Soderbergh, Steven: Director Profile

Indies' Poster Child: Steven Soderbergh

It's hard to think of a more influential independent film than Soderbergh's first feature, sex, lies and videotape, one of the most stunning debuts in American film history. The film forever changed the public perception of independent movies–and of the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered. It also established Soderbergh as the most promising director of his generation–a poster child for indie filmmaking.

In addition to directing seven films, Soderbergh has executive-produced Suture, The Daytrippers, and Pleasantville, but he's still pigeonholed as the man who made sex, lies, and videotape–largely because it's his only movie that earned money. “In retrospect, I think that's the most memorable thing about it,” said Soderbergh. “It's time for me to get a new middle name.”

Soderbergh began his directorial career in 1989, a decade after Lynch and Sayles. His universe is not as rich or complex as Sayles, though he's more in control of the medium's technical facilities. With seven films to his credits, Soderbergh has shown versatility, hopping from genre to genre. But to what effect After a decade's work, the verdict is still out on the caliber of his talent, and a baffling question persists: Who is Soderbergh as a filmmaker His choice of material has been dubious, also showing a strong need for a writer-collaborator.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia in January 1963, Soderbergh seemed destined to become a filmmaker. He began making movies at the age of 14 when his father, a college dean, enrolled him in a summer class at Louisiana State University. Upon graduation from high school, he headed for Hollywood. It never occurred to him to go to film school. There was no need: he had spent his adolescence hanging around film students, borrowing equipment, arguing about movies. He had already cut his teeth making Super-8 shorts.

Soderbergh experienced a frustrating spell in Hollywood with a routine job, holding cue cards for a talk show. Trying to sell a script, he returned to Baton Rouge a year later, feeling a failure. Soon after, he got a job at a video arcade, wrote a number of scrips, and made shorts. Soderbergh's break came in 1986, when the rock group Yes asked him to shoot concert footage, which was later shaped into a Grammy-award winning video. In 1987, Soderbergh put an “abrupt halt to all the bad personal stuff” that would be the basis for sex, lies and videotape. He wrote the screenplay in motels as he drove cross country headed West. With backing from RCA/Columbia Home Video, the $1.2 million movie was completed a year later, representing “an end chapter” to a package of emotions he had been carrying with him for years.

The most remarkable thing about sex, lies and videotape was its freshness–it didn't recall any other film. Soderbergh spoke with a distinctive voice about issues that mattered. Intimate in scale, the film is a finely crafted, modern-day morality tale. Set in Baton Rouge, it revolves around an outsider, a handsome young man named Graham (James Spader). Sexually impotent, Graham derives gratification from recording women talking about their sex lives.

A success at Sundance and a triumph in Cannes, sex, lies and videotape made Soderbergh, at 26, the youngest director to ever win the Palme d'Or. The movie also won the Cannes acting award for Spader and was later nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Soderbergh was stunned at people's response to his movie; he thought it was “too internal, too self-absorbed.” Though not autobiographical, the film is personal: Soderbergh was not a sexual interrogator, but he was in a relationship where he behaved much like the film's adulterous husband, hurting someone he was close to.

As the movie begins, a beauty in a long flowered dress, Ann Millaney (Andie MacDowell), sits in her psychiatrist's office and talks about her fear: what will happen to all the garbage piling up in the world Her soft Southern voice floats over the image of Graham, her husband's friend, who stops for a shave in a men's room, splashing water under his armpits before driving on to Baton Rouge. At the same time, Ann's husband, John (Peter Gallagher), takes off his wedding ring and heads off for a sexual interlude with Ann's sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). By the end of the opening sequence, when Graham takes his duffle bag from his trunk, Soderbergh has mapped out the film's smooth style and mature tone.

A Liaisons Dangereuses for the video age, the movie is an absorbing tale of desire and anxiety in which Graham's camera becomes the lead player. The film is structured as a layered labyrinth, in which the links among the partners are initially based on self-denial and deception. Documenting the video generation, Soderbergh shows an insider's sense of his characters' mental world. He directs the camera as if it were a natural storytelling device. The camera cuts fluidly from one pair to another, showing precision for details that are both funny and chilling. Dialogue-driven, the movie contains long sequences shot in close-up. Technically, Soderbergh's debut was more accomplished than most first efforts.

Smart but confused, and hiding behind her good-girl demeanor, Ann never descends into coyness. She tells her psychiatrist, “I'm kinda goin' through this thing where I don't want him to touch me.” Her fragile look hides a sexuality whose existence she can hardly admit. Calling her sister “an extrovert, kind of loud,” turns out to be accurate. Cynthia sports a sharp nose, a randy gap between her teeth and a husky voice that suggests risk-taking. Sexually confident, she flaunts her shapely body in tight shirts and skirts. Cynthia's affair with John is built on as much sibling rivalry and the thrill of deception as on sexual heat. “The beautiful, the perfect Ann,” Cynthia says with contempt, suggesting a manic edge beneath her self-possession.

