Seeking Arrangements: Lodge Kerrigan, Amy Seimetz and Steven Soderbergh on The Girlfriend Experience
Shot in New York City during the 2008 financial crisis, Steven Soderbergh’s feature The Girlfriend Experience was a cool movie about a hot topic. Ostensibly about a “new” kind of prostitution, where escorts would simulate the casual intimacy of a real relationship, it starred real-life porn star Sasha Grey even as it contained virtually no sex. But what began as a look at how the Internet enabled a new kind of solo entrepreneur sex worker — “As we were making the film, I didn’t consider [prostitution] as a metaphor for anything,“ Soderbergh said then — wound up a trenchantly austere portrait of economic anxiety for New York’s moneyed class. Grey’s various assignations were set against the white noise of plummeting stock prices and TARP program bailouts, as background became foreground. “I’m pushing harder and harder to try and get some of these projects into this area where they are almost like designed documentaries,” Soderbergh said at the time.
Eight years later, Soderbergh returns to the subject of prostitution, but everything has changed. The medium is television, not film, the narrative is more complex and psychologically charged, and, acting as an executive producer, Soderbergh has handed over the writing and directing reins to two independent filmmakers, Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, both new to series creation. Neither had worked with each other before either, and their partnership is just one of the show’s experimental elements. There was no writer’s room; the two co-wrote each of the series’ 13 half-hour episodes and alternated directing them, given free creative reign to bring their own interests to the material. (“It was a little bit of an experiment — an arranged marriage,” Kerrigan says. “A cruel experiment,” jokes Seimetz.) “The only thing I wanted to retain from the film was the title and a feeling,” Soderbergh says. “Everything else was sort of a blank canvas — new character, new place. [Lodge and Amy] would have a lot of freedom to sort of push this thing in any direction that they wanted.”
The second (and last) digitally shot, day-and-date released film in what was intended to be a six-picture deal with Mark Cuban’s HDNet Movies, the 2009 The Girlfriend Experience caught Soderbergh during a several-year burst of activity that included documentaries, mid-range-budgeted mainstream movies and an acclaimed HBO biopic. Also during this period was his declaration (drunk, late one night to Matt Damon, and elaborated upon in a series of interviews) that he planned to quit making movies.
Anyone who read Soderbergh’s statement as one of retirement had to have been shocked by the nonstop work that followed, which included theater (directing Scott Z. Burns’s The Library at the Public Theater); a liquor brand (clear brandy Singani 63); and provocative online film essays in the form of canonical recuts (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 2001). And then, of course, there is The Knick, a period hospital drama that has just completed an acclaimed second season on Cinemax, for which Soderbergh has directed and shot all 20 episodes. Soderbergh’s “retirement” proved more a critique of the current film industry than any statement about slowing down. As he said in an interview to Mike Ayers in Esquire, “[The film business] just stopped being fun.”
The new The Girlfriend Experience, which premieres on STARZ in April, is the latest example of Soderbergh finding creative freedom and narrative potential outside the movie industry’s business and storytelling strictures. Soderbergh says, “In a way, the spirit behind Section Eight, when we had that company, is still active here, which is trying to find a way to bring independent voices to the forefront in a given medium, supporting and protecting them with the hope that in the very near term, they won’t need that protection anymore and they can go out on their own.” The show follows law student Christine (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Riley Keough), who studies patent law and interns at a large firm while rising in the world of high-end escorting. Christine is introduced to prostitution by her friend Avery (indie star Kate Lyn Sheil, sporting a Louise Brooks-bob), whose expensive wardrobe and lunches at three-star restaurants are supported by a succession of men. There’s no one type: johns range from fit younger tech execs to sad, middle-aged divorcees, and post-coital conversation topics veer from income woes to toenail fungus.
On the basis of the four episodes provided to Filmmaker — all of which will screen in a special presentation at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival — the six-and-a-half hour The Girlfriend Experience has, necessarily, more story than the movie. Plot strands include business drama at Christine’s firm and personal intrigue involving Avery and their businesswoman booker, Erin (Mary Lynn Rajskub). There’s also a layer of psychological narrative purposefully absent from the original picture. “It’s sort of an inversion of the movie,” Soderbergh says. “There I was very much avoiding the psychology of Sasha’s character; I was playing very much to the sort of opacity of that character. This is sort of going in the other direction, and it becomes a real deep dive.” The show is also visually striking, with the directors and DP Steven Meizler constantly varying the coverage to take into account the psychological relationship between Christine and the spaces she inhabits. In wide shots she’s one in a sea of students in giant lecture halls or law office cubicles, while she becomes a central figure in dimly lit hotel rooms and apartments of her hook-ups.
