40 Things We Learned From ‘The Limey’ Commentary

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You know, I know, we all know Steven Soderbergh doesn’t do anything by the book. Say what you will about his film making prowess, he’s always looking at a different way of getting a shot, laying out a scene, or structuring an entire feature film. Why should it be any less abnormal when Soderbergh lays down a commentary track. Such is the case with this commentary for The Limey.

Knowing full well before actually hearing it that this commentary track is little more than director Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs going at each other about film making as a whole and how this collaboration worked out, I’m not expecting cute anecdotes from the set or a play-by-play of the events transpiring on screen. How cute can Terence Stamp really be anyway? Instead, what is expected is a 90-minute barrage of verbal jousting and back-and-forth between a director and an apparently malcontent screenwriter. Sounds like a right robin time, innit?

The Limey (1999)

Commentators: Steven Soderbergh (director), Lem Dobbs (writer), a general sense of aggravation:

  • Like the introduction to Peter Fonda’s character, Jerry Valentine, the first 60 seconds of The Limey’s commentary track is a preview of what we’re going to get over the course of the next 90 minutes. The first thing we hear is an engineer saying, “We are rolling.” followed by what can only be described as a montage of anger from Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs. Dobbs notes he made sure his screenplay only had “one instance of Cockney, rhyming slang”, Soderbergh says something “grounded the movie to a halt”, and Dobbs is heard being particularly angry with someone at Variety. The recording shuts off and starts back up. The engineer says, “We are rolling.” a second time, and the commentary begins.
  • Dobbs refers to screenwriting as a “hopeless profession”. He says both Robert Town and Alain Robbe-Grillet were each disappointed with Chinatown and Last Year at Marienbad, respectively and how the directors on each those films ruined their screenplays. “If the screenwriters on Last Year at Marienbad and Chinatown can complain about what directors did, then what do you expect?”
  • Soderbergh mentions he thinks “this one turned out better than the first one”. He’s referring to collaborations with Dobbs, who had previously written Kafka, which Soderbergh directed. Dobbs jokes that about the third time being the charm and that he’d give Soderbergh another chance. That third chance would, in 2011, end up being Haywire. You be the judge if that was, in fact, “the charm”.
  • At 1:45, Soderbergh asks the engineer how they’re doing. The engineer says, “Perfect. We’re gonna pick up from there. We’ll punch back in.” The recording then shuts off followed by a third “We are rolling”.
  • Dobbs tells how any screenplay could have been picked up and done completely different by another director. He mentions he had tried to get The Limey made a few years prior. He had given an earlier draft of the screenplay – what Dobbs calls “the original, naive, adolescent version” – to Robert Aldrich’s secretary to pass on to the aging director. “I still think to this day if one thing had led to another and he had read it and liked it and called me and somehow the movie had gotten made it would have added years to his life. It would have resurrected his critical reputation,” says the screenwriter. Aldrich never got back to him and, instead, made what Dobbs considers “horrible movies”. He thinks Aldrich would have taken a more straightforward, B-movie approach to the film.
  • Every time Soderbergh showed a version of his film to Dobbs, the screenwriter told the director he wasn’t going far enough with the “fragmented” way Soderbergh chose to tell the straightforward story. Dobbs understands why Soderbergh did it this way. While the screenwriter notes some feel The Limey is derived from 1967’s Point Blank, he thinks it takes notes from many films of the ’60s as well as certain experimental films. Soderbergh notes he was looking for a way to make the delivery of information to the audience less traditional. Dobbs believes the fragmented nature to be more a literary device than cinematically stylish.
  • “I’ve always thought one of the great cliches of film making that you hear people say constantly that I don’t think is true is that, unlike novels, in films you can’t show thinking, which I think is a total lie.” Dobbs says this before mentioning he wanted Soderbergh to get more shots of Terence Stamp being “meditative”. He notes this reflective nature he wanted the director to capture more of is one of the upsides in casting an experienced actor like Stamp.
  • The scene where Stamp gets the gun was originally set at a gun show. Dobbs notes they tried to get this scene in the film, but the production was turned down from filming at any gun show they tried to get into. Dobbs feels the way it plays out now, with Stamp’s Wilson buying a gun from some kids at a school, plays on Wilson’s reactions to American society and how available gun are in our country.
  • Soderbergh points out how distinctive Stamp’s gait is, how the actor kind of lopes along. Dobbs mentions driving in L.A. one day recently and seeing someone with white hair walking in front of a sun-lit wall. He could tell from the person’s walk that it was Stamp.
  • Soderbergh points out how noticeably brighter it is outside than it is inside in the early scene at the warehouse. He notes some directors or cinematographers wouldn’t like this, that they’d attempt to balance it and make it seem more natural. Luckily his cinematographer, Ed Lachman, had been raised on New Wave films and understood what Soderbergh was going for. “I think it’s an aesthetic. If it’s organic to the material, it has an energy that you can’t get when everything is sort of polished and set.”
  • Dobbs talks of the newspapers that printed images of British boxer Henry Cooper the day after he fought Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. Cooper was shown beaten and bloodied. Dobbs thinks that Wilson represents this same type of English gentleman who isn’t afraid to get bloody if need be. “There’s this kind of feeling of blood mingled with a kind of nice guy who you’d probably leave in charge of your kids. If you didn’t have a babysitter, I think you’d entrust your children to the Terence Stamp character in The Limey.”
  • It was scripted for the camera to stay outside the warehouse when Wilson goes back in with his gun. Soderbergh brings this up, to which Dobbs gets angered noting how much credit the director got particularly for this choice. It’s here where Dobbs brings up “that motherfucker from Variety”. Dobbs does then thank Soderbergh for directing it exactly like it was scripted.
