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Soderbergh returns to indie roots
Full Frontal among several projects in works
By Steven Rosen
(Denver Post, July 28, 2002)

Director Steven Soderbergh is, if anything, a man of varied and unusual interests.

"It's my dilettantism," he jokes during a recent telephone interview.

He followed up his Oscar-winning direction of "Traffic," a harrowingly naturalistic movie about the drug trade, with a remake of the amusingly escapist Rat Pack caper film "Ocean's Eleven."

"Full Frontal," his latest movie (opening Friday), was influenced by his love for the intellectually challenging "cinema of ideas" of Jean-Luc Godard. It's a low-budget, video-shot, self-aware movie about the nature of movies - starring Julia Roberts as an actress. (She won an Oscar for "Erin Brockovich," another Soderbergh film.)

His next directorial effort, due out around Christmas, reflects his taste for serious-minded science fiction. It's a remake of "Solaris," Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel about stranded astronauts.

At about the same time, a movie he co-produced and George Clooney directed - "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" - will also be released. It's based on the "unauthorized autobiography" of Chuck Barris, creator of "The Gong Show." Barris claims he was a CIA agent.

While engaged in these diverse pursuits, Soderbergh has also developed another keen interest - one with a Colorado connection.

He has become a champion of the late humorist Terry Southern, author of such books as "Candy" and "The Magic Christian" and co-screenwriter of such 1960s films as "Dr. Strangelove," "The Loved One" and "Easy Rider."

To help restore Southern's reputation, Soderbergh is working with Nile Southern, Boulder-based executor of his father's estate. (Terry Southern, who never lived in Colorado, died in 1995.)

They are mulling over cooperation on a number of projects, including getting Warner Bros. to restore 1970's overlooked "End of the Road," which Terry produced and helped adapt from John Barth's darkly comic novel about university life.

"We're just beginning," Soderbergh says, talking from Washington's Dulles Airport while awaiting a flight to L.A. to promote "Full Frontal." "I'm finishing "Solaris' and taking a year off, and I hope to go through everything. We're trying to get Terry Southern's name back out there.

"I think any young person interested in film would have noticed that his name was attached to some pretty fascinating films," the 39-year-old director says. "I became aware of him through "Strangelove,' "Loved One,' "End of the Road' and his books - and the fact he was on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper.'

"For someone who was young and interested in iconoclastic figures, he was a pretty intriguing one," Soderbergh explains. "And endlessly funny. And smart. For someone like me, he was heroic in a way. I felt like I'd like to be that guy."

Soderbergh and Nile Southern have only talked on the phone and via e-mail to date. Elliott Gould, a friend of Terry Southern and an actor in "Ocean's Eleven," helped connect them. Soderbergh already had read a newspaper article by Robert Wilonsky about Nile's efforts on behalf of his father's legacy.

"I brought it up with Elliott, who said, "Oh, I know Nile, and you really should get on that,' " Soderbergh says. Gould also told Nile to get in touch with Soderbergh. He did and found a kindred spirit.

"He had read about my struggle in bringing Terry's work to the fore," Nile says. "He saw the tragic aspects of it and that there must be something more here. I think he was intrigued by it and felt there could be things done."

Unusual effort

As for his latest film, Soderbergh is aware that "Full Frontal" is an unusual effort for a commercial A-list Hollywood director - which he now is. He wasn't always that way, however - his first film was 1989's independently made "sex, lies and videotape," a surprise hit that helped create the indie-film movement of the 1990s.

"Full Frontal" operates on several levels. On one, we watch as a movie-within-a-movie, a romantic melodrama called "Rendezvous," unfurls. On another, we watch as the "offscreen" stars of "Rendezvous" and others slowly prepare for a party in honor of a mysterious, powerful producer named Gus.

As you might imagine from "Full Frontal's" provocative title, sex features in those preparations - especially as it relates to a massage received by a character played by David Duchovny.

Besides Roberts and Duchovny, "Full Frontal" stars Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce, Mary McCormack, Catherine Keener, Nicky Katt and Erika Alexander.

And an actor named Jeff Garlin does an uncanny impersonation of Harvey Weinstein, co-owner of Miramax Films, "Full Frontal's" distributor. "I actually wanted him (Weinstein) to be in it and he declined," Soderbergh says. "But Jeff Garlin, who played him, was really funny."

"Full Frontal" essentially is a parallel-construct movie that keeps calling attention to itself as a movie, like Godard's work or - another Soderbergh influence - Haskell Wexler's 1969 "Medium Cool."

It's also, in a way, a revisit to "sex, lies and videotape.' "I think they are sort of kissing cousins in that they're both character-driven films drenched in a certain amount of sex talk and sex activity," Soderbergh says.

"If I were starting out today, I'd know my chances of getting a film made were increased if it was small and had a certain erotic element in it," he explains. "If I were in that position today, this is the film I'd make. That's very much how I pitched it."

"Full Frontal's" "Rendezvous" passages are visually polished and clear - like a movie. But "Full Frontal's" "Full Frontal" sections - are you confused yet? - feature distorted and grainy video-camera work. " "Rendezvous' exists in a continuum that is constant but not synchronous to "Full Frontal,' " Soderbergh explains. "They're sort of like concentric circles. There's one point in the film where they link but then spin off.

"The idea behind it is that there's always a movie playing somewhere, always a movie being made somewhere. I imagined "Rendezvous' as always being on - always taking place somewhere. Whereas "Full Frontal' exists more in the world we live in.

"I'm fascinated by the idea that that the audience will assume the "Full Frontal' section of the film is more "real' than "Rendezvous' when, in point of fact, they're both fake. I'm very interested in received notions of what is real."

Of course, Soderbergh realizes the film, shot in just 18 days, may be too different - and too weird - to attract a big audience. But he's willing to find out.

"I needed a break from the sort of larger-scale films," he says. "I also was anxious to see if you could take a few ideas, and a certain kind of aesthetic associated with die-hard independent art-house movies, and cross it over a little.

"I mean, the movie cost $2 million. It doesn't have to find a big audience," he says. "But I was curious whether, if you took some ideas and a way of shooting that people don't see very often, would they accept someone like Julia Roberts in a movie that like this?

"I guess we'll know in a matter of weeks."

 


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