MOVIES : ON LOCATION : The Road Less Traveled : After ‘sex, lies, and videotape,’ Hollywood beckoned. So where is Steven Soderbergh? On the other side of the world.


If you were Steven Soderbergh, what would you do?

Your first movie, “sex, lies, and videotape,” becomes a massive commercial and critical hit after coming from nowhere to win two major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival of 1989. You bring the movie in for a paltry $1.2 million; it goes on to recoup its costs several times over. You are just 26 years old.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 9, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Photos from the set of director Steven Soderbergh’s film “Kafka” in the Nov. 25 Calendar were taken by Jaromir Komarek.

Now two of America’s best-known filmmakers, Robert Redford and Sydney Pollack, are knocking at your door. They want to produce your all-important next film from stories you have personally selected. These are commercial projects that will justify big budgets; a major studio, Universal, has already promised to distribute them.

So you murmur your gratitude for the nice things being said about you, take the money, the office on the lot with the parking space, buy a little place in the hills and go to work in the sunshine. Right?


That’s what you do. But you’re not Steven Soderbergh.

Cut instead to a dark, bone-chilling night on a Prague side street called Misenska, where Soderbergh is braving the elements to make a modestly priced film, in black and white, about the imagined life of a gloomy, paranoid Czech novelist. And he is doing it at a fraction of the director’s fee he can now command.

“Let’s try it again,” says Soderbergh, in a comical fur hat with ear flaps, his nose bright red from the cold. He is unhappy about a sinister but comic scene in which Kafka (Jeremy Irons) is dragged down the street by two bowler-hatted assistants from his insurance office. Irons nods curtly and resumes his mark. Crew members sigh resignedly, blow on their hands and silently pray for a swift return to their warm hotel.

Though Franz Kafka was a real person, the film is by no means a “biopic.” Instead, writer Lem Dobbs has fashioned a thriller about a cover-up by officials in a totalitarian state of the murder of Kafka’s friend and colleague Eduard. A knowledge of Kafka’s work is not essential to enjoying the film--though Dobbs’ script has incidents that almost playfully speculate how Kafka may have been inspired to write novels such as “The Castle” and “The Trial.”

Soderbergh describes the film as “a challenging entertainment.” It’s certainly quite a statement of intent, and one that has raised many eyebrows in Hollywood--where much interest and speculation has centered on which way Soderbergh would jump after “sex, lies, and videotape.”

Here is the answer. Pollack and Redford and Universal Pictures have been politely but firmly placed on hold, while Soderbergh comes to Prague to make “Kafka” for another distinguished admirer--Barry Levinson, whose Baltimore Pictures is producing it. He is shooting the film for just under $12 million. It all suggests remarkable self-confidence on the young director’s part.

The next morning, there is a break from shooting “Kafka” in a Prague city center office building used during World War II by the Gestapo. Soderbergh, whose close-cropped hair, beard and big, round glasses make him resemble an earnest divinity student, sits himself down on a rough wooden crate and concedes he is an object of attention on this, his second movie.


“But I don’t feel too much pressure about that,” he says. “In many ways it’s to my advantage that initially there will be some interest in this film. The only pressure I feel is: Will the film be any good?”

The smart money says it will, because “sex, lies, and videotape,” which won the Palme d’Or and the international critics prize at Cannes, was such an assured piece of work. It dealt with the relationships between two men and two women, ranging from the adulterous to the duplicitous, and it made a major detour past the voyeuristic. Clear-eyed, sharply observed and filled with low-key humor, it unexpectedly struck a chord with audiences and critics alike.

Its very title entered the vernacular and was adapted for a hundred headlines. The Soderbergh story became legend; a movie fanatic from Baton Rouge, La., he started shooting his own Super 8 films as a teen-ager. His relationships with women, he says now, were stormy and prone to deception. “sex, lies, and videotape” was written on an eight-day road trip between home and Hollywood. Now he describes the screenplay as “an act of contrition” for his scheming and double-dealing.

Nowhere are hyperbolic praise and instant celebrity bestowed as readily as at Cannes. But by the time “sex, lies, and videotape” burst on the world almost two years ago, Soderbergh’s life had become sufficiently grounded for him to handle the distractions of fame.

“I’d grown up,” he says in his faint Southern drawl. “If it had happened three years sooner, I’d have gotten really screwed up. There were a lot of people coming at me, wanting to give me things I wanted. You have to be very cautious and deliberate in your responses.”

Within a year of his Cannes triumph, Soderbergh had quietly married actress Betsy Brantley, who co-stars in Robert Redford’s upcoming “Havana.” “That’s a perfect example of growing up,” he says. “Everything’s great, we don’t fight, and she’s enabled me to focus even more on work because there’s a level of security there that I never had personally.”

