Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Nine Year Itch

By Marjorie Baumgarten

JUNE 29, 1998:  Somehow it seems fitting that the directors of this year's two best "gentleman bank robber" movies would come together. Steven Soderbergh was in Austin this week premiering his new movie Out of Sight - which stars George Clooney as the bank robber and Jennifer Lopez as the federal marshal who, in every sense, is his match - at the invitation of The Newton Boys' director Richard Linklater, who hosted a fundraising screening of Out of Sight for the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund. Steven Soderbergh is the guy who, in 1989 at the age of 26, inadvertently kick-started the recent cycle of independent film fervor after his movie sex, lies, and videotape won both the audience award at Sundance and the Palme d'Or at Cannes and then remarkably went on to gross around 25 times the film's original $1.2 million investment. Those kinds of critical and commercial returns on a little, off-the-beaten-path movie caused producers and distributors to take instant notice and certainly helped stimulate the mad feeding frenzy that has resulted in the current chaotic state of unrealistically inflated supply and demand.

"It's harder now than when I came up," Soderbergh comments, "because there are so many of them [independent films]. It's harder to stick out. Then, it felt like you were one of a couple, and now it's just so noisy. It's what everyone wants to be now. It's the new rock stardom. And it's an expensive hobby and requires the same amount of discipline and innate talent and savvy that being a successful musician requires. It's hard. It surprises me often the people who end up thinking they should direct movies. I wouldn't dream of booking a club here on Sixth Street and having someone hand me a guitar and go, 'Hey, give me your $20 and I'm going to learn how to play this guitar in front of you.' Cinematically speaking, that's what a lot of people are doing right now."

One glance at Soderbergh's idiosyncratic filmography, along with the variety of participatory roles he's played over the years as an active supporter of independent filmmaking, makes one wonder about his utterance of such cautionary statements and how he came to direct this
A-list studio production of an Elmore Leonard crime novel. To Soderbergh, however, the term "independent" is less an economic definition than an attitudinal, spiritual distinction. "I try to encourage people not to be too dogmatic about that stuff because I think it's dumb to keep drawing lines in the sand. Twenty-five years ago, the most interesting filmmakers around were making studio movies, and that was a great period of American film. I think that monopolizing the arthouse circuit, while it can be fun and interesting, doesn't have as much impact as getting really interesting filmmakers at the helm of some movies that are getting a big push and having more of an impact. There seems to be this mentality: Studio bad, independent good. Life's not that simple."

Certainly nothing's been simple about the choices Soderbergh has made while directing the five intervening films between sex, lies, and videotape and Out of Sight. He followed up the broad popular appeal of sex, lies with the challenging stylistic experiments of Kafka, the dramatic tour de force of the disastrously distributed King of the Hill, the oddly passionless modern film noir in The Underneath (which was shot in Austin), the defiant experimentalism of Schizopolis, and the documentation of a Spalding Gray monologue in Gray's Anatomy.

Soderbergh is the first to admit the occasional inscrutability of his career path. "I don't know that there is a path - which I guess is fine with me. I just have never stood outside of it and looked at it. It's really not my job. I just go from one movie to the next and these things present themselves. I've never operated under any other criteria than 'I'm engaged by this and am willing to spend the next year, year and a half, of my life working on this project.' And Out of Sight, like some of the others, just came up. Someone at Universal called and said, 'We've got a project here that needs a director and I really think this would be a good studio movie for you because I think you'll be able to do something with it. And what you will do with it will be in line with what we're thinking ought to be done with it.' And he was right. I've never gotten a piece of material from a studio before that I really felt that way about. I guess that's why it took so long because I was just instinctively waiting for the thing that I knew I could do."

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

That thing turned out to be this great adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel that was scripted by Scott Frank (who also adapted Leonard's Get Shorty) and populated down to the smallest parts with a top-notch cast (one of Soderbergh's great strengths is always his casting). The film's constellation of characters and capers are anchored by the magnetic performances of Clooney and Lopez, whose full-fledged star turns here transform the incongruous "mad love" plot device that is the heart of the story into an unexpectedly plausible premise. "I think that's why it was a little scary," says Soderbergh, "because we had all the resources to make a good movie and if we didn't it was going to be embarrassing. You don't always feel that way. Normally, all your focus is on trying to fix stuff. This is the first time it felt like there really isn't anything to fix here. I just need to not... blow it. That's a different kind of thing."

Another novelty Soderbergh experienced on Out of Sight was that "it was really nice making a movie that I knew was coming out on such and such a date in so many theatres because I'd never done that before. I've never made a movie that had a release date before."

Soderbergh leaves little doubt as to his sincerity when he attributes his early success with sex, lies, and videotape to sheer luck. He believes that it could have just as easily been some other movie that won those awards and opened the historical floodgates. "My goal is not to make a lot of money and win an Oscar. The goal was to be able to go to work everyday and be excited. And I don't know how often I'm going to be in sync with what the public wants to see. Seems like if I'm lucky, it'll be once every nine years. I guess that makes me a locust of sorts. But that's fine. I can't change what I like to do."

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