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The Funk of Steven Soderbergh

His First Film, 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape,' Put Him on Top of Hollywood's Hill. He Predicted Then That It Was All Downhill From There. Why Was He Right?

February 16, 1997|SCOTT COLLINS | Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Until the age of 12, Steven Soderbergh's consuming passion was baseball. As a Little League player, he had terrific across-the-board skills, racking up a 7- 0 pitching record, including a no-hitter, and a .450 batting average by midseason of 1975. He thought he had a shot at the major leagues, a dream his father, who attended every game, did not discourage. But one day that summer, he stopped being good. * "I went out and pitched and got my head taken off. I couldn't hit," he remembers. "I woke up one morning and I did not have that thing anymore that makes you believe that you are better than someone else. Literally, I lost it overnight. * "The following year I got my hands on a camera and started making movies, and that spark that I had before, when I was playing baseball, I had when I was making movies." * Cut to Austin, Texas, in 1994, 19 years later. * Soderbergh is on the set of "The Underneath," a modern-day film noir he is directing for Gramercy Pictures. Outwardly, things are going well, but Soderbergh is reeling inside. He's come to realize that he hates the script (which he wrote), hates directing it (a job he asked for) and hates the state of his career ("What the hell am I doing here making an armored-car heist movie?") * Soderbergh knew this was going to happen. Five years earlier, in 1989, he had stunned Hollywood with his $1.2-million first feature, "sex, lies, and videotape." A contemplative, four-character study of love betrayed and redeemed, the film was probably the most universally acclaimed directorial debut since Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" in 1941. It connected with critics and audiences alike, grossing nearly $100 million in worldwide revenue. German director Wim Wenders, president of the Cannes Film Festival jury that gave Soderbergh the Palm d'Or, declared that the movie "[gives] us confidence in the future of cinema." It ushered in a new era of American independent film, paving the way for Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and others.

But once successful, Soderbergh backed away, as if by reflex. He warned friends of a backlash. When British director Richard Lester congratulated him on "sex, lies," adding, "It gets harder, you know," the words were seared into Soderbergh's mind like a Delphic oracle. Those present at his Cannes triumph still remember his remark on accepting the top prize: "Well," he said, "I guess it's all downhill from here."

So by the time he fell into a funk on the set of "The Underneath," Soderbergh had come full circle. His Hollywood disappointments had arrived on schedule. His two features since "sex, lies, and videotape"--"Kafka" and "King of the Hill"--had bombed at the box office, a fate that would also befall "The Underneath." He and mentor Robert Redford hadn't spoken since working together on 1993's "King of the Hill." And little did he know that a deal to develop a screen version of John Kennedy Toole's cult novel, "A Confederacy of Dunces," would soon collapse into a lawsuit, still pending, against Paramount Pictures and producer Scott Rudin. It seemed somehow fitting that Soderbergh would find himself on location in Texas, shooting a picture he couldn't stand.

"To sit on a movie set at age 31 and wonder whether or not you even want to do this, having no other real skills, is so terrifying and depressing," he says.

He did not, in other words, have "that thing," "that spark," anymore. To get it back, he made another 90-degree zag, threw himself another curve, to preserve the sense of chaos that keeps him going.

*

Soderbergh's latest feature, "Schizopolis," is a strong departure from "sex, lies," which seduced so many viewers with its reassuring message and serene rhythms. "Schizopolis" is jagged, scabrous, irreverent and baffling. In the title scene, a mustachioed man, shot in close-up, squints and smiles, then turns on his heels and runs away from the camera. He's naked from the waist down. Two men dressed as hospital orderlies chase after him as he climbs on a bicycle and pedals away.

"That, to me, is the perfect metaphor for making a movie," the 34-year-old director says. "You just want to be free and unencumbered, and yet all these people are constantly trying to restrain you."

The idea for the movie sprang directly from Soderbergh's unhappiness during the making of "The Underneath." He felt a need, he says, "to cleanse my palate" artistically, to devise a movie that could be made entirely on his own terms.

"I had somehow drifted away from the kind of films that I really wanted to make," he explains, "the kinds of films I was making when I started making films as a kid."

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