‘You know the first thing they said to me when I got off the plane was
Don ’t touch the croissants." Appropriately wary of the notorious Film Festival breakfast, Steven Soderbergh is tucking into a batch of white morning rolls. ‘I actually wanted muffins. Are these like mufﬁns?’ he asks. I gesture inconclusively. Perhaps we need to sort out our muffin criteria.
The problematic adjustment to the wide world of bread products — such is the lot of the film director tasting success on the international promotional circuit for the first time. And ever since this bespectacled 26 year-old’s debut feature Sex, Lies and Videotape shot from out of nowhere to nonchalantly pick up the Best Film and Best Actor (for John Hughes alumnus James Spader) prizes at Cannes this year, everybody everywhere wants a piece of our Steve. Edinburgh today, Scandinavia for the next few days, and then . . . well, he’s not exactly sure.
‘In terms of publicity, this has turned into the Batman of arthouse movies,‘ he almost sheepishly admits, aware at the same time that although the groundswell of acclaim will generate a wider audience for the film than he’d imagined, it’s also creating highly pressurised expectations for the final product. ‘And it’s such a small, precious kinda thing.’
Well yes, small-scale certainly, for there are only really four characters. Housewife Ann (Andie McDowell) is in therapy, distinctly uncomfortable with her sexuality; unlike her sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who’s regularly and enthusiastically bedding her brother-in-law, Ann’s husband John (Peter Gallagher). Needless to say neither ofthem tell Ann. Meanwhile, enter John’s old college buddy Graham (James Spader) , who’s weirded out a little. Dressed in black, he now gets his rocks off by taping the most shameful sexual revelations of any number of women, and his camera is to prove the catalyst that will radically alter relations between the quartet.
Sex, Lies and Videotape — it’s all there. Masturbation and voyeurism too. The film’s holding-power probably comes from its intelligent, often witty survey of the spectrum of our sexuality, from mere physical act to conduit for communication between two partners. Comparisons with Woody Allen, Eric Rohmer and even John Cassavetes have abounded, but they fail to wholly pin down S, L & V’s urbanely confrontational sense of intimacy.
All the sex stuff in there of course leads to Soderbergh being asked some very personal questions in interviews. I feel I know a lot already about this specky frizzy-haired guy across the table, looking in his long grey coat like some particularly nerdy existentialist. I know that for years he scrabbled around Los Angeles in crap media-fringe jobs like cue-card holder and gameshow scorekeeper, while at the same time making his own little movies and
Bedding down with Soderbergh. director of Sex, Lies and Videotape, Trevor Johnston chews the
the man whose sex life won
him the tOp prize at Cannes.
writing unproduced screenplays; and that his first big break came when he did a concert movie 90125 Live for dreaded pomprockers ‘Yes’; but most of all, I know about his 24th
Soderbergh now calls it ‘a period of deception and manipulation, the kind of behaviour I felt was getting me into trouble’. Although his gangling frame cuts an unlikely ﬁgure for an unscrupulous Lothario type, he became involved with a number of partners at the same time. Up to the point when he walked into a bar and within about two feet of him there were three women he was sleeping with. Eventually the lying
had to stop and, in what amounted to
fat and beats the meat with
an anguished act of contrition, he sold all his possessions (‘even my wall of sound stereo system’), and began a period of re-evaluation that saw him driving around the country with only a boxful of books for company.
A year later the process of ‘sorting out what went wrong’ spawned the screenplay for Sex, Lies and Videotape. Written quickly over an eight-day burst, despite Soderbergh’s own reservations, the project was sold to RCA/Columbia Home Video who knew that by selling the theatrical distribution rights they could afford to stump up the minimal $1.2 million budget, and suddenly after years of not getting very far, Steven was in business. With a cast including teen movie specialist James Spader (he was the cad in Pretty In Pink) and remarkably sexy newcomer Laura San Giacomo, shooting proceeded apace before an initial screening last January at the US Film Festival in Park City, Utah (of all places) alerted critics and public alike that here was something quite unlike the usual Hollywood studio fodder. The Palme D’Or at Cannes came next (‘I guess it’s all downhill from here’ quipped the genuinely abashed young director), and the rest is the stuffofglossy magazine history. Soderbergh: the man who turned his sex life into a movie. That sort of thing.
