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How ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ Changed Indie Filmmaking Forever

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It began with three brief items in his notebooks. “A film about deception and lost earrings,” went one. “Everybody has a past,” went another. And finally, “Friend on the couch. Affair with the wife.” The filmmaker jotted down those three ideas in 1986; three years later, the movie those three ideas spawned became the sensation of the nascent Sundance Film Festival, the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and an international box office smash. The young writer/director was Steven Soderbergh, the film was sex, lies, and videotape, and its release 25 years ago was, author Peter Biskind would later write, “the big bang of the modern indie film movement.”

It was “the serpent-apple-Adam and Eve moment for indie films,” Soderbergh’s contemporary Whit Stillman told me, “so commercially successful that the industry decided that indie films could be a business.” Stillman was one of the many filmmakers who benefited from this new climate; his three pictures of the decade (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco) were intimate, personal, talky – the kind of thing you rarely saw in the slicked-up, lightning-paced ‘80s unless they were accompanied by subtitles. But the independent films of the 1990s were risky, provocative, and exciting enough to warrant comparison to the studio pictures of the 1970s — and sex, lies was their Easy Rider.

Its impact wasn’t just felt by Soderbergh and his fellow filmmakers. sex, lies was a turning point for two of the most ubiquitous forces of the ‘90s indie movement: the Sundance Film Festival, which premiered it, and Miramax Films, which distributed it. Both were barely a blip on the industry radar in 1989; by the end of the next decade, they were cottage industries, the top of any would-be Soderbergh’s career wish list. But in 1987, even Steven Soderbergh didn’t know where the hell he was going.

“I had seen a lot of films as a child,” Soderbergh told Film Comment in 1989. “My dad would let me see anything.” His father, a dean at LSU, enrolled the movie-crazy 13-year-old in an animation class. “I could draw really well,” he recalled, “but it immediately became apparent that it was too much work for too little result. I made two things that were six seconds long and said, ‘This is bullshit.’ And so I just started shooting.”

After high school, Soderbergh moved to Los Angeles. He did odd jobs in the industry, freelanced, and returned to Louisiana after 18 months, feeling like a failure. Jobs would still come his way; a music video he edited for Yes got him a gig directing their concert film (which was nominated for a Grammy). He got an agent, and was hired to write a few screenplays and do some rewrites. But his mind kept wandering back to another, more personal story.

“I was involved in a relationship with a woman in which I was deceptive and mentally manipulative,” he would recall. “I got involved with a number of other women simultaneously — I was just fucking up.” He became immersed in a web of his own lies: “Boy I was wriggling. I was wriggling. I could backpedal like you wouldn’t believe.” He tried therapy; it didn’t take. Ultimately, he decided to remove himself from the situation, and his environment. “I sold everything I had, I except my books, put some belongings in a car and decided to give Los Angeles another shot.”

During that drive, and in the days immediately preceding and following it, Soderbergh wrote the first draft of a screenplay. It centered on four people: Graham, a drifter with a mysterious past and a sexual dysfunction that he satisfies by videotaping women talking about sex; John, his old college friend who has become a successful lawyer; John’s buttoned-up wife Ann, fascinated by Graham but repelled by his tapes; and Ann’s sister Cynthia, who is having an affair with John. The John-Cynthia-Ann deception is a bomb waiting to go off; Graham’s penetration of their group lights the fuse.

Soderbergh banged out the script in just eight days (though he would later note, “I thought about it for a year, literally”). “It came so fast,” he told Rolling Stone. “I just wanted it dealt with. I didn’t know if anybody would read it. I didn’t know if my agent would say, ‘I can’t send this out.’ It just seemed too personal.”

Considering the climate he was working in, you can’t blame Soderbergh for hesitating. The old adage that “sex sells” didn’t really apply in the late 1980s, at least when it came to movies; onscreen sexuality in the period was mostly alarmist (the cautionary likes of Fatal Attraction) or coy (the silhouetted, PG-13 sensuality of Top Gun). The sexiest movie in 1988’s box office top ten is probably Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Soderbergh recently joked that watching sex, lies now “must be like watching something from the Victorian era.” It is — but not in the way he means. Part of the reason that it made the impact it did, at the moment it did, was out of simple novelty; in a climate where intimacy was mostly an abstract idea, here was a movie where people had (or didn’t have) sex, and talked about it, with a frankness that was refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary.

Once he arrived in Los Angeles and completed the script, he asked his friends (and film industry pros) Bob and Deborah Newmeyer for advice on a list of titles he’d devised. In a journal entry from New Year’s Eve, 1987, he writes: “Bob said without hesitation that Sex, Lies (actually that looks better lowercase) sex, lies, and videotape is by far the best title.”

