Soderbergh was born on January 14, 1963, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Mary Ann (née Bernard) and Peter Andrew Soderbergh, who was a university administrator and educator. He has Swedish, Irish, and Italian roots. Soderbergh's paternal grandfather immigrated to the U.S. from Stockholm. As a child, he moved with his family to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he lived during his adolescence, and then to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father became Dean of Education at Louisiana State University (LSU). Soderbergh discovered filmmaking as a teenager and directed short films with a Super 8 and 16 mm cameras. He attended the Louisiana State University Laboratory School for high school before graduating and moving to Hollywood to pursue professional filmmaking. In his first job he worked as a game show Composer and cue card holder soon after which he found work as a freelance film Editor. During this time, he directed the concert video 9012Live for the rock band Yes in 1985, which went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award.
After screening Sex, Lies, and Videotape at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, he was given the festival's top award, the Palme d'Or. At 26, he was the youngest solo Director to win the award and second youngest Director after French Directors Louis Malle and co-director Jacques Cousteau (the former Frenchman won it aged 23). During the 2001 Academy Awards, Soderbergh was nominated twice for Best Director for two separate films, the first occurrence of such an event. Apart from his first nomination (Erin Brockovich), he won the award for Traffic. The same occurrence happened at the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Associated Press called the category a "Soderbergh vs. Soderbergh" contest.
His directorial debut was followed by a series of low-budget box-office disappointments. In 1991, he directed Kafka, a biopic of Franz Kafka written by Lem Dobbs and starring Jeremy Irons. The film returned one tenth of its budget and received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert published another, high circulated review his second film stating, "Soderbergh does demonstrate again here that he's a gifted Director, however unwise in his choice of project". Two years later, he directed King of the Hill (1993) which was again met with mixed reviews and poor commercial performance. Soderbergh's direction of Depression-era thriller-drama The Underneath (1995) received mixed reviews and grossed $536,020 on a $6.5 million budget. Also in 1995, he directed a remake of Robert Siodmak's 1949 film noir Criss Cross. The film was widely panned by critics, with Rodrigo Perez of IndieWire accusing Soderbergh of "throwing himself under the bus."
Cliff Martinez, a frequent collaborator with Soderbergh, composes many of the scores that provide Soderbergh with the thematic and sonic landscapes into which he inserts his characters. In his review of Full Frontal, film critic Roger Ebert commented that, "Every once in a while, perhaps as an exercise in humility, Steven Soderbergh makes a truly inexplicable film... A film so amateurish that only the professionalism of some of the actors makes it watchable... It's the kind of film where you need the Director telling you what he meant to do and what went wrong and how the actors screwed up and how there was no money for retakes, etc." About Soderbergh's film, The Good German and his emphasis on style over substance, film critic Richard Roeper commented that the film had to offer, "a lot of style. Not so much with the plot." Soderbergh has, nonetheless, been dubbed a stylistic chameleon by Anne Thompson of Premiere. Drew Morton has extensively researched Soderbergh and has tied him to a modern movement much like the French New Wave. Soderbergh also has a track record of honorable contributions in the cinematic arts; when the papers of Writer and satirist Terry Southern were potentially in limbo following his untimely death in 1995, Soderbergh purchased and then donated the papers to the New York Public Library. Naqoyqatsi, the final chapter of Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy, was completed after a delay of more than 10 years, only after Soderbergh stepped in to provide the necessary funding.
He directed Schizopolis in 1996, a comedy which he starred in, wrote, composed, and shot as well as directed. The 96-minute film was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival to such a "chilly response" that he reworked the entire introduction and conclusion before releasing it commercially. In the movie's introduction, he placed a title page that read: ”In the event that you find certain sequences or events confusing, please bear in mind this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything". He starred in Schizopolis as Fletcher Munson, a spokesman for a Scientology-esque lifestyle cult, and again as Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, a dentist having an affair with Munson's wife. The film switched languages multiple times mid-scene without subtitles leaving large parts of it incomprehensible. Considered "one of the worst films in cinema," it was viewed by critics as a "directorial palate cleanse" for Soderbergh. During the months following his debut of Schizopolis, he released a small, edited version of the Spalding Gray monologue film Gray's Anatomy. Soderbergh would later refer to Schizopolis as his "artistic wake-up call".