Betsy is on the set in Prague, contentedly pregnant, knitting clothes for the baby, who will be born around Valentine’s Day. (Tests show it is a girl, and the Soderberghs have already chosen a name, Sarah). Between takes, Betsy shows around photos of the 40-acre farm the couple have recently bought in rural Virginia. “This,” she says, teasingly, “is Steven’s editing room.” It looks like a small garden shed.

It’s also another statement of intent; Soderbergh clearly means to keep Hollywood at arm’s length and make movies the way he wants. “I just don’t find Los Angeles a comfortable place to live,” he says, defensively.

But he also admits to tremendous relief that “Kafka,” like “sex, lies, and videotape” before it, is being made through independent financing and only after completion will be shown to major movie studios that might want to distribute it. It’s one way of keeping meddling studio executives away from the set.

“There’s a certain way I like to work,” he says. “It goes--this is the script, this is the budget, this is the schedule. Assuming these things stay as they are, I want to be left alone to make the movie.”

For all this, Soderbergh does not come across as a spoiled brat. Says “Kafka” producer Stuart Cornfeld: “When I first met him, I was struck by what he wasn’t. He was not arrogant or self-centered, not full of himself or antagonistic. But he did love movies.”

Another Soderbergh fan is Jeremy Irons. “I saw ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ in New York with my wife and liked it tremendously,” he recalls. “I came out of the cinema feeling spoken to. I said to my wife--I must work with that man.”

Soderbergh was about to start on “The Last Ship” for Sydney Pollack at Universal--a story set aboard a destroyer in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. “Then I decided to switch,” he recalls. “I was unhappy about my first draft, and it wasn’t a matter of doing four more drafts to get it right. I needed to come back to it from a totally different angle.

“I was also getting very anxious to make another film. It had been 18 months since I’d finished ‘sex, lies,’ and I didn’t want to get rusty. The ‘Kafka’ script was in shape, and I felt the movie would work. ‘The Last Ship’ was not a movie to go into with doubts. So I asked Universal if I could switch. They said sure. They were very nice about it.”

(After “The Last Ship,” Soderbergh will film a coming-of-age story called “King of the Hill” for Redford.)

The span between his films is likely to remain long, because Soderbergh edits them himself. “There’s not much time to be prepping another film during post-production,” he muses. “But I’m going to continue to edit myself. It’s the best part, the most fun. I’d hate to turn it over to someone else.”

He felt no pressure about the success of “sex, lies, and videotape.” It was disorienting because it was so unexpected, but I just tried to cultivate a healthy disbelief about what was happening. Just as in this case, it seemed like everybody I came in contact with seemed to like it, I’m sure there’ll come a time when the opposite is true. At that point, I’ll have to not take that seriously either.”

As for working hand-in-hand with a studio, Soderbergh foresees few problems. “I know a lot of people at Universal, and our dealings there have been more than trouble-free,” he says. “It’s not an easy thing for a studio to say yes to somebody who’s supposed to be making a film for them, then decides to go off and do something else. Someone who says--well, I’ll be back later when I’m ready.

“I’m a responsible filmmaker. I’m as aware as anyone coming out of a guerrilla filmmaking background of the balance between the movie, the money and the time.”

The director thinks luck plays its part in a film’s success, and he recalls the casting problems in “sex, lies, and videotape”: Andie McDowell’s audition, he said, unexpectedly “blew me out of my seat.” He added: “Laura San Giacomo was someone who had done no movies. Another actor who was cast dropped out, so I got Peter Gallagher. Jimmy (Spader) got hold of the script by accident and liked it.

“It could have been a totally different movie. It’s a crap shoot. You just do what you can to increase the odds in your favor.”

To this end, Soderbergh has surrounded himself here with a clique of crew members who know him from Baton Rouge and worked on “sex, lies, and videotape.” They include sound editor Paul Ledford, sound effects men Larry Blake and Mark Mangini and electrician David Jensen, who also has a small acting role. Walt Lloyd, cinematographer on “sex, lies,” and Cliff Martinez, who composed its score, have also rejoined Soderbergh.

So do he and these guys share common attitudes? “We’ve certainly all managed to get into this business with strong ideas of quality, integrity and working responsibly,” he says. “For me, it’s having five or six people around who’ll give it to you straight when you need it given you straight.”

If “Kafka” seems at first glance to be a questionable commercial project, Soderbergh has certainly assembled a fine cast. Apart from Irons, the players include Sir Alec Guinness, Ian Holm, Joel Grey and Armin Mueller-Stahl. The female lead was to be played by French actress Anne Parillaud, currently enjoying a hit in Europe with Luc Besson’s “Nikita,” but she withdrew after shooting one scene, citing difficulties with English. Theresa Russell was quickly drafted to replace her.

