While shooting his bio-threat suspense film "Contagion," director Steven Soderbergh vowed that he wouldn't fall victim to "all the traps and tropes of typical disaster movies. We don't go places our characters haven't gone; no shot of Paris where a bunch of extras we haven't met are dying. No scenes with the president. No helicopter shots floating over the city," he said by phone from Beverly Hills.
"The typical go-to characters and images, I said, 'We're not doing that.'"
Avoiding stock situations gives the film an eerie verisimilitude. It's a reality-show approach to the end of the world, the sort of unexpected choice that has been a hallmark of Soderbergh's career since his stellar debut.
Now 48, the Atlanta-born filmmaker was just 26 when he won the Palme d'Or for his first feature, 1989's "Sex, Lies and Videotape." "It's all downhill from here," he joked. For a decade, his mock prophecy rang true. After a string of disappointments he rebounded with the 1998 George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez crime yarn "Out of Sight." From then on he has worked at a feverish pace. He earned a best director Academy Award for the 2000 film "Traffic," the same year he directed Julia Roberts to a best actress Oscar in "Erin Brockovich." His all-star "Ocean's Eleven" blockbusters made box-office magic.
Not motivated solely by acclaim and economics, he has flexed his creative muscles with arthouse experiments, genre homages and social-historical epics such as his 2008 two-part biopic of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. In an interview last week, Soderbergh talked about imparting everyday realism to his pandemic thriller and clarified recent reports of his impending retirement from filmmaking.
Three more films and then ...
"I've been spreading conflicting information about it. It's now become my pastime," he said. "Why don't you say that I'm going on a plastic-surgery safari?" Pressed, the prolific director said that after his next FOUR films -- the spy actioner "Haywire" opening in January, the male stripper ensemble drama "Magic Mike" currently in pre-production, the retro espionage adventure "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." in 2013 and a Liberace biopic in 2014 -- he'll go on "some form of a sabbatical. Not a short one."
There's an argument to be made for bowing out on top of your game, he said. "It's rare that someone continues to work at a high level until the end of their career. Not unheard of, but it's not the norm, and I think in the environment that exists today, it's even harder. I would not want to be one of those people about whom it was said, 'Eh, he kind of fell off there.' I see it in sports and it drives me nuts."
Taking time off from moviemaking doesn't mean that Soderbergh's restless creativity is exhausted. He's planning to make a serious stab at visual arts. "I'm in a fortunate enough position that I can say, 'You know what? I'm going to try to get good at something else.' And it's connected to what I do. It just happens to be a different way of creating them and I want to see if I can get good at that."
The same "let's try something different" impulse seems to guide his film career. Finding a common thread to pull together the various strands of Soderbergh's work is a daunting task. "Fortunately, I don't have to," he said. "Orson Welles was asked a similar question. He said, 'Hey, I'm the bird. You're the ornithologist.' I don't know."
Perhaps "Contagion" fits with "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," as societal problem films. Matt Damon leads an ensemble cast as a Minnesota everyman whose wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the first victim of a fast-spreading airborne virus. While the worldwide medical community and government officials scramble to keep pace with the deadly, fast-mutating virus, a self-serving health blogger (Jude Law) spreads misinformation.
For all its focus on bio-science and disease protocols, "Contagion" plays like a parable of a stricken body politic. The film describes an America where confusion and fear explode when things get crazy, where ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.
"It felt zeitgeisty to me in the same way that 'Traffic' did when we were making it, that there was something in the air," he said. "In this case literally." The film opens on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but Soderbergh says there's no deliberate parallel intended. "I'm not someone who ascribes significance to round numbers. I think about 9/11 a lot and I thought about it three years later and seven years later. I still think the entire country is trying to process that even now."
Will its lessons be contagious?
While the film sets out to give viewers chills, Soderbergh said it has an educational agenda, too. "What would be great is if this type of event were to occur, people would feel, 'Wait, I've been through this in a way, I saw that movie.' During H1N1 [the 2009 flu scare], I wasn't satisfied that they were on top of it. Now I know that they are very, very good."
The Take Part website (www.takepart.com/contagion) offers flu-preparedness information and links to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The immediate effect is that when the lights come up, you realize you're with 400 other people who are covered with germs," Soderbergh said. If viewers can remember to find ways not to touch their faces during flu season, they have a much better chance of not getting sick, he said.
"There's a common-sense aspect to this. Don't send your fourth-grader to school with a fever. You're not helping anybody. Don't go to work if you're sick. We can do a lot of our jobs from home now. That's what Skype is for."