Steven Soderbergh is nothing if not candid. And self-critical. But unless you’re a longtime fan you may not have heard the always-frank filmmaker essentially throw himself underneath the bus for Universal/Gramercy Picture’s 1995 crime film, “The Underneath” starring Peter Gallagher, William Fichtner, Elisabeth Shue and Alison Elliott. A remake of 1949’s noir “Criss Cross,” the film came at a critical time in the filmmaker’s development and a tumultuous one in his life. He had started his career with the Palme d’Or breakthrough “Sex Lies & Videotape,” a film that essentially jumpstarted the American indie film scene (“it’s all downhill from here,” he quipped during his acceptance speech), but his subsequent efforts didn’t connect with audiences. And moreover Soderbergh seemed dissatisfied with each to some degree or another.
By the time his fourth feature “The Underneath” was ready to roll before cameras, the filmmaker, who was also suffering through a crumbling marriage, realized his heart wasn’t in the movie, but he had to go through the motions nonetheless. “I think its a beautiful film to look at and I think the score is beautiful, but fifteen seconds I know we’re in trouble because of how fucking long it takes to get through those opening credits,” he says with a self-deprecating smirk on just-released Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD. “That’s just an indication of what’s wrong with this thing: its just totally sleepy.”
It led Soderbergh to hit reset and try and reinvent his process—the radical “Schizopolis” would follow and he’s widely discussed the movie as a type of necessary do-or-die annihilation of his own working methodology that saved his career and opened up the path to “Out Of Sight,” which put him back on top. “The Underneath” and those days are well in the past, but thanks to the Criterion release of “King of the Hill” (which at a great bargain includes “The Underneath” as an “extra”), Soderbergh has revisited the film and his troubled period in detail. Below are highlights from the interviews and commentaries on “The Underneath” and “King of the Hill.” The Criterion Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is out now.
1. Unhappy and disenchanted, his eyes weren’t on the prize during “The Underneath” and his mind was pining for the horizon that would eventually be reinvention.
In the Criterion interview,, Soderbergh’s surprising perspective of “The Underneath” was that uneasy, sinking feeling of his heart not being in the material and wanting to escape. The filmmaker said an “increasing formality [to the work] was not healthy,” but that he couldn’t course-correct. “I was already absent,” he said of of his mind wandering while shooting “The Underneath” and even fantasizing about what he could do next. “I have a very specific memory [on set] of just thinking, ‘ok, six months from now I want to be in Baton Rouge with a crew of five people making using the same methodology I used when I started making films.’ ” This self-revelation also gave him an huge sense of isolation during the shoot. “It’s a very unpleasant feeling to know that, not being able to discuss that with anybody, and see everyone working so hard—cast and crew to give you what you want every day. And you know this thing is dead on arrival. I resolved during that that was never going to happen to me again.”
2. The pain of making “The Underneath” would lead to his most experimental work to date, “Schizopolis.”
In retrospect, “The Underneath” fulfilled an important function in the development in his filmmaking and artistry. It made him decide to “radically alter my way of working.” By the time he had finished shooting the troubled Universal film, he had hatched the plan to go and shoot his reinvention piece, “Schizopolis.” “I think in order to continue to evolve you have to keep annihilating things that came before,” he said. The director even describes it as akin to hitting an alcoholic nadir. “I needed to bottom out, to borrow a phrase, in order to rebuild,” he said. Self-aware, he said he knew it must be awful for anyone who worked on the film to hear him dissing it. “I had everything else i needed, I’m the one that didn’t show up. I’m sorry that Universal had to write a check for $6 million for me to figure out that I needed to make ‘Schizopolis,’ but that’s kinda what happened.”
3. Soderbergh was supposed to direct “Quiz Show,” the four-time Oscar nominated drama that Robert Redford eventually helmed.
Soderbergh attributes his lack of “presence” on the set of “The Underneath” as a confluence of many factors, one of them being the knock his ego took after “Quiz Show” slipped through his grasp. “I was supposed to do another film—I was supposed to do ‘Quiz Show’ and sort of got pushed off [the project]. And [‘The Underneath’] presented itself and I think the combination of [the ‘Quiz Show’ incident], feeling a little adrift about what I was doing, my marriage was falling apart. It was a weird time.”
