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Upping the ante 

Soderbergh tries to put more risk in filmmaking

A couple of years ago, Steven Soderbergh was Hollywood's man of the hour. He parlayed his indie success as the critics' darling behind sex, lies and videotape and Out of Sight (among others) to become the first filmmaker in 60-odd years to win Best Director Oscar nominations for two popular movies in the same year (he lost for Erin Brockovich but took home the gold for Traffic).

But nowhere is it clearer than in Hollywood that what goes up must come down. Despite (or because of) its hefty box-office profit, a lot of the same critics who embraced Soderbergh's early work rejected Ocean's Eleven as a mainstream trifle. And earlier this year, when he tried getting back to his more adventurous roots, they largely dismissed Full Frontal as a shameless self-indulgence.

So what are we to make of Soderbergh's futuristic drama Solaris, a pensive meditation on life, love and predestination based on a 1972 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky? George Clooney stars as a psychologist who's grieving the suicide of his wife (Natascha McElhone) when he's assigned to investigate the mysterious events on a remote space station. Heavy on what Soderbergh refers to as "a form of existential dread" rarely found in your typical holiday movie blockbuster, to call Solaris a hard-sell would be putting it mildly.

Creative Loafing: Why Solaris? Had you always been a fan of the Tarkovsky version?

Steven Soderbergh: I was 15 or 16 when I first saw it, and the premise was really fascinating to me. There are a lot of really interesting psychological and metaphysical issues in the story about how to reconcile your conscious existence with your subconscious existence, and about whether or not relationships always have to follow the same predetermined trajectory.

Given the thought-provoking themes running through the film, I'd think all the advance buzz about something as trivial as a couple of George Clooney butt shots would be frustrating. [The film originally got an R rating, but Soderbergh appealed and got a PG-13 without having to make any cuts.]

Or, on the other hand, it could be a blessing in disguise -- at least people are talking about something to do with the film, you know? It's true we've been pulled into some discussions that aren't especially relevant or interesting. Again, it isn't an easy movie to talk about, even for me. There should be other things to talk about, but I guess you can't talk about the cosmos without ultimately getting back to George Clooney's ass.

You took some creative risks with Full Frontal that didn't entirely pay off for you. Were you ever tempted you go back to something in a more conventional sort of vein?

I think good art results from really pushing yourself and being very specific about all of your choices. There are different kinds of risks to a movie like Solaris, because it's a hell of a lot more expensive and it's going out on 2,500 screens or whatever, but in a lot of ways, it's a much more accessible movie than Full Frontal. I suppose almost any other movie would be more accessible than Full Frontal, but that was the point of that movie. The definition of making a risky movie is when you're making choices that may or may not be embraced by an audience, and when you're willing to take the chance that they won't.

Talk a little about your new production company. [He and Clooney formed Section Eight two years ago. It backed Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven and Clooney's upcoming directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.]

Our hope is to take directors from the outside and bring them in a little bit, so that in the long run we're all getting more interesting films, quasi-mainstream movies with an independent sensibility. Insomnia turned out really well, and clearly Far From Heaven seems to be performing, so that's great. Whether I'm directing or producing, it's all about pushing it, stepping it up, raising the bar, trying to do something that's legitimately interesting and memorable. Otherwise, why bother at all?

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