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Steven Soderbergh - Schizopolis
By Stan Schwartz
(Rough Cut, March, 1996)

Steven Soderbergh's 1989 sex, lies and videotape made him, in a sense, the father of the postmodern independent film at the ripe old age of 29. Now with two films opening concurrently (Gray's Anatomy and Schizopolis) that fill the bill, Rough Cut's Stan Schwartz caught up with the former "boy wonder" in New York.

Does it feel at all odd that none of your films after sex, lies and videotape, a first film no less, achieved quite the same status as that one did?
No. It was such a fluke. Everything that happened was just a product of timing. It just seemed like people were ready to see that movie at that time, and if it were made a year earlier or a year later, it would not have done what it did. And we were very fortunate that everything went our way. Even at Cannes. Just before the festival started, Coppola, who was supposed to be the head of the jury, dropped out and Wim Wenders became the head of the jury. And he responded to the movie so strongly that he pushed it through. Who could have foreseen that? We weren't even supposed to get into the festival. Another American film backed out and the competition stole us from Director's Fortnight where we had already gotten in. So when stuff like that happens, you just go, this is, you know, a fluke of timing.

You are generally credited with putting Sundance on the map with sex, lies and videotape. But one has heard arguments recently that perhaps Sundance has now gone too far in the other direction. And you yourself presented Schizopolis at Slamdance. Are we to take that as any kind of statement on your part?
No. I still feel Sundance is, for the most part, doing what it set out to do, which is basically getting exposure for independent films. It just turned out that I had a relationship with Slamdance because the picture I produced last year - which just opened, The Daytrippers - was rejected at Sundance. And when [writer/director] Greg Mottola called me and asked me what I thought we should do, I told him I thought we should go to Slamdance, 'cause we got to get somebody to see this thing or we're dead. So we submitted it to Slamdance, and they liked it and they showed it and it got some press. So this year, one of the programmers at Slamdance saw Schizopolis at the Hamptons [Film Festival] and said, "I'd really like you to bring this to Slamdance and do a single screening because I think it typifies what we're about and I just think it would be a good thing to do." So it was as simple as that: They asked and I said yes. The quote-unquote independent film community has gotten so large that I think Slamdance was not only inevitable, but necessary. It really has no practical impact on Sundance at all, and for Sundance to sit around making cracks about Slamdance is really like shooting a mosquito with a howitzer. Slamdance is just dealing with overflow.

What links all your films together?
A lot of the same thematic ideas are being addressed and explored, but in a different format. They're all about that battle I was talking about between internal and external. And they all have protagonists who are at odds with their surroundings and are mystified by the behavior of others. So on one hand, you could say Schizopolis was a continuation of sorts of sex, lies and videotape, but on the other hand, I'm just not the same person anymore.

How are you different?
I'm less serious, which I always think is a good thing. And I've become more interested in the idea of using abstract and surreal ideas to put across reality. I've gotten more rigorous about using my influences to take me somewhere else, those interests being Dadaism, or Richard Lester, or Buñuel, or Monty Python or whatever.

Nabokov…?
Oh hell, yeah! Pale Fire. Yeah, he's great. There's a huge deconstructive element in his work. The acknowledgment that you're reading a book. And there's a lot of that in Schizopolis. The awareness that you're watching a movie, and the film's awareness that you're aware that you're watching a movie.

How did Gray's Anatomy come to be made?
Spalding had been interested in doing a film version of it for a while, and I guess it almost got set up under different circumstances and then didn't. So I got a call later in 1995 asking me if I'd be interested, and I said, “Sure but not if you're looking for something similar to the other two films” [Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box]. If I can be allowed to eliminate the live audience and turn it into more of a movie, then that's interesting. And he said sure. The fact that I was editing Schizopolis at the time made me think for a couple of hours, but then I decided that I'd really regret it if I didn't make the film. I'm such a big fan of Spalding's that I couldn't walk away. And once we started shooting I was really glad I was doing it. And even though we were sort of viewing it as that "second movie we're trying to do," it's turned out to be the real audience pleaser of the two films. Everyone seems to like it.

It's interesting you specifically chose not to have a live audience.
Yes, we needed to do something to take the onus off the talking-head movie. I think it helps a little just being able to mix it up a little bit and also to add those other people in. You don't have that sense of dread that you're going to be seeing the same thing for the whole film.

The movie proceeds at quite a nice clip…
Well, I worked hard to cut the text down to what I thought was the essential stuff - basically, the eye problem. I got rid of a lot of the digressions that are admittedly part of Spalding's charm, but in this case I thought we really had to stick to the main point. It was funny - I saw one of the last public performances of Gray's Anatomy and then shortly thereafter, I presented Spalding with my edited version. He said, "Boy, I wish I had this six months ago because I’d be doing this version." It was a pretty lean, mean version of the monologue.

