Steven Soderbergh on Shift to TV: "Film Is Fear-Based"

Steven Soderberg - H 2015
Matteo Prandoni/

The maverick director talks about adapting his 2009 experimental indie 'The Girlfriend Experience' for television, why he wants to make TV "no f—ing executive would ever let pass" and why he has no interest in returning to movies.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The clearest evidence yet that TV has overtaken film as an artistic medium comes from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who has abandoned moviemaking for the small screen. The director of Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven helmed Cinemax's acclaimed series The Knick, which returns for a second season Oct. 16, and is an executive producer on Starz's The Girlfriend Experience, a TV take on Soderbergh's experimental 2009 feature of the same name. The series, co-written and directed by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, chronicles the exploits of a high-end call girl, played by model turned actress (and Elvis Presley's granddaughter) Riley Keough. Ahead of the series' debut at MIPCOM (where it is one of THR's top ten drama series to watch), Soderbergh spoke to THR European News Editor Scott Roxborough about why he wants to make the kind of TV that "no f—ing executive would ever let pass."

would be enraged" says friend Merrill Markoe, as Simon's estate sits at the center of a bizarre fight surrounding his beloved-yet-volatile pooch Columbo and the trust that's stopped paying for his care and hasn't kept the money flowing to the animal-rights organizations to whom Simon had dedicated his life (and fortune): "He would never cut off funds to his own f—ing dog!""]

Making a series about a sex worker, even a high-class one, is bound to be controversial.

Probably, yes. It's a very emotional issue, because sex is a very emotional issue, a very primal issue. But for us, in making the show, the morality of sex work was kind of irrelevant. In the end, it is happening and this is a show about what is happening right now.

Our goal — based on the research we have done — is to be as accurate as we can about this one person's experience.

From left: 'Girlfriend' co-stars Kate Lyn Sheil and Riley Keough.

The Girlfriend Experience film was very experimental. What was the approach on the series?

The series is tightly scripted. It's very different than what I did on the movie, but the approach is very much an auteur approach. We're used to the writer-producer being the ultimate Oz figure on a show, but not here. Here it's the directors' vision. You feel it right away — in the choices with the writing and directing — the difference between this and regular television. No f—ing executive would [normally] ever let this pass. I am as proud of having my name on this as of anything I've done.

How did you convince Starz to make it that way?

That's [Starz CEO] Chris Albrecht, whom I've known a long time — since he was at HBO. I said to him: "Let's talk about a number at which we can turn in the weirdest thing imaginable — and you won't get hurt financially." He gave us a number and we said, "OK, we'll make it for that." I can tell you he is very much viewing this as a test case [or] a paradigm they can use for making series in the future. This is really auteur TV; it's like what I'm doing on The Knick, what Cary Fukunaga did on True Detective. One filmmaker doing the whole thing — there's unification that comes with that [and you] can't do it any other way. This is a real philosophical shift, and it's making some people very nervous.

Are you lost to TV now or would you ever come back to film?

Just from my very personal, subjective point of view, I don't have an interest in making another theatrical film unless my attitude changes or the business changes. There are a series of things that have contributed to it — I think the audiences have a played a role, the studios have a role in it — but film is increasingly fear based in its decision-making, and that's not a good base to be creative.

Are you looking to turn any more of your films into series?

What's interesting is the rights for some of my films are now reverting back to me. Kafka has reverted back to me, Full Frontal, Bubble. Some version of Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy. It's an interesting group of films. I'm trying to figure out if there is something to done with them, something that people will find compelling.

Watch actor Clive Owen explain how Steven Soderbergh changed his mind about TV.