Steven Soderbergh famously had a year when everything seemed to go his way as a filmmaker and it culminated in March 2001 when the Louisiana native arrived at the 73rd Academy Awards with two nominations for best director (for the narco-epic Traffic and the rousing bio-pic Erin Brockovich) and took him the trophy (for Traffic) despite the considerable competition (Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, and Stephen Daldry). What’s less well known is the ordeal that led up to that golden year, an ordeal that Soderbergh describes as nearly catastrophic career experience.
The Limey, now regarded as a classic of modern California noir, has just been released for the first time in the Digital 4K Ultra HD format by Lionsgate to mark the film’s 20th anniversary. The remastering process forced Soderbergh to return to the scene of the crime. He found a movie that is inventive and stylish and filled with terrific performances by the late Peter Fonda, Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, and Luis Guzmán. It was hard for Soderbergh to perceive that back in 1998, however, when The Limey presented the then-rising director with a hot mess of a project.
Deadline caught up with the director of Ocean’s 11 and Sex, Lies & Videotape, who explained the complicated legacy of a movie that he is just now learning to love.
DEADLINE: How did The Limey look when you sat down in the dark with it after 20 years?
STEVEN SODERBERGH: It’s strange to see it now and have some distance from the experience of it because it was such a fraught post-production. It was, for me, a really terrifying edit. It wasn’t written or shot to be put together the way it ended up being put together. The screening of the first cut, what we call our friends-and-family screening, was really upsetting because it was clear that that version was not working at all and that we would have to really reconceive the movie completely. Doing that involved some additional shooting and then, most importantly, rebuilding the movie from scratch, essentially, which Sara Flack, the editor, and I did over the course of several months.
DEADLINE: It must have shaken your confidence.
SODERBERGH: It was especially frustrating because on the heels of Out of Sight I felt that I had finally kind of emerged from the woods of some confusion that I was in prior to Out of Sight. I was struggling to figure out what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be and to figure out what kind of films I wanted to make. And, at least in creative terms, Out of Sight felt like a real step forward and the possibilities for me going forward from there had seemed pretty positive. So to sit there and feel like, you know, one step forward and then — after that first screening — a series of giant steps backward? That was really scary. I remember we were really sort of in the middle of trying to figure the movie out and I think we got some…I think Out of Sight won the National Society of Film Critics award or something.
DEADLINE: The Society voted it the year’s best film. They also voted you as the best director of 1998 and picked Scott Frank’s Out of Sight screenplay as the year’s best…
SODERBERGH: I just remember getting a call from, I think from Stacey Sher, one of my producers on Out of Sight saying oh, we won the National Society of Film Critics and I just thought well, I’d trade that for one solitary solve in this edit right now. It was an odd time and so to be able to watch The Limey now and not be in the middle of that is a different experience. And I really hadn’t watched it. I had to watch it recently for the remaster, but I hadn’t watched it since we finished [the editing], really.
DEADLINE: And how was that uneasy recent reunion with The Limey?
SODERBERG: It was a pleasant surprise. I was able to just watch it without being, you know, pulled back into that vortex of terror. I could just look at it and remember the good stuff, which was the shooting of it and working with that cast and being able to explore some editorial ideas that were kind of, well, I wouldn’t say leftover from Out of Sight, but there were some ideas that I used in The Limey that I had thought about using in Out of Sight and just never got to implement. So it was ultimately, when we finished, a positive creative experience. What was weird is within a year or so of each other, I had these very different [experiences]. Out of Sight was the movie I felt under the most self-imposed pressure. I was very aware that if I screwed that movie up that I was really going to be in big trouble career-wise but I was able to Jedi mind-trick my way through it and make creative decisions as though I were on the set of Schizopolis [the 1996 experimental comedy with a $250,000 production budget] and not really be all that worried about it. And then to go from that into The Limey where I’d never been so scared about being able to put a movie together in a coherent fashion. That was the most scared I’ve ever been in an edit.
DEADLINE: That’s must have felt like a case of professional whiplash especially with all of it contained in that compressed period of time.
SODERBERGH: Yeah. It was kind of an intense 12 months because from the moment Lem [Dobbs, the screenwriter,] and I pitched The Limey to Artisan to the moment the finished film was delivered was nine months, so it all happened very quickly. And one thing that happened during The Limey experience that ended up being a positive thing for me career-wise was Erin Brockovich. When we were shooting Out of Sight, Jersey Films had pitched me the idea of Erin Brockovich and I remember exactly where I was standing — it was on the set of the mansion in Detroit where the last part of the film takes place — and I remember saying out loud to them “That sounds like the worst idea for a movie I’ve ever heard.” Then when we were nearing the completion of the edit on The Limey, Jersey Films approached me again, smartly, and suddenly: “It sounds like the best idea for a movie I’d ever heard…” And it did sound good because it was going in one direction and I never had to worry about how I was going to layer different time structures on top of each other. So The Limey ended up being the reason I said yes to Erin Brockovich.
DEADLINE: So it was the most nonlinear path you could take to making a linear movie.
SODERBERG: Yeah. It really was and thank God it all worked out. I was terrified.
DEADLINE: There’s a great distilling power to terror. Panic is a waste of time but fear can be focusing.
SODERBERG: Yeah. I think so, too.
