Steven Soderbergh goes back to where it all began: sex, lies, and videotape
On sex, lies, and videotape 25 years later. These days it would be ‘sex, fake news, and streaming’, right? Right?
“IT’S KIND OF weird,” says Steven Soderbergh, of revisiting his debut feature, 30 years since he made it and roughly 15 since he last watched it, for the previous reissue. A note on this new disc requests you destroy all previous copies. Remastered and remixed, the Criterion Collection edition is sex, lies, and videotape as spiffy as it’s ever been seen.
An intimate chamber piece credited with re-igniting indie filmmaking in America, it won the Palme d’or in 1989, causing the then-26-year-old to quip on stage in Cannes, “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.” That hasn’t proved to be the case — he won the directing Oscar for Traffic in 2001 and is still proving our most probing and prolific high-end filmmaker. Returning to where it all began, though, he sees how easily it could have all gone wrong. “I look at it now and realise: wow, if any of the actors aren’t right on compass the whole thing just collapses.”
James Spader plays a sad-eyed loner who gets his kicks recording women talking about their sexual experiences. Visiting his home town, he stays with former friend John (Peter Gallagher), who is having an affair with Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), sister of his wife Ann (Andie Macdowell). “There’s something about her. She pulls you through the movie,” says Soderbergh, of the model-turnedactress, whose career was transformed by the role. “She would seem like the least hip person in the movie, the one who doesn’t really see all the moving pieces, and yet there’s this moment where she finally turns it all around. And she does it with such compassion, it holds you.”
It’s true. Watching the film again (and again), there’s a warmth here which sustains you in a way that similarly sharp-eyed dissections of sexual politics — say, Carnal Knowledge, which was an inspiration — do not. “Ten years from now I may feel differently,” says the director. “But this time she really felt like the heart of the film.”
In the late ’80s Soderbergh was, if not oblivious, then certainly pretty relaxed about how the picture needed to perform. “In my mind it was going to be a calling card more than something that would get out there.” He knows now that a drama consisting of, largely, scene after scene of people chatting, was pretty precarious. “But what’s interesting to acknowledge, or understand, is I’ve continued over and over again to go back to the two-peoplein-a-room construct. It’s clearly something I’m very compelled by.” Pondering why that is, he thinks it may be down to films he saw at a formative age, but also “being sort of a witness/ bystander to watching my parents’ marriage gradually dissolve. And it was all being played off screen. All very Pinter-esque. I had to try and fill in for myself what was going on between the two of them. Behind closed doors.”
Upon release there was a lot of speculation about how autobiographical the material was. But though Soderbergh was emotionally uncensored in his script, it didn’t take specific cues from his own life. “The goal is that you take your experiences and turn them into something that’s better and more heightened and more dramatic than the thing that happened to you.”
These days Soderbergh doesn’t script his own films — preferring to work with a writer. But Empire asks him how he’d go about a sex, lies sequel, if he really had to. “I think it would be about their kids. The first place that I would go is: Andie’s character
now has a daughter who’s getting into relationships that seem to run in a direction of being self-destructive. How does she deal with that?”
Most classics should be left well alone, but that notion actually sounds intriguing, revisiting the original’s ideas of intimacy and being seen, in the age of ultra-anxiety and antisocial media.
Looking back at sex, lies now, it’s erotic but rather modest, despite the salacious title. There’s remarkably little rumpy pumpy — and no nudity. “I think the title, which is key to the film’s life and commercial success, rode this theme of provocation,” says Soderbergh, reflecting that the combination of words allowed an ambiguity which helped pique audiences without proving too prescriptive. “We got something that was intriguing but didn’t suggest anything too specific. They were interested, but had no idea what they were about to see.”
Soderbergh wrote a diary at the time, published with the shooting script in 1990, which proves a fascinating read for any aspiring filmmaker, or cinephile, not least because of how it shows the fine margins between triumph and disaster. It included a list of alternative titles for the film: ‘46:02’
‘Charged Coupling Device’ ‘Retinal Retention’
How different does the filmmaker think his career would have been had he picked, say, ‘Mode: Visual’? He laughs. “I’d be interviewing you, probably!” NEV PIERCE
SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE IS OUT NOW ON BLU-RAY
Clockwise from above: Graham (James Spader) gets close to his friend’s wife Ann (Andie Macdowell); Ann does some of her own filming; Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) gets comfortable; Steven Soderbergh on set with Spader and San Giacomo.