Straight man

Joking around, or not, with Limey director Steven Soderbergh

So Soderbergh called Lem Dobbs (Dark City), a screenwriter he had collaborated with in 1991 on the ambitious if not completely on-target literary psychological thriller Kafka, to revisit The Limey. It was an idea they had discussed seven years ago and had even thought about doing after Soderbergh's 1993 solid but occasionally doddering coming-of-age drama King of the Hill. If nothing else, the two men knew they wanted Terence Stamp, who played the title role in 1962's Billy Budd, and Easy Rider's Peter Fonda in the roles of bad guy and worse guy.

"We both liked the idea of an older guy in the lead, for obvious commercial reasons. Those films are so popular," Soderbergh says, almost letting slip a chuckle. "And we were both interested in the '60s and the dream of the '60s that sort of died out for a lot of reasons, and sort of the doppelgänger of putting in guys who have always gone their own way, have been in and out of favor over the course of their careers, and have recently come back into people's minds. Besides, it's Captain America vs. Billy Budd -- that's kind of a cool idea."

Using the Poor Cow footage was also just another cool idea, Soderbergh says, not a deliberate attempt at a sequel. "I told Lem, wouldn't it be great, since Terence was a movie star in the '60s, wouldn't it be great if we could find some footage or something and stick it in the movie. And Lem sent me a fax the next morning that said, 'Well, it should be Poor Cow. [Stamp] plays this young thief who gets busted and goes to prison.' The character's name happened to be Dave Wilson, and we were looking for a last name -- we figured you'd never really know his first name -- a terse, kind of generic-sounding last name. Coincidentally, we thought Wilson sounded good. So, it's an accidental sequel of sorts. It's almost a variation on the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead thing. We take someone who is a minor character and see where he is 30 years later. But it's not exactly the same character. Our Wilson has a daughter. They have a little boy in the other film. So, really there's a lot of stuff I wanted to take, but I just couldn't get that boy out of there."

Steven through the looking glasses: The director of The Limey ponders a punch line.
Steven through the looking glasses: The director of The Limey ponders a punch line.

Soderbergh almost wasn't able to swipe any of Poor Cow for use in The Limey. Although he started negotiating for the rights before his film even started shooting, the filmmakers didn't secure them until after The Limey was in the can. "There were times where it looked like it just wasn't going to happen," Soderbergh says. "Talk about a terrifying way to shoot. I literally felt that the movie just wouldn't work without it."

But surely he had a contingency plan?

"No, no. It was really all or nothing. It took a couple of well-placed phone calls from friends in the right spots..." He pauses, as though talking about it suddenly makes him realize how dangerous his high-wire act really was. "Ah, yes, it was a scary shoot."

However, his next film, due out in the spring, wasn't a scary shoot at all. This, despite the fact that it's Erin Brockovich, which stars Julia Roberts as a young lawyer chasing cancer-causing companies.

"I really loved the material," Soderbergh says. "And I actually thought it could be absolutely perfect for her, that she could be really great in it. We were both hooking up at a good time. I was ready to make this kind of movie, which is unlike anything I've made before. She was ready to make it, and it was unlike anything she'd ever really done before. I think it's a real strong piece of work"

Soderbergh also has Traffik on the horizon. "It's about drugs," he says glibly, not offering much more information than that it's based on a British miniseries from 1989 -- coincidentally, the same year he first broke into the spotlight and helped revolutionize the indie film market. Hard to believe it was just 10 years ago since the release of sex, lies, and videotape; hard to believe "Sundance" has been a meaningful movie term for only a decade. Soderbergh, actually, is thankful to have been there at the beginning of the art-house-as-commerce revolution -- if only because it was better to have been there first, rather than second or last.

"I feel very lucky," he says, when asked how it felt to have been the man who created the indie-film feeding frenzy, who helped turn Miramax into a household name outside Harvey Weinstein's house. After all, he says, better to create the frenzy than be devoured by it. "Now there's too much attention, too many expectations, too much coverage for people who haven't done anything yet. I wouldn't want to be coming up now. Too many interviews." That's a joke, right?

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