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SIDE EFFECTS
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State of independence
Writer and director Steven Soderbergh struck gold with Sex, Lies and Videotape before nearly disappearing up his own oeuvre. Now he has found mainstream hits like Oceanís Eleven give him licence to take as many risks as he wants.
(Scotland on Sunday, January 23, 2005)

If you want to sum up Steven Soderberghís career to date, look no further than the title of the diary he published in 1999. Called Getting Away With It, or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, it is the perfect measure of the manís humility, self-deprecating humour and self-belief. This, after all, was before he became one of Hollywoodís most sought-after directors, with a trio of back-to-back 100 million hits in the shape of Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Oceanís Eleven. At the time he wrote the diary, he was a Hollywood pariah, considered untouchable by any executive worth his salt.

After Sex, Lies and Videotape, his 1989 debut as a writer and director, had catapulted him to fame, it was a fall of Icarus-like proportions. Winner of the prestigious Palme díOr, and nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, Soderbergh was just a green 26-year-old from Louisiana when he made his story of dysfunctional sexuality. Frequently heralded as the film that kick-started the American independent-movie revolution, it didnít quite take its creator with it. By 1996, the year his book details, he had a string of perceived failures behind him and a reputation for disappearing up his own backside. From Kafka, his playful 1991 black-and-white tribute to the Czech writer, to Grayís Anatomy, a monologue spoken by the late raconteur Spalding Gray, who had starred in Soderberghís unsentimental period drama King of the Hill in 1993, he was following just one rule. As he puts it, "Iíve always said to some degree that whatever youíre working on should annihilate what youíd done before."

Unfortunately, it almost annihilated his career. It was teaming up with George Clooney that saved him, on the well-respected Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight, in 1998. Just three years later, with a Best Director Oscar for the drugs drama Traffic, and Soderbergh could do no wrong - again. "I think Iíve learned more from the films that have not done really well than from those that have," he says. "Success is like this mysterious person you meet at a party. You feel like you have this connection, you spend the night together, and you wake up the next morning and theyíre gone. Failure is like the house-guest who wonít leave. As a result, you can learn more from it. Success just feels like lightning struck. You could stand on the roof with a rod for the next two years and lightning wouldnít strike. You just canít conjure it up."

Having turned 42 this month, heís no longer the gawky kid who accepted the Palme díOr in Cannes with the infamous (and somewhat prophetic) words, "Itís all downhill from here." Although still reed-thin, gone is the curly mop that made him look like a fluffed-up cotton-bud. That hair is now receding. Minus his trademark baseball cap and thick-rimmed glasses, today heís wearing a navy blue jumper and equally plain trousers - a nondescript uniform that seems to match his self-effacing personality.

But if his dress-sense is bland, his conversation is anything but. Lucid and analytical when it comes to talking about his work, he seems like a man entirely in touch with his creativity, yet one completely grounded in the practical nature of managing a career in the long-term. He attributes his resurrection to deciding against making films that "were only appropriate for art-house theatres". As he says, "I wanted to go back and forth between more traditional movie-star-driven films, and smaller films. I think if you stay in either one of those all the time you can become complacent."

Itís a doctrine he has stuck to. After the swagger of Oceanís Eleven, gathering together a stellar cast that included Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts for a superior remake of the Rat Pack classic, he made the no-budget (and much-maligned) Hollywood satire Full Frontal and then remade Tarkovskyís sci-fi masterpiece Solaris, again with Clooney. Talk about putting yourself in the firing line. This February sees him back on familiar ground for the first sequel of his career. Oceanís Twelve recalls the same cast - with the addition of Catherine Zeta-Jones - for the further adventures of some more of the luckiest bastards you ever saw.

Set in Amsterdam, Paris and Rome, as the gang of thieves who robbed three casinos in the original are forced to find 93 million to pay back the man they swindled, it recaptures the laid-back vibe of Oceanís Eleven, while deepening the charactersí relationships. Not that Soderbergh wants to get too heavy. "At the end of the day, itís almost criminal to talk about either of those movies in anything but the most superficial terms, because theyíre literally meant to party," he says. While many of the cast relaxed at Clooneyís Lake Como villa, Soderbergh himself had time to neither party nor get star-struck. "At that point, Iím running on adrenaline and panic," he laughs. "Iím somewhere else, trying to hang on by my fingernails."

