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The co-creators of Starz's The Girlfriend Experience talk about sex, law, and premium cable

'For whatever reason, combining sex and transactions makes people wildly uncomfortable.'

Starz

When Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience was released in 2009, it was largely dismissed. The director was at the peak of his film-a-year experimental phase, and what seemed on the surface like a steamy art film starring adult actress Sasha Grey as a high-class escort ended up being an elliptical documentary-style period piece about the 2008 recession that left many critics irritated and bored. The film depicts Grey's character Chelsea as just another businessperson desperately trying to sell herself in New York as the markets crumble — much of her job involves listening to the woes of men brought low by the financial crisis.

The film has aged remarkably well as a historical document, but it's still something of an odd duck in the director's prolific, odd-duck-filled catalog. But when Soderbergh turned his attention to television a few years ago, it wasn't long before he was approaching director Lodge Kerrigan and writer-director-actress Amy Seimetz to develop a series inspired by the film. The two had worked together when Seimetz had a role on AMC's The Killing, but this time they were being given the keys to an entire series — to write, direct, and produce 13 episodes all on their own. "We had complete freedom, which is insane," Seimetz said of the arrangement. "And it took a lot of trust from Steven and Starz to let us have that."

Producing a pay-cable show like an indie film

The series, which premieres on Starz in April, moves out of Manhattan and focuses on a new character — a law student named Christine, played by Riley Keough (who made a brief but memorable appearance in Magic Mike). This world is less apocalyptic than the one Chelsea inhabited, but nobody has told Christine, a scarily driven, type-A overachiever with a faulty emotional radar. She charges into the escorting world with a kind of detached pragmatism, but is nevertheless unprepared for how difficult it is to keep all her lives separate.

The series premiered its first four episodes at the Sundance Film Festival this week. I spoke to Seimetz and Kerrigan about developing an escort show for a savvier era, and the perks and challenges of producing a pay-cable series like an indie film.

The original film's initial hook was the casting of Sasha Grey, and the tension of her adult-film persona and the character she was playing. You've got a new protagonist now, and different thematic interests. How did you decide what to keep and what to drop from Soderbergh's film?

Lodge Kerrigan: It was really a whole rebooting. We all discussed it, but the idea was just to keep the title and then start from scratch. We kept the name Chelsea, just kind of as a reference.

Amy Seimetz: An homage, yeah.

Kerrigan: But apart from that it was really —

Seimetz: [Steven] really just let us do whatever we wanted.

Kerrigan: Pretty much. He just didn't want it set in New York. That was the only thing. Because the movie was set in New York.

It's set in Boston, right?

Kerrigan: Chicago.

Oh! Well, that's actually something we should talk about, because the look and feel of the show is so anonymous, with all these transactions taking place in these beige hotel rooms and sort of vague, modern bars.

"We were trying to go for something a little more timeless."

Seimetz: It's a very internal show. A lot of the interactions are happening in closed spaces or indoors, in these private spaces, so it's very anonymous in that way. Part of it was also that as independent filmmakers, we had to use what was available to us, and find through location scouting an aesthetic that was going to be sort of consistent in a way.

Kerrigan: And it was completely a location-based shoot, so we didn't build any sets. So we had to find the look of it.

Seimetz: The only space that we built out was — the office space was pretty raw, and so our production designer came up with a whole plan of knocking down some walls so we had more light pouring in. Because we also shot with no lights, it was all natural lighting.

Was that also a nod to the film?

Seimetz: Yeah.

Kerrigan: It's also, [to Seimetz] I know you do too, but I like to work really, really quickly. I find it's much more actor-friendly if you can work really fast on stuff, and so I think that now with the technology and the cameras that are out there, there's no reason to spend a lot of time lighting. We lit, we had some lights on like, night interiors, but for the most part it was available light.

The 2009 film is so informed by the recession — it's almost more about the recession than it is about being an escort. How did you go about making the show timely and relevant for 2015, 2016?

Seimetz: You know, I think we were trying to go for something a little more timeless. Some of the issues, some of the movies and references we were looking at were more like All The President's Men and The Conversation — a paranoia in a way, kind of thriller-y aspects. But some of the aspects of [Christine's] personality we discussed are very modern and millennial, [just as far as her] being self-centered and caring mostly about her success. I don't think that's a necessarily bad thing, I just think millennials are a little more extreme. And also in the dating scheme they don't seem to be as committed.

Kerrigan: I don't think we were trying to comment on society at all. We were just focused on one individual and what it would be like for her.

The Girlfriend Experience

There's a scene where Christine asks her sister [played by Seimetz] whether or not she thinks Christine is a sociopath. She has some similarities to Sasha Grey's character, that kind of hard outer surface and inscrutability, but it does seem like it comes from a different place. How did you talk about building that character with Riley?

