Autobiography, or reel life

Steven Soderbergh is back, but was he ever away?
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The Independent Culture
Steven Soderbergh doesn't think much of the widely circulated theory that his new movie represents some sort of comeback. "What's that Gloria Swanson line from Sunset Boulevard? 'I hate that word! It's a return!' I guess my question would be, 'Back from what?' I've been pretty busy."

He appears to have been busy reinventing himself. After his last studio picture, the ambitious but confused modern-day noir The Underneath (1995), Soderbergh retreated to his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and guerilla- style, knocked out a couple of ultra-low-budget films, the freewheeling Spalding Gray monologue, Gray's Anatomy (seen on BBC2 earlier this year), and Schizopolis, a hilarious, seriously unhinged psychodrama that combined baffling semiotic games with Pythonesque sketch comedy (still unreleased in Britain). His new film, Out of Sight, is an Elmore Leonard adaptation and a George Clooney vehicle, but Soderbergh insists: "Those films really loosened me up. Schizopolis in particular taught me the value of not dissecting things ahead of time."

In an industry that prizes sure things, the 35-year-old director is, by his own admission, something of a wild card. His $1.2m debut feature, sex, lies and videotape - a quietly precocious study of sexual tics, gender warfare and deception between lovers - won the Palme d'Or in 1989, and went on to make nearly $100m worldwide. The first Sundance-incubated movie to demonstrate earning-power on that scale, it laid the groundwork for an American independent film boom. Re-evaluating his breakthrough hit one decade on, Soderbergh observes matter-of-factly: "It's OK. It's better directed than it is written, and better acted than it is directed." The director - who, it becomes clear in conversation, is often his own harshest critic - maintains that the movie's success owed much to timing. "It is a film that is of a very specific period. There was something in the air that I managed to grab hold of, something that must have been on other people's minds as well."

Soderbergh's next three films - Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath (all, in their own way, extremely personal projects) - all bombed at the box office. Kafka, a stylised pseudo-biopic with Jeremy Irons in the title role (and a hopeless commercial prospect from the get-go), is often unfairly cited as an example of a sophomore crash-landing. The Depression-era King of the Hill won deserved plaudits for its sensitive yet unsentimental evocation of coming-of-age pangs, but audiences paid little attention. The Underneath, an update of Robert Siodmak's 1948 film noir Criss Cross, started out as a vague attempt at genre deconstruction, but lacking conviction, eventually succumbed to genre cliches. "The most sobering aspect of making The Underneath was to sit on a set and not feel excited about what I was doing," says Soderbergh. "I realised it was just because I'd drifted into an area that wasn't very challenging or ambitious."

So, acting largely on instinct, he bought some used camera gear and old film stock, rounded up a handful of old friends, and shot Schizopolis, taking on the roles of director, writer, cinematographer, and star (with his perennially quizzical expression, he's actually a very effective comic performer). Soderbergh says the film was largely concerned with "the death of language within a relationship". He was going through a divorce at the time, and, as if to emphasise the movie's personal subtext, he cast his ex-wife, actress Betsy Brantley, and their young daughter as his on-screen family. (Schizopolis wasn't the first time Soderbergh dabbled in autobiography; he has said that sex, lies ... was based in part on his own infidelities.)

"Schizopolis was really made for myself," he says. "When you make a film for $250,000, I think you can justify being that cavalier." More than personal catharsis, though, the film served as a badly needed creative jump-start. The daring, headlong, anything-goes experimentalism of Schizopolis informs the infectious energy of Out of Sight, a familiar story about lovers from opposite sides of the law that, in Soderbergh's hands, is somehow fresh and unpredictable, distinctly off-balance in a way that makes the film as a whole seem irresistibly "rhythmic". As faithful as it remains to the source material, it is unmistakably Soderbergh's movie, full of small personalising touches. "I guess it was self-evident to everybody that if I did it, there was no way I wasn't going to pee on it," he deadpans. "It was going to have my stench, no matter what. Fortunately, that's what Jersey Films [the production company] wanted. They made it clear they had no desire to make Get Shorty 2."

Playful as it is, the new film, Soderbergh points out, is not necessarily that far removed from his early, decidedly more remote, work. "At the end of the day, it's slightly fatalistic. And thanks to Elmore Leonard, there's a very non-reductive view of people. I like that the characters don't change; I don't see that happening in life very much, so I tend to be suspicious when people undergo big changes in films. I'm not an Elmore Leonard obsessive the way, say, Tarantino is, but I certainly felt his very specific, ironic tone was one I understood and could cast for." It was, he says, a remarkably smooth shoot. "The trick was finding the balance between not fucking it up and staying loose. Schizopolis was the most fun I'd ever had making a movie - running around with five friends, shooting whatever the hell you want, nothing can top that - but I'd say Out of Sight was the most fun you could have making a studio movie."

Though famously good with actors (no one in the sex, lies cast - which included James Spader and Andie MacDowell - has ever been better), Soderbergh refuses to take too much credit for the wonderfully vivid performances in Out of Sight. Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, and Steve Zahn, among many others, are terrific; George Clooney, usually the most mannered of actors, drops his ingratiating tics and, here at least, proves himself more effortlessly charming than any Hollywood actor in his pay bracket. "George came in knowing exactly what he needed to do," insists Soderbergh. "He got it right and I didn't f--- with it." If Out of Sight feels like the kind of film that somehow, without trying too hard, gets every last detail right, it has much to do with his collaborators, Soderbergh says, citing longtime collaborator Elliot Davis's "space-and-colour-conscious" cinematography and the witty, evocative score by David Holmes. ("I wanted a combination of Lalo Schifrin's Dirty Harry and the first year of The Rockford Files, and David just totally got it.")

Thanks to the glowing reviews (and modest box-office success) of Out of Sight, Soderbergh is suddenly one of the busiest and most sought-after directors in Hollywood. He is about to start post-production on The Limey, an indie thriller that stars Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda and reunites him with his Kafka screenwriter, Lem Dobbs. For next year, he has already signed on to direct Leatherhead, a big-budget period sports comedy that will again pair him with Clooney, and a movie version of Traffik, the acclaimed Channel 4 drug-trade mini-series. A long-germinating project, an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, is finally back with him after a long legal battle with the producer, Scott Rudin, and he also has an original screenplay in mind, "something with the narrative spine of sex, lies and videotape, but the modus operandi of Schizopolis."

This promising slate of projects should further prove Soderbergh's versatility and resourcefulness, but no less importantly, it also underscores his implicit, admirable reluctance to repeat himself as a film-maker. "People have stopped trying to predict what I'm going to do and what it means," he says, assuming a tone of mock self-satisfaction. "I knew if I kept going, that would happen after a while."

Out of Sight (15) is released on Friday.