How do you conceptually approach a film that is just a monologue?
Basically, once I had a Xerox copy of the published text, I went through and marked what I thought were natural break points in terms of rhythms and ideas. So I broke it down into sections and then determined that there should be a home base, which would be the apartment set that we would start with and end with. That would be the place we would return to, although in different guises. It might be day, it might be night, or we'd do that thing with the curtains. But visually, the piece needed a home base. And then it was just deciding where to go from there. What kind of offshoots I could get away with. So that took a while. And I worked with the cinematographer and the production designer to come up with visual ideas that would complement [Spalding] but not overwhelm him. We tried everything. Sometimes you see him, sometimes you don't. Sometimes he's moving, sometimes he's not. Anything we could think of. Spinning him, spinning the camera. Whatever seemed to work.

That anarchic quality is pushed to even further extremes in Schizopolis - granted, it was made first. How did that film come about?
That came about 'cause I was just getting bored, really, with what I was doing. While I was making The Underneath, I found that I wasn't really enjoying directing anymore. And I felt endangered of stagnating, and I couldn't figure out why that was happening. So I decided I just had to start over. I had to go back to re-energize myself, re-familiarize myself with why I got into this profession. If I can't sit on the set of a movie and want to be there, then I've got to either find something else to do or find another way to work.

What excited you about Schizopolis?
Just the ideological freedom. If you make a film for that small amount of money [$250,000], you can figuratively do anything. And I wanted to play with the language - literally. I wanted to play with cinematic language. You know there's nothing in there that hasn't been tried before in everything, from a Goddard film to Kentucky Fried Movie. Its influences are that wide-ranging. Schizopolis was an effort to get back to the kinds of films I made when I made short films, which were much funnier, more energetic and much more playful than any of the features I've made.

As the lead actor, how did you keep a directorial ear and eye out on your own performance?
It's hard to say because I didn't really think about it. When you make a movie with five people, all of whom you know well and all of whom you've worked with before, and you're also lighting and setting up the camera yourself, the line between performance and non-performance kind of dissolves. So I actually have no real conscious memory of acting, of performing in the movie. I just remember that day we were at that location and we shot that sequence. And when I was watching dailies, I'd see myself doing these things and I'd say, "Wow, what is that? Where did that come from?"

Do you enjoy acting?
It was fine, but it certainly isn't something I'd do. I did it here because we shot off and on for 10 months and I needed someone who was available all the time for free. Up until a few weeks before shooting, I was going to use Eddie Jemison, who ended up playing my colleague at work, Nameless Numberhead Man, but he now lives in Chicago and he just couldn't make the commitment.

Are you happy with the result?
Yes. I mean, I was talking this morning with someone who asked me, "Do you think Schizopolis works?" And I said it's not a movie - which I view like that. Because it's just intended to be a lark, a provocation, a comedic piece of agit prop. Whether it works as a piece in and of itself is only partially relevant to me. Its energy is what was important to me. I like seeing a movie that could just completely derail at any moment. You just think, "Well, what the hell are the next five minutes going to be like?" It was that sensation I wanted to get across.

There seems to be a fairly personal battle going on at the core of Schizopolis.
Yes, one that has to do with internal vs. external. I think this is always an issue for someone who creates. There is a world that you'd like to be in and experience that rarely matches the world which exists, and so you find this conflict. You have to make a decision: Do I accept the existing world as an objective reality and adapt myself to it and learn to be content with it? Or do I continue to try and get the external world to adapt to my interior version of it? It seems the latter is the less healthy of the two. You're better off learning how to adapt to the world as it exists instead of doing what I do, which is every five years, sloughing off everything I've acquired and starting over again. Actually, I think that's a great thing to do in your art, but a bad thing to do in your life. But I do it kind of a lot! I get rid of everything and just start over. Like I'm not going to dress like that anymore, throw out all the clothes…

Re-invent yourself…
Exactly.

Which leads me to the subject of the self-help industry, which plays an important part in your film. Have you had much personal experience with all of that?
The self-help guru culture we have here was something I'd been thinking about for a couple of years. When you see some of these books at the top of the best sellers' list for half a year, you think, "What the hell is in this?" So I'd pick them up and read them, and most of them struck me as sophistry along the lines of eventualism. Massive tomes designed to absolve you. And of course the whole cult of personality that goes along with some of these guru figures. There's a great Hubert Humphrey quote where he says that the right to be heard does not extend to the right to be taken seriously. And I think we've forgotten that in this culture. Anybody who stands up and speaks is ideologically legitimate. If they have found a way to get a mouthpiece, then they are legitimate. And that's just not true. We have to be more rigorous than that, or else we're just going to have a lot of noise, which is kind of what we have. When every idea is given identical weight, then this is a recipe for disaster.

Any preference for making a $250,000 picture over a bigger film, or vice versa?
They both have their charms. I don't think I'd like to do either of them all the time. I think I'm going to end up going back and forth. I like that diversity.

Any final thoughts on where American culture is at as we approach the millennium?
I think it's a very difficult time. There are so many forces pushing us one way and then another. And so many contradictions and so much confusion. And [with Schizopolis,] I guess I wanted to take a snapshot of that for the hell of it. Maybe just for my own edification, but maybe for others' as well. To serve as sort of a time capsule.

 


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