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Tim Grierson on the Brilliant Career of Steven Soderbergh

Steven-Soderbergh

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When people list their favorite filmmakers, their choices are obviously based partly on liking those directors’ movies but, beyond that, I would guess it’s also because they identify with the themes and attitudes expressed in those films. To be entirely stereotypical, most fans of Quentin Tarantino probably don’t behave or dress much like fans of Woody Allen — or of Jon Favreau, Michael Haneke, Kelly Reichardt, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Like picking a favorite Beatle or declaring oneself Team Edward or Team Jacob, we’re telling the world less about the people we’re choosing between and more about who we are and what we value.

I haven’t liked all of Steven Soderbergh’s films, but his career — the way he conducts himself artistically and professionally — is something I greatly admire. More than his movies, I really just love him. So, as you could imagine, I’m very sad that he’s serious about retiring from filmmaking. He’s releasing the thriller “Side Effects” on Friday, and then his Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” will come to HBO. And then that’s it.

Soderbergh arrived on the scene in 1989 with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” which famously wowed Sundance in January of that year and then won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. He was all of 26 and was quickly embraced as the Next Big Thing. In a Rolling Stone profile from that time, he came across as something of a hot shot: the outsider who had moved to Los Angeles, found little success, returned home to Baton Rogue defeated, decided to give Hollywood one more chance, and wrote the “Sex, Lies” script in a week while driving back West. Now the conquering hero, he called “Top Gun” producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer “slime” and “just barely passing for humans” in the Rolling Stone piece. He made disparaging comments about another up-and-coming director, Phil Joanou, who had segued into soft commercial movies like “Three O’Clock High.” (“Soderbergh has given instructions that he be shot on sight if he ever makes a movie about high school,” wrote profiler Terri Minsky.)

But you also got the sense that Soderbergh’s criticisms of others were a way to keep himself grounded amidst all the hoopla surrounding “Sex, Lies.” “I’m still a schmuck like everybody else,” he said. “I have problems, just like anyone. There are people who get to make movies who are fucking assholes, who are terrible people. Okay, I know I’m not a terrible person. It’s just that this attention — it’s potentially harmful, and it has so little to do with sitting in a room and trying to write, trying to make something good and make something work. It has nothing to do with that.”

“Sex, Lies” made almost $25m — an impressive total for a low-budget indie — and Soderbergh seemed well on his way. But after all the hype, he struggled. His follow-up film, “Kafka,” was a commercial and critical disappointment. The period drama “King of the Hill” was lovingly told but made no money. (It did, however, open the door for young stars Adrien Brody and Katherine Heigl.) And his thriller “The Underneath” was a misfire that had brains but sank like a stone at the box office. At 32, Soderbergh seemed to be in danger of being forgotten, just like all the other Next Big Things he had lamented in that Rolling Stone article who had come before him.

Then, Soderbergh did something incredibly nervy. Rather than committing to a sure career-revitalizing project, he made “Schizopolis,” a bizarre, surreal little comedy (starring him) that satirized suburban malaise, office politics and its own irrelevance. It felt like a stunt — the sort of thing you do when you decide that you’re ready to burn every bridge and alienate everybody who ever liked you. And for that reason, it’s fascinating, although at the time it seemed like this clearly smart and talented filmmaker was walking away from Hollywood for good.

Of course, that didn’t happen — he was merely gearing up for his second act. In the summer of 1998, he returned with “Out of Sight,” which helped put him back on the map but also launched George Clooney. We forget this now, but this thriller (adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel) was equally important for both men: If Soderbergh was trying to reverse his trajectory, Clooney was trying to prove that his post-“E.R.” film career was viable. (He’d been in the very mediocre “The Peacemaker” and the truly awful “Batman and Robin.”) I have to confess that, at the time, I didn’t get “Out of Sight.” After my first viewing, I thought it was too clever for its own good — certainly stylish and confident, but lacking much soul. Seeing it again a few weeks later, I embarrassingly realized I’d missed the boat. Coolly elegant and expertly paced, it was far smarter than I’d realized. I vowed never to underestimate Soderbergh again. (And I kept an eye on him and Clooney, who went on to form a production company together, Section Eight, which oversaw great films like “Far From Heaven,” “Insomnia,” “Syriana” and “Michael Clayton.”)

