A Grand Guy

How Steven Soderbergh kept the Terry Southern tale from turning tragic

March 21, 2003–though he never knew the precise date, it was the very day Nile Southern had been waiting for longer than he cared to remember. On that day, Southern went into the Chelsea Mini-Storage facility on Manhattan's West Side, grabbed the largest dolly he could find–it looked like a small boat with wheels–and began piling box on top of box on top of box, till the scene looked like something out of Citizen Kane. A friend had come along to videotape this moment, because Southern had wanted to document the happy ending to what had become a long, torturous story that began October 29, 1995--when Nile's father, a famous writer of infamous tales, died and bequeathed to him a massive, messy mountain of memories and an equally enormous pile of debt beneath which Nile once thought he might suffocate.

In those boxes were piled the typewritten and hand-scribbled remnants of a legendary career–the unmade screenplays and unpublished essays and unfinished novels of Terry Southern, writer of bawdy, scabrous novels (among them Candyand The Magic Christian) and ribald, satiric films (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, Barbarella) and the man who, perhaps more than any other, thrust the Beat Generation 1950s into the Beatles 1960s. Nile was moving them to their new home, the New York Public Library, which on March 21 opened its doors and welcomed Terry to join such roommates as Vladimir Nabokov and Jack Kerouac, whose archives also rest with the library. This was where Terry, the Texas-born-and-bred maker of trouble and giver of shit, belonged--in the company of other "quality lit" immortals, not a sterile, climate-controlled purgatory. Nile delivered the boxes and felt, for the first time, that his old man was safe.

Nile, a filmmaker and writer himself, had spent years–a damned eternity to him and his wife and two little girls–allowing his father's estimable shadow and debt to stunt his own artistic growth. He tried to find a taker for his father's archives, hoping someone would pony up enough dough to purchase the legacy for safekeeping and help vanish $70,000 worth of debt. The estate had been valued by an appraiser of rare books and manuscripts at $200,000, yet those who were the slightest bit interested wanted it gratis. And those who owed Terry money or even their careers--such as Peter Fonda, who, with Dennis Hopper, would claim credit for writing Easy Riderwhen ample proof exists Terry penned the screenplay–failed to open their checkbooks. When I spoke with Nile in January 1999, for a story that appeared in the Dallas Observerand our now-defunct sister paper in Los Angeles, he was waiting for the one phone call that would save the estate, from God knows who.

Terry Southern and four other guys: Among those Nile Southern reached out to, and never heard from, was Ringo Starr.
Terry Southern and four other guys: Among those Nile Southern reached out to, and never heard from, was Ringo Starr.
Steven Soderbergh on making a Terry Southern film: "Oh, yeah. Absolutely."
Steven Soderbergh on making a Terry Southern film: "Oh, yeah. Absolutely."

"I was doing the best I could," Nile says now. "I was writing letters to Ringo Starr, did a shout out to Terry's old friends. I used the metaphor of [a boat] adrift out at sea and it needed help and Terry's archives were adrift and about to sink and could they help. No one did. Maybe my message was too confusing: Fuckin' boat, what's that about?' Maybe I made mistakes, but I did what I could to make things happen."

And then something did–two years later. Elliott Gould, the star of M*A*S*H and an old friend of Terry's, was about to shoot Steven Soderbergh's heist film Ocean's Eleven, and on March 5, 2001, he phoned Nile at his home in Boulder, Colorado. He left the following message, which Nile has preserved: "Nile, I am so glad I found you. Mr. Soderbergh wants to help you. Specifically, he wants to do something about the archive." At last, Nile had a savior, and he happened to be an Oscar-winning director with his own production company, impeccable credentials and a deep-felt love for the works of Terry Southern.

"He was just one of those iconic figures that somebody like me will always have a weakness for," Soderbergh says. "What makes him timeless is his gift for satirizing pomposity, and that's always timely." He laughs. "I just think he does that better than anybody...He was a literary figure in his own right, and I'm hoping to be part of a campaign to bring him out of cult status and try and get more people exposed to him. I wish I could have met him. I feel like Terry was somebody who I would've just gotten a huge kick out of. But, fortunately, he left behind a lot–both in the literal sense and in the sort of spiritual sense."

Though no one will reveal the price tag, Soderbergh donated to the New York Public Library a sizable hunk of money that was then used to purchase the archives and help rid the estate of its massive debt. As part of a separate deal, Soderbergh will be allowed, for a year, exclusive rights to dig through the archives to look for any property he might want to turn into a film–as director or producer. Then, for a time after that, he will have first-look rights: If someone approaches the estate about making a movie from a Southern property, they will have to run it by Soderbergh, who could choose to get involved or step aside and let the estate deal with it exclusively. It's a deal that allows for "maximum flexibility," the filmmaker says; Nile says most issues will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The rest of Southern's archives--the letters and scribblings, the manuscripts and business transactions--will be made available as soon as the library can sort through and catalog the archives, which may take as long as three years. Says Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the library's Berg Collection of English and American Literature, there's just too much there to make it available quickly and too many other recent acquisitions first in line that need to be processed. But, he says, if someone were working on a project and needed to look at something very particular, he would try to locate it. "We would probably work something out," he says, adding that not even Soderbergh will have unlimited entrée.

"We can bring out particular boxes but not let someone sit in there and rummage through the boxes," Gewirtz explains. "[Soderbergh] donated the money to buy it, and we are responsible for it. It's not there to serve him, but to be there in perpetuity, so if anything goes missing, we're responsible, not him. But he won't have any difficulty getting what he needs."

