In 1989, director Steven Soderbergh's first feature, sex, lies and videotape, won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, then became a surprise commercial hit. For American independent cinema, it was a shot heard 'round the world, reminding audiences that there were films being made outside of Hollywood while reminding Hollywood that there was money to be made from those movies. As important as sex, lies and videotape was, what's more important is that it launched the career of one of the most consistently compelling filmmakers working today. For his follow-up, Soderbergh directed the ambitious Kafka, a suspense film utilizing the Czech author (played by Jeremy Irons) as its protagonist. A commercial failure, it led to two low-profile, overlooked, and unquestionably excellent projects: the 1993 Depression-era drama King Of The Hill and 1995's modern-day noir The Underneath, which reunited Soderbergh with sex, lies and videotape star Peter Gallagher. In 1996, Soderbergh released his film of a Spalding Gray monologue, Gray's Anatomy, and followed it the next year with Schizopolis, a highly experimental, wickedly funny satire starring the director and his ex-wife. Soderbergh took his experimental side mainstream with 1998's Out Of Sight, an Elmore Leonard adaptation that fractured time to great effect, bringing out the profundity always just beneath the surface of the best pulp. Soderbergh's latest, The Limey, takes this notion one step further. In the film, which stars Terence Stamp as an aging London criminal who travels to California in search of the record producer (Peter Fonda) he believes is responsible for the death of his daughter, Soderbergh and Kafka writer Lem Dobbs have created a revenge tale with humor, style, and humanity. Soderbergh recently spoke to The Onion.
The Onion: From your Out Of Sight DVD, I got the impression that you and [screenwriter] Scott Frank worked together pretty closely. Did you and Lem Dobbs do that, as well?
Steven Soderbergh: Yeah. This is the script he had for a while, and that we talked about doing after King Of The Hill. But we sort of let it drop. After Out Of Sight, I called him up again: I really wanted to go back to work immediately, but I wanted to do something small where I could continue to experiment a little with narrative. There were things I thought of during Out Of Sight where I remember thinking, "Wow, you could go a lot further with some of these ideas if you had a piece of material that could withstand it." So I called Lem. I said, "Look, let's think about this again, but I want to come at it a different way. I want to make it more of a mosaic and sort of deconstruct it a little bit, and let's figure out now who the actor is that we're going to design this around, because there aren't a lot of choices." We very quickly settled on Terence because we both liked him a lot and felt he had the right kind of stoicism that the role required. We spent about a month hammering out a new draft, and we'd fax pages back and forth, or I'd go over to his house, and it was one of those things where each of us would say, "We haven't figured this scene out yet; go back and try again." Very informal, but diligent. The whole thing from beginning to end, from the first pitch meeting at Artisan before we had the new draft to the delivery of the film, took nine months.
O: That's pretty amazing.
SS: Yeah. These days, it's unheard of.
O: You had Terence Stamp in mind from the beginning?
O: How about Peter Fonda? When did he come into the picture?
SS: He was pretty soon after that, because it was very clear that you needed somebody of a similar iconic weight to Terence, or the movie was going to be imbalanced. They seemed like two sides of the same coin to me. They were both guys who kind of marched to their own drummer and have managed to stay themselves through a lot of ups and downs, and I just liked the idea of it. Lem and I sort of said, "Yeah, Billy Budd versus Captain America, that'll be cool." I just liked the idea of it. It worked in my mind, where I just thought, "That's a good pairing."
O: The idea of the '60s is very big in The Limey, too. What about addressing that decade appealed to you?
SS: I think it's appealing to people like me, all the people out there like me.
SS: I think it's appealing to creative people, because it seemed to be a time of endless possibilities, when the boundaries of what could be considered popular culture were being expanded almost by the week. It doesn't feel like that anymore. At times, I wish it were so. Radio is a perfect example; good God, I mean, back then the most interesting songs were also hits, and that's just not true anymore. It hasn't been true in a long time. The film was partially… Obviously, it's not exactly about that. What it is about is this sense of that dream that existed in the '60s, and what happened to it in these two instances. For Terence's character, the dream was sort of taken away because he was incarcerated for most of his life. And for Peter, here's a guy who basically made his living by appropriating other people's dreams and making money off them. Both these guys have ended up sort of hollowed out, but for different reasons, and their connection is this woman.
