The Funk of Steven Soderbergh

Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Until the age of 12, Steven Soderbergh's consuming passion was baseball. As a Little League player, he had terrific across-the-board skills, racking up a 7- 0 pitching record, including a no-hitter, and a .450 batting average by midseason of 1975. He thought he had a shot at the major leagues, a dream his father, who attended every game, did not discourage. But one day that summer, he stopped being good. * "I went out and pitched and got my head taken off. I couldn't hit," he remembers. "I woke up one morning and I did not have that thing anymore that makes you believe that you are better than someone else. Literally, I lost it overnight. * "The following year I got my hands on a camera and started making movies, and that spark that I had before, when I was playing baseball, I had when I was making movies." * Cut to Austin, Texas, in 1994, 19 years later. * Soderbergh is on the set of "The Underneath," a modern-day film noir he is directing for Gramercy Pictures. Outwardly, things are going well, but Soderbergh is reeling inside. He's come to realize that he hates the script (which he wrote), hates directing it (a job he asked for) and hates the state of his career ("What the hell am I doing here making an armored-car heist movie?") * Soderbergh knew this was going to happen. Five years earlier, in 1989, he had stunned Hollywood with his $1.2-million first feature, "sex, lies, and videotape." A contemplative, four-character study of love betrayed and redeemed, the film was probably the most universally acclaimed directorial debut since Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" in 1941. It connected with critics and audiences alike, grossing nearly $100 million in worldwide revenue. German director Wim Wenders, president of the Cannes Film Festival jury that gave Soderbergh the Palm d'Or, declared that the movie "[gives] us confidence in the future of cinema." It ushered in a new era of American independent film, paving the way for Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and others.

But once successful, Soderbergh backed away, as if by reflex. He warned friends of a backlash. When British director Richard Lester congratulated him on "sex, lies," adding, "It gets harder, you know," the words were seared into Soderbergh's mind like a Delphic oracle. Those present at his Cannes triumph still remember his remark on accepting the top prize: "Well," he said, "I guess it's all downhill from here."

So by the time he fell into a funk on the set of "The Underneath," Soderbergh had come full circle. His Hollywood disappointments had arrived on schedule. His two features since "sex, lies, and videotape"--"Kafka" and "King of the Hill"--had bombed at the box office, a fate that would also befall "The Underneath." He and mentor Robert Redford hadn't spoken since working together on 1993's "King of the Hill." And little did he know that a deal to develop a screen version of John Kennedy Toole's cult novel, "A Confederacy of Dunces," would soon collapse into a lawsuit, still pending, against Paramount Pictures and producer Scott Rudin. It seemed somehow fitting that Soderbergh would find himself on location in Texas, shooting a picture he couldn't stand.

"To sit on a movie set at age 31 and wonder whether or not you even want to do this, having no other real skills, is so terrifying and depressing," he says.

He did not, in other words, have "that thing," "that spark," anymore. To get it back, he made another 90-degree zag, threw himself another curve, to preserve the sense of chaos that keeps him going.

*

Soderbergh's latest feature, "Schizopolis," is a strong departure from "sex, lies," which seduced so many viewers with its reassuring message and serene rhythms. "Schizopolis" is jagged, scabrous, irreverent and baffling. In the title scene, a mustachioed man, shot in close-up, squints and smiles, then turns on his heels and runs away from the camera. He's naked from the waist down. Two men dressed as hospital orderlies chase after him as he climbs on a bicycle and pedals away.

"That, to me, is the perfect metaphor for making a movie," the 34-year-old director says. "You just want to be free and unencumbered, and yet all these people are constantly trying to restrain you."

The idea for the movie sprang directly from Soderbergh's unhappiness during the making of "The Underneath." He felt a need, he says, "to cleanse my palate" artistically, to devise a movie that could be made entirely on his own terms.

"I had somehow drifted away from the kind of films that I really wanted to make," he explains, "the kinds of films I was making when I started making films as a kid."

So the only restraints would be fiscal. The script, about a nebbishy speech writer for a self-help guru who crosses paths with a look-alike dentist, would lean heavily toward improvisation. The five-person crew would consist of the director and some old friends. Soderbergh bought used cameras and lights and set up a low-level digital editing system in a spare bedroom of his rented two-story home in Baton Rouge, La., a city where he had lived as a teenager. For Soderbergh, who had spent much of the previous six years on location or at his farm outside Charlottesville, Va., the film would mean both a nostalgic homecoming and a blind leap into the unknown.

The budget was $250,000, or about one-fifth what "sex, lies" cost.

"I was as excited as hell," he says. "It was everything that I hoped it would be in terms of the sense of exhilaration at the freedom."

