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The director who won't stand still
Steven Soderbergh questions moviemaking styles in Full Frontal and gets ready to shift gears
By JOHN CLARK
(NY Daily News, July 21, 2002)

Director Steven Soderbergh is saying goodbye to all that. "That" is Los Angeles, his home for the last five years, which he has relinquished in favor of New York and which is the subject of his new film, "Full Frontal."

"It's my limited impression of it, a snapshot," Soderbergh says, seated in his vast loft production office in SoHo. "I guess if I spend four or five years in some place, that should be made use of somehow. Not to document it and just walk away seemed kind of pointless."

Soderbergh, who picked up a Best Director Oscar last year for his sprawling, dazzling drug saga, "Traffic," did more than just document his impressions of L.A. He plays with the movie medium itself, to breathtaking, bewildering, even irritating effect.

"It's an odd film," he says of "Full Frontal." "I don't know what will happen to it. I don't really care. You're either going to dig this and have fun, or you're going to hate it."

To dig "Full Frontal," which opens Aug. 2, the viewer has to come to grips with its different layers. It starts with what soon turns out to be a film a slick Hollywood romance called "Rendezvous" within the film. This centers on two glossy characters: handsome, insecure TV actor Nicholas (played by an actor named Calvin) and the lovely, guarded magazine writer who is profiling him, Catherine (played by an actress called Francesca). Nicholas/Calvin is played by Blair Underwood, Catherine/Francesca by Julia Roberts.

Between snippets of this ersatz romance, "Full Frontal" documents the messy lives of the people associated sometimes remotely with the making of it: Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a milquetoast magazine writer who co-wrote "Rendezvous"; his hostile wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), a human- resources manager who abuses her company's employees by making them perform like circus animals; Lee's sad-sack sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), a masseuse who has a blind date at a Holiday Inn in Tucson; an unnamed actor (Nicky Katt) who's playing Hitler in a community theater and talks endlessly about his "process," and Gus (David Duchovny), the elusive producer of "Rendezvous," whose 40th-birthday party is the focal point of the film. Hovering on the periphery are Calvin, who's looking for sex, and Francesca, who's looking for love.

If this sounds confusing, it is, but Soderbergh has helped clarify matters by shooting the different strands in contrasting styles. "Rendezvous" was shot on film stock, with conventional staging, slick production values and well-worn movie dialogue. "Full Frontal," the film that envelops it, was shot on digital video and employs naturalistic dialogue, jump cuts, long master shots, voice-overs and intertitles. The lifelike artlessness of this approach underlines the artful phoniness of Hollywood fare typified by "Rendezvous." At the same time, of course, "Full Frontal" is not really a documentary about life in L.A. but a movie posing as one. We suspend our disbelief, only to be told at the end that that's exactly what we're doing.

"The idea was to investigate received notions of esthetics, that we imbue certain kinds of esthetics with more veracity than with other kinds of esthetics, when in point of fact they're both fake," Soderbergh says. "Why does the 'Full Frontal' portion of the movie seem more real than the 'Rendezvous' part of the movie when they're both a construct?"

Even if you don't care about why, say, the handheld camera antics of "ER" and "NYPD Blue" seem more "real" than the stagy theatrics of hospital and cop shows of the past, it is interesting that Soderbergh is deliberately undermining the techniques that helped win him an Oscar. Most directors would have embraced what works for them, not taken it apart.

"I certainly don't know where else to go with that approach, the sort of run and gun, other than to say that this isn't any more legitimate than any other esthetic," he says. This sort of analytical thinking has been both a blessing and a curse for Soderbergh. His films are invariably smart, but sometimes, as he is the first to admit, he gets in his own way, overanalyzing rather than operating from instinct. This was especially true of his early years as a filmmaker.

SUCCESS AND FAILURE

Soderbergh, 39, is from Baton Rouge, La. His mother was a dream analyst and his father taught education at Louisiana State University. Rather than attend college, Soderbergh started making short films and shot a concert film for the rock group Yes in 1986. Then, in 1989, he made "sex, lies, & videotape," a seminal work in the independent film movement that started the feeding frenzy at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. He followed this huge, precocious success with five consecutive misfires "Kafka" (1991), "King of the Hill" (1993), "Underneath" (1994), "Schizopolis" (1996) and "Gray's Anatomy" (1997). In some sense, the path he chose was deliberate, but it went on way too long.

