The old joke — "I don't have a career, I have a careen" — certainly describes the in-and-out Hollywood whirl of Steven Soderbergh. An indie-film phenom 20 years ago thanks to sex, lies and videotape, an Oscar winner (Traffic) and sometime blockbuster filmmaker (Oceans 11, 12, 13), he relishes defying expectations, daring even to make movies few will ever see, such as his two-part Che Guevara bio-pic or last spring's The Girlfriend Experience.
"When you're not practicing, you run the risk that somebody else is practicing and that you'll get smoked," he says.
At 46, Soderbergh doesn't want to get smoked. So he experiments — with odd styles (Full Frontal), with unknown actors (Bubble). Often, these experiments bomb at the box office.
"I'm still studying, working on my weaknesses, optimizing my ability to problem-solve on the set," he says. "You never stop learning. That makes every film new, a party."
He doesn't often repeat himself, but he does have themes and subjects that have become his constants — lying, for instance. The Informant! (opening Friday) stars Matt Damon as a corporate whistle-blower who lies as easily, and as cheerfully, as he breathes.
"I'm fascinated by lying," Soderbergh says. "If you walk around all day every day, telling the truth about every situation you encountered, to everyone you encountered, someone will eventually kill you. It's just a matter of where the line is for you in lying." In filming the life of Mark Whitacre, who told tales of agri-business price-fixing, Soderbergh realized that "we needed to think of this as a comedy. When you have a lie that escalates the way this one did, how do you keep it from seeming absurd?
"The prosectors, who were relying on this guy's testimony, do exactly what I did when I read his story, exactly what you see them do in the movie. Their jaws drop." A years-long case that catches agri-giant ADM — Archer Daniels Midland — fixing the worldwide price for its commodities is repeatedly jeopardized by the loopy lies and delusions of its star witness.
Soderbergh says he is relieved that he and his screenwriter played the Whitacre story for laughs "in light of all the corporate wrongdoing" that triggered the current recession. He trusts audiences not to hate his "hero."
"Matt Damon has that sort of boyish, all-American charm. And by all accounts, Mark Whitacre was an appealing, charming guy to be around. I felt that the audience had to like him, because when the lies start piling up, that crazy optimism and likability still has to come through."
But even as Soderbergh awaits the fate of his latest — reviews of The Informant! are split, with Variety praising it as "amusingly eccentric" and The Hollywood Reporter opining that "it never quite succeeds as a comedy" — he is restless. What hasn't he tried?
"Well, apparently I can't be trusted with a sports film," he sniffs, a joking reference to the baseball comedy he was slated to make based on the book Moneyball. Sony pulled the plug on that a week before the camera was to roll.
And his replacement for Moneyball is Knockout, a La Femme Nikita-styled action film starring a female mixed-martial arts fighter. Another "out there" choice?
"I'm running out of genres that I haven't tried," Soderbergh says with a chuckle. "I won't do a Western. I hate horses. HATE them. They terrify me. But I will get to do my musical. Cleo is going to be a total party."
Coming FridayRead Roger Moore's review of The Informant! Friday in Calendar, or get a sneak peek now at Orlando Sentinel.com/movies.