'Why would I do that?': How Steven Soderbergh used an iPhone to film Unsane

Just in passing, Steven Soderbergh mentions that his new film Unsane has the same budget – $US1.2 million ($1.54 million) – as his 1989 debut Sex, Lies and Videotape.

He was 25 when he made that film, a low-budget affair that won the Palme D'Or in Cannes, established American independent film as a distinct new force in world cinema and made the young director something close to a household name, at least in households that went to the cinema.

Director Steven Soderbergh used an iPhone to film Claire Foy in Unsane.

All of which goes to demonstrate that, no matter how many bad films he has made – along with good ones – over the ensuing three decades, it's always worth taking notice when Soderbergh tries something new.

Unsane is a thriller about a very bright banker who finds herself incarcerated in a mental hospital, with no prospect of release and unable to make anyone listen to her protestations of sanity.

Steven Soderburgh

It is a film unashamedly grounded in the horror genre – and more specifically in a sub-genre of asylum horror that mirrored the anti-psychiatry movement of the '70s. The sizzling-hot-right-now Claire Foy plays Sawyer, the woman who finds herself locked up, with all the gusto demanded by full-blown Grand Guignol.

What makes it cost the same as a low-budget indie of 30 years ago, however, is that it was shot on an iPhone.

What you see in Unsane isn't exactly the same thing you would get if you ran down a hospital corridor with your phone camera clicked on to "movie".

The phone is hooked up to the R1Pro from Shoulderpod, a rudimentary camera rig. The phone and lens together weigh very little, which meant that any bangs on set, such as a scene in which Foy slammed down a phone, would make the rig wobble and the shot useless; anything vigorous had to be redone with a digital movie camera they had waiting just in case. The colour registered by the phone tends to be muddy; Soderbergh has clearly reworked it heavily in post-production.

"But the positive aspects of it for me far outweighed the things you can't do," says Soderbergh. "It was as fluid an experience creatively – as close to having the camera being a pen – as I can imagine. I was really happy during the shoot and was already doing the math in my head: what are the implications for me of going back to a situation where I don't feel this free? Like, why would I do that?"

Not that he's saying that he could do everything on a phone from now on, but he is looking for more projects that would suit it: his proposed film on the Panama Papers, which would be a much bigger production with a budget to match, may nevertheless be a contender.

As a filmmaker, Soderbergh has been visibly restless for years. In 2011 he said he was going to clear his slate of its four planned projects over the following two years and take up painting full-time. In 2013, he duly declared that Side Effects, a psychological drama with Rooney Mara that also delved into matters of madness and medicine, would be his last film for the cinema: he would paint and possibly make some television.

As things turned out, he concentrated on painting for all of two months. "I didn't get very far because The Knick came about," he admits.

An underrated series about a New York hospital pioneering new surgery techniques at the end of the 19th century, The Knick wound together half a dozen high-concept storylines involving a drug-addicted surgeon, a nun who does abortions and an interracial love affair.

Last year, he returned to feature films with the heist thriller Logan Lucky. That vaunted painting career just isn't going to happen.

"Doing Logan was fun and doing Unsane was fun," he says. "Films really are different animals. You are making the same decisions" – about story, characters, lighting, editing and about what matters to you, as a filmmaker and a person in the world – "but they make different demands on you in terms of those decisions."

An HBO thriller series, Mosaic, is already completed; two more films are in the works. So, a little further down the track, is another six-part television series. That cleared slate has filled up again.

And so he finds himself straddling the competing platforms – cinema and streaming networks – as they battle for supremacy and the moral high ground.

"Selfishly, it's a good time to be someone who makes things," he says. "It feels like the Wild West now, although history would indicate that's not going to last, because the Wild West never does."

He believes Netflix will eventually have to accommodate filmmakers who want to see their films in cinemas, because cinema isn't going to roll over and die. "It's still a viable business. It's a strange business and the economics sometimes don't make any sense, but it's not going away."

And neither, as things have turned out, is Soderbergh.

Unsane is released on April 25.

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