Soderbergh's 1989 sex, lies and videotape made him,
in a sense, the father of the postmodern independent
film at the ripe old age of 29. Now with two films opening
concurrently (Gray's Anatomy and Schizopolis) that fill
the bill, Rough Cut's Stan Schwartz caught up with the
former "boy wonder" in New York.
Does it feel at all odd that
none of your films after sex, lies and videotape, a
first film no less, achieved quite the same status as
that one did?
No. It was such a fluke. Everything that happened was
just a product of timing. It just seemed like people
were ready to see that movie at that time, and if it
were made a year earlier or a year later, it would not
have done what it did. And we were very fortunate that
everything went our way. Even at Cannes. Just before
the festival started, Coppola, who was supposed to be
the head of the jury, dropped out and Wim Wenders became
the head of the jury. And he responded to the movie
so strongly that he pushed it through. Who could have
foreseen that? We weren't even supposed to get into
the festival. Another American film backed out and the
competition stole us from Director's Fortnight where
we had already gotten in. So when stuff like that happens,
you just go, this is, you know, a fluke of timing.
You are generally credited
with putting Sundance on the map with sex, lies and
videotape. But one has heard arguments recently that
perhaps Sundance has now gone too far in the other direction.
And you yourself presented Schizopolis at Slamdance.
Are we to take that as any kind of statement on your
No. I still feel Sundance is, for the most part, doing
what it set out to do, which is basically getting exposure
for independent films. It just turned out that I had
a relationship with Slamdance because the picture I
produced last year -- which just opened, The Daytrippers
-- was rejected at Sundance. And when [writer/director]
Greg Mottola called me and asked me what I thought we
should do, I told him I thought we should go to Slamdance,
'cause we got to get somebody to see this thing or we're
dead. So we submitted it to Slamdance, and they liked
it and they showed it and it got some press. So this
year, one of the programmers at Slamdance saw Schizopolis
at the Hamptons [Film Festival] and said, "I'd
really like you to bring this to Slamdance and do a
single screening because I think it typifies what we're
about and I just think it would be a good thing to do."
So it was as simple as that: They asked and I said yes.
The quote- unquote independent film community has gotten
so large that I think Slamdance was not only inevitable,
but necessary. It really has no practical impact on
Sundance at all, and for Sundance to sit around making
cracks about Slamdance is really like shooting a mosquito
with a howitzer. Slamdance is just dealing with overflow.
links all your films together?
A lot of the same thematic ideas are being addressed
and explored, but in a different format. They're all
about that battle I was talking about between internal
and external. And they all have protagonists who are
at odds with their surroundings and are mystified by
the behavior of others. So on one hand, you could say
Schizopolis was a continuation of sorts of sex, lies
and videotape, but on the other hand, I'm just not the
same person anymore.
are you different?
I'm less serious, which I always think is a good thing.
And I've become more interested in the idea of using
abstract and surreal ideas to put across reality. I've
gotten more rigorous about using my influences to take
me somewhere else, those interests being Dadaism, or
Richard Lester, or Bunuel, or Monty Python or whatever.
Oh hell, yeah! Pale Fire. Yeah, he's great. There's
a huge deconstructive element in his work. The acknowledgment
that you're reading a book. And there's a lot of that
in Schizopolis. The awareness that you're watching a
movie, and the film's awareness that you're aware that
you're watching a movie.
did Gray's Anatomy come to be made?
Spalding had been interested in doing a film version
of it for a while, and I guess it almost got set up
under different circumstances and then didn't. So I
got a call later in 1995 asking me if I'd be interested,
and I said sure but not if you're looking for something
similar to the other two films [Swimming to Cambodia
and Monster in a Box]. If I can be allowed to eliminate
the live audience and turn it into more of a movie,
then that's interesting. And he said sure. The fact
that I was editing Schizopolis at the time made me think
for a couple of hours, but then I decided that I'd really
regret it if I didn't make the film. I'm such a big
fan of Spalding's that I couldn't walk away. And once
we started shooting I was really glad I was doing it.
And even though we were sort of viewing it as that "second
movie we're trying to do," it's turned out to be
the real audience pleaser of the two films. Everyone
seems to like it.
interesting you specifically chose not to have a live
Yes, we needed to do something to take the onus off
the talking-head movie. I think it helps a little just
being able to mix it up a little bit and also to add
those other people in. You don't have that sense of
dread that you're going to be seeing the same thing
for the whole film.
movie proceeds at quite a nice clip ...
Well, I worked hard to cut the text down to what I thought
was the essential stuff -- basically, the eye problem.
I got rid of a lot of the digressions that are admittedly
part of Spalding's charm, but in this case I thought
we really had to stick to the main point. It was funny
-- I saw one of the last public performances of Gray's
Anatomy and then shortly thereafter, I presented Spalding
with my edited version. He said, "Boy, I wish I
had this six months ago because IÔd be doing this
version." It was a pretty lean, mean version of
do you conceptually approach a film that is just a monologue?
Basically, once I had a Xerox copy of the published
text, I went through and marked what I thought were
natural break points in terms of rhythms and ideas.
So I broke it down into sections and then determined
that there should be a home base, which would be the
apartment set that we would start with and end with.
