Steven Soder-burnt: Retiring Director Says He Used His 'Last Good Idea' While Making 'Side Effects'

Steven Soderbergh Side Effects

As Steven Soderbergh said at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's preview screening of Side Effects on Wednesday, "There’s Movie A and there’s Movie B and there’s Movie C."  The director was making the apt point that Side Effects could have been a heavy-handed movie about a) Big Pharma or b) insider trading, two of the film's main motifs. But Soderbergh chose c), a much subtler and entertaining third path and, judging from the Manhattan audience's enthusiastic reaction to the picture, his instincts did not fail him.  

Following the screening, Soderbergh took part in a Q&A session with cast members Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Vinessa Shaw and Side Effects screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. When one moviegoer asked the director, "Did you ever feel like you might have missed an opportunity for a bigger conversation about Big Pharma?" Soderbergh responded: "I didn’t want to see that. What I loved about what Scott [Burns] did is that that issue was just a Trojan horse to hide a thriller inside of. I feel like, as a movie—that you stand in line and pay to see—I didn’t want to see a serious movie about Big Pharma. I really didn’t. I feel like I can read about that. It’s all over the news. It’s everywhere."

Alluding to his self-proclaimed retirement from filmmaking, Soderbergh continued, "That may be a result of the fact that I’m in the twilight of my career. I honestly wanted to make something that...was connected to movies I saw when I was growing up that I thought were fun."

Burns chimed in to explain he generally starts "writing from a place where there’s something I’m upset or passionate about. So, obviously I have strong feelings about that whole issue." But, he reasoned, "I don’t like movies that are preachy. If they are, they should be things like An Inconvenient Truth. We all wanted to make something really entertaining. The hope is that it causes a discussion about all these other issues. But we wanted to invite people to go on a ride."

Side Effects offers a lot of plot twists and turns along the way. Even Thomas Newman's superb score elicits sensations that don't necessarily align with the spare, elegant scenes unfolding on screen, making for an eerie juxtaposition between what moviegoers are seeing and what they're hearing.

"I feel like you should have a reason for every shot and you should have a reason for every cut," Soderbergh told the crowd at the Walter Reade Theater before praising Burns' script yet again. "What I loved about this piece of material is it’s an incredible opportunity to take it all down to the marrow,"  he said, adding: "That doesn’t mean it has to be boring. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be stylish. It just means that, as a director, you’re supposed to have the 30,000-foot view of the movie and [to] be able to calibrate how the shots and the cutting patterns are going to affect the audience."

Soderbergh did not sound like a filmmaker who was ready to fold up his director's chair and, after demonstrating his nuanced choice of camera angles for a specific scene, Shaw, who plays Law's wife in the film, addressed the elephant in the room.

"And why are you quitting directing, based on everything you just said?" the actress asked. [Insert passionate round of applause here.]

"Because I don’t ever want to be in a situation where that’s the solve again,"  Soderbergh said. "I can’t use that again. I used it. And that’s the last good idea I ever had."

Nell Alk is an arts and entertainment writer and reporter based in New York City. Her work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Manhattan Magazine, Z!NK Magazine and on, and, among others. Learn more about her here.

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  • The Pope says:

    To think that he's seriously considering retiring... at his age. And Tarantino is talking about his 'legacy'. Right now, looking back, Soderbergh has by far the most interesting CV of his peers. More movies, more variety, more exploration... but I can't help feeling short changed. Brilliantly talented and versatile as he is... did he ever eviscerate me as a viewer? I'm thinking of the likes of Raging Bull, Apocalypse Now, Chinatown, Blue Velvet, Reservoir Dogs, Fight Club, Unforgiven, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men.

    Soderbergh has given us great entertainments, but in so doing, I think he has held back from really grabbing us by the throat and not letting go until the credits have rolled. Technically, he is superb... but where are the knock-out themes and issues of the movies listed above?

  • Truth be told, Soderbergh retired from film in 2007 with Ocean's Thirteen. His last 10 "films" have been, literally, videos masquerading as films. Considering Soderbergh's present mindset, his proposal of shifting his efforts toward the small screen may well prove a fortuitous union.