By Jon Campbell
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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."
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.
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 1996a 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 awareand somewhat disgustedthat 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."
On January 14, his 38th birthday, Soderbergh will be in town to collect his Best Director award from the New York Film Critics Circle (which also gave Traffic its Best Picture prize). "It kills me that my dad can't see this," he says. His father, who died three years ago, was a Louisiana State University professor who enrolled Steven in a film class while he was still in high school; Soderbergh took his father's first two names for his pseudonymous cinematography credit on Traffic: Peter Andrews. "He was raised in New York, and to him it was the epicenter, the arbiter of everything. He would have gone out of his mind. I try and remember that. My dad would be levitating right now."
Soderbergh says he's still figuring out how to process the accolades after years of being the underdog. "There's no question that I'm more comfortable as a disappointment and not having people watch me. I will always be more comfortable in that position. I also recognize that it's very self-limiting, personally and professionally, and I have to find a balance somehow between my ambitions and my desires to keep my life and my world manageable." For now, he's steeling himself for the publicity glare of what promises to be a very busy awards season. "The problem is it totally takes you out of yourself, and that's something I have trouble with anywayI don't need more things to contribute to that. But it's so fucking nice and I don't want to be a sad sack. When sex, lies happened, I martyred myself out of enjoying it. And you know, it's disingenuous and borderline offensive not to enjoy it. I'm going to try to this time."
Soderbergh on Soderbergh "This is the career I envisioned. I was very vocal early on that I intended to try a lot of different things and that I had no rules about who was writing the checks. It's an interesting group of films, some successful, some not, but there isn't a lot of repetition." sex, lies and videotape(1989) "Almost by definition, anything that people respond to with that kind of intensity is dated. Something was in the air that people connected to, and I wouldn't even pretend to know or attempt to analyze ityou'd drive yourself crazy trying to duplicate it." Kafka(1991) "I wish I were older when I'd made it. I didn't have the chops yet to pull it off. It's just not fun enough; it was never intended to be really serious but that doesn't come across." King of the Hill(1993) "It was an attempt to make a classical, straightforward narrative, and also in trying to stretch as a director, I'd always heard kids were a real chore, and I thought, well, let's try it. I wish it were grittier, but it's a solid piece of American filmmaking. It's the least European of the first four and that was part of its appeal: Can I strip myself of my Antonioni obsession?" The Underneath(1995) "It's the coldest of the films I've made. There's something somnambulant about it. I was sleepwalking in my life and my work, and it shows. It offered some challenges in terms of fractured narrative that I was interested in, just not interested enough. The star of that movie, to my mind, is the cinematographer, Elliot Davis." Schizopolis/Gray's Anatomy(1996) "One was an exercise in verbal and narrative abstraction, the other in visual abstraction, and both of them defined the edges and gave me a shape to work within that I hadn't had before. They've both informed every film that I've made since." Out of Sight(1998) "The stakes are higher when you're playing in an arena of that size. There's more pressure, more people watching. But I think this helped me get over any fear I might have had because I had such a great time making it and people seemed to like it a lot. I came away feeling it was a good thing to have done." The Limey(1999) "You could, without risking offense, call it a minor work. But it was important for me because of the opportunity it provided to experiment with narrative and indulge some ideas left over from Out of Sight." Erin Brockovich(2000) "Like most people, I don't like to be lectured, so I was going strictly on my own instincts about how I want to be spoken to by a movie. You know, it's a Rocky movie, but the point was to make a good one, and that means not having a raised-fist courtroom scene at the end but finding a more oblique way to pay homage to the history of the genre."