Steven Soderbergh's strange retirement: off-Broadway, brandy and television

“Nobody’s talking about movies the way they’re talking about their favourite TV shows,” says veteran director Steven Soderbergh, whose retirement, which isn’t really a retirement, has been stirring up controvesy this week.

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It was just over a year ago that Steven Soderbergh admitted that he was retiring—or, rather, that he was forced to confirm the story circulated by Matt Damon that this was to be the case. “He remembered verbatim a drunk conversation we had in Chicago and repeated it in USA Today,” Soderbergh explains in an interesting new interview with Esquire.

“I’d talked about it before and nobody gave a shit. It wasn’t until Matt said that I had a plan to get out. The bottom line when people talk about all the reasons, you know the biggest reason? It stopped being fun… The ratio of bullshit to the fun part of doing the work was really starting to get out of whack.”

The retirement announcement coincided with the release of his thriller Side Effects, and preceded Behind the Candelabra, his film about Liberace. The latter was made for the cable channel HBO, who pounced on the project after the major Hollywood studios balked at its gay content. (Even the participation of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon couldn’t tempt them.) Now it transpires that Soderbergh is sticking with television for the foreseeable future. Sure, there’s the off-Broadway play he directed about high-school shootings, and the painstaking Psycho mash-up he posted recently online, and the Bolivian brandy that he is importing to the US. But the lion’s share of his time has been consumed writing and directing a television series for HBO’s sister channel, Cinemax. The ten-part period medical drama The Knick, starring Clive Owen, will begin screening in the US next month, and there are already plans for a further series.

What sort of retirement is this? What happened to pottering around in the greenhouse with your watering can, then popping to the golf club at lunchtime for a scotch? But no. Soderbergh only ever stipulated that he was retiring from cinema. And his defection to television is easily explained: “Nobody’s talking about movies the way they’re talking about their favourite TV shows,” he says.

It’s an indisputable if slightly skew-whiff perspective. Perfectly understandable that Soderbergh, as a commercial storyteller, would want his work to be seen by as many people as possible, but it seems a bit rum to disparage cinema simply because of creative advances and technological innovations in television. Many of those advances have been helped along by the progress in broadcasting and the radical changes in consumption (Netflix, binge watching, boxed sets and so on). Cinema hasn’t benefited from a comparable revolution, and maybe it won’t. But if we are to judge the quality of a piece of work only by the volume of discussion surrounding it, we are in danger of ascribing to television and cinema the superficial criteria that creates a meme, a viral video, an internet sensation.

That said, Soderbergh is still a director to be prized, whichever medium he is working in. And he goes on to explain that it isn’t a matter of the supremacy of any one art form so much as a devotion to story. “I’ve never been a snob,” he says. “It’s just about stories. And I’ve never felt just because it’s a big screen and you plop down your eight bucks that gives it a special meaning. It’s just: ‘Are you good at telling a story?’” We’ll have to agree to disagree on that—I believe cinema is better equipped than television to access levels of meaning beyond (or independent from) narrative responsibilities. But Soderbergh and I can still get along: it’s not a deal-breaker. I’m just happy that this fascinating director hasn’t traded it all in for the greenhouse and the golf club.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.