7 wonderfully weird things about Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh makes a face in his no budget 1996 comedy "Schzopolis"
Steven Soderbergh makes a face in his no budget 1996 comedy “Schzopolis”

“Behind the Candelabra,” starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his younger lover, premieres in America this Sunday on HBO. Most of the coverage, inevitably, has revolved around two major male stars playing gay together, as well as Douglas’ spot-on impersonation of the flamboyant (and closeted) pianist. Somewhat underreported is that this is the alleged final film of Steven Soderbergh, the storied and award-winning director who, among many other things, helped breathe life into both independent and mainstream American cinema.

Soderbergh had threatened to retire a few years ago, citing exhaustion with the movie business, and even with moviemaking itself. His plan is to concentrate on painting, with the possibility of some TV. It’s very possible (or we’re simply hoping) this is a Jay-Z-style “retirement” — a sabbatical/mental health break that will set up a triumphant return to the medium he conquered. But for now, “Candelabra” is his filmic swan song. (Although if you really want to be a stickler, “Side Effects,” his last film released theatrically, is his farewell to cinema. But “Candelabra” is currently in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. We reviewed it, very favorably, here.)

In honor of this perhaps non-ending to what we feel has been a fantastic and thrilling career, filled with exciting and experimental work that flexed the muscles of what mainstream and non-mainstream film can do, we’ve decided to round up a handful of amusing tidbits about the director that might have flown over many people’s heads.

His first film was a Yes concert documentary
Soderbergh was only 26 when his debut fiction feature, “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Young as that seems — and he was the youngest director to have a film win the festival’s top prize — it wasn’t his first. That would be “Yes 9012Live,” released in 1985, and featuring lots of then-cutting edge, now dated video editing effects as the prog rock legends toured for one of their most popular albums. (It’s the record with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”) Released on video, it was even nominated for a Grammy. It still took him another four years to get a real feature off the ground — but that’s okay because he was still only in his early 20s.

His ex-wife was the body double for Jessica Rabbit
Till 1994, Sodebergh was married to Betsy Brantley, an actress who has two minor credits in major motion pictures: she was the body double for Roger Rabbit’s curvy wife, and she was Fred Savage’s mother in “The Princess Bride.” Brantley also played his wife in the no-budget 1996 comedy “Schizopolis,” two years after they were divorced. Which brings us to…

During a rebellious period, Soderbergh made a super-bizarre no-budget comedy
This isn’t the first time Soderbergh has dropped out of Hollywood. After his “Sex, Lies” smash breakthrough, Soderbergh made three projects that failed to catch much attention: “Kafka,” “King of the Hill” (not the TV show) and “The Underneath.” These are, respectively, flawed but interesting, a neglected masterpiece and underrated. In the eyes of a fickle populace, he became the poster child for squandered potential. So he quit. To refuel his creative juices, he spent three years tackling low budget productions, such as the Spalding Gray monologue film “Gray’s Anatomy,” and doing for-hire writing jobs, including “Nightwatch,” “Mimic” and the failed Henry Selick film “Toots and the Upside Down House.” The most unusual product of this period is “Schizopolis,” a tiny, excessively idiosyncratic experimental comedy in which he essentially dumps all of the nutso comic, alienating ideas he’s never used into one tiny film. It’s much tighter than that sounds, although sometimes bewildering and even nigh impenetrable. It’s also hilarious and and a keen insight into his frail mental state at the time, not only because it featured him acting (hilariously, it should be added — he needs to act a lot more) alongside his recent ex as marrieds. (Her character winds up cheating on him with another character, also played by him, to add to the discomfort level.) The above image is from this film, from a scene where his office drone lead tries to break the tedium of a day working at an office for a Scientology-like company by making faces at himself.

He published a hilarious self-deprecating book about said period
As said, Soderbergh released his diaries from his “Sex, Lies” period, as an inspiration to anyone who wanted to make their own indie. He did it again for the period where he had quit Hollywood. “Getting Away With It, or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw” is inspiring, too, if in a more sobering way. Throughout the year covered in the book (March 1996-March 1997, concluding with him getting the “Out of Sight” gig that would prove his comeback), he’s actively depressed and mired in self-doubt. And when he isn’t comically beating himself up in the actual diary entries, he’s doing it in wry footnotes. He made it out of this period, into one of the most prolific, exciting and challenging runs in film history. Take note, people who beat themselves up too much: if Soderbergh can pull himself out of the pits of self-hatred, you (maybe) can, too. Half the book is also an in-depth interview with filmmaker Richard Lester (“A Hard Day’s Night”), who never talks about and is rather modest about his terrific and underrated work, making the book rather invaluable in two ways.

He records excellent commentary tracks
Apart from many tracks recorded by scholars and historians, the list of truly innovative and mind-blowing DVD/Blu-ray (and laserdisc) commentary tracks is short. Several spots should be reserved for Soderbergh. For “The Limey,” a discussion with the screenwriter, Lem Dobbs, goes from testy into outright hostile, with Dobbs complaining that Soderbergh had taken his script and obliterated it to make an experimental avant-garde exercise. Equally great, in a different way, is his track for “Schizopolis,” which has “him” interviewing “himself,” for which he adopts the persona of a comically pompous filmmaker spouting absurdities. (“I’ve always felt that there’s kind of a tacit agreement that if someone agrees to work on your film, that you not only own them and everything that they think, but also by extension own everything they own, and that includes their clothes, their car, their house, whatever friends they might have, and whatever cash they might be carrying.”)

He has a crazy “stealth” Twitter account
As alluded to here, Soderbergh has a strange, wonderfully bizarre sense of humor, which manifests itself even in his dramas, and in “impersonal” Hollywood fare. (“Ocean’s Twelve” is one of the silliest sequels ever made.) Soon after his retirement from film, he announced he had a “stealth” Twitter account, which was outed as “@Bitchuation.” Every week or so, without announcement, he goes on a tweet bender, spouting inscrutable — and often weirdly sage — pronouncements in 140 characters or less. Right now he’s in the middle of writing a Twitter novel, which appears to be a globe-trotting spy story comprised mostly of gnomic utterances and dry silliness. The account doesn’t have his name on it, but it did have an official blue “confirmed” check next to it — which has since mysteriously disappeared.

He imported a line of Bolivian brandy
While shooting “Che,” Soderbergh and crew discovered Singani, a Bolivian brandy he claims doesn’t have the burn of most hard liquors, therefore making it dangerously easy to drink and get drunk on. He brought it to the states, complete with a predictably insane ad, which appears to be an homage to the segment in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)” in which Gene Wilder has an affair with a sheep. The whole thing contrats an air of regal pretention with unnecessary vulgarity — an old but reliable comic template that is almost never not funny.

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