That would be the place we would return to, although
in different guises. It might be day, it might be night,
or we'd do that thing with the curtains. But visually,
the piece needed a home base. And then it was just deciding
where to go from there. What kind of offshoots I could
get away with. So that took awhile. And I worked with
the cinematographer and the production designer to come
up with visual ideas that would complement [Spalding]
but not overwhelm him. We tried everything. Sometimes
you see him, sometimes you don't. Sometimes he's moving,
sometimes he's not. Anything we could think of. Spinning
him, spinning the camera. Whatever seemed to work.
That anarchic quality is pushed
to even further extremes in Schizopolis -- granted,
it was made first. How did that film come about?
That came about 'cause I was just getting bored, really,
with what I was doing. While I was making The Underneath,
I found that I wasn't really enjoying directing anymore.
And I felt endangered of stagnating, and I couldn't
figure out why that was happening. So I decided I just
had to start over. I had to go back to re-energize myself,
re-familiarize myself with why I got into this profession.
If I can't sit on the set of a movie and want to be
there, then I've got to either find something else to
do or find another way to work.
What excited you about Schizopolis?
Just the ideological freedom. If you make a film for
that small amount of money [$250,000], you can figuratively
do anything. And I wanted to play with the language
-- literally. I wanted to play with cinematic language.
You know there's nothing in there that hasn't been tried
before in everything, from a Godard film to Kentucky
Fried Movie. Its influences are that wide-ranging. Schizopolis
was an effort to get back to the kinds of films I made
when I made short films, which were much funnier, more
energetic and much more playful than any of the features
the lead actor, how did you keep a directorial ear and
eye out on your own performance?
It's hard to say because I didn't really think about
it. When you make a movie with five people, all of whom
you know well and all of whom you've worked with before,
and you're also lighting and setting up the camera yourself,
the line between performance and non-performance kind
of dissolves. So I actually have no real conscious memory
of acting, of performing in the movie. I just remember
that day we were at that location and we shot that sequence.
And when I was watching dailies, I'd see myself doing
these things and I'd say, "Wow, what is that? Where
did that come from?"
you enjoy acting?
It was fine, but it certainly isn't something I'd do.
I did it here because we shot off and on for 10 months
and I needed someone who was available all the time
for free. Up until a few weeks before shooting, I was
going to use Eddie Jemison, who ended up playing my
colleague at work, Nameless Numberheadman, but he now
lives in Chicago and he just couldn't make the commitment.
you happy with the result?
Yes. I mean, I was talking this morning with someone
who asked me, "Do you think Schizopolis works?"
And I said it's not a movie -- which I view like that.
Because it's just intended to be a lark, a provocation,
a comedic piece of agit prop. Whether it works as a
piece in and of itself is only partially relevant to
me. Its energy is what was important to me. I like seeing
a movie that could just completely derail at any moment.
You just think, "Well, what the hell are the next
five minutes going to be like?" It was that sensation
I wanted to get across.
seems to be a fairly personal battle going on at the
core of Schizopolis.
Yes, one that has to do with internal vs. external.
I think this is always an issue for someone who creates.
There is a world that you'd like to be in and experience
that rarely matches the world which exits, and so you
find this conflict. You have to make a decision: Do
I accept the existing world as an objective reality
and adapt myself to it and learn to be content with
it? Or do I continue to try and get the external world
to adapt to my interior version of it? It seems the
latter is the less healthy of the two. You're better
off learning how to adapt to the world as it exists
instead of doing what I do, which is every five years,
sloughing off everything I've acquired and starting
over again. Actually, I think that's a great thing to
do in your art, but a bad thing to do in your life.
But I do it kind of a lot! I get rid of everything and
just start over. Like I'm not going to dress like that
anymore, throw out all the clothes ...
leads me to the subject of the self-help industry, which
plays an important part in your film. Have you had much
personal experience with all of that?
The self-help guru culture we have here was something
I'd been thinking about for a couple of years. When
you see some of these books at the top of the best sellers'
list for half a year, you think, "What the hell
is in this?" So I'd pick them up and read them,
and most of them struck me as sophistry along the lines
of eventualism. Massive tomes designed to absolve you.
And of course the whole cult of personality that goes
along with some of these guru figures. There's a great
Hubert Humphrey quote where he says that the right to
be heard does not extend to the right to be taken seriously.
And I think we've forgotten that in this culture. Anybody
who stands up and speaks is ideologically legitimate.
If they have found a way to get a mouthpiece, then they
are legitimate. And that's just not true. We have to
be more rigorous than that, or else we're just going
to have a lot of noise, which is kind of what we have.
When every idea is given identical weight, then this
is a recipe for disaster.
preference for making a $250,000 picture over a bigger
film, or vice versa? They
both have their charms. I don't think I'd like to do
either of them all the time. I think I'm going to end
up going back and forth. I like that diversity.
final thoughts on where American culture is at as we
approach the millennium?
I think it's a very difficult time. There are so many
forces pushing us one way and then another. And so many
contradictions and so much confusion. And [with Schizopolis,]
I guess I wanted to take a snapshot of that for the
hell of it. Maybe just for my own edification, but maybe
for others' as well. To serve as sort of a time capsule.
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