Blessed with a second chance, Soderbergh didn’t disappoint. He went from low-budget noir thrillers (“The Limey”) to superb, heartfelt mainstream entertainments (“Erin Brockovich”) to possibly his best film of all, “Traffic,” a perfect distillation of his intelligent, emotionally subdued style for a wholly devastating look at a group of characters who are in one way or another trapped in the web of drug addiction. Watching him win the Best Director Oscar for “Traffic” in early 2001, it was impossible not to think that this was the same man who, just four years prior, had put out “Schizopolis,” when everything seemed so bleak.

Armed with an Academy Award, he has hardly slowed down. If anything, he’s only gotten more interesting as a filmmaker. Since then, he hasn’t made one dull movie — he’s made less-than-great ones (“Full Frontal,” “The Good German”) — but he’s never lacked for intriguing ideas. Soderbergh grew up playing baseball — he was once a promising pitcher — and there’s something about that sport’s celebration of the day-in/day-out grind that seems to have stayed with the filmmaker. He just goes out and does the work, treating each project with as much care and thoughtfulness as he can. As he mentioned in a recent New York interview, “Any movie I’ve made has been because of the challenge it offered me as a director, because it provides a new canvas. Even the big-budget stuff like the ‘Ocean’s’ films.” In fact, it was his idea to do sequels to “Ocean’s Eleven” — not the studio’s. “They didn’t care. We kind of had to talk them into it. Those movies provided a really unique set of opportunities visually. They’re not easy for me to make. The first ‘Ocean’s’ was, directorially, a lot harder than ‘Traffic.’ Not even close. But they allowed me to play in a way the other movies don’t. It’s the closest to a comic book as I’ll ever get — I viewed them as like Roy Lichtenstein panels, which was really fun. And I’m very happy with them visually. When you look at what passes for a tent pole now, the ‘Ocean’s’ movies are pretty gentle in terms of their spirit, and I like that about them.”

I do, too. All three of the “Ocean’s” films have a bounce and freedom that you don’t see from big-budget studio movies. Soderbergh is sometimes criticized for his “cold” movies, but how, then, do you explain what fun the “Ocean’s” films are? To this day, Soderbergh comes across as a dry, cerebral fellow in interviews — the braininess of his youth remains — but it’s only helped give his films an undeniably hip patina. Whether it’s “The Informant!” or “The Girlfriend Experience” or “Contagion” or “Che,” his movies give off a sense that they’re trying to rethink their genres, trying to find new ways to express familiar sentiments. And as to this nonsense that his movies are overly chilly or withdrawn, who else could have turned “Magic Mike” into both a really fun time and also a poignant look at a young man (Channing Tatum) finally shedding his Peter Pan complex and growing up?

As Soderbergh’s gotten closer to 50, the age he said he wanted to give up filmmaking for painting and other pursuits, he’s been jumping from movie to movie, worried less about grand statements than crossing genres off his bucket list. What a blast “Haywire” was. What elegant paranoia dripped from “Contagion.” (And if you haven’t seen “And Everything Is Going Fine,” his 2010 documentary tribute to celebrated monologist Spalding Gray, a longtime friend of Soderbergh’s, it’s deeply moving.) This is not a man who should be retiring — he seems at the peak of his powers, making one distinctive film and then moving on to the next. He’s my kind of filmmaker. He just works. He does the best he can at that moment, and then he throws all his energy into the next one. Leave the legacy talk for others to sort out.

If “Side Effects” is his final feature, it’s a fitting sendoff. It’s smart, it’s shrewd, and it goes its own way. I liked it, but in my review I noted my reservations, which included, I now see, a criticism that it’s “ultimately too clever for its own good.” I’ve been here before with Soderbergh. I was wrong then — at this stage of his fine, fine career, I’m not entirely positive I’m not wrong now. But what I do know for sure: I’ll miss his movies. And I’ll miss him making them.

You can follow Tim Grierson on Twitter.

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Bill Hader in Conan Star Wars Audition Sketch

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Watch Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy and More Audition to Play Young Han Solo

The Documentary Now! star shows off his best Han and Chewie.

