NEW YORK • Where would heist movies be without the Big Score - that pay-off so irresistible, it can lure the most jaded desperado out of hiding?
It is the kind of temptation that propels many of Steven Soderbergh's movies and motivates him as a film-maker too. His latest feature, Logan Lucky, is once again about a group of larcenous but lovable characters: This time, a laid-off construction worker (Channing Tatum) who recruits his brother (Adam Driver) and sister (Riley Keough) as well as a volatile prison convict (Daniel Craig) to pull off the Nascar race-track robbery of a lifetime.
Logan Lucky, which opens in the United States next Friday and in Singapore on Aug 31, puts a down- home spin on the elaborate capers in Soderbergh's glitzier Ocean's trilogy (2001-2007). It is also the first theatrical release he has directed in four years, following what appeared to be several very unambiguous pronouncements that he was giving up film-making altogether.
At various times in his career, he has been an art-house auteur, a must-have director of the moment, a renegade and a recluse. But he has found that what he wants to do is make movies that can be seen by as many people as possible.
"I've been shooting my mouth off for a long time about aspects of the movie business I'm frustrated with," he says. "I make declarative statements a lot that I then have to walk back. But I think the country's used to that."
It is not that Soderbergh went into creative exile. He has continued to work on projects such as The Knick, the ambitious Cinemax period drama that has been cancelled.
Logan Lucky is not his splashy re-emergence from any retirement. It is just the kind of story he likes to tell, perhaps because he sees the movie-making process as its own perfect crime.
He says: "You have a crazy idea. Odds are, it's not going to work out or, at least, not going to go the way you think. You put a team together, things go wrong, you come out the other end and, hopefully, you survive."
Sitting in his TriBeCa office one morning late last month, the wiry Soderbergh, 54, was an inconspicuous man in an inconspicuous room.
When he talks about his movies, in his enthusiastic, quietly intense way, it is a therapy during which he makes on-the-fly realisations he missed during the film-making process. "On set, people are intuiting what I'm doing by following me and seeing where I stop," he says. "Sometimes, until somebody asks me, I don't even know how it works."
And though he can be self-deprecating, Soderbergh, an Academy Award winner for his criss-crossing drug-trade narrative Traffic (2000), is deadly serious when he says he is never going back to making the films he used to.
"I've really lost my interest as a director - not as a producer or viewer - in anything that smells important," he said. "It just doesn't appeal to me at all anymore. I left that in the jungle somewhere."
After a career of independent breakthroughs (Sex, Lies, And Videotape, 1989) and mainstream hits (Erin Brockovich, 2000), Soderbergh said he was changed for the worse by Che, his biographical film about Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, which was released in two parts in 2008.
That film was a scramble to finance - European investors ended up footing its estimated US$58-million budget - and a slog to shoot. Soderbergh spent about 21/2 months on it and still found himself wishing he had more time. A critical success but a commercial dud, Che soured Soderbergh on prestige films. He says: "Che beat that out of me."
He spent a few years directing crowd-pleasers such as Magic Mike (2012). Then, amid some apocalyptic self-assessments - "In terms of my career, I can see the end of it," he told The Guardian in 2009 - he veered into stage plays such as The Library and TV projects such as The Knick (2014-2015).
Soderbergh says he was lured back to theatrical features in 2014, when he received the screenplay for Logan Lucky, credited to Rebecca Blunt. Though he had intended only to produce the film and find another director, he was drawn to what he felt was the script's empathy for working-class characters who get to be more than caricatures.
He says: "They surprise you with their thought process and their worldview. The trick is to use stereotypes to set the table and then hopefully surprise people."
Logan Lucky allowed him to retain complete creative control and sidestep the Hollywood studios: In a plan devised by his firm Fingerprint Releasing and independent distributor Bleecker Street, the movie will open in at least 2,500 theatres, he says.
Soderbergh, who sometimes works pseudonymously as his own editor and director of photography, is a one-man band and a trickster. The Hollywood Reporter has questioned whether Blunt, the Logan Lucky screenwriter, exists and suggested that the film was in fact written by Soderbergh himself or by TV host Jules Asner, his wife, or by comedian John Henson.
On Twitter, Soderbergh posted: "Rebecca Blunt is not a pseudonym for a male writer. She is a woman and she wrote Logan Lucky entirely by herself."
Keough, who also appeared in Magic Mike, says Soderbergh is "always trying to do things that are a little risky".
Nearly every other director she has worked with, she says, has asked her what it is like to work with Soderbergh.
"I get asked about Soderbergh more than I get asked about my grandfather, honestly," adds Keough, who is a granddaughter of pop legend Elvis Presley.
In the films and TV shows he collaborates on now - whether Mosaic, an interactive movie he has directed for HBO, or Ocean's Eight, an all-star female-led heist movie starring Sandra Bullock and Rihanna that he is producing for director Gary Ross - Soderbergh says his only goal is to tell stories that are accessible.
"It's really easy to make a movie that five people understand," he says. "It's really hard to make something that a lot of people understand, and yet is not obvious, still has subtlety and ambiguity, and leaves you with something to do as a viewer."
• Logan Lucky opens in Singapore on Aug 31.