Both Sides Now

Having Your Way With Hollywood, or the Further Adventures of Steven Soderbergh

To complicate matters, Soderbergh is given to his own public displays of soul-searching. His latest book, Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw (published a year ago in the U.K., just out here) flip-flops between thorough, insightful interviews with Richard Lester and journal entries over a 12-month period starting March 1996—a trying time during which Soderbergh worked with director Henry Selick on the screenplay for Toots and the Upside Down House (never made), polished scripts for schlocky thrillers Mimic and Nightwatch (barely seen), struggled to secure distribution deals for Gray's and Schizopolis, developed a project called Human Nature (written by Charlie "Being John Malkovich" Kaufman, since filmed by Michel Gondry), and looked for a paying job that would serve as his reentry to Hollywood (he settled, reluctantly at first, for Out of Sight).

Soderbergh's writing voice is a humorously exaggerated version of the chronically self-deprecating deadpan that he tends to deploy in conversation. (The diary that accompanies the sex, lies and videotape screenplay is similarly wry, a success story narrated with mounting incredulity.) While the Getting Away journal is often surprisingly frank, its most revealing aspect may be the constant self-laceration, which eventually registers as protective irony; it's clear too that Soderbergh is aware—and somewhat disgusted—that the book exists ultimately as a form of self-promotion. (Unsurprisingly, the author of these endlessly reflexive, obsessively footnoted entries confesses to a David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers fixation. "It's not just postmodern bullshit, but I think an attempt to get at something emotional.")

Soderbergh doesn't hesitate to name names in the journal (from studio honchos to film critics) and, though he's calmed down considerably, has never been afraid to ruffle Hollywood plumage. He got off to a spectacularly impolitic start, referring to Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson in a Rolling Stone interview as "slime barely passing for human." He had a falling out with Robert Redford over Quiz Show, which Soderbergh was at one point supposed to direct, and King of the Hill, which Redford had initially agreed to executive produce. He later found himself in a protracted legal battle with superproducer Scott Rudin over the rights to the John Kennedy Toole novel A Confederacy of Dunces (the suit was eventually settled out of court in Soderbergh's favor).

Soderbergh is more comfortable in Hollywood now than he's ever been (though he's moving to New York once he completes his next film, Ocean's Eleven), and he says it's largely because he has a firmer handle on the pragmatics of the job. "I've gotten better at determining the key points in the process where I need to focus an incredible amount of attention for a very short period of time." He says he performs better at pitch meetings too. "You want to create the impression that this train is gonna leave without them if they don't jump on. I think the sensation is probably that the trains that I'm talking about move a little faster than the ones I used to be talking about."

There may be a new confidence to Soderbergh, but even his most upbeat declarations are buried in self-effacement. "I was in my apprenticeship for some time and I guess I'm now finally open for business. You know, I was sort of working in the backroom, learning my craft, and now I feel, you know, OK, store's open, let's go, fire sale." His declining compulsion to serve as both writer and director played a part in reviving his career: "I'm not good at writing scripts for other people to direct, which only leaves me able to write for myself, and I can't generate an original screenplay every 18 months because I'm not interesting enough." All the same, Soderbergh says he's "really psyched" about his latest undertaking: He's midway through the first draft of a script for a remake of Tarkovsky's Solaris (to be produced by James Cameron), which will "return to the Stanislaw Lem novel and add several of my personal preoccupations." He's reluctant to get into specifics ("It's just going to sound awful") but says, "Conceptually it would be one of the most ambitious things I've attempted."

Meanwhile, he's working on a "son of Schizopolis" project: "It's going to be even more out of control but will have a clearer narrative. The people who liked Schizopolis really responded to the energy and the fact that it threatens to derail every 30 seconds. If I graft that energy onto a narrative that's possibly moving toward something, people might dig it more." He's also developing a football comedy, Leatherheads, with George Clooney and plans at some point to adapt John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor.

Soderbergh starts shooting Ocean's Eleven, a remake of the first Rat Pack movie, in February with a cast of heavyweights (Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, Damon). He's apprehensive about cinematography duties: "It's a much bigger film physically than Traffic and it requires a slicker look. Unfortunately I sense it's going to be a hell of a lot more fun to watch than it will be to make." Lewis Milestone's original, he concedes, was "more notorious than good. I can't be alone in being somewhat agog that it was directed by the guy who made All Quiet on the Western Front. I mean, talk about range." But the new script, by Ted Griffin, is a substantial revamp. Soderbergh asserts, a little grandly: "Ocean's Eleven will be the apex of my yielding to whatever populist instincts I might have. This will be potentially the most indulgent I'll ever be toward that side of my personality."

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