Every character in the film is precisely constructed. From his wire-rim glasses and suspenders to his compulsive womanizing, John represents a shallow, amoral 1980s yuppie. But it's Graham who's the most intriguing character, a “nightmare” product of the video age. Impotent, his physical satisfaction stems from watching tapes of women revealing their sexual histories. With hesitant smile and tentative voice, Graham is both sweet and sinister. Upon arriving at Ann's house, he instantly starts questioning her, “What do you like best about being married” He is a cool observer, so detached that voyeurism hardly matches his personality. Ann, the film's most sympathetic character, sees in Graham vulnerable qualities, perceiving him as a kindred repressed spirit. She responds to him sexually, but runs from friendship when she learns about his tapes.

Graham distances everyone with his camera, an apt metaphor for people who can only relate through mediated images. Like Antonioni's Blow Up, beneath the adultery intrigue, the film poses more serious questions about the potency of the video camera as alternative to real and direct experience. The bright windows that frame the characters reinforce the idea of voyeurism, while preventing the drama from becoming too claustrophobic. With a delicate serio-comic tone, the director's authority embraces every detail. Ann sees John as the Husband and he sees her as the Wife; Cynthia sees every male as a sex object. Soderbergh's camera, like Graham's, is more concerned with talk than sex–it's the dialogue that carries the erotic charge. All the characters are problematic: the dark deception of John and Cynthia, the buried passion of Ann and Graham.

The film is by no means perfect. The characters' motivations are too simple: Cynthia needs to set herself apart from Ann, and Ann rejects sex partly because of Cynthia. The resolution is too neat for these messy lives, and the formation of a new couple at the end, while tentative, is too upbeat for this kind of tale. Those aspects, combined with a cast of name actors (rather than unknowns), positioned Soderbergh as a filmmaker who wants to do his own work but stay close to the mainstream.

It would have been more dramatic, but also more predictable, if the film assumed Graham's distorted point of view, but Soderbergh's detached strategy is more challenging. Soderbergh should also get credit for not allowing the viewers any distance, urging them to weigh the characters' morality while evaluating their own motives. As Janet Maslin pointed out, the moral transgressions committed by the characters are measured on a sliding scale: Is cheating on a sister worse than cheating on a spouse Is lying to oneself as bad as lying to others It's all relative, with gray shading and moral ambiguity. “I look around this town,” Graham tells Ann, “and I see John and Cynthia and you, and I feel comparatively healthy.” Graham's ritualistic recording of women's confessions is his a means of seeking truth, but as the movie's title indicates, it's the dishonesty in sex, lies and videotape that gives it its edge. As Maslin suggested, each of the four principals turns out to be a liar of one sort or another, and weighing the different dishonest acts becomes the audience's responsibility.

After his breakthrough, Soderbergh made the visually striking but intellectually vapid Kafka (1991), which inadvertently gave credence to the theory of sophomore jinx. A paranoid thriller, whose style was deliberately artificial, Kafka felt much more like a first film than sex, lies and videotape. Shot in black and white, with an impressive international cast, it was neither a biopicture nor a mystery. Hampered by a conventional plot, Kafka is not stylized or radical enough to convey the spirit of Kafka's outsider status as a modern, troubled Jewish intellectual.

Lem Dobbs' script describes Kafka (played by a miscast Jeremy Irons) as a quiet insurance company clerk, who lives a routinely ordered life; at night, he writes stories for esoteric magazines.

At his vast, impersonal office he is oppressed by a snooping overseer (Joel Grey) and criticized as a “lone wolf” by his boss (Alec Guinness). When a series of murders plagues the city, a police inspector (Armin Mueller-Stahl) begins an investigation. Through some puzzling events, Kafka finds himself with a briefcase bomb on a secret mission to an ominous castle where a fascistic government resides.

Failing to evoke Kafka's literary world, Soderbergh's melodrama evokes old film styles. The tone vacillates between art film, absurdist comedy, horror movie, and self-conscious thriller. Placing Kafka in a Prague, a sinister milieu that echoes the author's fictional universe, proved to be a gimmick. As David Ansen pointed out, conceptually, the story is schematic, and the artist's portrait is too shallow to qualify as a convincing evocation of a complex psyche or paranoid mind. The villain is named Murnau (after the German director) and the shadowy black-and-white imagery is an obvious homage to German Expressionism. A pastiche composed of borrowed parts, the most obvious influence is The Third Man (in location as in Cliff Martinez's score), starring Orson Welles, who directed Kafka's The Trial. Ironically, Soderbergh scores a visual coup when he switches to color in the castle sequences, whose design recalls Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Soderbergh's third outing, King of the Hill (1993), an adaptation of A.E. Hotchner's Depression memoir of his childhood in St. Louis, was a return to form, though few people saw it. When the finances of the Kurlanders (played by Jeroen Krabbe and Lisa Eichhorn) reach their limit, they send their younger son, Sullivan, to live with relatives. Mrs. Kurlander's poor health deteriorates, she is sent to a sanitarium, and her salesman husband leave town for a job. This coming-of-age story revolves around a bright 12-year-old Aaron Kurlander (Jesse Bradford), who perseveres in the face of danger. Aaron is left alone in a spooky transient hotel that evokes Southern Gothic tradition. With plenty of time in his hands, the ever-curious boy observes with fascination the strange people around him, soon finding himself entangled in their adventures.

