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Shooting handheld and with available light where possible, Soderbergh sought to cultivate an atmosphere of loose-limbed immediacy on set: "The aesthetic, combined with the fact that I was operating the camera, greatly reduced the number of things the actors had to block out." He acknowledges a certain kinship to the Dogme school. "I went through a similar psychic break myself, where I felt like formalism was a dead end. You could polish stuff into oblivion and strangle the life out of a movie. I realize Dogme's a gimmick, but I don't doubt its core of sincerity."
Soderbergh's immersion in the process is hardly a new development. He edited his first three features, and in fact, the role of editor seems a natural one, given his longtime fascination with narrative ellipses and time loops. But he suggests that the shift in emphasis, from postproduction to production, is instructive. "I haven't seen the early films in a while, but I'm curious to know if I shoot differently knowing I'm not going to cut it, whether I was protecting myself, or trying to make my life easier as an editor by shooting a certain way. On Traffic, I'd shoot any fucking thing and just think, you know, we'll sort it out later. On the early films, I'd be figuring it out in my head, like exactly how it was going to go together and I wouldn't leave the set until I knew, and that's a boring way to work. I'm more of a gearhead anyway. I just love camera equipment."
Traffic is hearty Hollywood entertainment with a social conscience (as is, to a lesser degree, Erin Brockovich), and Soderbergh, who worked closely with screenwriter Stephen Gaghan in adapting it from a British miniseries, says evenhandedness was vital. "I didn't want to come off like we had answers. The idea that some silly filmmaker after two years could sort it out would be outrageous. But there seems to be a huge vacuum in the public debate and I guess this is one of the few times I felt a movie could actually help. The funny thing is, everybody who sees it thinks it puts their point of view across, and I was expecting exactly the opposite. We had a screening in Washington for Customs, DEA, and the Department of Justice and they all came out saying they really liked it. The following night, there was some hardcore leftie NPR/PBS screening in L.A. and some guy stands up and goes, 'Thank you for making the first pro-legalization movie.' Then the other night, Commissioner Safir came to a screening and said he thought it was the most accurate representation of law enforcement he'd seen in a long time. And I have, you know, stoner friends who are going, like, 'Dude, yeah, great . . . ' "
Soderbergh's commitment to roughing up his style coincided with a waning interest in autobiography. "I had come to the end of anything that I had to say about myself that was compelling, and I just got more interested in other people's stories. My last few films have not really been about me or anyone in my peer group, and I think they're much more interesting to sit through for that." Out of Sight is often cited as the movie that jump-started the Soderbergh renaissance, but the real resuscitation began with the two films he made back-to-back in 1995.
Burned out and disheartened after The Underneath, he retreated to his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to "start over again, get in touch with the enthusiasm of the amateur." The results: Gray's Anatomy, a Spalding Gray ocular-disease monologue filmed with a frantic emphasis on the visual, and, crucially, one final riotous burst of quasi-autobiography, Schizopolis, which Soderbergh directed, wrote, shot, and starred in. Made with borrowed equipment and a five-person crew (all old friends), the anarchic experiment had exactly the galvanizing effect Soderbergh had hoped for. "I was so wrapped up in my own shit that I wasn't looking out the window. I was just hanging out in my own house with the blinds drawn and the music on and not answering the phone. Schizopolis was about detonating that house, blowing it up and putting myself in a position where I couldn't go back anymore."
An elaborate Möbius strip that entwines deranged semiotic games, doppelgänger metaphysics, and bawdy sketch comedy, Schizopolis (in this writer's admittedly minority opinion, the most undervalued American film of the '90s) is a funny, poignant psychodrama about (among other things) the fallibility and futility of communication, specifically the death of language in a relationship. At the time Soderbergh was not only reeling from his Hollywood misadventures but enduring a painful breakup and, as if to call attention to the personal subtext, he cast his soon-to-be-ex-wife, actress Betsy Brantley, and their daughter, Sarah, as his on-screen family in Schizopolis. "It probably crossed the line from personal into private filmmaking," he dryly remarks.
Via published journals, numerous interviews, even his Schizopolis persona, Soderbergh has over the years been subjected to a good deal more analysisand self-analysisthan your average film director. His fairy-tale beginning ensured that backlash was encoded in the Soderbergh narrativesomething the shellshocked 26-year-old neophyte must have recognized when he accepted the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1989 with the words: "Well, I guess it's all downhill from here." (Another semi-mythic early anecdote has Soderbergh's hero, Richard Lester, telling him in Park City: "It gets harder, you know.") Talk of impossible expectations, squandered promise, and even self-sabotage swirled around the defiantly ambitious Kafka, the Depression-era coming-of-age tale King of the Hill, and The Underneath, obscuring the fact that the films were never without merit and collectively represented a thoughtful, questing attempt to stay independent. Even in evaluations of the subsequent upswing, the director's psyche was central. As he was emerging from his crisis with Schizopolis and Gray's, the Los Angeles Times obligingly ran a huge profile headlined "The Funk of Steven Soderbergh." Promoting Out of Sight in The New York Times, star George Clooney theorized that the director suffered from a fear of success.