8th February: Side Effects released (US)
15th March: Side Effects released (UK)
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LET THEM ALL TALK
Photos | Official website
Photos | Official website
NEW & UPCOMING DVDS
Now available from Amazon.com:
Now available from Amazon.co.uk:
DVDs that include an audio commentary track from Steven:
Clean, Shaven - Criterion Collection
The Graduate (40th Anniversary Collector's Edition)
The Third Man - Criterion Collection
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Steven Soderbergh interview
By Keith Phipps
In 1989, director Steven Soderbergh's first feature, sex,
lies and videotape, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, then
became a surprise commercial hit. For American independent cinema, it was a shot
heard 'round the world, reminding audiences that there were films being made
outside of Hollywood while reminding Hollywood that there was money to be made
from those movies. As important as sex, lies and videotape was, what's
more important is that it launched the career of one of the most consistently
compelling filmmakers working today. For his follow-up, Soderbergh directed the
ambitious Kafka, a suspense film utilizing the Czech author (played by
Jeremy Irons) as its protagonist. A commercial failure, it led to two
low-profile, overlooked, and unquestionably excellent projects: the 1993
Depression-era drama King Of The Hill and 1995's modern-day noir The
Underneath, which reunited Soderbergh with sex, lies and videotape
star Peter Gallagher. In 1996, Soderbergh released his film of a Spalding Gray
monologue, Gray's Anatomy, and followed it the next year with
Schizopolis, a highly experimental, wickedly funny satire starring the
director and his ex-wife. Soderbergh took his experimental side mainstream with
1998's Out Of Sight, an Elmore Leonard adaptation that fractured time to
great effect, bringing out the profundity always just beneath the surface of the
best pulp. Soderbergh's latest, The Limey, takes this notion one step
further. In the film, which stars Terence Stamp as an aging London criminal who
travels to California in search of the record producer (Peter Fonda) he believes
is responsible for the death of his daughter, Soderbergh and Kafka writer Lem
Dobbs have created a revenge tale with humor, style, and humanity. Soderbergh
recently spoke to The Onion.
The Onion: From your Out Of Sight DVD, I got the impression that you
and [screenwriter] Scott Frank worked together pretty closely. Did you and Lem
Dobbs do that, as well?
Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. This is the script he had for a while, and that
we talked about doing after King Of The Hill. But we sort of let it drop.
After Out Of Sight, I called him up again: I really wanted to go back to
work immediately, but I wanted to do something small where I could continue to
experiment a little with narrative. There were things I thought of during Out
Of Sight where I remember thinking, "Wow, you could go a lot further with
some of these ideas if you had a piece of material that could withstand it." So
I called Lem. I said, "Look, let's think about this again, but I want to come at
it a different way. I want to make it more of a mosaic and sort of deconstruct
it a little bit, and let's figure out now who the actor is that we're going to
design this around, because there aren't a lot of choices." We very quickly
settled on Terence because we both liked him a lot and felt he had the right
kind of stoicism that the role required. We spent about a month hammering out a
new draft, and we'd fax pages back and forth, or I'd go over to his house, and
it was one of those things where each of us would say, "We haven't figured this
scene out yet; go back and try again." Very informal, but diligent. The whole
thing from beginning to end, from the first pitch meeting at Artisan before we
had the new draft to the delivery of the film, took nine months.
O: That's pretty amazing.
SS: Yeah. These days, it's unheard of.
O: You had Terence Stamp in mind from the beginning?
O: How about Peter Fonda? When did he come into the picture?
SS: He was pretty soon after that, because it was very clear that you
needed somebody of a similar iconic weight to Terence, or the movie was going to
be imbalanced. They seemed like two sides of the same coin to me. They were both
guys who kind of marched to their own drummer and have managed to stay
themselves through a lot of ups and downs, and I just liked the idea of it. Lem
and I sort of said, "Yeah, Billy Budd versus Captain America, that'll be cool."
I just liked the idea of it. It worked in my mind, where I just thought, "That's
a good pairing."
O: The idea of the '60s is very big in The Limey, too. What about
addressing that decade appealed to you?
SS: I think it's appealing to people like me, all the people out there
SS: I think it's appealing to creative people, because it seemed to be a
time of endless possibilities, when the boundaries of what could be considered
popular culture were being expanded almost by the week. It doesn't feel like
that anymore. At times, I wish it were so. Radio is a perfect example; good God,
I mean, back then the most interesting songs were also hits, and that's just not
true anymore. It hasn't been true in a long time. The film was partially...
