Another welcome surprise from Soderbergh

Film: The director calls his newest release `another left turn' on his career path.


March 17, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Erin Brockovich," which opens today, represents yet another twist in a winding road recently taken by director Steven Soderbergh.

In 1996, he released "Gray's Anatomy," a fanciful film adaptation of Spalding Gray's performance-memoir of his battle with a rare eye disease. The following year, Soderbergh came out with the adamantly quirky "Schizopolis," in which he played with notions of love, language and his own persona.

Then came "Out of Sight," his adaptation of an Elmore Leonard thriller starring the high-voltage duo of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Slick, sexy and ingeniously structured, "Out of Sight" garnered Soderbergh attention from audiences and Hollywood that had been relatively scarce since his feature debut, "sex, lies and videotape," was released in 1989.

Soderbergh capitalized on the buzz, not by going deeper into the Hollywood system, but by directing a small film that took place on its seediest margins. "The Limey," which starred Terrence Stamp as an ex-convict trying to avenge the death of his daughter, was yet another counterintuitive move from a filmmaker who, at 37, has made a career of confounding expectations.

During a recent telephone interview, Soderbergh admitted that "Erin Brockovich," in which Julia Roberts plays a woman who in 1993 helped a small town sue the utility giant PG&E for dumping toxic waste, represents "another left turn."

After "Out of Sight" and "The Limey," "Erin Brockovich" was just what he needed, Soderbergh said. "I wanted to make a movie in which I was not front and center. And I knew when I read it, because Julia was already attached, that it was just going to be one of those meetings of performer and role that was going to be special and that I wanted to be around for. ... I have always felt that she's a really gifted actress in addition to being a movie star. And she didn't disappoint."

"Erin Brockovich" might easily have been a boilerplate David-and-Goliath story, a true-life drama akin to such recent films as "A Civil Action" and "The Insider." But Soderbergh didn't want the movie to revert to type. He avoided courtroom scenes, instead playing up the quirky, sometimes prickly personality of his heroine, who dresses in tight skirts, swears like a stevedore, loves her three kids and is smart enough to ferret out a truth that PG&E spent millions trying to cover up.

"I'm a huge, huge, `All the President's Men' fan, it's one of my favorite movies of all time," he said of the based-on-a-true story genre. "I like films like `Norma Rae' and `Silkwood' when you can find a way to tell the story and not have it feel like vitamins. This seemed to have that [potential] because of her character, which is so dynamic and complicated."

As eager as Soderbergh was to work with Roberts and as much as he admires the real-life woman on which the film is based, it was an early visit to the town of Hinkley, Calif., whose citizens won $333 million in the lawsuit, that clinched the project for him.

"The sensation of being that isolated, and knowing how easy it would be for someone who was being treated poorly out there not to be heard, was palpable," Soderbergh said. "The helplessness that they must have felt was really intense when you stood out there in a town that basically doesn't exist anymore. It's a ghost town. [PG&E] bought up all the property and razed it, and they own it now. And that town's gone."

Oscars talk

Baltimore filmmakers Susan Hadary and William Whiteford, whose film "King Gimp" is nominated for an Oscar as best documentary short, will discuss their work Sunday on "Media Matters" on WJHU (88.1 FM). The show airs Sundays from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., with a repeat Monday night at 8: 30.

In the Shooting Gallery

"Such a Long Journey," director Sturia Gunnarsson's drama about an Indian family threatened by events of the 1971 War of East Independence with Pakistan, will be shown Monday as part of the continuing Shooting Gallery Film Club series. The film starts at 7: 30 p.m. at the Valley Center Theaters, off Reisterstown Road. Admission is $18.

Cinema Sundays

"Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.," from documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, will be shown Sunday as the final film in the current Cinema Sundays series at the Charles.

Morris' film looks at the exceedingly strange life and career of Leuchter, an "execution efficiency expert" (he repairs and maintains electric chairs) who was hired to find "proof" at Auschwitz that the Holocaust never happened. The film will be introduced and discussed by City Paper editor Andy Markowitz.

Tickets to Sunday's final film of the series are $15. Doors open at 9: 45 a.m. for coffee and bagels; the show starts at 10: 30 a.m.

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