This week Logan Lucky hits theaters, marking director Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature films after a self-imposed five-year hiatus. That makes it a good opportunity to look back at how the previous films he’s directed have been sold via trailers.
Soderbergh, like the Coen Bros., is a tough nut to crack when trying to identify a grand unifying theory of his work. Instead of one overall theme that clearly stands out, it’s evident that he bounces from one genre and approach and story type to the next. That’s in part, it seems, to keep himself engaged and fresh and in part to satisfy all his various instincts and career desires. With that being said, there are a handful of genres his various films fall into that help bring Soderbergh’s approach to cinema into somewhat clear focus.
The Indie Dramas
Sex, Lies and Videotape
Released in 1989, Soderbergh’s splashy entry into the feature film world preceded the revolution of indie film by three years or more and is all the more remarkable for it, heralding the coming influence of Sundance, Miramax and other influential factors. The story revolves around four people – married couple John and Ann, Ann’s sister Cynthia who’s sleeping with John and John’s friend Graham who likes to interview women about their sex lives. Much of that twisted dynamic is on display in the trailer, which is focused on the lies and betrayals of everyone involved.
The Girlfriend Experience
Dipping back into his Sex, Lies roots, Soderbergh cast well-known porn actress Sasha Grey in the lead role of this drama. Grey plays Christine, a high-end call girl who provides more than just sex but a whole experience for her clients that often mimics an actual relationship. We get a pretty good look at her life in the trailer, which shows her not only doing what she needs to of her career but also trying to maintain a personal life and relationship with her boyfriend. It also shows her on the job with clients, acting much the same way, hinting at the conflict in her life.
Soderbergh went back to his indie, guerrilla-filmmaking roots with this 2006 feature, picked up and distributed by Mark Cuban’s HDNet in one of the first experiments with day-and-date releasing. The story revolves around a group of friends and coworkers in a doll factory based in a small Ohio town. The movie was notable not only for its distribution model but also for featuring exclusively amateur actors, who were given just an outline from which to improvise all their lines. There’s none of that story in the trailer, though, which is just about the creepy visuals of the factory floors full of doll heads, arms and other parts.
Out of Sight
The director’s first collaboration with George Clooney was also his first foray into stylistic, fluffy caper comedies. Clooney plays Jack Foley, a career criminal who’s not a bad guy. Jennifer Lopez plays Karen Cisco, the federal marshall who’s tasked with bringing Foley in but of course the attraction between the two gets the better of both of them. All of that is shown in the trailer, which sells a star that pops and is filled with fast-paced dialogue and colorful characters, which is to be expected in that it’s based on an Elmore Leonard novel. There are shootouts, there’s romance and there’s the sizzle that Soderbergh would bring to the only franchise he’s ever directed.
Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen
Once more teaming with Clooney, this time the star plays Danny Ocean, a thief who enlists the help of his friend Rusty (Brad Pitt) and 10 other guys to…look, who cares. In the first movie they’re knocking over three Vegas casinos. In the second they’re pulling a massive European job to pay back Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the guy they robbed in the first movie. In the third they’re exacting revenge on Willy Bank (Al Pacino) after he roughs up on of Danny’s crew. Those are the thin hooks on which the story is hung, but the point of these movies is to watch good-looking movie stars gliding effortlessly through whip-smart dialogue amid glamorous settings. It’s all just a lot of fun as the trailers for Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen clearly show.
The Societal Dramas
One of Soderbergh’s few forays into true stories it was also his first time working with Julie Roberts. She plays a woman who’s struggling as a single mom and can’t find a job until she starts working for a law firm. There she finds evidence a company has been intentionally poisoning an area. With a cause to fight for she begins to make a difference and find purpose in her life. That’s exactly what the trailer shows as we follow Erin’s life from insignificant nobody to crusader against the greedy corporations, selling what would wind up being one of Roberts’ finest roles.
I’ll cop right now to Traffic being my least-favorite of Soderbergh’s films, due mainly to a meandering, bloated story that is completely out of context with his usually air-tight, fast-paced style. There are all sorts of connected stories happening, from a woman who takes over her husband’s drug operation after his arrest, a man who’s taken on the role of chief U.S. drug enforcer, the street cops on the front lines of the drug war and more. The trailer includes brief snippets of all those stories, presenting it as an essential, ripped from the headlines drama and while it certainly looks gorgeous the end rest is a bit muddled.
