Steven Soderbergh has, at this point, directed 27 films, one segment of an anthology film, two episodes of an anthology TV series, and two (soon to be three) full seasons of TV shows, plus shooting and editing Magic Mike XXL. He has a full and varied career with films that range from slick, perfectly-constructed, and impossible-to-hate Hollywood entertainment to seeming exercises in audience alienation. And yet, he could have done more (if he sold his watch, he could have easily made three more films). Almost for every film he’s made, there’s one missed opportunity, one film he came close to making before circumstances got in the way. For the sake of saving space, I’ll only be talking about the projects that we know even a little bit about, so don’t expect any words about the scripts Soderbergh says he wrote in the book of sex, lies, and videotape, because all I know about them is their names. Got it? Okay, good.
The Last Ship
What Would It Have Been: This is the first thing Soderbergh was set to make following the massive success of sex, lies, and videotape. It’s based on the postapocalyptic novel by William Brinkley, and was set to be produced by Sydney Pollack. Soderbergh planned to streamline the 616-page book, confining the action on the titular ship to the first act and getting to the portion when the survivors find an island to inhabit as quickly as possibly (he and Pollack agreed on cutting out a murder subplot and possibly a meeting with the “beach people”).
What Happened: All I could find about the cause of the project falling apart was “several unsatisfactory screenplay drafts”. He made Kafka (which he was interested in at around the same time as The Last Ship) as his second film instead. On the bright side, Soderbergh met his first wife, Betsy Brantley, while doing preliminary casting for Ship.
What Was Salvaged From It: The novel was eventually made into a TNT series by Michael Bay’s production company Platinum Dunes. That’s life for ya; you try to get Steven Soderbergh but you end up with Michael Bay.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: If it had been made, I wouldn’t have to sit through ads for the TV show everytime I see a movie, so sure.
What Would It Have Been: Little is known about what Soderbergh would have done with the project about fixing behind the scenes of the 50s game show Twenty One. All I could find on the subject is that he wanted to cast Tim Robbins as Charles Van Doren, whose win on the show against Herb Stempel was decided by the producers after pressure from the show’s sponsor, Geritol.
What Happened: Much is known about this, however. Soderbergh was contacted by Baltimore Pictures to direct the film, but the assistant of Mark Johnson, the head of Baltimore Pictures, happened to be married to the head of Robert Redford’s production company, Wildwood, so the script was also sent to Redford. And one day, while Soderbergh was shooting King of the Hill (which Redford had agreed to produce in the aftermath of sex, lies), he got a phone call from Johnson saying, in so many words, that Redford was doing the project and Soderbergh would not be. This understandably put a bit of a dent in Soderbergh’s relationship with Redford, and Redford ultimately backed out of producing King of the Hill. Also, in my search for info on this situation, I found this section in a biography on Robert Redford, which I am quoting below because it could be the worst thing I’ve ever read:
Ironically, Soderbergh dropped out of indie filmmaking for all intents and purposes and worked almost exclusively on big-budget, all-star Hollywood productions like Ocean’s Eleven and other films starring George Clooney. Maybe Redford was right about him after all.
What Was Salvaged From It: Redford did make Quiz Show, and, according to that same biography, it “is arguably Redford’s finest achievement as a director, a film of which he can always be justifiably proud” (to be fair, the book also says “Not to quibble, but Quiz Show has some problems”, before listing two scenes, only one of which it really has any complaints about). Soderbergh did The Underneath after King in an attempt to get a project made immediately. The bad experiences of that project led to his bottoming out and the making of Schizopolis and the rest is history (history of him almost exclusively making big-budget, all-star Hollywood productions starring George Clooney).
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: As much as I’d like to see Soderbergh’s take on the material, if he had directed it, there’s no way to tell if Schizopolis and his career after that would stay the same. So, a tentative no.
What Would It Have Been: Duncan Brantley’s original script for the film, about a 20s football player who takes a front-row seat to the commercialization of his favorite sport, was sent to Universal in 1993, and Soderbergh originally intended to direct it as his follow-up to King. It languished for a few years before Soderbergh returned to it after Out of Sight, with the intention of George Clooney starring in it. Soderbergh deemed it a “Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks-type comedy”.
What Happened: Clooney said later that the reason it was never made was that they could never figure out a good third act.
What Was Salvaged From It: Clooney apparently figured out a good third act later, as he directed the film himself, as his follow-up to Good Night and Good Luck in 2008. Or maybe he didn’t, because the movie turned out to be not very good, Clooney’s worst as a director until The Monuments Men came along.
