across all boundaries. Everybody has to deal with this at some point, personally or professionally. 

In this case, it's coming at [the Rooney Mara character] from two different angles. You've got the issue of her day-to-day life, and the fact that her husband has just gotten out of jail and they're trying to start over again and they don't have money.

And then you've got her getting caught up in these pressures which are being exerted by multi-billion-dollar corporations that are very interested in having her as a client. You have a professional, Jude [Law's] character—who I view as being pretty good at his job—saying "We should put you on this" or "We should put you on that." For someone who's already in a fragile state, those are very powerful forces.  

I really liked it—especially knowing what was to come. I really felt Scott [Z. Burns] did a great job of taking a sort of zeitgeisty issue and using it as a Trojan Horse to hide these other things inside. 

I agree, it keeps changing shape. The key for me was to keep it aesthetically unified throughout. I really like the fact that at a certain point, you have to keep restarting the movie in your head. 

NOTEBOOK: Most of the movie is about re-contextualizing the first 30 or so minutes over and over. And there are conversations in the film about context and how context provides intent—the courtroom scenes with the Jude Law character.

SODERBERGH: The amount of time spent on the first 35 minutes of the film, proportionally, was more than on any other movie I've ever made, including Contagion, which went through a lot of permutations in post. Finding the balance of how to do the first act took a lot of trial and error. Removing material, putting it back, restructuring. Some strategic reshooting. The back two-thirds of the movie fell into order very quickly. But the first 35 minutes were really, really tricky. 

There's no algorithm to apply that will tell you definitively whether or not something will stick to an audience—or if it does stick, for how long. We were seeding certain ideas that would pop up later and the degree to which they were imprinting—it was really just a matter of screening the movie over and over again.

NOTEBOOK: Is there a big difference between those first 35 minutes as scripted and the finished film?

SODERBERGH: It's probably just a little more dialed-in. It's shorter. At a certain point we decided that there were some things we wanted to pull out and in order to make those edits work, we needed to shoot some strategic things to bridge the cuts. It's not radically different, but in some small and critical ways it's different.

We used to have a different introduction to Jude's character. The scene that exists in the film now, Scott rewrote at my request during the shoot and we re-shot it. The other scene gave a different impression of him that Scott and I felt wasn't entirely helping us; it was a little more glib. We felt that this wasn't how we wanted to set him up—it doesn't help us in the back half of the movie if he's sort of a smartass.

We were constantly trying to calibrate how people felt about the characters. We were trying to make sure that they were properly primed for what was about to happen. 

NOTEBOOK: Jude Law is introduced as a minor character. If his name wasn't first in the credits, I would've assumed that his part was a cameo. He starts as a supporting character, and then partway through the film, he becomes the center of the movie. The perspective shifts to him. Sympathy shifts to him as well. That's a radical thing to do in any film, but especially in the context of a big-budget Hollywood movie. 

SODERBERGH: Well, the good news is that it was very modestly budgeted. [laughs] But I think you're right. You think it's her movie, and then it ends up being his movie and that's not a normal thing to do. If it does work—and I think it does work—then I think the reason is because Scott constructed it so well. The architecture of those shifts is so well plotted out that it feels organic. Your point of view and your alliance should shift according to the way the plot is playing out.

Scott will tell that he hated math in school, but when we finished the movie, I said to him: "I'm really happy with this, because I think the math is immaculate."

NOTEBOOK: You wrote your own screenplays early in your career. You did some scripts in the 1990s for other directors. Why did you stop writing?

SODERBERGH: A bunch of reasons, the first and most important being that writing is the worst job in the world. [laughs] It's really horrible.

I wasn't really a writer. I was sort of writing by default. Then I started working with real writers and I began to realize that I didn't enjoy writing, but I really enjoyed working with writers. I feel like as soon as I started doing that, the work improved drastically.

I feel fortunate that I avoided a trap that some people fall into, which was to think that I needed to write everything that I did. And it was an especially difficult trap not to fall into because it was disguised by the success of the first film.

It took a certain amount of very disappoinate thought to realize: "You know what? I think I'm gonna have a better career and make better movies if I work with writers." I really believe that, and it's obviously turned out to be true. For me, who never really enjoyed writing and just wrote because I didn't really know anybody and needed to generate material, the ability to sit with people like Scott or Richard LaGravenese or Lem Dobbs is so fun and so much more gratifying and the results have been so much better that I've never looked back. 

NOTEBOOK: But around the time you stopped writing, you started shooting your own films. 

