From 'Sex' to 'The Laundromat,' Steven Soderbergh keeps adapting

Over the course of his long and winding career, the Oscar-winning director has learned not to be precious

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Whatever Hollywood throws at him, Steven Soderbergh is prepared.

The 56-year-old Academy Award-winner has been operating at a high level since "Sex, Lies and Videotape" put him on the map 30 years ago. He's directed blockbusters, indies, character dramas, action films, thrillers, war epics and documentaries. He's done episodic television and theater pieces. He shot his last two movies using an iPhone. 

Steven Soderbergh, director of "The Laundromat."

So as the industry shifts toward streaming content and theaters become playgrounds for movies that play like theme park rides, Soderbergh is equipped to handle whatever comes his way.  

"I'm the cockroach after the nuclear blast," says Soderbergh, chatting during last month's Toronto International Film Festival. "There's no version of the business that I can't figure out a way to work in, so I'll follow it wherever it's going."

Soderbergh is relaxed and conversational, wearing a black blazer over a Magic Mike Live T-shirt. The show, based on his 2012 comic drama about an all-male dance revue, is just one example of the director's wide-ranging output, which has stretched from  glitzy, star-driven extravaganzas (the "Oceans" films) to intense explorations of the international drug trade ("Traffic," which won him an Oscar for Best Director) to steamy romantic crime capers (the Detroit-shot Elmore Leonard adaptation "Out of Sight").   

His latest movie is "The Laundromat," a twisty black comedy about greed, international insurance fraud and the financial shell game of the super rich. Based on the case of a 2005 boating tragedy that claimed the lives of several members of a senior citizen tour group from Trenton, MI, it stars Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman and hits Netflix on Friday.

Meryl Streep and Steven Soderbergh on the set of "The Laundromat."

The key to Soderbergh's success is adaptability, he says, and a lack of a perceived vision of himself that would that keep him from doing certain things.

"I've never operated by saying, 'That's not the kind of thing that Steven Soderbergh would do,'" he says. "I just do what I want to do."

Seduced by film early

That approach comes from his father, he says, and other mentors who were driven by their own passions and weren't restricted by other's perceptions of them or their work.

He also had tastes that weren't influenced, one way or another, by the mainstream. 

"I grew up understanding pretty clearly that just because something was popular didn't mean it was good," says the director, who was born in Atlanta and attended high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "At the same time, just because something was popular didn't mean it was bad." 

His father loved movies and would take him to see "everything," Soderbergh says. By high school he was going to see one if not two movies a night, and by the time he got his hands on a camera in 9th grade he knew he wanted to make films for a living. 

He was well integrated socially but saw high school as an obstacle he had to clear so he could start making films. By 11th grade he begged his father, who was the dean of education at Louisiana State University, to let him take the GED. His father pushed back, Soderbergh finished high school — "barely," he says — and then got to work.

Early on, Soderbergh learned the value of working with a pack of like-minded individuals, and has stuck with the same crew of production designers, costume designers and composers for most of his career.

"You can't do this on your own," Soderbergh says. "You need a gang." (Soderbergh himself has multiple roles in that gang: he often shoots his own films as Peter Andrews and edits them as Mary Ann Bernard, pseudonyms that are tributes to his parents.)

Developing his style

Soderbergh's first major project was a Grammy-nominated 1985 concert film for the English rock group Yes, and he made his feature film debut with 1989's "Sex, Lies and Videotape," the Palme d'Or-winning sensation that helped kickstart the independent film movement of the 1990s. 

Steven Soderbergh (left) and James Spader (right) on the set of "Sex, Lies and Videotape."

After that, he directed several films but says he wasn't sure of his skill set or where he fit in Hollywood, but says he found his footing with the five-film stretch of "Out of Sight," "The Limey," "Erin Brockovich" "Traffic" and "Ocean's Eleven." 

"That's five movies in three-and-a-half years that just got me on track," he says of his transcendent 1998-2001 run, which saw him in 2000 double-nominated for Best Director for "Brockovich" and "Traffic." "I came out the other end of that feeling like I was going to be OK." 

Soderbergh continued to explore a wide range of genres and jobs, but by 2013, he was ready to trade in his camera for a paintbrush. He'd become frustrated with the business side of Hollywood and was feeling burnt out, and he announced his retirement from directing and began taking painting lessons in New York. 

"I was out. I had no projects," says Soderbergh, who is married to former "E! News" host Jules Asner. Painting presented a fresh, new challenge. "I was looking at a minimum estimate of five years before I could generate something worth putting on a wall, and I was down for that." 

"The Knick" disrupted that plan. The Cinemax series about a New York hospital in 1900 was "everything that I'm interested in, all in one place," and it woke him up to what he really loved.

Steven Soderbergh on the set of "The Knick."

"I was actually on set making 'The Knick' and I realized, this is what I should be doing," says Soderbergh, who directed, executive produced, shot and edited the series, which lasted two seasons. "Nobody was waiting for my paintings." 

He returned to the movies with a clear head and a renewed appreciation for his craft. On his website the director, who recently wrapped his 32nd feature, sells a T-shirt that reads, "Just get me to the first day of shooting." 

Mastering the game

The changing landscape of film distribution led him to Netflix. The streaming platform is a good fit for the director, who said he doesn't need his films to be released theatrically to feel "legitimized," he says. "I just want as many eyeballs on the thing as possible." 

In addition to "The Laundromat," Netflix also released his February basketball drama, "High Flying Bird." 

"More people saw 'High Flying Bird' than would have ever seen it in theaters," he says. The latest numbers he was given by Netflix say the movie has been viewed 8 million times, which at $8 a ticket, would have shaken out to a theatrical gross of $64 million. "There was no universe where that movie was going to make that kind of money, just no way," he says.

Soderbergh has already finished his post-"Laundromat" feature, "Let Them All Talk," which again teams him with Streep. After that, he's got a pair of movies and a TV series "that are fairly close to being ready," he says, as well as a '50s set crime film that could bring him to Detroit to shoot in the spring. 

His criteria for anything he does is whether or not he'd stand in line to buy a ticket to see it, and whether or not he has a feel for the material. So he won't be making any comic book movies anytime soon. 

"The problem is I never read comic books. I'm just not the guy," says the father of two. "I'm not a snob, I just don't have any feel for it at all. I'm just too earthbound. 'Solaris' was as far as I could go, and that kind of didn't work." 

Soderbergh isn't slowing down anytime soon, but he knows he'll have to one day. He just hopes that when that time comes, it's on his own terms. 

Steven Soderbergh on the set of "The Laundromat."

"The worst thing in the world for a filmmaker or an artist of any kind of creative person is not to be disliked, it's to feel irrelevant," he says. "If I step off of it again, I want it to be after a period of work that I feel really good about, and not have people go, 'yeah, his last couple years were kind of shaky.' That would be really upsetting.

"So hopefully, at some point, I'll be on a nice little run of projects and I'll feel like, OK, I'm ready to do something else." 

'The Laundromat'

Rated R: for language, some sexual content and disturbing images

Running time: 96 minutes

Starts Friday on Netflix