This year’s Sundance Film Festival will go down in history as the year when Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation broke records as the festival’s biggest-ever movie sale. However, the festival might not exist had it not been for Steven Soderbergh’s debut film, sex, lies, and videotape. As critics will tell you, the Audience Award winner-turned-mainstream success reinvigorated the indie film industry, making the festival one that demanded attention. Nearly 30 years later, the 1989 film still stands as one of the greatest independent films of all time.
1. STEVEN SODERBERGH WROTE THE SCRIPT IN EIGHT DAYS.
In a 1990 interview with Gayla Mills, Soderbergh described the unusual—and not recommended—process of writing his movie. “I don't think I will ever write another script in eight days, and that's fine,” he said. “Normally, once I have an idea in my head, it takes me about four to five weeks. See, what worries me about it is that someone will think they ought to be able to sit down and write a script in eight days, because they shouldn't. Ultimately, I don't think it's a good way to go about it.”
2. THE FILM'S ROOTS TRACE BACK TO SODERBERGH’S CHILDHOOD.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Soderbergh discussed picking up on his parents’ behaviors as a kid. “My parents are divorced but it was not an ugly thing,” he said. “I had a very good upbringing. Yet appearances were important and things were sublimated to maintain a certain image. I told everybody what I thought they wanted to hear.”
“My parents offered to tell me anything I wanted to know about sex, but I never asked them,” he added. “More importantly, I was encouraged to discuss or pursue any issue that came to mind. And ultimately, I became fascinated with how we become defined by our views on sexuality.”
3. THE FILM WAS INSPIRED BY SODERBERGH’S OWN FAILED RELATIONSHIP.
One which he later recovered. “I drove the most important woman in my life to leave because I didn’t want to be in the relationship but couldn’t just say, ‘I don’t want to be in this,’” Soderbergh told Film Comment. “So I was very deceptive about how I got out of it. And then once I was out of it, I couldn’t even allow it the dignity to die properly. I kept stringing it out and not letting it go and then I got involved with some other people.” After filming sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh was able to reconnect with that person; “We were able to be friends,” he noted.
4. THE FILM MADE SODERBERGH THE YOUNGEST WINNER OF THE PALME D’OR, BUT IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO PLAY IN COMPETITION AT CANNES.
It was supposed to play the Directors’ Fortnight, Cannes’ section for newcomers; it only moved because another film dropped out. According to Flavorwire, even Soderbergh was hesitant about entering the festival, 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?”
5. SODERBERGH DELIBERATELY CHOSE VIDEO AS A METAPHOR FOR DISTANCE.
“Video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events,” Soderbergh explained to Film Comment. “We tend to think that we can experience things because we watched them on tape. For [James Spader’s character] Graham, this was an aspect of myself taken to an extreme measure. He needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism, even though I think voyeurism has mostly negative connotations.”
6. EACH OF THE FOUR CHARACTERS REFLECTS A PART OF SODERBERGH’S PERSONALITY.
For a film so personal to Soderbergh, it’s not surprising that each character reflects a part of him. “At times, I’ve acted very much like the husband (who is having a torrid affair with his wife’s sister),” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Other times, I’ve been in the Graham mode (the husband’s impotent friend, who relates to women sexually only by videotaping them talking about their sex lives). I’ve also been like Cynthia (sleeping with her sister’s husband) when there was a political content to my relationships with women. And there are times when I’ve been like Ann (the frigid wife), feeling very prudish and put off from sexual things.”
7. SODERBERGH CHOSE TO LOWERCASE THE TITLE FOR AESTHETIC REASONS.
According to Flavorwire, Soderbergh was inspired to stylize the title in the middle of journaling. He writes in a diary entry from New Year’s Eve, 1987: “Bob [Newmeyer] said without hesitation that Sex, Lies (actually that looks better lowercase) sex, lies, and videotape is by far the best title.”
8. SODERBERGH USED TRACKING SHOTS TO MAKE THE FILM FEEL PREDATORY.
In order to achieve the film’s lurking feel, Soderbergh played with camera techniques. “I used the tracking shots because I knew that I had a very talky film and I didn’t want it to be visually static,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Without detracting from the performances, I wanted to keep things moving. I also wanted a very predatory feel, the idea of encircling a character and getting closer. It seemed to fit a sort of languid quality that I wanted to have and that Baton Rouge—my hometown and the location of the movie—seems to have.”
9. THE DIRECTOR REFERENCED THREE FILMS MADE IN 1971.
“The three films that I kept in mind while making sex, lies were The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces, and Carnal Knowledge,” Soderbergh told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “They all were made in 1971 and have a very honest quality, much different than films today.”
10. SODERBERGH PANNED THE FILM WHEN LOOKING AT IT IN RETROSPECT.
According to Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures, in an old 1991 interview, Soderbergh commented, “When I look at it now, it looks like something made by someone who wants to think deep but really isn’t. 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.”