Why did the creative force behind such pragmatic vehicles as “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Ché,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” “Syriana” and the Ocean’s Trilogy flirt with the paranormal in his financial flop “Solaris”?
Quite simply, the film was Steven Soderbergh’s paean to his heritage. Earthly logic to the contrary, the temporary shift of his creative sights to spirits and space was preordained.
The son of mystics, he spent his childhood tiptoeing around the outer limits of reality. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 14, 1963 to Dr. Peter A. Soderbergh, a professor of education, and Midge Soderbergh, a parapsychologist.
The Soderberghs had left the Catholic Church some years earlier, finding greater solace in plumbing breakthroughs to other worlds. While Peter championed inventive classroom teaching methods, Midge tackled less tangible topics, frequently leading workshops at regional retreats of the Spiritual Frontiers Fellowship, a loose collection of mediums, channels, and spiritual healers. The couple’s joint expertise on doorways to new dimensions was welcomed at gatherings both scholarly and esoteric.
While his father was Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs at the University of Virginia (1973-1976), Steven began thrashing about for his own identity and dreaming of a career in baseball. At that time, Charlottesville was a center of spiritual development. UVA’s division of parapsychology boasted a faculty of credible scientists whose research provided an umbrella of academic respectability for Dr. Soderbergh’s fascination with the arcane. His brief tenure there was marked by his own prolific output of articles about the spirit world, more than 50 within a few years.
At the same time, competitive parapsychology research was underway at Duke University and Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto. The University of Virginia hierarchy, eager to excel on the cutting edge of a virgin field, condoned and supported Dr. Soderbergh’s many lectures at conferences devoted to the psychic arts and sciences.
Shortly after Dr. Soderbergh joined the Louisiana State University faculty in 1976, he enrolled Steven in an animation class on campus. By the age of 15, Steven had made his first short film and his parents were contemplating a separation. Those circumstances boosted Steven’s decision to forsake college for a stab at Hollywood
Meanwhile, my introduction to Dr. Soderbergh’s avocation was through his paper, “Russell H. Conwell and the Spirit World, 1910-1925,” now housed in the Conwellana-Templana Collection of the Temple University Library. The content of this, one of his earliest pieces about parapsychology, may well have been discussed around the family dinner table in young Steven’s presence. Conwell, a Baptist minister and the university’s founder, justified his “Acres of Diamonds” as the culmination of a vision. His experiences paralleled those of Leland Stanford, who established Stanford University after receiving what he believed to be a telepathic message from his dead son.
Dr. Soderbergh’s passions encompassed academics, mysticism, the American theater, the Marine Corps, and popular music. His services in the Korean War as a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps provided the impetus for his two books on the history of women in the Marine Corps. Later, he was appointed to the board of directors at the U.S. Marine Corps Historical Center Foundation in Washington.
Upon his death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 69 on February 17, 1998, the LSU campus flags flew at half staff. The obituary in the Baton Rouge Advocate cites his role as professor and dean in the College of Education and director of the LSU Office of Academic Development. His many awards include Outstanding Teacher awarded by the LSU Student Government Association in 1993. A community volunteer, he aided Special Olympics and the local crisis and intervention centers. Using the pseudonym Dr. Record, he hosted a radio show on WBRH (Baton Rouge) playing records from his private collection of popular music.
While he was on the UVA faculty, psychic Jackie Altisi, a frequent SFF workshop leader with connections at NASA and the United Nations, urged me to contact him about his papers tracing the impact of the psychic sciences on education. During one of our telephone conversations, Dr. Soderberg mentioned that his son had taken a few summer courses in film while in high school and planned to write screen plays. He predicted that high minds would lead Steven in the right direction, his ultimate success a certainty.
Confirmation of that prediction arrived when Steven’s first feature film, “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes,” won the prestigious Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989. Subsequently, it won an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Steven was honored with the Independent Spirit Award for Best Director. Did he arrive there through old-fashioned pluck and grit? Or did this success materialize courtesy of the unseen advisors his father heralded?
Dr. Soderbergh’s writings do not dwell upon the onus of unwelcome apparitions, the mischievous – oftentimes evil – spirits blamed throughout the ages for countless human failings. He focused, instead, on the highest forms of contact from other planes, entities he believed responsible for endowing America’s Founding Fathers with a quality he termed “Faculty X,” the ultimate psychic sense. He called these men “Illuminates of the highest genre” for their universal qualities, uncommon brotherhood, and extraordinary prescience and sensitivity.
