INTERVIEW: Out of Place: Dislocated with Steven Soderbergh and "The Limey"
by Anthony Kaufman
From the decade-defining indie “sex, lies and videotape” to last year’s hot Hollywood Lopez/Clooney ticket “Out of Sight,” Steven Soderbergh is one of America’s most original auteurs, breaking expectations at every turn, continuing to evolve as a consummate filmmaker. In his latest “The Limey,” the 36-year-old director does what he best: evokes a mood. While “Kafka” keenly assumed the shady paranoia of the Czech author, “King of the Hill” gushed with depression-era childhood wonder, “The Underneath” sunk deep into neo-noir, and “Schizopolis” lived up to its title, “The Limey” continues his tour-de-force of temperament with a fractured narrative of nostalgia, alienation and dislocation.
Terence Stamp stars as Wilson, a hard-nosed British ex-con and fish swimming in unfamiliar waters in Los Angeles; opposite Stamp is fellow 60’s icon, Peter Fonda. With Stamp’s previous role in Ken Loach‘s 1967 film “Poor Cow” serving as flashback to the character’s more innocent youth and Fonda’s own referents back to “Easy Rider” and the Age of Aquarius, the movie is as much about its conventional revenge plot as it is about the medium itself.
Calling in from post-production on what he calls the “Julia Roberts movie” (Columbia TriStar/Universal Pictures‘ “Erin Brockovich“), Soderbergh spoke with indieWIRE about collaborating with screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“Dark City“), the film’s complex editing structure, creating a mood, the 60’s, and producing.
indieWIRE: How did “The Limey” get produced? I figured that after “Out of Sight,” you could do what ever you wanted.
Steven Soderbergh: Well, certainly, there were probably more options available to me after “Out of Sight” than before. But before I’d even finished [“Out of Sight”], I was trying to get “The Limey” off the ground. We happened to hit Artisan at a really good time. They were willing to move quickly, which was important to me. It came together very rapidly.
iW: How so?
Soderbergh: We met with them in June, Lem [Dobbs] and I, with the original draft of the script, a couple of pages indicating what we would do with the new draft and a round-about budget number — and 9 months later, we delivered the finished film.
iW: How long was the shoot?
Soderbergh: 33 days.
iW: Rather short? I mean, how long did “Out of Sight” take?
Soderbergh: 66 days.
iW: So was working on “The Limey” an independent production? How do you feel about that term?
Soderbergh: I don’t know. I don’t really understand it. I was just never one to make those kinds of distinctions. The day-to-day practical issues have always been the same for me, regardless of which film I was making.
iW: How closely did you work with Lem Dobbs on the script?
Soderbergh: Pretty close. We hammered it out, beat by beat, and he would fax pages, and I’d fax them back. We did a very intense 4 weeks of work to get the shooting draft together.
iW: There’s so many different ways to collaborate on a script. Would you brainstorm ideas and he would actually do the writing on a computer?
Soderbergh: Lem doesn’t have a computer, for one. Usually, we start with a conceptual discussion going through the movie piece by piece about what happens. Then, Lem would take a run on the scenes and send them to me and I’d make notes on them, and send them back. Or I might say, “I have an idea for X scene, I’ll take a run on that.” And I would send him a page or two, and he’d send those back. We did whatever we needed to do to make the deadline that we’d given ourselves.
iW: How come you don’t have a writing credit?
Soderbergh: No, no, I never do that. I was only doing what I think a director ought to do and what I’ve always done when I’ve collaborated with writers, whether it be the movie I just finished or the movie I’m going to make in the spring. That’s your job, is to be in there with your sleeves rolled up. It helps a little that I’ve written, because I have a sense of how to approach something from a writing standpoint. But it’s a hell of a lot more fun to have someone else do it.
iW: Tell me about the visual scheme. At what point were you thinking about how you were going to cut it. Was it as early as script stage?
Soderbergh: Some of it. You couldn’t indicate a lot of it, because it would just be unreadable. And we couldn’t indicate the “Poor Cow” stuff, because we hadn’t gotten the rights yet. So the script was really a very basic template. But we all knew what we were going to do, so I made sure that I was shooting in such a way that would allow me to fragment the movie in as radical a form as I could. The first cuts were much more incomprehensible than the final one.
iW: Did Artisan know that they were going to get this fragmented narrative?
Soderbergh: Sort of, but they didn’t know how far I was going to go with it.
iW: And what made it go from more fragmented in the first cut to less in the final cut?
Soderbergh: It was too much, the movie never docked. It was sort of afloat the whole time and I found when screening the movie for friends, that people had a real desire to occasionally be still and not be jumping around. So I had to back off a little.
iW: Did you see the editing as an exercise or experiment at all?
Soderbergh: Well, yeah. I was looking at it from the beginning as an opportunity to recreate and rewrite the movie. That was always my intention. To go and shoot a bunch of stuff and then go in and rip it apart.
iW: Do you always feel that the movie is created in the editing room?
Soderbergh: This more so than most, but again, by design, I knew that would be the case. This film went through more radical variations than any film I’ve made.
iW: The idea of your film as exercise makes me keep thinking of “Schizopolis,” there’s obviously a spirit of experiment in that film, as well. Does that keep you alive as a filmmaker?
