There are times in the career of any filmmaker, he says, when "things are going good or you feel like you're sort of on to something, and I feel like you've got to seize that and keep really, really busy. Even though I've been working constantly, you do go through peaks and valleys." He cites the quintet of Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven as "a good sort of run, and then, you know, there were some projects that people found a little more problematic. But I feel like Che, The Informant, The Girlfriend Experience, Cleopatra, and Liberace, that this is going to be ... I feel like I'm in a good spot right now."
Looking ahead to the Sundance revival of Sex, Lies and Videotape, Soderbergh fears that the VHS-era technology employed by James Spader's impotent camera-wielding voyeur may cause the film to seem "like a period sci-fi movie." Yet chances are greater that audiences revisiting Sex, Lies will find it, like a lot of actual period sci-fi movies, an uncanny tale of things to come. Two decades after it first shocked some audiences with its aggressive blurring of the real and the virtual, the public and the private, Soderbergh's film now seems a prescient harbinger of the YouTube/MySpace/camera-phone revolution.
"We were coming out of the worst decade in American cinema history, and there were only a couple of people — a couple of independent filmmakers — who were poking through in the '80s," he says. "So I just feel like we were the recipient of a general sense of relief on the part of the audience to see something that was made by an individual. It was really that simple."
With its $25 million domestic gross, Sex, Lies and Videotape shattered the perceived glass ceiling for indie features and turned Harvey Weinstein (who bought the film for a then-astronomical $1 million, nearly Soderbergh's entire budget) into an overnight mogul. It also bought Soderbergh a degree of creative freedom he still enjoys today. "In essence, I was able to coast on the success of that movie and try some other things that, had it not hit, I wouldn't have been able to do," says the director, who spent most of the subsequent decade at the helm of a series of critically praised but commercially lifeless movies including King of the Hill, The Underneath, and Schizopolis. "The results of some of those experiments have been part of the reason for the success of other movies that I've made."
Today, Soderbergh — to say nothing of Weinstein — finds himself in a very different indie-film landscape. After two high-rolling decades in which sales figures for movies buzzed about as "the next" Sex, Lies and Videotape or Pulp Fiction soared as high as the overinflated real estate market, independent distributors (and filmmakers) were gobbled up by Hollywood, and no-budget digital films seemed to multiply faster than nymphomaniac rabbits, the market for smaller films now stands in a widely reported state of oversaturation. Meanwhile, the major studios, feeling the pinch of the economic crisis in their pockets, seem less willing to take chances on untested material.
"I can already see a contraction," says Soderbergh, who assembled the financing for Che from several international partners including the French sales company Wild Bunch. "It's going to get more conservative, so it's going to be tricky." But like any good guerrilla soldier, Steven Soderbergh will find a way to push forth. "I can exist in any version of this business," he says. And with that, he bundles up, locks his office door, and heads off to the set.
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