Selected filmography: Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Ocean's Eleven (2001), Full Frontal (2002), Solaris (2002), Ocean's Twelve (2004), Bubble (2005), The Good German (2006), Ocean's Thirteen (2007), Che (2008), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), The Informant! (2009)
That Steven Soderbergh released a dozen films between 2000 and 2009 speaks not just to his prolificacy as a filmmaker, but to his innate need to create. Not content to simply lead the charge of American indie directors that arrived on Hollywood’s doorstep in the late 1980s, Soderbergh sought to change the rules of the game. His directorial debut, 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, was among the most successful of this low-budget new wave, grossing more than 30 times its meager $1.2 million budget, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and making the then-26-year-old the youngest director ever to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Whereas many of his contemporaries aimed to make a name for themselves at Sundance as a stepping stone to big-budget pictures, much of Soderbergh’s career until the aughts was spent working in relative indie obscurity, with films like King of the Hill, The Underneath, Gray’s Anatomy, and Schizopolis. By the end of the decade, after partnering with soon-to-be-business partner George Clooney on Out of Sight, Soderbergh seemed to stumble upon a formula for success: personal storytelling + A-list name = box office gold.
In 2000, Soderbergh would have a chance to test out this theory not once, but twice: first with the legal drama Erin Brockovich, for which Julia Roberts won her first (and so far only) Oscar, then with the epic war-on-drugs tale Traffic, which won four of its five Oscar nominations (including Best Director for Soderbergh).
This new millennium success led to Soderbergh being entrusted with $85 million to breathe new life into a Rat Pack classic, Ocean’s Eleven. Though some observers initially worried that Soderbergh had finally sold out—that his decade toiling away on sub-$1 million budgets had finally forced him to cash in his creativity—the director did something surprising: He created a piece of entertainment, pure and simple. There were no deeper meanings or messages; just a group of friends having fun with Warner Brothers’ checkbook and raking in more than $450 million in box office receipts, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of the year.
Ocean’s Eleven’s popularity spawned two sequels in relatively short order, Ocean’s Twelve in 2004 and Ocean’s Thirteen in 2007, and allowed Soderbergh to adopt the “one for them, one for me” philosophy to which indie trailblazer John Cassavetes had always subscribed (meaning for that every studio film he actually got paid to make, he’d make a no-budget picture to satisfy his own creative interests). This would, of course, explain Soderbergh’s spate of experimental films throughout the decade, including 2002’s imrpovisational Full Frontal, 2006’s Bubble, and 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience. Having proven himself as a bankable name, Soderbergh now wanted to show how little money mattered. He wanted to push beyond the comfy confines of Hollywood as it existed and discover innovative ways to find (and entertain) an audience.
An early adopter of digital technology, Soderbergh continued to challenge the conventions of Hollywood throughout the decade, becoming one of the first name directors to allow a day-and-date release strategy for Bubble, a move that National Association of Theater Owners president John Fithian called "the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today.”
It didn’t hurt Soderbergh that he had the world’s biggest movie star in his corner: George Clooney. The duo co-founded Section Eight Productions in 2000, which had a hand in not just their own directorial efforts but Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton. Soderbergh and Clooney’s collaborations during this period included a remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris and the post-WWII drama The Good German.
In 2008, the cinematic revolutionary took on—appropriately enough—the life story of Che Guevara in two parts, The Argentine and Guerrilla, a pet project of star Benicio del Toro’s which Soderbergh admits he approached with a “pretty significant sense of dread.” (It didn’t help that he opted to shoot the films in Spanish, which diluted the pool of potential investors.) The Girlfriend Experience, featuring a day in the life of real-life porn star Sasha Grey playing a high-priced Manhattan hooker, followed. Soderbergh ended the decade on a high note—and with a laugh—with the price-fixing comedy The Informant!
How does one director jump from Vegas con men to Marxist revolutionaries? For Soderbergh, it’s all part of being an artist and, as he told an enthralled crowd during a speech on “The State of Cinema” at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival: “Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos.” —Jennifer Wood