Soderbergh: Yeah, to some extent. But, also, just doing things that are different from the last thing keeps me alive. The film we’re cutting now couldn’t be more different than “The Limey” or “Out of Sight” in any way, and that’s what appealed to me about it. It required a completely different set of disciplines. I’ve done three non-linear crime films, so it seems like enough for awhile.
iW: Although as different as the films are, something that struck me was the mood that you create. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but I was wondering if you might talk about the strong, evocative world that you suck the viewer into.
Soderbergh: It’s a combination of things. You’re trying to use all the tools at your disposal, from writing to casting to composition to sound to music to rhythm, to create a specific feeling or atmosphere.
iW: And what was that atmosphere for “The Limey.”
Soderbergh: Dislocation. A sense of not being present entirely. And that lack of being present creates a feeling of isolation between the lead character and everyone else. And that’s just a mood you try to create because it’s organic to his character.
iW: Something about the locations — airports, hotel rooms, etc. — they’re like these spaces of dislocation.
Soderbergh: The main character turns everywhere he is into a cell, somehow. Even when he’s out, he feels confined. At least, I wanted to make it feel like that, so I tended to compress him a lot. It’s all he knows. He still carries this prison cell around with him everywhere. And that was a combination of composition and cutting and Terence’s performance.
iW: How does that theme resonate with you personally?
Soderbergh: I certainly go through periods where everything around me feels strange, alien. I’ve always felt that. That’s just the way I tend to experience things. But there’s no question I tend to be drawn to protagonists who are somewhat at odds with their surroundings, who can’t seem to figure out how to connect. So when you talk about that atmosphere, it’s one that’s easy for me to conjure.
iW: I think the score played a large part in creating that mood, also. Can you talk about working with Cliff Martinez?
Soderbergh: Normally what I would do is temp something and then say to Cliff, it should sound a little like this, but don’t get sued. And in this case, I was having a real hard time coming up with temp stuff, so Cliff sent me over a bunch of cues that he’d written based on the temp tracks I sent him and none of them were really working. And then at the end of the tape there was an extra cue which he just did on his own, and just said, “This is just some, little trash, see what you think” and it was basically that main piano riff that we use when we’re going into a non-linear reverie. And when I heard that I went, “Oh, Shit, that’s the sound of the movie.” So it was completely by accident and suddenly, when I got that piece of music, I started to cut sequences to it, and the film began to take a new shape.
iW: I’m always struck by the great, spontaneous moments in the filmmaking process.
Soderbergh: That’s sort of your job when you’re shooting, to create a context in which accidents can happen. And make sure that you’re in the right place to capture them, that’s what you live for. Little ones happen every day and you hope that you get them. That’s what feels like life.
iW: Let’s talk about the 60’s stuff in the film. Why was that a part of this movie?
Soderbergh: I think it’s a movie that’s so based on ideas about the past, about who you were in the past, and in this case, how these two characters became so hollowed out in different ways. I’m interested in the 60’s conceptually. I think a lot of creative people are, because it was a time of such possibility, and then that feeling went away. I certainly wish I could have lived in a time where that sense of possibility was alive in the film business. Across the board, culturally, it was just one of the few times where people seemed to consider the best of its type, whether it was music or movies or television seemed also to be what was popular. It seemed like everyone was in sync, and wanted to see and experience the same things. And now, it just doesn’t feel that way; it doesn’t feel like the best stuff is the most popular stuff.
iW: Along those lines, do you think the right movies are not getting made? Do you have projects, for instance, that you would like to get made. . .
Soderbergh: Oh sure, and some of them get made and some of them don’t, but I don’t blame anybody for that. It’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to get movies made, and if nobody wants to make your movie, there’s a reason for that. Either you’re out of sync, or it’s not good or they don’t believe that you believe in it, or something. I always lay the responsibility on the filmmakers. It’s a very Darwinian business, and it’s their job to push something through. You have to be pragmatic; and if you take a project all over town and nobody wants to do it, there’s a reason for that.
iW: What has instigated you to produce those few films you’ve produced?
Soderbergh: They all came about accidentally. I didn’t pursue them, they sort of showed up. On “Suture,” a friend of mine called me, and said they needed finished funds. I saw the movie, really liked it, and they needed 250 grand to finish it — I said, give me a week, I think I can find you the money. 6 months later, I found it. On “The Daytrippers,” I saw a short that Greg Mottola had made around the same time as Nancy Tannenbaum, one of my “sex, lies and videotape” producers, had seen it. And we both agreed that it was hilarious and we called Greg and said, “What are you doing?” And he was writing a couple scripts and eventually wrote one that we thought could be made on the cheap and we put up some money and he shot it. And “Pleasantville,” Gary Ross was a friend of mine and he just said, “Would you be interested in coming on as a producer, because I could really use a sounding board,” so I was really just kind of a paid friend. But I didn’t pursue any of them, because they’re very labor-intensive and this is now how I make my living. It’s a lot of fun, though.
iW: Do you think serendipity might make you produce again?
Soderbergh: Sure, I’m sure I’ll see something or something will come up and it will seem like the right thing to do.
iW: So how is producing fun?
Soderbergh: It’s just fun to be a part of it, to feel like you’re helping, to support somebody who’s trying to do something interesting. It was much more exciting to me to see my name on those films than to see it on my own. There’s just something much more pleasing about it.