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Out of Sight

“I’d like to believe that when people come out of a movie, the thing they carry with them are characters and scenes between people as opposed to stuff falling down or blowing up,” says director Steven Soderbergh in Los Angeles. His seventh film, Out of Sight, is summer movie counter-programming: a smart crime film buoyed by an unexpectedly touching romance between a career bank robber (George Clooney) and a determined Federal Marshal (Jennifer Lopez).

It’s also the latest movie adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s highly addictive mystery novels. While Leonard’s plots are full of unexpected twists (often ending with a neat bit of poetic justice), he’s admired more for his strikingly idiosyncratic characters, relentlessly quirky, dead-on dialogue, and bits of pithy black comedy.

“Personally, I think it’s fun to look at Get Shorty and Jackie Brown and Out of Sight,” says Soderbergh, “that’s a real textbook in what a filmmaker does when they take a piece of material and filter it through their aesthetic and make it their own. Because these are three different films, and yet they don’t feel so different that you’re not aware that Elmore Leonard wrote them. That’s part of what you do: you bring yourself into it and hope you meet Elmore Leonard half way.”

Even before the Birmingham-based Leonard gained a sizable reading audience with 1985’s Glitz (his 23rd novel), his work made its way to Hollywood, and he spent a number of years adapting his books into screenplays. “The idea of writing a novel, you’re the only one you have to please,” Elmore Leonard explains, “but once you get into screenwriting, my God, there’s this collaborative effort. You’ve got to please nearly everyone involved.”

These adaptations have been a mixed bag, but the tide turned with Get Shorty (1995), which was a critical and commercial success. Leonard has since passed the screenwriting duties to others. “I look at it as a lot more work,” he says, “and I don’t feel like I have the room to move around and have fun in the format of the screenplay.”

Leonard did keep his hand in the filmmaking process enough to pass along suggestions to screenwriter Scott Frank, who adapted both Get Shorty and Out of Sight. “I’ve been stealing from Elmore Leonard for so long before I started adapting his books, my head was already there,” says Frank with a laugh.

“If anything, I think maybe I understand what works about them as books,” Frank continues, “and what needs to happen to them to work as a movie. What’s so delicious about the books is that it’s all happenstance. Elmore will tell you that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen when he sits down to write every day, and the books feel like that in a great way. But for a film, you have 120 minutes and so you have to give structure to that, while still keeping the sense of fun and unpredictability.”

“[Leonard] has a knack for the tiny detail that tells the whole story,” adds Soderbergh, “and I think that’s what makes him so appealing from a filmmaking standpoint and an actor’s standpoint. It’s not hard to get actors for Elmore Leonard stuff because everybody has a moment where they get to shine.”

One such actor is George Clooney (ER), who describes himself as a huge Leonard fan. Clooney’s rewarding experience with Out of Sight came after a disappointing Batman & Robin, which taught him “that the next project I do, I have to have more responsibility in the script.” After he had signed on, the original director Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black) bowed out and took on an executive producer role, and Clooney participated in the search for a new director along with the producers at Jersey Films (Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, and Stacey Sher).

“The conversation was, ‘It’s got to be a character director,’ because the secret to doing Elmore Leonard is not doing story or plot because that doesn’t matter in his books,” recalls Clooney. “It’s great characters: that’s the secret.”

“I had to pursue it and convince them that I was the guy, because it was a popular project and there were other people being approached and considered,” says Soderbergh, whose most recent films (Gray’s Anatomy and Schizopolis) were low budget and more experimental than his previous work.

For the director, everything lined up: Soderbergh was happy with the script, lead actor, producers, and the studio (he’d also made King of the Hill and The Underneath for Universal). The prospect of making a high profile, big studio film also appealed to him. “Every nine years, I think that’s fair, to make a movie that people go to see, that doesn’t seem greedy to me,” says Soderbergh, whose only breakaway hit was his 1989 debut, sex, lies and videotape.

