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Sunday, August 15, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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King Of The Hill? -- New Projects Prove Steven Soderbergh's First Success No Fluke; Seeks The John Huston Type Of Career

Steven Soderbergh followed up his hard-to-miss 1989 debut, "sex, lies, and videotape," with a second movie, "Kafka," that disappointed most critics and kept audiences away.

But the writer-director is back this month with two films that demonstrate the sophomore jinx is over.

"King of the Hill," perhaps the strongest closing-night movie the Seattle International Film Festival has ever had, begins a regular run Friday at the Egyptian. "The Quiet Room," a well-received half-hour episode Soderbergh directed for the cable-television film-noir series, "Fallen Angels," makes its debut at 10 p.m. Aug. 29 on Showtime.

With these efforts, Soderbergh proves his startling success with "sex, lies and videotape" at age 26 was not a fluke. Now 30, he is definitely not a one-hit wonder.

Relies on a child

Neither of the new projects is a repeat of anything he's done before. Indeed, "King of the Hill," which is based on A.E. Hotchner's memoir about growing up during the Depression, is the first Soderbergh movie that isn't primarily about adults. It depends on the child actor playing 12-year-old Aaron.

"I feared the worst when I thought about a child appearing not only in every scene but having to carry the film," said Soderbergh during his festival visit. "It was a little scary. I was prepared to dispense with any sense of style, to get a performance in the editing room if I needed to."

That turned out to be unnecessary. Soderbergh found a 13-year-old boy, Jesse Bradford, who has the kind of movie-star quality that Henry Thomas brought to "E.T." and Anton Glanzelius gave "My Life as a Dog." Although he played Harrison Ford's son in "Presumed Innocent" and Robert De Niro's son in "Falling in Love," Bradford had never landed a leading role before.

"Jesse's had the experience and he's been on a film set, but he's still instinctual," said Soderbergh. "He shares many things with Aaron. In talking to him, I realized he was more like Aaron than anyone else we'd seen. Part of him he was keeping to himself. There's a veil there; he wasn't really going to let me in. That was so important with this character. It also happens to reflect my taste in acting and in people."

Gifted actor

That sense of mystery was accompanied by an ability to play lengthy scenes without interruption. Soderbergh ended up filming long, complicated master takes the way he did with Jeremy Irons in "Kafka."

"Jesse's so gifted, I'd forget he's a 13-year-old," said Soderbergh. "He's handsome and arresting to look at, but fortunately he doesn't walk around with that knowledge. It looks like it doesn't matter to him. He's quite a normal kid in many ways, and at the end of the six-day week he'd get tired. We shot in St. Louis for eight weeks, and he was there the whole time for everything."

Also on the set was Hotchner, who told Soderbergh, "If I looked like Jesse, I wouldn't have had any problems getting the girls." Hotchner also came up with a few autobiographical details, not in the book, that Soderbergh used to flesh out the story.

The supporting cast is a mixture of familiar and unknown faces: Jeroen Krabbe and Lisa Eichhorn as Aaron's cash-poor parents, Karen Allen as his schoolteacher, Cameron Boyd as his younger brother, Spalding Gray and Amber Benson as his hotel neighbors, Elizabeth McGovern as a cheeky prostitute, Joseph Chrest as a watchful bellboy and Adrien Brody as Aaron's delinquent friend, Lester.

Soderbergh read the Hotchner book in 1986 and immediately "just locked into the kid. I was really confused by adults when I was growing up. I shared his sense that adult behavior was mysterious, inexplicable. I don't like voiceover narration but I wanted to keep Aaron's voice in the movie, so I incorporated as much of the interior dialogue as I could."

The look of the film was inspired by Edward Hopper's paintings, which are so elongated that Soderbergh decided to make "King of the Hill" his first CinemaScope movie: "Looking at the Hopper stuff, I became attracted to that very rectangular frame. It makes the film look richer, and it's fun to fill the frame. You get that first image, it's so wide, you know you're in a theater to watch a movie."

Unlike many filmmakers who talk about scripts they never shoot, Soderbergh is keeping most of his promises.

"I'm not a developer," he said. "I don't set up what I don't intend to make. My enthusiasm for `Kafka' and `King of the Hill' never waned at all, and I'm still planning to do a film about the beginnings of pro football in the 1920s."

As for making the "Fallen Angels" episode for Showtime: "There was no money and it was a quick shoot. It was like working off-off-off Broadway, but I learned a lot.

And what of the future for this young filmmaker who's already had so much success?

"I envision making a lot of different kinds of films. I don't see myself as a Fellini or an Altman, pushing the boundaries of the language of film. I'm not that kind of filmmaker, although after `sex, lies, and videotape' that's what people assumed I'd be."

What, then, does he intend to be?

"I want the (John) Huston kind of career. He was never hip, never trendy, yet he remained relevant to the very end of his career. It will take a couple more films to figure out what my plan is."

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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