Vintage Steven Soderbergh—the Cineaste at 30

Introspective and intellectual in the European sense of the word, here is one filmmaker who easily crosses back and forth from independent film to studio blockbuster.

19 Jan., 1993 | San José Metro | Jordan Elgrably

In and out of analysis for years, Steven Soderbergh has a gloominess about him that somehow manages to be cheerful. For those who admired his first film, sex, lies, and videotape, this kind of introspection is unlikely to be surprising. During a recent interview in downtown L.A., where he was busy shooting The Quiet Room for Showtime, Soderbergh took a little time to discuss his new film and reminisce on the past.

Director Steve Soderbergh

Director Steve Soderbergh

Though he's only 30 now, the Louisiana native possesses the seriousness of an older man. It makes you wonder. Usually by the time a director has made his first three films both his critics and audience figure they can see where he's headed; that is, whether he's going to make pretty much the same film over and over again, perfecting it till he gets it right (and retaining much of his original audience in the process), or changing genre and narrative conceit each time out, in such a way as to lose his audience with each new picture.

After sex, lies it would appear that Soderbergh, on the surface at any rate, purposefully moved away from his original territory of tangled relationships in an intimate format. This was bold both artistically and commercially, particularly when you see that the film, made for only $1.2 million, went on to gross more than 100 million dollars in worldwide box office receipts, not to mention grabbing the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. With Kafka, scripted by Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh shot mostly in black and white in Prague—very foreign territory after working at home in Baton Rouge with an ensemble cast and a script based on his own experiences.

Lisa Eichhorn, Jeroen Krabbé in King of the Hill.

Lisa Eichhorn, Jeroen Krabbé in King of the Hill.

Now, with King of the Hill, Soderbergh takes new risks much the way Francis Coppola did early on. Set during the Depression in St. Louis and based on the memoirs of A.E. Hotchner, a writer best known for his biography of Hemingway, King is about as far from the territory of the sex wars as could be, tracing as it does a summer in the life of Aaron Kurlander, a 12-year-old boy hampered by hunger and the dissolution of his family. Soderbergh's early production notes for King indicate that, "in the tradition of Mark Twain, the young hero uses the audacity and cunning of a child for the grown-up task of survival." He adds now, "I wanted this to have some of the feeling of François Truffaut, some of the feeling of Vittorio de Sica. I just didn't want it to be sentimental."

Whether or not King is meant to be Soderbergh's The Four Hundred Blows or The Bicycle Thief, it works as an off-kilter period piece. The Kurlanders live in a transient hotel inhabited by strange characters à la Barton Fink. Poverty forces the family to ship Aaron's kid brother off to stay with distant relatives, while his mother enters a nearby sanitarium to recuperate from a bout of tuberculosis. When Aaron's father, an out of work salesman, accepts a job in a neighboring state, Aaron is left to spend much of the summer fending for himself.

Kurlander père is played by Jeroen Krabbé, the versatile and usually compelling Dutch actor who also had a part in Kafka. Aaron's mother is played by Lisa Eichhorn; like Krabbé she does more than an adequate job, but since this movie is really not about the adults, they most often remain background figures, while the children and adolescents seem to inhabit a world of their own imagining (in this light Spalding Gray's turn as the morose Mr. Mungo, a once-wealthy eccentric down on his luck, puts one in mind of a Lewis Carroll landscape). The boy serving as Soderbergh's alter ego is Jesse Bradford, who was in fact the very first kid to read for the part during a three-week casting which scoured the United States. Bradford was always Soderbergh's first choice, he says, in part because he is able to express a range of emotions that include ambiguity. This was important to Soderbergh because he wanted King to be "emotionally satisfying, and yet not <em>neccesarily</em> have a happy ending." [emphasis Soderbergh's]

Jeremy Irons as Kafka

Jeremy Irons as Kafka

"I couldn't have made King unless I'd done Kafka first," Soderbergh muses, "and I really did want to do something radically different from my first film." Frustrated by attempts to write a new narrative around relationships in the '90s, Soderbergh completely abandoned the half-dozen screenplays he wrote previous to sex, lies (which he penned in less than two weeks during the winter of '87) and went forward with projects that make it difficult to predict the arch of his career. King, however, takes great pains to transport the viewer to Depression reality. With cinematographer Elliot Davis, Soderbergh studied the paintings of Edward Hopper, "mostly because of the palette and colors," he says, yet he avoided looking at other films of the period, with the exception of John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath.