Obviously, it's not exactly about that. What it is about is this sense of that
dream that existed in the '60s, and what happened to it in these two instances.
For Terence's character, the dream was sort of taken away because he was
incarcerated for most of his life. And for Peter, here's a guy who basically
made his living by appropriating other people's dreams and making money off
them. Both these guys have ended up sort of hollowed out, but for different
reasons, and their connection is this woman.
O: It's interesting that a lot of the music that's used with Peter Fonda is
stuff from the '70s, when the idea of the '60s kind of got packaged and sold, as
someone says in the film.
SS: I certainly was trying to pick stuff that resonated with that period,
but I also just felt like, "Well, I have to use a Steppenwolf song, because
Peter was in one of the most famous movies ever made with all this Steppenwolf
music in it, and you can't miss that opportunity." Then "The Seeker"—which, to
my surprise, I also saw in American Beauty a couple weeks ago—was
especially relevant to Terence, I think. Not just because of the subject of the
song, but because The Who is such a working-class British rock band, and because
Terence's brother used to manage them. It just seemed karmically like a good
thing to do, to have Terence sort of walk into that first shot with that Who
O: Are Peter Fonda's teeth naturally that white?
O: I was wondering if that was a special effect.
SS: No, he's taken very good care of his teeth. [Laughs.]
O: How much do you encourage improvisation on the set?
SS: Well, I certainly try not to nail people down about stuff. If there's
a line that I think needs to... Let's put it this way: There's not a lot in the
film, but there's some. More importantly, though, I try to capture things as
opposed to staging them, so I tend not to nail the actors down and say, "Go
here, go there." We'll rehearse a scene and I just won't tell them. I'll just
say, "Look, you can go anywhere you want; let's try a couple versions of this
and see where you end up." And eventually what happens is you see them settle
into a pattern that's clearly the way they want to go, especially with Peter,
who's at his best when he's kind of off-the-cuff and can be free. It worked
really well. There are isolated things through the film that are sort of
invented. I mean, the whole thing with Peter using a Stim-U-Dent while he gives
the speech sort of happened on the spot. The scene was set in the bathroom, and
he and I were trying to figure out what he could be doing. I noticed that Peter
has a really great set of teeth, and I said, "Well, why don't you do something
with your teeth? What would you do? Would you floss?" He goes, "No, I use the
Stim-U-Dent. I'm big on the Stim-U-Dent." And I said, "Great, do that." We used
take one in the film.
O: When it comes to the script, do you generally prefer working with other
people now, or...
SS: Well, it's a hell of a lot more fun. When you get to work with Scott
Frank and Lem... For the movie I'm cutting now [Erin Brockovich, starring
Julia Roberts and Albert Finney], I got to work with Richard LaGravenese. You
know, these are some of the best writers in town. It makes my life really easy.
And I've found through experience that I'm only good when I'm writing something
that, in essence, only I could write. The times I've written for hire, for other
people, I don't think I've done very well.
O: What keeps drawing you back to experimenting with narrative and time, like
with The Underneath and Out Of Sight?
SS: I don't know. It may be that I made my living as a freelance editor
during the time between getting out of high school in 1980 and sex, lies and
videotape, so I'm aware of what cinema does so easily that few other art
forms can do, which is to fracture time. I think it's just because of my editing
O: What films influenced you in that respect? Petulia comes to mind...
SS: Oh, God, yeah. For this film especially, I'd say Petulia and
Point Blank, but I love the early Alain Resnais films. Those had a huge
impact on me when I saw them. Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad
are both still astonishing to me to this day. There are more ideas in the first
15 minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour than in the last 10 movies you've seen. And
he was, like, the first guy to do this stuff. You look at what he was doing and
it's just jaw-dropping. I haven't done anything nearly that adventurous yet. But
that's what I had in mind when we were making [The Limey]. I kept saying,
"Look, if we do this right, it's Alain Resnais makes Get Carter."
O: When you were an editor, what did you work on?
SS: I was mostly hired by Showtime to sort of... Let's say they bought a
two-hour show from someone, and they'd want to cut it down to an hour and have
an opening built for it. This would happen a couple of times a year for several
years. They would fly me out for a week—I was just this kid they knew through a
friend of mine that worked there—and literally lock me in a room, and I would
just completely tear apart and build a new show for them.
O: Like stand-up specials?
SS: All kinds of stuff. Concerts, stand-ups, documentaries, anything. I
was the go-to guy, and it was really fun. It was great experience and, believe
me, a lot of the ideas that still show up in the films I've made came out of
experiments I would try on these shows, because I was given free reign to
rebuild these things from scratch. I would just go to town on 'em.
