Steven Soderbergh: Movies for Grown-Ups

With last spring's Erin Brockovich and the new Michael Douglas/Catherine Zeta-Jones film Traffic, former wunderkind director Steven Soderbergh has delivered on the promise of sex, lies, & videotape.

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Watching the roller-coaster career of Steven Soderbergh could give anyone a contact high. In 1989, at 26, he stormed the moviemaking world with his knowing, comically unsettling film sex, lies, & videotape, a writing/directing debut so original and self-assured the filmmaking community awarded him prizes at Cannes and gave him a screenwriting Oscar nomination. Hollywood, noting the winning combination of idiosyncratic vision and box-office popularity, eagerly awaited his next move. But Soderbergh's follow-up effort, Kafka, seemed self-consciously showy and obtuse. His third film, King of the Hill, was heartfelt and touchingly acted, but it too failed to find an audience. Then things got stranger.

In 1994, he tried his hand unsuccessfully at low-key film noir (Underneath), and in 1996 filmed a stage work by monologuist Spalding Gray, Gray's Anatomy. Those efforts were followed by Schizopolis, a surreal, satirical film he wrote, directed and starred in. Then Soderbergh suddenly emerged from his experimental period with Out of Sight, a slyly funky melodrama adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. Pairing George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez to unmistakably sexual effect, Soderbergh gave the film a cool, improvisational edge and reminded mainstream Hollywood that he was someone to reckon with. The next year, The Limey, a smart, stylish revenge thriller, underlined his point. With Erin Brockovich, though, Soderbergh showed the Industry what they really wanted to see--the ability to take a star like Julia Roberts and connect her squarely with the ticket-buying masses. He rocketed to the A-list. Now he's about to unleash Traffic, a tough-minded, complicated drama in which Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio Del Toro play out three interwoven tales of the nation's failed war on drugs. With the movie already garnering Oscar talk, Soderbergh is moving on to his next film, a head-to-toe redo of the 1960 Rat Pack heist movie Ocean's 11, which will star George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon.

STEPHEN REBELLO: With the critical acclaim for Out of Sight and The Limey, the huge success of Erin Brockovich and the buzz on your new film Traffic, you're hot in a way you haven't been since sex, lies, & videotape. Did all the acclaim you got 11 years ago for sex, lies have anything to do with the long stretch of time in between hot streaks? STEVEN SODERBERGH: Let's face it, I coasted on the early success for quite a while. When you come out of the gate like that and see all the possibilities, it takes a while to narrow things down to what you ought to be doing. The good part about having your first film go over is that people want to believe it's going to happen again, so they're willing to gamble. I was lucky to be able to keep finding people like that.

Q: Didn't a lot of people assume that before Erin Brockovich, even with a big studio project like Out of Sight, you were only making the movies you wanted to make?

A: I hadn't given any indication that I wanted to do anything else, although I was approached for other, "bigger" movies.

Q: Like what?

A: I hate when people say, "Oh, I got sent that," but I was approached very early for American Beauty, as were a lot of other people. I didn't know what to do with it. I remember telling them, "The script is great. Somebody great is going to make it, but I'm just not there." When I read Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze already had it, and I liked that script so much I had a moment of, "Can I hire somebody to kill him so that, after a proper period of mourning, I could just slip in there?" Both Sam--yeah, Sam [laughing], like he's a friend of mine-- Sam Mendes and Spike-- who I know, but who's not a friend of mine, either--made better films than what I would have come up with.

Q: Your conclusion, then?

A: [Laughing] The right people did those films. And part of the reason I got the job to direct Out of Sight was that I was convinced I was absolutely the right person to make it. I thought, "I'll go up in a 'Celebrity Deathmatch' against any director in town on this, because I know exactly what to do with it."

Q: You get a lot of credit for helping George Clooney become a movie star in Out of Sight.

A: It was obvious to me he was a movie star from the first time I saw him on "ER." He was on the project when I got there.

Q: That movie had a sexual tension and sense of fun that harked back to, say, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest. Does chemistry like Clooney and Lopez's just happen?

A: I think of the early seduction scenes from North by Northwest all the time. I can almost recite the lines verbatim. It's the standard of sophisticated flirting. When Cary Grant says, "I'm beginning to think I'm underpaid," that's Ernest Lehman hitting them out of deep left center every 30 seconds. On Out of Sight we had a lot of really good actresses come in to read with George. He was good with the other people, but he was better, different with Jennifer. That's when it took hold. I liked the way they looked together. When I think about a movie, I don't see shots. I see faces with certain emotions on them. Those faces spoke to me.

Q: Julia Roberts's face and star quality aside, did you have the slightest doubt about her acting when you began Erin Brockovich?

A: There was no question in my mind that she had the chops. Oh, man, I'd put her up against anybody. I've worked with some world-class actors and she's as gifted as anybody. Thank God I got Albert Finney, because I needed somebody she couldn't blow off the screen. The two of them together were so much fun, personally and professionally. In fact, Erin Brockovich was so smooth from beginning to end that it was embarrassing. As it was getting ready to come out, I was looking over my shoulder, because I just thought, "It can't be this simple." Traffic made up for it [laughing].

Q: So I hear. We'll get to that. Everyone said that you and Julia Roberts were a real match.

A: We were both ready. I took most of the people from The Limey right onto that film, so it didn't feel like a big crew. We don't work like you see big movies work. I'm operating the camera and we work very quickly. The feedback is instantaneous because I'm right behind the lens and usually very close to you. I don't make the long walk across the set. You know exactly who you have to work for and you know that I'm all over it. Boy, did she respond to that. She's like me. She's all instinct. Clearly, she has a process but she's smart enough not to sit around trying to deconstruct something that so obviously works for her. You don't fuck with what works. She doesn't call attention to it and I don't.

Q: The movie has such an ease, a professionalism--like nobody broke a sweat doing good work.

A: I was happy and proud of Erin because the kind of director I needed to be to best serve that material was different from the director I'd been on other movies. I stepped back. I had as tight a grip, but it was a different sort of control. Less overtly stylish. The movie is about her. Anything I did to distract from that was going to be a mistake. That required a certain kind of discipline. Not an anti-style, but a stripping away of style in order to keep audiences emotionally where you wanted them to be. Neither Out of Sight nor Erin is what you have in mind when you're thinking "blockbuster." They're not sequels, there's no merchandising, there's no hit song, no video--all the things you want in your movie if you're a studio. They're movies for grown-ups.

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