In the days and weeks leading up to our film’s premiere at Sundance, I pulled from the shelf my dog-eared copy of Steven Soderbergh’s sex lies and videotape diary, which I’d purchased from a second-hand bookstore my sophomore year in high school and devoured (along with the screenplay included therein) before I actually saw the film it chronicled. This ordering was oddly habitual at that point in my life, a natural progression from all the reviews I grew up reading of movies my parents wouldn’t let me see. I read Spike Lee’s School Daze and Malcom X journals before I ever saw the films; I saw Hearts Of Darkness before I saw Apocalypse Now. But Soderbergh’s was my favorite, and the one I hung onto the most. I took (and still take) to heart the recipe for success he cites in his forward: talent + perseverance = luck.
I was sixteen then. I was about to turn 32 when I began reading it again over the holidays, for what was probably the third or fourth time. It was glib and entertaining and insightful, as always, but it also seemed deeper and richer – a natural side effect to my own evolving understanding of the filmmaking process. There’s not a lot of technical jargon in the book, and each journal entry is often comprised of a span of days or weeks, but I didn’t notice that the first time I read it. It all seemed breezy and exciting and fun. Soderbergh made filmmaking – serious filmmaking, great filmmaking – seem like something efficient and doable. When you’re sixteen and don’t even know what the word coverage means, you’re drawn towards the broad strokes. You need the broad strokes. And then, as you grow as a filmmaker, you start to read between the lines.
What I found between Soderbergh’s lines – and sometimes not between them at all but right smack dab on the page in clear and simple text – was a marvelous reflection of what I’d just been through, and a projection of what we were about to embark upon. How had I not previously picked up on the fact that there were days that didn’t go well for him, too? How had I missed the bit of his production journal in which he mentions his AD pulling him aside and telling him he should have serious conversations with his actors in their trailers during the set-ups and not on set when the cameras were ready to roll? The days where they ran out of time? Where the Louisiana heat wore everyone down? There on the page is a description of conversations I felt like I had been having on a regular basis. There at the outset of the book is mentioned a financing meeting with Cassian Elwes that came out of the blue but didn’t quite pan out, which felt alarmingly similar to the sudden financing meeting we had with Cassian Elwes, which did in fact work out and lead to our film getting made.
I don’t mean to say that I was reducing his experience – and mine – to a checklist of corresponding points. But the parallels were unavoidable, and also amusing, interesting and gratifying. All of this information deepened my understanding of his humbly triumphant first-person narrative, and it also helped me contextualize what I’d just been through. And indeed, to see it in broad strokes. I realized that my own shoot was breezy, exciting and fun in its own way. And, too, that I was unquantifiably lucky and quantifiably persistent (and that hopefully the talent quotient of that equation wasn’t running at a deficit).
So then there was Sundance. Back when sex, lies was invited to screen there, it was still called the U.S. Film Festival, but it was up there on the same Main Street, at mostly the same venues, with lots of the same people. Soderbergh describes in nonplussed terms (or maybe he was dazed) his first screening, and then the second, and then the point at which Todd McCarthy hints at the positive review he’s going to give the film in Variety. He also describes having enough free time to join the festival volunteers in shuttling other directors and actors to and from the airport.
Since then, Sundance has become Sundance, and while I imagine the intrepid filmmaker might still find time to volunteer services here and there, I don’t think it would be possible (if it ever truly was in the first place) to be nonplussed about showing a film you’ve finished only days before to an audience of 1200 people. I anticipated a quickening of my pulse, but not my transformation into jelly when John Cooper called me out onto the stage at the Eccles. I have no idea what I said up there, other than thank you. When in doubt, those are always good words to fall back in, especially if you mean them, which I did.
This is not the sum of my experience there, but a small part of it, and here is where I leave my parallels with Soderbergh’s narrative behind (aside from the fact that Todd McCarthy, now writing for Hollywood Reporter, gave us a really great review after our own first screening) and dovetail fully into my perception of the experience. When one’s been aspiring towards premiering a feature at Sundance since the age of sixteen, it would be natural to assume that a sense of culmination would accompany that moment. But the thing about persistence is that it renders success in varying shades of gray. Accomplishment is not divided into the setting of a goal and its achievement, nor is that achievement a plateau which one rests upon. Everything is a step. Some steps are bigger than others. Sometimes they lead you right back to the bottom. Sometimes they provide an opportunity to step back and survey the view. As you look back, all the little footholds and switchbacks blend with distance into one singular path, one broad stroak, but you don’t forget that each one came with its own encompassing sense of triumph, of disappointment, of accomplishment, of knowing you can do better. In the moment, each one was everything you were working for – and then you achieved it, and you moved on. You may have done well. You’ll do even better.
At some point you might find yourself referring to the process in vaguely distended metaphors, which is a good time to turn back to that script you were writing or that book you were reading. We left Sundance two weeks ago. It was spectacular. It was overwhelming. It was equivocal to running a marathon, except that marathons end. Time now to keep persisting, and hoping the luck holds out.
Footnote: I went to see Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects last night. I have a feeling he won’t be publishing a journal about this one, and I am OK with that. But if he were to write it, I’d definitely read it, and read it again in 16 years.