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Photo Credit: TBS/YouTube

Thanks in large part to The Force Awakens not sucking, the Star Wars universe is about to get a lot more expansive. Sequels, spin-offs, TV shows, and more are underway — which means a helluva lotta casting calls. Fortunately, Conan O’Brien got his hands on a few audition tapes of celebrities trying out for a role as a young Han Solo.

Check out Documentary Now!’s Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Portlandia favorite Jeff Goldblum, Todd Margaret star Will Arnett and other funny folks offering their takes on what that younger, brasher space swashbuckler would be like.

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The Breakfast Club Everett Collection

Join the Club

10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Breakfast Club

Catch The Breakfast Club during IFC's '80s Weekend.

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Catch The Breakfast Club during IFC's '80s Weekend.

The Breakfast Club is the king of all teen films, proving that a movie centered around high school angst can be funny, touching, and relatable to all ages. 31 years later, it is the high water mark of teenage drama. Before you spend detention with The Breakfast Club during IFC’s ’80s Weekend, check out a few facts about the making of this teen movie classic.

1. A racy scene was cut from the film.

Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures

Originally, there was a scene in the script where the boys snuck out and found a peephole into the women’s locker room where they spied on a naked P.E. teacher. Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy told writer/director John Hughes that the scene seemed gratuitous and he agreed, making The Breakfast Club a rare ’80s teen film with no needless boob shots. Thanks, Molly and Ally!


2. Rick Moranis almost played the janitor.

Rick Moranis Ghostbusters
Columbia Pictures

Carl the Janitor has some memorable scenes in The Breakfast Club, like when he tells the group about the perks of going through their trash and his bonding moment with Principal Vernon. Rick Moranis was originally cast as Carl, but the Ghostbusters star had a very different vision for the role. He came in with gold caps on his teeth and did a cartoon-y Russian accent, which Hughes felt clashed with the more serious tone of the film. So, Moranis was fired and John Kapelos eventually got the part.


3. John Hughes wrote the script faster than Allison eating Pixie Stix.

Anthony Michael Hall Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures

It only took Hughes two days to write the screenplay for The Breakfast Club. He later said that keeping the story in mostly one location made it easier to write and film.


4. Judd Nelson really got into character.

Judd Nelson Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures

For the role of John Bender, Judd Nelson stayed in character for the entirety of his time on set. The outfit he wore in the film was the same as what he wore to the audition, and Nelson even provided his own switchblade. Apparently, he kept the blade on him for protection on the mean streets of Hollywood. Hey, it was the ’80s.


5. Parmesan cheese was used for Allison’s dandruff.

Ally Sheedy Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures

Ally Sheedy didn’t go fully Method for the scene where she adds her own dandruff to her drawing. Instead of real flakes, the crew used Parmesan cheese as a substitute.


6. Black Eyes won Ally Sheedy the part of Allison.

Ally Sheedy Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures

Sheedy had met John Hughes when she auditioned for Samantha (the role that eventually went to Molly Ringwald) in Sixteen Candles. At her audition, she had two black eyes from a set building accident. Hughes remembered her as having a “Gothic look” and called Sheedy to audition for The Breakfast Club. So, if you get terribly beat up on the way to an audition, it might be your ticket to fame!


7. The Breakfast Club Wasn’t the Only Possible Title.

Lunch Bunch Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures/Imgur

Before Hughes settled on The Breakfast Club, other titles bandied about were “Library Revolution” and “Lunch Bunch.” “Library Revolution” seems like a hard sell for the teen crowd and “Lunch Bunch” sounds like some kind of Brady Bunch prequel. Plus, the embarrassment of saying “I love the Lunch Bunch” would have kept a lot of fans silent.


8. John Cusack Was Originally Cast as John Bender.

Better Off Dead
Warner Bros.

The Better Off Dead and Say Anything… star auditioned many times and was initially cast as Bender. But Hughes wanted the character to have a more threatening demeanor, which led to Cusack getting dropped for Judd Nelson. Just as well. It’s hard to imagine ultimate ’80s nice guy John Cusack calling anyone a “neo maxi zoom dweebie.”


