A Film Career Built on Videotape (Sex and Lies, Too)

In the mid 1980s, two future film institutions were still immature: the American indie scene, whose annual highlight was a tiny, two-theater film festival in Park City, Utah, and a would-be director named Steven Soderbergh. who’d quit Hollywood when his ambitions hadn’t taken him further than holding cue cards on a game show. Dejected, the then-24-year-old returned home to Baton Rouge, La., took a job in a video arcade, and boosted his ego by cheating on his girlfriend.

“I was very intent on getting acceptance and approval from whatever woman,” he later admitted to Rolling Stone. One night out at a local bar, Soderbergh realized he’d slept with three people in a two-foot radius. He resolved to grow up. Within a year, he was back in Los Angeles, crashing on a friend’s couch and clutching a script he’d written to figure out how he’d gone astray — the kind of self-dissection he’d fixated on since writing a 120-page autobiographical novel when he was 12.

“Sex, Lies and Videotape,” which celebrates the 30th anniversary of its release this month, is a four-person drama that divided Soderbergh’s psyche into quarters. He saw himself in the emotionally frigid Ann (Andie MacDowell), her philandering husband, John (Peter Gallagher) and his competitive mistress, Cyndi (Laura San Giacomo), who’s also Ann’s sister. Audiences, however, mostly assumed the shy-seeming Soderbergh was James Spader’s Graham, a soft-voiced drifter who wouldn’t get closer to a woman than a zoom lens. Soderbergh even dressed identically to Graham, who the script describes as looking “like some undertaker for the art world.”

“We never talked about it,” admitted Spader in that same Rolling Stone feature, “but there would be days when I’d get out of wardrobe and come to the set, and we’d be wearing the same thing.”

As punishment for his misdeeds with a college sweetheart (“I was a pathological liar,” he explains), Graham has restricted himself to camcorder intimacy, interviewing women on tape about their sex lives instead of wooing them himself. “It’s a personal project like anyone else’s personal project,” he says. “Mine’s just a little more personal.”

So, too, was Soderbergh’s movie, which he wrote, directed and edited over several sweaty weeks on location in Baton Rouge. “Sex, Lies and Videotape” seemed so much to strip bare his own subconscious that the film critic Gene Siskel felt comfortable asking Soderbergh how many women he had slept with. Stuttered Soderbergh, “More than two and less than, uh, 15.”

But unlike Graham, who destroys his tapes, Soderbergh shared his footage with the world. He’d intended to make a $200,000 black and white movie he figured no one would see because, he said during an interview with Time magazine, people talking about sex without taking off their clothes “would seem too European for an American audience, and too dialogue-heavy to translate in Europe.” Yet, when one of the executive producers, Morgan Mason, gave the script to his wife, the pop singer Belinda Carlisle, she insisted he throw his energy behind the film.

Still, even with an estimated $1.2 million dollar budget and a couple of semi-recognizable faces acting against type — MacDowell had underwhelmed audiences in “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” and Spader, of course, had played a string of rich creeps in “Pretty in Pink,” “Wall Street,” and “Less Than Zero” — “Sex, Lies and Videotape” was the final movie invited to the 1989 U.S. Film Festival (now known as the Sundance Film Festival), and only as a favor to the selection committee member Marjorie Skouras, who championed the film.

In 1989, a Park City premiere was an honor many films wanted to avoid. Debuting a movie at the sleepy U.S. Film Festival wasn’t a stamp of cool cred — it recognized that the movie was too cheap and quaint for mainstream appeal, a carob-coated vitamin to be ignored by audiences who craved candy like “Ghostbusters II,” “Back to the Future Part II,” “Lethal Weapon 2 “and Tim Burton’s “Batman.” Though Robert Redford, the festival’s most prominent champion, would soon rename it after his character in the 1969 hit “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” that blockbuster was itself two decades old and an increasingly dusty relic of an era when grown-ups went to the theater for grown-up stories, before Steven Spielberg and George Lucas gave the best seats in the house to kids.

Soderbergh wasn’t expecting much when he brought “Sex, Lies and Videotape” to Park City. Instead of scheduling meetings, he volunteered to be a shuttle driver. At the first screening, he apologized for the print and asked the audience to raise their hands if he should change the title. Half the theater voted yes. But his self-flagellating exposé was well-timed to the end of a decade rattled by the AIDS crisis and soured by narcissism and decadence. The final showing was so popular that tickets were scalped, and the film won the festival’s first-ever audience award. A man approached Soderbergh in the snow and asked, “Can my girlfriend kiss your feet?”

Cannes consecrated “Sex, Lies and Videotape” when it gave Soderbergh the Palme d'Or over other worthy contenders like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” For an extra publicity boost, Rob Lowe, who had been seated in the front row for the Cannes premiere, had his own sex tape scandal revealed that week — a coincidence tabloids couldn’t resist. As Soderbergh had foretold, he’d made a European-style film. Critics raved at the absence of car chases, rock music and guns. The jury president, Wim Wenders, whose films openly resented that “Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” said that to see an American director embrace the European arthouses “gave us confidence in the future of the cinema.”

It’s disorienting to imagine how Soderbergh (and his exes) must have felt as his mea culpa movie heralded the second coming of the ’60s and ’70s American independent film movement that had been rerouted by “Star Wars” and “Jaws.” One friend overhead him muttering, “I keep expecting to get hit by a bus.”

When the movie was a financial success, too, with a $24.7 million domestic take and (appropriately) the largest VHS release ever for an indie film, the spotlight bounced back to Sundance. “I’m a little concerned by what ‘Sex, Lies’ might have wrought here,” said Soderbergh to The Associated Press in Park City in 1990, surveying the fresh crush of agents and distributors. “This can become more of a film market than a festival.” Over the next five years, Sundance would continue rebranding itself with discoveries that defined the decade: “Roger & Me,” “Slacker," “El Mariachi,” “Hoop Dreams," “Reality Bites” and “Clerks."

The irony, however, is that the sensitive and talky American cinema that critics and the Cannes jury hoped “Sex, Lies and Videotape” would augur never fully bloomed, in part because of the Sundance success of movies like “Reservoir Dogs.” By the end of the ’90s, indie filmmakers delighted in car chases, rock music, and guns — even Soderbergh, who recovered from a string of cerebral flops with the terrific heist romance “Out of Sight,” which spring-boarded him back into the good graces of fans, critics and Oscar voters.

The increasing glitz of “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic," “Magic Mike” and the “Ocean’s" trilogy put more miles between Soderbergh and his past, though he still intersperses his triumphs with tiny, plucky films that he seems to enjoy more than his audiences. “I don’t have to prove my noncommercial status,” said Soderbergh to The Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1989. After all this time, he still has one thing in common with Spader’s Graham — they’re both holding the camera for themselves.

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