In 1989, the micro-budget drama took the industry by surprise and changed our concept of what an indie film could achieve
Guy Lodge – The Guardian
“I’m still making movies about two people in a room,” Steven Soderbergh told Filmmaker magazine last year, suggesting his cinema hadn’t drifted all that far from the sparse setup of his 1989 debut feature, sex, lies and videotape. (So small and sparse, in fact, that the title dispensed with capital letters.) “It seems totally in line with most of the things I’ve done,” he continued.
True from one angle, this is wildly off the mark from another. Thirty years have passed since sex, lies and videotape landed in cinemas – a cool, scuzzy alien object relative to much of what was filling American arthouses at the time – and trying to put a label on “most of the things” Soderbergh has done since is a fool’s errand. You have to squint pretty hard, for example, to see the line connecting this sharp, nasty, sensual comedy of bad suburban manners with, say, the neon popcorn swagger of the director’s Ocean’s Eleven films, or his sprawling, brawny two-part Che Guevara biopic. Perhaps more of its minimalist DNA is evident in his glassy sci-fi remake Solaris, his loosey-goosey stripper study Magic Mike or his Oscar-winning drug-trade cat’s-cradle Traffic, but you have to overlook a lot of switching in genre and scale to identify sex, lies and videotape (or indeed any individual Soderbergh film) as typical. Two people in a room, maybe, but the size, décor and acoustics of that room have proven as variable as can be.
If Soderbergh has spent a rich and unpredictable career avoiding a replica of the film that made his name, that’s entirely understandable: in three decades, sex, lies and videotape has been so extensively cited and imitated – both in terms of its own aesthetics and outlook, and as an industry business model – by other film-makers that it hardly needs a signal boost from its own creator. It is often all too easy for casual film historians to credit single films as seismic Hollywood game-changers, but it’s hard to overestimate the extent to which Soderbergh’s debut changed the course, or even the definition, of American independent cinema.
Just 25 when he shot sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh had no intention of making something revolutionary. The film, a modestly formed but piercingly observed study of an unhappily married couple who relationship is further ruptured by the intervention of an unnerving, sexually dysfunctional drifter, wears its own influences, from Rohmer to Roeg, on its sleeve. It’s acutely written and beautifully acted, but the kind of talky, rarefied miniature that could easily have gone nowhere beyond the film festival circuit. Soderbergh’s initial plan was to shoot it in black-and-white, until less esoteric instincts prevailed.
Nothing in the $1.2m film, in other words, was especially calculated to meet with the immediately excited reception it got: indeed, Soderbergh expected it might be a straight-to-video affair. But at the sixth Sundance film festival, then a far small institution than the heavy indie market it is today, it won the audience award; months later, selected for competition at Cannes only after another film dropped out, it landed the Palme d’Or from a jury headed by Wim Wenders, beating such titles as Do the Right Thing and Cinema Paradiso in the process. (Not bad for a film that had to be promoted from the lower-profile directors’ fortnight sidebar; today, Cannes doesn’t permit other festival premieres in its competition lineup.)
The prizes were all well and good, though no guarantee of sleeper box-office success; it was when they were bought by Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s then 10-year-old Miramax Films that its fortunes rose. (Other names in the hunt were, improbably enough, action-movie merchants Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson: such was the volume of buzz around this tiny talkfest.) The Weinsteins were already adept in the aggressive marketing expertise for which they eventually became a byword; releasing the film in summer with sexy marketing materials and breathlessly quote-laden ads, they hyped it all the way to $25m at the US box office – a tenth of what Tim Burton’s Batman scared up that year, but a remarkable sum for a film that never expanded beyond 534 screens across the country.
For Miramax, it was the release that finally put them on the map, raking in three times the gross of the company’s previous best performer, the Profumo biopic Scandal, and announcing them as the hippest name in independent cinema. It similarly elevated the standing of Sundance, which had until then been chugging along with low-key indies that rarely broke out in a big way; Soderbergh’s film was the first to inspire heated bidding among distributors in Park City, now annually reported as the true measure of the festival’s success.
As “independent film” became a more mainstream concept in the 1990s, these two institutions were the chief architects of that change – yet sex, lies and videotape, the film that made them, wasn’t quite the blueprint they stuck to. Sundance would gradually acquire a reputation for more wholesome, socially conscious or cutely quirky fare, while Miramax, too, pursued the more polite form of prestige cinema that would eventually make them an awards magnet. It was telling that, despite the popularity of Soderbergh’s film with critics and audiences, Weinstein’s campaigning only netted it a single Oscar nomination for its screenplay, while they had far more success the same year with a tour-de-force disability biopic, My Left Foot. Soderbergh’s film was a trailblazer, yet a little too clever, a little too chilly, for that kind of Hollywood embrace. Even Andie MacDowell, the film’s breakout star, was swiftly channelled into lighter, brighter romantic comedies.
Today, it’s easy to point out the American film-makers whose careers were enabled by Soderbergh’s early success, by the film’s low-budget fluidity of form, dark sensuality and unashamed, European-style chattiness: to imagine American cinema without it is also to imagine the industry without Todd Solondz, Noah Baumbach, Lisa Cholodenko or the entire mumblecore movement in its wake. Yet you rarely see any American films quite like sex, lies and videotape being made today, particularly as even indies have grown more sex-shy in the 21st century, and it’s all but impossible to imagine one rustling up $25m at the box office.
Thirty years is longer than a generation, after all. With the Weinsteins now a past-tense force, and A24 holding the prestige Miramax once had, independent cinema is now a different landscape, complete with new leaders, new challenges and new films as yardsticks of success. Meanwhile, the looming shadow of Netflix – a platform that almost certainly would bid for sex, lies and videotape were it unveiled to similar acclaim today – is forcing an industry-wide reappraisal of what an independent film is and where it can thrive.
Earlier this year, Soderbergh released High Flying Bird, a tart, snappy sports-business satire that often boils down to two people in a room, exclusively on Netflix; in a few weeks, his Meryl Streep-starring political drama The Laundromat will play the festival circuit under the streaming giant’s banner. Soderbergh has long proven adaptable in these matters. His brief “retirement” from filmmaking was announced after he made his lavishly cinematic Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra for HBO, while in 2005, one year after Ocean’s Twelve stormed global multiplexes, he released the microbudget experiment Bubble simultaneously in cinemas and on a cable network. It was a then-innovative multiplatform strategy that is now standard for any small-scale indie entering the market. Some of the industry changes sex, lies and videotape ushered in are still with us; others are facing new, uncertain revisions in form and function. Soderbergh, somehow, is again in that vanguard.