O: As far as that goes, the stuff in this movie with Poor Cow [the
1967 Ken Loach film used extensively to show Stamp in flashback] was pretty
inspired, especially the Donovan song.
SS: Yeah, isn't that amazing?
O: That was a great connection. Did you know the song was in there?
SS: Lem was the one. I said, "Shit, don't you think there's some footage
of Terence or something we could use?" And he said, "Yeah, there's this Ken
Loach film." I'd never seen it, and Lem had a terrible bootleg dub that he sent
to me. I watched it, and I just thought that song was heartbreaking. I thought
it was really effective to see at the end of the film, Terence's character,
before the spark has been extinguished. It was really amazing.
O: Where did you find Nicky Katt?
SS: Well, he's been around. He's done some stuff, but he came in to read,
and he's incredible.
O: That's a fascinating character.
SS: He's very compelling. You should see the two-and-a-half-minute
version of him making comments about the film crew in the first version of that
one scene. He was improvising all over the place. I was operating one of the
cameras, and I was shaking the camera, I was laughing so hard.
O: Well, put it on the DVD.
SS: Yeah, I should, because it's hilarious. I mean, it was so good, but
it took everyone right out of the movie. You were just in a different film for
two minutes. But, man, he is funny.
O: Wasn't Ann-Margret associated with The Limey at one point?
SS: Yeah, she had a long scene as Peter Fonda's ex-wife. She's living in
the house in Big Sur, and he goes up with his henchman and the girl, and it was
an all-or-nothing thing, because it was a big, long scene with a monologue. It
was like the Beatrice Straight scene in Network, and I had to lift the
whole thing out, because I felt the momentum of the film couldn't sustain it. It
was really hard—that was a tough phone call to make—but it was ultimately the
right thing to do. It was a nice scene, but everybody I showed it to said, "You
know what? I know Peter's character enough that I don't need seven minutes more
of, you know, what a jerk he's been." So I had to cut it.
O: I read an interview with you from a couple of years ago, where you
suggested that the greatest legacy of sex, lies and videotape was the
money it made. Do you still feel that way?
SS: Yeah, absolutely.
O: I was thinking, though, that in terms of the sheer dialogue-driven film,
you can see that influence in a lot of places in this decade.
SS: Yeah, in good ways and bad ways. There's a big difference between a
movie about relationships and a movie in which people talk about relationships.
It seems like a lot of people have confused the two. But, yeah, I guess if it
made people think it was viable to make films on that scale and get them out
there, great. But if the movie had made half a million dollars, no one would
O: It's not really a film you've gone back to explicitly. What do you think
of the current state of independent cinema?
SS: Good and bad. There's some really good stuff and a lot of bad stuff.
There's just more of everything.
O: Do you have any thoughts on Sundance?
SS: I think they're still doing what they set out to do, which is to
provide a showcase and a platform for independent film. And that's great. They
keep doing it.
O: Well, not to pat you on the back, but when something like The
Daytrippers [a Soderbergh-produced 1996 film by first-time director Greg
Mottola] can't get in...
SS: Yeah, but we went to Slamdance and got picked up, and we did fine. If
you're an independent filmmaker, you don't have time to sit around and bitch
about this stuff. You need to do something. We didn't bat an eye. When we found
out we didn't get in, I said, "Let's go to Slamdance. Get on the phone right
now." I had no desire to know what their thought process was. That's their
business. It's my job to help Greg.
O: You've said you would do Kafka differently if you were doing it
now. How would you do it?
SS: It'd be a lot more fun. It'd just be looser. It'd be more playful and
more fun to watch, I think. It was intended to be a funhouse ride, and its style
is too formal. It would have been so great to make a film set in that period in
that time, in black-and-white, that had a completely contemporary style to it. I
think that would have been interesting.
O: Were you worried that people would write you off after Kafka lost
SS: I didn't really care.
O: How were you able to get Schizopolis made?
SS: I pre-sold the video.
O: You talked about maybe doing a follow-up. Is that still...
SS: Yeah, I'm writing it.
O: Good. I thought it was a really interesting movie.
SS: Yeah, I want to do something like it using the same methods, but
maybe with a little more narrative this time. I just needed to... you know. It
was just sort of a shout from the edge of a cliff. I needed to start over, and
so in many ways that was my second first film. That's all it was: I needed to
change the way I was working. For me, creatively, it was a turning point.