Unretired, Soderbergh Wants to Pull a Fast One on Hollywood

“Populist Pictures” reads the buzzer to Steven Soderbergh’s Tribeca office. You might easily mistake it as ironic. It’s a grand title for a little nameplate on an otherwise nondescript Manhattan building.

But he means it.

Four years after dramatically quitting moviemaking, Soderbergh is back with Logan Lucky. His hiatus — in the end so abbreviated as to be nonexistent — hasn’t been spent toying with a Major Artistic Statement to be showered in Oscar buzz. (He long ago lost his taste for self-serious prestige films.) Nor has he drastically remade himself as a filmmaker. Logan Lucky is a heist movie so similar to his Ocean’s Eleven films that the more down-and-out West Virginia characters of his caper even refer to their plot as “Ocean’s 7-11.”   

“I thought the first line of every review would be, `He came out of retirement for this?”‘ said Soderbergh in a recent interview at his modest office. “Of course my answer to that would have been: The only thing I would have come out of retirement for is to make something like this. I wasn’t going to come out of retirement and not make something fun. Why would I do that?”

Instead, Soderbergh wants to prove a point. When he said goodbye to the movie business four years ago (and went off, in a filmmaking marathon, to direct every episode of the acclaimed Showtime series The Knick), he exited fed up with a risk-adverse Hollywood unwilling to innovate, to problem solve, to shake up anything.

Logan Lucky isn’t just a comeback movie, it’s a grand experiment. Soderbergh independently financed the film, selling distribution rights to foreign territories to pay for the budget and then making ancillary deals (like Amazon) to pay for prints and ads. While ballooning marketing costs have made little besides franchise films appealing to major studios, Soderbergh believes he can put out Logan Lucky with a more modest marketing approach centered on the 10 days before release and the social-media followings of its stars — notably Channing Tatum.

It’s a way to prove that the broad-appeal movie can be made by a filmmaker with a plan, without committee or corporation.

“I’ve been very vocal about my issues and it’s an opportunity to learn some stuff. And I’m prepared for any scenario. But at least we got to do it the way we wanted to do it,” said Soderbergh. “And that’s a win. We’re going to learn something. We may learn a lot. I’m hoping it works so I can continue to put my work through this system and have other like-minded filmmakers put their work through this system.”

“We don’t need another boutique distributor,” he added. “This is designed for wide-release movies. This isn’t an art-house proposition.”

Movie financing arrangements are infamously byzantine, but Soderbergh has set up an account that anyone who has put money into the movie can log on to and check to see the movie’s expenses, grosses and their cut. The whole scheme is more than a little like the plot of Logan Lucky, in which an out-of-work miner (Tatum) rallies a team to rip off a NASCAR track. A tongue-in-cheek line at the end of the credits reads: “No one was robbed during the making of this film except you.”

“We don’t know whether it’s going to work or not. We certainly hope like hell it does. We’ll know after a couple weeks. One way or another, we’ll get to prove our point,” said executive producer Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.’ former distribution chief. He anticipates the film will be in 2,800 theaters, with many in the industry keenly following the results.

“There’s a lot of people watching, I can tell you that,” said Fellman. 

Ahead of the big theft — er, release date — Soderbergh has less the fidgety energy of someone about to rob a bank than the calmness of a mastermind. “Everything’s gone right so far,” he said.

He has other innovations planned, too. Mosaic, his interactive movie for HBO, is coming in November. And with a number of other projects he’s producing, Soderbergh sometimes seems like he’s become his own studio head.

Soderbergh says he’s considered it. Three or four years ago, he spent a year researching how to put a subscription-based platform together. “I really got pretty granular with it,” he said, but he ultimately said it would only work if he had a back catalog to give subscribers enough content.

But Soderbergh’s way of doing things — fast, instinctual, efficient — has many people lining up behind him. 

“He found a way to do it where it’s on his terms and he has the control that he wants,” said Adam Driver, who plays Tatum’s brother. “His setups move so fast that there’s no momentum lost. He’s very economical about how he shoots. It’s freeing for us as actors. There’s no bulls—, no time wasted, so it almost feels like a protest.”

There are still unsolved mysteries. The first-timer credited with the script, Rebecca Blunt, is unknown and may be a pseudonym. Soderbergh will only say, despite conjecture, that it’s not him but a friend’s wife.

And then there’s the question of why anyone who loves moviemaking so much ever wanted to quit. Soderbergh shoots his own films (under the name Peter Andrews) and, during production, considers editing a day’s shooting his nightly reward. (A few years ago, as an editing exercise, he recut films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blow-Up. For fun.)  

When he retired, Soderbergh had designs on dedicating himself to painting, but he acknowledges, “I didn’t get very far in my second career.”

“When I got back to the set of The Knick, it definitely had the sense of: This is your job. This is what you should be doing.’ That was a good thing to feel,” said Soderbergh. “There are very few things you can do repeatedly that give you the same pleasure as they did the very first time. Figuring something out on set is always a great feeling. That never gets old, when it finally reveals itself to you. When you know how you’re going to do this scene. That’s hard to walk away from. I don’t feel like that’s a bad addiction to have.”