Kerrigan: We talked about how Christine has just compartmentalized her life — as an escort, as a law student, and then her personal life with her family. But we met with a lot of high-end escorts and clients to do some research, and Riley did also, and I think her concern was just to understand emotionally how the character would be able to go into these situations and be sexually intimate and not have it affect her. That was the one area that I think she was really focused on trying to discover.

This isn't the first show about sex work by a long shot. But the conversation around what it means to be an escort or a call girl is so different now, and there's this whole debate over the word sex worker. Do you guys feel like this series will be a part of that conversation, or is it a little more agnostic?

"How do you drop into these situations of ready-made intimacy?"

Seimetz: I think it's very agnostic. I think that was actually a word that Steven used when we were talking about the show very early on — that is, that the show is agnostic as to whether [prostitution] was good or bad, or whether we believe in it. And there's a tension in the show that comes out of the fact that Lodge and I aren't trying to take a stance either way. It's basically saying, this happens in the world, and we're just focused on this character's story as opposed to "Isn't it so horrible what she's doing?" Or pro-prostitution, like "Isn't it so great that she's out doing this?"

Kerrigan: Yeah, none, of us had any real interest in that. I think for us it was more interesting [to explore] how do you drop into these situations of ready-made intimacy, and how do they affect you, and how far can they go, and what these relationships are really like?

You've set up a kind of mirror plot in the show with the law firm that Christine is interning at. I get the need for a counterpoint — in the way the recession was the counterpoint in 2009. Why law?

Seimetz: We kept asking ourselves that.

Kerrigan: There was something interesting [about the fact] that she was participating in a world that is "illegal," but at the same time she's studying law. I think that's where it came from.

Seimetz: I also think that with law, you're taking these very simple things — especially [in the practice] that she's in — like a patent, or some very, very specific thing. And all of the [formalities and] language around it is so complicated. And it's sort of the same thing: you just want to do this one thing, have sex, and the language around that simple thing is just insane, just to get this one thing done.

It's interesting that the show will be on Starz, which had some success with Outlander, another highly sexual show written very strongly from a female perspective. Did you find you had a certain amount of freedom there to explore this material? Does it feel like a good fit for the show you ended up making?

Kerrigan: I mean, Steven had final cut, which means in essence we had final cut, because Steven trusts the way we worked. It was very much a collaboration between the three of us, but Steven gives these notes on the script and on the edit, that say "Take what you want, what you don't want, it's up to you." And the network gave us no notes on the edit — we had zero notes, they were super happy, they were really really happy with the cuts, so, we just made our own show. And how it fits into Starz —

Seimetz: I think we're trying to figure that out right now. I mean, who knows. I think the most obvious thing is, yeah, [Starz was looking for another show] for women. But you know, I'd hate — it's sexy, I guess. But I don't feel like it's a show where you're watching it and you're like "Oooh, this is super sexy." It's pretty creepy, you know what I mean?

Yeah, a lot of it feels like a horror film.

Seimetz: Yeah, exactly. It's always an interesting question, to me. There are two simple things at work here which we deal with every day: transactions, and then sex. And for whatever reason combining those two makes people wildly uncomfortable.

Kerrigan: Also, to just make one comment, when you have a female protagonist in the show, then it gets labeled a "women's show." I think there's an inherent problem in that. If you had a male protagonist you wouldn't go oh, it's a "male show." I think it [should be] universal.

"None of us are interested in characters that are likable or identifiable."

Seimetz: And that's what's so exciting about [Christine] as a character — I just don't see a lot of women like her on TV. However you feel, if she's a sociopath or not, who cares? You just don't see women that are extremely active and who are actually affecting their own narrative. You seem women assisting somebody else's narrative, whereas [Christine] is in complete control of her destiny, whether it's good or bad.

Kerrigan: But also, none of us are interested — and we had conversations with Steven about this — none of the three of us are interested in creating characters that are likable or identifiable. I find that really boring. It's whether or not they're interesting that counts, whether they're fascinating or whether you can follow their internal world.

It will be interesting to see how that character is received. A lot of critics complained that the 2009 film was too cold or too flat. I think Keough's character is in some ways even more cold than Gray's. But there was little to no sex in the film, and that's something that's definitely more present in your show.

Kerrigan: But what there is in the film that's really interesting is that there's intimate kissing, which you almost never see. We've both directed a lot of sex scenes, and I find that's the interesting part, if you can get actors to really kiss. I wonder — I don't know whether that was part of what was behind Steven's decision to cast Sasha.