  • 14:25 – Dobbs says something about the image of a ’60s icon, I’m assuming Peter Fonda. The word “icon” echoes as Dobbs and Soderbergh begin talking about Fonda. This section on the commentary track is crazy. The audio gets doubled off and on, it speeds up, snippets are edited back and forth and sometimes repeated. It’s only for a minute, as Fonda’s Terry Valentine is being introduced, but it takes a few passes through to get the gist of what’s being said.
  • Early in the production, Soderbergh told Barry Newman, who plays Valentine’s security consultant, Avery, that his character is sort of an ex-wife to Valentine who still hangs around. This brings out a sense of jealousy from the Avery character and explains why he picks at Valentine off and on.
  • Soderbergh brings up the French and British New Wave films of the ’60s and early ’70s. He likes the freedom those films give the film makers, how they weren’t confined by traditional stories or traditional ways of telling stories. He thinks this sense of freedom is still present in film making today, mostly because of the independent wave of American films that came in the ’90s, but admires how mainstream it was in the ’60s and ’70s. Soderbergh notes how the most interesting films 25 years ago were also the most financially successful, but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more.
  • Dobbs asks Soderbergh about casting. The writer remembers talking with the director about actors they liked from the ’60s who they hadn’t seen much of recently. He pulls out a scrap of paper that includes a list of actresses he and Soderbergh talked about for the role of Elaine, which is played in the film by Lesley Ann Warren. Some of the names on the list are Lauren Hutton, Sally Field, and Goldie Hawn. “I think it’s always fun to see if there’s someone out there who you haven’t been exposed to in a while,” says Soderbergh. He does add it works if you do it in a way that’s not too self conscious. That may or may not be a dig at Quentin Tarantino. You be the judge.
  • Soderbergh always appreciated non-linear storytelling. He remembers being introduced to it as a teenager with the New Wave films from France and the UK, and, up to that point, he only understood movies to tell a story from beginning to middle to end. “Even though Citizen Kane is one of the more non-linear movies that you can think of, it doesn’t feel like it, but it is.”
  • One of the subtexts Dobbs was going for with The Limey was the working class going up against capitalism. The American Express billboard and Luis Guzman’s character’s Che Guevara t-shirt are instances of this that were originally in Dobbs’ screenplay. “Oh, it was a political movie?” asks Soderbergh. Dobbs says it was more so than it is now. Evidently Soderbergh cut a lot of this out including Wilson speaking about his “employer” in London and how Fonda’s character is sort of an “employer” in America. Wilson would speak about his boss as sort of a father figure. Soderbergh felt the movie worked better leaving Wilson’s London life in the dark.
  • The lack of detail for many of the characters is Dobbs’ main bone of contention with what Soderbergh did with his script. “When I read reviews that say ‘style over substance’ I blame you. I can’t actually say they’re wrong,” says Dobbs. He does mention there are luckily few reviews that say this about The Limey. He does say the reviews that make him angry are those that blame him for the film being “underwritten”. He then asks Soderbergh if he’d like to discuss his problem with human relationships. “Yeah, this is a great time and place,” responds Soderbergh. The director explains how he sees The Limey as a genre film, how the “spine of the film” was about Wilson and his daughter, and how he didn’t want to detour much away from that.
  • “This is an example of screenwriting and what happens to screenwriters,” says Dobbs before noting a specific moment in the film he doesn’t like. Dobbs imagined Jenny’s picture in Valentine’s house as one picture in a group of them, probably down a long hallway. Soderbergh has it as the only picture at the top of the stairs. Dobbs sees the picture by itself, almost something Valentine keeps where it is as guilt, as the difference between what screenwriters feel is real and what production designers and directors think looks good. He also sees it as “how, as Lawrence Kasdan, I think, once said and as every screenwriter has said, a screenplay can be filmed sometimes word-for-word the way you write it and still be completely not what you have in mind”. Soderbergh casually mentions it wasn’t a location in which a long hallway of pictures would work.
  • Soderbergh wasn’t completely sold on Peter Fonda the first time Dobbs mentioned him for the Valentine part. As Soderbergh remembers, he didn’t think “two stoics would work”. The director only knew Fonda from his screen persona. After having lunch with Fonda, Soderbergh realized how charismatic he was and acquiesced to the decision.
  • “It’s your fetishistic nature, and you want it to be very clear that there’s a side street, but you don’t want any back-story for the human relationships or characters, but, Goddammit, people are gonna know there’s a second way down that hill,” says Dobbs during the scene where Avery is chasing Wilson and Luis Guzman’s Eduardo. Soderbergh responds, “Yeah, I like knowing where people are. I don’t care who they are. I just want to know where they are.”
  • Valentine’s line “I learned how to skate when I was a little boy” was an ad-lib from Fonda. Right after the take Fonda explained to Soderbergh that his parents hired Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie to train him how to ice skate. Evidently the training was a complete failure.
  • “Now why didn’t Amelia Heinle notice that big gap at the top of the stairs with the missing picture?” asks Dobbs, referring back to the picture of Jenny, which is now gone. “She was looking at her feet,” responds Soderbergh, “like I told her to.”
  • Again Dobbs digs into something Soderbergh cut from the screenplay that would have given character back story. The two hitmen played by Joe Dellesandro and Nicky Katt are uncle and nephew. A scene at the sister/mother’s house was cut at the script stage. Dobbs also notes later how he and Soderbergh talked about the film having a theme of family, something Soderbergh backed away from during production. “Now we know why the writer’s guild is always going on strike,” quips Soderbergh to the clearly aggravated Dobbs. The director also mentions later how he does still feel The Limey still hits that theme of family.
