Stop Calling Steven Soderbergh An Innovator and Learn to Love His Work

An argument for spending less time concerned with Steven Soderbergh’s innovation and more time appreciating the fact that he’s a damn good filmmaker.
Steven Soderbergh
By  · Published on March 22nd, 2018

An argument for spending less time concerned with Steven Soderbergh’s innovation and more time appreciating the fact that he’s a damn good filmmaker.

Steven Soderbergh’s debut feature, the Palme d’Or-winning sex, lies, and videotape, is justly credited with kickstarting the modern (American) indie-film movement. Out of Sight, Soderbergh’s initial foray into blockbuster filmmaking is today considered a hallmark of that broad genre. Ocean’s Eleven spawned two—soon to be three—sequels, Traffic won five Academy Awards, Erin Brockovich won Julia Roberts her Oscar. Soderbergh’s post-fake-retirement TV work is equally admirable; he produced the excellent Red Oaks and is involved (in some capacity) in both Godless and The Girlfriend Experience. He served as director, cinematographer, and editor on The Knick, possibly the most overlooked series of the Peak TV era.

Why, then, is Soderbergh so often missing from conversations about the most essential “mainstream-auteur” contemporary filmmakers? As a working film critic (and soon-to-be film school graduate), I can attest to the fact that Soderbergh is rarely if ever, mentioned alongside the likes of The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón, and a select few others. The Coens are (rightfully) worshipped for their storytelling brilliance, Tarantino is idolized for his overt stylization and cinephilia, Nolan for his beloved arthouse-blockbuster fare, Fincher for having made Se7en, Cuarón for his tracking shots and an immaculate cinematic mix of the visual and emotional. Soderbergh, for his nearly three decades of film mastery, rarely comes up in these conversations.

But while The Discourse™ is oddly disinterested in Soderbergh’s general filmmaking excellence, it is obsessed with what it sees as his filmmaking innovation. Google “Steven Soderbergh + innovation” and you’ll find a hundred articles about how Soderbergh’s narrative, marketing, and technological innovations are challenging mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Articles about how he cast an MMA fighter in (the excellent) Haywire, a porn star in (the middling) The Girlfriend Experience, and some non-professional actors in Bubble (which, embarrassingly enough, I have yet to see). You’ll find articles about his two-part Che, his multi-hyphenate Knick work, his having a rough cut of his newest film within three hours of wrapping production. Google “Steven Soderbergh” on its own, and you’ll find pages upon pages of articles about how he shot his latest, Unsane, on an iPhone.

But while it’s certainly admirable that Soderbergh is always trying new things, is critical of Hollywood traditionalism, and is consumed with bridging the gap between quality filmmaking and economic practicalism, his “innovations” are rarely all that innovative—and they never truly change the way the audience consumes his work. He’s the poster boy for directorial innovation, yet some of that credit belongs to other, lesser-known filmmakers who were the firsts to navigate these technological waters.

To be clear, none of this is a knock on Soderbergh in any way. It’s wonderful that he is open to trying new things, that he is inspired by the work of his peers, that he takes cinematic risks. But the cultural obsession with Soderbergh-as-innovator has redirected attention from a much more vital figure: Soderbergh the filmmaker. This is exemplified in the discourse surrounding his most recent three projects, Logan Lucky, Mosaic, and Unsane—all three of which were released within the last six months(!) 

This past August, GQ ran an interview piece with the headline “Steven Soderbergh is Back to Destroy Hollywood,” correlating with the release of his self-distributed film Logan Lucky. The headline, which is severely misleading, is a manifestation of the Soderbergh Discourse Dynamic laid out above. While Soderbergh is clearly at odds with Hollywood traditionalism, the vast majority of the GQ interview is about his career, his films, his directorial philosophy. It is not about “destroying Hollywood,” and it only briefly touches on his Logan Lucky distribution gambit. But the dominant narrative surrounding Soderbergh is that he’s the anti-Hollywood innovator, and the dominant narrative surrounding Logan Lucky was that it would spurn a new age of big-budget studioless film distribution (rather than the more appropriate narrative, “Logan Lucky is a phenomenal film and here’s why…”), thus: “Steven Soderbergh is Back to Destroy Hollywood.” It hardly matters what the actual article, or even Soderbergh himself, says.

With Logan Lucky, Soderbergh took a gamble: he retained full creative control of his movie through the marketing and distribution phase, a completely new way of doing business. Not only did Soderbergh cut his own trailers and design his own posters, but he also devised Logan Lucky’s marketing strategy without the assistance of a major studio’s infrastructure. He partnered with Bleeker Street for the Logan Lucky domestic theatrical distribution.

Soderbergh spent Logan Lucky’s marketing budget untraditionally: he waited until right before the film’s release, and spent a “hugely disproportionate amount of money” on social media ads, instead of TV spots. In the days leading up to Logan Lucky’s release, box office nerds everywhere waited with baited breath to find out if Soderbergh’s gamble would pay off. The hope was that Logan Lucky would make a lot of money, forcing studios to reevaluate both a) the way they market their movies and b) the types of movies they make. Not only that but if Soderbergh’s gambit paid off, it would spur a new age of empowered filmmakers retaining control of their own work.

Unluckily for Soderbergh (and select nerds), Logan Lucky tanked, failing to recoup its budget during its theatrical run. This was bad news on two accounts: for one, it proved Soderbergh wrong (and reinforced traditional Hollywood distribution systems); for another, far fewer people have seen Logan Lucky than if Soderbergh had released the film traditionally. In post-mortem interviews, Soderbergh has admitted that his marketing strategy for Logan Lucky was misguided. But it’s too late: Logan Lucky came and went, and only a fraction of its potential audience got to enjoy it.

