Steven Soderbergh is nothing if not candid. And self-critical. But unless you're a longtime fan you may not have heard the always-frank filmmaker essentially throw himself underneath the bus for Universal/Gramercy Picture’s 1995 crime film, "The Underneath” starring Peter Gallagher, William Fichtner, Elisabeth Shue and Alison Elliott. A remake of 1949's noir "Criss Cross," the film came at a critical time in the filmmaker's development and a tumultuous one in his life. He had started his career with the Palme d'Or breakthrough "Sex Lies & Videotape," a film that essentially jumpstarted the American indie film scene ("it's all downhill from here,” he quipped during his acceptance speech), but his subsequent efforts didn't connect with audiences. And moreover Soderbergh seemed dissatisfied with each to some degree or another.
By the time his fourth feature "The Underneath" was ready to roll before cameras, the filmmaker, who was also suffering through a crumbling marriage, realized his heart wasn't in the movie, but he had to go through the motions nonetheless. "I think its a beautiful film to look at and I think the score is beautiful, but fifteen seconds I know we're in trouble because of how fucking long it takes to get through those opening credits," he says with a self-deprecating smirk on just-released Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD. "That's just an indication of what's wrong with this thing: its just totally sleepy."
It led Soderbergh to hit reset and try and reinvent his process—the radical "Schizopolis" would follow and he's widely discussed the movie as a type of necessary do-or-die annihilation of his own working methodology that saved his career and opened up the path to "Out Of Sight," which put him back on top. "The Underneath" and those days are well in the past, but thanks to the Criterion release of "King of the Hill" (which at a great bargain includes "The Underneath" as an "extra"), Soderbergh has revisited the film and his troubled period in detail. Below are highlights from the interviews and commentaries on "The Underneath" and "King of the Hill." The Criterion Blu-ray/DVD combo pack is out now.
1. Unhappy and disenchanted, his eyes weren’t on the prize during “The Underneath” and his mind was pining for the horizon that would eventually be reinvention.
In the Criterion interview,, Soderbergh’s surprising perspective of “The Underneath” was that uneasy, sinking feeling of his heart not being in the material and wanting to escape. The filmmaker said an "increasing formality [to the work] was not healthy," but that he couldn’t course-correct. “I was already absent,” he said of of his mind wandering while shooting “The Underneath” and even fantasizing about what he could do next. “I have a very specific memory [on set] of just thinking, ‘ok, six months from now I want to be in Baton Rouge with a crew of five people making using the same methodology I used when I started making films.’ ” This self-revelation also gave him an huge sense of isolation during the shoot. “It’s a very unpleasant feeling to know that, not being able to discuss that with anybody, and see everyone working so hard—cast and crew to give you what you want every day. And you know this thing is dead on arrival. I resolved during that that was never going to happen to me again.”
2. The pain of making “The Underneath” would lead to his most experimental work to date, “Schizopolis.”
In retrospect, “The Underneath” fulfilled an important function in the development in his filmmaking and artistry. It made him decide to “radically alter my way of working." By the time he had finished shooting the troubled Universal film, he had hatched the plan to go and shoot his reinvention piece, “Schizopolis.” “I think in order to continue to evolve you have to keep annihilating things that came before," he said. The director even describes it as akin to hitting an alcoholic nadir. “I needed to bottom out, to borrow a phrase, in order to rebuild,” he said. Self-aware, he said he knew it must be awful for anyone who worked on the film to hear him dissing it. “I had everything else i needed, I’m the one that didn’t show up. I’m sorry that Universal had to write a check for $6 million for me to figure out that I needed to make ‘Schizopolis,’ but that’s kinda what happened.”
3. Soderbergh was supposed to direct “Quiz Show,” the four-time Oscar nominated drama that Robert Redford eventually helmed.
Soderbergh attributes his lack of “presence” on the set of “The Underneath” as a confluence of many factors, one of them being the knock his ego took after “Quiz Show” slipped through his grasp. “I was supposed to do another film—I was supposed to do ‘Quiz Show’ and sort of got pushed off [the project]. And [‘The Underneath’] presented itself and I think the combination of [the ‘Quiz Show’ incident], feeling a little adrift about what I was doing, my marriage was falling apart. It was a weird time.”
While he wrote his three of his first four films [“Sex Lies & Videotape,” “King of the Hill” and “The Underneath”], the filmmaker was lacking confidence. “The other thing I was grappling with at the time was that I wasn’t really a writer,” he said. The filmmaker noted that he had the fortune of an early success that he wrote [‘Sex & Lies’], but that was “masking the fact that I wasn’t really a writer—at least not in the sense of what I consider a writer.” He says that personally, there was no doubt that his films improved moving forward, when he started working closely with screenwriters.