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