9. Molly Ringwald almost played Allison.

Molly Ringwald Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures

Hughes wanted his Sixteen Candles stars to work with him again on his next film, and offered Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall parts in The Breakfast Club. Geeky Brian was a perfect fit for Hall, but Ringwald was initially offered the role of outsider Allison. Ringwald wanted to play Claire, and eventually convinced Hughes she was right for the snobby girl-with-a-heart-of-gold role.


10. Ferris Bueller Shares a high school with The Breakfast Club.

Ferris Bueller Breakfast Club
Universal Pictures/Warner Bros./Pinterest

Maine North High School in Des Plaines, Illinois was used during the filming of The Breakfast Club. (The library scenes were actually filmed in the gymnasium on a constructed set.) The school was also used for interior filming on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, though nearby Glenbrook North High doubled as the exterior of the school Ferris ditched. In fact, some posters on the Maine North High walls can be seen in both Ferris and The Breakfast Club. Do the movies exist in the same universe???

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The Breakfast Club Paul Gleason

The Mean Team

The 10 Biggest Jerks From ’80s Teen Movies

Catch Footloose and The Breakfast Club during IFC's '80s Weekend.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

The ’80s gifted us with many glorious things like “Thriller,” dance aerobics, and Tab, but none quite as glorious as the teen movie jerk. Often a gentleman, but occasionally a lady, these deliciously douche-y antagonists sauntered around the halls of our favorite cinematic high schools with perfectly feathered hair, popped collars, and a general air of smugness. Before you travel back in time to the Reagan Era for IFC’s ’80s Weekend, check out our list of the biggest jerks from ’80s teen movies. Shoulder pads and Aquanet are totally optional.

1. Steff, Pretty in Pink

No man rocked a linen suit and loafers in the ’80s (or really SINCE the ’80s) quite as well as James Spader’s hunky, “richie” bad guy from Pretty in Pink. Steff looks old enough to be in grad school, which may explain why he’s always seen idling in the halls with a cigarette coolly hanging off his lips instead of actually going to class. He’s also the kind of guy who has house parties where he roams around in open silk robes, rolling joints, and condescending to pretty much everyone including his supposed best friend Blane. Steff may harbor a secret crush on polar opposite Andie, but we’ve always had a love/hate crush on him and his ridiculously great hair.


2. Troy, The Goonies

Yes, the Fratellis are the real villains in our favorite flick about a ragtag group of teens searching for pirate treasure, but without number one tool, Troy (Steve Antin), and his equally terrible father trying to turn The Goondocks into a country club expansion, there’d be no reason for the pirate treasure search in the first place. Troy is the epitome of the Letterman jacket-wearing, convertible-driving preppy jerk we’ve come to know and hate from ’80s films. His sole aim is to “make it” with girl-next-door Andy (Kerri Green) so when she refuses to ride up his wishing well bucket (in more ways than one) and sends up his embroidered cardigan instead, he angrily yells, “ANDY, YOU GOONIE!” At least he has his sweater back to keep him warm from the cold shoulder Andy just gave him.


3. Hardy, Some Kind of Wonderful

The highly attractive Hardy Jenns (Craig Sheffer) has many less-than-attractive traits including being cruel, misogynistic (“She’s gonna have to beg!”), cheating on girlfriend Amanda (Lea Thompson), and being a total rich snob. Like fellow John Hughes movie tool, Steff, Mr. Jenns also loves a beautifully cut suit and perfect hair, which may be the only thing bigger than his oversized ego. But none of that is enough to keep him from losing two things he can’t just buy back with his gobs of money: his pride and ex Amanda. Looks like THIS Hardy boy has more than a few mysteries to solve, starting with how to become a less terrible person.


4. Heather Chandler, Heathers

New World Pictures
New World Pictures

Lunchtime poll: would you rather be Heather Chandler or kill Heather Chandler? Such is the dilemma faced by frenemy Veronica (Winona Ryder) whose life (and everyone else’s for that matter) is made a living hell by the resident queen bee of the Heathers clique. Ever stylish, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) favors violently red power suits with huge shoulder pads and matching hair scrunchies. She’s as ruthless about tormenting anyone who gets in her way or barfs on her designer shoes (ahem, Veronica) as she is her croquet game, and frankly, her acid-tongued, NSFW comebacks (some involving chainsaws) are totally legendary. What’s her damage? Oh, just ruling Westerberg like she’s the queen of Westeros. How very.


