- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

LOS ANGELES —''It's just not fair," confides director Steven Soderbergh, pretending to be at a disadvantage in a press-junket format that includes his pal, business partner and frequent movie collaborator George Clooney, who plays his third starring role for Mr. Soderbergh in the mystical science-fiction fable "Solaris."
Entering a corner suite on the 39th floor of the St. Regis hotel in the Century City complex, which commands a view of the 20th Century lot where interiors for "Solaris" were filmed earlier this year, Mr. Soderbergh explains that he has been upstaged for the past half-hour. His own round-table interview session was mocked repeatedly by the sound of laughter from an adjacent room, occupied by Mr. Clooney.
Well, he has no excuses in this suite, which is spaciously secluded from the others being used to shelter "Solaris" interviews. Mr. Soderbergh is no threat to Mr. Clooney as a camera subject or disarming, easygoing raconteur, but he is perfectly capable of explaining himself.
Mr. Soderbergh, who turns 40 in January, and Mr. Clooney, 41, operate a production company called Section Eight. They have helped with the production of two of the more interesting movies of the year, Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia" and Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven." They see eye to eye about a lot of things, including the importance of using the leverage of success to get things made that might face an uphill struggle if proposed by filmmakers without proven commercial track records.
Mr. Soderbergh describes "Solaris," a remake of a 1972 Soviet movie by the late Andrei Tarkovsky, as "a tough one, challenging to an extent that went right to the wire."
The remake rights had been acquired by James Cameron of "Terminator" and "Titanic" fame; Mr. Cameron relinquished the project to Mr. Soderbergh while remaining as a co-producer of the new "Solaris," which alludes to a distant planet that seems to have a mind-bending influence on human observers. Mr. Clooney plays a psychologist, Chris Kelvin, who embarks on an emergency mission to discover what is distressing the crew of a space station orbiting the enigmatic Solaris.
Mr. Soderbergh admits that "Solaris" may prove a hard sell.
"I hope for a lot of reasons," he says, "that there's a way to put this over with a mass audience. Not just for my career, but for the careers of a lot of people who will come after me. Everyone complains about cookie-cutter movies. Well, Fox backed this movie despite its singularity. The studio never blinked. Rupert Murdoch's company has made a pretty unusual movie. For a reasonable price, about $47 million. We were responsible about that. They let us make it the way we thought it should be made."
Although hoping for a prestige attraction, Fox needed it a little faster than Mr. Soderbergh anticipated.
"We had a short schedule," he says. "Forty-three shooting days. I finished in July. We were supposed to come out on December 13, but the date was moved up to November 27. The visual effects and scoring were intricate. Everything about it created more pressure on me. I wanted all the freedom of exploration with actors I had enjoyed on earlier films, combined with a very precise visual framework in this futuristic and isolated setting. The whole thing needed to fit together like a puzzle."
The summer season was more than adequately covered for Fox by a science-fiction franchise item, George Lucas' "Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones," but the fourth quarter seemed to be short of a sure thing for the holidays. "Solaris," an unsure thing despite the Clooney-Soderbergh reputation, will attempt to transcend a cerebral pretext.
Asked if the story doesn't "embrace death" when all is said and done, the director replies, "Yeah, but in the best possible way. My feeling is that any film dealing with death should come out for the holidays."
Asked about the partnership with Mr. Clooney, Mr. Soderbergh reflects: "We have very similar tastes and similar attitudes about work. That includes how you should behave and treat people on the job. And it definitely includes how you should use whatever career momentum you have at a given time. If you're not using it to get interesting films made, it's lame."
Mr. Clooney follows Mr. Soderbergh in the corner suite and scoffs at the complaint of being unfair competition.
"Steven didn't even offer me this film," he says. "I had to chase the role. I wrote him a letter and asked for it. I had read the script, of course. It was while we were doing 'Ocean's Eleven.' As I think you all know, he offered 'Solaris' to another actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who's phenomenal but stops working for long periods of time. The script was sitting around during that in-between period. I didn't want to guilt-trip Steven into anything. So I wrote the letter to put some distance into my proposal. It would be less embarrassing for him and less hurtful for me if he rejected the idea" from a letter rather than face to face.
Mr. Clooney says he argued, in effect, "I don't know if I'm the guy for the role, but I'd give it my best shot." Mr. Soderbergh called him and replied, in effect, "Let's roll."
Although uncertain of his suitability, Mr. Clooney says his reasoning was, "If you're gonna take chances, do it with the directors you can really trust. For me, that's Steven and the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. That's why we have a director-driven company. We want to encourage good filmmakers who are trying to push things."
Asked about the marketing campaign, Mr. Clooney says, "Fox is sort of spinning its wheels right now trying to sell it. I don't think they know what will work. The flap over scenes in which Natascha McElhone and I are nude is an indication. It's fairly obvious that the studio leaked something to get a buzz going, cooking up some nonsense about the sight of my bare butt and an R rating. An R rating would never harm this film, although it's getting a PG-13."
Mr. Clooney echoes Mr. Soderbergh's comment about sharing similar tastes and professional outlooks. "We seem to like the same things and work the same way," he says. "We're in the position right now to fight for films we want to see made."
A simple "trick" exists to getting some chancy projects made.
"Guys like me have to take less money," Mr. Clooney says. "That's the only way certain things can be made at a cost that doesn't scare off studios. You have to throw in a crowd-pleaser every so often. We understand that. If you deliver something like 'Ocean's Eleven,' you get the privilege of going off to play at something less likely to be popular right off the bat."
Mr. Clooney has made his feature directing debut with the soon-to-be-released "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," adapted by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman from Chuck Barris' memoir of a reputed clandestine life as a CIA hit man. Mr. Barris was the creator and host of "The Gong Show." A languishing project, it became feasible because Mr. Clooney did not demand top dollar for his services.
"I didn't want to direct," he insists. "It wasn't my goal in life. I don't know enough about it. But I wanted this film to be made. As I watched it fall apart while I was committed to playing a minor role, it became apparent that something desperate was needed to salvage things. I wasn't right for the lead, but I could offer to direct it for nothing. Then I asked Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore to come in and take huge hits to get the thing made for under $30 million."
Directing has broadened his perspective.
"You gain a better understanding of what's good for the film," Mr. Clooney says. "For example, there were scenes in 'Solaris' that I thought were better for me as an actor than the ones Steven decided to use. Now, from the director's angle, I understand how myopic that was. You have to be concerned with the whole. Certain cuts are the right thing to do for the movie as a whole, even if the actor feels cheated."
Recalling his struggling years as an actor, when "The Facts of Life" was his principal TV credit and "The Return of the Killer Tomatoes" was his best-known movie credit, Mr. Clooney says, "I've done some really awful stuff, and syndication won't let it ever go away.
"It wasn't just bad, either. It was 'big' and 'bad,'" Mr. Clooney says with a laugh, "but that is also part of the building blocks. I've been lucky. I never got pigeonholed into one particular thing. I've also made great friends on some of the worst credits I ever had. And experienced some of the best times. It's fun to be where I'm at now. I feel I should take advantage and do the stuff I really like.
"I've made my share of mistakes, but they've all lead here, and here is fine."


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