Steven Soderbergh Was Struggling Behind The Scenes Of Ocean's Eleven

Steven Soderbergh came up through the independent film scene with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" in 1989, but following his dual Oscar nominations for Best Director for "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" in 2001 (he won for the latter), Soderbergh crossed over into a new level of mainstream success. By the end of that year, he would be on track to score his highest-grossing film to date with "Ocean's Eleven," a star-studded remake of a 1960 casino heist movie, with George Clooney taking the place of Frank Sinatra as the titular Danny Ocean.

The ensuing sequels, "Ocean's Twelve" and "Ocean's Thirteen," gave Soderbergh a trilogy that, by 2017, made up around 60 percent of his career box-office receipts (per IndieWire). Reaching that level of exposure, however, came with the added pressure of new technical challenges. In an interview with the Directors Guild of America in 2014, Soderbergh revealed that despite the tripartite structure of "Traffic," with its different color-coded shooting styles, the three "Ocean's" movies were actually the hardest he ever shot. He explained:

"I had days of real agony on Ocean's. It was a kind of shooting that I hadn't really attempted before. I hadn't built a whole film that needed a very designed, bravura visual approach. And I don't like to storyboard, so I had days of telling [1st AD] Greg Jacobs, 'Just send everybody away. I don't know how to do this. I need to think about this.' I think it's Whistler, the painter, who talked about the labor required to eradicate all traces of labor. That's the trick of those movies. I wanted them to have a baroque visual palette and style to burn, and yet be breezy. I didn't want anybody to feel me sweating, even though I was sweating a lot."

'Run it again'

Soderbergh cited a specific scene in "Ocean's Thirteen" as an example of one that put him at a loss. He said:

"There's one scene in the third Ocean's where there are a bunch of people in a hollowed-out cave, and they're all looking at schematics of the hotel. You've got eight or nine people around a small table in a small space. And I just keep saying, 'Run it again. Run it again. Run it again.' I've got a viewfinder with a lens on it, and I'm trying to work my way around the space to find the shot that's going to form the central visual premise of the scene. And I just can't come up with a shot. It was horrible. I say to Greg, 'What time is it?' And he goes, 'It's 10:30.' 'So it's too early to call lunch?' 'Yeah, it's too early to call lunch.' 'Well, just send everybody away.' And I'm sitting there and the cast is gone, and I say, 'Can somebody move this table? I'm sick of looking at this table.' So they take the table out, and I'm walking around and I sit down where the table was and then I realize, oh, the camera is the table. That's it. We called everybody back in and put the camera basically where the center of the table was, and I did a series of two-shots. Shoot, turn, shoot again. We literally did the scene in an hour."

During the scene in question, you can see Scott Caan and Eddie Jemison's characters, Turk and Livingston, bring in the table. Soderbergh gives the viewer a shot of the guys huddled around it, and then it cuts to a series of low-angle shots from the table's vantage point.

The viewer might not consciously recognize that they're taking on the table's perspective during the scene in question, but it has the subtle effect of making the characters appear larger than life as they loom over it. Contrast this with the flatter full shot of the group around the table, and you can see how much more visually interesting it is when Soderbergh frames the scene the way he does.

'To my mind that was going to be tricky'

The above scene is just one way that Soderbergh managed to innovate and give the "Ocean's" trilogy an engaging visual style that helped elevate it above other movies in the crowded heist genre.

Back in 2002, in another interview with the BBC, Soderbergh outlined his overall intent with the first movie, "Ocean's Eleven." He characterized it in terms that might make it sound like the polar opposite of a film such as "Reservoir Dogs," where the heist happens off-screen, the aftermath is loaded with profanity and violence, and there's a meanness to the male-dominated cast of characters. As the filmmaker put it:

"I wanted to see if I could combine two types of films, one that had this elegant, elaborate, technical side but also this casual off-hand quality to the performances – a film that wasn't aggressive. That was the trick, to see if we could find that balance to have it deliver on the big movie side, but make sure that it wasn't mean, that it didn't have male characters that were insulting each other. That it wasn't profane or violent. To my mind that was going to be tricky."

With Clooney joined by a stacked ensemble, including the top-billed Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts, "Ocean's Eleven" gave Soderbergh the kind of commercial success that would seem to indicate his efforts paid off with audiences around the world. Hearing how much blood, sweat, and tears went into this movie trilogy behind-the-scenes — all in the name of making an entertainment experience that would feel light and effortless — might give one a new appreciation for the thought behind that Whistler quote Soderbergh cited about "the labor required to eradicate all traces of labor."