5. Biff, Back to the Future

Universal
Universal Studios

Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) is basically your typical school bully: pushy, a little dumb, and egged on by a gang of equally pushy, dimwit friends in Converse sneakers and 3D glasses. He also can’t take a hint from pretty Lorraine (Lea Thompson) who clearly wants nothing to do with him either inside or outside of a car. Like most bullies, Biff’s main target is resident school nerd, George “HEY McFly!” McFly (Crispin Glover), whom he forces to do all his homework and beats the crap out of on a regular basis. Speaking of crap, though, Biff gets a truckload dumped on him during a game of chicken with George’s son, Marty (Michael J. Fox). Hey, Biff — if you need us to help you clean up, we’re gonna make like a tree, and get out of here.


6. Johnny Lawrence, The Karate Kid

Columbia
Columbia Pictures

No list of ’80s teen movie villains would be complete without mentioning the weirdly prolific William “Billy” Zabka. Johnny Lawrence is, without question, the greatest of his bad guy personas. A top karate student at Cobra Kai, blond jerk Johnny immediately dislikes grasshopper Daniel (Ralph Macchio) after he notices him getting a little too chummy with ex-girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue) at a party. Naturally, this is the catalyst for the showdown to end all karate showdowns, and Johnny will do anything to win; even an illegal move against an already injured Daniel. In his leather jackets and karate bandanas, Johnny is the ultimate dreamy bad boy you love to hate and hate to love. Sweep the leg? More like he swept us all off our feet.


7. Principal Vernon, The Breakfast Club

Universal
Universal Studios

Good ol’ Richard Vernon (Paul Gleason) — or Dick, as Bender (Judd Nelson) would call him — and his 1,000-word essay during Saturday detention are all that stand between our Brain (Anthony Michael Hall), Athlete (Emilio Estevez), Basket Case (Ally Sheedy), Princess (Molly Ringwald), and Criminal (Nelson) and freedom. With a wardrobe possibly raided from Barry Manilow, Vernon is overly stern and harsh, especially to John Bender, whom he locks in a closet and gives detentions to as freely as Oprah gives away cars. Hey, you mess with the bull, you get the horns, right? (Click here to see all airings of The Breakfast Club on IFC.)


8. Reverend Moore, Footloose

There are overly-protective fathers and then there is Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow). Stubborn and pious, Moore refuses to lift the ban on dancing and rock music in Bomont, putting an even bigger wedge between himself and wild daughter Ariel (Lori Singer). Moore is all fire and brimstone in the pulpit, preaching against the very things — like sex, drugs, dancing, and alcohol — he believes led to son Bobby’s death in a car accident. When Ren (Kevin Bacon) stands up to him during a town council meeting and quotes joyful passages about dancing from the Bible, Moore’s demeanor begins to change. Come on, Reverend. No one can resist a slice of Bacon! (Click here to see all airings of Footloose on IFC.)


9. Jeanie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Paramount
Paramount Pictures

Much like Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is less-than-amused by brother Ferris’ (Matthew Broderick) shenanigans, especially considering he never seems to get in trouble for anything with either their parents or school. But Jeanie’s attempts to catch her brother in the act wind up landing her in the police station where she finds time to make out with a drug dealer and throw some serious shade before speeding off with her mother to try to beat Ferris home. Jeanie Bueller’s day off is decidedly not quite as fun as Ferris’.


10. Stan Gable, Revenge of the Nerds

26 year-old Ted McGinley was cast as cardigan-wearing jock Stan Gable partially based on a calendar-modeling gig he’d had, which explains a lot about what you need to know about Stan. The alpha male of the Alpha Beta fraternity pretty much coasts by on his good looks and athletic abilities while delegating all his dirty work to doofus best friend Ogre (Donald Gibb). But make no mistake, Stan has it out for any and all nerds who try to steal both his spot as big man on campus and his girl. Never cross a man in a cardigan.

Flashback with IFC’s ’80s Weekend July 29-31st!

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