By Jena Ardell
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PLUS: Soderbergh on Soderbergh
Alternately credited and blamed for single-handedly inventing the American independent film as we know it (with a little help from Miramax, Sundance, and the Palme d'Or), Steven Soderbergh spent the '90s distancing himself from sex, lies and videotape. Or rather, from the catch-all icon, deathless tabloid headline, and generational albatross that his precocious first feature soon became. He embarked instead on a quietly prolific career notable for its chameleonic about-turns and willful resistance to anything that might be regarded as repetition. In 2000, with the calm resolve and authority that has bolstered his recent work, Soderbergh once again stared down Hollywood, and this time emerged triumphant.
It's not just that he had two high-profile studio features in a calendar year (right now there's comparatively little fuss over Robert Zemeckis's What Lies Beneath and Cast Away), but that they both rank among the five or so most widely lauded Hollywood releases of 2000. The Julia Roberts vehicle-cum-crusading Norma Rae inspirational Erin Brockovich has grossed $125 million domestically (his biggest commercial success to date). Released last week to rapturous reviews, Traffic, an ambitious, tough-minded panorama of the disastrous War on Drugs, has been scooping up critics' prizes by the armful. It's likely that both movies will wind up on the Oscar shortlist next month; Soderbergh, for that matter, could be the first filmmaker to battle himself for directing honors since Michael Curtiz was nominated for Angels With Dirty Faces and Four Daughters in 1938.
In more concrete terms, Traffic is Soderbergh's fourth film in three years, and it caps a prodigious winning streak that began with the neo-noir smolder of 1998's Elmore Leonard caper Out of Sight, perhaps the sexiest Hollywood movie of the '90s, and continued with the following year's splintered reverie The Limey, which ingeniously enlisted Terence Stamp's still-magnificent visage to transfigure a vigilante thriller into a memory-saturated lament. The most gifted and fleet-footed genre deconstructionist of his generation, Soderbergh is also one of the very few American filmmakers working today who sees reinvention as the lifeblood of his craft. After years of apparently perverse career choices, the payoffit's now evidentis considerable: Soderbergh straddles Hollywood and the indies with remarkable ease and on his own idiosyncratic terms, not least because his résumé implicitly rebuffs the lazy habits and restrictive conventions of both spheres. In the ultimate irony, this onetime wild card has, for now, reinvented himself as a sure thing, an attractive hire for studios for a host of increasingly obvious reasons: speed and economy, an uncanny track record with career-making performances (his knack for casting is matched by an unfailing generosity with actors), a newfound populism (or at least a newfound ease about his latent populism) merging profitably with his abiding restlessness and longstanding taste for quirk and foible.
"I used to be a perfectionist, but it was the wrong kind of perfection."
Soderbergh assesses his evolution with characteristic bluntness: "I'm no longer a control freak," he declares. "The implementation of whatever aesthetic I choose for each film is as considered and systematic as it used to be, but I have a completely different way of doing it now. I used to be a perfectionist but it was the wrong kind of perfection. And I no longer think perfection is interestingby definition it's not lifelike. On the set, it's really about refining your sense of what's important within a scene, and within the context of the film. You train yourself to start gravitating toward it, like a metal detector, and you let the other stuff roll down your back."
With more than 100 speaking parts and a relatively compressed 54-day shooting schedule, Traffic presented Soderbergh with his most daunting logistical challenge to date. "In the production meetings, I'd say, Look, what's most important is energy and emotion. Just be on your toes and be ready." To sustain momentum, the director shot the movie himselfa highly unusual choice for a production of its size and scale. "It's not often you get to be a trainee in such an important position on a $46 million movie," as he puts it. Soderbergh, whose cinematography experience had previously been limited to microbudget projects, says he plans to continue shooting all his films from now on, big or small. "I don't know that I could go back. Reinserting another person into the process would be awkward and frustrating."
Like Soderbergh's 1995 heist movie The Underneath, Traffic adopts stylized color coordination to steer viewers through a three-part narrative. "I was trying to push the look to its extreme, in each case, which is one of the good things about being your own DP," he says. "Occasionally my gaffer would go, 'Steven, I just want you to know that the window is 11 stops overexposed,' and I'd go, 'Yeah, I know.' That's just stuff you don't do if you want to get hired again, but that was also what made it fun." The burnished-brown Mexico segments were shot through filters and with a 45-degree shutter to create "a stroboscopic feeling," then digitally desaturated. In the San Diego portions ("to create an idyllic look that I thought would contrast nicely with the slimy undercurrent") Soderbergh employed a process known as flashing: overexposing the film to white light before the negative is developed. "It was very common in the '70s, pioneered by Vilmos Zsigmond," he explains. "It's used to its best effect in [Hal Ashby's] Bound for Glory, but you know, I'm not Haskell Wexler and I was fucking up a lot. It's not a very quantifiable processwhat you were seeing through the lens bore no relation to what you were going to see on film."