Sci Fi film is a hard sell for studio and filmmakers

Two Oscar-winning directors have joined forces to make a serious and complex science-fiction film called “Solaris,” and all you probably know about this film is that George Clooney shows his naked behind in it.

The star’s rear bumper was at the center of a controversy a few weeks ago when the movie was slapped with an “R” rating. The restrictive rating was appealed and the filmmakers won a more inclusive PG-13 rating. You must have heard about it; it was a big news story.

And the fact that it was a big news story probably was no accident.

“I think it was orchestrated (by the studio’s marketing department) if you ask me,” an amused Clooney said. “There is a huge dilemma with how to sell this film, and the marketing on it so far has been pretty dismal. From what I’ve seen, the trailers and commercials have nothing to do with the film.”

“Solaris,” which opens today, has been sold as a love story, with the space station setting incidental.

And, make no mistake, it is a love story set on a space station.

But Clooney, director Steven Soderbergh and producer James Cameron (the Oscar-winner for “Titanic”) think there is more to the $47 million film than a simple love story.

Based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film, “Solaris” takes place at an unspecified future date aboard a space station orbiting a planet that seems to possess the power to read people’s minds.

Clooney, 41, plays a psychologist sent to the space station after the station chief has committed suicide and the remaining two crewmembers are reported to be acting strangely. When he arrives, he discovers each crewmember has been visited by someone mysteriously conjured from their thoughts and memories. Clooney’s character comes face-to-face with his deceased wife.

“The movie probably won’t open great [at the box office,]” Clooney said with his usual candor. “It will probably do modest business at best. It won’t appeal to the masses because it asks questions of the audience that movies don’t ordinarily ask.

“It’s a tough movie to sell,” he added. “They’re spinning their wheels on this one. I think they’re happy for anything that can get them some ink, and I suspect that is why you’ve heard so much about my butt.”

Soderbergh, who picked up an Academy Award for directing “Traffic,” said he was stunned that the film originally got an “R” rating.

“It was unexpected because I intentionally backed off from some of the more overt sexual stuff to make the film more romantic,” he said. “It certainly didn’t feel like an ‘R’ after that, particularly when you compare it to what else is rated PG-13. I thought we should be able to get in there, too.”

Even with the new rating, which may increase the potential audience of a movie, Soderbergh agreed with Clooney that it is a hard movie to market.

“It is a tough movie to figure out how to sell,” the director said. “The studio is very anxious about that. It’s not an easy film to talk about, even for me. I can’t tell yet if talking about the themes of this film are a turn-on or a turn-off for the audience. But we knew going in that this was going to be difficult.”

As for the excessive news coverage of Clooney’s posterior, Soderbergh, 39, said it could be a blessing in disguise.

“I guess we’ll have to see how much awareness it raises,” he said with a smile. “But I understand how it happened. It’s hard to talk about the cosmos without getting back to George’s butt at some point.”

Clooney and Soderbergh have worked as an acting-directing team three times – in this film, on “Oceans 11” and in the 1998 movie “Out of Sight.” But as producers, they are becoming a force in Hollywood.

Through their company, Section Eight, they produced Robin Williams’ “Insomnia,” directed by Christopher Nolan of “Memento” fame, as well as the current Oscar favorite “Far From Heaven” and the upcoming “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” which Clooney directed.

Clooney said the two men became friends during the filming of “Out of Sight,” and found that they shared “similar sensibilities.”

“Although it seems as if we have nothing in common” (Clooney is an extrovert, Soderbergh is bookish) “we think the same things are funny and important.”

The actor said the partnership has been successful, not only because they have the same sense of humor but because of their combined clout in Hollywood.

“As a team, we’re sort of the 800-pound chimpanzee around town, which means we get things we want, like final cut on a movie. When we get final cut, we give it back to the director. That was the whole idea, to help other filmmakers.”

When Soderbergh decided to make his own version of the Russian film he first saw when he was 16, he didn’t consider his business partner. In fact, he thought first of Daniel Day-Lewis.

However, Day-Lewis was busy with Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and Soderbergh said he never even approached him about the role. Still, he didn’t think about Clooney, although he sent the actor a copy of the script because he was his producing partner.

“I thought he could do it, but I didn’t know if George thought he could do it now,” the director said. “Maybe in a year or two, when he was in a place in his career when he was more comfortable and had more faith in his skills, he would realize that he could do it.”

A month later, while Soderbergh was editing “Ocean’s 11,” a messenger showed up at his office with a letter from Clooney.

“George is a notorious letter-writer, particularly when he’s mad, and my first thought was that I had given an interview and said something I wasn’t supposed to.

“Then I opened the letter and it said, `I think I would like to try to do this.’

“As soon as I read the letter, I knew he was ready to play this role. Just the fact that he asked the question meant he was ready to take the leap. And his performance proves that I was right. It puts him in a totally different category as an actor. In terms of his career, this is his ‘Five Easy Pieces.'”

Clooney said he see no point in pursuing a career without taking risks.

“I have all the money I need, so I might as well take chances,” he said. “If I fall flat on my face, then at least I know I tried.

“And, if that day happens, it won’t be so bad. I’ll be back on ‘Hollywood Squares.'”