Steven Soderbergh is working on a new currency.
In his Chelsea studio, among various film posters and piles of moviemaking mementos, he has a few paintings in progress, including a new, livelier, "more Hendrix" version of a U.S. dollar bill. It's only one of the many artistic endeavors he bounces between now that he's begun his long-predicted hiatus from filmmaking.
On Tuesday, he will bring his Liberace film, "Behind the Candelabra," to the Cannes Film Festival, where it will compete for the same Palme d'Or he won 24 years ago for his first film, "Sex, Lies and Videotape."
Soderbergh has said this — a $23 million HBO movie starring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, airing Sunday in the U.S. — will be his last film, at least for now. The 50 year-old's career in film — 26 protean features including "Out of Sight," ''Traffic" and the "Ocean's" franchise — will effectively conclude in Cannes, the same place it was internationally launched.
"It's not often you get the opportunity to arrange that kind of symmetry," Soderbergh says. "It's funny to think about how long ago that was."
Shortly after Soderbergh began tweeting a sparse novella and gave a remarkable speech at the San Francisco Film Festival in which he vented his frustration at Hollywood studios, he sat for a lengthy interview as he steps away from movies. "In theory," he says, "I'm finished."
AP: When you look back on your filmography, what do you think of it?
Soderbergh: It feels like one big movie to me, like chapters of a novel. There's continuity. There's evolution. I shot "Sex, Lies" in 35 days and "Candelabra" in 30 days. I'm more economical. I'd probably make them all a few minutes shorter. Shorter is always better.
AP: The break from movies you've long talked about is now effectively underway. How's it going?
Soderbergh: It's been a little quieter for me. My wanting to consider what my relationship to movies is can sort of happen while I'm doing this other stuff. . It's hard for me to do nothing.
AP: You've recently tweeted a novella, "Glue," and given a wide-ranging speech about how Hollywood could function better.
Soderbergh: It was kind of an opportunity to organize in one place a lot of thing I've either said in interviews or bars. It was just a way for me to structure it all, get it out and close the door on it. . As I walked out the door, I felt there were some things I wanted to memorialize about what I've seen.
AP: It felt like a goodbye.
Soderbergh: I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I can optimize my process as a filmmaker, and I haven't seen a lot of effort expended on the part of the studios to optimize their process. And I don't understand it. The biggest stumbling block to this paradigm being revised is the cost of putting a mainstream movie out. It's truly the tail that's wagging the dog. It's influencing every decision at every level. I can't believe — unless there's some aspect of the relationship between the studios and the theater owners that I'm not aware of — that this is the only way it can be done.
AP: Is your stepping back motivated equally by industry frustration and by your desire to grow in some new way as a filmmaker?
Soderbergh: Yeah, absolutely, it's a combination of a lot of different things. Some of them have to do with the way the business is working now, some of them have to do with me just wanting a break from the social aspect of it. The fact that you're the target for tens of thousands of questions. It's a very intense process and you can feel worn down after a while. And then my own feelings just about the grammar of it, the language of it: Is there some other way to transmit and release information that isn't so prescribed? It's quite possible that I could end up making something that is designed more to be seen in a museum than a movie theater.
Soderbergh: It felt like: I need to tear everything down and start over. I've been thinking about that and thinking about what it might be. I want to take advantage of what people bring to a movie when they watch a movie. The fact that we're so image driven and that we've been watching images since we were infants, and we have associations that are carried with them. I want to figure out a way to take advantage of that, so that I'm sort of using those associations as fuel for what I want to do. I think that's going to require me taking some time to think about what those associations are, how I can use them, how I can build off of them, how I can subvert them. And see if there's some way that I can reverse engineer a narrative in which you, by the end of it, understand everything that happened but you're not quite sure how or why you did.
AP: It seems your search for a new kind of narrative is connected to what you've said about the confusing, fractured nature of life today.
Soderbergh: Especially in this country now, it's really hard not to look around and go: What the hell is going on? Is it possible to get anything done? Is the center of this country going to hold or is it just going to be completely marginalized by extremists on every side of every issue? I don't know. I'm alarmed.
AP: The private sexuality of "Behind the Candelabra" bears some similarities to "Sex, Lies."
Soderbergh: It was a great way to express my appreciation for a kind of movie I've watched my whole life but never got to make, which is kind of a melodrama. I looked at as being in line with all the Douglas Sirk movies and "Sunset Blvd." and "All About Eve" and "Valley of the Dolls." . It was interesting to look around and wonder when I'll be doing this again.
AP: What will you miss the most?
AP: What's surprising about you stepping away from filmmaking is that you seem to relish the process so much, shooting and editing your own films.
Soderbergh: I have a plan. I have an idea of how it can go, and I'm willing to throw it all out at a moment's notice to go somewhere else with it. I expect to discover things. I expect accidents. I expect something that somebody suggests or says will move me in another direction. I'm creating an environment in order to conjure that kind of things. I want my experience of making something to be fluid and to be surprising. I want it to come alive in front of me.
AP: Some filmmakers spend years carefully constructing the films they hope will be masterpieces. That kind of approach has never been appealing to you?
Soderbergh: No, mostly because it makes my work worse. I discovered early on, the more time I had to mull something over, the worse it got — or the more insular it got, the more introspective, the more self-conscious. I needed to treat it like a sport.
AP: HBO picked up "Candelabra" after no studio would take it, and you're currently contemplating several TV projects. Are you excited about television?
Soderbergh: Very. Very. There's a lot of great stuff being made. You can go narrow and deep, and I like that. And this is all David Chase. He single-handedly rebuilt the landscape. Anything that's on now that's any good is standing on his shoulders. I don't hear anybody talking about movies the way they talk about TV right now. . Knowing that I can't swim upstream forever, it seems to me that if I want to work, that I need to move to a medium in which the way I like to do things is viewed as a positive and not a negative.