DEADLINE: Can you talk a bit about the cast of The Limey? It’s a terrific ensemble. You knew you had something special on that front…
SODERBERGH: I have to say I was pretty aware, at the time, of how lucky I was to get that group together. I was especially aware after seeing Terence and Peter shake hands for the first time since the late ’60s. We were on set, it was lunch and Peter came up and he embraced Terence. I think it was Peter who said, “Do you remember the last time we saw each other?” And Terence goes, “Taormina.” It was at some film festival [in Sicily, Italy] and Peter goes, “Yeah, that’s right. I wonder whatever became of her?” And Terence just laughed, he knew exactly who and what Peter was talking about. They spent a couple of minutes sort of reminiscing about this person and what could possibly have happened to her. It was funny kind of thing to witness.
DEADLINE: There’s a whole different movie right there…
SODERBERGH: Exactly, but you know. I never pursued what the whole story was, but it was clear there was a story.
DEADLINE: They both arrive on screen with an aura of survivor power. There’s a lot of history written on their faces. There’s the great scene with Peter where his character, a music producer, is in the bathroom picking his teeth and ruminating about the real legacy of the Summer of Love. It’s a magnificent scene, especially given Fonda’s background with Easy Rider.
SODERBERGH: It was a monologue that Lem and I really wanted to make sure got delivered because it was just kind of an interesting take and coming from Peter especially. And I had seen Peter at one point on set using one of those scented tea-tree oil toothpicks and I put those two things together. Peter got it right away. “Okay. I know what to do with that.” And that was it. It’s funny, watching that again is when I remembered that I had pulled that piece of behavior out of something that I had seen him do on set and then told him to use there. He had such a great spirit, Peter. He was just, you know, always in a good mood, always looking for the humor or the absurdity of any situation. He was just lovely. As is Terence. It was great to be around the two of them.
DEADLINE: Watching them act together is like watching two sharks in one tank circling each other
SODERBERGH: Yeah and they always kind of went their own way and followed their own drumbeat. I thought the movie needed two people of equal but distinctive iconic weight for the plot to pay off. We got lucky.
DEADLINE: The film’s own drumbeats are fascinating. The jumping around in time, the persistence of memory and flashback, It feels like a fever dream. It’s got the jagged, unhinged quality of post traumatic recollections, really…
SODERBERGH: Well, it’s something that movies do very well, which is, I think, to recreate how your mind works and we are perpetually in sort of three different temporal states. We’re thinking about things that happen to us, we’re thinking about things that might happen to us or going to happen to us, and we’re also in the present, living in the present, hopefully. So, we are in this sort of continual melange of mental states. and this seemed to…once Flack and I determined that we were going to throw the pizza up in the air [with the re-cut], we decided to be as aggressive as we could be while still trying to keep people engaged. It was interesting to see it again and from a distance, and to watch the structure and the loops within loops. We created or tried to create, meaning and emotion through repetition and juxtaposition, which again, is something that’s unique to movies. The ability to mold something and then change the meaning or alter the meaning just by reordering and repeating things, that’s unique in film. That’s an exercise in the power of editing and that part of it was exciting while being scary.
DEADLINE: What was the turning point moment in the salvage effort?
SODERBERGH: We got this one piece of music from Cliff Martinez. It just showed up in the editing room one day and Cliff says “Oh, here’s a piece I’ve been working on.” It was the sonic equivalent of what I imagined memory is like. It sounded like somebody remembering something. It was just very simple piano riff that repeated and had sort of slightly off-tune quality and when I heard that piece, I thought, “Okay, that’s what it sounds like.” And I asked Sarah to go pull a series of shots I listed out. I said, “Pull this shot, that shot, that shot, and just put them together over that piece of music and let’s see what it looks like.” We watched it and began to see the beginnings of an algorithm that could work. It was just a glimpse of possibility so we just started at the beginning and ground our way through it.
DEADLINE: That’s amazing. There’s an open-ended feeling to the final sequence of the film. It lends itself to a sequel. I don’t suppose that was ever part of your thought process, given the turbulent circumstances of the film?
SODERBERGH: We talked about that actually. If it had been a hit, we might have done it. For Lem and I, in our minds, the story very clearly to us was that [Stamp’s character] had been in prison because he was betrayed by people he trusted. There’s a scene in a car when they’re driving up the coast and it’s teased there with basically the implication that his old gang betrayed him on the last job and that’s why he got sent away. The idea was he was going to deal with the situation with his murdered daughter in California and then go back to the UK and track those guys down and deal with them. That was going to be the sequel.
DEADLINE: Is the ordeal of The Limey something that you’ve used as a reserve of strength over the years? I guess what I mean is, when you’ve had a bad day or creative setback have you ever thought to yourself, “Well, at least it isn’t The Limey” or “I survived The Limey, I can get through this.”
SODERBERGH: Yeah. There’s certainly been movies that I’ve had that went through a fairly intensive editorial process and changed fairly dramatically during the edit. Contagion was one of those movies, as was The Laundromat, but at no point did I feel like the floor was opening up beneath me and there was just an abyss. At least with Contagion and The Laundromat I had chunks of each movie that worked and pieces that didn’t and I needed to figure out a new pathway built around the parts that worked. In the case of The Limey, it felt like there was nothing to salvage. In the immediate aftermath of that first screening, it felt like nothing worked. That’s how scared we were at that moment. And yeah. To answer your question, I absolutely have said to myself “Just relax. It’s not The Limey.