"The Man from Cannes: Steven Soderbergh"
by gayla mills
Steven Soderbergh, writer and director of sex, lies, and videotape, is the youngest winner of Cannes' coveted Palme d'Or. He and his wife Betsy currently reside with their dog Tar in Charlottesville. I spoke with him on his back porch one hot spring night last week. With the TV flashing silently in the empty room inside, Soderbergh talked about his life, his luck, and his loves.
G- At Cannes you said that "I always think everybody else is having a better time…"
S- I found that everything about Hollywood is like that. It always looks better from the outside. It is never quite as exciting or interesting when it happens to you. It's like going to the Academy Awards-it's more exciting to watch on television. It was really interesting to be there, but you realize, "Gee, this place isn't really that big." Professionally, I don't know that I'll ever top the experience of winning the Golden Palm at Cannes, but at the same time, it was a very odd sensation. It really was almost an out-of-body type experience. You feel very numb. You realize that it's nothing about you, really. It's nothing about what you did. You just get a strong sense that you're very lucky. I imagine it happening to someone else and thinking "God, that must have been incredible!"-but my life doesn't revolve around that kind of attention. There are other things I look to for excitement and feeling good. Finishing a script that I've been working on, or cutting a sequence together that seems to work well, that's the exciting part for me. The process is what is really fun, and the other stuff is just a by-product.
G- I have the impression that people are trying to build you into a film legend.
S-Yeah, that always happens. It'll die down after I make something bad. There's nothing overnight about it to me-I've been trying to make an independent feature since 1980. There were a lot of lean years in there. But on paper, because I didn't go to college, because I was young, it looked like it had these mythic qualities that it really didn't.
G- What about writing a script in eight days?
S- Yeah, to me that's…that is unusual. I don't think I will ever write another script in eight days, and that's fine. Normally, once I have an idea in my head, it takes me about four to five weeks. See, what worries me about it is that someone will think they ought to be able to sit down and write a script in eight days, because they shouldn't. Ultimately, I don't think it's a good way to go about it.
G- Isn't it equally rare to have a film that's been done independently, the way you did, with this kind of success?
S- With this kind of success, yes. There have been other films on a larger scale, certainly, made independently by first-time film makers. But this went so far beyond what anyone had anticipated. At a certain point you just have to shake your head. Timing had a lot to do with it. I just think we've been very lucky.
G- So, sex, lies, and videotape was just released on video. How do you feel about that?
S- It seemed to me it would be great if you could take the tape home, and the room was dark, and just start at like eleven o'clock and get into the whole thing. But if phones were ringing and people were running around-it would be pretty horrible. This proprietary feeling of owning a movie that you like is very satisfying. So I like the idea that people can now own it, can go out and get it and have access to it.
G- You mentioned that there's been "an inundation of video" in our society. Can you explain what you meant ?
S- On average, an American household has the TV on for seven hours a day. There has never been anything in the history of the world that occupied seven hours a day of theoretically free time. I can't help but feel that television will go down as one of the greatest disappointments in the history of invention. What we did with it, with the potential that was there.
G- Do you care whether people see your movie in a theater or in their home?
S- Well, unfortunately, with the state of theater presentation these days, it's hard to say. I love the whole idea of a communal response to a piece of work, because I have seen the film in large auditoriums with a lot of people in which, it seemed to me, everyone was caught up and was responding to everyone else around them. On the other hand, I supervised the transfer into the video cassette. I know the color is right, I know it's in focus. I know the audio, at least on the tape, is correct. So that aspect of the presentation is appealing. It's the ultimate irony that as theaters are losing more and more people to home video, they're not making the presentations more attractive. It seems so silly. When I saw sex, lies at the University Theater (in Charlottesville) there was something not right with the sound, there were some very odd stereo things going on. And I went to talk to the guy about it. He said it was printed that way.
G- What made you come to Charlottesville?
S- I lived here from 1973 to 1976 and just loved it. I was going to Buford (Middle School). We'd lived a lot of places when I was growing up, and this was my favorite. That's why I came back here. I'm in it for the long haul. I really think it's the most beautiful part of the country. Period. It's got everything that I like.
G- So you're going to buy a house out near Orange. What do you like about it?
S- Well, it's old, and it's on a beautiful piece of land. So the idea of children and more animals is very appealing. It's great. It's out in the country. My wife was raised in North Carolina out in the country, and it sure worked wonders for her. So I'm hoping it'll work for our kids.
G- What does she do?
S- She's an actress. I knew who she was before I met her, because she's done a show with Peter Gallagher that I've seen. Her sister was working for Miramax, and I said, "I'd like to meet Betsy, I've seen her work." No one was looking for anything to happen, and then it just happened. It was great…it happened last summer.
S- It was. But I'm like that. I always go with my gut instincts with everything. She's the same way. There wasn't a discussion, really. It was nice. That same instinct told me a couple of months ago to set aside the project I was doing for Universal and to do Kafka next. About two weeks after I decide to do it, I heard that someone else was going to do Kafka, and they plan to shoot in 1991. Personally, I wouldn't want to be the second Kafka movie!
G- Why did you pick it?
S- It's a script I read in 1985, and I just thought, "I wish I'd written this." I just thought it was great. It was smart, and accessible. It doesn't require an understanding of Kafka or his writing to comprehend the plot. It's about bureaucracy. It's about paranoia. Misplaced and unrequited interest in other people. Kafka had a very strong sense of what would later become Nazism. He was very keenly aware of a creeping cultural fascism that not a lot of people were picking up on in the teens. It appealed to me on every level. And it's funny. He's a very wry person. But it's not a biography. It's a fictional story in which he is the protagonist. It's just fun.
G- Do you think you're following a certain kind of fate?
S- I gotta tell you, I have the most amazing luck, I feel bad about it sometimes. It's unbelievable, it's uncanny. On every level, personally, professionally. Weird, weird luck. I feel bad, because either there are people out there who are having a terrible time, because I've gotten all their luck, or I'm going to get hit by a bus or something.
sex, lies, and videotape will be showing at Vinegar Hill Theater from May11-13. Soderbergh says that the presentation there is "very good. It really is." The film is also available at local video stores.
(May 1, 1990)