Soderbergh's Choice The director hits homers with Erin Brockovich and Traffic, thus facing off against himself in the Oscar race

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Life as steven soderbergh then knew it came to end when he was 12 years old. He had been quite a baseball player, one of the best you could find among the boys in Baton Rouge, La. But in 1975 his talent mysteriously disappeared. "I woke up one morning, and I didn't have it," he recalls. "And I knew that I wasn't gonna be able to get it back. Whatever the thing was, it was just gone."

Soderbergh reluctantly hung up his baseball cap. He had another gift, however, and that was about to blossom. By the time he was in high school, Soderbergh was taking classes in the film department of Louisiana State University (where his father taught education). But when it came time to enroll in university, he opted instead for on-the-job training, editing pieces for the wacky 1980s TV show Games People Play as well as making his own short films and a Yes concert film. In 1989 he released his first feature, and the movie gods smiled on him. It was called sex, lies, and videotape. The $1.2 million romantic Rubik's cube resonated with a public largely fed up with the mindless action-heavy fare of 1980s Hollywood, and by independent-film standards it became a blockbuster. It also cleared a path from the art house to the mall and launched a brigade of indie and indie-minded movies-from Pulp Fiction to American Beauty-into the mainstream.

This past year the movie gods smiled on Soderbergh once again, and this time they grinned like Julia Roberts on ecstasy. As director of last year's Erin Brockovich, he coaxed the best performance yet out of the biggest female movie star on Planet Earth and generated more than $256 million at the box office worldwide. Now his new film, Traffic, an epic sweep through the international drug trade, has been named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle.

"He has a different style for every movie," says Michael Douglas, who stars in Traffic as the father of a teenage junkie (Erika Christensen) and-watch out for falling irony-the nation's newly appointed drug czar. "Steven jumps from one venue to another better than anybody." When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed down its Oscar nominations for 2000, Soderbergh's amazing versatility was rewarded with two directing nods-one for Traffic and one for Erin Brockovich (both films are also up for Best Picture). Which means that on March 25, Soderbergh will be facing off against himself.

The first question you want to ask him is, of course, So what's Julia Roberts really like? Answer: "On the Top 10 list of people who are fun to hang out with, Julia occupies positions 1 through 11." Since it's been more than a decade since sex, lies, and videotape jump-started his career, you might also wonder why it has taken Soderbergh so long to capitalize on its success. "I was very young, still trying to figure out my strengths and weaknesses," explains Soderbergh, 38, who has a nine-year-old daughter, Sarah, with his ex-wife, actress Betsy Brantley.

Soderbergh is back to wearing a baseball cap. It's a standard fashion accessory among those in his profession, but unlike so many other movie directors, Soderbergh is refreshingly short on bravado. He followed sex, lies, and videotape with 1991's dark, cerebral and generally panned Kafka because "I wanted to push myself a little bit," then adapted and directed A.E. Hotchner's memoir, King of the Hill, a beautiful coming-of-age movie about a boy on his own during the Depression. "I wanted to get better at working with actors," says Soderbergh, "and thought kids would be a good place to test myself."

Although Kafka provided a showcase for his rich, engrossing visuals and King of the Hill was embraced by critics, neither captured the public's attention the way sex, lies, and videotape did. While filming Underneath, his 1994 remake of the 1949 noir classic Criss Cross, he was suddenly 12 years old again. "I was on the set one day and very unhappy, not enjoying my job and wondering if I wanted to direct anymore," says Soderbergh. "I'd lost the enthusiasm of the amateur."

This time, however, he wasn't so quick to hang up his hat. His knack for directing, he says, "had left the building, but I knew it was still within the city limits. I just needed to tear down everything and start over." The result was Schizopolis, a 1997 comedy that Soderbergh shot back home in Baton Rouge. It's become a kind of cult favorite on video, a thoroughly nonsensical piece of work written by, directed by and starring Soderbergh, who spends a long sequence in the movie contorting his normally deadpan face in front of a mirror. It also features two characters who speak gibberish to each other for no apparent reason. In other words, it's a film best enjoyed with a fast-forward button close at hand. But for Soderbergh, it was "my second first film. It was an explosion. I wanted to stop being so literal about everything."

Both Out of Sight, his smart, sexy 1998 George Clooney­Jennifer Lopez caper, and The Limey, a small-scale 1999 revenge thriller starring Terence Stamp, were testaments to his renewed confidence and fine-tuned techniques: the sharp cuts and occasionally free-floating dialogue that propel his stories. The onscreen heat he elicited between Clooney and Lopez proved that Soderbergh also had a talent for getting the best from his actors. Roberts' work in Erin Brockovich has already scored a Golden Globe and looks a shoo-in for the Oscar (Traffic's Benicio Del Toro and Erin Brockovich's Albert Finney, meanwhile, will contend the Best Supporting Actor category).

"A lot of people can tell stories," says Roberts, who will join Clooney and Brad Pitt in Soderbergh's upcoming remake of the 1960 Rat Pack heist flick Ocean's Eleven, "but a lot of people can't rally the troops the way Steven does. He's the most fun guy to make a movie with." Roberts and the Erin Brockovich crew tested his good humor on the set by taking snapshots of one another looking horrified and putting this caption on the series: "Just saw Kafka."

While Erin Brockovich, the fact-based role of a single mum crusading against an energy company, is remarkably short on his stylistic touches ("It was an exercise in control for me," he says), Traffic is pure Soderbergh. Visually eclectic and alternately jarring and sentimental, it jump-cuts energetically among three stories. While Douglas' character juggles his public duties and private anguish at home in Cincinnati, Ohio, Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as a pregnant San Diego housewife who takes charge of the family business when her drug-lord husband is arrested, and Benicio Del Toro plays a Mexican cop lured into a Tijuana drug ring.

Traffic, a $46 million movie based on a British Channel 4 mini-series, bounced between studios after Douglas originally passed as the drug czar and Harrison Ford expressed interest. Although screenwriter Stephen Gaghan rewrote the script to accommodate Ford's concerns (Soderbergh says the character was originally "extremely passive"), the star ultimately opted out. Before Douglas, pleased with the rewrites, came aboard and Traffic landed at USA Films, the project nearly went under. Soderbergh kept it afloat with $100,000 of his own money. "I just felt like this was the time to make this movie," says the director, who had long been interested in drugs' impact on our culture. "It was a year in which politics was interesting to people."

Although directors usually observe the action on a set by watching a video monitor, Soderbergh joined the cinematographers' union so he could work the camera himself. "There's something about the director being right there with the actors," explains Stephen Mirrione, Traffic's editor. "He gets what he needs and can move on." Soderbergh also gave each story a distinct look in order to keep the audience oriented. He shot the Cincinnati and Washington footage in a bleak and bluish color; rend-ered Mexico grainy, baking in blinding light; and slightly overexposed the San Diego scenes to make the colors soft and blossoming. "All this rot is going on underneath this very pristine surface," explains the director. "It's a nice contrast."

Between now and Oscar night, Soderbergh won't be campaigning more for Traffic than Erin Brockovich, but it seems as if Traffic is the film closer to his art and his heart. Wouldn't a win for Traffic be more gratifying? "I feel very close to both of them," he insists. "There's a word in Louisiana: lagniappe. It means something extra for nothing. All that stuff to me is like lagniappe. You invite me, and I'll show up. If not, I'll be at work."

Or playing baseball. "On the set, everybody's got gloves and we throw during lunch," says Soderbergh, who a few years ago thought about returning to his first love by joining an amateur league. "But the guys were taking it way too seriously. I like to have fun."