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Adapting the classic science-fiction novel Solaris for the screen, Steven Soderbergh, found in it something very different from Hollywood’s usual sci-fi epics, with producer James Cameron's encouragement. Eleanor Singer finds out what intrigued the director, and how his production partner, George Clooney, wrote him a letter to ask for the lead role.

“I’ve been lucky because Steven has worked in so many genres,” says prediction-defying Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh’s regular production designer, Philip Messina. “His films have been so varied in their look and their approach. Erin Brockovich had a blue-collar look to it while Traffic had a vérité approach, and Ocean’s Eleven had a very slick Vegas look. Now he’s taken me into space!”

"a way of exploring more philosophical issues"

Messina is speaking on the 150-foot-by-200-foot space station set of Solaris, Soderbergh’s new film, which indeed marks the director’s first foray into science fiction. But Solaris is emphatically not a movie about light sabres and intergalactic battles. It is based on a novel by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, which has previously been filmed (in 1972) by none other than Andrei Tarkovsky. And, while western writers (and directors) are generally drawn to the genre by the opportunity to imagine the future and create epic confrontations, Eastern European writers tend to view science fiction as a way of exploring more philosophical issues - issues such as right and wrong, the limits (and possibilities) of time, and the nature of the human soul.

All of which suited Soderbergh. “I hadn’t ever come near sci-fi before, mostly because the hardware aspects of the genre don’t really interest me,” he says. “I’m not interested in making a film about what technology is going to be like a few decades from now.”

Which is not to say that Solaris - set aboard a space station whose crew have abruptly broken off communication with Earth and seem to be threatened by some mysterious force - is not both scary and exciting. As one would expect from the producer - Titanic director James Cameron, who very definitely has had prior experience of sci-fi - the film dramatises the dilemma of the crew of space station Prometheus in a direct and enthralling way.

“Jim knows narrative backwards and forwards,” says Soderbergh respectfully. “He really understands how to set up and pay off a story. I would meet with him about Solaris and we would have three-hour conversations about the story, about technology, about what the future is going to be like, about space travel, and issues like isolation and sensory deprivation, because he’s studied all of it. I would tape our conversations and transcribe them and highlight things that I thought could find their way into the film, whether it was a sentence or an idea – anything I thought might stick.”

"a fiction of ideas, a fiction of people"

Even so, as Cameron is the first to insist, “This is not an action film and people need to know that going in. This is science fiction the way science fiction used to be back in the fifties and sixties, when it was a fiction of ideas, a fiction of people.”

The idea that threatens the people on board Prometheus emanates from the strange planet of Solaris, which they are in space to study. A constantly changing world which appears to have an intelligence of its own, the planet also seems to know more about the crew than they do themselves. Tapping into their deepest-seated concerns, it recreates them and gives them - or appears to give them - the chance to relive and reshape key moments in their past lives.

Dr Chris Kelvin (played by George Clooney) is sent to the Prometheus to sort things out after an appeal from the mission’s previous leader, Gibarian (German actor Ulrich Tukur), an old friend of Kelvin’s. But when he arrives on Prometheus, Kelvin finds that Gibarian has committed suicide and that the two remaining crew members - Snow (Jeremy Davies) and Gordon (Viola Davies) - are showing signs of major stress. Before long Kelvin, too, begins to feel the pull of Solaris, as it enables him to revisit his own past and confront the most painful episode in it: the suicide of his wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone).

“From the moment Kelvin enters the space station, you know that there is great jeopardy there,” says Cameron. “You don’t understand the nature of the danger right away: you think that it could be anything - there could be a monster there, a murderer. It turns out the jeopardy is to one’s sanity. This film takes you to the farthest reaches of the universe, and what you find there is yourself. Kelvin is confronted with his own memory, a replay of the things he’s gone through, his guilt, his culpability, the mistakes that he made. And he gets the opportunity to change it - or maybe not.”

