Interview: Steven Soderbergh on retiring and Hitchcock-inspired thriller Side Effects

Interview: Steven Soderbergh on retiring and Hitchcock-inspired thriller Side Effects

Also working on Liberace TV biopic Behind the Candelabra with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon

Steven Soderbergh is planning to throw in the towel. James Mottram speaks to the Hollywood director about his final feature film Side Effects, a thriller set in the world of prescription meds

Ever since Matt Damon accidentally let slip publicly that Steven Soderbergh was planning to retire, the director has been plagued with questions about it. And today is no different. Hot on the heels of last year’s male stripper surprise hit Magic Mike, his latest film Side Effects is said to be his last cinematic release for a long time – possibly for good. So is he really planning to swap directing for painting? Is this really goodbye?

Dressed in a beige suit, the bald-headed, bespectacled director – who turned 50 last month – lets out a sigh. ‘I do like to work,’ he says. ‘But I also like to be home. [In my career to date] that’s 25-26 movies. Six hours of TV [on the political thriller K Street], a couple of books. That’s plenty. That’s enough for people to sift through. It’s more just feeling that I need another chapter. I need to feel different.’

Not that this is new. Ever since winning the Palme d’Or for his 1989 debut Sex, Lies and Videotape, the creatively restless Soderbergh has repeatedly subverted expectations, flip-flopping between micro-budget indies (The Girlfriend Experience, Schizopolis) and major-league A-list vehicles (like his Ocean’s trilogy and drugs drama Traffic, which won him a Best Director Oscar). ‘I’ve always tried to approach each film as if it destroys all the films that come before it,’ he insists.

It’s this that brought him to Side Effects, a thriller set in the world of prescription medicines written by Scott Z Burns, who previously penned the Soderbergh-directed espionage comedy The Informant! and pandemic tale Contagion. ‘I just liked the idea of making a thriller as I near the twilight of my career!’ the director laughs. ‘However long this break ends up being, I wanted the last few things I did to be fun to make and to watch. I think coming out the other end of Che really made me want to have more fun.’

The exhausting nature of the shoot for Soderbergh’s 2008 double feature about the iconic Cuban revolutionary clearly left its scars. Compare it to the sleek Side Effects and you’d barely know it was the same filmmaker. Set in New York, his latest starts out as an insider lid-lift on the pharmaceuticals industry. Rooney Mara plays the fragile Emily, given a new drug by Jude Law’s psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Banks to combat her depression. But that’s before the side effects kick in.

Toying with the tropes of the Hitchcock-inspired thriller, Side Effects has the Louisiana-raised director at his most economic since his low-key 2005 effort Bubble. ‘I wanted to make something very, very lean, and to be all muscle. I didn’t want an extra shot, an extra moment. I just wanted it as clear and as clean as I could make it. I think it was the painter Whistler who said: “It takes endless labour to eradicate all traces of labour”. And that was my approach.’

Fortunately, fans will be relieved to know there is still one Soderbergh project left – his HBO telefilm Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover Scott Thorson. ‘I love two-handers,’ Soderbergh says. ‘I love movies like that where you have two great roles and two great actors. That’s the real heart of the movie.’ And after that? ‘I’ve got nothing else going on,’ he smiles. ‘I’ve cleared the decks.’ We’ll see.

Side Effects is on general release from Fri 8 Mar.

Side Effects - Official Trailer [HD]

Side Effects

  • 3 stars
  • 2013
  • US
  • 1h 46min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
  • Cast: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law
  • UK release: 8 March 2013

Announcing early retirement, Side Effects could be well be Soderbergh's last film. This thriller set in the world of prescription medicines boasts a fine cast, an authentic milieu and a script that flirts with the experimental. But it also underwhelms in the crucial final third.