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'I want to take more risks'
Steven Soderbergh is tired. Anyone would be under these conditions: he's jet-lagged after having just flown in to Venice for the first international screening of his latest film, Full Frontal, and he's been doing tag teams of interviewers all day. God knows how many people have asked what it's like working with Julia Roberts - who appears in this latest film as she did in Ocean's Eleven and Erin Brockovich. Or how many have asked how he felt about the film's mixed critical reception in the States. A trooper who understands what's expected of him, Soderbergh answers every question patiently and thoughtfully, although you get the impression some responses may be better rehearsed than others. But frankly, his exhaustion goes a little beyond jet lag.
"I'm dying to go to a festival where I don't have a movie showing because I never get to see anything, " he says. "I'm taking a year off next year, so maybe I'll just go from one festival to the next as an audience member. I'm just so tired. I've made seven films back to back and I need time to think about what I want to do next."
I can just imagine him, with his post-graduate specs and a baseball hat, haunting the film festivals of the world, standing in line to see Hong Kong gangster movies and Latin American thrillers. The guy deserves a break. Only 39 years old, he's already had two distinct career arcs as a director. The first began with the extraordinary success of his debut feature Sex, Lies and Videotape which won the Palme d'Or in 1989. He followed that with a number of well-regarded films - including Kafka, King of the Hill and The Underneath - none of which repeated his debut's financial success. Seemingly pissed off with the pressures of Hollywood, he went underground to make Schizopolis, a truly whacky, barely-seen experimental film starring himself and friends, that views like the bastard love-child of Jean-Luc Godard and Richard Lester (director of A Hard Day's Night), who are tow of Soderbergh's heroes.
The exercise either cleared his head or got something out of his system, or both, because after that it was a steady climb back to box office success, starting with the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez vehicle Out of Sight, then The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic (for which he won a Best Director Oscar) and the big-bucks-earning Ocean's Eleven. With those movies, Soderbergh cemented his reputation as a supremely talented director with a gift for getting the best from actors and an adventurous storyteller who marries the narrative tricks of the French New Wave with the production values and accessibility of Hollywood mainstream film-making.
And then came Full Frontal. Semi-improvised, shot with a hand-held camera (since Schizopolis, Soderbergh has shot most of his own films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), it's a bit of a mess as a story and full of interesting ideas, but it will never earn the kind of revenue his last three movies earned. It will be released in the UK in November, hopefully. But what makes Soderbergh so interesting as a filmmaker is that he doesn't seem to care about the release, it's as if he made this just to prove something to himself. (Some have conjectured he deliberately made a difficult movie to get the studios off his back.)
Full Frontal, the story of an interconnected group of LA residents, some in the movie business, some not, was shot in 18 days and cost only $2m (which it's already earned back at the US box office). Soderbergh imposed certain rules on the shoot, for example forcing the cast members to drive themselves to work every day and wear their own clothes. I asked him whether there was a similar motivation to that which drove the Dogme group (Festen, The Idiots, et al) to forswear genre, extraneous props and even using anything but natural lighting. Was he deliberately hobbling himself and others with self-imposed constraints in order to get back to first principles?
"Absolutely," he replies. "Everything interesting has probably been done by Godard already. And he was certainly the first person to push this idea in a really meaningful way. But five years ago when I went and made Schizopolis, I was shooting it as Dogme founders were swearing to their 10 Vows of Chastity. And that whole production (Schizopolis) was very similar to Full Frontal in that we had only five or six people on the crew and there was no money, and that happened because Iw anted to go back and reacquaint myself with a kind of amateur form of film-making."
So was it rewarding in the end? "Making smaller films like Full Frontal is rewarding, yes, but it's also hard. Shooting 115 pages in 18 days is intense. You're really got to push yourself and push those around you. It's very satisfying in a lot of ways, but there's nothing casual about it."
No sooner had he finished it than he began shooting Solaris, a film based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem that inspired Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Soviet sci-fi film of the same name. It tells the story of an astronaut of the future orbiting a sentient planet that begins to conjure up ghostly projections of his dead wife. It will star Soderbergh's regular collaborator and producing partner George Clooney. The film has finished shooting and is now in the editing stage.
Soderbergh describes it as a "sort of medium budget film by studio standards. It will be very different fro the Tarkovsky film. I went back to the book and also wrote the screenplay, which I haven't done in a while, so there's a lot of my own preoccupations in it. I really don't know how to describe it because it's not like anything I've ever done before. The biggest difference between what Lem and Tarkovsky did and what I'm doing is that you see their relationship on earth and the events that led to her suicide, so you understand, I hope, that as they play out their relationship in the space station orbiting Solaris, they dread the idea that their relationship is beginning to descend to the same depths it did on Earth. The key question is whether that's inevitable or whether you have free will and can change the course of this relationship."
Which was harder to make, Full Frontal,
Solaris or Ocean's Eleven? "I don't know," says Soderbergh, with
of weariness one sees in a patriarch discussing a difficult brood of
children. "It feels like they're all getting harder. Which just seems
weird to me. Ocean's at the time I thought was really, really difficult.
Full Frontal turned out to be difficult but in a different way. And
Solaris has turned out to be difficult in all the ways a movie can be
difficult, so I don't know what's going on. On the one hand, just from a
learning my craft standpoint, these should be easier but they're getting
harder. Maybe it's because as you know more, you have a better sense of
what can go wrong and what does and doesn't work. And then it becomes more
difficult to make choices. Maybe that's why I need to take a break."
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