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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

So the only restraints would be fiscal. The script, about a nebbishy speech writer for a self-help guru who crosses paths with a look-alike dentist, would lean heavily toward improvisation. The five-person crew would consist of the director and some old friends. Soderbergh bought used cameras and lights and set up a low-level digital editing system in a spare bedroom of his rented two-story home in Baton Rouge, La., a city where he had lived as a teenager. For Soderbergh, who had spent much of the previous six years on location or at his farm outside Charlottesville, Va., the film would mean both a nostalgic homecoming and a blind leap into the unknown.

The budget was $250,000, or about one-fifth what "sex, lies" cost.

"I was as excited as hell," he says. "It was everything that I hoped it would be in terms of the sense of exhilaration at the freedom."

The result is pure Soderbergh--purer, in fact, than many people may realize on first viewing. "Schizopolis," which will be released in April by Northern Arts, a small distributor, is unabashedly autobiographical, a twisted fable inspired by the agonizing disintegration of Soderbergh's marriage to actress Betsy Brantley. And as if to underline the personal associations, he casts himself in the two lead roles, as feckless speech writer Fletcher Munson and his insidious double, Dr. Jeffrey Korchek.

Soderbergh hadn't put himself on the other side of the camera since he was a teenager. His looks are striking: thinning, sandy hair trimmed to moss-length and slicked back against his scalp, a trendily ascetic style that diverts attention from his Roman nose. His ordinary expression is placid; only occasionally does the mask spring to protean life. There is a scene early in the movie when Soderbergh, playing Munson, stares in a bathroom mirror and runs through a series of grotesque faces.

But the director didn't stop with an inspired stroke of self-casting. He dared to do something few, if any, filmmakers would do. In reopening the wounds of marital strife, he cast his ex-wife and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, as his on-screen family. Even close friends were taken aback.

"If you know the real-life story and look at ['Schizopolis'], you know how painful it was to make," says "Jurassic Park" screenwriter David Koepp, a close friend of Soderbergh. "I can't imagine making a semiautobiographical movie about your divorce, starring you and your ex-wife. I mean, I think even Cassavetes would shy away from that."

But then, Soderbergh "draws inspiration from chaos and upset," Koepp says. "There is nothing that he does to make his professional or personal life more comfortable."

Early in their five-year marriage, Brantley says, Soderbergh had settled into a painful pattern of leaving and then returning months later to try to work things out. "At one point, I said to him, 'You are two different people,' " Brantley remembers. " 'You have this secure, confident professional side. But personally, you're the most insecure person I've ever met.' He looked at me and said, 'You're just now figuring that out?' " The couple finally divorced in October 1994, with one last-ditch attempt at reconciliation right before "Schizopolis" began shooting.

Brantley says she agreed to do the movie as a means of closure, of wrapping up unfinished business. But the process was a painful one.

"Oh, we fought like cats and dogs," she says. "It was the one time I had him in a room he couldn't walk out of. He couldn't leave. He was the director." While she remains a fan of her ex-husband's work, she doesn't particularly care for "Schizopolis," which she calls "confused."

Soderbergh, though, feels he got exactly what he wanted.

"This is truly a movie that went right out of [my] subconscious onto the screen with very little analysis on my part, what it meant and where it was going," he says.

the chaos that friends say soderbergh needs came early in his life as the second-youngest of six children. His older brother, Peter, is autistic and was institutionalized early in life. So their father, also named Peter, developed an especially close bond with Steven.

Peter senior, for years a professor of education at Louisiana State University, is a kind of Deep South Renaissance man. Students relished his teaching style (he often scored highly in evaluations) and colleagues tapped him for a series of high-profile administrative posts. He published scholarly articles on subjects ranging from war movies (he served as a Marine in Korea) to the history of LSU. Even now, at 68, the elder Soderbergh shows few signs of slowing down. He's published 11 books, four of them price guides for 78 rpm phonograph records dating from 1920 to 1950, yet another area of personal expertise.

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