Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book: Getting Away With It, by Steven Soderbergh (1999)

Early word on Magic Mike, the new movie directed by Steven Soderbergh, is strong. I’d see it no matter what, in part to make sure it accurately captures the male stripper milieu I know so well (my stage name was Regis Thrillbin) but mainly because every Soderbergh movie has something to recommend it. As it happens I recently took out my copy of Soderbergh’s Getting Away With It, Or The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, and read it for what must be the eighth time. It’s on my short list of essential film books.

It came at an interesting point in Soderbergh’s career. The glow of Sex, Lies and Videotape has faded, and the films he’s made since haven’t fared well. To renew his creative energies he’s gone the micro-budget route with the Spalding Gray monologue Gray’s Anatomy and the hilarious Schizopolis, Soderbergh’s most underrated film and one in which the director himself plays the lead. Its antic sensibility, which spills over to the book in the form of referential footnotes, owes something to the influence of director Richard Lester, and Soderbergh travels to England to interview him.

Much of Getting Away With It consists of their dialogue. Both men tackled huge franchise films and more offbeat projects, knowing how to use big-name stars to a movie’s advantage. Soderbergh walks through Lester’s filmography, trying to ferret out hints for maintaining vitality. They spend a lot of time discussing Lester’s Juggernaut, exactly the kind of smart studio fare that would make Soderbergh’s reputation. Their conversation grows wide ranging as they become comfortable with one another, branching out into religion and philosophies of life.

But what truly makes the book is Soderbergh’s year-long journal, which is astonishing in its candor. The director dutifully recounts the very mixed reaction from distributors his current projects generate; of Schizopolis, he writes, “I’d made about as independent-minded a film as one could make, and the independents are all afraid of it.” He details every project that falls by the wayside: a script for stop-motion animator Henry Selick, a Charlie Chan reboot, an aborted adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces that spawns a contentious lawsuit, a parallel universe version of Charlie Kaufman’s Human Nature. He toils as a script doctor on several films including Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, assignments he takes on to live up to the “romantic idea of the guy who can do five things at once and do them all well.”

Soderbergh is brutally honest about his procrastinations, his disappointments, his irritations with anonymous online commenters (back when the worst you had to worry about was the indie film board at AOL) and his fear about making “fake highbrow movies” underwritten with as much commercial calculation as action fare. It’s fascinating to watch his obsessions pay off; he regularly comments on drugs and drug policy, an interest that would reach its fullest expression in Traffic, for which Soderbergh would win the Best Director Academy Award.

The happy ending is a foregone conclusion. Getting Away With It closes with Soderbergh landing the coveted assignment to direct Out of Sight over more touted competition (Mike Newell, Cameron Crowe). The movie, bringing his newfound aesthetic looseness to bear on more accessible material, would revive his fortunes completely; one year after the book’s publication he would direct two of the five Best Picture nominees and follow that up with the massive box office success of Ocean’s Eleven. That astonishing creative flowering was born out of the period in the wilderness chronicled here. You can see him learning the lessons he will later apply to great effect. Getting Away With It is not just one of the best books on movies, it’s one of the finest portraits of an artist published in the last twenty years.