For someone born in 1963, Soderbergh seems unusually comfortable with the past, whether he's working in the 1920s of Kafka, the '30s of King or in the early '50s of The Quiet Room, a half-hour episode for Showtime's Fallen Angels mini-series. Of King, which takes place in 1933, Soderbergh says he culled most of his information from Hotchner's book rather than read Southern literature of the era. Also, he asserts, "I had a real sense for that time, because my father grew up then and has written books on the music from that period. I love the aesthetic, I love the clothes and the buildings; there's a different way of behaving that's much more...repressed."

It is a word that comes up often in conversation with Soderbergh, and one would hazard to guess he derives some strength from his inability to recognize his own ecstatic experiences. "I have real trouble living in the present," he confesses. "I'm either constantly revisiting the past or conjuring the future, and I have a real problem saying 'right now I feel this.' Part of my problem is I tend to martyr myself out of having a good time, and so it's only in retrospect that I've realized I ought to have enjoyed a lot of things that have happened to me," he adds.

Andie McDowell, James Spader in sex, lies & videotape

Andie McDowell, James Spader in sex, lies & videotape

In fact, it is when you get him to speak of his repressed feelings that Soderbergh perhaps best understands his own work. "If you look at the movies I've made, they often have to do with people who are sort of emotionally cut off from their immediate reactions to situations. sex, lies was completely about a guy who's obsessed with the past, who feels he cannot move forward until he closes this chapter to his life, but is very cut off from how he feels, or even why he feels cut off. Kafka is about a person who is completely confused about everything, and King of the Hill is about a kid who doesn't feel connected to his parents...

"Talking to my father, I discovered I was a taciturn sort of youth, distant and uncomfortable with what was going on around me. That's why I felt I knew [Aaron]. I think I was always the kind of boy that was either out of the house, visiting somebody else's house, or in my room a lot. I never brought anybody to my house. So very early on I'd established a sort of world I had constructed for myself."

Soderbergh is one of a very few American originals who have come to light in recent years, but unlike Gus Van Sant, Spike Lee or Hal Hartley, his choices appear ambiguous. If sex, lies reflected the emotional numbness and skewed sexuality of the decade in which it was made, Kafka was anything but a return to autobiographical filmmaking, finding its center more in the allegory of Kafka's alienation than the director's personal ennui. In Van Sant you recognize marginal America in the withdrawal symptoms of Drugstore Cowboy and the grunge culture of My Own Private Idaho; in all of Spike Lee's work there is the black man's outrage at an unjust, hostile white society; and in Hal Hartley's Truth or Simple Men, there is the end of innocence in suburban America. But where do we find Soderbergh's emotional core?

Speaking of his dysfunctionality, the director admits that even today, after all his achievements, including his life with wife Betsy Brantley and their 3-year-old daughter Sarah (the Soderberghs live on a 40-acre farm in Somerset, Virginia, 3,000 miles from Hollywood), it's still hard for him to have a good time, to live life in the moment. When in analysis, he says, "I wonder: how do I get rid of the feeling that everything inevitably turns to shit? Is there anyway to combat that? Why do I feel this way?"

One of six brothers and sisters, Soderbergh's parents were lapsed Catholics, and though he never received any religious instruction, it's clear a Judeo-Christian sense of guilt is very much part of his upbringing. Soderbergh's journal entries while making sex, lies give some indication of his feelings about sexual betrayal and sexual repression. He writes, "I hate directing sex scenes, I decided. It makes me uncomfortable to ask people to do such intimate things. I feel like turning away." During our interview he admitted he is "the most interior of the people in my family. When you write, that sort of forces you to be [introverted]. I live a lot of my life in my head, which can often cause problems for people around me, because they don't know what's going on."

Asked what are the most important, even urgent issues in his life, Soderbergh broods for a moment, then glances solemnly at his interlocutor. "I don't feel like I've created anything right now that I truly think is 'great art'. I would like to do that but I don't feel like it's going to happen next year. But I would like to accomplish something."

Soderbergh's next project, a studio film he's developing with Sydney Pollock for Universal Pictures, is a comedy no less, about the formation of the National Football League. Set in 1926 and written by two guys who work for Sports Illustrated, it promises to be as unpredictable as anything else he's done, yet Soderbergh remembers his auspicious beginnings, making independent film on a shoestring, and it seems to be the way back to the kind of personal film his original admirers long for.

"An idea occurred to me just a few weeks ago, much in the way sex, lies occurred to me. I've been making notes for it and I'm going to sit down and write it this summer. It's actually going to be a hybrid of 'sex, lies' and the kind of more allegorical storytelling, as you say, of 'Kakfa.' I'm really excited about it. As I envision it now it's about duality, about how one reconciles very conflicting impulses, and I've figured out a way to do that which isn't literal. I think I can make it cheaply, and it will definitely be an independent film."