1995, Steven Soderbergh had reached a career dead end,
just six years after igniting the independent-film craze
with his debut film, "sex, lies, and videotape"
-- a movie he recently (and correctly) characterized
for the British film mag Sight and Sound as "a
modest piece with modest aspirations that happened to
be what people wanted to see in a way I obviously haven't
been able to duplicate." His pastiche "Kafka"
(1991) and Depression-childhood saga "King of the
Hill" (1993) didn't spark with audiences or generate
critical or cult followings. He simply floundered in
his flop '95 neo-noir "The Underneath," smothering
snappy lines and arresting arcs of character with arty
coups de cinema.
in 1998, he came up with "Out of Sight," a
smart, engaging action comedy about the love that ignites
between a bank robber (George Clooney) and a deputy
federal marshal (Jennifer Lopez) when she stumbles into
his jailbreak and gets to know him in the trunk of a
getaway car. It won best picture of the year from the
National Society of Film Critics, beating out favorites
like "Shakespeare in Love" and "Saving
Private Ryan." (The group also named Soderbergh,
not Spielberg, best director.)
Soderbergh's "The Limey," which opened last
fall and ranks high on many a 10-best list, is an unexpectedly
touching act of hard-boiled cinematic seduction. It
tells the story of a canny British ex-con (Terence Stamp)
who flies to L.A. to exact revenge on the man who killed
his daughter. Soderbergh puts this basic thriller setup
into a time-hopping form that resembles an elaborate
paper cutout -- the kind that comes all raveled up and
reveals its true meaning when the last piece is uncovered.
"Out of Sight," "The Limey" is a
light movie, not a superficial one. Soderbergh has learned
that an audience will follow any director to what lies
underneath as long as he keeps his film expressive on
the surface. History and current events meld in the
ex-con's brain, as he thinks back on his daughter and
her mother. But Soderbergh does more than play memory
games with fleet flash-forwards and flashbacks. At the
end we realize that the entire film has been the gangster
remembering things past and judging his own culpability.
Limey" is a salute to 1967 filmmaking: It echoes
John Boorman's "Point Blank" and actually
uses footage of Stamp playing a young thief in Kenneth
Loach's "Poor Cow." So it's wonderfully appropriate
that Soderbergh has come forth with a book on filmmaker
Richard Lester, who by 1967 had already made "A
Hard Day's Night," "Help!" and the audacious
"How I Won the War."
"Getting Away With It, Or: The Further Adventures
of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw -- also Starring
Richard Lester as the Man Who Knew More Than He Was
Asked" was published in Great Britain in 1999.
It treats movie fans to a funny, prismatically illuminating
addition to his penetrating interviews with Lester,
Soderbergh sandwiches in the candid journal of a chaotic
year in his own career -- 1996, right after "The
Underneath" and right before he landed the directing
job on "Out of Sight." He was finishing up
two idiosyncratic, small films, "Schizopolis"
and "Gray's Anatomy," while doing script work
for hire, staging Jonathan Reynolds' play "Geniuses,"
helping to produce "Pleasantville" and struggling
to mount an adaptation of "A Confederacy of Dunces."
neat about "Getting Away With It" is that
you witness Soderbergh renewing himself as he talks
to Lester. The younger director opens up to the older
one, who delves into matters as different as evolutionary
theory and military milestones. Even the structure of
the book expresses Soderbergh's burgeoning energy: It's
a delicious parody of the exhaustive, multi-part director
interview -- a specialty of Soderbergh's own publisher,
Faber and Faber. ("ff" usually does bring
their books into this country, but this volume is available
right now via Amazon.co.uk and other British-book delivery
readers were the first in their arthouse or multiplex
to hear the name of "Being John Malkovich"
screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. In 1996 Soderbergh had
tried to launch another Kaufman script, "Human
Nature." The director's readers were also the first
to learn of "tortious interference," the legal
concept at the center of Michael Mann's "The Insider":
Paramount invoked it to prevent Soderbergh and his "Limey"
producer Scott Kramer from setting up "A Confederacy
of Dunces" as a co-venture with other companies.
