Straight man

Joking around, or not, with Limey director Steven Soderbergh

Toward the end of his published journal on the making of the watershed indie film sex, lies, and videotape -- his 1989 million-dollar feature debut that jump-started the independent-film-is-hip craze, put the Sundance Film Festival on the map, upset Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing for the top award at Cannes, and went on to capture the American psyche and almost 25 million dollars during its theatrical run -- director Steven Soderbergh worries more than once that he's coming across as too serious in his interviews. In this one, occurring some 10 years later -- during which time Soderbergh has made a handful of entertaining films with plenty of deadpan funny moments -- it doesn't seem an issue, at least while it's going on. This conversation, much like Soderbergh's films, jumps around, but it's full of interesting, insightful, and funny revelations about everything from French New Wave cinema to how irked he was when Rocky won the Best Picture Academy Award over All the President's Men ("I knew right then it was all over"). But once the whole thing is transcribed onto a printed page, he just comes across so...serious.

It's because Soderbergh, like many of his films, can't really be taken straight-on. You need to know the context and the character. He seems simple and straightforward, but he surprises with unexpected flair and wry, almost sublime wit, as though he's thoroughly tickling himself and hasn't bothered to make sure everyone else is in tune. George Clooney, Soderbergh's leading man in last year's underseen but sparkling cops-and-robbers-in-love caper flick Out of Sight, has said of him, "Steven has a dry sense of humor. He's evil is what he is. And often as you can do a movie with guys like that, do it."

Clooney's next chance may be with Leatherheads, a romantic comedy set against the beginnings of professional football that was green-lighted back when Out of Sight had blockbuster buzz -- meaning, just before it just plain busted. The project isn't on Soderbergh's short list, but he says the two men "keep hatching these plans -- we're still circling it," as though he and Clooney are vultures trying to make the most of their carrion.

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.

"We both need more...momentum, more than we had behind us on the heels of Out of Sight," he says. "Its commercial performance didn't give us the last nudge we needed to push it through. But we just talked about this the other week. He's got Three Kings, and he just finished the Coen Brothers movie [O Brother, Where Art Thou?], which will be in Cannes next year and by all accounts is going to be hilarious. And now I've got..." Long pause. "...The Limey, which will probably solidify my standing as a cult failure." During his halt you can almost see him smile through the phone, though the tone seems to dip toward melancholy.

Soderbergh is referring to his new film The Limey, which feels so akin to Out of Sight, it's almost like a low-budget, indie-spirited do-over. Both films revitalize crime genre motifs by using stylistic flourishes, narrative gymnastics, and memorable characters that can be as likeable, as endearing, as they are hard-boiled. And, maybe, it's a reminder that the roots of both these works can be traced back to Soderbergh's underappreciated, low-budget shot-in-Austin indie film, The Underneath, a 1995 stylistic neo-noir that disappointed only those who went into it expecting something approximating Burt Lancaster's teeth-gnashing in the original.

"I've made three crime films, but it's not a genre I really feel any affinity for," Soderbergh says. If he's aware of the irony that some critics might say the same thing, he's not letting on. "I guess it's an easy genre to inject with your own preoccupations. Usually, you have a spine that's pretty solid, pretty easy for people to grasp. The conflicts are really clear, and that gives you freedom to sort of mess around a little bit."

And mess around he does in The Limey. Once again, Soderbergh uses flashbacks, flashforwards, and flashwaybacks, cutting back and forth between scenes that appear to be taking place at the same time. It was an effect he used in Out of Sight, The Underneath, and, to a much lesser but still crucial effect, in sex, lies, and videotape. It's as though he's skipping around the time line, turning yesterdays into tomorrows and tomorrows into right now. Soderbergh also mixes film stock and, in The Limey's most flashy gimmick (at least in a really film-geeky way), uses footage of star Terence Stamp culled from a minor role he played in Ken Loach's 1967 film Poor Cow. The result is a film that is essentially a straightforward boiler-room plot you've seen a million times -- an ex-con hunts down the bad guys who killed his daughter -- turned inside out and upside down, giving the characters a resonance and the story some themes that transcend the genre.

"Simple revenge film with a lot of '60s baggage" is Soderbergh's dismissive tag line for his film. "When I was finishing Out of Sight, there were some ideas about how to play with narrative that had occurred to me that weren't really appropriate for it. Cinema allows you to play around and push narrative so well and so easily, maybe better than any other art form. And I thought, gee, I really want to try some of this other stuff."

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."

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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