For readers of this magazine, the most intriguing aspect of The Girlfriend Experience is the pairing of Kerrigan and Seimetz. Explains Soderbergh, “It was really imperative to have both a male and a female creative voice at the center of the show. So I began to think about writer/directors who might be able to provide all of those things. Lodge is somebody I’ve known 20 years, and Amy is somebody I didn’t know at all. I knew who she was because I know [her fiance, the director] Shane Carruth, and I’d just seen her feature, but I didn’t know her. I emailed them both and said, ‘Look, I want to pursue this approach to this show. Do you guys have any interest?’ And they both said yes.”
Kerrigan’s involvement with Soderbergh goes back to his 2004 film Keane, which Soderbergh executive produced. Damian Lewis, who went on to star in Homeland, was the possibly schizophrenic title subject, and his electric, immersive performance eventually enabled Kerrigan’s own transition to television. The director was coming off his fourth feature — a little-seen, experimental, French-language drama, Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs) — and wanted to direct for TV. “But I had no television experience,” Kerrigan says. Then, another director whose career has traversed a similar trajectory, Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.), was hired to direct the pilot of Homeland. He remembered Lewis’s performance in Keane and suggested him to Homeland creator Alex Gansa for the role of the brain-addled Manchurian candidate, Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody. Gansa watched Keane, cast Lewis, and then “Damian, Michael and Alex wanted me to come on and do an episode,” remembers Kerrigan. “But there was a lot of reticence [from the studio]. It was understandable. They had a major show, and they’d be turning it over to a director with no TV experience. I tried to explain that people with backgrounds in low-budget independent film are trained in ‘making the day.’ I think they’re better suited to directing episodic television than people who come from larger feature films.” Still, it took a year before Kerrigan was approved to direct his first episode: “In the end, I had to ask Steven to give them a call, to vouch for me, and that was the turning point.”
Kerrigan’s well-received episode, “State of Independence,” led to a string of other television directing jobs. Since 2012 he’s directed episodes of Longmire, Bates Motel, The Americans and The Red Road. “If you get hired to do five or six episodes a year of hour-long drama,” Kerrigan says, “that’s five or six hours of directing experience. It’s very rare you could ever get that in the feature world. I think of it as like the old studio system, where you get assignments, and you work in different genres. From an experience point of view, it’s invaluable. I think at the end of the day, to be really good at something, you have to practice it consistently.”
Kerrigan met Seimetz while directing three episodes of AMC’s hour-long murder procedural The Killing, in which she played bad mother Danette Lutz. A multi-hyphenate with dozens of credits across acting, writing, directing and producing, Seimetz’s debut feature, Sun Don’t Shine, starred Sheil and Kentucker Audley in a Florida sun-blasted take on the classic criminal lovers-on-the-run genre. Creating and then directing a TV show was something entirely new for her. “Since I’ve done mostly independent work,” Seimetz says, “I haven’t had to create an extremely in-depth bible, nor have I tried to tackled writing six-and-a-half hours of content on one story. As much as I enjoy binge-watching Sex and the City, it’s not really a part of my filmmaking language.”
The new The Girlfriend Experience got its start in 2012 after Soderbergh sent that email to Kerrigan and Seimetz. “We initially wrote a 15-page treatment,” Kerrigan says. “It wasn’t a traditional bible, by any means. It was more of a treatment and an overview of what this season might be in terms of the characters, but not going through episode by episode — just the overall arc. And then, Steven went out and shopped it, and STARZ was really interested. But instead of going straight to series, they asked if we would write a couple of episodes. We wrote them really quickly — faster than they could execute the contracts.”
Of her collaborative writing process with Kerrigan, Seimetz says, “When I have an idea for a scene that I know will only be a page, I’ll write seven pages and not censor myself. I’m a massive editor — I’ll scrap and find the nugget of one page from those seven pages. Lodge is much more internal. He won’t write a sentence down unless he’s thought it over and over and over again.”
Once the show was greenlit, 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. Explains Kerrigan, “On the first pass, Amy would do one half, I’d do the other, and then we’d meet and rewrite together.” The second phase was, says Seimetz, “going over everything in these very intense, long [discussions] — each line could lead to a three-hour discussion.”