“It’s harder in some ways than making movies off in a corner with nobody watching, but there are benefits as well,” he continues. “This is the first time I’ve ever made a film where I knew when it was going to be released: four of the six films that I made prior to this did not have distributors when they were being shot. But there are other pressures that come with that. You have a lot of people coming at you a lot, and making a movie with movie stars for a studio is not for the faint-hearted.”

Although Soderbergh says this film wasn’t more logistically complicated than his highly stylized Kafka (1991), the multiple locations “made it feel that it was bigger than it was.” In addition to location shooting in Florida and Louisiana, Out of Sight marks the first time a Leonard book set in Detroit was actually filmed in Detroit. (No surprise since co-producer Danny DeVito previously made Hoffa and Renaissance Man here.)

At the end of last year, cast and crew filmed in Detroit and Oakland County neighborhoods, as well as the State Theatre and Kronk Gym, where they had to rebuild the boxing ring in the upstairs gym because the basement’s low ceiling couldn’t accommodate the necessary lights. Several locales were photographed in detail and then recreated on a Los Angeles sound stage, including the interior of the palatial home where the film’s final robbery scene takes place, and the rotating cocktail lounge atop the Renaissance Center’s Westin as well as a hotel room where Lopez and Clooney’s characters drop their roles as cop and criminal for a “time out” (witness the perfectly falling snow outside the curved windows).

“If you’re going from Florida to Detroit, you should really feel it,” Soderbergh says of the stark, blue-tinged Detroit exteriors. “I love that first shot where you’re going down the street and it says ‘Detroit,’ and it’s that slate gray, and you go, ‘Oooh, that looks cold.’ That’s a real Seventies movie feel to me, guys sitting in cars freezing.”

Even though some of the characters were changed through casting (“redneck” Buddy is played by Ving Rhames) and a minor figure was significantly beefed-up in this movie adaptation, Elmore Leonard asserts these things just don’t matter to him. “I’m not concerned with how closely they’re adapted,” he says of his books, “I’m concerned with whether it’s a good movie or not, and it’s a good movie.” The principal characters, played by Clooney and Lopez, are “not the way I envisioned them on the page,” Leonard adds, “but they’re perfect.”

Jennifer Lopez (Selena) in particular threw herself into the role of the Federal Marshal, training with various police officers and becoming particularly adept at handling firearms. “I want to make her really kick-ass in some sort of way,” says Lopez, “so for two-and-a-half months before we started shooting, I went to the firing range and hung out with these people and got to talk to them and just observe them. So then you start picking up physicalities and all different kinds of stuff from them.”

“She was attractive and sexy, but you just bought her as a cop,” Soderbergh says of Lopez, “I thought, ‘I buy her as a hard-ass’.” The juxtaposition of a woman wearing sleek designer clothes and carrying a shotgun is just the most obvious expression of the dueling qualities present in all Elmore Leonard’s characters.

“I don’t judge my characters,” he says, “I don’t make any judgments about what they’re doing. It’s up to the reader to accept them or not. My good guy isn’t always good. My cop tends to cut corners; he doesn’t go by the book always. Because that’s the way it is.”

That attitude appealed greatly to Don Cheadle, who plays a remarkable charismatic killer in Devil in a Blue Dress, and takes an equally deadly role in Out of Sight. “What I try to bring to it,” Cheadle explains, “is a take on it that will allow people to want to hang out with that guy, and then be appalled that they could even think they could want to hang out with that guy. That’s the kind of snap-back that I try to get when I’m playing a bad guy.”

“I love that Mother Teresa quote where somebody was asking her how she could be so wonderful and so angelic and so giving and so caring,” Don Cheadle recalls, “and she said, ‘Because I’m also Hitler.’ And that’s the reality, you know? That’s the dichotomy that we are, and if you ever just try and play one or the other, you’re too easily written off.”

Interview by Serena Donadoni
First published in the Metro Times, 2000.