While he wrote his three of his first four films [“Sex Lies & Videotape,” “King of the Hill” and “The Underneath”], the filmmaker was lacking confidence. “The other thing I was grappling with at the time was that I wasn’t really a writer,” he said. The filmmaker noted that he had the fortune of an early success that he wrote [‘Sex & Lies’], but that was “masking the fact that I wasn’t really a writer—at least not in the sense of what I consider a writer.” He says that personally, there was no doubt that his films improved moving forward, when he started working closely with screenwriters.
4. “The Underneath” apparently rivals an old Don Siegel movie for a film with the least amount of footage exposed.
Soderbergh says one of Don Siegel’s down-and-dirty Clint Eastwood films holds the record for the least-amount of footage exposed on a set: 62,000 feet of film exposed. And he adds, “The Underneath came close to shooting so little.”
“Anybody who knows anything about that stuff will gasp when they hear that figure,” he laughed about the extremely low ratio of footage that will leave a filmmaker with very few options in the editing room. For comparison, he noted that Michael Mann shoots 30,000 feet of film a day (or at least did when things weren’t all digital).”You could call it efficiency, you could call it a desire to escape from the production as quickly as possible. Certainly coverage didn’t interest me at the time but that’s a suspicious number as far as I’m concerned. That seems shady to me, that sounds suspicious,” he said raising a wry eyebrow.
5. Soderbergh was so disillusioned with the film, he turned down the Cannes Film Festival.
Festival President Gilles Jacob called Soderbergh personally to see if he was interested in premiering the film at the 1995 film festival. Soderbergh flatly turned him down. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever made,” the filmmaker recalled saying to the Cannes organizer. “I’m not even going to screen it for you.” Jacob laughed and said, “I’ve never heard anyone say that to me—ever.”
6. Soderbergh recommends shooting a film while a studio is simultaneously making a soon-to-be legendary trainwreck.
The small production had the good fortune of shooting at the same time as Universal’s notorious bomb, “Waterwold.” ”The key is—if you can somehow orchestrate this—is to make your movie at the same time the studio is making a legendary, out-of-control production,” he laughed, “We literally couldn’t get anyone on the phone while we were shooting so we were completely on our own. It was nice, I like being left alone, but I remember… when we had questions or needed something, we could not reach anyone.”
7. “King of the Hill” was a different experience, but was not well-received at Cannes in 1993.
“King of the Hill,” Soderbergh’s third feature film, is one that he recalls fondly. While he’s still not as satisfied with the result as he could be, the director said the experience itself was a pleasureable one and he believes the movie is (mostly) successful on its own terms for what it was. His decision to turn down Cannes for “The Underneath” likely ties into his experience with “King of the Hill” at Cannes. The movie was poorly received, but he says he didn’t know then what he knows now: the movie isn’t a “Cannes movie”— as Woody Allen put it, it didn’t have any kind of “heavy-osity.” It didn’t have a political subtext that he says can be as simple as the socio-political subtext of gay culture in “Behind the Candelabra,” which screened in competition last year.
Soderbergh says the film was so poorly received, that interviewers began canceling interviews with him because they conflicted with the ones set for Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige (and his well-received “Farewell My Concubine,” which would go on to co-win the Palme d’Or that year, tied with Jane Campion’s “The Piano”). Universal reps at the festival were furious, but the always self-aware filmmaker told the studio to not lose sleep over it. “It’s not my year,” he said understanding the ebb and flow of popularity and capturing the zeitgeist. “It’s someone else’s turn.”
8. Mostly, Soderbergh recalls “King of the Hill” as a film that allowed him to make mistakes.
Soderbergh said the irony of “King of the Hill” now, looking back on it, is that he was dissatisfied with himself, but thought the studio system at the time (Gramercy Pictures which was Universals ’90s indie wing) was great and helpful. Now he believes the reverse is true; his work is where he wants it to be, but the studio system that is blockbuster and commerce-driven isn’t helpful to filmmakers these days. “20 years later things have flipped,” he said. “I’m much happier with where I am as a filmmaker and less happy with how the studio system that is functioning in terms of its approach to making movies.”
The filmmaker says the first seven years of his career is uneven, two steps forward and two steps back, but in terms of his development, these steps were necessary. “Filmmakers now don’t get to make the mistakes that I made,” he admitted. “They really don’t. And I needed those mistakes. And I feel bad, everyone’s expecting [new directors] to emerge just full blown right out of the gate. And I needed those early movies to figure out what I was up to.”