Ten years ago, Steven Soderbergh was busy redefining independent film with his directorial debut, "sex, lies and videotape." A sharply etched romantic drama, it was discovered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to become one of the most influential films of the decade, an indie film that crossed over to the mainstream, making a tidy profit along the way.
But while everyone in Hollywood was trying to imitate Soderbergh's success, he did something completely different. His sophomore effort was "Kafka," another sharply etched drama, only this time about the Czech author. Soderbergh filmed the movie, which starred Jeremy Irons in the title role, in Prague, in black and white.
With that audacious move, Soderbergh announced to the world at large that he wouldn't be had by the industry mavens and makeover artists, that he would eschew filthy lucre for the sake of artistic expression. "Kafka" didn't even manage to gross what "sex, lies and videotape" cost to make, but it has remained a critical and artistic success and, more important, a symbol of artistic independence in the face of Hollywood's blandishments and predations. (Soderbergh even made the unheard-of choice not to move to Los Angeles, instead basing his operations in his hometown of Baton Rouge, La., and Charlottesville, Va.)
For a decade, Soderbergh, 36, has pursued a similar course. Films such as "King of the Hill," "The Underneath," "Gray's Anatomy" and "Schizopolis" have nothing in common on their face, except that each bears Soderbergh's alert and always inventive signature. The fact that not one of them made more than $1.5 million never gave Soderbergh pause.
In other words, the guy has something Hollywood can't buy: Integrity.
"That may be the only thing I have," Soderbergh said with a laugh during a recent telephone conversation from Los Angeles. "I feel very fortunate to still be standing, frankly, when I look at how many people get chewed up and spit out by this business. And that I've been able to make things that are interesting to me, and make them pretty much the way I want to, is an incredible luxury.
"If 10 years ago you could have shown me what I was up to now, I think I'd be pretty happy about that. It took a while to get people to stop trying to figure out what I was going to do next. That took, like, four or five movies. But once people just gave up, it got a lot easier. Everybody imagines a career for you, and I knew from the beginning that they were imagining the wrong one."
Whatever image anyone had about Soderbergh's career changed radically last year when the director burst into the mainstream with "Out of Sight," a snappy adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. The bright and sexy thriller, which starred George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez and was directed by Soderbergh with characteristic panache, experimentation and smarts, became a modest hit. The palmy days of "sex, lies and videotape" returned as Soderbergh once again took lots of critics' prizes and film-goers' kudos.
And then, for his next film, he once again took a counterintuitive route. "The Limey" is another crime thriller, but on a much more modest scale than "Out of Sight," and it stars British actor Terence Stamp, not exactly a household name.
The movie opens on Friday under the banner of the tiny Artisan Films ("Out of Sight" was released by Universal Pictures).
"I wanted to go to work right away, because I was feeling good," Soderbergh said of what was yet another quirky choice. "I wanted it to be something contained, that I could get off the ground quickly, and also something that would give me the opportunity to try out ideas that occurred to me during 'Out of Sight' but that I couldn't find a place for.
"During 'Out of Sight' I kept thinking, you could go much further with this if you had the right piece of material. So I called up Lem [Dobbs, who co-wrote "Kafka"], because we'd talked about this project some years before, and said, 'Let's revisit it because I have a different take on it than I had before.' Then it came together very quickly."
In "Out of Sight," Soderbergh experimented with time shifts, flashing back and forward as Clooney's character pursued a felonious grail from Miami to Detroit. In "The Limey," he takes the concept one step further, keeping the audience off balance as to whether the entire movie is a flashback and using shards of past and future scenes to assemble quick, impressionistic portraits of his characters.
"It's just a slightly different way of working than shooting a movie in which you know it's going to be told in a very straightforward, linear fashion," Soderbergh recalled. "It's kind of the opposite of a film like 'sex, lies' or 'King of the Hill.'"
Having informed the cast and crew that he was "going to be monkeying around with this a little bit," Soderbergh made sure to film in such a way that he could mine the footage later for flashbacks and flash-forwards. "You tend to make sure that you've isolated certain things," he explained. "When you film a scene, you make sure there's a gesture or a look or a piece of information in it that's integral, and then you've isolated it and in a couple of different ways, knowing you'll want to repeat it and use it somewhere else."
Some of the most haunting scenes in "The Limey" are culled from one of Stamp's early movies, Ken Loach's "Poor Cow," which Soderbergh cut into his film to resemble Stamp's character's home movies. Soderbergh says that Stamp was his first choice to play a former thief named Wilson, who comes to Los Angeles to solve his daughter's murder.
"When you're thinking about British actors of a certain age who were famous in the '60s and they're still well-known now, and they can convincingly stir up a little trouble, that's a pretty short list," he said. ("The Limey" co-stars such '60s survivors as Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman and former Warhol Factory worker Joe Dallesandro.)
Soderbergh said he and Dobbs were discussing the idea of using old footage when Dobbs mentioned "Poor Cow," which was released very briefly in 1967 and has never been available on video. "He sent me a fifth-generation bootleg, and I looked at it and said, 'Yeah, this is going to be perfect.' And then we entered into the very lengthy process of negotiating for footage."
Soderbergh's next project is "Erin Brokovich," a drama starring Julia Roberts that puts the director squarely back into big-budget, big-studio territory ("Brokovich" will be a co-release of Columbia and Universal).
The director insists that he's comfortable swinging between the world of indie auteurists and work-for-hire. He'll do anything, he says, "if it's something that I feel, A, I'm well-suited to doing and, B, that the circumstances are such that I'll be allowed to make the movie I want to make. If I feel that the power center is not going to be with me, I won't go near it."
If Roberts and Soderbergh sound like a strange match, wait and see.
"This was a terrific script that I absolutely know what to do with, and she's going to be terrific in it," he said. "I was sitting in the office one day while were were cutting 'The Limey,' and all of a sudden it seemed exactly what I wanted to do. It's a character-based drama with a female protagonist who's in every scene of the film. And I thought, 'Gee I haven't done that.' It required a completely different set of disciplines, and that's what I was looking for."