A few months back, while Steven Soderbergh was in the thick of postproduction on his latest film, Out of Sight, his past caught up with him, again. Sex, lies, & videotape was being remastered for DVD, and Soderbergh, who had to oversee the process, says it was the first time he'd seen his 1989 feature debut in the nine years since its initial release. Sex, lies is, of course, the film that won the then-26-year-old director the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and, with its phenomenal commercial success, ushered in the Age of Sundance, when first-time filmmakers could become overnight celebrities. "It was really disorienting," Soderbergh says about revisiting the film. "It was the first time I'd been able to watch it and feel like somebody else had made it, and that's the result of how busy I've been."
Soderbergh has been busy, it's just that hardly anyone has noticed. In the years since his first feature, he has directed six films and executive-produced three more (Suture, The Daytrippers and the upcoming Pleasantville), but he's still largely pigeonholed as the guy who made sex, lies - largely because it's the only one of his movies that earned any money. "In retrospect, I think that's the most memorable thing about it," says the notoriously self-critical Soderbergh, shifting broadly in the chair of his tiny, cluttered office on the Universal lot, a Repulsion poster looming on the wall behind him. With more than a little frustration in his voice, he adds, "It's time for me to get a new middle name."
Which is probably one reason why Soderbergh has made the new George Clooney movie. In Out of Sight, the indie hero whose films nobody goes to see has found a high-profile Hollywood project that could garner him the largest audience of his career. But coming hot on the heels of Get Shorty and Jackie Brown, the Elmore Leonard adaptation starring Clooney and Jennifer Lopez seems, for Soderbergh, like a particularly uncharacteristic capitulation to industry trends. He is, after all, the man who used the heat off of sex, lies to make Kafka.
Still, no one should cry sellout just yet: Soderbergh has already sunk his studio-size salary from the film into getting his long-languishing plans for A Confederacy of Dunces off the ground. (He regained the rights to John K. Toole's cult novel in the fall of 1997 after winning his lawsuit against Paramount, which had appropriated them from him.) Even more significantly, Soderbergh says he approached Out of Sight as the continuation of a creative rebirth that began several years back.
"I felt like I was at the end of my career four films in, that's how lethargic I felt," he says of his experience directing The Underneath, a neo-noir he shot in 1995. "I was really drifting into a place that wasn't very interesting, it wasn't very challenging. And that happens. It's all part of the process you go through when you're trying to figure out what it is you're good at and what you ought to be doing."
To break through the stagnation, Soderbergh put his own money into the screwball, stylistic freak-out that is Schizopolis (1997). With its pointed disdain for narrative coherence and its emphasis on sheer momentum, the movie unfolds like it's spilling straight out of the director's head. It's a sharp departure from the meticulous craftsmanship of Kafka, King of the Hill and The Underneath, beautiful films that nevertheless often feel weighted down by Soderbergh's intense concentration on form. The energy and playfulness of Out of Sight, on the other hand, with its jump cuts, freeze frames, saturated colors and gritty textures, is reminiscent of Schizopolis' freewheeling looseness.
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"It seems odd that one would inform the other, especially since they're so different, but it's really true," says Soderbergh. "[Schizopolis] woke me up." While he wasn't worried about maintaining that newfound energy, Soderbergh was concerned about finding a film that would give him the kind of big budget that would allow him to exploit that energy even further. Out of Sight "was an opportunity to put into use some things I had learned in other movies, from The Underneath to Schizopolis and Gray's Anatomy, which were real great testing grounds for me. I was fortunate that Casey Silver [chairman of Universal Pictures], who I've made two unsuccessful movies for, continued to think of me for projects like this."
It was Silver who brought Scott Frank's script to Soderbergh's attention. The director knew it was something he could handle as soon as he finished reading it: "It was character-driven, performance-reliant, it played to things I feel comfortable with." He also felt ready, again, to tackle a large production. But conventional Hollywood wisdom says that 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 track record at the box office. In spite of Silver's support, Soderbergh says, he had his job cut out for him convincing Jersey Films that he was their man. "I had to go chase this, I had to audition for it," he says. "I had to talk to Jersey Films, I had to talk to Clooney. There were a lot of people they were talking to, and I was probably the coldest one on the list. I had to go in and say I really feel like I know how to do this."
As producer Michael Shamberg of Jersey Films tells it, Soderbergh was always on the short list ("we're fans of his work"), and his references to Hal Ashby's The Last Detail and William Friedkin's The French Connection put him over the top at their first meeting. Clooney, in particular, was jazzed on Soderbergh. If anything, Shamberg says, the director was "overly defensive" during the process, even to the point of refusing to screen Schizopolis for him. "Later, he gave me a video, and I thought it was great," says Shamberg. "I asked him why he didn't want to show it, and he said he thought we wouldn't want to hire him if we saw it." Apart from promising Silver that he was "not going to make a $49 million version of The Underneath," Soderbergh pretty much had free rein to make the film he wanted. The only pressure that he felt, he says, 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."
So what happens if Out of Sight doesn't perform at the box office? (The film earned about $12.9 million on its opening weekend.) As the most obvious outsider, Soderbergh is an easy would-be scapegoat, which for a lot of reasons makes this one of the riskiest films of his career. If he ends up alienating both his core indie supporters and Hollywood, he may be relegated to self-financed stylistic freak-outs indefinitely. Soderbergh himself isn't too concerned. He's got projects lined up - in addition to A Confederacy of Dunces, there's something small he hopes to start by the end of the year and possibly another film with Clooney, a comedy about the early years of football. As for Out of Sight, he isn't making any predictions, but his experience in making it has put him in something of an optimistic mood. "Let's put it this way," he says. "It doesn't seem greedy to make a movie once every nine years that people show up to go see. If I'm the cinematic equivalent of the locust, it seems like I'm coming up on that time. And if so, that's great, because then I'll be able to coast for another eight years and make some more interesting movies."