Soderbergh came riding to the rescue after he'd read the story I'd written in January 1999 ("Odd Man Out"), which chronicled how Terry's exuberant generosity--whether it was waving his profit percentage in Easy Riderand giving Hopper and Fonda screenplay credit, against the wishes of the Writers Guild of America, or paying for friends' cab rides when he had no money in the bank--led to the amassing of such "monstro" debt, as Nile calls it. The man was involved in the writing of two of the most influential films of the 1960s (Easy Riderand Strangelove), wrote several scripts made and dozens more unfilmed, practically invented New Journalism, worked for a brief time on Saturday Night Live, published four novels (two of which, Candyand The Magic Christian, were made into films), became such a titanic icon he appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and still managed to die without pennies enough to cover his eyelids.

"I read that article," Soderbergh says, "and thought, Well, that sucks. This is insane. Somebody ought to come in and help this guy. It sounds really, just, inexcusable.'"

Once Nile and the filmmaker got in touch, he told Soderbergh that the Library of Congress wanted the archives, but only if they were to be donated. He then suggested the New York Public Library, an idea Soderbergh embraced since he would soon be moving to Manhattan and could be close to the archives.

"This collection brings us into an area we haven't gone into archivally," Gewirtz says. "We have counterculture and large Beat archives--Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs--but Terry Southern is interesting because he spans those two periods, the late Beat period and the countercultural movement of the '60s. He knew people in the literary establishment and the counterculture, so it's rare. There weren't many people comfortable in both worlds, so to have work that reflects both in writing and in cinema is something that will be of interest for some time."

But such enthusiasm would be tempered by the pressing legal matters. As late as last spring, the estate was still tangled in copious legal knots, chief among them how to set up a trust Terry had written about in his will without any specific instruction. The problem was, not only would any future deals have to include Nile, but also his mother and Terry's first wife, Carol, and his second wife, Gail Gerber. There was also the issue of to whom unmade screenplays belonged. Many of them were written with Joe LoGiudice, who met Terry in Chicago during the '68 Democratic Convention; LoGiudice figures they penned at least 10 scripts together between 1971 and 1984, including an adaptation of Terry's novel Blue Movie, which imagines a Hollywood porno in which big-name stars engage in "full-vage-pen," to use a Terry phrase. (Stanley Kubrick called the book "the definitive blowjob.")

Last year, probate hearings bogged down over squabbling between Nile and Gerber, so LoGiudice and Rip Torn, another old friend of Terry's, tried to smooth over their rough history. "It took some doing," says the Los Angeles-based LoGiudice. "I decided it had to come to an end. There had been so many misunderstandings that passed between Gail and Nile they couldn't talk anymore, so someone had to make that connection. I stuck with it for a while. They both wanted to do it, but they didn't know howto do it."

Now all is resolved: Nile and LoGiudice are co-trustees, with Gerber serving as trust secretary. Carol Southern has bowed out altogether, Nile says.

"She didn't want to be involved in the administration of Terry's copyright," he explains. "She's lived a life of her own–lucky woman–and Gail and myself, we really lived Terry's life more than our own, and I am trying to do something about that...Finally, we're starting a new chapter, literally and figuratively, in Terry's life, where his work exists within the trust and is maintained by these eagle-eyed and dedicated people. It's a new beginning for us with the involvement of Steven, which is such a godsend."

Soderbergh's interest in the archives extends well beyond the potential that lies in the stack of screenplays--which is enormous, as Nile estimates that of the 44 bankers boxes moved to the New York Public Library, "80 percent of that is unmade scripts." He is lobbying Warner Bros. to release on DVD the 1970 film End of the Road, a supremely bizarre film Terry co-wrote in which James Earl Jones plays a gonzo psychiatrist with at least one patient who screws chickens. He talks about publishing a scrapbook of Southern's work, which he would annotate, and says he's gotten a very notable writer-director, whom he wishes to remain nameless, interested in filming Blue Movie.

When asked if, somewhere down the road, he envisions himself making a film based on one of Terry's works, Soderbergh answers quickly and enthusiastically: "Oh, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah."

Yet Soderbergh scoffs at the suggestion that what he's done, by rescuing Terry's archives (and, by extension, Nile himself), is "noble." Actually, he treats the word as some kind of insult. To him, this ain't about being righteous, but doing the right thing for Terry and Nile–"putting back in," he likes to say, since he can afford to do so. Besides, somewhere down the road people will forget he had anything to do with this, which is the way he wants it.

"I so much wanted to be a part of the Terry world," Soderbergh says. "Part of me just wanted to glom onto the shine and just be connected to it somehow. If somebody was in a magazine saying, Yeah, I've got the rights to some of this early Beatles stuff, but, like, I can't seem to find anyone to help me with it,' it felt to me like the same thing."

Yet, even with the burden now lifted, Nile continues to work on projects devoted to his dad's work, including several books. But he can now do this without taking odd jobs to support his family, without wondering who will show up demanding money from a dead man's pockets. Soderbergh, like Terry, proved to be a generous man, and Nile is a deeply grateful one.

"When I first met my wife, she knew me as a creative downtown filmmaker and writer," Nile says. "But even on our wedding day in 1992, I was at Kinko's doing a proposal for the next seven Terry books. I mean, my wife and I are in Boulder walking up this mountain with a box from Kinko's–and I am in my wedding suit." He laughs. "My dedication is a bit too much, so I need to do a radical shift. I can get creatively jazzed from Terry's stuff, but it's great to have Steven now. It's up to him to take the ball, and I can now kick back. I look forward to that."

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