The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who effectively launched the indie movement of the 1990s with his groundbreaking sex, lies and videotape in 1989, and then went on to conquer Hollywood, with films such as Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, says he’s had it with movie-making and is going to become a painter.
And no, he’s not kidding.
“I just feel like I’m nearing the point where I’m just done. I will have given it everything that I can think of, and I don’t want to repeat myself, and I don’t want to go to work unless I’m excited,” the 46-year-old Soderbergh said, during an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, where The Informant!—which stars Matt Damon as real-life whistleblower Mark Whitacre—was receiving high praise.
“I’m tired of talking. I am tired of having to describe things, or explaining them. I don’t like to talk. I’m really happy not to talk, honestly.”
“I’d love to see if I can get good at something else before I’m too old for that to be a possibility.
“And if I can be smart, finally,” he continued, “Painting, fortunately, is a really cheap art form, comparatively. So I feel like I’ve got five or six years to dedicate myself, and if I can’t turn it into a skill that I can monetize, then, sign me up!”
Inspired by contemporary artists such as Eric Fischl, Soderbergh said he’s already gotten to work—on a 10-by-10-foot portrait of actor and one-time (and one time only) James Bond George Lazenby. “The stuff I’ve been doing is portraits. I paint faces, that’s what I’m interested in.”
Clad in an all-black ensemble, and wearing his signature, thick-framed glasses, Soderbergh was in a reflective mood. Every few minutes he would reposition his wiry body on the couch he was sitting on, forming new, geometric angles with his arms and legs as he crossed and uncrossed them.
“The asocial aspect of it is really appealing,” Soderbergh went on to say of his new career choice. “I’m tired of talking. I am tired of having to describe things, or explaining them. I don’t like to talk. I’m really happy not to talk, honestly. Which has been a problem at times, in my life, for other people. So I like the solitude of it. I like going and doing something, and it’s just me, and that’s it.”
When asked whether Soderbergh’s jaded attitude had anything to do with the embarrassing debacle over Moneyball—the film based on Michael Lewis’ bestselling baseball book that Soderbergh was taken off just days before shooting by Sony, which didn’t like the direction he was taking the script—Soderbergh quickly denied it.
“I understood exactly what happened and why,” he said. “It was frustrating because a lot of people ended up out of work, but it is what it is. And soon as it was dead-dead, I started looking around for something to do. I’m not wasting energy thinking about something that, literally, I cannot change, that I have absolutely no influence over. It’s a waste of my time.”
• Read more about Joel McHale's switch from the "Soup" to a co-starring role in The Informant!.Others, however, say the Moneyball situation did indeed have a embittering effect on the director, and led to tension between he and Brad Pitt, who is still involved with the project, though Soderbergh denied this, too.
“He was there first, and I sort of walked in and started driving the thing in a very specific direction very, very fast, so it was a tough situation for him,” Soderbergh said of Pitt, with whom he’s worked on the Ocean’s Eleven films.
That Soderbergh says he is singing his swan song on the eve of what looks to be his most commercial film in a while (not including Ocean’s Thirteen) is more than a little ironic. A day before, he and Matt Damon engagingly plugged the movie for a roomful of international journalists. At the film’s premiere, he gamely walked the red carpet and posed for hordes of paparazzi. Meanwhile, cities all over North America (including this one) are virtually plastered with posters for the film.
“They’re spending more on [the marketing] than on the movie,” Soderbergh quipped. ( The Informant!’s budget was a modest $22 million.)
And when Soderbergh—who comes across like a precocious but slightly brooding graduate student—talks about the film, he seems, uncharacteristically, joyous. Compared to his epic, Che biopic (his last major film before he turned to The Informant!), which he says was “difficult at every stage,” he says that making The Informant! was “easy.”
“It reminded me of Erin. The shoot was very fun, there were not big issues, and it was put together pretty quickly, then we finished it. Often, you feel suspicious of that, because there’s this assumption that the only good art has agony involved.”
Asked if, in the event The Informant! is a major hit, Soderbergh would rethink his retirement plans—which he says won’t come until after his next few movies, including the spy thriller Knockout; a biopic about Liberace; and a rock musical based on Cleopatra, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones—he laughs.
“If everyone in America will go see it, and make it a hit, then I PROMISE I will retire,” he said.
And then: “It may, from the outside, seem like an absurd position to take, and maybe I shouldn’t talk about it, but, I don’t know, it’s fun to talk about.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.