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MOVIES : ON LOCATION : The Road Less Traveled : After 'sex, lies, and videotape,' Hollywood beckoned. So where is Steven Soderbergh? On the other side of the world.

November 25, 1990|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a frequent contributor to The Times. and

PRAGUE — If you were Steven Soderbergh, what would you do?

Your first movie, "sex, lies, and videotape," becomes a massive commercial and critical hit after coming from nowhere to win two major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival of 1989. You bring the movie in for a paltry $1.2 million; it goes on to recoup its costs several times over. You are just 26 years old.

Now two of America's best-known filmmakers, Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack, are knocking at your door. They want to produce your all-important next film from stories you have personally selected. These are commercial projects that will justify big budgets; a major studio, Universal, has already promised to distribute them.

So you murmur your gratitude for the nice things being said about you, take the money, the office on the lot with the parking space, buy a little place in the hills and go to work in the sunshine. Right?

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Photos from the set of director Steven Soderbergh's film "Kafka" in the Nov. 25 Calendar were taken by Jaromir Komarek.

That's what you do. But you're not Steven Soderbergh.

Cut instead to a dark, bone-chilling night on a Prague side street called Misenska, where Soderbergh is braving the elements to make a modestly priced film, in black and white, about the imagined life of a gloomy, paranoid Czech novelist. And he is doing it at a fraction of the director's fee he can now command.

"Let's try it again," says Soderbergh, in a comical fur hat with ear flaps, his nose bright red from the cold. He is unhappy about a sinister but comic scene in which Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is dragged down the street by two bowler-hatted assistants from his insurance office. Irons nods curtly and resumes his mark. Crew members sigh resignedly, blow on their hands and silently pray for a swift return to their warm hotel.

Though Franz Kafka was a real person, the film is by no means a "biopic." Instead, writer Lem Dobbs has fashioned a thriller about a cover-up by officials in a totalitarian state of the murder of Kafka's friend and colleague Eduard. A knowledge of Kafka's work is not essential to enjoying the film--though Dobbs' script has incidents that almost playfully speculate how Kafka may have been inspired to write novels such as "The Castle" and "The Trial."

Soderbergh describes the film as "a challenging entertainment." It's certainly quite a statement of intent, and one that has raised many eyebrows in Hollywood--where much interest and speculation has centered on which way Soderbergh would jump after "sex, lies, and videotape."

Here is the answer. Pollack and Redford and Universal Pictures have been politely but firmly placed on hold, while Soderbergh comes to Prague to make "Kafka" for another distinguished admirer--Barry Levinson, whose Baltimore Pictures is producing it. He is shooting the film for just under $12 million. It all suggests remarkable self-confidence on the young director's part.

The next morning, there is a break from shooting "Kafka" in a Prague city center office building used during World War II by the Gestapo. Soderbergh, whose close-cropped hair, beard and big, round glasses make him resemble an earnest divinity student, sits himself down on a rough wooden crate and concedes he is an object of attention on this, his second movie.

"But I don't feel too much pressure about that," he says. "In many ways it's to my advantage that initially there will be some interest in this film. The only pressure I feel is: Will the film be any good?"

The smart money says it will, because "sex, lies, and videotape," which won the Palme d'Or and the international critics prize at Cannes, was such an assured piece of work. It dealt with the relationships between two men and two women, ranging from the adulterous to the duplicitous, and it made a major detour past the voyeuristic. Clear-eyed, sharply observed and filled with low-key humor, it unexpectedly struck a chord with audiences and critics alike.

Its very title entered the vernacular and was adapted for a hundred headlines. The Soderbergh story became legend; a movie fanatic from Baton Rouge, La., he started shooting his own Super 8 films as a teen-ager. His relationships with women, he says now, were stormy and prone to deception. "sex, lies, and videotape" was written on an eight-day road trip between home and Hollywood. Now he describes the screenplay as "an act of contrition" for his scheming and double-dealing.

Nowhere are hyperbolic praise and instant celebrity bestowed as readily as at Cannes. But by the time "sex, lies, and videotape" burst on the world almost two years ago, Soderbergh's life had become sufficiently grounded for him to handle the distractions of fame.

"I'd grown up," he says in his faint Southern drawl. "If it had happened three years sooner, I'd have gotten really screwed up. There were a lot of people coming at me, wanting to give me things I wanted. You have to be very cautious and deliberate in your responses."

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