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

by Jason Bailey.


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.

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