While the film has already made around 115 million in America, it still has some way to go before it tops the receipts of its predecessor, which took 183 million in the US alone. "Itís definitely weird to make a movie and you know that if doesnít make as much money as the first one, itíll be considered a failure," says Soderbergh. "Thatís weird. But thereís nothing I can do about it - I can only make something I think is good and see what happens."

Cynics might say that with Soderberghís production company Section Eight, formed with Clooney in 2000 and housed at Warner Brothers, the studio behind both the Oceanís films, the sequel is a convenient way to keep his paymasters sweet. After all, Section Eight productions - from Clooneyís directorial debut Confessions of a Dangerous Mind to his ensemble heist movie Welcome to Collinwood - have hardly set the box-office alight. "Itís tricky," he says. "I want them all to do well, at least within the scale of how they were made. But itís hard. Our only rule is not to second-guess ourselves. Weíre just trying to make stuff that we think is interesting.

"On one level you could say, ĎThey made Oceanís Twelve because all these other movies that they are making arenít performing and they need to make a hit film once in a while to finance all these other mistakes.í That is partially true. But I made Oceanís Twelve because I wanted to make it. Nobody asked me to make it. I wanted to make it - and I made it the way that I wanted and was totally left alone by the studio. But it so happens that it does buy us a lot of Ďmistakesí - or at least smaller movies that may not become profitable."

True or not, Section Eight is beginning to find its feet, and giving an opportunity to leftfield film-makers such as John Maybury (whose much-admired debut was Francis Bacon biopic Love Is the Devil, in 1998) to work in the mainstream. Mayburyís psychological drama The Jacket, with Keira Knightley, makes its bow at the Sundance film festival this week, a vindication of Section Eightís remit. "I felt that, in the United States at least, people who were writing about films were not being helpful, in that they tend to encourage young film-makers to look at studios as antagonists," says Soderbergh.

"I was drawing my lessons from the late í60s and í70s, where you had really interesting film-makers working successfully in the studio system. My assumption was always that we should be trying to emulate that. What we should all want is for the smartest directors around to have the resources that the dumb directors have."

Next month sees the release here of Criminal, a remake of the Argentinian film Nine Queens, directed by Greg Jacobs. It was co-written with Jacobs by Soderbergh (under his pen-name Sam Lowry, a reference to the Jonathan Pryce character in Terry Gilliamís Brazil). "Under different circumstances, Criminal is a movie that I wouldíve been interested in directing," he says. "It plays to everything that Iím interested in."

Yet what makes Soderbergh such an intriguing director is his willingness to dig into his own life, when necessary, for the sake of his art. Culled from his own personal problems at the time, Sex, Lies and Videotape was written during an eight-day road trip from his home-town of Baton Rouge to Los Angeles. Then duplicitous to those he was dating, he even tried therapy. Like the four characters he would create - whom he said were his own four personality traits - Soderbergh would admit that he too struggled with the gulf between himself and those around him. "[At the time] I was deceptive and mentally manipulative," he recalls. "I was just f**king up. There was one point at which I was in a bar, and within a radius of about two feet there were three different women I was sleeping with."

Shortly after the success of that film, he met his first wife, the actress Betsy Brantley, who had almost bagged the female lead in Kafka. Soderbergh was smitten. After a rapid courtship, he married her in December 1989 and the pair moved into a 40-acre estate in Virginia. Within a year their daughter, Sarah, was born. But it was not to last. By 1995, as his career was crumbling before his eyes, his marriage was too. Rather than crawl under a stone, Soderbergh did what few would dare: he obliquely channelled it into the movie that would reinvigorate his belief in film-making.

Schizopolis, shot over a period of nine months, remains, he says, "probably one of the weirdest movies made by a mainstream director". Inspired by his love of the films of Richard Lester, who made The Beatlesí films Help! and A Hard Dayís Night, itís an anarchic comedy about the redundancy of language that casts its director as the central character, office drone Fletcher Munson. Opposite Soderbergh, playing Fletcherís unfaithful wife, is Brantley. One can only imagine the tension on set. "It just had to be done," Soderbergh reflects.

