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CALENDAR
8th February: Side Effects released (US)
15th March: Side Effects released (UK)


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SIDE EFFECTS
Information | Photos | Official website Released: 8th February (US)


BEHIND THE CANDELABRA
Information | Photos | Official website Released: 2013


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Clean, Shaven - Criterion Collection
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Out Of The Box
By Simon Crook
(Total Film, March 2003)

One minute, it's the gossamer glory of Ocean's Eleven. The next, it's defiant indie dabble Full Frontal. And now? He's trying his hand at a sci-fi trance out. Total Film chews la fat with Hollywood anomaly Steven Soderbergh...

Total Film It's all downhill from here." Well, not quite, but nearly. Soderbergh's infamous self-deprecating Palme D'Or acceptance speech for sex, lies and videotape implied he'd never repeat the artistic heights of his directorial debut. That was 1989. This is 2003. One Oscar and Ocean's Eleven's $600-million box-office rake are all still fresh in the memory. If that's downhill, then the world's upside down.

That's not to say that one of America's most prolific and singular directors has had it easy. To know a rise, you've got to know a fall and Soderbergh's certainly felt the thwack. After tolerating the 'Indie Golden Boy' tag, Soderbergh reacted by making a string of movies (Kafka, King Of The Hill) that failed to find an audience. Midway through shooting bluesy noir The Underneath, he was ready to jack it in ("I realised I was making a movie I wasn't interested in"). A self-imposed exile followed, squeezing his artistic juices on lo-fi guerrilla comedy Schizopolis while ghosting around Hollywood as a writer for hire (a foggy existence detailed with exasperation in his ace memoir Getting Away With It). Then Out Of Sight happened.

Since then, Soderbergh's defrosted. A director who came in from the cold, hits like The Limey, Traffic and Erin Brockovich - all beautifully crafted mainstream movies - seem to have cemented his self-proclaimed rep as the "luckiest bastard you ever saw". So to Solaris, a movie directed, written and edited by Soderbergh and his first foray into sci-fi. Starring regular George Clooney, it's an ethereal, hallucinatory work, deeply enigmatic, built on trembling flashbacks and quite, quite brilliant.

Total Film met up with the man in a plush pad in The Dorchester Hotel. Dressed down in a navy jumper and scuffed, faded denims, he's all slack and kickback and bone-dry humour (midway through the interview, Soderbergh stretches out with the nonchalance of a warehouse dealmaker and parks his feet on the coffee table). He's also absolutely, refreshingly, emphatically free of the Hollywood horseshit or artistic pretence that could well hunchback a director of similar status. In other words, our kind of guy...

Clooney's been pretty vocal about the way Solaris was marketed in the US. Do you think the movie's been trivialised by gossip about the censors trying to tame his arse?

Well, we're trying to draw what lessons we can from this. The feeling is, we've got to embrace what the movie is instead of trying to hide it. Embrace its mysteriousness. Sell it like it's 2001 and not just a love story. In looking for a way to put the movie across, I think the feeling was, "We'll sell it like Ghost." And y'know, people who turned up looking for Ghost got a real shock. The other thing was, at a crucial time for us to be educating people about the movie, this rating thing got jumped on by the film press. It just hijacked the dialogue that we were trying to get going on the movie. And it hurt us because everything else got obliterated by the issue of - I can't believe I'm saying this - George's ass.

This is your third movie with Clooney. It's kind of tempting to see you both as creative soulmates...

I think we just "got" each other at once. When I was auditioning to direct Out Of Sight and referencing the films I thought were in a similar vein, he instantly responded. Actually, I don't think we ever went through that orientation period. We seemed to hit the ground running. What was really gratifying about Solaris was to watch somebody I know well genuinely surprise me. I mean, George has got more energy than any other human being I've met. He's the class clown to end all class clowns so it's not like he locked himself in his trailer. He isn't Methody in that way but he really pushed himself. I think it was good for him to do a movie where he had to show people he can play an interior character, show that there's a lot going on with him - even when he's standing still.

So how did the atmosphere on the set of Solaris compare to, say, Ocean's Eleven?

We like to have a good time on set - friends would come having been on Out Of Sight and Ocean's Eleven and the atmosphere would hit them in the face. And they would just stop and say, "Weeell, maybe I'll come back later" And of course, none of them came back [laughs].

But it was also like being trapped in a foxhole. There were no easy scenes, no easy shots. I mean, every once in a while you just had to go outside and walk around for a few minutes, get some air.

Are you bothered that Solaris has polarised American audiences?

Well, I'm very respectful of audiences, I think of them a lot but I'm not gonna cater to their every whim. You know, every once in a while, audiences ought to bring something to the table and do some work. I could be wrong, but 15 years from now I think there's gonna be more discussion about Full Frontal and Solaris than Erin Brockovich and Traffic because they're riskier pieces, more challenging. Also, as a rule, US audiences like things signposted... What passes for emotion needs to be more theatrical and that's not the way the feelings are played out in this movie. So in a country as restrained as the UK, I'm hoping it'll click.