The result is pure Soderbergh--purer, in fact, than many people may realize on first viewing. "Schizopolis," which will be released in April by Northern Arts, a small distributor, is unabashedly autobiographical, a twisted fable inspired by the agonizing disintegration of Soderbergh's marriage to actress Betsy Brantley. And as if to underline the personal associations, he casts himself in the two lead roles, as feckless speech writer Fletcher Munson and his insidious double, Dr. Jeffrey Korchek.

Soderbergh hadn't put himself on the other side of the camera since he was a teenager. His looks are striking: thinning, sandy hair trimmed to moss-length and slicked back against his scalp, a trendily ascetic style that diverts attention from his Roman nose. His ordinary expression is placid; only occasionally does the mask spring to protean life. There is a scene early in the movie when Soderbergh, playing Munson, stares in a bathroom mirror and runs through a series of grotesque faces.

But the director didn't stop with an inspired stroke of self-casting. He dared to do something few, if any, filmmakers would do. In reopening the wounds of marital strife, he cast his ex-wife and the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Sarah, as his on-screen family. Even close friends were taken aback.

"If you know the real-life story and look at ['Schizopolis'], you know how painful it was to make," says "Jurassic Park" screenwriter David Koepp, a close friend of Soderbergh. "I can't imagine making a semiautobiographical movie about your divorce, starring you and your ex-wife. I mean, I think even Cassavetes would shy away from that."

But then, Soderbergh "draws inspiration from chaos and upset," Koepp says. "There is nothing that he does to make his professional or personal life more comfortable."

Early in their five-year marriage, Brantley says, Soderbergh had settled into a painful pattern of leaving and then returning months later to try to work things out. "At one point, I said to him, 'You are two different people,' " Brantley remembers. " 'You have this secure, confident professional side. But personally, you're the most insecure person I've ever met.' He looked at me and said, 'You're just now figuring that out?' " The couple finally divorced in October 1994, with one last-ditch attempt at reconciliation right before "Schizopolis" began shooting.

Brantley says she agreed to do the movie as a means of closure, of wrapping up unfinished business. But the process was a painful one.

"Oh, we fought like cats and dogs," she says. "It was the one time I had him in a room he couldn't walk out of. He couldn't leave. He was the director." While she remains a fan of her ex-husband's work, she doesn't particularly care for "Schizopolis," which she calls "confused."

Soderbergh, though, feels he got exactly what he wanted.

"This is truly a movie that went right out of [my] subconscious onto the screen with very little analysis on my part, what it meant and where it was going," he says.

the chaos that friends say soderbergh needs came early in his life as the second-youngest of six children. His older brother, Peter, is autistic and was institutionalized early in life. So their father, also named Peter, developed an especially close bond with Steven.

Peter senior, for years a professor of education at Louisiana State University, is a kind of Deep South Renaissance man. Students relished his teaching style (he often scored highly in evaluations) and colleagues tapped him for a series of high-profile administrative posts. He published scholarly articles on subjects ranging from war movies (he served as a Marine in Korea) to the history of LSU. Even now, at 68, the elder Soderbergh shows few signs of slowing down. He's published 11 books, four of them price guides for 78 rpm phonograph records dating from 1920 to 1950, yet another area of personal expertise.

He also introduced Steven to the twin pastimes that would become his obsessions: baseball and movies. It was Peter who, noting that his 13-year-old son would probably not make the grade as a ballplayer, enrolled him in an animation course at LSU. The pair made a habit of going to the movies together.

"Before the motion picture began in the theater," Peter recalls, "we would sit together and play a trivia game about sports. Whoever was ahead when the lights went down won that particular contest."

The household itself operated on a laissez-faire style of parenting. If one of the kids needed clean clothes, he had to do his own laundry. With no set mealtimes, family members simply raided the refrigerator whenever they were hungry. Steven says he developed survival skills early.

"My sense of it was that, by the time I reached the age where you begin to really be aware of your surroundings, at 3 or whatever, I already had in place the emotional structure that I felt I needed to have to get by," Steven remembers. "I think as a kid, you do whatever you need to do to get through."

Despite the bond between Steven and his father, the family was not a happy one, he says. The parents had a deeply troubled marriage, a fact that did not escape Steven's notice.

"They just seemed to occupy a different universe," he says now. "I couldn't figure out what connected them to each other, what got them here."

Steven says he never felt close to his mother, Midge, who had interesting talents of her own. She had earned some renown as a psychic, and in the late 1970s traveled to the Philippines to observe a psychic surgeon at work, Steven says.

"She studied up and immersed herself in all sorts of paranormal activities," he says. "There was a period when she had people coming over to the house and she was giving readings. It was an interest I didn't really relate to. I like to believe I have some amount of control over what happens to me. In high school, it's the last thing you want to deal with, having people coming into the house to get readings."

He remains somewhat defensive about their relationship, however. When a reporter expressed interest in talking to her, he refused to provide a current number.

