Not one to underachieve, R. Colin Tait (PhD ’13) co-authored his first book, The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh (with Andrew de Waard, Wallflower/Columbia University Press), while simultaneously pursuing his Ph.D. and navigating the responsibilities of new fatherhood. And, as if to make the balancing act more impressive, his dissertation was not about the book’s subject, Soderbergh, but on an entirely different topic: Robert De Niro’s contributions to Hollywood.
This fall, Tait is lecturing at Texas Christian University (TCU) on Media Analysis and Introduction to Television Studies for Non-Majors, and will also be teaching History of Broadcasting in the spring. He has agreed to return to UT February 17 to host an RTF Community screening with Professor Tom Schatz, presenting Steven Soderbergh's heist film OUT OF SIGHT, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.
Before leaving Austin for Ft. Worth, Tait answered a few questions about his book.
You have described Soderbergh as an underrated or under-regarded director. Why do you think this is the case?
Part of why Soderbergh is under-regarded is because people haven’t quite known what to do with him. Compared to directors with very specific signatures like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, he confounds traditional notions of auteur theory - which implies a director with a visible set of traits that move from film to film. Instead, we describe him as a chameleon, which I think is an appropriate term considering that he dabbles in every genre and film style.
Can you elaborate on the description of the book's reference to Soderbergh's recurring topic or theme of the 'criminal's value system'?
A lot of Soderbergh’s films are crime movies, but his protagonists tend to be closer to Robin Hood characters - who rob from the rich - than criminals per se. As opposed to Tarantino-esque killers, they value loyalty and friendship, robbing from evil corporations rather than everyday people. Like the star-studded gang from Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13, or other roles that are usually played by George Clooney in his films, they tend to be good guys who are given a bad rap, or who are outsiders looking in, but who ultimately face off against real “bad guys.” We argue that in very subtle ways, Soderbergh’s crime films demonstrate an alternative value system and his characters uncover hypocrisy, corporate malfeasance or other wrongdoings.
How have you used Soderbergh’s work in RTF courses?
In the past couple of years I have taught Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape, The Limey and Traffic as examples of Indie Cinema. I have found that it takes a little bit of prompting for undergrads to know who he is, but once I get them hooked, they all become very big fans (and continue to send me updates about what they thought of his latest projects).
I have found that students really appreciate his DIY aesthetic and sophisticated use of editing and cinematography - including his being one of the first major filmmakers to adopt the RED-One (digital) camera for his films.
Since Soderbergh made about a film a year from 1989 to 2013, his career also provides an accurate time capsule of the changes within the Hollywood industry from then until now. In a way, his oeuvre (including his retirement and move to TV) encapsulates industry trends as well as the shifts in creative opportunities from film to TV.
What do you make of Soderbergh’s foray into television (upcoming mini-series The Knick)?
Soderbergh actually moved between TV and movies early on in his career. He directed some episodes of a Showtime film noir series called Fallen Angels in the 1990s and a great political drama series for HBO called K-Street, which I’m a big fan of. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he will bring to the table, especially if he builds on these early successes.
How seriously do you take his announcement of retiring from feature-filmmaking? Did that announcement shape your project in a significant way?
Soderbergh’s retirement announcement posed both a problem and a solution. He kept on squeezing in projects (Haywire, Magic Mike, Side Effects, Behind the Candelabra), and we ended up revising until the very last minute.
On the other hand, his departure from film provided us with a natural endpoint for our work. The book brackets off his film work from whatever his next phase will be, allowing us the last word on the subject.
What challenges come up with writing about Soderbergh in particular?
The biggest challenge was coming up with a method that addressed his work as a cinematographer and editor, not just as a director. He’s also directed over 30 films, which makes him one of the most productive filmmakers of his generation and which made writing about him a pretty massive undertaking.
How did you manage co-writing this book while simultaneously working on your Ph. D. dissertation?
I’m not going to lie: it was hard, especially as my dissertation was completely unrelated to the Soderbergh book. But I was lucky enough to have a co-author (Andrew deWaard, a Ph. D. student at UCLA) who was also working on his Ph. D at the same time as I was. We could work on things at different times then have a brainstorming session via Skype and share our work via Google Docs.
The work tended to come in waves, and we tried to be as strategic as possible. I found opportunities to write chapters as part of my coursework and to use that feedback to improve the book. This included some great insights from [RTF Professor] Thomas Schatz, who was not only kind enough to read an early draft; he also wrote the book’s preface.