"no answers, only choices"

“The theme of predestination is crucial,” explains Soderbergh. “Kelvin and Rheya’s relationship had ended very badly. When she appears on the Prometheus, they both struggle with the idea of the relationship travelling the same path it did before. Those issues of memory, guilt, potential redemption and the opportunity to do something again and maybe do it differently, appealed to me. As one character says at a certain point in the film, ‘There are no answers, only choices’. And it really does come down to that.”

For Soderbergh himself, the choice was not a difficult one to make. A friend at Fox suggested he might be interested in making a film based on Lem’s novel. Fascinated by its themes, Soderbergh discovered that the rights were held by Cameron’s company, Lightstorm, following a five-year negotiation with Mosfilm which, as the continuation of the old Soviet state film studio, held the rights.

The two met, talked about the project and discovered that they shared many of the same ideas about it, most notably the fact that, unlike most Hollywood sci-fi stories, it was a psychological study rather than an adventure story. “It had a whole other dimension,” says Cameron. “It’s a very personal story. Much of it takes place in the mind and in the memory, so you could find many different ways to interpret it.”
Soderbergh figured he had a way, but set one condition before agreeing to make the film. “I told them I had an idea of how to do this,” he says, “but I wanted to write the screenplay on spec; I didn’t want to make a deal to do it. I explained my approach and what I wanted to focus on and the ways in which I thought it would be different from the book and different from Tarkovsky’s movie.”

“This was Steven’s ballgame from the get-go,” adds Cameron. “He went off and wrote the script, essentially in a vacuum. We didn’t tell him what we thought it should be. We didn’t sit down and talk about whether it should be an effects film or not. We just waited to see what he came back with. And his initial script blew us away.”

"a tragic love story"

For Soderbergh, Solaris is a tragic love story and the story of a space mission that goes wrong - in that order. “The biggest difference between this incarnation of Solaris and Tarkovsky’s film and the novel,” he notes, “is that our film details the past relationship between Kelvin and his wife - with what happened to them on Earth years before. That’s what I really wanted to get into. I felt if you were going to explore this idea of whether or not you’re doomed to play out a relationship the same way every time with the same person, then you had to see what happened to them before.”

For the role of Rheya, Soderbergh found himself thinking back to an early performance by an actress who has gone on to become a Hollywood star: British-born Natascha McElhone. The film he remembered was James Ivory’s Surviving Picasso, in which McElhone plays the painter’s mistreated lover, Françoise, mother of Paloma. “She reminded me of the great European actresses of the sixties and seventies, like Jeanne Moreau and Dominique Sanda,” he says. “They were smart, sexy, complicated women. Not girls – women.”

Although the casting of Clooney may seem inevitable, given the relationship between the director and the star (they run the production company Section Eight), it didn’t really happen like that. In fact, it was Clooney who all but lobbied Soderbergh to let him play the part, which is very different from anything he has done before.

“I sent Steven a letter and said ‘I don’t know if I can do it, but I’d like to take a crack at it’,” says the star. “This is really an actor’s piece and it’s the most difficult and scariest thing I’ve ever done by far. As an actor, if you’re going to go way out on a limb, you’re going to want to do that with Steven. He’s good at being very specific, which is what good directors do; there’s always a point of view.”

Soderbergh, meanwhile, found himself looking at a whole new George Clooney. “When you see somebody that you know well and that you’ve worked with do something that surprises you almost every day, it’s pretty thrilling,” he says. “George would keep pushing his performance and taking it further. I live for working with actors, so watching that was incredibly exciting. His complete willingness to jump off a cliff every day was inspiring.”

"really good, smart questions"

Clooney could do this, reckons the actor, because he found the themes of Solaris every bit as fascinating as did Soderbergh. “What makes Solaris relevant today,” he says, “is that it deals with the basic issues we constantly question and wonder about: love, death, the after-life… the things we don’t have any answers to. We want to define things, and those things we can’t define terrify us. We want to know how high is up, how old is eternity. Everything we know as humans has limits – a beginning, middle and an end.

“No one in this story has answers,” he says conclusively. “They just have really good, smart questions.”

Published February 27, 2003

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George Clooney in Solaris


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