Below Rock Bottom: Revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s Very Low Decade
Having recently released his last two movies through HBO Max, Steven Soderbergh continues to have a very creative period going all the way back to his Oscar-winning days with Traffic and Erin Brockovich. No Sudden Move is another sleek crime thriller matching his other crime tale, Out Of Sight (1998). Being the first of many collaborations with George Clooney was great, but so was having a hit to bring back confidence to the studios that Soderbergh could direct a good movie. Before then, Soderbergh was seen as a one-hit-wonder with multiple flops to his name. The 90s were unkind to him as you will see in his resume during this time.
Steven Soderbergh was raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before moving to Los Angeles after high school to follow his dream of being a director. He worked on TV shows holding cue cards and was a freelance editor before getting his first directing job, the concert film 9012Live for the band Yes in 1985. Soderbergh would receive a Grammy nomination for his work, but he would move back to Baton Rouge. During his road trip, he came up with the story of what would be his major entrance onto the cinema stage, sex, lies, and videotape. Starring James Spader, Andie McDowell, and Peter Gallagher, the film was a smash at its debut at Sundance in 1989. It then won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Soderbergh would get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay at only 26 years old Today, the film is widely recognized as the beginning of independent cinema during the 1990s and put Sundance on the map.
Soderbergh then met writer Lem Dobbs and began the first of few collaborations with him by directing his sophomoric effort, Kafka (1991). A loose biopic on the famous titled author starring Jeremy Irons, Joel Grey, and Alec Guinness, the film, released by Miramax (who also bought the rights to distribute videotape), only drew back $1.1 million and was received with mixed reviews. It was forgotten until recently when Soderbergh announced he got back the media rights and did some rewrites with Dobbs, shot inserts, and had the dialogue dubbed in German. The film will be renamed as Mr. Kneff and is expected to be re-released as a box set with other films by Soderbergh.
The chance to redeem himself came when he adapted A.E. Hotchner’s memoir, King Of The Hill (1993) in which he intended to work with Robert Redford on the project. But Redford decided to move on from it and go straight to Quiz Show instead; in a case of awkwardness, Redford wanted to see the cut Soderbergh had made as he was technically a producer, but he never made the trip to visit Soderbergh and reportedly said he didn’t like it. Still, Soderbergh directed a solidly underrated film starring Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbe, and Karen Allen, set during the Depression following Hotchner as a boy after he’s left alone when his parents leave. Despite the positive reviews, the film flopped at the box office again and the next film was only going to be worse. The Underneath (1995), a noir remake of the film Cris Cross (1949), was made for cheap $6.5 million, yet only grossed a lowly $536,000. Soderbergh himself says the film was terrible and that his heart was not in it when it was time to shoot the picture.
After three misses and six years removed from the acclaim of videotape, many wondered if, “the poster boy of the Sundance generation,” as Roger Ebert described him, was a total fluke. Soderbergh saw his string of failures as his chance to get creative on his own and filmed the surrealist movie Schizopolis (1996), in which Soderbergh himself acted in dual roles, cast friends to play different parts, and shot with a skeleton crew borrowed from people who worked with fellow indie director Richard Linklater. It’s a deconstruction of his life following a writer who starts to work with a cult, his wife who has an affair (played by Soderbergh’s ex-wife, as they divorced one year prior), a dentist who stands between them, and an exterminator who has a knack for photographing his genitals with every camera he finds at every house. Many had thought he had lost his mind when it was released in Cannes, but today, critics see Schizoplis as a self-critiquing view of modern life, lack of communication, and rupturing conformity he’d been stuck in. It is certainly his version of a David Lynch movie.
The lowest of low, maybe even below everything for him, was in 1997, when Soderbergh was helping out in the production of Gary Ross’s Pleasantville. Still looking for a distributor for both Schizopolis and his concert film Grey’s Anatomy starring Spalding Gray, he was invited by director Anthony Minghella to the Miramax Oscar party following the resounding victory for The English Patient. As Soderbergh later stated to Peter Biskind in his book “Down And Dirty Pictures,”
I got to the Miramax bash, circulated for a while, but couldn’t fight Minghella. Then I saw him through the glass in the special VIP section. The security guy wouldn’t let me in. I said, ‘There’s the person who invited me.’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’ He was telling me there was no fucking way I was getting in that room, and literally, on a forty-two-inch screen behind his head insider the VIP room they were playing Miramax trailers from all their past films, and I was watching the trailer for sex, lies!
The saving grace came when Casey Silver, the CEO of Universal, offered Soderbergh, who he really liked, the chance to do Out Of Sight. Soderbergh took the job and reinvented himself as a director with an appeal to major studios. The film failed to make back its budget, but with the critical acclaim and two Oscar nominations attached to it, Universal hired Soderbergh to direct Erin Brockovich and then USA Films (now Focus Features), a subsidiary of Universal, picked him to work on Traffic. As 2000 was the year that reintroduced Soderbergh as one of Hollywood’s top directorial talents, it was a rough ride he had to go through before re-attaining that global recognition he had doing sex, lies, and videotape. The period was about not selling out, a fear of all independent directors, and keeping things true to form. But it wasn’t worth the constant failure and Soderbergh, needing to not be self-serving, chose to play the game a little bit with the studios. Look what he’s done since.
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