“Five Years Have Gone By and You Still Haven’t Made a Second Feature”: Anja Marqaurdt on The Girlfriend Experience, Season Three
At the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014, the German-born Anja Marquardt’s debut feature, She’s Lost Control, premiered to positive notices and went on to a healthy festival life. A fictional account of a graduate student (Brooke Bloom) doubling as a professional sex surrogate for men struggling with physical intimacy, the film represented a unique new voice on the independent film scene, ultimately netting Marquardt Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.
Several years removed from that film’s theatrical run, Marquardt has now taken on a project with similar themes but a much more expansive production schedule (and name brand value). After selecting Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz to helm the first two seasons, Steven Soderbergh’s omnibus series The Girlfriend Experience (inspired by his 2009 film starring adult film actress Sasha Grey) enlists Marquardt to write and direct all ten episodes of season three, currently airing on STARZ. Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), a young woman, relocates to London for a neuroscience gig for a tech startup that uses technology to identify users’ ideal romantic partners. As Iris’s dayjob keeps her analyzing all types of data related to sex compatability, her evening work (participating in the “gilfriend experience” that gives the series its title), provides further invaluable research.
Both its personal interests and filmmaking style, Marquardt’s take on the series is exclusively hers. A few days after the first two episodes premiered on STARZ (new episodes premiere every Sunday thru June 27th), I spoke with Marquardt about how she became involved with the series, implementing topical and ever-evolving technologies into the storyline, and how the experience of independent filmmaking can prepare you for whatever elongated form of visual storytelling you take on next.
Filmmaker: We last spoke six years ago for the theatrical release of your debut feature, She’s Lost Control, and I wanted to ask about the period of time after that film got out into the world. As you wrote, directed and co-edited that film, were you looking to continue the “all hands on deck” approach to whatever came next? Where did you find your career going at that point?
Marquardt: I spent a good amount of time just enjoying the festival circuit with She’s Lost Control, as the film provided me with the opportunity to visit some amazing places I hadn’t been to before—Bogotá’s film festival stands out as one. I thought, “Alright, making a second feature shouldn’t be all that complicated”—but then, of course, it was. Had I been independently wealthy, I think it would have been easier to repeat what I did on She’s Lost Control, but I had maxed out every single favor around the world to make that film (and had taken on so many different hats, including being the main producer on the project). That was born out of necessity more than anything else. We really stretched every single cent into a dollar on that film, and doing a repeat of that for another feature seemed utterly impossible.
I spent my time writing up a storm, adapting a novel, was attached to direct a feature that was fully financed and in casting, but then things fall apart for reasons that seem utterly incomprehensible when they happen. You take one for the team, and repeat one for the team, and before you know it five years have gone by and you still haven’t made a second feature. I was spent. I now feel that time was well used, as I wrote so many scripts during this period and honed my writing skills and met amazing people along the way, writers and producers that will certainly be collaborators moving forward.
Filmmaker: Were they reaching out to inquire about your writing services, or were there certain personal stories originating with yourself that you were trying to get off the ground?
Marquardt: A bit of both. The fact that I had garnered experience as a director who had, in the past, also written their own material, was a blessing, I think, and it made it a lot easier for me to go into a meeting and say “Hey, this is something I’ve been developing and this is my vision,” while also being open to directing assignments I hadn’t personally created. I think it’s often the expectation of the industry too, that the director will do either a “director’s draft” or a supervisory rewrite with the writer, as very few scripts are actually production-ready when a director [reads it for the first time]. It’s a good skill to continuously develop. Some of my writing projects were original ideas and the other half were collaborations of some sort, either something I was hired to adapt or something I found myself co-developing with another writer.
Filmmaker: I believe it was Steven Soderbergh who reached out to you about potentially helming season three of The Girlfriend Experience. What was that call like?
Marquardt: It was a special, once-in-a-lifetime moment. I was busy doing a rewrite on a project that came on the heels of the #MeToo movement. Massive shifts were being put into motion across the industry. The producers who hired me to work on that project suddenly came to ask, “Well, can you kill off [the main male character] at the end and make the female lead the protagonist?” Keep in mind that this script was supposed to be an adaptation of a novel, and now I was suddenly being tasked with doing a stunt of a rewrite. I thought, “Alright, let’s just try this and see where we end up.” I was buried in an intense exercise of rewriting really, then suddenly got the call about The Girlfriend Experience and this very interesting window of time opened up. It felt like dominoes falling into place, as I could reroute all of my activities and focus on season three of this series. It was an amazing opportunity.
Filmmaker: Knowing your previous work, the series feels like a perfect fit and natural progression, but what were those initial conversations between Soderbergh and yourself like? Were those thematic dots being connected when he reached out?
