The film was written by Steven Soderbergh in eight days on a yellow legal pad during a cross country trip (although, as Soderbergh points out in his DVD commentary track, he had been thinking about the film for a year).
On the first day of production, the producers sent Steven Soderbergh a telegram, joking that they'd heard reports that he couldn't direct traffic. Twelve years later, Soderbergh won an Oscar for directing Traffic (2000).
One scene includes a videotaped confession by one of James Spader's character's past lovers. The director gave the script and a video camera to Jennifer Jason Leigh so she could tape the speech at home with the help of her boyfriend. They never got around to it; once filming began, a crew member was used in the brief role.
In order to achieve the film's lurking feel, Steven Soderbergh played with camera techniques. "I used the tracking shots because I knew that I had a very talky film and I didn't want it to be visually static," he told the Chicago Tribune. "Without detracting from the performances, I wanted to keep things moving. I also wanted a very predatory feel, the idea of encircling a character and getting closer. It seemed to fit a sort of languid quality that I wanted to have and that Baton Rouge-my hometown and the location of the movie-seems to have."
The film made Steven Soderbergh youngest winner of the Palme D'Or at The Cannes Film Festival, but it wasn't supposed to play in competition there. It was supposed to play the Directors' Fortnight, Cannes' section for newcomers; it only moved because another film dropped out. According to Flavorwire, even Soderbergh was hesitant about entering the festival, writing in April of 1989, "I'm convinced a huge backlash is around the corner, and where better to have a backlash than in front of the international press?"
Each of the four main characters reflects a part of Steven Soderbergh's personality. "At times, I've acted very much like the husband (who is having a torrid affair with his wife's sister)," he told the Chicago Tribune. "Other times, I've been in the Graham mode (the husband's impotent friend, who relates to women sexually only by videotaping them talking about their sex lives). I've also been like Cynthia (sleeping with her sister's husband) when there was a political content to my relationships with women. And there are times when I've been like Ann (the frigid wife), feeling very prudish and put off from sexual things."
The film was inspired by Steven Soderbergh's own failed relationship. "I drove the most important woman in my life to leave because I didn't want to be in the relationship but couldn't just say, 'I don't want to be in this,'" Soderbergh told Film Comment. "So I was very deceptive about how I got out of it. And then once I was out of it, I couldn't even allow it the dignity to die properly. I kept stringing it out and not letting it go and then I got involved with some other people." After, Soderbergh was able to reconnect with that person; "We were able to be friends," he noted.
Steven Soderbergh deliberately chose video as a metaphor for distance. "Video is a way of distancing ourselves from people and events," Soderbergh explained to Film Comment. "We tend to think that we can experience things because we watched them on tape. For Graham, this was an aspect of myself taken to an extreme measure. He needs the distance to feel free to react without anybody watching, which, I guess, is the definition of voyeurism, even though I think voyeurism has mostly negative connotations."
According to Flavorwire, Steven Soderbergh was inspired to stylize the title in the middle of journaling. He writes in a diary entry from New Year's Eve, 1987: "Bob [Newmeyer] said without hesitation that Sex, Lies (actually that looks better lowercase) sex, lies, and videotape is by far the best title."
According to Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, in an old 1991 interview, Steven Soderbergh commented, "When I look at it now, it looks like something made by someone who wants to think deep but really isn't. To me the fact that it got the response it did was only indicative of the fact that there was so little else for people to latch onto out there."
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Steven Soderbergh gave the producers a list of possible film titles, including: "46:02", "Retinal Retention", "Charged Coupling Device", "Mode: Visual", "Sex, Lies, and Videotape", and "Hidden Agendas". Soderberg heavily favored "46:02" (the supposed running time of the tape Ann makes for Graham; the running time appears in the script but not in the final film), but the producers chose "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" immediately. In a Q&A session after a screening in 1989, one audience member advised Soderbergh that he would "have to change" the title, which he considered terrible.