The Good German
It’s clear the director was trying to make his own version of Casablanca with this movie, something that’s reflected not just in the story of an American military journalist in post-war Berlin who investigates a murder involving his former lover and his official driver but in his use of black and white. Even the poster is evocative of the Bogart classic. Clooney once more joins the director, this time with Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire on board as well. The trailer explains the setting and the setup, positioning this as not just a murder mystery but one with significant geo-political implications.
Che: Part One/Two
While released as two films, it’s often distributed as one extended feature. The story stars Benicia del Toro as the revolutionary leader and follows his life from his time as a soldier in the paramilitary unit to his status as a leader known around the world. The trailer sells all that but focuses on the violent actions undertaken by Che and his compatriots.
This remake of the 1972 original science fiction drama once more stars George Clooney as an astronaut on a mission to the edge of space. Once there he encounters a vision of his late wife, but that experience causes him and the rest of his crew to question the line between reality and fiction. The trailer lays out some of that, hinting at the conflict that’s generated among the crew when Clooney’s character insists his wife is alive and there on their ship, despite all evidence to the contrary. While this doesn’t have a stellar reputation over the 15 years since release it’s still a thoughtful meditation on grief, an angle that’s emphasized in the marketing.
The Light-Hearted Comedies
Once more Soderbergh goes backward to go forward. This 2002 release features a number of big-name stars – Julie Roberts, David Duchovny and others – but puts them in a loose, largely unstructured, Altman-esque narrative that has a number of different story layers. Seven people are all on their way to a mutual friend’s birthday party. The very short trailer immediately positions this as a star-studded companion piece to Sex, Lies, sharing very little of the story while doing so. All we see are a few short shots meant to convey the star power of the cast, not the structure of the story.
By 2013 Soderbergh was positioned as one of the only directors who knew how to get a comedic performance out of Matt Damon. So casting him as a bumbling corporate executive who both wants to take down a giant agrochemical company and eventually be rewarded by that company for doing so was kind of perfect. The trailer takes pains to sell the movie as a comedy, with the mustached Damon at its center as he cluelessly engages with the FBI and his corporate superiors.
Proving he was an equal-opportunity provider of beefcake, Magic Mike tells the story of Mike (Channing Tatum), a guy with big ideas for his own business success who makes ends meet as an adult dancer. The trailer makes a big deal about the dancing and the glitz, including a few scenes with a fellow dancer of Mike’s played by Matthew McConaughey, but also shows that there’s a real story about doing what you need to do to achieve your dreams. This one got a lot of notice after release for being about more than abs and including a nuanced character study alongside the banana hammocks.
Terence Stamp plays a thief who, after he’s let out of prison, finds out his daughter was killed, Determined to find her killer, he travels from Ireland to Los Angeles to track down the record producer she was involved with and who he believes to be responsible. That quest for revenge is the driving force in the trailer, which shows the violent lengths Stamp’s aggrieved father will go to in order to find his daughter’s older lover and get some answers.
Soderbergh hit on one of my big fears in 2011 with this story of a virus that unleashes a pandemic across the globe, killing billions in a matter of months. Damon appears once more, this time along with Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurance Fishburne and others, all of whom show up for significant amounts of time in the trailer. The story that’s laid out in that trailer is pretty formulaic – Patient Zero infects others, who infect others, society starts to fall apart as people panic and the government is helpless to respond – but it’s the director’s name, along with that of the cast, that promised something different.
With The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble and other movies Soderbergh gained a reputation for unexpected casting decisions. He made a similar call in casting MMA star Gina Carano as a government operative who’s betrayed by her handlers and sets out to find out who it was and why they did it. Carano was the perfect choice for the physically-intensive role, with the trailer showing clearly just how good that casting was. Not only are there plenty of action sequences but the audience can also see the stakes for Carano’s character and the forces that are aligning against her.
Rooney Mara plays Emily, a young woman with psychological issues in Soderbergh’s last feature effort for five years. Suffering depression even after her husband has been released from jail she’s prescribed a new medication by her doctor. The side effects, though, lead to her killing her husband, a crime that comes back on the doctor, played by Jude Law. The trailer goes through most all of Emily’s story but also makes it clear that the movie will focus on the doctor needing to maintain his own reputation, which has come under fire for the prescription of a dangerous drug. It’s a taut, tense trailer for what amounts to a psychological murder mystery.