Steven Soder­bergh goes back to where it all be­gan: sex, lies, and video­tape

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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’

‘8 Mil­lime­ter’

‘Charged Cou­pling De­vice’ ‘Reti­nal Re­ten­tion’

‘Mode: Vis­ual’

‘Hid­den Agen­das’

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


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.

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