As a survival study of a kid who relies on his intuition and smarts, Aaron recalls the young protagonists of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. The movie was intended as a tribute to the resilient, indomitable spirit of many Jews who have fallen on hard times. An assured, well-acted film, King of the Hill displayed Soderbergh's penchant for realistic portraiture of intimate dramas, but it is less effective in creating an authentically Jewish milieu.

Soderbergh's next film, The Underneath (1995), was an unsuccessful exercise in noir, a remake of the 1949 classic Criss Cross. The weak dialogue and formulaic plot underlined again Soderbergh's need for stronger, more original material. Besides, as John Powers noted, Soderbergh is a realist with strong feel for textures of domesticity, blessed with a sensibility that's closer to Eugene O'Neill's and Woody Allen's than to pulp fiction, which is what the material called for.

“I'm obviously coasting on the success of one film, and it's always fun to see how long that lasts,” Soderbergh said in 1995. “Luckily, the films I've made weren't really expected to be wildly successful. Whether or not I'm perceived as a commercial filmmaker, or bankable really doesn't matter to me, I can always write something extraordinarily contained and shoot for very, very cheap.” Nonetheless, he later admitted that after The Underneath, “I was at the end of my career, drifting into a place that wasn't very interesting or challenging.”

To break through the stagnation, Soderbergh made the low-budget Gray's Anatomy, a visually inventive version of Spalding Gray stage monologue, about an eye problem that sent an artist on a wild journey through alternative medicine before he succumbs to surgery. The material is less funny than Gray's previous monologues (Swimming to Cambodia), but Soderbergh compensates with creepy visuals and Lynch-like interviews with individuals who have suffered optical problems.

He then put his own money into the screwball, stylistic oddity, Schizopolis (1997), a personal satire, which he wrote, directed, lensed and starred in. With its disdain for narrative coherence, this satirical critique of modern life seemed to have come straight out of the director's head, a sharp departure from the meticulous craftsmanship of King of the Hill and The Underneath, which were weighted down by the intense concentration of form.

Schizopolis turned out to be a wake-up call. Just when Hollywood was ready to write off Soderbergh as a major film artist, he rebounded with his best film to date, Out of Sight (Universal, 1998), demonstrating again what a good actors' director he is when working with the right material–and also showing he is one of the few filmmakers who can smoothly navigate between Hollywood and indie projects. Soderbergh was concerned about finding a film with a big budget that would allow him to exploit his creative energy.

In Out of Sight, he found a high-profile project that garnered him the largest audience of his career. According to conventional Hollywood wisdom, you don't just hand over a $49 million star vehicle like Out of Sight to someone with an art-house reputation and a commensurate box-office track record. Soderbergh had to convince Universal that, as he said, “I really know how to do this.” Once assigned, he was given free rein, the only pressure about making a big-budget movie came from within: “I wanted it to be good, because potentially more people would see it than any other film I'd made, and you don't want to blow that.”

Out of Sight was an opportunity “to put into use some things I had learned in other movies, which were testing grounds for me.” Soderbergh approached Out of Sight as the continuation of creative rebirth, with playful energy, jump cuts, freeze frames, saturated colors and gritty textures. A sly, sexy version of Elmore Leonard's crime novel, Out of Sight contains a dozen offbeat characters and a bright, snappy dialogue rarely heard in a mainstream picture. The complex structure, subtle humor and deliberate pacing all contribute to the overall artistic impact. While lacking the more facile commercial appeal of Get Shorty, which after all spoofed Hollywood, Out of Sight is more satisfying than Tarantino's Jackie Brown, based on Leonard's Rum Punch, which was low-key and lacked a strong romantic angle.

In Soderbergh's film, an eccentric romantic couple is front and center. Standing on opposite sides of the law, the mismatched vet criminal Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Deputy Federal Marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) begin a courtship in the tight space of a car's trunk. Scott Frank's witty, densely rich script was character-driven and performance-reliant. Soderbergh understands that Leonard's forte lies in his sharp, nonjudgmental portrait and authentic lingo of low-lifers who're immensely appealing. With unmistakable ease and subtle humor, his film consists of priceless scenes, including a brilliantly staged romantic interlude. Not since Boogey Nights has there been a Hollywood movie comprised of so many characters, each perfectly cast by the likes of Vinge Rhames, Billy Zahn, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Catherine Keener, Albert Brooks.