Steven Soderbergh turns 50 next year - meaning the director who began his career in 1989, winning the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival with
Sex, Lies, and Videotape, will have been making films for almost half his life. And if you believe his press over the past 12 months, revealed after his regular star Matt Damon proved as "discreet as a 14-year-old girl", as Soderbergh so delicately termed it, he wants to deliver three more films then become a painter - maybe for good.
When we meet in the library of a London hotel, the bespectacled director seems determined to see it through. "If I finish everything that I'm supposed to finish, that's 25 to 26 movies" - 28 actually, if you count his epic biography
Che as two movies and include the not-for-public-consumption theatre project
The Last Time I Saw Michael Gregg - "plus six hours of TV, a couple of books … that's plenty. That's enough for people to sift through."
So why this sudden career handbrake? "I just need another chapter. I need to feel different."
For anyone who's paid attention to Soderbergh's career, this need to reinvent is not unusual: he has frequently juxtaposed his more commercial fare with low-budget "palette-cleansers" (
The Girlfriend Experience), remakes (
Solaris), shorts (
Eros), black-and-white art-house (
The Good German) and even two documentaries on raconteur Spalding Gray. "I've always said to some degree that whatever you're working on should annihilate what you'd done before," the filmmaker says - only this time he wants to rebuild himself from scratch.
While that's all very well, he probably didn't count on
Magic Mike - the first film in his final trio of movies - becoming a runaway hit. The story of a troupe of male strippers - think
The Full Monty meets
Showgirls - has already taken US$113 million in the US and a further US$50 million around the globe. While it may still rank behind the glitzy
Ocean's Eleven and its two sequels, not to mention
Traffic (which won Soderbergh an Oscar for best director) and
Erin Brockovich, all of those cost upwards of US$50 million. The budget for
Magic Mike was just US$7 million - making it his most profitable film by far.
Admittedly, it's not hard to see where the audiences are flocking from: like
Bridesmaids, the film is ruthlessly tapping into the female market - with women keen to see big stars such as Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey show off their six-packs for the camera.
Even more curious, though, is the fact it's loosely based on Tatum's life. "I think he did it for a year, when he was 19," says Soderbergh, who first heard about it during the making of his last film, action drama
Haywire, which also starred Tatum. "It was just a world I haven't seen before. When he started talking about it on set, I just thought 'Man, that is a really good idea for a movie'."
Set around a club owned by McConaughey's former dancer Dallas, the film traces a mentor-pupil relationship between Tatum's seen-it-all dancer Magic Mike and The Kid (British actor Alex Pettyfer), a young buck who gets turned on to the lucrative lifestyle that shedding your clothes for cash can lead to.
Sordid, though, it is not. "They have routines," says Soderbergh. "They're like sketches, strip sketches. There will be the doctor-patient sketch, there will be the Tarzan sketch. It's crazy stuff."
Although the film has its darker side (characters get mixed up in drug dealing), it's primarily a feel-good experience. "I think it is a comedy, ultimately. But I feel it's all totally organic - it's not set-up/gag humour." Soderbergh points to the scenes backstage - "the weird juxtapositions" as he calls them - when half-naked male dancers sit around discussing serious topics. "Let's put it this way: to listen to these guys talk backstage, you'd think this was a think tank."
Soderbergh attributes much of the success of
Magic Mike to serendipity in the aftermath of the
Moneyball debacle, the Brad Pitt baseball movie he was attached to until just days before the shoot was due to begin. "I think 'Oh my God, I'm so lucky I got fired'. If I didn't get fired off
Moneyball, I don't make
Haywire, I don't meet Channing, and I don't make
Magic Mike. And I'm really glad I made
Haywire, and I'm really glad I made
Yet it was more than just luck. Typifying a can-do attitude that has seen him direct more than one movie a year since his career began, as soon as he heard the idea from Tatum, he demanded a script and a starting date. "This to me is how you have to be. You have to will these things into existence. You have to be the kind of person who goes, 'Yeah, it's going to be tricky to get this thing written, and set up and shooting, in this short amount of time, but let's do it.' There are too many people who have excuses for why something isn't happening."
This work rush hasn't stopped with
Magic Mike. While Soderbergh eventually has to scrap plans to make a big-screen version of the 1960s espionage TV show
The Man From U.N.C.L.E., he has already slotted in
The Bitter Pill - also with Tatum, alongside Soderbergh regular Catherine Zeta-Jones - about with a woman who becomes addicted to prescription medicine to control her anxieties over her husband's release from prison.
With that still in the edit suite, Soderbergh is now shooting, in what may or may not be his last film, an HBO-funded biopic of flamboyant pianist Liberace. Based on Scott Thorson's
Behind the Candelabra, it tells of Liberace's relationship with Thorson - and boasts the irresistible casting of Michael Douglas as the pianist and Damon as his younger lover. "When you see the two of them dressed up … if you like movies, you gotta be in on this."
And afterwards? "I've got nothing else going - I've cleared the decks. I've either made everything I've developed for myself, or abandoned it years ago and decided I'm not going to make it."
The only discarded project we may still see is his proposed 3-D Cleopatra musical,
Cleo - only this time he'll take it to Broadway. "That's something that's more interesting to me - it's just all the stuff you enjoy, which is working with the actors. That's all it is. And so there's none of this other crap."
Indeed, it's this "machinery", as he puts it, that's got to him - whether it's the literal machinery (lights, trucks, catering vans, trailers) that make a movie production unwieldy or the Hollywood system that siphons off profits with "creative" accounting. In the past, Soderbergh has experimented, releasing his 2005 movie
Bubble simultaneously in theatres, on DVD and on cable TV - although as he puts it, "I don't feel like we've gotten a fair shot at testing that hypothesis yet." Maybe when he picks up the paintbrush, he will no longer care.
opens on Sept 27