"Everybody involved would say that it was a very loaded atmosphere, because I was acting with my ex-wife and it was all pretty recent. It just felt like something that needed to be done. It was probably cathartic in some way, although I didnít assume it would be and I wasnít looking for that. I was just trying to find my own language, or a new language, or something. I think at that time I was more specifically aiming at a feeling in a marriage that has lost its way and lost its spark, and youíre play-acting: youíre not present; youíre somewhere else; youíve just become an automaton."

Since 2001 Soderbergh has been with Jules Asner, a statuesque brunette and former model who has since turned to acting and working for US showbiz programme E!. In comparison to the lavish celebrity marriages of many of his actors, Soderberghís marriage to Asner was an anonymous affair in New York, where they now share a home. Despite being the face of independent American cinema and an Oscar winner, the director still values his privacy. "I remember Brad Pitt, on Oceanís Eleven, when he had that wig and glasses on, going off on his own and walking around the casino. Nobody recognised him, and he was so excited by that. He was so happy to be anonymous that he took off for a few minutes to walk around. That stuck in my mind - Jesus! What a life, where you canít move without someone recognising you."

Celebrity has only ever been a minor theme in Soderberghís body of work - seen in Full Frontal and Oceanís Twelve, with its numerous industry in-jokes. In fact, itís hard to pinpoint many overall patterns in his oeuvre, particularly as he adopts distinct visual styles for each project. Yet an interest in our cultureís need for alternative ways of looking at the world (be it via the therapy sessions of Sex, Lies and Videotape, the Scientology-esque cult seen in Schizopolis or the Indian sweat-lodge in Grayís Anatomy), do frequently occur in his work. Even in Oceanís Twelve, Elliott Gouldís gaudy ex-casino owner frequents palm-readers.

"Iím a hardcore atheist," Soderbergh admits. "That magical thinking, while I understand it and will admit that I have a pair of good-luck boots that I wear usually when Iím shooting..." He trails off for a moment. "Iím interested in that stuff to the extent that Iím very curious as to how people get into a frame of mind that allows them to think this way and to design their lives around this thinking. Itís very interesting to me. My mother was into a lot of this stuff, so itís something I grew up around. Iím not allergic to it. I just donít relate to it."

His mother - whom Brantley reputedly once described as "the nightmare that looms in all of his sleep" - would regularly hold seances and palm-readings. Soderberghís father, meanwhile, was an academic - a professor of education at Louisiana State University. It was he who first introduced his son to film, enrolling him in an animation class at the university. Only 13 at the time, Soderbergh quickly grew bored, but it afforded him his first industry contact. After graduating from high school, he was hired as an editor by his former tutor, who was then working on the short-lived television show Games People Play. After a spell working in Los Angeles as a freelance editor and even as a cue-card holder, Soderbergh eventually cut his losses and headed back to Baton Rogue. While there, a chance meeting with Yes, the prog-rock band, resulted in him being asked to shoot their 1986 tour.

As can be seen from his films, Soderbergh was no committed radical growing up, trying to change the world. "Iím not apolitical, but Iím also not Ken Loach," he says. "I grew up in a suburban subdivision in a very resolutely middle-class environment, and I had two very intelligent parents, who were very engaged in the world, so itís not like Iím not interested in that. But it depends on the subject-matter. I think you could make the argument that Traffic was a political film. But I donít want to make a political film where the only people who can sit through it are people who agree with me. There would be no point to that. So then you have to choose your subjects very carefully. And the best films with political content are also about something else."

Soderbergh has two films in the works that could easily be dubbed political. Furthering his interest in the evil machinations of corporations, after both Kafka and Erin Brockovich, first up is The Informant. Based on the true story of Archers Daniel Midland, a food-processing company that is in cahoots with the Japanese to fix prices in the global food market, it hinges upon a whistleblower who turns out to be a pathological liar. Then comes a project devoted to the final days of Che Guevaraís life and is set to reunite Soderbergh with Trafficís Benicio Del Toro.

"I donít feel Iíve made anything as good as the movies that made me want to make movies," he says. "Iím on that treadmill, trying to make something I think is as good as those films. Itís frustrating in that you always feel you missed."

Yet, a decade and a half on from Sex, Lies and Videotape, itís thanks to Soderbergh that the fight for independence is alive and well and living in Hollywood.

 


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