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Mainstream splash: After years of anonymity, sex, lies
director is making waves in Hollywood
Steven Soderbergh has a new middle name.
For almost a decade, the independent film director - whose new movie The Limey debuts Friday - was mostly known for his 1989 film sex, lies, and videotape.
"Lower case all the time and two commas," he said, giving instructions on the proper style for that film's unusual title during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.
And although Soderbergh later directed many small films that ranged from well-regarded (King of the Hill, Kafka) to problematic (The Underneath, Schizopolis), he never matched the commercial or critical success of his Cannes Film Festival prize-winning debut.
"I coasted on that for a long time," he said of sex, lies, and videotape. "It brought me a lot of opportunity."
But it was a dual-edged sword as well.
"I was absolutely sure that if I wasn't careful, I was going to marginalize myself into the art-house ghetto for the rest of my career, which I didn't want to do," said Soderbergh, 36. Plus, he said, he "was tired of just scraping by."
"I had spent two years making one movie for $250,000 and another for $350,000, and having to write-for-hire to survive. It's hard making movies like that, so I was ready do a movie where I had a lot of resources."
So he made the conscious decision to move into the mainstream with the $40 million 1998 film Out of Sight with heartthrob George Clooney, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.
"I now have a new middle name," Soderbergh said about Out of Sight - "which is nice."
Even though it just broke even commercially, Out of Sight was Soderbergh's highest-grossing movie ever. It was a critical success and named to numerous top 10 lists. More importantly, it made Soderbergh a household name in the hallways of film studios that are his potential employers.
"It was an opportunity to open up that half of the film business that I think viewed me askance," said the Louisiana-born director, wearing his traditional black shirt, slacks and glasses. "Now if I have something that I think would be best served by employing a movie star and by using the resources of a studio, it's no longer really a problem."
He did just that with the upcoming Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich, a fact-based tale of a law clerk who convinces her employers to take on a massive toxic-waste lawsuit. But his first impulse, post-Out of Sight, was to return to his independent roots with The Limey.
The $9 million film is about a British ex-con, played by Terence Stamp, who comes to Los Angeles to avenge the suspicious death of the daughter who grew up while he was in prison. It is a sequel of sorts, using footage in flashback scenes from Stamp's 1967 film Poor Cow, in which he also played a thief with a daughter.
The Limey also stars 1960s icon Peter Fonda. It is basically a revenge film. And while not strictly noir, it has a pulp sensibility.
"I didn't want it have a sheen or gloss to it," Soderbergh said of the grainy look he gave the film. "I wanted you to feel that we caught things rather than staged them."
Soderbergh his said his approach to any film is "to work outward."
"I look at the material and then think, 'What's the best way to do this?' As opposed to having a style I look to impose on a piece of material. (The Limey) was a chance to explore some narrative experiments that occurred to me when I made Out of Sight but that weren't appropriate for that movie." For instance, Soderbergh would shoot a single scene or line of dialogue from various perspectives and then edit them together into a linear patchwork.
"This was a perfect vehicle for that. Crime films are so straightforward that it's easier to digress and abstract things because the audience knows what they're watching," he said.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs (Dark City, Kafka) rewrote a slightly different version of his already existing screenplay with Stamp in mind to make use of the Poor Cow footage.
"I called Terence, who I had never met," said Soderbergh. "And I said, 'Here's the basic plot. I want to use this old footage. And are you, in the abstract, interested?' Basically, I had to do his deal before the script was even done. And he said, 'Great, I'm in'."
Stamp's career began in the 1960s with Billy Budd and The Collector, but his output has been eccentric: Superman, Legal Eagles, Wall Street and Monster Island are among his films. His career was reborn with Priscilla: Queen of the Desert in 1994 and got a bona fide second wind more recently with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and Bowfinger.
But Stamp's tough exterior, in The Limey, is something of a facade, Soderbergh said.
"When I first met him, I didn't know what to expect," Soderbergh said. "But he's very affable and fun to hang out with. He's a sweet guy."
Whatever the future holds for Soderbergh, his lasting contribution will be his first. The landmark sex, lies, and videotape was the first volley in the battle between independent filmmakers and a blockbuster studio system and proved that a small film could make money.
"That's why it's influential," Soderbergh said. "If it had made $1 million instead of $25 million, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
But that success has affected, for better or worse, the entire film industry.
And, Soderbergh said, while it helped bring "an off-center sensibility to the mainstream… the downside is you get a lot of people making independent films that are like small versions of studio movies, or that are as every bit as calculating as studio movies are."
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