important, the book delivers a privileged glimpse into
the sensibilities of filmmakers who use sophisticated
film syntax to heighten emotion and find novel ways
of embodying old storytelling values of romance, suspense
I phoned Soderbergh in L.A. in December, he was taking
a pause from his forthcoming feature "Erin Brockovich"
(due out in March). He instantly made clear that Lester
isn't his only idol. He said that "Erin Brockovich,"
a socially conscious character study starring Julia
Roberts, fit "the John Huston plan for career longevity:
Never become too hip or faddish."
will "Getting Away With It" get an official
Most of Faber and Faber's stuff usually shows up here,
but as you probably gleaned from the book they can be
somewhat erratic. I still haven't got my box of author's
unfortunate, because it has a lot of topical hooks,
including the first mention between book covers of screenwriter
Charlie Kaufman. Your comment on his "Human Nature"
script -- you call it indescribable except for being
"very weird" and "hysterically funny"
-- hits home for anyone who's seen "Being John
four years ago, I asked a friend of mine who had some
experience in the development-reading world to help
me find something to do. She called two weeks after
I said I'd hire her and told me "I found the guy."
She sent me "Malkovich" and "Human Nature."
At that time "Malkovich" was already set up;
it was obvious that this guy was going to happen. I
got to hang out with him while we were trying to get
"Human Nature" set up, and I liked him enormously.
really enjoyed interviewing him, but he didn't want
to reveal too much of himself or analyze his own work.
probably, in the long run, pretty smart to do that.
I still have fantasies myself of pulling a Terrence
Malick. It's really a silly problem, but it's frustrating
to be in a situation where you become bored with speaking
about what you love to do for a living. You find yourself
hating not just the sound of your voice, but hearing
it make the work that you do sound boring. It's a terrible
sensation. You definitely get to a point where you feel
like a homeless person babbling on a corner, saying
the same thing over and over to very little effect.
the long run I don't know how much good talking does.
I don't think audiences pay too much attention -- people
who want to go to a movie will go. When you look at
the selling part of the business, everything that everybody
does for every movie feels the same. We did a ton of
press for "The Limey." Maybe it would have
done even worse if we hadn't, but I can't say what helped
and what didn't.
Limey" is loved by the people I know who've seen
it; I'm surprised to hear you say it didn't do well.
did really well in New York and L.A., so for a lot of
people the perception of it is that it did fine.
of your book is about trying to maintain enthusiasm
and energy over the course of a career. There's a wonderful
interplay between you and Lester -- almost as if you
started the book out of devotion to his movies but then
had these revelations about your own films.
emerged from this period when I felt I had to start
over again. I think there are two components to doing
that successfully. One is regaining enthusiasm about
your own work. The other is regaining enthusiasm about
other people's work.
I see people who I think have become either cynical
artistically or just competitive to the point of self-destruction,
what they share is the loss of appreciation for anything
that anybody else is doing. Seeing something good should
make you want to do something good; if you're not careful,
you can lose that. And that can hurt you. I still get
a charge out of seeing a really good movie or reading
a really good book or watching "The Sopranos"
my way through Lester's films, and doing these interviews
with him, I was reinvigorating myself. And there was
also something cautionary about it. Lester did stop
working for a variety of reasons. So for me there is
the element, whether it's spoken or not, of "Wow,
will that happen to me? And to all of us?"
There are recurring topics
and themes in the book. You talk a lot about one of
Lester's favorite actors, Roy Kinnear, who died after
he fell from a horse during the making of Lester's last
film, "The Return of the Musketeers." You
touch on whether Lester's atheism made him feel more
responsible for the accident than he would have if he'd
believed in a divine plan, and hastened his departure
from filmmaking. It makes the reader confront the moviemaker
as a person, not a technician.
think that's what we were both hoping for. Between the
Q and A and the journal, I just thought it was perhaps
relevant to somebody to portray the process of what
it's like to be a person who happens to do this for
a living as opposed to a portrait of a filmmaker. It
was hard. I was working while I was doing it and it
was a massive editing job. I had 35 hours of interviews
with him, and the journal I had was probably five times
the length of what you read.
then you have all these self-deprecating footnotes,
which touch on comic battles with your editors at Faber
and Faber. You have a jokey "Note From Your Publisher"
and two mock author's notes, including an outline for
an introduction that will contain an "Awesome display
of ego disguised as humility; joke about same."