After you won the Palme D'Or for sex, lies and videotape, you ended up being labelled some kind of indie figurehead. Was that a blessing or a curse?

Neither. It was pretty clear to me that taking what happened with sex, lies personally would be a mistake. We were the beneficiaries of some extraordinary timing and I think a desire on the part of moviegoers to see a return to,
for lack of a better term, auteurist filmmaking. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do and I knew a lot of people
wouldn't want to follow me for a bit, so I just kept my head down. But I was lucky: I was so wet behind the ears that
I didn't know enough to be paralysed by it.

You must have been bombarded with offers but then you did your own thing and shot Kafka instead...

Well you know, a lot of people were calling to get a look at me, so to speak. The appeal of Kafka for me was that it
couldn't have been more different than sex, lies. I knew that I was going to come in for a beating sooner or later and Kafka seemed like a good way to focus that beating [laughs]. And boy, was that a big beating.


Apparently, the Kafka shoot was so stressful it turned your hair white...

It was a really difficult shoot. I'd heard of this happening, of people's hair going white overnight through stress, and literally, when I woke up one morning, I had a dime-sized patch on the side of my mouth where my beard was and it had gone white overnight. Yeah, that was weird...

By the time you made The Underneath, you seemed pretty disenfranchised with your own movies. Was that a creative angst or a wider disdain for the moviemaking process?

I think both. I mean, I wasn't happy with where I was, creatively, personally or professionally. I knew before I started The Underneath that it wasn't going to work, which affects you a lot. The last thing you wanna do is let anybody else know that you've got this secret while they're all beating their brains out to give you the best possible movie that you can get.

Still, at least one creative decision stuck with The Underneath. Your games with colour..

It started as a series of formal decisions but they're all built on the idea that colour's an efficient way to put the audience in a certain emotional state and, if you're dealing with multiple storylines, to orientate them. But that may just be because I never quite got over seeing Antonioni films as a lad. He, more than any other director, believed in this idea of palette control, of painting the streets. So yeah, The Underneath did have an impact on me...


The Mexico segments in Traffic are particularly striking. Why all the parched yellows?

That was just my impression of the place. We spent time down there doing research and Mexico felt like that to me. I mean, it was almost that stark when you crossed the border into Tijuana. Even the air felt different. It's like a wall when you cross the border, and going yellow seemed the simplest way to put that idea across.

Is it fair to say that Schizopolis was a creative laxative for you?

Oh, absolutely! I strapped a bomb to my chest and set it off. In fact, it's still reverberating. it was a crucial film for me to make, really loosened me up.

So where do you think you'd be today if you hadn't made it?

I think I'd be making either pure arthouse movies for tiny audiences or, if I made something bigger, it would be a
movie that [adopts sincere voice] "the industry could be proud of" [laughs], They'd be tedious. But Schizopolis, there was BC and then AD. Or maybe that should be BS and AS...


Was Terence Stamp always your first choice for The Limey?

Oh, yeah. Lem Dobbs, who wrote it, had this script in a very different form before we revisited it. We knew there were only a handful of actors who could pull this off. Lem pointed out that Terence was in this Ken Loach movie, Poor Cow, where he plays a criminal, and maybe there was a way to incorporate that back story into our movie. Jesus, that was a good idea of Lem's and Terence agreed. You know, that movie was greenlit and shot in just nine months. The Limey leaves a very pleasant aftertaste for me. But Terence was just a blast. Just, you know, the coolest guy...

What is it about you and Cockney rhyming slang? Terence Stamp in The Limey, Don Cheadle in Ocean's Eleven...

Ha! I wanted Don in Ocean's Eleven one way or another. Part of the enticement was, this role was written for a Brit, do you wanna take a run at it? I know he took a lot of heat for his accent but it was just worth it to me to have him in the movie. We've been thinking that, for Ocean's Twelve, he'll have a completely different accent. With no explanation. That nobody will acknowledge. Or even talk about. I'm thinking... I don't know - German? Polish?

So do you remember any choice Cockney phrases?

God, I used to know lots. On Kafka, my crew was British and they introduced me to it. But... Shit, I've gone blank...

Ever heard anybody say "I caught him having a J Arthur"? As in J Arthur Rank? You can work out the rest of it...

Man, I love that shit! That's hilarious! But you know, that's what I've always appreciated about the Brits... Your love of language. People don't focus on that sort of stuff over here, you know?

You sound like a man who barely tolerates Hollywood bullshit. Remember that open letter to Variety a couple of years back?

That was real "Do Not Press This Button" syndrome. There was this document written by an anonymous director that was circulating round Hollywood detailing all these ridiculous demands. So I wrote a page-by-page parody of it called The Manifesto. We flipped it to this guy who worked on Variety and the great thing was, he published it as a straight story as if somebody had spirited this thing from my office. Which was the point: "Tongues are wagging about this thing that was stolen from Steven Soderbergh's office." I've been lucky not to work with any actors or technicians that go for this "Don't Look Me In The Eye" crap. To me it's like, yeah, whatever...

So what about the Oscars? When people talk about winning one, they make the experience sound like they've been picked up by a UFO. How was it for you?