"I wasn't looking outside very much, the way you ought to to be inspired," Soderbergh says of this period. "I realized that I had just closed up shop and was staying in too much creatively. I'd reached an end of my resources. I thought, How do I get back to that feeling of how I felt when I first started making films?"

Actually, that was the wrong question. The right question was: How do you open yourself up? The answer came in the unlikely form of a series of interviews he did with director Richard Lester for a book called "Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw." This might be an apt description of Soderbergh's subsequent career.

Inspired by Lester's freethinking, he began to explore more commercial source material, crucially an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's crime caper "Out of Sight" (1998), a scary film for him because his career was riding on it. "Out of Sight" was a critical and commercial success, but rather than follow it with another mainstream film, Soderbergh directed the small, elegiac "The Limey" (1999). Then he reeled off three hits in a row: "Erin Brockovich" (2000), a conventional muckraker about a low-rent single mom who challenges the corporate world; "Traffic," and last year's frivolous Rat Pack remake, "Ocean's Eleven."

With these recent films, Soderbergh has been credited with introducing an indie sensibility to mainstream movies. However, there are some who view it the other way around.

"I'm not convinced he's a great or major filmmaker yet," says critic David Thomson. "I thought that 'Traffic' was overpraised. I think that in many ways he's not lived up to the promise of his very first film. I have the feeling about him that he's a little indecisive and slippery and not quite sure who he is.

"I just feel he's someone who's going to end up a very commercial director who might have been something a bit different," Thomson adds. "I don't think he liked the fact that he ran into a bad period. I think he likes to be liked."

Soderbergh makes no apologies about directing a film as lightweight as "Ocean's Eleven," saying it was what he wanted to make and that he learned a lot making it, but he does admit that "Full Frontal" is in part a response to the kind of movie it is.

"If I had to make 'Ocean's Eleven' every time out, I would shoot myself," he says. "I need to balance that experience with an experience like 'Full Frontal' or I get stagnant, bored."

Actually, this is a policy pursued by the smarter big-name actors but seldom by big-name directors. Sometimes it doesn't hurt your career to go small, and Soderbergh is very savvy about making the numbers work for him. "Full Frontal" cost in the neighborhood of $2 million. Everyone on the film including the crew is profit-sharing. He applies this cost-consciousness to his larger films, too, because if a studio isn't spending a lot, it won't be breathing down his neck. To work on a Soderbergh film, an actor must be willing to be flexible, moneywise and many are.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his recent success, Soderbergh says he worries about "losing it" by which he means the ability to connect to the world with his work (though not necessarily to audiences and critics, whom he regards as fickle and sometimes downright wrong). He lost it once, in the '90s, and he doesn't want to lose it again. That's one reason why he moved to New York, to get away from the hermetically sealed movie industry in L.A. He also says, laughing, that he has an agreement that a pal of his will "intervene" should he start making junk.

TIME OUT

Other than his producing duties (he's partnered with George Clooney in an outfit called Section Eight), Soderbergh won't be making anything anytime soon. Although "Solaris," a sci-fi chamber piece he directed, will be released in December, he's taking a year off to catch his breath, having spent the last five years feeling as if he's been on the deck of a speedboat, as he puts it. He now wants to spend time with his 11-year-old daughter, Sarah, from his marriage to Betsy Brantley. And he has some big thinking he wants to do.

"This feels to me like the close of a chapter, this group of films," Soderbergh says. "Thirteen films, 13 years. What I have in mind about Phase 2 is I want to take more risks, and I have some ideas about how to do that, but I need time to consider whether some of the things that I'm contemplating can be done in a way that will provide that sense of wondering: Can we do it like this, will that work?

"I'm not talking about a movie the industry can be proud of. I'm talking about new stuff. Maybe I'll never find it, but I feel like it's time for me to make that attempt, to create something that is different, different from what I've done, different from what's being done."

 


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