SODERBERGH: I'd always been a gearhead. I knew how to work a dark room. I'd shot short films. It was something that I felt very comfortable with, and as a result, I was probably something of a pain in the ass for the people who shot for me—although they were extremely generous with their time and their experience. 

But eventually it became clear that [acting as my own cinematographer] could be in aid of me having a more intimate relationship with the movie and with the actors. It seemed very comfortable.  I'm not Emmanuel Lubezki, but I'm quick and I'm cheap. 

NOTEBOOK: Even though Side Effects changes genre and direction, it has a unified look. It builds on the look you've been developing ever since you started shooting digitally. 

In this film and in Contagion, for instance, you use a lot of shallow depth-of-field. Is that deliberate, or it mostly a product of using natural light?

SODERBERGH: It's both. I'm constantly trying to figure to not have to take a light off of the truck. Sometimes you have to, but the good news is that, with digital, that's more and more often a rare occurrence, which I like because I want the world to look the way it looks. I don't have a desire to have the light be where I want it to be—I want the light to be where it is. I'll figure out how to adapt to that. 

The other thing with digital is that it's so sharp that you more often than not should be shooting at the widest aperture that the lens will allow because it looks more flattering and it creates a more velvety image. It's hell on the focus puller, but the results are much better than if you were shooting digitally at a fatter f-stop, because then you'd get a look that's unnaturally sharp—and unflattering for the actors. 

NOTEBOOK: You use static shots more than your contemporaries.

SODERBERGH: Well, in Side Effects there's movement, but I'm only moving when somebody else is moving. I want the movement to be hidden within what the characters are doing so that you're not really aware of it. Which is unlike, say, an Ocean's movie, where unmotivated camera moves are justified because you're creating a sort of series of comic book panels that needs to be alive and vibrant.

I have my rules about when I'm allowed to move and when I'm not allowed to move, and what kind of lenses I can use and what kind of lenses I can't use. I find that those kinds of restrictions are helpful.

NOTEBOOK: There's a very clear relationship between the technology that's being used and the techniques that are being used. Did digital technology change your style, or has it simply allowed you to better express ideas that you had before?

SODERBERGH: I can tell you now that if I had this technology earlier in my career, the work would have been better. I would've been able to see my ideas quicker and been able to respond and make adjustments faster. The first three movies I made, I didn't even start editing until we were done shooting. Now I'm cutting scenes the same night they were shot and I can go back and make adjustments or do the whole thing over again. The ability to error-correct quickly is so much more pronounced. 

NOTEBOOK: Does it inspire a more intuitive approach?

SODERBERGH: Of course. You're spending more time doing the idea that setting up.

NOTEBOOK: But you're often characterized as an analytical, problem-solving filmmaker.

SODERBERGH: That's where the speed comes in, too. It's hard—but not impossible, because I've proven this—to be pretentious when you're moving really fast. When I talk about the early films, what I see is that I had too much time to think about it, and when I have too much time to think about it, it doesn't get better. I have to treat it like a sport.

But everybody's different. That's just me analyzing what my strengths and weaknesses are and recognizing that, based on past experience, the longer I have to mull over things, the worse they get. 

NOTEBOOK: How long did this film take?

SODERBERGH: We kind of took a hiatus. We shot in April and May. I got a cut together quickly and set it aside, because we then went off and shot [Behind the Candelabra]. I had to wait for Thomas Newman, who wasn't available to start working on the score until late September. So we put it on the shelf, we shot [Behind the Candelabra] and then we had to finish both movies simultaneously. 

NOTEBOOK: Thomas Newman is someone you've worked with before. You have distinctive taste in film music—Newman, David Holmes, Cliff Martinez. Do you have a philosophy for how music should be used?

SODERBERGH: I certainly think it's become one of the most abused elements in movies. I'm more often than not really frustrated by how scores are used in movies. And they're often doing the same thing that every other score is doing. 

I'm looking for something that's going to enhance the movie and function as another character, but not in a way that echoes what everything else is doing. In this case, when I was talking to Tommy I said, "The opening cue is very important." I wanted it to have this fable-like, Rosemary's Baby feeling to it. Fortunately, he was able to take that comment and do what he did. 

I've been lucky. I'm so happy with the music I've gotten from the composers that I've worked with. It's been mostly Cliff or David or Thomas. I worked with Ross Godfrey once, on The Girlfriend Experience, which was great, but for the most part I've been serially monogamous with the composers I've worked with. It's not an open relationship, that's for sure. I've made a commitment. 

NOTEBOOK: Marvin Hamlisch's score for The Informant! stands out, though.

