“I can’t believe we’re not still editing this,” Steven Soderbergh joked, at the conclusion of Thursday’s night’s 20th-anniversary screening of “The Limey,” his 1999 hybrid of art film and revenge thriller. Screening in its shiny new 4K restoration (currently available on digital platforms but not yet, alas, on disc), “The Limey” is beloved by indie film fans for its experimental, non-linear editing, which discombobulates the conventions of the genre with unexpected cuts, unusual juxtapositions, and abstract images whose meaning (and relationship to each other) aren’t clear until the film’s conclusion.
But the version of “The Limey” that Soderbergh signed on to make (from Lem Dobbs’ screenplay), and originally shot, was not that film at all. “It wasn’t written to be edited that way,” he explained in a Q&A following the screening at Film at Lincoln Center, “and it became apparent pretty quickly after we screened a linear version of the movie that that was not gonna float.” His diagnosis was dire – “this thing needed to just be rebuilt from scratch”—so he set about rethinking the narrative with his editor, Sarah Flack.
Of their collaboration, Soderbergh said, “If there’s such a thing as a Purple Heart in the entertainment industry, Sarah should have one.” He focused on a few editorial ideas (“editorial skin tags, was how I described them”), which he’d begun to develop in his last feature, “Out of Sight” —particularly its famous parallel-action love scene. Since “The Limey” was a story about past and memory, Soderbergh experimented with a new idea: intercutting different sections of dialogue scenes, shot in different locations, as though they were the same conversation.
“There’s no reason rationally that your head shouldn’t snap off when you watch a scene like that,” he said, “because it makes no sense in a literal way. It makes sense in terms of your memory, and the way that you remember things. So that’s why I was interested to see, like, can it be done? Can you shoot a scene in three different places, same dialogue, and cut it and make seem like it’s all happened at the same time? I just wanted to know the answer to that! I’d seen other people do things that were similar, but I really wanted to push it.”
According to Flack, once the director hit upon the idea, they were off and running. ”He came in the next day, 9am, with a legal pad of the entire re-conception,” she recalled. From there, they worked through the editing period, stopping once a week to screen its current iteration in full. “It was like a pendulum, where we’d go too non-linear, not non-linear enough,” Flack said, and Soderbergh concurred: “This was a war of attrition— it was two yards at a time, we’re grinding this out, trying to map the loops within loops.”
Beyond the stylistic bravado and experimentation, Soderbergh recalled, was a fair amount of fear and desperation. “Out of Sight” was his first success in several years, coming out of a “wilderness period” after his debut smash “sex, lies, and videotape.” Shooting “The Limey,” he said, “felt like, Oh, things are starting to move in the right direction. And then to get in a situation early on where I felt like the movie was not working at all, that this thing was just gonna fly into a mountain… So any avenue that looked like there was daylight, we were chasing. I was just chasing, like, anything that works.”
One of the “things that worked” was the score, by Soderbergh’s frequent composer Cliff Martinez. “My memory, which is actually etched in Jello, is that we got a piece of music from Cliff at a certain point that really helped Sarah and I establish the feeling of it,” he said. “It was that piano piece, that two-note, off-tune repetitive piano piece. It… sounded like memory, that’s the only way I can describe it. And in my mind, it opened up, like, Oh my god, you can put any sequence of images in any order up against that piece of music and it’ll kind of work. And that I remember as being another way of saying, Okay, we’re getting closer to some… thing.”
Overall, he found the film’s unraveling and rebuilding to a positive experience. “The process of completely divesting yourself of any original expectation was not only in this case necessary, but kind of constructive,” he explained. “It was it was a clinic in the ways you have to remove your ego from the creative process in order to solve a problem.”
The actors, however, were not fully prepared for the retooling. Both Terence Stamp and Leslie Ann Warren first saw the film at its premiere, with no hint of what they were in for. “Well, it was a shock!” laughed Warren. “The screening was the first time I saw it, and it was a very emotional thing to see it in that way, to take in what Steven was doing.”
Stamp, in a video message before the Q&A, recalled a similar shock – and response. “I was really taken aback,” he said, “because I realized that Steven was like, kind of a genius. I really would have to put him up there with [William] Wyler and [Federico] Fellini.”
Luis Guzman, however, had worked with Soderbergh on “Out of Sight,” and was thus privy to a peek at the earlier, linear version. “I watched it and I thought, Oh wow, this is a pretty cool movie,” he explained. “Then I was shooting a movie in New York a few months later, and it was the night that ‘The Limey’ opened up. I had a four-hour break, and there was a theater around the corner showing ‘The Limey,’ so I went in to watch it. And it was a totally, completely different movie! The thing that was amazing to me was how they put this incredible puzzle together – and how it all worked.”
Cinematographer Edward Lachman, on the other hand, wasn’t too surprised, half-joking, “I didn’t totally understand what we were doing when we were shooting!” But he had a hint of where Soderbergh might land. “The references he gave me were ‘Point Blank’ and ‘Get Carter,’” Lachman said, “and ‘Point Blank’ is this disjunctive, fractured world visually, so I knew you already had an inclination to thinking that way.”
Among his other influences, Soderbergh mentioned Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which he called “a movie that really altered the landscape. Even Jean-Luc Godard, when he saw ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ for the first time, said, Well, he just changed everything. And what that film – which is a masterpiece – did and what we were interested in trying to do are things that only movies can do.
“And that, I think, is the most pleasurable aspect of this experience, is that it’s doing something that really only movies can do. You can’t write that, it can’t be a play, it can’t be a dance. It’s something that only cinema, only the grammar of cinema, can really get at. Which is why I think people are still emotional when they talk about movies, when they talk about What is cinema? Even this whole argument that’s been going on for the last few weeks, you know, Scorsese and the whole Marvel thing and all that stuff, I look at it and go, I’m just glad we’re having this conversation. I’m glad we’re even talking about, what is cinema, what does movies mean? I’m glad we’re having this discussion.”
Picture courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center and Sean DiSerio.