Marquardt: Yeah, and I believe Steven had luckily checked out She’s Lost Control prior to reaching out. Had he not, I’m not sure I would be sitting here and talking to you about season three right now. For me, it was a confluence of luck and good timing. Thematically, I had been doing pretty much everything but working on a similar kind of storyline in the years after She’s Lost Control. The projects I was working on had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of sex work or a gender-specific approach to intimacy or things of that nature. I imagine that one thing She’s Lost Control showed was an attempt at a responsible treatment of the subject matter. That was very important to Steven and STARZ, the network, as well. If you look at the overall franchise, the Steven Soderbergh film and seasons one and two of the series, there’s a nonjudgmental approach to what these characters are doing, and it was important to honor that going forward.
Filmmaker: You wrote and directed the entire series, which feels like a monumental task. What was that writing process like? Did you have to envision the story in an episodic structure, segmenting it out so that every half-hour-block concludes with a narrative “high point?” Did you feel like you had to achieve a kind of bingeable quality? Although, outside of the premiere night (where two episodes aired on the same evening), only one episode is being released every Sunday.
Marquardt: Making the series bingeable was important to me, at least for the audience who chooses to watch it that way once all of the episodes have been released. And while I love bingeing my favorite shows, I also wanted to include at least one mindfuck per episode, so we’d spin plot elements around or reroute what the audience thinks the story is going to be about before shifting into new territory that works within the larger story arc of the entirety of the season. You can watch it either way, and it was fun to set those goalposts.
Regarding the writing of the ten episodes, there was a point where it was a bit terrifying attempting to conceptualize the entire thing before preparing to “climb that mountain” of production. I broke everything down and made everything as digestible as I could. Every script is terrifying at some point, mostly before you sit down to even work on it. Once you start, you break everything down into smaller segments, then it’s just about getting up every day and doing the work. I wrote the first draft of all ten episodes fairly quickly, then the focus became about the rewriting and polishing of the draft with specific locations secured.
Filmmaker: Was London always agreed upon as the central location for this season? To have Iris relocate there for work?
Marquardt: Yes. There was a previous iteration in the works where the season would have been loosely based on a particular novel, but that was abandoned at some point when the network requested a more linear storyline set in London. I was tasked with coming up with a completely new take for season three, and my immediate impulse was to bring the previous interests I had explored over the last five years (artificial intelligence, neuroscience, future-facing technologies, etc.) and find a way to channel those in.
Filmmaker: When you knew you would be directing the entire season as well, how important was it to reconnect with several of your key collaborators from She’s Lost Control? Specifically your cinematographer, Zack Galler, and editor, Nick Carew?
Marquardt: That selection process was also collaborative, in the sense that Steven felt that as long as I had a good enough reason for wanting someone to be included on this ride with me, it was a good enough reason to [hire them]. That’s what was special about this series, that it’s treated like a giant independent feature, at least in terms of cross-boarding the entire production and working with a single DP and editor, etc. It came together quite organically, although we did get shut down two weeks out from production, in March 2020, due to COVID.
Filmmaker: So production was beginning and you had to pause for the foreseeable future?
Marquardt: We weren’t even in production! We were at the height of prep, then everything was shut down two weeks before our start date. At the time, I was prepping with a different DP, Sébastien Ventura (we had been wanting to work together for a while), and we were essentially finished with prep right as everything shut down. It was [some time] before production could boot back up, and—well, everything happens for a reason, I feel, and life would change so much.
People’s availability [changed], and Zack Galler (my DP on She’s Lost Control) became available once we were able to resume prep. He wouldn’t have been available a half-a-year earlier when the shoot was [initially planned]. When we did boot back up, Zack was ready, so the gang came back together with him, Nick and myself. We high-fived each other right before production started and made a promise to keep challenging and pushing ourselves. Rather than make this project a repeat [of She’s Lost Control], we needed it to be a completely different endeavor, and while it obviously is in regard to the narrative, we wanted that difference to also apply to the visuals and style and pacing of the story.
Filmmaker: When were you allowed to actually resume prep and begin production? I imagine March and April of 2020 were out of the question.
Marquardt: It was late summer of 2020, yeah, and looking back, it was the only time we could have been able to boot back up successfully, as right when we finished our shoot, there was another large shutdown about a week later. In retrospect, we got really lucky.
Filmmaker: You mentioned having to cross-board much of the production. That’s something specific to shooting a series, of course, and I was wondering if that required a different sort of scheduling mindset when you’re embarking on such a lengthy project?
Marquardt: Well, because we wanted to apply more of a “feature mindset” to production, our scheduling process resembled a feature as well. Rather than breaking it out episode-by-episode, we shot with locations and actors like you would on a feature. It allowed us to be a lot more effective, at least as far as budgeting was concerned.
Filmmaker: In Filmmaker’s coverage of season one, Scott Macaulay reported that “Kerrigan and Seimetz began their process by breaking down the entire show, all 13 episodes, on a giant whiteboard. They then tackled individual episodes, splitting each up into two halves.” But by tackling season three as a giant feature film, it sounds like you were able to maintain an approach familiar to you?