  • Soderbergh is not bothered by bad reviews. He says as much after Dobbs mentions his films have certain problems that, if addressed, could win over some of the bad reviews. Soderbergh also notes he’d rather have a character be underwritten than one who is overly explained. He notes he tends to “err on the side of less”. Dobbs agrees that less is more, but that Soderbergh’s execution is wanting.
  • The exchange between Soderbergh and Dobbs over the Cockney rhyming is priceless. Dobbs notes he only had one instance of this in the screenplay but feels Soderbergh and Stamp both fell in love with it and added more moments of it in the film. “There are two more,” responds Soderbergh. “There are three in the entire 90 minutes.” “It’s too much,” says Dobbs. Soderbergh just lets out a “Jesus”. Dobbs says, “David Lean used to say, ‘Never pop out of the same hole twice.’.” Soderbergh responds, “Yeah, he was noted for his short films.”
  • Soderbergh asks Dobbs when he is going to direct a film. Dobbs says that if Soderbergh would get it right, he wouldn’t have to.
  • Soderbergh feels he cut the film to play to its strengths, how that’s all a director can do once they get the shot footage into the editing room. He was most interested in Wilson’s character and notes that the longer he spent with the relationship between Wilson and his daughter, the stronger it got in the film. When he would cut away from that relationship, he felt it became diluted and cut into its strength.
  • Terence Stamp’s character name in Poor Cow was Dave, not Dave Wilson as many critics and even the production notes on The Limey have stated. Wilson was a name Dobbs devised for the film. “It proves an old Hollywood adage, which is ‘Whatever you put out in the production notes, you’ll read back in the reviews.’,” he says. Dobbs and Soderbergh disagree on whether or not Stamp’s character in The Limey is, in fact, the same character he plays in Poor Cow. Dobbs does mention he imagined Wilson’s first name as Henry in the early stages of the screenplay, named after Henry Cooper. See item #12 above.
  • Dobbs and Soderbergh agree mistakes in films can work. A single shot of Peter Fonda that zooms out and quickly pans left is what Soderbergh refers to as “the mistake”. Dobbs mentions how cinematographer Conrad Hall said in an interview that he finds mistakes in his films – lens flares in Cool Hand Luke is the one example given – beautiful. Dobbs also notes how he thinks one of the greatest shots in cinema, John Wayne’s introduction in Stagecoach, is out of focus. Soderbergh states that he’s become less interested in correcting mistakes as his film making years go by.
  • The story Valentine tells his girlfriend, Adhara, about hitting a deer is a true story in Peter Fonda’s book. The scene was shot two different ways, once with Fonda’s story and the other with him telling the story Dobbs had written. Soderbergh notes how Fonda seems much more energetic in the take with his own story. “Yeah, I’ve always said that there’s nothing more boring than being trapped in a room with a well-known raconteur,” says Dobbs. “This is the danger, though. If you do these audio tracks you turn into one of those people,” responds Soderbergh.
  • “For all the complaining I’ve done thus far, it’s nothing compared to the complaining I’m about to do,” warns Dobbs before discussing the cut scene where Ann-Margret plays Valentine’s ex-wife, who delivers a monologue of a tirade against Valentine. Dobbs understands why Soderbergh cut it. Evidently nothing was right about it. Dobbs mentions how the “movie Gods” were against the production of that scene, but he feels it was a very important scene to the overall film, that she served as the “audience identification” character. He also liked how it was Valentine retreating to the past to get away from someone who is coming after him for something he did in the past. Soderbergh felt it grounded the movie to a halt. “But that was your direction of it,” responds Dobbs. “Uh, no. I don’t think so,” says Soderbergh. “I directed the hell out of it.”
  • Dobbs notes how much he hates the little scene between Valentine’s men where they’re talking about the sliding scale. He feels it’s more Tarantino or Barry Levinson and doesn’t fit into The Limey. “But, see, I’m trying to develop character here,” says Soderbergh. Dobbs makes sure we all know he didn’t write that scene.
  • “When you have somebody like Terence it really does help, because you fill in a lot. He just has this certain kind of face and he is a certain age now that, when he looks a certain way, you fill in a back story,” says Soderbergh explaining how Stamp’s performance helps build any back story that might have been cut from the screenplay.
  • Dobbs discusses indie film and how it seems like the industry’s attempt at doing something artistic. He doesn’t see that there is any room for low budget films that still tell straightforward movies. He doesn’t know why there aren’t any good B movies any more or why everything that goes straight to DVD is horrible. “Why isn’t there a Kiss Me Deadly that’s been a straight to video movie?”
  • Soderbergh and Dobbs agree – thank God – on how much they like that The Limey is mostly about older characters. Soderbergh notes that it was an “uphill battle” with Artisan, since most of the characters were over 50. Both the director and the screenwriter agree that they miss that aspect in film. Dobbs likes how “tired” some of the characters are in The Limey and how that feels like some of the Westerns of old.
  • Soderbergh mentions his desire to find the right structuring of a film during editing. He believes it’s in his interest in film grammar that causes him to do it. It’s while Soderbergh is saying this that his voice begins to loop in and out, doubling over itself, and laying on top of something else he’s saying about layers and puzzles. Some of Soderbergh’s commentary from earlier in the track comes in here, as well. It’s all about grammar, particularly non-linear storytelling. Dobbs comes in on this a bit, as well.
  • Over the end credits, Dobbs notes how he is surprised that the entire song from Poor Cow, “Colours”, isn’t on The Limey’s soundtrack. Soderbergh notes that, because it was a complete piece of film rather than an actual recording, they couldn’t afford the rights. Soderbergh mentions that if someone came to him in 20 years and asked to use footage from Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he’s not sure what he would say.
  • Soderbergh mentions how quickly the production on The Limey was, nine months from initial meetings at Artisan to delivering the finished product. Dobbs notes that that’s how movies get made. If the right director comes along to make the right screenplay, then things move quickly. “You were hot that week,” he says to Soderbergh. Soderbergh laughs. At least they leave it on an upbeat note.