Happily for Soderbergh, his leading man is currently on a hot streak. Irons has received rave reviews for his work in “Reversal of Fortune,” in which he plays socialite Claus von Bulow, who was accused (and acquitted) of murdering his wife.

“This does seem to be a good time,” agrees Irons, in the warmth of his trailer, pausing from his English newspaper crossword. “But careers go in waves. I always wait to see what comes out of it. I have no idea what I’m doing next.”

He admits to eccentric reasons for choosing his roles: “Filming for an actor is quite a boring occupation. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it or I don’t think I’m lucky. But there’s a lot of hanging around. So I try to pick films which involve me a lot, or which won’t be that easy to do.”

Irons never read Kafka as a young man, “which is when I think he speaks to you. I regret it greatly. I’m not very well read. I always had the notion that if I was reading, there was always something better I should be doing. Now that I have read Kafka, he doesn’t excite me greatly. I want him to get on with things, open the windows of his mind.”

They don’t seem much of a fun couple, Irons and Soderbergh; the sensitive, refined Englishman and the owlish, scholarly looking American director. Yet Irons says: “We laugh a lot together. That’s important to me, because the person an actor is closest to is the director. And if you’re together for 10 weeks, it has to be someone who excites and amuses you.”

Especially in a location like Prague, one would think. The city’s baroque beauty makes it an intriguing place to spend time, and its winding cobbled side streets make it a perfect place to film a story set in 1919. Then there is the factor that shooting here is probably twice as cheap as in America or Western Europe. “And the great thing about working with a central bureaucracy,” says Stuart Cornfeld, a little tongue-in-cheek, “is total cooperation. They promise a location’s available--and they deliver.

But production sometimes is slowed because of translation problems between the Czech crew members and the people who supervise them, mainly British. Then there is the morale of the Czechs--which is decidedly mixed.

Assistant director/translator Miroslav Lux explains that as a part of Premier Vaclav Havel’s “velvet revolution,” Czechoslovakia’s state-run studio Barrandov is about to change fundamentally. Its state subsidy has been slashed by 75% to about $600,000 next year.

“The new director, Vaclav Marhoul, is going to give notice to maybe 90% of the studio’s staff, including the people on this film,” says Lux. “Until now they were on a permanent regular payroll. Now they will have to go free-lance. It goes hand-in-hand with a tendency of increasing efficiency.”

The decision has clearly caused gloom on the “Kafka” set, though Lux says: “Many people are looking forward to the new deal, especially those with confidence in their abilities.”

Barrandov has had a decidedly checkered past. In World War II, it was used as a center for making Nazi propaganda films. Renowned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl had an office there; Goebbels ran the entire operation from afar.

In the 1960s, the studio produced several classic Czech films, including Milos Forman’s “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball,” and Jiri Menzel’s “Closely Observed Trains.” But after the Soviets overthrew the Dubcek government in 1968, Barrandov was used for making films deemed acceptable to the Communist regime. “It was a painful process,” recalls Lux. “There had to be a lot of official approval of scripts.”

Now Czechoslovakia is welcoming joint ventures with the West, and its film industry is no exception. Prague may be at an economic crossroads, but its sense of itself as an artistic capital is undeniable. Enormous excitement surrounds an Andy Warhol retrospective at a major Prague museum; a sense of free expression and liberation is strong.

Everyone in the cafes and bars seems to be an artist, poet or writer. The scene being shot on Misenska street drew a crowd not only because of the filming but because of a man who, with his daughter, was peering from a upstairs window; he turned out to be a member of a popular Czech rock group called the Precedents.

One supporting actor in “Kafka” was Ion Caramitru, who served for five months as vice president in Romania after the Ceaucescu regime fell.

Can a genuinely popular movie be fashioned from these unlikely beginnings? Stuart Cornfeld thinks so, citing Soderbergh’s presence as the key element. “Steven has a definite vision of what he wants the film to be,” he says, “and he’s very good at communicating it.”

Soderbergh says “Kafka” is entertainment. “Nothing is inaccessible about it. It’s not some highbrow exercise.”

He agrees it may be hard to market, but adds: “I feel that if a film is good, you can find a way to sell it. Or you don’t need to sell it so aggressively. Maybe I’m naive. But ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ wasn’t high-concept, either.

“People said it was amazing I got to make ‘sex, lies,” and kept control of it. But I thought, well, here’s this movie about four white, attractive young people that was somewhat drenched in sexuality, even though it was non-explicit. It would seem to me not a huge gamble to spend just over a million dollars on it.”

But on “Kafka,” he is reminded, his budget is 10 times more. On his next two films, budgets will be even higher.

Soderbergh frowns, adjusting his glasses. “Yeah,” he says finally, “but the problems are just the same. You walk on the set, bring the actors on, the scene’s working or it’s not, and you decide where to put the camera. And the days go by.”