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Mainstream Connection: Ex-indie tyro Steven Soderbergh
wins Hollywood laurels
One of the fascinating prospects of the coming Oscar race is the possibility that Steven Soderbergh will be competing against himself on the Best Director ballot. With Erin Brockovich a critical and commercial success last spring, and Traffic closing the year on a wave of advance praise (including the New York Film Critics Circle's award for best picture), Soderbergh could become the first director in 62 years to be nominated for two movies.
"That would be a nice problem to have," Soderbergh said with a laugh during a recent visit to New York. "Believe me, there have been a lot of dark years, so I'm trying to enjoy it."
One man's dark years are another's dream career. Since blasting onto the international film scene with sex, lies, & videotape in 1989, the 37-year-old Louisiana native has worked nonstop, mostly on projects of his own choosing. He has done innovative work while getting the kind of on-the-job training that went out with the studio contract system.
The vitals: 11 years, 10 features and four or five genres, depending on how you categorize them. Soderbergh followed sex, lies with Kafka, a dark, stylized riff on existentialist writer Franz Kafka, then the nostalgic King of the Hill, from A.E. Hotchner's memoir about growing up during the Depression.
In Underneath, his flawed remake of the noir classic Criss Cross, Soderbergh began developing the cross-cutting style that has become his signature. Out of Sight, an Elmore Leonard crime caper starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, and the Julia Roberts vehicle Erin Brockovich brought him into the arena of studio-budgeted movies with major stars.
Now, with Traffic, a richly textured drama that moves with the grace and pull of a good novel, Soderbergh has arrived at a point few of his contemporaries either strive for or reach. He is telling stories of interest to him, in his own cinematic voice, within the studio system.
Those reporters who interviewed Soderbergh in the glow of his sex, lies triumph at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, and heard him gamely reject the role of the great hope of independent film, know that he has reached what for him is the promised land.
"I was trying [at Cannes] to be very clear about the fact that I was raised on studio films with a lot of stars in them, and I didn't have the allergic reaction to them that I was being encouraged to have," Soderbergh says. "I wanted to make different kinds of films, but I wanted to do them with the best resources."
To that end, Soderbergh parlayed his sex, lies notoriety into a deal with Universal Pictures, where his first assignment was to have been a costly sea adventure called The Big Ship. When the project fell through, he placated himself with a series of smaller, independently financed pictures - among them, the Spalding Gray monologue piece Gray's Anatomy and Schizopolis, a nutty, quasi-home movie he would have done well not to let out of the house.
None of these movies was the commercial success he needed to move up. But they gave him invaluable experience, and when Universal subsequently offered him the chance to direct Out of Sight, he was ready, if initially reluctant.
"I read the script and called [Universal production chief] Casey Silver and said, 'It's a really great script, it's going to be a terrific movie, and I'm not going to do it’," Soderbergh recalls. "He said, 'Don't be an idiot. The number of times you're going to get a piece like this that you know how to do, and that you know the head of a studio is going to let you make the way you see fit… those planets are not going to line up very often, and when they do, you have to jump'. He was absolutely right."
Under Soderbergh's direction, Out of Sight received two Oscar nominations and was named best picture of 1998 by the National Society of Film Critics.
Soderbergh followed that with another independent film, the assured revenge drama The Limey, then made his most conventional and commercial film, Erin Brockovich.
"Jersey Films was pitching Erin Brockovich to me when I was doing Out of Sight, and I said that sounds just terrible, and it certainly doesn't sound like something I would want to do," he says. "But coming out of The Limey, it sounded like something that, on a creative level, I needed to do. I wanted to do something linear, something simple. Otherwise, I'd have been repeating myself. It was a very satisfying experience."
With Traffic, Soderbergh has aced his most ambitious challenge, taking on the drug crisis at nearly every point on the arc, from the Mexican cartels to the middle-class teenage addict, with dramatic closeups of the lives of ineffectual, often corrupt Mexican police, high-powered American dealers, and the judge (Michael Douglas) who has just been appointed Washington's drug czar.
Soderbergh, who did the cinematography himself (under the name Peter Andrews), tells the story in three occasionally intersecting stories, each shot in a different style, one almost entirely in Spanish.
"What's weird is that when you cross the border at Tijuana, it's a different world," Soderbergh says. "That's why I wanted the contrasts in story lines to be so extreme. There would be a sort of shock value in seeing people cross from the Mexico esthetic into the San Diego esthetic."
Some of the most fascinating scenes were shot on a live set at the border crossing where Douglas interacts with customs officials searching cars for drugs.
"That was Michael's first day, and we just put a mike on him and threw him in," Soderbergh says. "He's a pretty astute guy, asked good questions, and we got great stuff there. I could do a whole movie just on the border."
Soderbergh says that if Traffic is his greatest achievement, it had to come exactly when it did, not 10 years earlier, as he had once hoped. He needed to make all those other movies - and the mistakes - along the way.
"I was so lucky to have the sex, lies hit. People kept thinking, 'You know, even a broken clock is right twice a day. He'll come back and do it again'. That bought me a lot of opportunities, and I've taken advantage of them."
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