CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Steven Soderbergh is waiting for his possessions to appear. His bed. His books. Moving vans are on their way. Aside from the worn-out 1960 Rambler parked out front -- the one that he drove here from Los Angeles -- he hasn't got much, except maybe all the stuff that's floating inside his head and some T-shirts. This drowsy, tree-shaded town must feel like a monastic retreat in Mayberry RFD compared with Studio City in the San Fernando Valley, his last place of residence. The sweet, empty house that Soderbergh's rented is being fixed up. A couple of guys lounging on his stairwell turn out to be painting the molding. A telephone seems to be ringing in every room, but it's only echoes. "Subconsciously, as soon as I get out of Los Angeles, I think there's a subtle shift," says the 26-year-old filmmaker. "I get a little more of the screw-it attitude. I do what I want to do -- and that's worked well for me." He'd been thinking about moving to Charlottesville even before January, before his movie "sex, lies, and videotape" astounded the audiences at the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He'd been thinking Charlottesville -- where he once lived as a kid -- before May, when he won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was besieged by journalists. He'd been thinking it before the world started crowding in, before the Hollywood types began handing him their business cards and using words like boy wonder and young genius and the next Woody Allen ... "I didn't want to live somewhere," he says, "that I had to escape from every weekend." Soderbergh is a Swedish name -- his grandfather was born in Stockholm -- and it's hard not to carry the stereotype too far. He wants a spare life. An honest life. No smog. No movie people making deals. No furniture. Few compromises. There's no girlfriend around and he's got only one pal in town. He seems to want to be alone. "I've tried very hard, with all the new people that I've met in the last six months, to keep everything in a business context," he says, "so that my social life and the people I'm close to does not change." Thoughts of fame find him shuddering. He's already worried about privacy. In the short time he's been here -- since July 14 -- he's become a minor celebrity. People have been nice and friendly, but he's also been asked for Jessica Lange's autograph and he doesn't know Jessica Lange -- or any of the other movie people in the area such as Sam Shepard or Sissy Spacek. He wants to know if the newspaper can avoid mentioning the town's name at all, but it's already been printed in papers and magazines around the world. A local photographer comes to take his picture. He's heard all about Soderbergh and is happy to meet him. Soderbergh, wearing a white T-shirt and droopy khaki shorts, stands uncomfortably by some mossy steps leading up to his house. He stands uncomfortably by a tree. Then he sits on the tail end of the Rambler, his hands folded in his lap. "I don't have many facial expressions," he says in a listless voice. His face isn't hangdog as much as his attitude. There's a certain amount of suffering going on, and wisdom at work. His features -- the dignified nose and lined forehead of an older man, the blue eyes and soft lips of a kid -- get upstaged by his brains and sobriety every time. He's got an adorable traffic jam of teeth -- if only he'd smile. "As Socrates said," he quotes, " 'You make your own prison.' " Watching Mr. Droopy Drawers leaning over a butcher-block table at a college hangout, behind a mountain of corned beef and bread, it's easy to see why people have found it remarkable that Soderbergh could have done the thinking and achieved the maturity required to make "sex, lies, and videotape." Maybe he's been fooling around with a movie camera since he was 13, but let's face it -- he's still 26. "Sometimes I feel 30," he says. In the tradition of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick, Soderbergh never bothered to go to college. By high school he knew what he wanted to spend his life doing, and his parents -- even his father, who was then the dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University -- didn't get in his way. "I was a pretty obsessive kid," he says. "That would have been futile -- both for them to try to talk me into it, and for me to go." One of six children, Soderbergh grew up all over, as his father moved from college to college. He was born in Georgia. Lived in Texas for four years and Pittsburgh for six, before moving to Charlottesville at the age of 10. During his three years there he pitched a no-hitter in Little League, which he says "had nothing to do with why I came back." At 13 he moved to Baton Rouge, La., where his family has stayed since. His father enrolled him in an animation class taught by college students because he was good at drawing. "I quickly learned that animation bored me silly, and uhhhh, I took the camera and started shooting live stuff, which was more interesting. But all through high school, I had access to all this equipment. ... I got to try and fail without anybody watching." He left for Los Angeles at 17, and the instructor of his LSU film class, as it turns out, got him a job editing for NBC. When the show, "Games People Play," went off the air, he tried all kinds of things. He held cue cards. He was a game show scorekeeper. He worked for two years as a coin attendant in a video arcade. "I did not -- during that time -- feel bad about myself," he says. "The qualities that I look for in a person have nothing to do with what they do as a job, and how successful they are." He admits to being single-minded in his ambitions. He continued to make movies, when he got the chance. "Everything I've made since I was a senior in high school, I'm proud of," he says. "The three shorts that I've made ... I'd stack up against 'sex, lies.' They are every bit as complex technically, and as grown up in their content." One short made in 1986, called "Winston," was shown to producers to sell his "sex, lies, and videotape" screenplay. "It is very much a warm-up for 'sex, lies,' " he says. "It's about a woman who concocts rather complex lies to keep her suitors at arm's length, but it's very, very similar in style and tone to 