Back in 1997, George Clooney was still a TV heartthrob first, a movie star second. He had just made a $100 million blockbuster - Batman & Robin - but he knew it sucked. He headlined a couple of competent A-list pictures, One Fine Day and The Peacemaker, but neither of them was better than average. 'I was being held to a higher yardstick, and I realised I better hold myself to a higher standard,' he said, looking back.
ound this time, the director Steven Soderbergh was in a deep funk. His debut film sex, lies, and videotape had won top prizes at Sundance and Cannes, making him the hottest kid on the block. Then Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath had all flopped; critically, commercially, or both. He'd left town and made Schizopolis on the fly, a whacky post-modern home movie starring himself in two roles, and his ex-wife, Betsy Brantley. A cult item these days, in Hollywood it was considered the filmic equivalent of a nervous breakdown.
Soderbergh was trying to get Charlie Kaufman's script Human Nature off the ground, but no one was biting. (If he had succeeded, his career might have been over and the contemporary film landscape might have looked very different.) Meanwhile George Clooney was attached to an Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. Casey Silver, chairman at Universal, was a friend of Soderbergh and put his name forward. That didn't make much sense to either the production company, Jersey Films, or to Clooney.
Or Soderbergh for that matter. He noted in his diary, 'It's a terrific script, and all the people involved are good, so of course I turned it down.' Silver told him he was insane and persuaded him to think again. Meanwhile Mike Newell passed on the project. So did Cameron Crowe. Ted Demme and Sydney Pollack were considered. Eventually, after two interviews, Soderbergh ended up with the job.
Out of Sight is an unusual case. It was a box-office disappointment (less than $40 million in the US) that proved providential for everyone. It made Jennifer Lopez a star. It put Soderbergh's career firmly back on track and got his creative juices flowing again, paving the way for Traffic and Erin Brockovich. And it showed that Clooney had the goods to be a big screen star.
I remember talking to Soderbergh at the time and there was no mistaking his excitement about working with Clooney. 'He's unique - nobody has his vibe,' he told me. 'There are all these boys out there, but George is a man. He's a real throwback to classical movie stars, to Cary Grant and Steve McQueen.' He was preparing to shoot The Limey with Terrence Stamp, then he was going to do a film about the origins of American football called 'Leathernecks': 'Something I developed for three years then abandoned because I couldn't find the right star. I sent it to George and he called the next morning to say We've gotta do this.'
Leatherheads is finally coming out later this year, a bit later than originally planned, directed by and starring George Clooney, from a script by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. In the ten-year interim, the pair have collaborated on three Danny Ocean movies (Ocean's Thirteen is coming in June), Solaris - which Clooney loved even if no one else did - and The Good German, released this week. In addition, as equal partners in the production company Section 8, they have produced an extraordinary range of ambitious films, including Far From Heaven, Insomnia, Syriana, The Jacket, A Scanner Darkly, and of course Clooney's films as director, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck.
Directors have teamed up with favourite stars before of course - Scorsese and De Niro; Scorsese and DiCaprio; Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood; John Ford and John Wayne - but it's hard to think of such an evenly matched team who have played the system so cleverly, or gotten away with so many longshots. It helps that they clearly share the same sensibility - they're both serious and mischievous, dedicated workaholics with liberal political convictions and a gambling streak.
In other respects they compliment each other. Clooney's charm and sex appeal has granted Soderbergh the freedom to explore and experiment; and Soderbergh's all-round expertise and enterprise (he's his own DP and editor) has helped Clooney pull off his own assured transition to director and to find his own voice as an artist.
That accomplished, the dynamics have shifted. Section 8 wrapped up operations last summer, and it seems that no matter what, Ocean's Thirteen will be the last of that franchise - the end of a big financial safety net for both of them. The Good German got the cold shoulder from critics and public in the US. Hopefully Leatherheads will fare better, but either way, they're on their own now. It will be fascinating to see how each fares independently - but what a run it's been!
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