Oh man, it's like being dosed. You're in total freefall. You get helmet vision, everything seems all wide and curved and the sounds are really far away., it's like somebody just gave you LSD eye drops. Like everybody else, I thought it was gonna be Ridley Scott or Ang Lee, I'd had three vodkas in the lobby and I was caught off guard. The good thing is, I had to fly back to Vegas that night and go back to work on Ocean's. But the Oscars? Even if you're prepared for it, you've gotta be on your guard. Winning an Oscar can really fuck you up...

So were you kind of split down the middle e what you wanted to win Best Director for, Erin Brockovich or Traffic?

You have to understand, I don't view art as a competitive sport. I mean, I've never sat and moped and said, "Oh please God, please, please let me win." It's not where my head is. And when you start to be in a situation where you're obliged to participate, it increases the whole weirdness of it.

Isn't that what Hollywood's all about? Winning?

Man, I wish I knew what this town's all about. I guess, when you boil it down, the Oscars are all about money. If you win, your movie makes more money and maybe so do you, but I'm a process person, not a results person. I love the job, so when one movie's done, I'm thinking about the next one. The rest is a kind of parlour game that can be amusing but you can't forget that the Oscars were invented by the studios to create publicity for movies. And it's an award as easily defined by who hasn't got one as who has.

It's easy to look at Out Of Sight and Ocean's Eleven as companion pieces, mainly because they share the same mood. Where does that cool aesthetic come from?

I don't know. Probably France! [Laughs] When I think of that, I think of early Godard movies, that insouciance. Emotionally, Hal Ashby was the reference point, but stylistically it was Godard all the way. As for Ocean's, I don't think it's hip. The hip thing would have been to make it "edgy' and "tough" and all that crap but it's actually very gentle. It's a'40s throwback. No violence, no swearing...

Is it true that Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein tried to blag a role on Ocean's Eleven?

Yeah, he wanted to play Bruiser, the huge guy who's hired to beat up Clooney. Seriously! I said to him, "Harvey, emotionally you're the right guy but physically, you just ain't big enough." But he really wanted to be in it. Then it got back to him that, when we were shooting with Elliott Gould, Elliott was saying, "How am I gonna play this guy?" And I said, "Think of Harvey Weinstein." He wasn't too pleased. Still, I suppose Harvey did end up in the movie after all...

So is Ocean's Twelve a goer then?

Oh, yeah! I know there's a better version of this movie to be had. When we were coming back from doing press in December 2001, I asked everybody if the idea appealed and they were cool. Buy they had to make a promise: that is, we're gonna be the first sequel in history that costs exactly the same as the first one. And since the scale of the sequel's gonna be even bigger, they're all gonna have to take an even bigger pay cut than last time. But I think somebody needs to do this - stop the idea that the second one has to be more expensive.

So it's set in Europe, right?

Yeah, it is. But until I go on a reccie, I haven't settled yet on what those three cities in Europe will be. So, you know, I'm thinking of stopping in Amsterdam for - oooh - about a year... [Laughs]

One thing that ties all your films together is the fact that your female characters are hardly shrinking violets...

When you grow up with three older sisters, women don't seem like projections. They have equal weight. Although most of my films have had male protagonists - and clearly, that's because I'm a man - it was a conscious choice to do, say, Erin Brockovich, because I wanted to make a movie dominated by a female protagonist.

Is that the only reason you took it?

Well, the other reason was the aggressive linear structure, which coming off the The Limey appealed to me. That and the fact there was absolutely nothing cool about it whatsoever. I mean, it was the least hip thing a filmmaker in my position could do. There was no film-school shit in it.

You've worked with Julia Roberts three times now. What's her appeal?

It's just a kind of emotional accessibility. When she's acting, there's just no wall between you and her. You see some actors - and I'm not gonna name names here -  and you can tell there's almost a moat that's been built between the screen and the audience. Her emotions just seem so accessible. There's a directness to her performances that's just startling. And she's smart enough not to analyse why she's able to do it.

She also starred in your last movie Full Frontal, where you demanded the cast live without the usual perks...

Well, that was about getting everyone focused on what's really important - exactly what's happening when the camera's turning and stripping away everything that doesn't directly impact on the content of the film. After Ocean's, I wanted to make something defiantly provocative and for me it was a great experiment, like shooting the biggest-budget student film you've ever seen. Everybody went with it, too.


Including Julia Roberts?

Especially Julia. She lived totally up to the demands. No hairdresser, no make-up, no wardrobe, drive yourself to the set. I mean, on the first day of shooting, she got lost. She was so intent on staying with the programme that she drove herself to the set and ended up God knows where in New York. But man, she's just a blast, you know? I think Buena Vista have plans to release Full Frontal in the UK eventually probably under protest...

So what's next, then?

Well, I'm writing a book about The Sopranos and I'm involved in a project called Eros, a kind of triptych movie with Antonioni, Wong Kar-wai and me shooting a segment each. It'll be fun - it's only a five-day shoot - but it's already eating into my vacation. So much for me taking a year off to clear my head...

 


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