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Steven Soderbergh’s “Presence” Reinvents the Ghost Story

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 19: Steven Soderbergh at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Presence” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 19, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

Long after sunset on January 19 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah, Sundance Film Festival director Eugene Hernandez walks up to the podium to introduce a truly singular film. “It’s super exciting for us, especially in a year where we’re celebrating our 40th edition of Sundance, to be able to invite a filmmaker who has such a great relationship and history with this Festival.” 

That filmmaker is Steven Soderbergh, who made his feature directorial debut at the Sundance Film Festival with sex, lies, and videotape back in 1989. Soderbergh has gone on to direct critically acclaimed projects and massive blockbusters alike, but on this night he’s presenting something a little smaller. Actually, a lot smaller. 

Screening in the Festival’s Premieres section, Presence takes place in one location: a charming old house recently taken off the market. A family of four moves in, and as the film unfolds, we begin to see how unstable they are.

But we’re not the only ones who are watching. 

Therein lies the extraordinary element of this story: It’s filmed entirely from the perspective of an unseen otherworldly presence that lives in the house. We see only what the ghost sees. And the ghost sees something sinister coming for this already dysfunctional family. 

“I think when we read the script, we knew that the way we were gonna shoot this was gonna be very, very different, and we didn’t know what that was gonna be like, because no one’s ever shot a movie like this before,” says Chris Sullivan, who plays the father in the family, at the film’s post-premiere Q&A. “And so the learning curve was very steep when we got to set to figure out how we were supposed to interact as actors with the presence, played by Steven Soderbergh.”

You read that correctly — Steven Soderbergh is the one behind the camera, providing us with the film’s point of view. 

“You get into this film and then you realize that it’s Steven running up and down the stairs in martial arts slippers, trying not to make any noise,” says Sullivan amid audience laughter. “It’s an incredible dance and feat of camera operation and direction all at once.”

(L–R): Corey Bayes, Julia Fox, West Mulholland, Callina Liang, Eddy Maday, Lucy Liu, Chris Sullivan, Steven Soderbergh

The radical decision to confine the film’s perspective to that of the ghost was an unexpected one, even for Soderbergh himself. “I had real questions about the choice that was at the center of this because I’ve been very vocal about the fact that [virtual reality] — one-person POV VR — doesn’t work, never gonna work as a narrative, nobody wants this thing on their head,” says Soderbergh. “They wanna see a reverse angle of the protagonist with an emotion on their face, experiencing the thing. I’ve been beating this drum hard for a long time. Never gonna work!

“And now I’m like, ‘Or…’” he admits.

Luckily, that decision went over well with the film’s screenwriter, David Koepp. “He had an idea: ‘What if I defy everything I’ve ever said and do this thing only from the ghost’s point of view?’ and wrote a few pages and said, ‘Here, it might look like that.’ And I was in right away,” says Koepp. “I love confinement. I love when a story takes place in one place or a short period of time, or you set up arbitrary rules for yourself that confine you. In that, I feel like you can actually be a lot more creative than having the whole world as your option.”

Soderbergh’s gamble pays off. The result is a remarkable film possessing an utterly unique feeling of suspense that builds to a jaw-dropping finale. 

Lucy Liu, who plays the mother in the family, acknowledges Soderbergh’s and Koepp’s ingenuity best. “You’ve created a new canvas for everyone to explore, and you always do that,” she says. “Both of you are not afraid of failing, and I’m happy to fail and succeed with you.”

To see more of the magic of the 2024 Festival, click here.