'sex, lies.' I look at it now and see that I was getting ready at some subconscious level." It came to him in eight days -- mostly during a drive from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles. At night he stopped in motels and wrote out the screenplay to "sex, lies, and videotape" in longhand. "It was like taking dictation," he says. "I mean, it really just fell out of my head. And I didn't know. I didn't know, when I started, how long it was going to be. I didn't know how it would happen. It just seemed to come. One thing would lead to another." Soderbergh is obsessive and self-obsessed, he says, but he must do that when he's alone. Across a table, he asks as many questions as he's asked. He seems more comfortable the deeper and more personal the conversation gets. There's a spongy selflessness about him, like he's soaking up people, watching them, listening carefully. In his talky movie, the camera hones in close, fascinated -- the big faces of his characters fill the screen. There's the face of Ann (played by the gloriously beautiful Andie MacDowell), a repressed madonna who thinks sex is overrated. There's her lawyer husband, John (Peter Gallagher), a soulless philanderer. There's Cynthia, Ann's little spitfire sister (Laura San Giacomo), who's sleeping with John. And there's Graham (played by James Spader, who won Best Actor at Cannes), who likes to watch videotapes. Graham sits in a director's chair with the video camera rolling. He prods women, in the deadpan of a shrink or gynecologist, for their most intimate stories. Maybe it's the voyeur Graham -- impotent by self-punishment and "a recovering pathological liar" -- who's the most messed up, but everyone in the movie's got problems. Soderbergh's characters are sexually repressed or sexually careless. They are either uncomfortable or too comfortable with each other. They stutter and stammer out the revelations, but they're sure of their lies. "I went through a period of my life, in my personal relationships, when I was lying," says Soderbergh. "I don't do that anymore. But there was a very long process of monitoring. ... It's like -- as Graham says -- being an alcoholic. You have to watch yourself at first. And after a while, telling the truth becomes second nature. You don't have to monitor anymore. You just do the right thing." Soderbergh's talking about the days when he was a creep. He has called himself, as Graham does, "a pathological liar." He hurt the people around him. He cheated on a girlfriend. "I became," he says, "someone I hated." This whole business -- Soderbergh's dark period -- has been much discussed in print. Mostly because of his own big mouth. "I'm not sick of being interviewed," he says, "it's just when I say stupid things that hurt other people." He means the now-famous Rolling Stone interview by Terri Minsky in which he talked about sitting in a bar one night, spitting distance from three women he was sleeping with. Soderbergh's guilt and regrets about this time in his life gave birth to "sex, lies, and videotape." And the movie's upbeat ending -- three of the four characters are left transformed -- reflects his philosophy now. "It's been my experience that after pain and suffering that you go through a period of healing," he says. "And I have a sense that you go through these things to get better." He tries hard not to get preachy. "Making films is my job, and I love doing it. But my life's work is trying to be a better person," he says. "It's a continuing thing. It takes a lot of work ... an unexamined life is not worth living." In Rolling Stone, Soderbergh wasn't only revelatory about his past. He also mentioned not returning a recent phone call from Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producers of "Beverly Hills Cop." He told Minsky: "They're slime -- just barely passing for humans." "I just didn't think," he says now. "It's just part of the learning process and it's not Terri's fault. I know Terri liked me. And I know she wanted to write a piece that reflected that. I just said some stupid stuff." He's since gotten more guarded, and somewhat less impressed with journalists. "I used to read a profile and believe that they could get people," he says, chuckling as if amused by his own naivete. "But no one's gotten me." Once you've talked to Soderbergh, all kinds of things in his movie -- which for starters takes place in Baton Rouge -- start to seem very personal. There's even a detached deadness to the action that's reminiscent of the way he moves. And the character of Graham seems particularly close. He drifts into town. He lives alone. He has no furniture. No visible income. A history of lying and penitence. He sits behind the camera. Toward the end of "sex, lies, and videotape," Graham says to Ann: You don't have the slightest idea who I am. Am I supposed to recount all the points in my life leading up to this moment and just hope that it's coherent, that it makes some sort of sense to you? It doesn't make any sense to me, you know, and I was there. ... "Nothing in the film happened," Soderbergh said in Park City. "I have never taped women. But it's all true." For $1.2 million, he made what's called "a little movie." The title appears in lowercase because Soderbergh likes it that way. "There's something more quiet about it," he says. His quiet movie was financed by RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. It was finished and shown at Park City just over a year after Soderbergh speed-wrote the script on the road. For its Park City premiere, the titles had been typed and blown up on a photocopier. "I spent all night doing them," Soderbergh remembers. "They were barely legible." The soundtrack was also homemade -- cuts from Brian Eno records. By the time it got to Cannes five months later, it was done. But Soderbergh still wasn't prepared to deal with the attention, the praise and fawning. "I thought we were going to get lost in the shuffle," he says. "I was hoping to just survive, and not be squashed." He briefly returned to L.A. before the decisions were made on the awards, expecting that Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" would capture first prize. "For a while I wasn't going to come back," he says. "I was thinking somebody else could accept an award for me -- if we won