Even the title and the cover design make your book feel
as irreverent as a Lester movie.
footnote idea came late because I felt something was
missing; one more deconstructed element was needed.
So in the last two weeks just before I turned it in,
I came up with the idea of a fictional person at Faber
who hates me. The copy editors at Faber got a huge kick
out of the "inside" view of how the company
mean, I love all the director books they do, "So-and-so
on so-and-so"; I've got all of them. But I thought,
We've got to tart this up a bit. We've got to put on
some bells and whistles, so if somebody picks it up
off the shelf they'll feel they have to buy it.
lot of younger directors, as different as Danny Boyle
("Trainspotting") and Stacy Cochran ("My
New Gun") and Michael Patrick Jann ("Drop
Dead Gorgeous"), have taken inspiration from Lester's
I know in some cases they are taking the right things
from his work -- not just the visual dexterity of, Oh,
if I shoot a lot of images and do a lot of cutting,
it will be just like a Richard Lester movie. There's
a lot more thought behind it than that. We would all
do well to look behind the surface at some of the ideas
he's trying to put across, because he's an intelligent
guy and he expressed a point of view -- especially,
in his peak years, about society at large.
think he has a genuine interest and appreciation for
people who do not have power. And I think that's getting
lost a lot these days. I was talking to a buddy of mine
who went into a meeting with some executives and they
were describing a lead character in a project they wanted
to do. "He's one of these guys, he really has the
town wired; he knows everyone and he's doing all these
things." We were just sitting there going, "Who
is that? We don't know anybody like that. And who, of
the people who would go see this movie, knows anyone
like that?" The idea that you can make a movie
about an ordinary person is almost gone.
when you talk about a director of ideas, you think of
someone cerebral or self-conscious. But Lester at his
best is downright blithe about getting his ideas to
the other thing that I took from him, which has helped
me enormously in the last few films, including the one
I'm finishing now ("Erin Brockovich"). How
should I describe it? Tossing things off, instead of
being labored about what you do. I'm serious about what
I do, but I think there's a real benefit to not being
precious and working quickly and going strictly on instinct.
It's something I lost and I absolutely got back from
"Out of Sight" and "The Limey" have
such stylistic confidence, it's odd to think of them
as in any way "tossed-off." What you call
relying on instinct must also mean relying on whatever
craftsmanlike reflexes you've built up.
had the luxury of making a first film that was successful
enough to afford me a lot of mistakes. The good news
was I took advantage of them. By the time "Out
of Sight" rolled around I felt pretty light on
my feet and secure in my ability to work in a way that
was expedient but detailed. That was my seventh film
-- if I was paying attention at all I should have been
able to do that!
as we both know, a lot of people aren't paying attention.
Directing has become the best entry-level job in show
business. You have to keep your eye on the long term
-- which is why I understand what Charlie Kaufman is
doing. I try to be careful about things I do and not
promote myself separately apart from a film I'm talking
about. I've never taken a possessory credit, because
anything that furthers the idea of you as a brand name
is risky -- because people get tired of certain brands.
is frank about decisions he made that have sometimes
been called forced and inorganic. For example, he admits
that he conceived the elaborate structure of "Petulia"
because he was afraid that if he didn't it might have
come off as "a romantic novelette."
point of fact, does it matter that Lester and the writers
who worked on "Petulia" sort of deconstructed
it because otherwise it would be a terrible melodrama?
No. The bottom line is, that's a great film, no matter
how you cut it. Everything is working against it being
a terrible melodrama, from the way it's cast to the
way the performances are pitched on the set to the way
it's composed and cut. That's why it works -- it's because
he's cutting against the grain of what's inherent in
that material. Sometimes that's a mistake, but in that
case it certainly isn't.
with Richard Lester reminded me of how rigorous you
have to be; conceptually, you have to sit down and make
sure you're wringing everything out of the material
that you should be wringing out of it. What frustrated
me about "The Underneath" was that I felt
I wasn't rigorous with it. On the one hand, maybe there
should be an international cultural police force --
so when someone like me says, "I want to splice
an armored-car heist movie together with Antonioni's
'Red Desert,'" they come and stop you. But on the
other hand, if you make a revisionist nonlinear noir
movie, there are more places to go with it than I did
in "The Underneath." I was not at a time in
my career when I understood that; and I was just feeling
sort of dry.
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