Soderbergh Leaves His Room

"The idea of Captain America versus Billy Budd seemed kind of cool": Director Steven Soderbergh

AMONG AMERICAN DIRECTORS, Steven Soderbergh has been practically unique for the freedom with which he has crossed genres and production scales--from the proto-indie melodrama sex, lies and videotape (1989) to the home-movie absurdism of Schizopolis (1997) and last year's big-studio star vehicle Out of Sight. Soderbergh's latest, The Limey, is unusual for bearing some resemblance to a couple of his other films. "The third in my nonlinear crime trilogy," as the director himself calls it (after The Underneath and Out of Sight), The Limey delivers a dizzying array of flashbacks and -forwards while focusing its dramatic energies on the tortured expressions of British actor and Sixties icon Terence Stamp.

I spoke to Soderbergh by phone during a break in the cutting of his next radical departure: Erin Brockovich, a mainstream showcase for megastar Julia Roberts.

CITY PAGES: The Limey is your second crime thriller in a row after Out of Sight. How come?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I don't know. It wasn't a plan. There were just certain stylistic and narrative ideas that occurred to me while I was doing Out of Sight--a lot of which I used, some of which I wasn't able to use. [The Limey] seemed to be a good skeleton to hang them on.

CP: Was Terence Stamp the primary inspiration for the script by Lem Dobbs?

SS: We decided that it would be a good idea to build the script around the actor, and it took us about 45 seconds to decide that it should be Terence. The list of British actors of that age who were famous in the Sixties and still look like they can cause some trouble is very short.

CP: You have mentioned that the film comes with "a lot of Sixties baggage." To what end?

SS: Sometimes when you make a movie, the baggage that an actor brings can work against you, but in this case I was absolutely looking for people who had a lot of baggage of a very specific kind. Once we decided that we were going to build this thing around Terence, then the issue of who plays his nemesis becomes really crucial, because if the two don't have the same iconic weight, then there's an imbalance, and the movie doesn't work. Peter [Fonda] was really the only guy we could think of who matched Terence. They were both guys who went their own way, who've been in and out of favor in the business. And the idea of Captain America versus Billy Budd seemed kind of cool.

CP: Most of your films take on very strongly defined source material--I'm thinking of The Underneath's relation to [the Forties noir] Criss Cross, and King of the Hill's to A.E. Hotchner, and Kafka's to Kafka. You must feel comfortable taking on someone else's work and making your own way through it.

SS: I do. In fact, as I get on in years, it is more and more appealing to make movies that are not about me.

CP: Is this to say that sex, lies and videotape was about you?

SS: Well, it's based on my experiences. Even the next three films had central characters that were variations on my personality--or my personality as I imagine it sometimes. But lately I have gotten out of my room and into someone else's house, so to speak, and I'm finding it to be really fun.

CP: It's probably no exaggeration to say that sex, lies launched the next decade of American independent film, and Sundance as a market for it. What has changed most since then?

SS: Well, my heart goes out to filmmakers who are coming up now, because I just think it is a hell of a lot harder now than when I came up. There weren't so many films when I started, and the expectations weren't as high. The business has always been Darwinian, but boy, it's just brutal now.

CP: Why do you think your freedom to vary genres and budgets is so rare?

SS: I think it's just a reflection of my own personal restlessness, my desire to have the next experience be different from the last one on as many levels as possible. I've jumped back and forth from studio films to independent films because I just feel that either of them can be a trap. I've been lucky to be able to move around without being punished too much.

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