Legacies: Steven Soderbergh's Revolutionary 'Sex Lies And Videotape' 25 Years Later

Features
by Jessica Kiang
January 23, 2014 7:07 PM
4 Comments
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“I’m a little concerned by what ‘sex, lies’ might have wrought here,’ said Steven Soderbergh at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, proving even at 27 to be, aside from a promising filmmaker, an unusually thoughtful and prescient commentator on the wider industry. 

This was scarcely a year after his debut feature had unassumingly premiered at the festival and irrevocably changed the face of the movie world, and already then the sleepy, retrospectively genteel-feeling festival of yore had unmistakably begun its rapid evolution into the titan it is today; a quick glance at our coverage of this year’s Sundance alone can tell you just how far it’s come, in terms of media profile, business activity, not to mention sheer volume of films. Ordinarily at around this point in the paragraph, we’d be issuing a chortling disclaimer along the lines of ”of course, one can’t possibly credit a single film with the entire etc etc” but the refreshing thing about “sex lies and videotape” is that it’s the rare film that practically can carry the entire weight of a movement on its mulleted shoulders. For those of us who spend any portion of our time contemplating the contemporary independent film scene in the U.S., even 25 years later, Soderbergh’s film is still the load-bearing foundation of that particular edifice; it’s a “sex, lies and videotape” world, and we just live in it. Or at least travel there for work. How long that will continue, or whether, indeed, it’s already coming to an end, is a question we’ll ask presently.

But first, a brief frolic through history for those of you rightly skeptical of the grand claims we’ve just made for the influence of this small film. To our minds, ‘sex lies’ was instrumental in launching four symbiotically interrelated, yet distinct phenomena: the modern matrix of success for an independent film; the rapid growth of Sundance; the Weinsteins; and the career of Steven Soderbergh. As to the fourth, you can check out our retrospective on Soderbergh here, and for the first three, a more detailed and exhaustive, if occasionally dubiously opinionated recounting of events is laid out in Peter Biskind’s entertaining “Down and Dirty Pictures,” but for our purposes a potted version will do.

The Story

“Everybody has a past” -- Graham (James Spader)

Sometime prior to 1989, Soderbergh, the story goes, writes the script for "sex,lies and videotape" in eight days. He secures funding of $1.2m--a relatively large amount for an independent film--from RCA, largely as an investment in a potential home video hit, and casts up. His first thought for Ann is Elizabeth McGovern, but, as proves a recurring theme, her agents find the script “pornographic” and reportedly don’t even show it to her (Soderbergh would work with her on 1993’s “King of the Hill”), while Laura San Giacomo allegedly threatens to leave her agency if they don’t let her take the part of Cynthia. As Soderbergh claims on the DVD commentary, a meeting with Andie MacDowell for the role of Ann was “forced on” him, and when she blew him away in audition and he told his producer, he could see the skepticism on her face: “Oh God, Steven’s fallen for this model.” They shoot in 30 days, the only time ever, Soderbergh claimed a decade later, that he’d felt like he had enough time and enough money on a film shoot.

Then, in January 1989 “sex lies and videotape” debuts at Sundance. It’s unfinished, with temporary sound and titles made on a Xerox machine (according to a 1989 Rolling Stone interview) As in previous years the Grand Prize goes to a film that subsequently disappears (Sundance back then was not only lesser in regard, it was actively avoided by many producers as being a kind of "kiss of death" -- stigmatizing its winners as "art movies" that were therefore unsellable), in this case “True Love” by Nancy Savoca who’d go on to make the greatly underrated “Dogfight.” Soderbergh’s film, however, by a long distance the most buzzed about of this or any other Sundance, takes the Audience Award for drama, and Soderbergh, still reportedly recovering from major dental surgery, parties. Still, he leaves without a distributor--things worked at a more sedate pace back then--until the phone starts ringing.

One of the calls is from Simpson and Bruckheimer, amazingly. It doesn’t get returned, and later Soderbergh would have to apologize for referring to them as “...slime, just barely passing for humans” in an interview with Rolling Stone when in fact he never met either (he'd also apologize years later, calling the move a total unprofessional mistake of youth). But another call comes from Miramax, then an outfit putting out three or four films a year, that had come some way in the decade since its founding, from softcore skin flicks and concert movies, to a roster that had included in the few years prior “Pelle the Conqueror,” “Working Girls” and Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line.” With the Weinsteins already proving themselves masters at a no-holds barred approach to marketing (that same year they’d have Daniel Day-Lewis addressing congress on the issue of rights for the disabled, prior to a Capitol Hill screening of “My Left Foot”), and with Harvey’s aggressive acquisition tactics in full force, Soderbergh opts for the Miramax deal. With a subtly sexed-up poster (the shots are not from the film directly and while they’re only of faces, the visual impression is of a lot more flesh than the film actually deals in--in fact Soderbergh reports the early disappointment of an RCA exec expecting a lot more nudity), they enter the film for Cannes. It’s initially sidelined into the Director’s Fortnight, but a last minute cancellation sees it bumped up to the Competition slate where, against the likes of Jane Campion’s “Sweetie,” and Emir Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies,” and stellar U.S. competition from stalwart indie auteur Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train” and new firebrand Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” it wins the Palme d’Or.

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4 Comments

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  • hank | January 23, 2014 7:29 PMReply

    great article. i re-watched this film a couple years ago and was blown away all over again.

  • nate | January 23, 2014 6:05 PMReply

    What a great article! This is the type of piece that sets you guys above the others.

  • TheoC | January 23, 2014 2:51 PMReply

    This is a fantastic longer read for a Thursday evening, thank you.

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