Shout It Have Seen The Light Of Day: I can’t say I’d be dying to see Soderbergh’s take on this material. No thanks.
A Confederacy of Dunces
What Would It Have Been: Along with Leatherheads and The Underneath, this adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s darkly comedic novel was set to be Soderbergh’s post-King project. He was going to direct the project from an adaptation co-written by him and Accidental Tourist writer Frank Galati, and produced by Scott Kramer. Kramer was set to produce the film and Harold Ramis was set to direct before John Belushi, their choice to play the main character Ignatius J. Reilly, died. Chris Farley was set to play Reilly in Soderbergh’s version.
What Happened: Obviously, Farley playing Reilly was not in the cards, but the project was fucked before all that happened. Kramer and Soderbergh handed the project over to megaproducer Scott Rudin and Paramount Pictures on the agreement that he wouldn’t interfere with their creative process. And, whaddya know, he did, hiring Stephen Fry to write a much more postmodern take on the novel. Soderbergh and Kramer hated his script, and Kramer’s contract with the studio was terminated shortly thereafter, leading Kramer and Soderbergh to sue the studio for being wrongfully shut out of the project. The trial was settled out of court under the agreement that Kramer and Soderbergh find another studio to produce their adaptation within three years, and that they pay back the $2 million spent on the project at Paramount. By the time they were shopping their adaptation around, Soderbergh couldn’t find the time to direct.
What Was Salvaged From It: Nothing, really. Soderbergh and Kramer’s adaptation was set to be directed by David Gordon Green in 2005, with Will Ferrell as Reilly (Ferrell is still alive, thankfully). That was never made, and the project still languishes in development hell to this day, although it is set to be turned into a play starring Nick Offerman, which is less exciting than worry-inducing about Offerman’s future health.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: There’s no way a film adaptation would be as interesting as the story of people trying to make a film adaptation of it.
Neurotica (later Son of Schizopolis)
What Would It Have Been: In Soderbergh’s words, it was to be “the stupidest idea since New Coke: a sequel to a film nobody wanted to see.” That film was Schizopolis, Soderbergh’s intensely personal, little-seen experimental comedy which is still the best goddamn thing he’s ever done. Nothing is known about it besides this.
What Happened: Schizopolis was released in two theaters for two weeks, that’s what happened.
What Was Salvaged From It: Absolutely nothing. Yet, at least.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: Abso-fucking-lutely. And who says it won’t still see the light of day? Soderbergh can do whatever the fuck he wants to do at this point, there’s no reason he can’t make this.
Toots and the Upside Down House
What Would It Have Been: An adaptation of Carol Hughes’s children’s book of the same name. Soderbergh was set to co-write the script with Henry Selick, who was to direct. Soderbergh and Selick agreed to eliminate the book’s missing/dead parent element on the basis of that element being in too many adaptations of children’s books already (including Selick’s James and the Giant Peach).
What Happened: Despite getting financing from Twentieth Century Fox, according to Soderbergh, the book’s idea just never would have worked on film.
What Was Salvaged From It: Nada.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: I can’t say it should have, if it didn’t work like Soderbergh claimed it didn’t.
What Would It Have Been: Soderbergh was set to direct Charlie Kaufman’s script about how humanity attempts to tame its wilder aspects to no good results (this was a few years before Being John Malkovich). For the role of a man raised by apes who’s forced to reenter society and behave normally, Soderbergh wanted to cast Chris Kattan (which I can’t say is bad casting, but I also cannot possibly imagine what Soderbergh directing Chris Kattan would be like), and he wanted Marisa Tomei for the role of a woman with abnormal hair growth and David Hyde Pierce for the role of the scientist who falls in love with Tomei and tries to domesticate Kattan.
What Happened: Out of Sight happened. When Soderbergh went to Casey Silver (then-head of Universal) with the script for Human Nature, he expressed interest, but he also handed Soderbergh Scott Frank’s script for Out of Sight and told him, in so many words, to not be stupid and take the damn thing. He did just that, and the production of Out of Sight meant he put Human Nature on the backburner and just never came back to it.
What Was Salvaged From It: Human Nature was eventually directed by Michel Gondry, two years after the success of Being John Malkovich. It got mixed reviews and is mostly forgotten about when people talk about Kaufman’s scripts (even Confessions of a Dangerous Mind left a more lasting impression on people).
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: While I’d love to see Soderbergh directing a Kaufman script, if getting that would be at the expense of Out of Sight, nope.
