Steven Soderbergh's Journey: Eight years after 'sex, lies ...,' the director remakes himself

Most people wait until middle age to reach their midlife crisis. Not Steven Soderbergh. He had his at 31. He’d leapt into the spotlight with sex, lies, and videotape (1989), the dazzling little psychodrama that kicked the American independent film movement into high gear. Shot for $1.2 million, sex, lies … went on to gross $24 million domestically and was instrumental in putting its distributor, Miramax, on the map. What made it truly revolutionary, however, was the way it demonstrated that independent cinema, long devoted to earnest dramas about farm families and noble black extraterrestrials, could take on subjects like … well, sex, lies, and videotape. The movie was kinky, obsessive, thrillingly incorrect. It made indie movies seem sexy.

Cut to 1994. Soderbergh now had one dud under his belt, the sophomore folly Kafka (1991), and another gem, King of the Hill (1993), a funny, tender, lyrical Depression-era fable that’s perhaps the most magical coming-of-age film since The 400 Blows. The movie was poorly marketed, though, and slipped between the cracks. Then came the crisis. Soderbergh was directing The Underneath, a snazzily contemporary film noir starring Peter Gallagher as a compulsive gambler who returns to his hometown and tries to pull off a desperate bank heist. Soderbergh made the film with wit, trickiness, flair — everything but the conviction that he had any belief left in what he was doing. ”I allowed myself to get pulled into a place that was stagnant and uninteresting,” he admits. ”It was basically a knowledge that I could easily make a certain kind of movie for the rest of my life. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to direct anymore.”

To rediscover his muse, he took a radical pit stop. He abandoned the machinery of conventional movies to make Schizopolis, a prankishly experimental exercise in guerrilla cinema that opens in limited release on April 11. A series of madcap riffs on marriage, celebrity, the media, corporate fascism, and identity-crisis anxiety, the movie, pieced together from cinematic tropes influenced by everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Richard Lester (”the filmmaker I think I have the most in common with”), was shot for just $250,000, with Soderbergh employing used equipment and a bare-bones crew and casting himself in a dual lead role. The director, with his cropped scalp and rubbery grin, suggests Chris Elliott’s eggheaded cousin, and it’s fun to see him let his guard down as he plays Fletcher Munson, a mild-mannered speechwriter whose chief pastime is masturbating in his office bathroom, and Munson’s mysterious double, bourgeois dentist Jeffrey Korchek. The movie also features a deft satire of self-actualization cults called Eventualism, led by steely guru T. Azimuth Schwitters.

”I made it as a lark and a piece of agitprop,” says Soderbergh, ”something to poke you and stir you up a bit. It’s sort of an expulsion of things that had been rattling around in my head that I couldn’t find a place for in a ‘normal movie.’ Some people find that fun, and some people resent that. That’s why you make a movie for 250 grand, so that not everybody has to like it.” For all its throwaway wit, Schizopolis does have one element of raw psychodrama: Soderbergh cast his ex-wife, actress Betsy Brantley, in scenes that wickedly parody their disintegrated five-year marriage. ”We both wanted to do it,” he claims. ”It was hard, but I think those scenes have something that wouldn’t be there had we not had a history.”