Marquardt: Maybe, but I think you have to activate a larger span of time within your brain, to hold story arcs and themes and subplots and specific character moments across ten episodes rather than a two-hour feature. But I think the brain is surprisingly adaptive, and season three felt like second nature. Now, that’s to some degree obviously due to me having written all ten episodes, but for the [rest of the team] it became second nature to say, “OK, you know what, since this happens in episode seven, why don’t we reuse the same location over here [in another episode]? We can redress that later.” We’re always trying to double up, and that was especially important as we were shooting in a big city like London in the midst of a pandemic. We tried turning every location into five locations and it worked out well.
Filmmaker: As the film deals with advanced technology and augmented reality, you have Iris change her appearance depending on the scene (and the world) we’re in. Did you conduct a lot of screen tests with Julia Goldani Telles and the hair and makeup department? Iris’s changing appearances feel equally influenced by Julia’s performance as well.
Marquardt: All of that was the result of a great collaborative process between our costume designer, Tina Kalivas (who was also a fashion designer in a past life and created bespoke pieces for our version of Iris), and our hair and makeup designer, Sarah Pickering, who came with a very clear vision of how to show Iris’s consistent “reboots” manifesting outwardly in her appearance. Iris puts herself in very different experiences throughout the film, and Tina and Sarah had to find a specific look for every endeavor, every pocket of reality in Iris’s “girlfriend life.” That was a fun blending of character and location, not to mention something that would reflect the tone of each interaction. We had dozens of different “Irises.”
Filmmaker: And they’re presented to the viewer in complex, intentionally disorienting ways at times. The pilot opens with a scenario that blends character and location, to the point where I was questioning if we were in a dream or virtual reality composite or something else. This merging of very real spaces with digital ones is, in its own way, pretty freeing as a storyteller, I imagine. Is that how you processed it—taking Iris in and out of digital realms, then into very real-life circumstances?
Marquardt: My biggest goal was for it to be future-facing and halfway towards full-on science fiction while grounded in very naturalistic performances. The fine line we established was to never overwhelm the viewer with something that was visually too polished or too outrageously digital. I still wanted it to feel enhanced but not overly so. Look at what we’re seeing now with Unreal Engine and other virtual production companies and techniques. There’s so much interesting stuff happening, yet we wanted to shoot as much as possible in-camera, then select and enhance certain aspects using visual effects for our VR scenes. It had to be subtle but noticeable, to resonate with the viewer without jumping directly out at them.
In that opening scene of the pilot, when Iris is interviewing with a high-end escort agency that is a decentralized operation, the viewer doesn’t know what their physical headquarters might look like (or if they even have one). All we know is that these two characters are conducting an interview in a VR setting and that their every financial transaction is via crypto technology and currency. Iris is introduced to the audience as a very beautiful, flawless character, but I would hope that the viewer doesn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that the scenario isn’t real. We’re delivering cues and editing in such a way that it makes the scenario more intangible.
Filmmaker: The series incorporates numerous technological advancements making tons of noise within our current society, chief among them deep fakes and debates over how to ethically feature them. When shooting a series that incorporates the technological zeitgeist of the moment, were there moments where you also resisted that urge? Is there ever a fear of a topic becoming dated and passé by the time it reaches viewers? Were you looking at current headlines in the newscycle to draw from?
Marquardt: In some stages of my writing process, there was a lot of chatter about how deep fakes might manipulate the upcoming American presidential election, and that was obviously only one concern among many. We’ve all seen the Bill Hader video where he’s channeling Tom Cruise and a few others, and they’re equally hilarious and mind-blowing.
Filmmaker: But now people are scared of the deceptive nature it possesses.
Marquardt: Yeah, and there were so many discussions about deep fakes at that moment of time. It felt like we had an opportunity and an obligation to embrace that realm, especially in a story sense but also artistically as well. There’s one visual effects sequence in the series that uses that same deep fake technology, but I’d have to let our senior visual effects supervisor, David Gaddie, speak to it once we’re finished with post on that scene. We’re almost finished with it, but it’s going to be quite the stunt.
Filmmaker: So you’re still deep in post? I know the series runs through the end of June.
Marquardt: We’re almost done! We’re very close. It’s obviously been picture-locked for quite a while, but we’ve been working to get the visual effects to a level where they’re seamlessly blending in with each shot. It obviously has to be very subtle so that you wouldn’t necessarily realize that visual effects were involved but, as a result, it’s all been very time-consuming.
Filmmaker: Having now gone through this experience, as well as the experience of attempting to get other projects off the ground in the years after your first feature was warmly received, does it now feel like it’s been both a professional and personal progression for yourself? That you’ve learned things along the way that you can bring to future projects regardless of length and production specifics, certain skills you can continue to bring from project-to-project?
Marquardt: Oh, absolutely, and I think that’s the beauty of it. For every project that doesn’t go forward, you’ve still exercised those muscles and have done the heavy-lifting on the page or in your heart, aesthetically, right? I’d like to believe that all that work and energy eventually comes back around and can then be channeled into other projects, whatever they may be. I’m excited to do it again.