SODERBERGH: More so for its purpose, I think. What I said to Marvin was, "This score that you're writing is for Mark Whitacre. It's not for the audience." And he understood. As a result, there are people who find that score very polarizing, because I think that they can't submit to the fact that it's not for them. It's his soundtrack, it's not ours. 

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of The Informant!—that's another film that deals with a character who isn't exactly what they seem. Whitacre's an unreliable narrator; the first protagonist of Side Effects is an unreliable point-of-view character. What attracts you to these kinds of con artist characters?

SODERBERGH: All drama and all conflict is ultimately about betrayal. What's interesting to me is when you're able to find a story where you get to explore that unwritten, unspoken agreement that exists between the filmmaker and the audience. I like when you can betray them in a way that doesn't anger them but instead draws them into the story. 

If [the characters] are treating each other this way, then why can't you as the filmmaker treat the audience that way?

NOTEBOOK: It's a metaphor for the act of filmmaking itself.

SODERBERGH: Yeah, although if you print that, nobody will go see this movie. [laughs] The point is to make the audience complicit in the same kind of arrangement as the one you have the characters in. 

NOTEBOOK: I assume a lot of research went into the screenplay on Burns' end. Did you do research as well?

SODERBERGH: Once I jumped on, I wanted to see everything that he had seen, read everything he'd read, and have the conversations with our consultant, Dr. Bardey, that he'd had. We went to see some facilities. We talked to people who were basically doing the job that Jude does in the movie—people who work in the ER but whose specialty is determining whether there's something wrong with a patient that wouldn't be obvious to a GP. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you use any of these locations for shooting?

SODERBERGH: Yeah. We were able to shoot at Bellevue for a day, which was nice. The Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center on Wards Island—that's a real place. We were shooting in a wing that they aren't using right now, but in order to get there, we had to walk through the part of the hospital that's still in use.  

NOTEBOOK: That's a reality that isn't obvious to the audience. Do you feel it still shows up on screen?

SODERBERGH: Those institutions make choices, aesthetically, that you would never make. That's what I like about it. You would never pick these colors, you would never make windows of that shape and use that kind of glass, you would never light a room like this. Everything's wrong about them. 

NOTEBOOK: Do you think there's a difference for a viewer between something that is real and something that just looks the part?

SODERBERGH: I don't think that they'd ever be able to articulate it, but I think there is. I think the effect is cumulative, and when you combine it with some of the other elements of the movie—like the performances and the writing and the directing and the score—that can become a very important part of the suspension of disbelief that you need in any movie to make it work.

NOTEBOOK: So you approach your work largely in terms of how it affects an audience's perspective.

SODERBERGH: Well, I'm mindful of them, but I don't want to be controlled by them. We're constantly having conversations about the audience. What do we think they're gonna know here? What do we think they're gonna feel?

But at the same time, I expect them to do something. I don't expect them to sit there like a lox and just have everything done for them.

NOTEBOOK: Does that conversation change depending on the film you're making?

SODERBERGH: No, it's kind of the same, because there's always an audience. We'll have a conversation on Ocean's about the audience, and we'll have a conversation on The Girlfriend Experience about the audience, though I'm aware of the fact that those are two very different audiences. 

NOTEBOOK: Is being fair to a viewer something that's important to you?

SODERBERGH: This movie's a good example. You've got a couple of different occasions where you sort of have to restart and reassess what has happened, but it rewards your effort because we have been fair and the math does work and that's what makes fun.

NOTEBOOK: To change gears a little: you often work with the same actors. 

SODERBERGH: It's just easier. When you work with somebody who seems to share your ethos, then you make a note that you'd like to have that experience again, because it makes things move more smoothly. At the same time, it's a lot of fun to work with people who you've never worked with before or, even better, someone who hasn't really been given an opportunity to pop in something before. For instance, I really liked [Michael Nathanson], who plays the assistant district attorney. 

NOTEBOOK: On smaller projects, you've worked with non-professional actors.

SODERBERGH: That's fun, because they're so not motivated by the things that motivate actors. They're never thinking about results. But you can only do one or two takes, because then they start to try to act and it's over.

NOTEBOOK: Rooney Mara has, I think, the most challenging role in the film. She has to function in several different contexts. Was it hard finding someone who could pull it off?

SODERBERGH: Well, my sense from having seen what she had done with Fincher was that she had a lot of range and that she was really bright, and he confirmed that when I talked to him. In this kind of movie, the trick that all actors have to master is to pretend that they don't know what's coming. This one had an extra layer of obligation, because Rooney knew a lot of things about what was coming, and had to pretend not to on three different levels. We talked about how tricky that could be—not tipping things.

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