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SODERBERGH, STEVEN : Out of Sight

CHARACTER NEVER OUT OF SIGHT
With his award-winner "sex, lies and videotape", Steven Soderbergh emerged as one of the freshest and most distinctive voices in American film. Even at his most mainstream - such as his latest film Out of Sight - Soderbergh has been able to maintain a distinct perspective on the American dream. He spoke exclusively to PAUL FISCHER in Los Angeles.

Steven Soderbergh became the toast of Hollywood after his $1m sex, lies and videotape won the prestigious Palme d'Or at Cannes. Yet the 35-year old filmmaker refused to be sucked in to the world of mainstream Hollywood. His films have always retained a sense of the director's own individuality as an artist.

"I've never been clear on the definition or even relevance of the auteur theory."

Through his work to his current caper thriller Out of Sight, one would be hard pressed to find a common style attributed to the old 'auteur theory' which assumes a persistently coherent vision in a specific director's work. Say he: "I've never been clear on the definition or even relevance of the auteur theory."

But though there are as many differences in Soderbergh's work, there can also be found uniform themes or concerns as well. "I think there's a certain tone and a certain approach to character. Clearly my interest and subject matter go all over the place, and stylistically I've tried a few different things. So as far as I'm concerned, it's still too early to judge. Out of Sight is my seventh film, and I'm still exploring my likes and dislikes, which is fun."

In an early interview, Soderbergh said "in terms of my work, I'm always looking for the stupid thing to do, the thing that makes you think." That of course begs the question: What is the stupidest thing he's done? "I don't know, they might all be stupid", he responds smilingly. "The point is to not play it safe and although on the ONE hand, it may seem like making Out of Sight with two movie stars is playing it safe; on the other hand, it's not necessarily. It could have easily blown up in my face and had it been, creatively, a failure, it could have made it difficult, if not almost impossible for me, to make another movie on that scale."

"Established him as one of the most promising young filmmakers of his generation" on sex, lies & videotape

Soderbergh was born in the south, far removed from the idealised world of Hollywood movie making. As a teenager, he cut his teeth making short Super-8 mm films with equipment borrowed from Louisiana State University film students. He skipped college and endured a frustrating spell in Hollywood before returning to Baton Rouge to further develop his craft. His first break came in 1986 when the rock group Yes enlisted him to shoot concert footage which he eventually shaped into the Grammy-nominated video "9012Live".

Soderbergh's first feature project was the finely crafted, low budget ($1.2 million) drama, "sex, lies and videotape" (1989). This modern film equivalent of a morality play scored a double triumph at Cannes, winning the Palme d'Or for Soderbergh and the Best Actor award for James Spader. The film also won Soderbergh an Oscar nomination for its screenplay and established him as one of the most promising young filmmakers of his generation. Soderbergh's subsequent films have been an artistically mixed bag, although, to date, none has approached the success of his first effort. His almost inevitably disappointing followup was Kafka (1991), an interesting if muddled existential thriller starring Jeremy Irons as the prince of paranoia.

Soderbergh rebounded from that mostly unseen failure with another study in emotional isolation, King of the Hill (1993), a sensitively wrought little-appreciated gem that followed a Depression-era boy coping with poverty and neglect. The director developed another variation on the same theme with The Underneath (1995), a remake of Robert Siodmak's 1949 film noir Criss Cross. This heavily stylised film, intricately told in fragmented scenes that include flashbacks and flash-forwards, won some critical support but audiences generally agreed with the reviewers who felt the film lacked substance. Soderbergh scripted but did not direct the English version of the Danish thriller Nightwatch (1997).

"It was important for me to rediscover myself as an artist"

Finding himself in a rut after The Underneath and feeling the need for a refresher course in the joys of independent filmmaking, Soderbergh trekked home to Baton Rouge and shot Schizopolis (1997) for $250,000, employing used equipment and a bare-bones crew and casting himself in a dual lead role. Adding an element of psychodrama, Soderbergh also cast his ex-wife, actress Betsy Brantley, in scenes that wickedly parodied their disintegrated five-year marriage. While editing Schizopolis in Baton Rouge, he took ten days to shoot Gray's Anatomy (1997), creating the most cinematic of the filmed Spalding Gray monologues.

"It was important for me to rediscover myself as an artist, which is why I made those films. I doubt I could have done Out of Sight without those small films behind me." So with batteries recharged, he returned to mainstream movies, directing the adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Out of Sight. The story focuses on the aftermath of the Florida prison escape of career bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney). In the wrong place at the right time is US marshal Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), who ends up sharing a cramped trunk ride with Jack when his friend Buddy (Ving Rhames) commandeers Karen's car for the escape.

Surprisingly, the ride proves intriguing to both parties. Karen manages to free herself and gets on the case of re-apprehending Jack, though she isn't sure whether she wants him for business or pleasure. Jack, meanwhile, prepares for his next big score, though he isn't sure whether he's more interested in scoring cash or Karen.

"He was absolutely a movie star in search of the right part, and I knew this was the part." on George Clooney

At the time the film was in development by Universal and Jersey Films, Soderbergh was on the lookout for a new, slightly bigger film, to do. It was Universal head Casey Silver, who brought the project to Soderbergh's attention. "He called me up one night and said: I'm going to send you this thing, a movie we're looking for someone to direct, and I really think it's the kind of material that you're going to respond to." And he clearly did.

"I think it was because I really liked the characters and felt like the movie played to the things that I can do. It was character-based, but it needed a cinematic sensibility to match its literary sensibility, and I felt I knew how to do that. Sometimes you read really good scripts but you know you're not right and you may want to see that movie, but that you can't spend a year of your life with it. This one I just felt I understood."

As did star George Clooney, who until now, had found it tough to make the transition from ER to the big screen. Clooney had already been attached to Out of Sight when Soderbergh had been asked to direct it. He had no difficulty with the idea of Clooney as hapless robber Jack Foley. "I always liked George and felt that he was absolutely a movie star in search of the right part, and I knew this was the part. There was no question in my mind he was going to nail this one, given the opportunity."

"She had the very infectious mix of strength and sexuality that the character needed." on Jennifer Lopez

It was tougher, however, finding the right actress to play FBI agent Karen Sisco, a role read by a number of established actors. Eventually, the role went to the alluring Jennifer Lopez. "She had the very infectious mix of strength and sexuality that the character needed."

Despite garnering some of the best reviews for both Soderbergh and star Clooney, the film failed to register strongly with US audiences. One of course wonders whether such intelligent, character-driven genre films are tough to sell to a culture fed on derivative pop fare. "It's hard to say, because I think everyone feels now, including Universal, that the film should have been released now, in October. There's no question we got hammered, since we opened against Dr Dolittle, and five days later Armageddon came out, then Lethal Weapon. Ours feels like a Fall movie to me, but Universal, for a variety of reasons, didn't have a film for the summer, and asked us if we could be ready and I was able to. I couldn't, in a sense, stamp my feet and say no, because they'd been so COMPLETELY hands off about the making of the movie. But now we all look back on it and feel like it just wasn't a summer picture. I do believe that there's an audience for a movie like this."

Soderbergh is about to start shooting a small-scale independent crime thriller, The Limey, starring Terence Stamp, and in 1999 will work again with George Clooney in a higher budget film about the genesis of American football.

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