Soderbergh's reemergence began in 1998 with Out of Sight, a stylized adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, written by Scott Frank and starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. The film was widely praised, though only a moderate box-office success. The critical reception of the movie began a multi-movie artistic partnership between Clooney and Soderbergh. Soderbergh followed up on the success of Out of Sight by making another crime caper, The Limey (1999), from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs and starring actors Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda. The film was well-received and established him within the cinematic niche of thriller and heist films. He ventured into his first biographical film in 2000 when he directed Erin Brockovich, written by Susannah Grant and starring Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning role as a single mother taking on industry in a civil action. In late 2000, Soderbergh released Traffic, a social drama written by Stephen Gaghan and featuring an ensemble cast. Time magazine compared him to a baseball player hitting home runs with Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both films would be nominated at the 2001 Academy Awards, making him the only Director to have been nominated in the same year for Best Director for two different films. He was awarded the Academy Award for Best Director for Traffic and received best Director nominations at the year's Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America Awards.
"I've always gotten along with them," says Soderbergh of actors, "I try and make sure they're OK, and when they're in the zone, I leave them alone. I don't get in their way." His non-intrusive directorial style has attracted repeat performances by many high-profile movie stars. Julia Roberts had supporting roles in Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve and Full Frontal, and won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her lead in Erin Brockovich. Benicio del Toro, who also won an Academy Award for his work in a Soderbergh film (Traffic), later starred in Guerrilla and The Argentine. Catherine Zeta-Jones received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Helena in Traffic (2000) and reteamed with him for box-office hit Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Side Effects (2013). But the actor he has collaborated most frequently with is George Clooney, who played the leading role in six of his films, and with whom he co-owned the film production company, Section Eight Productions. Section Eight produced the critical hits Far From Heaven, Insomnia and Syriana, as well as the Clooney-directed films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.
In early 2001, he was approached to direct a reboot of the 1960s Rat Pack-movie, Ocean's 11 by Ted Griffin. After Griffin wrote the screenplay, Soderbergh signed on direct Ocean's Eleven. The film opened to critical acclaim and wide-spread commercial success. It quickly became Soderbergh's highest-grossing movie to date, grossing more than $183 million domestically and more than $450 million worldwide. Rolling Stone credited the movie with "[spawning] a new era of heist movies". In the same year, Soderbergh made Full Frontal, which was shot mostly on digital video in an improvisational style that deliberately blurred the line between which actors were playing characters and which were playing fictionalized versions of themselves. A year later, he was asked by executives at Warner Bros Studios to direct the psychological thriller Insomnia (2002), starring Academy Award winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Despite their insistence, Soderbergh wanted to use the film as a transitory project for up-and-coming directer, Christopher Nolan. After an initial rejection at the proposal, Soderbergh used his own production company, Section Eight Productions to pressure the much larger Warner Bros to not only accept Nolan but also his pick of editors and cinematographers. Before returning to the Ocean's series, Soderbergh directed K Street (2003), a ten-part political HBO series he co-produced with George Clooney. The series was both partially improvised and each episode being produced in the five days prior to airing to take advantage of topical events that could be worked into the fictional narrative. Actual political players appeared as themselves, either in cameos or portraying fictionalized versions of themselves, notably James Carville and Mary Matalin.
Soderbergh directed Ocean's Twelve, a sequel to Ocean's Eleven, in 2004. The second installment received more muted critical reviews and was another commercial successfully film grossing $362.7 million on a $110 million budget. Matt Singer of IndieWire called it a "Great Sequel About How Hard It Is to Make a Great Sequel". Nonetheless, the movie was promptly listed among the best movies of 2004 and among the greatest heist films of all time.
A year later, he directed Bubble (2005), a $1.6 million film featuring a cast of nonprofessional actors. It opened in selected theaters and HDNet simultaneously, and four days later on DVD. Industry heads were reportedly watching how the film performed, as its unusual release schedule could have implications for Future feature films. Theater-owners, who at the time had been suffering from dropping attendance rates, did not welcome so-called "day-and-date" movies. National Association of Theatre Owners chief executive John Fithian indirectly called the film's release model "the biggest threat to the viability of the cinema industry today." Soderbergh's response to such criticism: "I don't think it's going to destroy the movie-going experience any more than the ability to get takeout has destroyed the restaurant Business." A romantic drama set in post-war Berlin, The Good German, starring Cate Blanchett and Clooney, was released in late 2006. The film performed poorly commercially grossing $5.9 million worldwide against a budget of $32 million.