"I'm not mad at her, I don't blame her for anything," he says, by way of explaining his decision. "I just think that there's no reason to make her uncomfortable needlessly."

For an artist so remarkably forthcoming about other aspects of his life, both on-screen and in interviews, Soderbergh's reticence is noteworthy. It's as if he freely opens up every room in his house, barring entry into only one, whose stubbornly locked door naturally draws a visitor's curiosity. As Brantley, Soderbergh's ex-wife, puts it, his mother is "the nightmare that looms in all of his sleep, as far as his own perception goes."

Soderbergh sees the connection. "The problem with my marriage was that I had not come to terms with the degree to which I had swallowed what I had seen growing up and then proceeded to reenact it," he says.

Soderbergh's parents officially divorced on Jan. 14, 1983. It was his 20th birthday.

Long before that, Soderbergh had decided what he wanted to do with his life. He skipped college and plunged headlong into the movie business, leaving for California at age 17 to start his directing career in earnest. For a few months, he stayed with his sister in San Francisco, plowing through $1,200 in savings and trying, without much success, to network in the industry. One connection led to a stint as an editor on "Games People Play," a short-lived game show hosted by Bryant Gumbel. But while he was brushing up his technical skills and writing a handful of screenplays, he wasn't getting any closer to actually making a feature. The following year, broke and disillusioned, he slumped back to Baton Rouge.

Shortly after his return, he made "Rapid Eye Movement," a 13-minute black-and-white short that some friends still consider his best work. The film is a hilarious, highly stylized romp about the young director's manic quest for the Hollywood job that will be his ticket out of Baton Rouge. In one scene, Soderbergh, who appears on-screen as a gawky but affable nerd with a mushroom of frizzy brown hair, leaves his friends waiting in a car to phone home. On discovering that his mother and younger brother are going out to run some errands, he tells his friends that he has to return to the house. Otherwise, there will be no one there to answer the phone when his deal comes through.

In real life, that call would not come until Soderbergh, determined to make another run at the film business, took off again for California in 1987. On the marathon, two-day road trip to Los Angeles, he worked on a new script, inspired by recent confessions of infidelity to an ex-girlfriend. He weighed a number of prospective titles: "46.02." "Mode: Visual." "Charged Coupling Device." But the one his friends liked best was "sex, lies, and videotape."

Soderbergh--who by that point had written several more screenplays and directed a concert film for the rock group Yes--and producer Nick Wechsler struggled for six months to raise money, finally securing a deal through RCA/Columbia Home Video. Shooting in Baton Rouge stretched just five weeks; the director then locked himself away for another three months to edit the movie.

The work was finished just in time for a Jan. 22, 1989, premiere at the U.S. (now Sundance) Film Festival in Utah. After Variety ran a rave review, calls began pouring in from Hollywood producers anxious to meet the 26-year-old Wunderkind.

The success that Soderbergh had craved for so long was finally his. And, characteristically, he promptly turned his back on it. After a long seduction, the object of his desire was in his grasp; letting go now seemed the next logical step. "He was always talking about that backlash," says his longtime agent, Pat Dollard. "He would joke, 'Great, now I'm going to get hit by a bus.' "

With the keys to the kingdom of Hollywood his, when he could make virtually anything he wanted, he picked a strange and decidedly uncommercial property. Filmed in Prague on an $11-million budget, "Kafka" was an elliptical, emotionally aloof period mystery, loosely based on the life and writings of Franz Kafka. It starred Jeremy Irons and Alec Guinness, two English actors of extraordinary craft and dubious marquee value. Lem Dobbs' script had been floating around Hollywood for years, admired for its ingenuity but considered difficult to shoot and market.

"I was going to get my head handed to me on my second film, pretty much no matter what I did," Soderbergh explains. "That's what I was prepared for. In a way, I decided I would go out in flames by making a film that really had a big red bull's-eye on its chest. Because I figured, why not take it all at once?" Released in late 1991, "Kafka" grossed barely $1 million.

Soderbergh had high hopes for his next project, however. He'd fallen in love with A.E. Hotchner's coming-of-age memoir, "King of the Hill," set in St. Louis during the Great Depression. The story concerns 12-year-old Aaron, a bright, likable child who's left to fend for himself in a grim tenement after his mother falls ill with tuberculosis and his salesman father all but abandons the family.

Soderbergh, who wrote and directed the film, still regards "King of the Hill" as the best of his first four features. A number of U.S. critics agreed. But by the time it was released in the summer of 1993, the similarly themed "Searching for Bobby Fischer" was already playing in theaters. Dollard, Soderbergh's agent, believes the $8-million movie was poorly marketed by Gramercy, its U.S. distributor. It grossed $1.2 million, just barely surpassing "Kafka."

