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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