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Soderbergh finds success is no sellout
Directors who have amassed a body of work are prone to categorization. Themes recur; a style becomes apparent. So does a sense of humor, or an emotional aesthetic, or a favored genre.
Not so with Steven Soderbergh. Since his acclaimed debut in 1989 with sex, lies and videotape - a character drama about deception, infidelity and sexual politics - Soderbergh has never made the same movie twice. Favoring creativity and growth over marketability, Soderbergh has listened only to his own muse - and still managed to turn himself into a Hollywood player.
"There are some directors who only make a certain kind of film. That's what they're good at, and that's great," says Soderbergh, 36. "But I jump around, because otherwise I get bored. When I come out of a movie, I want to have an experience very different from what I just had. I'm just sort of… squirrelly."
sex, lies and videotape, which grossed more than $60 million on a $1.2 million investment, singlehandedly reinvented independent cinema and made it commercially viable with a hip, sexy cachet to boot. It also put Soderbergh much in demand: Hollywood came courting aggressively, but the director did not listen.
Instead, off he went to the former Czechoslovakia to make Kafka (1991), a moody murder-mystery with liberal doses of surrealism, shot in black and white. His third film, King of the Hill (1993), was another about-face, a thematically dark riff on Home Alone shot in warm, golden hues, about a 12-year-old left to fend for himself in Depression-era St. Louis.
And so it has gone. Soderbergh's latest film, The Limey, which opens Friday, initially seems like the third installment in a crime trilogy that began with The Underneath (1995) and continued with Out of Sight (1998).
Except that The Limey, a steely piece of hard-boiled fiction about an ex-con (Terence Stamp) looking for revenge on the man (Peter Fonda) who killed his daughter, has little in common with those two - aside from its jarring, nonlinear plot.
"This trilogy was purely an accident," Soderbergh says. "Each of them is very different, with different feels and intent. One of the reasons I wanted to make The Limey is that there were certain ideas that occurred to me during Out of Sight that I couldn't really use in that film, because they weren't appropriate. I wanted to explode the narrative even further, really fragment it; have the audience understand context through repetition. The Limey was the perfect movie for that. I got to monkey around, basically."
Jam-packed with jump cuts, flashbacks and flash-forwards, dialogue that overlaps from scene to scene and recurring images that are never fully explained, The Limey looks like the work of an experimental filmmaker.
"Some people have taken us to task by saying that the story is too small or too simple," Soderbergh says of the film. "They're right, except that if the story were any less simple than it is, I wouldn't have been able to do all this stuff. That's part of the reason why people are even able to sit through it, because the spine and the premise of the movie are so straight, I can digress and fragment and tear it apart."
Soderbergh confesses that his first cut of The Limey was nearly incomprehensible. The finished version is much more accessible, but still startingly different from your usual revenge flick. More demanding, too.
"I respect my audience, and I assume they come to the theater with a certain level of intelligence, but I don't pander to them," he says. "I feel like, 'Look, I'm going to take you somewhere, you can go or not go, but here is where we're going'. I like that attitude when I see movies. We're doing our thing.
"When we tested Out of Sight, it didn't score very well," he says. "People wrote down, 'I hate stories that are told this way'. There are people that just can't stand a narrative that doesn't go A-B-C-D.
"Do I think the average moviegoer today is a little less discerning than they were 30 years ago? Yeah, maybe. Back in the late '60s and early '70s in the U.S., people seemed more willing to go to a movie to have an unexpected experience. Today, people tend to want to know what they're going to experience before they go, and they get upset if they don't get what they wanted."
But although Soderbergh knows commercial success is important to the longevity of any career in Hollywood, he doesn't think it is necessary to dumb down a film to achieve it. He's particularly critical of the ways in which so many independent movies today are often little more than carbon copies of mainstream Hollywood films.
"I think it's more of a desire on the part of the filmmaker to cater to the audience, thinking ‘they'll poke through if I make a movie that rubs itself up against the audience’," he says. "Also, I think that some of these young filmmakers are not as steeped in cinema as they should be. They go back 10 years, and they stop. Anybody who is directing a movie who hasn't seen a Godard film ought to be stopped. It's unimaginable that you would go make a film without having seen Alphaville or any of the great Fellini films. You need to see stuff like that to understand what's possible."
Still, there is a balance between being creative and making movies no one wants to see. It was in 1997 when Soderbergh realized that his last two films - Gray's Anatomy, a filmed presentation of a monologue by Spalding Gray, and Schizopolis, an impenetrable experimental film made for $250,000 - would go largely unseen. He saw the danger of becoming an asterisk in film history books.
"There came a point where nobody would think of me for a high-profile studio movie with stars in it, because they just thought, 'Oh, he'll just turn it into one of those things’," Soderbergh says. Then Casey Silver, former head of Universal Pictures, called Soderbergh about Out of Sight. "He said, 'Look, there's an open assignment here, and I really think this is up your alley'. And he was right. I really liked the material. I felt like I knew what to do with it, and I realized I needed to stop myself from limiting the opportunities I have.
"If I only go off and make these little idiosyncratic movies, then I'm going to be marginalized for the rest of my career, and when the time comes that I want to do something more expansive - and expensive - people are going to say, 'Well, you've never done that'. So I decided that I needed to do [Out of Sight]."
Working with a big studio, a $50 million budget and high-profile stars like George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez was, Soderbergh admits, an intimidating experience. But not enough to make him suppress his instincts. Out of Sight was, on the surface, a straightforward romance disguised as a crime caper. But it also was clearly a Soderbergh film, with a tricky, overlapping structure, bone-dry humor and heavier characterization than plot.
"That was probably the only time that I felt a self-imposed pressure while I was making a film," he says. "I was very aware of the fact that if I blew it, it would close off a lot of opportunities. So I knew it had to be good. At the same time, I had the attitude of, 'Well, this is my big shot, and I'm just going to do what I do. And if I go down, I'm going to go down in flames, but at least I'll be able to sleep at night’.”
Released in the middle of the summer season, Out of Sight failed to make back its money. But it was greatly admired as the best film Soderbergh had ever made. Suddenly, he was the center of attention again.
"Out of Sight turned out to be great fun to make, and I'm really happy with it," he says. "Regardless of its financial performance, people considered it to be a successful film creatively, and that's what was most important. It completely opened up another side of the business to me that nobody was considering me for."
Soderbergh has already completed his next film, another big-budget effort due next summer: Erin Brockovich, a fact-based drama starring Julia Roberts as a working-class woman who gets involved in a suit involving the environmental poisoning of a small town. Though it's not a traditional courtroom drama, Soderbergh does admit the movie is much more straightforward than anything he has done before.
"It is aggressively linear," he says, chuckling. "It's a very simple story, and it was exactly what I wanted to do after The Limey and Out of Sight, because it required a completely different set of disciplines. There is nothing in it that a film student will enjoy. That is not what the film demands. It still feels like a movie I made, but it's a very different animal than the other stuff. Both Runaway Bride and Notting Hill opened while we were shooting, and I told Julia, 'I hope you don't think that our movie is going to make that kind of money, because you're in the art-house ghetto now’."
Soderbergh can joke about the fact that his first film is still his only profitable one, because he believes that good movies - regardless of their box-office take - end up affecting Hollywood in unexpected ways.
"Even though Out of Sight didn't make its money back, there were people within the industry who really loved that movie and said, 'Let's do something like that'. So anything that pokes through and resonates a little bit makes it possible for another one. There have been some really good movies this year. Election has been the movie of the year for me so far - I just thought it was fantastic. I loved The Blair Witch Project, too. It was a great premise, really well realized. Go was terrific, even though it went over the heads of the audience it was sold to. And I can't wait to see Three Kings.
"You see these movies and you think, 'OK, there's some interesting stuff going on here’. Maybe something is shifting a little bit. If these movies can come across and do OK, it opens the door for another movie like that."
And for Soderbergh, that would be just fine.
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