O: It's interesting that a lot of the music that's used with Peter Fonda is stuff from the '70s, when the idea of the '60s kind of got packaged and sold, as someone says in the film.
SS: I certainly was trying to pick stuff that resonated with that period, but I also just felt like, "Well, I have to use a Steppenwolf song, because Peter was in one of the most famous movies ever made with all this Steppenwolf music in it, and you can't miss that opportunity." Then "The Seeker"—which, to my surprise, I also saw in American Beauty a couple weeks ago—was especially relevant to Terence, I think. Not just because of the subject of the song, but because The Who is such a working-class British rock band, and because Terence's brother used to manage them. It just seemed karmically like a good thing to do, to have Terence sort of walk into that first shot with that Who song.
O: Are Peter Fonda's teeth naturally that white?
O: I was wondering if that was a special effect.
SS: No, he's taken very good care of his teeth. [Laughs.]
O: How much do you encourage improvisation on the set?
SS: Well, I certainly try not to nail people down about stuff. If there's a line that I think needs to… Let's put it this way: There's not a lot in the film, but there's some. More importantly, though, I try to capture things as opposed to staging them, so I tend not to nail the actors down and say, "Go here, go there." We'll rehearse a scene and I just won't tell them. I'll just say, "Look, you can go anywhere you want; let's try a couple versions of this and see where you end up." And eventually what happens is you see them settle into a pattern that's clearly the way they want to go, especially with Peter, who's at his best when he's kind of off-the-cuff and can be free. It worked really well. There are isolated things through the film that are sort of invented. I mean, the whole thing with Peter using a Stim-U-Dent while he gives the speech sort of happened on the spot. The scene was set in the bathroom, and he and I were trying to figure out what he could be doing. I noticed that Peter has a really great set of teeth, and I said, "Well, why don't you do something with your teeth? What would you do? Would you floss?" He goes, "No, I use the Stim-U-Dent. I'm big on the Stim-U-Dent." And I said, "Great, do that." We used take one in the film.
O: When it comes to the script, do you generally prefer working with other people now, or…
SS: Well, it's a hell of a lot more fun. When you get to work with Scott Frank and Lem… For the movie I'm cutting now [Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts and Albert Finney], I got to work with Richard LaGravenese. You know, these are some of the best writers in town. It makes my life really easy. And I've found through experience that I'm only good when I'm writing something that, in essence, only I could write. The times I've written for hire, for other people, I don't think I've done very well.
O: What keeps drawing you back to experimenting with narrative and time, like with The Underneath and Out Of Sight?
SS: I don't know. It may be that I made my living as a freelance editor during the time between getting out of high school in 1980 and sex, lies and videotape, so I'm aware of what cinema does so easily that few other art forms can do, which is to fracture time. I think it's just because of my editing background.
O: What films influenced you in that respect? Petulia comes to mind…
SS: Oh, God, yeah. For this film especially, I'd say Petulia and Point Blank, but I love the early Alain Resnais films. Those had a huge impact on me when I saw them. Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year At Marienbad are both still astonishing to me to this day. There are more ideas in the first 15 minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour than in the last 10 movies you've seen. And he was, like, the first guy to do this stuff. You look at what he was doing and it's just jaw-dropping. I haven't done anything nearly that adventurous yet. But that's what I had in mind when we were making [The Limey]. I kept saying, "Look, if we do this right, it's Alain Resnais makes Get Carter."
O: When you were an editor, what did you work on?
SS: I was mostly hired by Showtime to sort of… Let's say they bought a two-hour show from someone, and they'd want to cut it down to an hour and have an opening built for it. This would happen a couple of times a year for several years. They would fly me out for a week—I was just this kid they knew through a friend of mine that worked there—and literally lock me in a room, and I would just completely tear apart and build a new show for them.
O: Like stand-up specials?
SS: All kinds of stuff. Concerts, stand-ups, documentaries, anything. I was the go-to guy, and it was really fun. It was great experience and, believe me, a lot of the ideas that still show up in the films I've made came out of experiments I would try on these shows, because I was given free reign to rebuild these things from scratch. I would just go to town on 'em.