The Locked Room
What Would It Have Been: A Soderbergh-directed reimagining of Charlie Chan for the 1990s. Actual Asian actor Russell Wong was to play Chan’s grandson, who was going to be different than the Chan of the past in that he gets into physical situations and is sexy and has a sexy love interest. Miramax was set to produce the film (and any other Chan films) from Howard Rodman’s script (Rodman had previously written the teleplays for Soderbergh’s two episodes of the neo-noir anthology series Fallen Angels).
What Happened: Again, Out of Sight happened.
What Was Salvaged From It: After Soderbergh left, there were some more attempts to bring Chan back to the screen, but none of them took, and Chan remains a relic of a distant age.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: I’m going to channel Don Logan and say no! Nononono nononono nonono no!
What Would It Have Been: A retelling of the story of Cleopatra, with Catherine Zeta-Jones as the legendary queen, Hugh Jackman as Marc Antony, and Ray Winstone as Julius Caesar. Oh, and it’s in 3D. And it’s a musical. A musical where the music is all rewritten Guided By Voices songs. Man, why didn’t this make it to the big screen?
What Happened: For a project as batshit crazy-sounding as this one, the reasons it fell through are remarkably banal. Hugh Jackman left the project in 2009, and then scheduling issues prevented the other principals from being able to make it on time.
What Was Salvaged From It: Soderbergh has still expressed interest in staging the musical for the stage.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: I’m not going to lie; I would have loved to see how Soderbergh could have possibly changed his aesthetic to fit both a musical and 3D, not to mention to see Egyptian royalty sing Robert Pollard songs. But then again, no.
What Would It Have Been: As faithful an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the rise of sabermetrics as humanly possible. It wouldn’t have gotten actors to play the baseball players involved with the story; no, going with Soderbergh’s love of casting non-actors or limited actors in major parts, the actual players would have played themselves. There also would have been reenactments and on-camera interviews with the actual people involved with Billy Beane’s attempt to shake up major league baseball, which Soderbergh said would take up about 20% of the movie. Brad Pitt would play Beane and Demetri Martin would play his assistant, Paul DePodesta.
What Happened: The stuff of future Hollywood legend, that’s what happened. Amy Pascal (then-head of Sony) read Soderbergh’s rewrite of Stephen Zaillian’s script, and cartoon smoke began flying out of her ears. She shut the project down mere days before it started, and Soderbergh soon left, along with everyone besides Pitt. Aaron Sorkin did a rewrite of Zaillian’s script soon after.
What Was Salvaged From It: Moneyball was made by Bennett Miller in 2011, with Pitt, Jonah Hill in a fictionalized version of Martin’s role, Chris Pratt, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, amongst many others. The time that would have been spent making Moneyball Soderbergh used to shoot his lean, mean action-thriller Haywire, which brought him and Channing “Chan-fried Po-Taters” Tatum together for the first time, and the rest is history (history of him almost exclusively making big-budget, all-star Hollywood productions starring Channing Tatum). Soderbergh made it up to Martin by casting him as Jennifer Ehle’s partner in fighting a worldwide pandemic in Contagion. If Soderbergh is still bitter about losing Moneyball, he doesn’t show it, and, if anything, he agrees that Pascal probably should have kicked him off the project for not making the movie they had agreed to make.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: As fascinating as Soderbergh’s version sounds, I really like Miller’s Moneyball, and Soderbergh’s run following the Moneyball debacle is one of my favorite (ongoing) runs in cinematic history (right next to Soderbergh from 1996-2002 and Woody Allen from 1983-1987). I’m content with the timeline we have.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
What Would It Have Been: This version of the 60s TV show was set to star George Clooney as Napoleon Solo, and possibly Emily Blunt as the female lead. Soderbergh was to direct it from a script by Scott Z. Burns (who, at that point, had written Soderbergh’s The Informant! and Contagion).
What Happened: Clooney backed out due to a lingering back injury he suffered shooting Syriana. And soon after, Soderbergh backed out because he felt too constricted to make the best film possible with Warner Bros.’s $60 million budget.
What Was Salvaged From It: In the wake of this, Soderbergh decided to direct another Scott Z. Burns script, Side Effects. The project has finally gotten off the ground with Guy Ritchie at the helm, and it will be released in August. That’s also life for ya; you try to get Steven Soderbergh but you end up with Guy Ritchie.
Should It Have Seen The Light Of Day: Eh, why not. I really like Side Effects, but we’d be getting another Burns-scripted movie either way, and Soderbergh could have made this fun if he had gotten WB to relent on the budget.