The Soderbergh experience: an evening with Steven Soderbergh

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By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer

As the Holland Performing Arts Center filled on Sunday, Feb. 20th and the clock ticked closer to 6:30 p.m., the room began buzzing with the conversations of movie buffs excited to see one of the most gifted directors in the world, Steven Soderbergh.

Soderbergh is the director of some of America’s best films. “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Traffic,” “Erin Brokovich,” “Out of Sight,” “Schizopolis,” “Full Frontal” and the popular “Ocean’s 11” trilogy. In 2001, he won the Best Director Oscar Academy Award for “Traffic.”

Soderbergh was here as a part of Feature III, the third event in support of Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolf Theater. The event has been spearheaded by Omaha native and Academy Award-winning director/writer Alexander Payne. Last year’s guest was Laura Dern and the first year’s guest was Debra Winger.

Rachel Jacobson, the director of Film Streams, began the evening introducing and thanking everyone involved with Film Streams and speaking about the importance of art house theaters throughout the world. Jacobsen thanked the people who help bring art to Omaha through the Sokolf Theater. She then introduced Payne.

“As a filmmaker I can’t quite say the name Soderbergh without feeling like Salieri saying the name Mozart,” Payne said in his introduction, with his usual wry sense of humor. Payne introduced a montage of Soderbergh’s films. He praised Soderbergh’s ability to make big budget films without artistic compromise and the fact that he essentially brought art house to the mainstream. “So let’s bring out our victim for the evening,” Payne said as Soderbergh came out.

“Did I die?” was Soderbergh’s fist comment as he sat down across from Peabody Award-winning Kurt Andersen, another Omaha native and commentator for the evening. Andersen began the evening by asking Soderbergh what he was most inspired by as a filmmaker.

“Stealing is the most important aspect,” Soderbergh said with a smile. “It’s how you steal, you have to act like it’s now yours.”

The discussion moved to Soderbergh’s 1989 breakout film “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” Soderbergh was honest about the process.

“It taught me an interesting lesson, you have to be careful about conclusions you make when things work,” he said.

He admitted that it was through the making of “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” that he realized he was better at directing than writing. Since then, with the exception of “Solaris,” he has had someone else write his scripts.

“I’m good at being in the room with the writer,” Soderbergh said. With directing, he said, he felt he had a lot more room to grow.

Andersen tied the words sex, lies, videotape to the rest of Soderbergh’s career. Sex, he maintains, is the most effective conflict in film. Especially with “The Girlfriend Experience,” one of his recent films about a high-priced call girl, which he considers a kind of sequel to “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” Because he frequently deals with criminals, lies are the “necessary grease to social interaction.”

And videotape because he was one of the first directors to use digital cameras. He explained that the most important thing about this method is simply the freedom that it brings. And it’s true – it’s hard to imagine Soderbergh without the technique that has helped to define him as a filmmaker.

When asked what his biggest regret is, he concedes that some of his films have been called cold, which he considers a kind of mistake.

“I’m not willing to do anything to get a rise out of an audience,” he said. “I don’t want the audience to feel manipulated the next day.”

When asked if he’s affected by bad reviews he simply shrugged. “I’m a process person, not a results person,” he said.

He touched on the possibility of retiring after his next two films, a Liberace biography staring Michael Douglas as the famed pianist and Matt Damon as his lover, and then a remake of the 1960s TV show “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” with George Clooney.

“The tyranny of narrative is starting to wear on me,” he said. “It’s just time.”

Essentially, he wants to quit while he’s ahead. He didn’t seem saddened by that prospect. He simply wants to turn the reigns over to someone who still loves making films.

“I hate repeating myself,” he said. “I never wanted to be a brand.”

This is why he says he’s never used the phrase ‘A Steven Soderbergh film’ on one of his movies. He said he only likes seeing his name once on screen, he feels any more would cheapen the film.

Throughout the evening Soderbergh was wry, self-deprecating and open, which was refreshing considering he is “the greatest director of the past 20 years,” as Payne put it in his opening. It was a fascinating evening that allowed people into the minds of one of our most gifted and influential directors. The only letdown of the evening was learning that one day soon we might lose him to retirement.

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