Behind the scenes, matters weren't much better. One day in 1991, Soderbergh found himself in an office at Universal Pictures, waiting for Robert Redford.

Wildwood Pictures, the production company founded by the the Oscar-winning director of "Ordinary People," had sought out Soderbergh shortly before "sex, lies" premiered at the U.S. Film Festival. Soderbergh communicated his interest in "King of the Hill," and Redford, after reading the book, agreed to help secure the rights and serve as executive producer.

Now, some two years later, Redford had called a meeting on the studio lot. He was concerned that Soderbergh was talking with Sydney Pollack about making a feature on the history of the NFL before starting "King of the Hill." He wanted to know if the director was really serious about the latter film.

"I found [that] sort of odd, since I was the one who brought the material to [Redford's production company] and I had every intention of making it," Soderbergh says.

Soderbergh left the meeting with a bad taste in his mouth. Then, not long after the Universal meeting, Soderbergh was sent a script called "Quiz Show," about the cheating scandal that engulfed TV game shows in the 1950s. The next day he phoned the producer, Mark Johnson, agreeing to direct. About six months later, though, while shooting "King of the Hill," Soderbergh got another call. He was not going to direct "Quiz Show." Redford was.

Soderbergh was perplexed that Redford himself had not called. "It's a call I would have made to someone, it's a call most people, I think, would have made," he says now. "The image that is given [of Redford]--as being a friend of the filmmaker--is not what I experienced."

Six months later, Soderbergh says, Redford finally did call. "We've got a lot to talk about," he said, "but first I would like to see 'King of the Hill.' "

Redford confirms that he had pressed Soderbergh to start "King of the Hill." "It took so long, I ran out of time for any involvement" as executive producer, he says. By the time the picture was completed, in fact, Redford had decided he couldn't justify taking a producer's credit on the film. As for "Quiz Show," Redford says he didn't call Soderbergh because Johnson assured him he would handle it.

Soderbergh arranged the screening for Redford. "He saw the movie, and I have never heard from him to this day," Soderbergh says. Meanwhile, Redford's version of "Quiz Show" was released to positive reviews and decent business in 1994.

Soon Soderbergh had other troubles. He and producer Scott Kramer filed suit last November against Paramount Pictures and producer Scott Rudin over a planned adaptation of "A Confederacy of Dunces." The pair claim that Rudin approached them in 1993, offering to help bring the project to Paramount. According to the suit, the studio then promised them creative control over the $12-million project, only to secretly buy the rights and proceed with another script, in violation of the original agreement. (Rudin responds that Soderbergh's account is "largely inaccurate," but declines to elaborate, citing pending litigation.)

Soderbergh is still livid about what happened. "It's a project that I feel very connected to," he says. But when asked why he cast his lot with Rudin, a notoriously difficult and ill-tempered producer, he hedges.

"Rudin is known for being a control freak. I'm a bit of a control freak," he says. "There's not room for two such people on one movie, I don't think." But he came to that realization far too late. "I have zero clout on this level, with Paramount or with Rudin. Zero. I should have been smart enough to know that."

*

in spite of his career frustrations, Steven Soderbergh hasn't given up. He hasn't had time to.

In addition to "Schizopolis," he recently finished directing a $350,000 adaptation of Spalding Gray's monologue of medical paranoia, "Gray's Anatomy," that is scheduled for release this spring. Among other current projects, he's helping produce a movie called "Pleasantville," to be written and directed by Gary Ross; is putting the finishing touches on a script for filmmaker Henry Selick; is developing several new projects, including a comedy called "Human Nature," and editing a book of interviews with Richard Lester, the same British director whose off-the-cuff warning ("It gets harder, you know") has been ringing in his ears for the past eight years.

On a certain level, his failures since "sex, lies" don't bother him. "I feel like I've stuck to exactly what I wanted to do," he says. But he realizes that filmmaking is an inherently commercial proposition. The huge success of his debut has allowed him to "coast," as he puts it, but sooner or later, without another hit, the well of goodwill will inevitably run dry.

"My commercial track record is pretty terrible," he admits, "but I guess there are enough people out there who still think that I might inadvertently hit the jackpot again that I've been able to continue working."

Does he think he'll hit the jackpot again?

"Yeah. I think at some point I will make something that is the right movie at the right time, and again it will probably be an accident," he says. "I think the odds are that will happen again, if I can keep working, if I can just keep working."

That's assuming, of course, that chaos doesn't intervene. During one interview, Soderbergh suddenly confided that he had always been haunted by the sense that he was going to die in an accident, such as a plane crash.

"I've always had that feeling. I may have it until I'm 80," he says. "I've always had a sense that I would not live to be very old, that there would be some sort of accident."

It may already exist, then, as a movie scene in his head: the flash of fire, the crunch of metal, and then a sudden climax for a man who sees his own ending.

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