So how does he feel about a legion of film journos knowing the run-down on his sexual history? I know I would be less than chuffed if the situation was the other way around.
‘Well,’ he reﬂects, ‘the film lends itself to a number of personal questions which I’m not averse to answering. I’m in a relationship now that I’m very happy with but because it’s still ongoing I’m not interested in nailing it down. The past, on the other hand, is like a hard fact. I can say This is what happened and this is how Ifeelabout it.’
Yet, your relationship with the character of Graham can’t be that clear cut. The guy who videos women’s sexual confessions for his own purposes could well be some kind of surrogate film-maker.
‘Yes, he’s somebody who objectifies things, and it’s certainly what I do as a director at times. My relationship with that character may be very fuzzy, but so much of the movie really does reﬂect my personality. It can be very intimate and almost maddeningly cold within the space of a single scene. And personally, there are times when I feel extremely close and bonded with someone, and then one thing will shoot me back a while away and I’ll be wondering “who is this person?” ’
As he talks, there’s a definite sense that he’s trying to be as forthcoming as possible, peering at the plate of crumbs in front of him the furrowed brow indicates he's engaged in a conversation rather than a promotional chore. I decide to ask him about wanking.
There’s a lot of stuff about masturbation in the movie, Steve.
Graham masturbates in front of the TV screen, Cynthia masturbates for the camera, and one of Graham‘s subjects recalls furtively masturbating on a plane journey. You seem to have touched something of a taboo area there.
‘Yeah, you know it’s so weird that it doesn‘t come up more often, especially in a country as sex-obsessed as America. Up to a point. I mean I have to believe that it‘s something practically everybody does, certainly every guy. The group of male friends I know, we joke about it all the time, I don’t know why it bothers everybody else.’
Maybe because it’s your sexuality removed from the act of lovemaking removed from another person.
‘To me that’s precisely why it works. I think the problem is where people are with another person and they divorce themselves emotionally.’
Like they just use the other person as a means of masturbation?
‘A lot of people have had sex when there was so little feeling involved they’ve thought Well, gee I guess I shouldajustjacked off. But for myself, I try to treat masturbation as something you do, you know like press-ups. Nothing heavy, just an outlet to release tension. But it’s a guilt thing. You feel sometimes that that was just a stoopid thing to do.’
But with Graham in the film, even though he confesses to being impotent, there’s more to the tapes than just a recreational hanky job.
‘It worries me that people are going to think the film is very sordid, because I intentionally kept it very low-key. The material isn’t there to merely be cheap and exploitative. I mean, you see a sentence Graham masturbates while watching taped interviews with women. That doesn’t actually reflect what those sequences are about, because the point ofhis watching those tapes is not just an orgasm. The subject matter he‘s interested in is stuffthat you eventually find out ifyou get to know somebody really well. The problem for him is that he’s unable to go through that process of communicating with someone. Since he can’t function sexually in the presence of another person, this is the only way he can be intimate and because he can’t respond to another person spontaneously, he has to remove the other reason and then respond.’
Steve, this is weird shit.
‘God, you know for a while I thought it was too way out, that noody would accept these women telling him all these things. Then when we were in Cannes, the whole Rob Lowe thing broke, where he’d allegedly taped himselfin bed with these two teenage girls. It’s so funny because the night before he’d been sitting in front of us at our main screening. But, gee, ifpeople get up to that then what’s so bad about just talking?’
Sex, Lies and Videotape opens at the Cannon Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and the Edinburgh Cameo on Sept 8. See the Film section for programme details and a full review.
The List 1— 14 September 19893