The optimism and innate “Faculty X” Dr. Soderbergh transferred to his gifted son represents but half of the filmmaker’s psychic potential. Although Midge Soderbergh did not emulate the academic clout her husband wielded on college campuses, her very presence commanded awe and hushed voices. Dr. Soderbergh’s UVA colleagues recognized her as a true psychic.
After their divorce, Midge immersed herself even deeper in matters psychic and soon made her presence known throughout the Baton Rouge community. She hosted a regular ten-minute program on a local television channel for several years in the early 80s. By July 25, 1992, Midge had embarked on another enterprise. An article by Ken Fink appearing that day in the State Times/Morning Advocate announced that Midge was preparing to produce a movie about the abduction of two Biloxi, Mississippi men by an alien craft.
Tentatively entitled “Snatched,” the $10 million feature film was to be based on UFO: Contact At Pascagoula, a book by Charles Hickson and William Mendez published in 1983. Filming would begin along the Gulf Coast in early September 1992 with release scheduled for January 1993. While declining to name the “major film star” she had secured to play the leading role, Midge emphasized that the project required about a thousand cast and crew, most to be hired from among the Biloxi area residents.
During Fink’s interview, Midge Soderbergh confessed that she herself had witnessed magnetic anomalies and unexplained lights associated with UFOs, but had never been abducted. She cautioned that “some of (Hickson’s) encounters and how they occurred have a lot to do with our children and the future of their survival.”
Contrary to expectations raised by the press release, the project died. Perhaps the Walsh Production Company, responsible for casting and filming the movie, never raised the necessary funds. This kind of failure is typical within the film industry. Despite his own notable successes, her son has learned that most film projects face multiple barriers between idea and execution. Those reaching the public are the exception.
In 1976, Dr. Peter Soderbergh mailed a questionnaire to selected psychics nationwide requesting their predictions of developments in occult fields by the close of the 20th Century. Their responses ran the gamut, from a better understanding of the higher mind to universal telepathy and psychic healing. While the common man has not yet mastered these abilities, Dr. Soderbergh was a dreamer and optimist to the end.
In his “Bicentennial Tribute to 200 Years of Occulturation,” published in the July 1976 issue of Psychic World, he exulted in his belief that the United States is in an advanced state of Occulturation. He based his conclusion on the open participation of millions in the esoteric arts. “It is rare indeed,” he wrote, “to meet a man, woman or child who is not acquainted in some degree with occult language and/or symbology.” The following year, his “Tribute to UFOs” in the same publication expressed confidence that “a good deal of action at the Saucerian level” will occur in the years ahead.
Because the gift to see beyond the present was a family trait, it is no surprise that Steven Soderbergh was drawn to the script of “Solaris” and the concept of Kelvin’s visitations with his dead wife. The approach of his 40th birthday signaled that the time had come to reflect upon his own mortality by revisiting stories overheard at home of inexplicable events and contacts. Until his father came to him in a dream, Steven Soderbergh had rejected the concept of consciousness after death. During a conversation about “Solaris” with British journalist Suzie Mackenzie, he declared that the nocturnal incident determined the film’s theme of reconciliation, the hope that spiritual communication can be achieved between the living and the dead.
In more than 25 films completed or presently in production, Soderbergh’s admiration for his parents and lessons they taught him about operating in worlds both real and imaginary shine through. A prime example of a journeyman with multiple talents, he emulates their work ethic, functioning as producer, director, writer, cinematographer, editor, actor, composer and sound department as needed.
Several of his women characters named Midge may represent strong characteristics he sees in his mother. When he assumes the role of director of photography, he appears in the credits as Peter Andrew, his father’s first and middle names. Other pseudonyms masking personal relationships are Sam Lowry and Mary Ann Bernard, the “Solaris” film editor whose surname is his mother’s maiden name.
As his father predicted, Steven Soderbergh has educated himself in every facet of his career even though his formal schooling ended at high school graduation. More than any of his films to date, “Solaris” proved that he utilizes and respects his inheritance of advanced enlightenment.
Did it foreshadow a deeper spiritual journey yet to come?