***

The annals of independent film history are filled with tales of relentless, stubborn filmmakers weathering scores of slammed doors, running up credit cards, grinding away for years to bring their breakthrough movies to life. In comparison, the production of sex, lies, and videotape was almost absurdly brief. After his birthday in January of 1988, Soderbergh wrote in his notebook, “I must work on this, especially now that I’m twenty-five. A quarter of a century. And for what?”

Perhaps spurred by that drive and sense of impatience, the filmmaker and his team put together a remarkable package, relatively easily. After losing some initial funding by insisting that the film had to be in black-and-white (he’d eventually budge on that one), they would raise an impressive $1.2 million. Much of it was provided by RCA/Columbia Home Video, with that company planning to recoup their investment with the VHS release (presuming the film would have more graphic sex and nudity than it ultimately did). Because any distribution deal would not include those home media rights, Soderbergh suspected that the film wouldn’t even make it to theaters; he later confessed to seeing it as “a feature-length resume piece that would get me a job making a real movie.”

The deal hinged on Soderbergh attaching actors with previous credits and name recognition. That part wasn’t easy; some agents and managers were reluctant to even look at the script, much less pass it on to their clients, because they saw the title and assumed it was soft-core pornography. Laura San Giancomo, making her film debut, got a hold of the script on her own, and threatened to leave her agency if they kept her from doing it. Soderbergh cast her as sensuous younger sister Cynthia. For the role of philandering husband John, he cast character actor Peter Gallagher, who had mostly worked in TV after making a splash in 1980’s The Idolmaker. For the female lead, Soderbergh reluctantly took a meeting with former model Andie MacDowell, then best known for having her voice dubbed in 1984’s Greystoke; she knocked him out with her audition and got the role. And as Graham, Soderbergh cast James Spader, mostly seen as sneering yuppies in films like Mannequin and Baby Boom.

“On the one hand it may seem like a risk,” he said, shortly before the film’s release a year later. “On the other, remember that we’ve got four relatively young people drenched in sexuality in a film that can be made for $1.2 million.” For that money, he got a week of rehearsal and a month-long shoot in August 1988, less than a year after penning the script. He would later call it “the only movie I’ve ever made where I felt like I had all the money and all the time I needed.”

***

“I got a call to say that we got into the U.S. Film Festival,” Soderbergh wrote on November 11, 1988. “Holy shit!!” The annual festival in Park City, Utah, had been taken over by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute a few years earlier, but had not yet rechristened itself after the institute (and its founder’s most famous character). And that’s not all that was different.

“It was a sleepy gathering, not yet the make-or-break event for filmmakers that it would soon become,” writes Peter Biskind in his ‘90s indie chronicle, Down and Dirty Pictures. The films that screened in Park City were rarely even distributed; they were well-intentioned, “socially responsible” movies. “No agents showed up, few publicists, and fewer press,” writes Biskind. “There was no reason to; the films, with a few exceptions, were eminently forgettable.” In fact, “the festival was regarded by many distributors as toxic,” so poorly had its prize winners performed in theaters (with the sole exception of the Coen Brothers’ debut Blood Simple).

Still, it was a premiere at a high-profile American film festival — and at a time when there weren’t all that many of them. On January 22, 1989, sex, lies, and videotape screened for the first time in front of Park City festivalgoers. “The audience seemed to like it,” Soderbergh writes in his journal, with characteristic modesty. In fact, word of mouth was so good that by its final screening at the end of the week, tickets were being scalped in front of the festival’s key venue, the Egyptian. Soderbergh occupied the week seeing films and volunteering as a shuttle driver. “Drove Jodie Foster and Beth Henley to a screening,” he wrote in his journal. “They were both very nice.”

When the festival’s award ceremony arrived, sex, lies lost the Grand Jury Prize to the romantic comedy True Love. But it won the Audience Award, and the most significant competition of all: the battle for buzz. “Everybody was really happy,” Soderbergh wrote. “So far we’ve been approached by almost all the independent distributors and one major.” Even better, he was approached by representatives for Redford, director Sidney Pollack, and producer Mark Johnson (who’d just won an Oscar for Rain Man). All would ultimately vie to produce his next project.

***

These days, the hot Sundance movies usually sell before the festival is over. But that wasn’t how things were done in 1989, and sex, lies didn’t find its theatrical distributor until a month later. And that distributor was barely more plugged in to the Hollywood machine than the novice filmmaker.

Bob and Harvey Weinstein were concert promoters from Queens who took their first crack at film distribution with music performance films like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Paul McCartney’s Rockshow (as well as a few soft-core titles, like Goodbye Emmanuelle). But as the ‘80s came to a close, their company, Miramax, was exploring a new market: foreign and domestic art films, often with exploitable angles — sex, usually — foregrounded in their ad campaigns.

The Weinsteins went to RCA/Columbia Home Video and made an impassioned pitch for the movie, promising to best any other offer by $100K, bringing mock-up posters and making a full-throttle presentation. They had a lousy reputation; other distributors warned RCA away. “They were pointing at Miramax going, ‘These guys are rock ‘n’ roll crooks, and even if they don’t cheat you, they don’t know what they’re doing,” indie guru John Pierson would recall. But they outbid ten other potential distributors for theatrical rights, with a deal Soderbergh called “ruthless”: a million-dollar advance (deposited in an escrow account, just in case), a million guaranteed in prints and adds, and “an extremely favorable” cut of the gross. “There are some (other independent distributors) who think Miramax went overboard,” Soderbergh wrote in his journal, just after the deal was made. “I guess we’ll see.”

Meanwhile, the foreign theatrical rights were sold to Virgin Vision for $575,000, meaning Soderbergh’s investors would make all of their money back before the movie even opened. But, as Soderbergh told Rolling Stone just before the release, “the film has to make like $4 million just to break even.” That seemed a very high bar for a tiny, talky movie like this one to clear.

***

The funny thing about sex, lies’ victory at the Cannes Film Festival is, it wasn’t even supposed to play in the main competition. It was originally slotted into Director’s Fortnight, a parallel program specifically for up-and-comers; it was only moved into the main slate when another film dropped out at the last minute. Soderbergh was initially against even going to Cannes, writing in April of 1989, “I’m convinced a huge backlash is around the corner, and where better to have a backlash than in front of the international press?” Early in the trip, he backed off a bit: “The rumor is we have a very good shot at winning the Camera d’Or, for best first film. I think that’s nice, but I’m not counting on anything.”

Much to Soderbergh — and pretty much everyone else’s — surprise, the film won at Cannes, and won big. The festival (whose juries are traditionally loathe to give any single film more than one major award) gave sex, lies three prizes: the International Critics’ Prize, Best Actor (for Spader), and the Palme d’Or, the big enchilada. At 26, Soderbergh was the youngest filmmaker to ever win for a solo feature. He began his acceptance speech by joking, “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here.”

***

The story of sex, lies up to this point is remarkable, sure — but there was still no way to know the kind of game-changer Soderbergh’s film would be. After all, the 1980s had birthed a few noteworthy auteurs who had found success making sui generis films that stuck out among the increasingly slick Hollywood product: Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Spike Lee, the aforementioned Coen Brothers. Their films played art houses on the coasts and Chicago, and did respectable business; they either went to work for the studios, or went out to raise money for their next independent film.

What Miramax wanted, when you boil it down to its basics, was to blur that line, creating a middle ground between the studios and the indies. The thinking, up to that time, was that art films only played in art houses. Jack Foley, VP of distribution for Miramax in the mid-‘90s, called this “a dimwitted, stupid, elitist point of view.” The company’s head of distribution, Marty Zeidman, first experimented with bucking that approach in April of 1989 with Scandal, an English art film with a sellable sex angle; it ended up grossing $8.8 million domestic.

So sex, lies, and videotape opened, as was the custom, on four screens in New York and Los Angeles on August 4, 1989. But when it began expanding two weeks later, it didn’t just go to the art houses in Chicago and San Francisco. Its theatrical run — which would ultimately find the film playing on over 500 screens nationwide — went beyond the usual destinations. As Zeidman told Peter Biskind, “It played everywhere, Corpus Christi, cities that never played specialized movies before, theaters that wouldn’t have normally played a specialized movie.” I’m old enough to remember sex, lies hitting theaters; it made it all the way to the multiplex at the mall in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas — the same screen where, earlier that summer, I’d seen Batman.

“You can never [over]estimate exhibitor greed,” according to Zeidman. “When they saw the numbers, they jumped all over it.” sex, lies, and videotape would ultimately gross $24.7 million in the US, and an additional $30 million worldwide.

***

“It was timing,” Soderbergh would later say, of the film’s success. “Something was in the air.” In some ways, he’s not wrong; shortly before the film’s theatrical release, the first celebrity sex tape scandal erupted around actor Rob Lowe, a story which weirdly seemed to help publicize sex, lies — ironic, since RCA had originally asked Soderbergh to change the title, lest audiences think the film was shot on tape.

But in a 1996 interview, the filmmaker was even more direct: “To me the fact that it got the response it did was only indicative of the fact that there was so little else for people to latch onto out there.” It takes nothing away from the film (which holds up better than its writer/director seems to think) to grant that there may be something to this theory. With a few notable exceptions, mainstream filmmaking was a bit of a barren wasteland in the 1980s, particularly after the risks and intelligence of the vaunted “New Hollywood” movement the decade before. Earlier in the summer of 1989, all of the pre-sold excesses of the ‘80s seem to come to a head with Batman’s release, less a triumph of cinema than of marketing; in that environment, Soderbergh’s modest, subtle four-hander seemed a breath of fresh air.

People were lured in by the titillating promises of the title, but that wasn’t what they went home talking about. This was a movie about sex without being About Sex, about relationships without surrendering to self-help jargon, about intimacy and imagination and desire and all of the things that are so much sexier than naked people awkwardly humping. And it was about how people use those weapons to harm each other, and themselves. (Soderbergh made no attempt to hide his influences: “I was ripping off Carnal Knowledge,” he admits on the DVD audio commentary.) Graham’s deep, dark secret wasn’t that he was impotent, or that he made these tapes — it was the he was a liar, and that became something he couldn’t abide. But Soderbergh’s script was smart enough to know that we’re all liars, to some extent; by acknowledging it, Graham, the introverted weirdo, is one of the few people who isn’t lying to himself.

But the picture did manage to tap into something in the zeitgeist as well. Film Comment’s Harlan Jacobson, in the moment, wrote, “There’s no room for space cowboys here; nice guys finish with busted lips but whole beings.” Over a decade later, Peter Biskind put the film into a wider context: “Coming at the end of the 1980s, sex, lies was the first Gen-X picture,” with its villain a “predatory, suspender-wearing, Reagan-era yuppie,” its hero a sensitive and thoughtful slacker with an aversion to keys and intimacy.

The film’s modest style, to say nothing of its critical and commercial success, would inspire scores of filmmakers to create their own low-budget (and hopefully high-profit) indies, resulting in a flush of well-written, witty, intelligent alternatives to the increasingly big-budget, effects-heavy pictures of the Hollywood mainstream. In the years that followed, writer/directors as seemingly disparate as Whit Stillman, Kevin Smith, Nicole Holofcener, Noah Baumbach, Greg Araki, Neil LaBute, and Theodore Witcher would follow Soderbergh’s lead, making films that were chatty, brainy, and/or sexy. They would tell new stories, and they would cater to an audience that had grown tired (as they had) of the limitations of the industry.

Yet Soderbergh’s success also created an expectation that would be hard to meet, much less surpass. “We were shooting Metropolitan just as sex, lies had its Sundance success and it seemed tremendously encouraging,” Stillman told me. “But when Metropolitan got to Sundance the next year and seemed as if it couldn’t be going better, the big line was ‘It’s no sex, lies and videotape.’ And we couldn’t make a sale.”

That desire for the “next sex, lies, and videotape” — and its $60 million worldwide return on a $1.2 million investment — would drive the indie scene for the foreseeable future. Films like Clerks, The Brothers McMullen, The Spitfire Grill, and Happy, Texas made big-dollar deals coming out of Sundance; some of those investments paid off, some didn’t. “This led to a boom in spending on [indie films],” Stillman notes, “then a bubble — all the afflictions of the mainstream business came to dominate indie films.”

But that was all a good ways off 25 years ago, when sex, lies, and videotape took its first, tentative steps out of the art houses and into the multiplexes. The trip to Park City would become a yearly exodus for agents, distributors, and press, all looking to anoint the Next Big Thing. Miramax would use its coffers, full of sex, lies money, to buy up more indies from here and abroad, gradually increasing its dominance in the industry and experimenting with its strategies for opening pictures and winning awards. And five years after sex, lies took Cannes by storm and confounded commercial expectations, the Weinsteins would use the same strategy again, with even grander results; Miramax opened that year’s Palme d’Or winner, Pulp Fiction, on over 1300 screens, where it won the weekend box office and ultimately grossed over $100 million in the United States alone.

Soderbergh would have a rougher go of it after sex, lies, with a series of idiosyncratic and often blatantly uncommercial follow-ups that failed to connect with critics or audiences. But just as it seemed he had disappeared, swallowed up whole by the Hollywood machine, he roared back to life with an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight, beginning a period of nearly unparalleled productivity and quality, cranking out crowd-pleasing entertainments, experimental indies, and thoughtful mainstream dramas with equal aplomb. He would become one of the few remaining artists in an increasingly cynical industry, though that industry ultimately became too much for him, leading to his much-discussed transition from filmmaking to television (among other endeavors).

In interviews and audio commentaries, Soderbergh is likably self-effacing, demystifying the filmmaking process and rarely missing an opportunity to voice his reservations about his breakthrough picture. In 1991, a mere two years after its release, he said, “When I look at it now, it looks like something made by someone who wants to think he’s deep but really isn’t.” But in those journals — collected in sex, lies, and videotape’s companion book — you get a glimpse of the filmmaker less as the thoughtful sophisticate, and more as he was: an excited kid whose dreams were coming true, and whose love of his craft would continue to pulse through nearly a quarter-century of remarkable work. Or, as he wrote the morning after his Cannes win, “Sometimes it just hits me all of a sudden, what happened, and I can’t believe it.”