Steven Soderbergh describes his last good shot
A surefire way to heighten the stakes on a film is to announce that it’s the last one you’ll ever make.
If the movie is bad, there’s nothing coming along to redeem it. The last thing you’ve ever done will eventually be ignored, not be considered in the future box set of your work and most importantly, you’ll have missed that elusive chance to end your career on a somewhat high note.
Luckily, for Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects, coming out on Feb. 8, is a very good movie.
A man at the cusp of middle age who spends his days as a lawyer but, like Soderbergh, is also an artist, was waiting on the standby line at the Walter Reade Theater last night to get into the sneak preview of Side Effects, and I asked if he'd heard the news.
“Well, did he really say that?” he asked, hopefully.
“If you read the article,” he continued, “[Soderbergh] said he won’t be directing anymore but it’s not like he said he won’t be doing anything at all. Like, he’s not precluding other stuff. He can be like George Clooney or something and just produce things.”
But the interview, in New York, seemed pretty clear: No more movies. Painting, yes. There's a theater collaboration in the works, a Cleopatra musical with Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is in Side Effects. There's his painting and artwork, and more. But Side Effects is his last film.
It begins with a shot of a tipped chair and a messy trail of blood through the kitchen, quickly putting the audience in the mind of a whodunit. Then the four major players come into the picture: Emily (Rooney Mara), a woman struggling with depression as her husband (Channing Tatum) serves out a four-year prison sentence. After she drives her car full-speed into a concrete wall, she’s forced into treatment with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Banks feels inclined to consult Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert, (Catherine Zeta-Jones) before assessing any treatment options and toys around with her condition by prescribing a battery of antidepressants aiming to stamp out her sadness while Emily’s husband, Martin, waits for just one of them to start working.
It’s certainly nothing like Soderbergh’s zany whodunit, The Informant!; more an homage to film noir, with many noting its debt to Hitchcock. (Soderbergh says the template was actually Fatal Attraction, so the Hitchcock might be a sort-of second-generation debt.)
Soderbergh has made the classic psychological thriller before, executed with the same tight, sleek style, but he and writer Scott Burns have also modernized it, adding elements like Big Pharma, long-short arbitrage investing and insider trading.
“I started my career making movies about someone seeing a psychiatrist,” Soderbergh said later in the Q&A after the screening, “and in 1989, Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies [and Videotape] the idea that she would be medicated didn’t even occur to me and here we are 20 years later and the idea that she wouldn’t be medicated wouldn’t occur to anyone.”
Revealing anything else would ruin the movie. Side Effects unfolds like the sequel to a game of Clue. We find out early that it was Emily with a knife in the kitchen; this is really a movie about how it happened.
In the Q&A after the film (for which Soderbergh was joined by writer Burns and actors Mara, Law and Vinessa Shaw) Soderbergh said that even before the kitchen scene, the very first scene of the movie he’d ripped straight from Rosemary’s Baby and for most of his career he’s been a pretty good pincher of great films.
“The 80s, which I’ve said is like the worst era in movie making,” he said, “but there were these thrillers like Fatal Attraction and The Razor’s Edge, real matinee movies that sort of went away. I was really excited about the idea of an updated version of that.”
“[Side Effects] is so pared down, moment to moment and it’s so elegant,” the moderator Amy Taubin said. “There is not an extra shot or an extra line and yet it made it very complicated and ambiguous as far as the characters go.”
Each comment Taubin made was tinged with giddy adulation because she had heard the news too.
“Well, this is a big bugaboo of mine watching what’s happening lately because I’m like you should have a reason for every shot, a reason for every cut,” Soderbergh replied. “If you don’t then you’ve broken … I don’t’ know if you’ve broken a contract with the audience but you’ve broken a contract with me.”
“I’ll give you a quick example—the first shrink scene with you two guys.” Soderbergh pointed to Mara and Law. Mara, up to this point, had been teasing the audience with her doe-eyes and giggles and Law, defending the bitter portrayal of his character by the moderator—Was Dr. Banks well-intentioned or not?
“The first two compositions are sort of odd.” Soderbergh continued. “We’re above you. There is more negative space than you would normally have in a shot. There is more head room than you would normally have in a shot. There is something not quite symmetrical about the two shots as the scene begins. Then [Mara] goes into her monologue about meeting Channing[Tatum] and we do a diagonal drop where the camera is still the same distance away from her but when it lands we’re in a much more typical symmetrical shot of her and when I cut around to Jude I’m matching that and everything now seems to be back to normal in terms of the grammar we’re used to looking at when we watch a movie. So that to me, that’s the job, right? It’s to use these elements that you have available to you to start in one place, and an audience may never be able to articulate that, they may never notice it, but they know that there is something odd about the first two compositions that they’re not typical but when the scene ends we’re calm, we’re back to par.“
Soderbergh doesn’t consider getting back to par particularly exacting. Instead, it’s the mark of a good director. You get the sense from listening to him that he’s less tapped out on filmmaking than just defeated by what it’s become. For someone who has talked about almost every movie he’s made, from Traffic to Ocean’s Eleven, like they’re passion projects, everyone is abuzz, wondering how Soderbergh can so nonchalantly (it seems) walk away from movies altogether.
“I’ve gotten here because I’ve watched a lot of good movies that other people have made,” he said. “I’m standing on the shoulders of anybody who’s ever made a good movie and I’m stealing from them. And that’s the job, stealing”
“And why are you quitting directing based on everything you just said?” Taubin asked.
Aside from possibly having no one else to steal from, Soderbergh replied, “Well, ummm, because you know why, I never want to be in a situation where that’s the solve [in the shot] again. I can’t use that again. I used it there and I can’t use it again and that was the last good idea I ever had.”
After the Q&A ended, Soderbergh idled near the side of the stage. Fans came running over and told him what counted as their favorite Soderbergh films, already recapping his film history and talking as if it needed to be reviewed and ranked.
“You’re the reason that I write,” one fan said.
“Well, someone is going to take my place,” Soderbergh replied.
I managed to ask if he has any projects in the works, hoping to hear something similar to what was in the article.
“No, no, no,” he said.
“Nice,” another fan remarked.
“I know,” Soderbergh said. “It feels good.”