Sitting in his New York City office, a few blocks from the Flatiron Building, Steven Soderbergh matter-of-factly explains how his life falls neatly into three distinct phases. The first was his youth as a movie geek growing up in Pittsburgh and Baton Rouge, La. Phase 2 covered the years when he jump-started independent film with 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, turned Julia Roberts into an Oscar winner with 2000’s Erin Brockovich, and remade a rusty Frank Sinatra heist movie called Ocean’s 11 as a blockbuster trilogy. Phase 3 will come when he finally goes through with his long-rumored retirement, leaving it all behind for something. He doesn’t know quite what.
”I feel like I’ve hit the ceiling of my abilities,” says the director, 49, taking gulps from an old-timey glass bottle of Dr Pepper. ”There were things in The Tree of Life that were really extraordinary and beautiful and impossible to describe on a piece of paper. I’m not saying I need to disappear so I can learn how to be Terrence Malick. I’m just trying to imagine a different kind of movie. I need to completely step out, delete everything, and start over.”
Before he reinvents cinema, Soderbergh will take it for a wild ride in 2012. He’ll release the distaff action pic Haywire on Jan. 20, followed in June by Magic Mike, a dance movie about male strippers inspired by the life of its star and co-writer, Channing Tatum. This spring, he plans on shooting an as-yet-untitled thriller written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion). Then in July, he’ll start filming Behind the Candelabra, an HBO biopic starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his much younger lover. The zany all-over-the-map-ness of these projects is the appeal for Soderbergh; they’re his last-ditch effort to find challenges for himself in film. ”I like there to be something scary about each project,” he says. ”There’s got to be a pocket of fear when I show up for work: All right, can I pull this off?”
With a long-bridged nose and soft eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses, Soderbergh looks a bit like Peter Sellers playing the part of a Hollywood director. He speaks in solemn, curlicued thoughts that often start on his movies and end on topics like the Arab Spring, the novelist Nicholson Baker, or the future of technology. When he brings up ideas like ”infinite knowledge,” it’s not hard to hear the influence of his parents, an education-professor father and a ”parapsychologist” mother who did tarot card readings. He has a teacher’s love of facts and a psychic’s faith in the unknowable.
Soderbergh’s dad was the one who encouraged his son to love movies and let him skip school at age 14 to assist a commercial director in Baton Rouge. A dozen years later, Soderbergh was one of the hottest names in Hollywood after his self-written ultralow-budget debut, sex, lies, and videotape, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Audience Award at Sundance. He quickly established himself as an unruly talent who would follow up resounding hits — like 2000’s Traffic, which won him a Best Director Oscar — with confounding misfires like 2002’s experimental Full Frontal. He’s honed a distinctive style that blends New Wave naturalism with Hollywood cool but avoids the flashy directorial signatures of peers like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. And while he often lights, shoots, and edits for himself, he never allows studios to use the possessory credit ”A Steven Soderbergh film.” ”What I’m good at is blending and fusing everything I’m interested in and influenced by into some sort of coherent whole and then sprinkling my own sauce on it,” he explains. ”To use my name as an adjective, I don’t know what that would conjure in somebody’s head. You would not ever want to go into a meeting where you’re trying to get money for a film and say that your movie is going to be like one of my films. Because that could mean a lot of things — and some of them bad.”
Soderbergh’s offscreen life has also had its share of unevenness. After a first marriage to actress Betsy Brantley (they have a 21-year-old daughter), Soderbergh wed former E! host Jules Asner in 2003. Last year, news broke that the director had fathered a daughter in 2010 with a woman in Australia. Soderbergh, who acknowledges the child, is still married to Asner, and says she informs the female characters in his work — even Haywire‘s lethal Bond-ish heroine, Mallory Kane. ”[When Mallory] shouts from the other room — ‘You think you know me?’ — that’s a Jules line,” he says flatly.
If Soderbergh’s 2012 movies do have a common thread, it’s their unusual sources of real-life inspiration. Haywire was created after he was wowed by seeing mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano spar on TV. ”I was like, ‘S—, that girl is amazing! Somebody should build a movie around her.”’ So he did, casting her as an operative trying to outwit her boss (Ewan McGregor) and fellow mercenaries (Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender).
It was on the set of that movie that Tatum told Soderbergh about his old job as a male stripper. The director was intrigued, so Tatum and his pal wrote Magic Mike, a fictionalized story about a young man (Alex Pettyfer) who descends into the seedy world of male stripping under the guidance of a veteran club owner (Matthew McConaughey). According to Soderbergh, the movie was an easy sell despite its risqué subject. ”I would tell people, ‘You like Saturday Night Fever? You like those scenes where John Travolta is dancing? Imagine if he was naked. That’s what we’re making.”’ Truth be told, there won’t be much actual nudity in Magic Mike; the movie’s sole full-frontal shot is currently in danger of being cut if the MPAA decides it would lead to an NC-17 rating. But Tatum promises there will still be plenty of skin: ”You’ll see my a– all over the movie. Sorry for my French. My buttocks will be all over the film.”
Flashy entertainment is at the heart of Soderbergh’s other scheduled project, a made-for-HBO adaptation of Scott Thorson’s 1988 memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace. Michael Douglas and Soderbergh first talked about the role on the set of Traffic, but various obstacles — including Douglas’ battle with cancer — kept the film on hold until this year. Now Douglas says he’s thrilled to finally put on the rhinestone cape. ”When a director of Steven’s talent invites you to do a project like that, which should be a fun stretch, you’re just clicking your heels,” says the actor, who, by the way, doesn’t buy the idea that this will be Soderbergh’s final film. ”Yeah, right,” he laughs when the subject comes up. ”I’ll believe it when I see it.”
But Soderbergh is certain of his retirement — though not what he’s going to do with it. ”I’m imagining a sort of Warhol situation where there’s going to be a lot of stuff generating in a lot of different forms, and it could be everything from a painting to a chair,” he says, surrounded by a ”playpen” of half-finished projects: a canvas that he painted with a striped pattern based on the numerals of pi; a blurry photograph he took of a pornographic movie playing on a hotel TV. Some of his more ambitious plans for Phase 3 — which he says will start in January 2013 — are admittedly vague. (”Ideally, there would be a site you could go to and there’s just stuff on there.”) Others are undeniably enticing, like publishing a limited-edition book that holds the full scope of his knowledge about filmmaking. All of them underscore his deep-seated desire to leave movies behind — at least until he figures out how to make them better. And not everyone is as skeptical as Douglas about Soderbergh’s commitment to leaving movies. ”I think he will go away for a while,” says Tatum. ”And when he does come back on the field, it’s going to be like Muhammad Ali stepping out into the ring again. It’ll be his fight.”