Not shocking, given the drama of all this, that The Discourse™ focused all of its Soderbergh energy on Logan Lucky’s distribution, rather than… Logan Lucky itself.

Next up, we have Mosaic. I love Mosaic. Have you watched Mosaic? If you have, you’re one of very few. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked someone (generally a fellow critic) if they’d seen Mosaic. The response is inevitably some variation of “oh yeah, that choose-your-own-adventure show. Gotta check that out. What’s it called again? Man, that Soderbergh is an innovator.”

Mosaic is a rather brilliant piece of TV work which was directed, edited, and shot by Soderbergh. HBO premiered its six-episode, self-contained first season just a few months ago. Not only that, but the whole season was released online (and as a smartphone app)—for free—months before its HBO premiere. The online version was slightly different from the TV version; instead of being released in traditional “episodic” format, it was broken up into subjective chapters which branched off from one another, allowing the viewer to see certain parts of the show from the perspectives of multiple characters. Mosaic was well-received by critics; it landed at an 84% on the vaunted Tomatometer.

However, from the moment Mosaic was first announced until right this very moment,The Discourse™ surrounding Soderbergh’s exceptional new show was not about its relative level of quality. It wasn’t about the show’s wonderful performances, or its stunning cinematography, or even about how the “chapter” format illuminated the show’s narrative. Instead, it was about the fact that Soderbergh was making a “choose-your-own-adventure” series (an inaccurate description, and one that Soderbergh attempted to quash early on), and what a curiosity that was, and boy howdy that Soderbergh is an innovator. Reviews of the series sported headlines like: “Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Mosaic’ Is the Most Innovative TV Series Maybe Ever” and “‘Mosaic’ Is a Steven Soderbergh Experiment[…]” and “Steven Soderbergh’s free interactive TV series ‘Mosaic’ turns viewers into filmmakers,” which ultimately had the effect of making viewers wary of pressing play in the first place.

The most infuriating thing about all of this is that the Mosaic viewing experience, interactive though it may be, is fairly straightforward. It’s broken up into uneven chunks, sure, and you can choose what order to experience them in, but still: you are watching  what are, for all intents and purposes, episodes of a TV show, and when it’s all said and done, everyone who watches the series ends up having seen the same show as everyone else. In my own review of the series, I wrote: “‘Mosaic’ might be a fairly straightforward viewing experience, but it’s a fairly straightforward viewing experience by Steven Soderbergh. And that’s all that really matters.” Unfortunately, the intimidating “choose-your-own-adventure” narrative was dominant, and Mosaic was glossed over by essentially everybody.

Lastly, we have Unsane, which is terrifying, monumental, and due to hit theaters on March 23rd. Unsane, as you well know, was shot on an iPhone. You may also know that Unsane stars Claire Foy, famous for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown. It’s unlikely that you know anything more about Unsane, as its iPhone-production has dwarfed its actual quality in the narrative surrounding its release. Once again, a Soderbergh project’s brilliance is being overshadowed by the least important thing about it: in this case, the kind of camera it was shot on. (Not to mention the fact that those who throw around the word “innovator” in this context seem to have clear forgotten about Sean Baker’s breakthrough iPhone film, Tangerine, which came out years prior to Unsane.)

A too-large portion of Unsane reviews include the word “iPhone” in their headlines (“Steven Soderbergh commits himself to the crazy premise (and cheap iPhone imagery) of Unsane,” “Unsane: how Steven Soderbergh manages to thrill with just an iPhone,” and even “The Insanity of ‘Unsane’ Shows That iPhones Are the Future of Movies,” which is so far from the truth that it makes me want to yell at my computer.) The film has yet to be released, so we don’t yet know how this will affect its actual viewership. But if Mosaic is any indicator, the effect will be negative. (Tangentially, David Sims’ review of the film is worth reading; I don’t agree with every word, but it focuses on all the right things).

Logan Lucky, Mosaic, and Unsane. Three truly great works from one of the most important directors working today. All of which bled viewership as a direct result of tastemakers—who liked all three projects—focusing on the wrong things.

Why are critics so obsessed with how a film is marketed? Or on what camera it is shot? Why do we fabricate “choose-your-own-adventure” series where there are none? Why are we not content with a great filmmaker coming out of fake-retirement to bring us consistently great films and TV?

Praise Soderbergh to the skies for working in new media. Praise him for adapting and for striving and for searching and for making and for doing. Admire him for his ability to direct, shoot, and edit his incredibly ambitious projects. The man is a giant talent, and his work is essential.

But forgive me if I never again click on an article with a headline like “Steven Soderbergh: Secret tech innovator.” Or “Steven Soderbergh Says He’s Done Directing Studio Movies and Wants to Only Shoot on iPhones.” Or even “Steven Soderbergh’s Next Movie Will Be Shot On A Nokia Flip-Phone From 1997 (And Will Star A Robot).” Because none of it matters. Instead, I’m just going to sit here and be excited about whatever Soderbergh brings us next. And when it comes, I’m going to write about how it’s great, because it inevitably will be, and I will encourage you to go see it.

And I’ll probably go see Unsane a few more times between now and then, because not only was Unsane shot on an iPhone, it’s also a great fucking movie.

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Filmmaker and freelance critic. Member, Boston Online Film Critics Association. Find me on Twitter or at The Playlist. The best movie of 2017 was A GHOST STORY.