How ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ Changed Indie Filmmaking Forever

Andie MacDowell in "sex, lies, and videotape"

It began with three brief items in his notebooks. “A film about deception and lost earrings,” went one. “Everybody has a past,” went another. And finally, “Friend on the couch. Affair with the wife.” The filmmaker jotted down those three ideas in 1986; three years later, the movie those three ideas spawned became the sensation of the nascent Sundance Film Festival, the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and an international box office smash. The young writer/director was Steven Soderbergh, the film was sex, lies, and videotape, and its release 25 years ago was, author Peter Biskind would later write, “the big bang of the modern indie film movement.”

It was “the serpent-apple-Adam and Eve moment for indie films,” Soderbergh’s contemporary Whit Stillman told me, “so commercially successful that the industry decided that indie films could be a business.” Stillman was one of the many filmmakers who benefited from this new climate; his three pictures of the decade (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco) were intimate, personal, talky – the kind of thing you rarely saw in the slicked-up, lightning-paced ‘80s unless they were accompanied by subtitles. But the independent films of the 1990s were risky, provocative, and exciting enough to warrant comparison to the studio pictures of the 1970s — and sex, lies was their Easy Rider.

Its impact wasn’t just felt by Soderbergh and his fellow filmmakers. sex, lies was a turning point for two of the most ubiquitous forces of the ‘90s indie movement: the Sundance Film Festival, which premiered it, and Miramax Films, which distributed it. Both were barely a blip on the industry radar in 1989; by the end of the next decade, they were cottage industries, the top of any would-be Soderbergh’s career wish list. But in 1987, even Steven Soderbergh didn’t know where the hell he was going.

“I had seen a lot of films as a child,” Soderbergh told Film Comment in 1989. “My dad would let me see anything.” His father, a dean at LSU, enrolled the movie-crazy 13-year-old in an animation class. “I could draw really well,” he recalled, “but it immediately became apparent that it was too much work for too little result. I made two things that were six seconds long and said, ‘This is bullshit.’ And so I just started shooting.”

After high school, Soderbergh moved to Los Angeles. He did odd jobs in the industry, freelanced, and returned to Louisiana after 18 months, feeling like a failure. Jobs would still come his way; a music video he edited for Yes got him a gig directing their concert film (which was nominated for a Grammy). He got an agent, and was hired to write a few screenplays and do some rewrites. But his mind kept wandering back to another, more personal story.

“I was involved in a relationship with a woman in which I was deceptive and mentally manipulative,” he would recall. “I got involved with a number of other women simultaneously — I was just fucking up.” He became immersed in a web of his own lies: “Boy I was wriggling. I was wriggling. I could backpedal like you wouldn’t believe.” He tried therapy; it didn’t take. Ultimately, he decided to remove himself from the situation, and his environment. “I sold everything I had, I except my books, put some belongings in a car and decided to give Los Angeles another shot.”

Laura San Giacomo in "sex, lies, and videotape"

During that drive, and in the days immediately preceding and following it, Soderbergh wrote the first draft of a screenplay. It centered on four people: Graham, a drifter with a mysterious past and a sexual dysfunction that he satisfies by videotaping women talking about sex; John, his old college friend who has become a successful lawyer; John’s buttoned-up wife Ann, fascinated by Graham but repelled by his tapes; and Ann’s sister Cynthia, who is having an affair with John. The John-Cynthia-Ann deception is a bomb waiting to go off; Graham’s penetration of their group lights the fuse.

Soderbergh banged out the script in just eight days (though he would later note, “I thought about it for a year, literally”). “It came so fast,” he told Rolling Stone. “I just wanted it dealt with. I didn’t know if anybody would read it. I didn’t know if my agent would say, ‘I can’t send this out.’ It just seemed too personal.”

Considering the climate he was working in, you can’t blame Soderbergh for hesitating. The old adage that “sex sells” didn’t really apply in the late 1980s, at least when it came to movies; onscreen sexuality in the period was mostly alarmist (the cautionary likes of Fatal Attraction) or coy (the silhouetted, PG-13 sensuality of Top Gun). The sexiest movie in 1988’s box office top ten is probably Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Soderbergh recently joked that watching sex, lies now “must be like watching something from the Victorian era.” It is — but not in the way he means. Part of the reason that it made the impact it did, at the moment it did, was out of simple novelty; in a climate where intimacy was mostly an abstract idea, here was a movie where people had (or didn’t have) sex, and talked about it, with a frankness that was refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary.

Once he arrived in Los Angeles and completed the script, he asked his friends (and film industry pros) Bob and Deborah Newmeyer for advice on a list of titles he’d devised. In a journal entry from New Year’s Eve, 1987, he writes: “Bob said without hesitation that Sex, Lies (actually that looks better lowercase) sex, lies, and videotape is by far the best title.”