O: As far as that goes, the stuff in this movie with Poor Cow [the 1967 Ken Loach film used extensively to show Stamp in flashback] was pretty inspired, especially the Donovan song.
SS: Yeah, isn't that amazing?
O: That was a great connection. Did you know the song was in there?
SS: Lem was the one. I said, "Shit, don't you think there's some footage of Terence or something we could use?" And he said, "Yeah, there's this Ken Loach film." I'd never seen it, and Lem had a terrible bootleg dub that he sent to me. I watched it, and I just thought that song was heartbreaking. I thought it was really effective to see at the end of the film, Terence's character, before the spark has been extinguished. It was really amazing.
O: Where did you find Nicky Katt?
SS: Well, he's been around. He's done some stuff, but he came in to read, and he's incredible.
O: That's a fascinating character.
SS: He's very compelling. You should see the two-and-a-half-minute version of him making comments about the film crew in the first version of that one scene. He was improvising all over the place. I was operating one of the cameras, and I was shaking the camera, I was laughing so hard.
O: Well, put it on the DVD.
SS: Yeah, I should, because it's hilarious. I mean, it was so good, but it took everyone right out of the movie. You were just in a different film for two minutes. But, man, he is funny.
O: Wasn't Ann-Margret associated with The Limey at one point?
SS: Yeah, she had a long scene as Peter Fonda's ex-wife. She's living in the house in Big Sur, and he goes up with his henchman and the girl, and it was an all-or-nothing thing, because it was a big, long scene with a monologue. It was like the Beatrice Straight scene in Network, and I had to lift the whole thing out, because I felt the momentum of the film couldn't sustain it. It was really hard—that was a tough phone call to make—but it was ultimately the right thing to do. It was a nice scene, but everybody I showed it to said, "You know what? I know Peter's character enough that I don't need seven minutes more of, you know, what a jerk he's been." So I had to cut it.
O: I read an interview with you from a couple of years ago, where you suggested that the greatest legacy of sex, lies and videotape was the money it made. Do you still feel that way?
SS: Yeah, absolutely.
O: I was thinking, though, that in terms of the sheer dialogue-driven film, you can see that influence in a lot of places in this decade.
SS: Yeah, in good ways and bad ways. There's a big difference between a movie about relationships and a movie in which people talk about relationships. It seems like a lot of people have confused the two. But, yeah, I guess if it made people think it was viable to make films on that scale and get them out there, great. But if the movie had made half a million dollars, no one would have cared.
O: It's not really a film you've gone back to explicitly. What do you think of the current state of independent cinema?
SS: Good and bad. There's some really good stuff and a lot of bad stuff. There's just more of everything.
O: Do you have any thoughts on Sundance?
SS: I think they're still doing what they set out to do, which is to provide a showcase and a platform for independent film. And that's great. They keep doing it.
O: Well, not to pat you on the back, but when something like The Daytrippers [a Soderbergh-produced 1996 film by first-time director Greg Mottola] can't get in…
SS: Yeah, but we went to Slamdance and got picked up, and we did fine. If you're an independent filmmaker, you don't have time to sit around and bitch about this stuff. You need to do something. We didn't bat an eye. When we found out we didn't get in, I said, "Let's go to Slamdance. Get on the phone right now." I had no desire to know what their thought process was. That's their business. It's my job to help Greg.
O: You've said you would do Kafka differently if you were doing it now. How would you do it?
SS: It'd be a lot more fun. It'd just be looser. It'd be more playful and more fun to watch, I think. It was intended to be a funhouse ride, and its style is too formal. It would have been so great to make a film set in that period in that time, in black-and-white, that had a completely contemporary style to it. I think that would have been interesting.
O: Were you worried that people would write you off after Kafka lost money?
SS: I didn't really care.
O: How were you able to get Schizopolis made?
SS: I pre-sold the video.
O: You talked about maybe doing a follow-up. Is that still…
SS: Yeah, I'm writing it.
O: Good. I thought it was a really interesting movie.
SS: Yeah, I want to do something like it using the same methods, but maybe with a little more narrative this time. I just needed to… you know. It was just sort of a shout from the edge of a cliff. I needed to start over, and so in many ways that was my second first film. That's all it was: I needed to change the way I was working. For me, creatively, it was a turning point.