Soderbergh released Ocean's Thirteen in June 2007 to further commercial success and increased critical acclaim. Grossing $311.3 million on a $85 million budget it was the second highest grossing film of his career after his first. His film concluded what would later be known as The Oceans Trilogy, a collection of heist movies that would go on to be described as defining a new era of heist films. On May 22, 2008, Che, which was released in theatres in two parts titled The Argentine and Guerrilla, was presented in the main competition of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Benicio del Toro played Argentine guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara in an epic four-hour double bill which looks first at his role in the Cuban revolution before moving to his campaign and eventual death in Bolivia. Soderbergh shot his feature film The Girlfriend Experience in New York in 2008. Soderbergh cast adult film star Sasha Grey as the film's lead Actress to great reception and controversy.
On Monday, April 5, 2009, Soderbergh appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, and "cited the French initiative in asking lawmakers to deputize the American film industry to pursue copyright pirates," indicating he supports anti-piracy laws and Internet regulation.
In the fall of 2010, he shot the epic virus thriller Contagion, written by Scott Z. Burns. With a cast including Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law, the film follows the outbreak of a lethal pandemic across the globe and the efforts of doctors and Scientists to discover the cause and develop a cure. Soderbergh premiered it at the 68th Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy on September 3, 2011, and released it to the general public six days later to commercial success and widespread critical acclaim. Grossing $135.5 million on a $60 million budget, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times called his film a "smart, spooky thriller about a thicket of contemporary plagues — a killer virus, rampaging fear, an unscrupulous Blogger — is as ruthlessly effective as the malady at its cool, cool center."
Soderbergh had planned to commence production in early 2012 on a feature version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., also written by Scott Z. Burns. George Clooney was set for the lead role of Napoleon Solo but had to drop out due to a recurring back injury suffered while filming Syriana. In November 2011 Soderbergh withdrew from the project due to budget and casting conflicts, and was eventually replaced by Guy Ritchie. His final televised project before heading into retirement was Behind the Candelabra. Shot in the summer of 2012, it starred Michael Douglas as legendarily flamboyant Pianist Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover Scott Thorson. The film is written by Richard LaGravenese, based on Thorson's book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, and produced by HBO Films. It was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Soderbergh's entire filmography is routinely analyzed and debated by fans, critics, film academics, and other film Directors. His early work–particularly his 1989 film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape–has been noted as foundational to the Independent Cinema movement. After directing his first film, Soderbergh's relative youth and sudden rise to prominence in the film industry had him referred to as a "sensation", a Prodigy, and a poster boy of the genre's generation. In 2002, he was elected first Vice President of the Directors Guild of America.
After his work with The Knick, Soderbergh began working on a variety of personal projects starting with directing an Off-Broadway play titled The Library, starring Chloë Grace Moretz in January 2014. On April 21, 2014, Soderbergh released an alternate cut of Michael Cimino's controversial 1980 Western Heaven's Gate on his website. Credited to his pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard and dubbed "The Butcher's Cut", Soderbergh's version runs 108 minutes. On September 22, 2014, he uploaded a black-and-white silent version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's score of The Social Network. The purpose of it is to study the aspects of staging in filmmaking. It was announced in June 2014 that Soderbergh would be executive producing a series based on his earlier film The Girlfriend Experience for the Starz network, to premiere sometime in 2016. In September 2015, Soderbergh was announced to be directing Mosaic, a series for HBO. Starring Sharon Stone, it is a dual-media project; it is released as both an interactive movie app in November 2017 and as a six-part miniseries airing in January 2018.
In February 2016, Soderbergh officially came out of his retirement to direct a NASCAR heist film, Logan Lucky, starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig, among others. The film was produced entirely by Soderbergh, with no studio involved in anything other than theatrical distribution. The film was released on August 18, 2017 by Bleecker Street and Fingerprint Releasing, his own distribution and production company. Logan Lucky was met with wide-spread critical acclaim, Matt Zoller Seitz writing for Roger Ebert stated: "The odds seem stacked in Logan Lucky's favor the instant you spot 'Directed by Steven Soderbergh' in the opening credits".
As of 2018, his entire feature filmography has grossed over US$1.58 billion worldwide in sales. His entire Ocean's Trilogy was named among the "75 Best Heist Movies of All Time" by Rotten Tomatoes. His film Out of Sight was listed as one of the best movies of the 1990s by Rolling Stone.