anything. I was so beat. But that's a pretty scary thought. What a bonehead thing to do. I shudder to think now -- if I hadn't been there to accept it." At Cannes, jury president Wim Wenders, the director of "Wings of Desire" and "Paris, Texas," said that "sex, lies, and videotape" was chosen for the Palme d'Or -- and not just the Camera d'Or for best first-time directing -- because it was "a film that gave us great joy, that surprised us all and gave us confidence in the future of cinema." Not since "Apocalypse Now" split the prize with "The Tin Drum" 10 years ago has an American movie won the festival. And no director as young as Soderbergh ever has. Since then, he's given even more interviews and been offered lots of movie deals. "When it became apparent that I had the opportunity to do what I wanted," he says, "I pulled three projects out from under my pillow -- pet projects -- and managed to get all of them set up." Sydney Pollack will be executive producing Soderbergh's next movie, "The Last Ship," which he will write from William Brinkley's book about a boatload of men and women who survive the nuclear holocaust. (Soderbergh's still in negotiations with Universal Studios because he doesn't want the movie released in South Africa.) Barry Levinson's company will produce "Kafka," which Soderbergh will direct from a screenplay he admires. And he's agreed to write a script of "King of the Hill," an A.E. Hotchner memoir, and direct the film for one of Robert Redford's companies. Meanwhile, he's been fighting off the usual ego problems. "I assume, like most people, I have certain insecurities and self-image problems," he says. "And being in a situation where people are telling you that you're great all the time can screw you up on two levels. On the first level, you want to believe it... . "And the other way it affects you is that you begin to feel unworthy of it. You know that you are not any better than anybody else. I just happen to do something that people have an inordinate fascination with. So it kind of gets you coming and going. Your ego wants people to say it, yet the other part of you says, This is really bad for you. It's going to screw you up." He says he wants his success to be demystified. He was paid only $37,000 for directing "sex, lies, and videotape." Half of it was spent before he got it. Up until a month ago he was totally in debt, hadn't paid his taxes and owed his producer money. "People read that I won the Cannes Film Festival and think, 'Gaaaaad. He must be rich.' They just don't get it... . "Sure, I'd rather be where I am right now than back on my buddy's couch, where I was for six months last year, but ahhhhhhh, the belief that my life is better than other people's is completely false." Soderbergh's movie isn't really about the act of sex. It's pretty much about everything else. The sex scenes are also not like watching other people have sex, it's like being inside the sheets. There aren't really nude scenes -- just sweaty face shots of people breathing hard. "I could probably -- when pushed into a corner -- name maybe a handful of films where I thought it was dealt with with some sort of equanimity. Just, most of the time, the way sex is dealt with in films is really lame. It's not real. It's not interesting to me. And it seems to be specifically from a male point of view." When pushed, he comes up with "The Last Picture Show." "That still has elements of a male point of view," he says, "but that's kind of what the film is about -- and what it deals with. ... But still, it's a pretty mature, grown-up piece of work about men and women. I came out of there thinking that adults had made this for other adults -- which is not the feeling I get from a lot of movies." He's not planning on making a career of sex. Or relationships. "Certainly, I am very interested in men and women and how they treat each other," says Soderbergh. "And that's primarily what drew me to 'The Last Ship.' But 'King of the Hill' isn't primarily about that -- neither is 'Kafka.' They just are good stories, I think. The strain seems to be people, and the human condition." Are we entering an Age of Feelings? "Yeah," he says. "But I hope it's not in a really wimpy way -- like it gets really granola-head. I don't want to go through that. ... I just don't want it to turn into this new age stuff -- channeling our emotions. ... I would encourage people to examine their lives -- their lives, not just their feelings. That's why when I hear people talking about getting in touch with their feelings, I just want to duck and cover. Its just so warm and runny, you want to gag." Comparisons to Woody Allen, he says, will stop after he makes his next film. "In the case of John Cassavetes, I think it's unfortunate because I've made one film, and this guy has left us a life's work -- that was very hard earned. I just think it's premature." These days, he tries to keep words like "slime" out of his running movie criticism, but it's not easy for him. There are a lot of movies he doesn't like. He will, however, reveal his all-time top 11 favorites, in no particular order: "Citizen Kane." "The Third Man." "The Godfather" I and II. "The Conversation." "Jaws." "Annie Hall." "Sunset Boulevard." "All the President's Men." "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T." "The Last Picture Show." At the end of a couple hours -- answering questions and asking his own -- Soderbergh starts to fade. He's got to get back to the house. His stuff might be arriving. He needs to go to K mart for a shower curtain. He's leaving the next morning for a week of television interviews to promote the opening of the movie. "I feel obligated to," he says. "And hey. I own a piece of this film. I want to see it do well." Promoting, Soderbergh-style, isn't the usual stuff. He just sits there. His pale, one-expression face looks numb. He responds with great modesty, bordering on disdain, to all compliments. He smiles -- once, maybe. Back in Charlottesville, after cleaning the house a few times to avoid writing, he will retreat into his screenplay of "The Last Ship." He'll probably call his "closest friends on the planet" in L.A., then he'll put his phone machine on, with a new message: This is Steven. I am home. The fax machine is on. All systems are go, basically... .