Best in Commentary

“I think in terms of The Limey maybe the definition of memory is that it’s a form of regret or a kind of questioning of your entire life. Memory is the path not taken.” – Dobbs

“I tell people, they say to me, ‘Do you like this movie,’ and I have to say, ‘As a completely disinterested, objective film goer, I think it’s a good movie.’ I think if I knew nothing more about it and had nothing to do with it, as a film goer, I would say, ‘That’s a good movie. I’d recommend it to my friends.’ As the screenwriter, I do think it’s crippled.” – Dobbs

“Yeah, but, see, the first one is the only one that matters.” – Soderbergh

Final Thoughts

It’s difficult to make a list of things learned from a commentary track when every sentence spoken by the commentators involved is a gem. The Soderbergh/Dobbs commentary for The Limey is the kind of track where you find yourself writing everything they say verbatim. There’s a lot of verbal sparring throughout. Soderbergh feels he made the best film he could and never has a negative word to say about Dobbs’ screenplay. Dobbs, on the other hand, clearly has issues with the way Soderbergh handled his script. They aren’t wrong issues. They are just his opinion, one of a screenwriter who saw his work being messed with. Dobbs is clearly a screenwriter who is proud of the work he does. So too is Soderbergh on the directing side.

It’s a brilliant, 90-minute piece of audio when two men as intelligent as these two have an equally intelligent debate over a work of art as great as The Limey. It’s so good, in fact, that no article about it can do the actual commentary justice. It needs to be experienced for yourself.

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