Film: Out of sight, out of mind

Director Steven Soderbergh hit the major box-office league with sex, lies and videotape, then spent the next 10 years making low-budget flops. Why? He'd lost sight of his muse, the Swinging-Sixties director, Richard Lester.

In 1989, when Steven Soderbergh went up on stage at Cannes to collect the Palme d'Or for his first film, sex, lies and videotape, he joked: "Well, I guess it's all downhill from here." He was 26. Made for $1.2m, sex, lies went on to gross 100 times that internationally. It provided a blueprint for independent success that changed the American film industry, blazing the trail for everything from Clerks to Pulp Fiction.

Over the next decade, however, Soderbergh's career didn't so much go down the hill as right past it altogether. The next time he impinged on the consciousness of the multiplex-going public was directing George Clooney in last year's cool and snappy Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. But in the intervening years he had made another five little- seen movies, the obscurest - and cheapest - of which, Schizopolis, finally reaches British screens this week, (four years after it was shot), as part of a touring package of neglected US independents.

With Hollywood at his feet after sex, lies, Soderbergh was free to do whatever he wanted. But instead of snapping up A-list star vehicles, he chose to make Kafka, King of the Hill and The Underneath - three clever, serious, perfectly formed little movies which promptly sank without trace at the box office.

Then in 1995 he decided to take a sabbatical to "cleanse the palate". Armed with $250,000 borrowed from Universal Studios, he went home to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and emerged nine months later with something completely different - Schizopolis. An anarchic collage of gags and sketches, it revolves around an employee in a Scientology-like cult, played by Soderbergh himself, whose wife has an affair with his doppelganger, a local dentist. "Strange as it may seem, there was a screenplay," Soderbergh comments, eternally deadpan, before conceding that the finished product "is a little more out of control than I might have imagined."

Though there's a hint of Dadaism about Schizopolis - scenes in gibberish dialogue, a central character named Schwitters, after the German Dadaist who made art out of rubbish he found in the street - the chief inspiration, Soderbergh reveals, was rather less intellectual: Richard Lester, the man behind such frenetic, swinging Sixties comedies as A Hard Day's Night, The Knack and Spike Milligan's The Bed Sitting Room. "One of the realisations I had when I decided to bail out for a while," Soderbergh explains, "was that Lester was one of my favourite film-makers. My early short films had displayed a lot of that kind of energy, and I wondered what had happened to it."

After churning out two Superman sequels in the early- Eighties, Lester dropped spectacularly out of fashion, and was last heard of shooting a Paul McCartney concert film. But Soderbergh is still keeping the flame, even writing a book about Lester for Faber &Faber, to be published in October this year.

The key film for Soderbergh is Petulia, a 1968 dissection of middle-class relationships in San Francisco on which Lester, in collaboration with his cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, experimented with the sort of kaleidoscopic, flashback-heavy structure Roeg later appropriated for Performance and Don't Look Now. "As far as I'm concerned, Petulia's just a flat-out masterpiece, one of the best films of the Sixties," says Soderbergh. "I made everybody who was working on Out of Sight watch that. When you look at Lester's career, he made a very eclectic group of films. I think he was very restless in terms of subject matter, and that was something I responded to."

Schizopolis may not have improved Soderbergh's fortunes at the box office, but at $250,000 there wasn't a great deal of budget to recoup in the first place. What it did achieve, however (apart from showcasing his unexpected skills as a slapstick comedian) was to loosen up his style no end - a lesson he promptly put into practice with Out of Sight (made for around 200 times Schizopolis's budget). Could he have done Out of Sight without experimenting on Schizopolis first? "I could have," he replies, "but I would have ruined it."

Soderbergh is currently putting the finishing touches to The Limey, a "sort of" thriller about an Englishman (played by Terence Stamp) in California. It's his eighth feature in 10 years, not bad going by anyone's standards. Along the way he has also become a successful producer, following up the low-budget hit The Day Trippers with Pleasantville, a charming Fifties satire which also, by coincidence, opens in the UK this week, having topped the box-office charts in America.

As Soderbergh tells it, the whole thing was a happy accident: his friend, Gary Ross, Oscar-winning writer of Big, was making his directorial debut on Pleasantville, and wanted someone "to bounce ideas off. I was like a paid friend - I was there when he needed me and stayed away when he didn't."

Such self-deprecation isn't usually a hallmark of Hollywood directors, but Soderbergh seems to mean it. Even 10 years on, he still seems uncomfortable with the runaway success of sex, lies: when the conversation strays on to the film's role in changing the landscape of American cinema, he back- pedals as fast as he can: "If it was a pseudo mini-watershed film, it's only because it made a lot of money. If the film had come out and made $500,000, it wouldn't have started anything."

In fact, he seems far more interested in his failures. In 1996, to make ends meet while filming Schizopolis, he became a writer for hire, working on the ill-fated Ewan McGregor vehicle Nightwatch, which went straight to video in the UK ( "That was a very unusual experience"). He also spent a year on an abortive project for Henry Selick (who made The Nightmare Before Christmas). With perfect timing, he drawls: "I think I may not be very good at writing for hire."

For him, what's important is to keep working. "There are a couple of young film-makers I know who made first features that they wrote and who have yet to make their second, and I keep telling them it's more important to be out there practising than writing and directing everything to maintain auteur status. Nobody gives a damn about that." He pauses, as if he's given too much away. "I always knew that I wasn't going to write everything I directed," he continues slowly. "And I didn't want to because I wanted to be busier than that."

He certainly keeps busy. Next up after The Limey he's directing Julia Roberts, if all goes according to plan, in an as yet untitled account of a real-life lawsuit brought by the citizens of a small Californian town against the local gas and electricity company. After that is Traffik, the big-screen, US-transposition of the early-Nineties Channel 4 serial about the drugs trade. But that's as far ahead as he'll commit himself. "I don't have tons of stuff I'm developing," he explains, " because I know after each movie you come out of the foxhole with a different view of things."

There's one New Year's resolution he's hoping to squeeze in somewhere along the line, however - finishing the script to Son of Schizopolis. "Despite the lack of demand," he insists, "I'm going to make a sequel." Richard Lester, I'm sure, would approve.

Schizopolis is reviewed on page 10

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice