Steven Soderbergh on the 20th Anniversary of ‘The Limey’
An impeccably dressed man drags on a cigarette at LAX, the smoke matching the color of his close-cropped hair. The Who’s “The Seeker” plays on the soundtrack as he gets into a cab. At his motel, he notices the return address on the back of an envelope. Suddenly, he’s standing in front of that same address. Then he’s on a plane. Then he’s in a car, staring at a picture of a young woman — who appears onscreen as a girl a split-second later, the flashback looking like a purplish, streaked Kodachrome image from decades earlier. And then, in quick succession: motel room, plane, the girl, a different flashback, back to the motel, the young woman in a car, the picture, back to the motel again. Wind chimes and the sound of humming play over these images, suggesting that everything is happening days, weeks, years apart, and yet, somehow, all at once.
This is how Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey starts, not with a bang, but with a disorienting montage that gives us our star, his character, and his purpose all in one dizzying swoop. The actor is Terence Stamp, the handsome Brit who came to represent London’s Swinging Sixties. The role is Wilson, an ex-convict who’s flown from England to Los Angeles. The young woman is his daughter, recently deceased — and the reason why the older man is here, in search of answers. His journey through the City of Angels will find him in the company of thugs, mugs, hit men, acting coaches, and a record producer played by fellow Age of Aquarius icon Peter Fonda. We will follow him through the beginning, the middle, and the end of his quest for vengeance. Just not, as the chronologically chopped-up opening informs us, necessarily in that order.
Time has been particularly kind to Soderbergh’s addition to the cinematic annus mirabilis that was 1999 — which, considering how fast and loose the movie plays with the concept of time, feels slightly ironic. Moving nimbly between the past and the present, this pulpish revenge story (written by Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs) proved that the director’s “comeback” film, the adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight (1998), was not a fluke. It would also end up being the second entry in a roughly three-year, five-movie run that would revitalize his career and win him an Oscar. “Lem and I pitched it to Artisan in the summer of ’98,” the filmmaker says. “We were shooting in October and delivered the movie nine months after the first meeting. It all went very fast — and then came the feeling of terror when we first screened it. . . .”
Sitting down a few weeks before the release of a newly remastered Digital 4K Ultra HD edition celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary, the 56-year-old director recalled The Limey‘s making — and near unmaking during a postproduction panic. He also weighed in how it helped spur on a creative rebirth, why he needed his early failures to find out who he was as a filmmaker, the current “What’s cinema?” debate, the legacy of the Sixties, why 1999 ended up becoming a landmark year for American movies, Netflix, Los Angeles, Parasite, and a lot more. The interview has been condensed for clarity and, in the spirit of the film, completely re-edited at the last minute.
Does it feel like it’s been 20 years since you made The Limey?
[Pause] Yes. It does, actually.
In what way?
It was a lot of movies ago . . . a lot of hours on the floor. I hadn’t seen it, end to end, in maybe 19 years. Watching the 4K remastering for the upcoming release — it was surprising. Because you forget stuff. It was sad, because Peter’s gone. But when we were shooting it, everywhere you looked, you’d see a legend. Terence and Peter, obviously, but then you had Barry Newman, Joe Dallesandro, Lesley Ann Warren. It brought a lot of that back.
The way you fuck with Peter’s legacy feels especially poignant when you watch it now.
Fucking with his legacy was consistent with who Peter was — he was the first person to poke holes in any sort of mythology that he felt was ridiculous or unearned. One of the things I like about The Limey is how much of Peter is in it. We’d be running a scene, there would be no marks for him to hit, and I’d just sort of let him go and have multiple cameras running. That way, if he ended up doing something off the cuff and great, I didn’t have to go back and ask him to do it again. His spirit really comes across in the film.
Was it always going to be him and Terence Stamp in these roles?
Terence was mentioned really early on . . . and as I recall, the list of people you could pair with him successfully was pretty small.
Meaning, people you could pair with him that could hold their own against him?
More like they really needed to be matched by their iconic baggage. Terence and Peter both had a reputation for going their own way and just doing whatever they wanted to — including, for periods of time, being away from it all. It turned out that they complemented each other perfectly.
We were shooting driving stuff on the Pacific Coast Highway, and I saw them greet each other for the first time since, what, 1968? And the first thing out of Peter’s mouth was, “Do you remember where we were?”
Terence replies, “Taormina.”
“That’s right,” Fonda says. And then I can’t remember who said it, but one of them asked, “I wonder whatever happened to her.” And I said, “Ok, guys, you’ve gotta unpack that for me a bit.” It turned out they had been at a film festival where they met the same young woman, and were playing against each other in an effort to woo her.
Which one of them ended up winning her over?
Neither of them! That was the funny part. But they just jumped right back to that moment in time immediately.
I would play this game with Terence, because he literally has no fixed address — but he’s seen everything, done everything, lived everywhere. So I’d just turn to him and go, “The best necktie shop?” And he’d pause and go, “Oh, there’s this place in London . . .” I mean, whatever you asked him — the best French restaurant, the best this, the best that — he knew it. He had an answer immediately.
The script was written as a linear narrative, right?
At what point did you start thinking of switching up the chronology?
Well, it was generated out of a sense of panic.
Panic from? . . .
From screening the movie for the first time in a linear version and realizing that it just didn’t work.
So there was a cut of it that was linear?
Oh, yeah, and it. Just. Didn’t. Work. [Editor] Sarah Flack and I had to sit down and kind of start over. [Pause] Actually, we literally had to start over. There was no “kind of.”
Can you walk me through the thought process once you realized it wasn’t working in an A-to-Z narrative?
Given its premise, it seemed there was some possibility to recraft it into a memory piece. To make that work, we ended doing a couple more of days’ worth of shooting, to gather more abstract material to layer in: the plane, Peter sitting in the cabin and looking at the wind chimes. All these sort of contemplative shots — we needed that material to make this version play.
But it was worrying. It was happening at a time when I finally felt like I’d got my foot, to some extent, into the movie business with Out of Sight. Coming out of the Richard Lester thing [Getting Away With It, a combo journal/book-length interview with the Hard Day’s Night director] and Schizopolis — I felt energized. And with Sight, I felt like I’d got back into a rhythm. I wanted to keep busy, keep the momentum going, keep making a movie every nine months. So to put this movie together, show it to a room full of friends and then go, Oh, this is really not working. . . . We spent a few days just thinking, what is salvageable here? What can we do with what we have? It was . . . unnerving.
I think it was [producer] Stacey Sher who called me in the middle of this and told me that Out of Sight had just won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. And I just went, “Uh, uh-huh, OK,” and hung up. [Laughs] I mean, I could not have cared less at that moment. What should have been this incredible moment just became subsumed by this dark cloud of concern.
“Unless the National Society of Film Critics is going to come to my house and recut it . . .”
“. . . and help me solve this thing, what good does it do me right now?!” I mean, if I thought they would have come over and done it, I’d have offered. I was open to all options at that moment.
But we kind of fought our way through it, and looking back at it . . . Sarah has a better memory of this now, but I just recall us totally starting it over. There were all these conversations about layering in these shots, how we were going to establish things, all of that. A lot of trial and error. When you’re asking people to embrace this sort of polyphonic structure, you have to judge how much is too much. We had a lot of in-progress screenings because we thought, well, to know if this works, someone has to see the whole thing. It’s like: Here’s an image that we use FIVE times. You have to be certain, should it be five times? And where precisely should they occur? You use a recurrent, pregnant moment at the wrong point — you might as well stop the whole film. You’ve thrown everything off. But then you know it’s throwing people off, so you can go back and say, Ok, we were good here, let’s start again. There was a lot of discussion.
I mean, we played fair. It works, in the end. But it’s pretty aggressive in how nonlinear it is.
It’s not a passive movie.
No! You really gotta fucking pay attention.
Looking back with the hindsight of 20 years, you can chart how you go from one love scene in Out of Sight into a whole movie like that with The Limey — and right into Erin Brockovich (2000), which is very much a classical studio film. And then you get Traffic (2000), which plays like an anthology of several Erin Brockovich narratives rolled into one. . . .
That is an accurate description, yes [laughs].
So did doing something like The Limey give you the confidence to do something straight like Erin Brockovich? It almost feels like more of a risk. There’s nothing to hide behind.
Yeah, confidence is the key word there. It’s why I think that period was really important for me. I mean, the run we’re talking about here — from Out of Sight to the first Ocean’s 11 movie [in 2001], which all sort of overlapped and happened in very quick succession — I came out the other end of that feeling like I’d finally found a way to work in the system but could still push things in one direction or another. People kind of forget, because they look back on the movie very fondly now, that Out of Sight was not a success. Critically, yes. Financially, it wasn’t. There’s the perception that it was not the box-office failure that it actually is — and frankly, I have no desire to correct that perception at all [laughs].
Just print the legend.
Exactly. So the sensation was being let out of a cage, albeit one that I had built myself. I was self-aware enough that, having gone through the Sex, Lies, and Videotape phenomenon and then ended up in the forest of experimentation that followed, I knew I had to stop and tell myself: You should enjoy this. Most people don’t leap from mountaintop to mountaintop. There are always valleys. And that you do what you can, you finish it, and you quickly move on to the next thing. I’ve been pretty happy with the range of stuff I’ve managed to do since then.
There’s a lot of range, but aesthetically and storytelling-wise, they’re all over the map. There’s a shared sensibility but . . .
Well, what you’re describing kind of came out of that period between Sex, Lies and Out of Sight. . . . that was really when I had had this unexpected success right away, then was trying to come to terms with what kind of filmmaker I was. Letting go of the writing part of it was a big help.
I wrote to get my foot in the door, but in having a frank conversation with myself, I realized, “You’re not really a writer.” You’ve written, but by the standards by which I judge writers, then, no. Lem Dobbs is a writer. I am not. It’s a trap that young filmmakers fall into. “I have to write and direct everything I do.” Well, that’s fine, only . . . if you’re not Paul Thomas Anderson, don’t put yourself through hell for no reason. There’s a reason he only makes movies every what, four years or so? To go to the well to write original screenplays — it’s fucking hard. And I realized my well wasn’t very deep. The best use of my skill set as a filmmaker was to work with writers instead of being a one-man band. That changed everything for the better.
The other thing was just realizing that I’m really a synthesist. Some guys are originals. Look at Spike Jonze — there’s nobody like him, you never know what’s coming next, it’s always inventive and smart and funny. He’s just unique. And it would be a waste of my time and other people’s money to think that I was Spike Jonze. I can’t do what he does. I can tell a story, however. I can work with actors on performances, and I can find a visual approach that supports those two things. It was freeing to figure this out, because that kind of approach allows for continual self-reinvention. You can slough off any skin you were wearing, from here to there.
So, yeah, that period from ’89/’90 to ’97, in which I made five movies in a row which people did not like and did not see — it was actually very necessary to me. They were steps for me to come to this place where I could have that run. Luckily, I never face-planted off a 30-foot board, you know? It was more like I got pushed into a pool and it didn’t look very good [laughs].
Did you feel like there were certain . . . let’s say “unrealistic” expectations thrust on you coming out of the success of your debut? Were the switch-ups from alternate-history thrillers to coming-of-age movies to heist films partially because you wanted to get rid of the notion of you as “that Sex, Lies, and Videotape” guy?
I wish I could say there was some grand design I had regarding my choices and me trying to beat expectations out of people. I wish I could say I was trying to get people to stop assuming I was one thing or another. But I was just trying to find my way. It was just me sitting on a set at age 30 and going, “What the fuck am I doing?” This is really where the book with Richard [Lester] comes in. . . . I thought, what if I go back and use Richard Lester again as a source of inspiration. It really saved me.
Did you feel like you had nothing left to lose at that point?
I felt like, “You have to do this shit for yourself.” No one is encouraging you to go off and do something different or take a gamble on something. Everyone wants you to keep doing the thing that you’ve done successfully. I knew I was swimming upstream a bit by not re-creating Sex, Lies — which I knew couldn’t be re-created! It was a total anomaly. So, yeah, I had to do some auto-critiquing. There were some hallucinogens involved [laughs].When I went back to Baton Rouge in the mid-Nineties, in a very conscious attempt to get back to the source of it — which was growing up in Louisiana with these filmmaker friends of mine and making a movie the same way I made my short films. I wanted to recapture the enthusiasm of the amateur.
Let’s go back to The Limey. What made you think of using the Poor Cow footage, with Terence, as part of the film and his backstory?
That was all Lem. I wasn’t aware of that film, and it wasn’t available here. He had, like, a fifth-generation videotape of it. He was the one who said, “Hey, this could be interesting. . . . Take a look at this.” When I saw it, I just went, “Well, that’s kind of perfect! He’s a petty thief, hanging out with these guys. . . .” We added the daughter, so we sort of cheated a bit. But it’s just one more thing that proved that Terence was the right person for this. I mean, is there a lot of Michael Caine footage from the Sixties too? Sure. But Terence’s baggage is different than Caine’s.
It’s one of the few L.A. movies that really captures a wonderful view of the smog from on high. . . .
“You know, you could see the sea from here . . . if you could see it.” [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t think Lem and I ever articulated this, but I’m not sure The Limey works in any other city. Something about the people in Los Angeles and the fact that this guy is coming here . . . I don’t know that we could have done this in, say, Chicago or San Francisco or Miami. There are certain Los Angeles films from the Sixties and Seventies that . . . we weren’t trying to re-create them so much as channel them, maybe. There’s this movie called The Outside Man, about a Parisian guy who comes to L.A. and gets involved in some shit. I think it stars Jean-Louis Trintignant. I just remembered the way that movie looked, though I may have remembered it wrong — which I’m a big fan of, actually.
Of wrongly remembering things?
Yeah. I’ve done it before.
Well, when we did the love scene in Out of Sight, I kept saying, “Oh, this is the same thing as Don’t Look Now.” Then after the film came out, I went back to watch Don’t Look Now and was like, “Oh, this isn’t what I was doing at all!” [Laughs] I totally misremembered that sequence. But it turned out better because of it. And with The Outside Man, I have this memory of the way that the Southern California sun hit the architecture in the movie that I kept thinking, “That’s it. That’s the look of The Limey.“
Were you and [cinematographer] Ed Lachman having these kinds of conversations when you coming up with that specific look?
We were talking about paintings and photography. A lot of visual references that weren’t necessarily movie references. And we used a lot of the great writing that’s come out of L.A. as starting points as well. That terse, hard-boiled stuff.
Those flashback sequences, where the light is streaking down, do have kind of an impressionistic look.
Funny enough, that did come from a movie thing. Like a lot of people at the time, we were enamored of that effect when it was employed in Saving Private Ryan, where you throw the shutter out of sync and the film is being pulled through the gate, which it’s not supposed to do. Both Ed and I were like, “Oh, that’s a cool effect. I wonder if we could find a way to use that somehow. . . .” That soon turned into, “Well, the flashbacks may need some sort of gimmick — so let’s do that!” Those were the days when you didn’t know whether the effect worked until you got the footage back from the lab, too, so . . .
For anybody who’s spent any amount of time in L.A., it’s very evocative of the sort of clash of aesthetics and lifestyles. It represents something in the collective cultural psyche, such a clash of people and ideas. And when you can really use a time and a place as a character, it’s a great thing.
Would you do a serious period L.A. film? Or after Full Frontal, are you pretty much done with that place forever?
Yeah, Full Frontal . . . that’s very much a “Thanks, goodbye” movie about Los Angeles. I literally finished shooting it, got on a plane, moved to New York, and went, “OK, that’s it for me” [laughs]. I don’t know. The thing I’m about to do in the spring [Kill Switch] is set in Detroit in 1955. I think that will be a fascinating aesthetic to play with.
Do you think that we collectively lionize the legacy of the Sixties too much? The whole notion of what that decade meant — and Fonda’s line about puncturing the myth, where it really was “just ’66 and early ’67” — feels like a big part of the film’s DNA.
[Long pause] I don’t think our feelings about the art that came out of that era is misplaced or unearned, honestly. We were not imagining the fact that something was happening that really pushed the boundaries of expression. I can say that what was happening in the movies in the 1960s has been, and continues to be, a huge influence on what I do. I still am inspired by — and want to blatantly rip off — a lot of films from that period.
But looking back on the era, what I think what we can now acknowledge is that it’s not just enough to tear down a system. You have to have a system ready-made to replace it and that has a real shot at making it work. There were a lot of people deservedly saying, “We hate this fucking system and it has to change.” And when people were able to successfully dismantle some things, there was nothing there to take its place. A sort of ennui began to set in, and then economic forces began to see an opening and quietly, gradually began to bring things back to where they were. Then you get the 1980s.
Richard Lester talked about shooting Petulia in San Francisco right as the hippie thing was hitting its peak, and seeing businessmen cross the bridge, pull over, change into their hippie clothes and then go into the city. “You know it’s over when you see that,” he said. And he was right. Every idea that works gets co-opted. Including social revolution.
Do you think that’s still true today?
Of course, but it’s not a hard and fast rule. I’m still fascinated by seeing where movements like, for example, what’s happening in Hong Kong are going to go. People are like, “We’re just going to keep doing this.” They’re not giving up. They’re in a slightly different position than, say, Occupy: Wall Street was, because they have a structure they can point to and say they’d like to see employed. Whereas over here, a lot of us are like, “Yeah, we live in a democracy, but it’s like the BAD version of one. . . . Can we figure out how to do the good version of this, please?” Which is . . . [laughs]. It’s an open question.
The Limey is celebrating its 20th anniversary in the same year that Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Fight Club, Election, Magnolia, Three Kings, and a slew of other great American films are marking their 20th anniversary. What was it about 1999, in your opinion, that gave birth to this bumper cop of films?
I just read that Brian Raftery book [Best. Movie. Year. Ever], and it’s like, “Fuck . . . what a list.” I’d forgotten just how many seminal movies came out that year. But why was it such a flashpoint year? It was just chance. I mean, it was the culmination of a lot of different shifts that happened on the heels of the American independent-filmmaking wave that happened after the late Eighties, and resulted in a decade of young filmmakers finding their way into this system that used to be closed off to them. 1999 turned out to be what I was always hoping for, which was this fusion of independent-minded filmmakers, the resources of the studios, and an audience willing to go wherever these people would take them. It just kind of all came together, and then within 10 years, was more or less gone.
The funny thing is, The Limey might be one of the few films from 1999 that could get made today. Fight Club doesn’t get made in 2019. Election doesn’t get made in 2019. But The Limey might have a shot.
I think that’s true. A modestly budgeted genre film — you could probably do it now. I mean, that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Kill Switch, so we’ll see. Even the closest thing back then to what we might consider a 2019 movie, The Matrix — look, forget what you know now. Do you give $90 million to two filmmakers with an original story and an idea that no one is sure can even be technically accomplished, and whose only calling card was the decidedly nonscience-fiction movie Bound? In terms of pure risk, Warners was pushing it. And they won that bet.
I don’t know if you’ve been aware of a conversation that happened a few months back, in regard to a well-known veteran filmmaker and a certain comic-book behemoth that now makes blockbusters . . .
The result was a lot of brouhaha about what is and isn’t “cinema.” So my question is this: Was all of this questioning of the medium and the term actually a good thing for the art form? Do you think that it actually forced people to think about the purpose and parameters of what we define as cinema?
Well . . . I talked about all of the stuff five years ago.
You’re referring to the State of Cinema speech at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2014, right?
Yeah. And I don’t think anything’s really changed. When I described cinema as “an approach” . . . it has nothing to do with the capture medium, or the venue or location in which it’s viewed. To me, it’s purely an artistic attitude and a point of view. So, maybe I’m not thinking about it in the same way that a lot of the people who are having this discussion are thinking about it. I mean, it’s a little like getting upset about the weather. It is what it is.
Really, I’m just trying to figure out what lane I should be driving in. I just want to keep making the things I want to make, and have them succeed so I can keep making other things. I’m trying to look at things through both a microscope and a satellite 30,000 feet up in the sky. I’m looking for that part of the Venn diagram where what I want to make and what people are interested in intersect. I can only make what I can make.
In a way, it seems like you’re one of the few filmmakers who may be best suited by the Netflix model. If you look at something like High Flying Bird and The Laundromat, they’re films that you would have considered “the middle” in 2004 or 2005; you have enough clout to make them with people who are recognizable but aren’t necessarily the Ocean’s 11 cast; and technologically, you’ve figured out how to make things look decent and keep the costs low . . .
And both of those films, I’d argue, have very little hope on 3,000 screens and then get enough eyeballs to justify putting them on 3,000 screens! That’s not even taking into account what it takes to get people to realize they exist in the first place. If those are two movies that I want to make, I have to figure out how to give them a home — and where the people giving me money to make them consider them a win, and not, “Well, let’s never fucking do that again.”
I mean, of course I want my movies seen in a theater. . . . We all want our fucking movies seen in a theater! That’s a given. But High Flying Bird is a very niche movie. It’s going narrow and deep about a subject that not everybody is interested in. So if 8 million people saw that on Netflix, at what, eight dollars a ticket? There’s no universe in which that movie makes that kind of money.
There are still outliers.
And those outliers give me hope. I mean, something like Parasite — you’re talking about a film that’s not a fantasy spectacle, that can take up some specific cultural real estate, and has to be made by that filmmaker. If I made that movie, shot for shot and in English, we’re not talking about it. So when people are like, it’s hopeless, my response is: This guy made this movie in South Korea, it’s fucking blowing up everywhere, most people roundly consider it to be the movie of the year — it’s still fucking possible! Great art solves a lot of these issues. At the end of the day, if there’s going to be some flying wedge that breaks things open, it’s going to be movies like Parasite that just hit at the exact moment they need to. And as long as there is a filmmaker out there who is willing to chart that course, these movies will find their audience. You can’t conjure that. You can only hope you’re around to witness it firsthand.