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?''