A set of shared philosophies and ground rules helped stabilize the collaboration. Says Seimetz, “Both of us agreed that we didn’t want to be pro- or anti-prostitution. Tonally, we play with a lot of stuff, but in the end we are taking this very voyeuristic approach that is neither telling you that what [Christine] is doing is right or wrong, which I think is part of the tension of the show.” Of their development of the show’s central themes, Kerrigan says, “Amy and I were really interested in the idea of a person who compartmentalizes their life, and how they interact with intimacy. What is it to be able to go into a situation and have immediate intimacy with another person? How deep could it be, and how then would that affect the rest of your life?”
For the show’s lead, the filmmakers needed an actress who would, says Seimetz, play a character who is “a little selfish, a little self-centered, but not in an annoying way. Somebody who is self-possessed and strong, and who fits within the millennial type but is a woman whose choices are her own.” Soderbergh suggested Kerrigan and Seimetz meet with Riley Keough, who he had previously worked with on Magic Mike. Remembers Seimetz, “[Steven] said, ‘She hasn’t had the chance to fully unleash her power.’ When we met her, she was just immediately self-possessed, and she’s a little kook — a goofy 26-year-old. And she has an ability that I always look for in actors, which is that they don’t mind giving simple performances. They don’t try to emote everything, but you can still see all the emotion on their face.”
Of the part, Keough says, “I liked that it was not a typical role for a female. She’s very strong, controlling and independent, and she doesn’t feel the need to intellectualize her emotions. She looks at sex the way a man would — she’s not emotionally connecting to everyone, she just likes having sex. And she doesn’t want a boyfriend who she can talk to her problems about.”
Keough, Kerrigan and Seimetz all interviewed high-end prostitutes to research the character. “If I’m going to play someone I have to get to a place where what they are doing is authentic,” Keough says. “I don’t have to be okay with having sex with 20 men, but I had to find out why it’s okay for Christine. I asked the women, ‘How do you have sex with men you are not attracted to? One woman said she’d focus on one thing about the man she’d like. In the end, I realized it was very mechanical; it was her job.”
Says Soderbergh about the character of Christine, “This is someone for whom sex is like swimming. It isn’t weighted down with all these issues. [Christine] doesn’t view herself as being typical, and part of the show is sort of chronicling her discovery of what she can do with this super power that she didn’t realize she had.”
In terms of its production, The Girlfriend Experience had elements of the traditional TV prep. “There’s one DP, who is usually working consistently on set, and two ADs,” Kerrigan explains. “The main unit crew is always shooting while there’s another prep crew out prepping.” DP Meizler came on board, says Kerrigan, “three or four weeks into an eight-week prep, so he came to most of the locations. But in most episodic TV, the cinematographer doesn’t see a lot of the locations. The gaffer usually goes to all the tech scouts, not the DP. It’s a testament to cinematographers working in television, Steven included, that they’re great problem solvers because they have to solve problems in the moment.”
As a way of scheduling this entirely location-based show with, sometimes, two-to-three company moves a day, Kerrigan and Seimetz crossboarded — i.e., shot scenes from multiple episodes in any given shooting day. “To get an episode done in five days, the only way was to use locations over and over and shoot them out,” Seimetz says. “So sometimes I’d be shooting in one day scenes from episode one, scenes from episode five and scenes from episode nine.”
Soderbergh crossboards entire seasons of The Knick, but for The Girlfriend Experience the directors had to work within limits. “At the very beginning, Amy and I were even sharing locations on the day,” Kerrigan says. “She’d come in for five hours, and I’d come in for five. We decided very early on that that was not a model that was efficient or going to work.”
What did work, while presenting specific challenges, was Kerrigan and Seimetz’s position as their own showrunners. “In the standard model,” Kerrigan says, “the showrunner is in the writer’s room and the edit room, which are separate from production. Once in a while they’ll come to set, but usually the writer of the episode is sent to be on set with the director. If there are any script changes or adjustments needed for production reasons, the writer will contact the showrunner and they’ll work on the script together to make changes or not. But Amy and I were pretty much wearing all those different hats.”
“We’d have one thing in the script,” Seimetz says, “and then throughout location scouting we’d find something really interesting. And because we were the writers, we were able to make those changes and adapt rather than trying to squish everything into the perfectly scripted version. That also saved money and time, and it relieved stress from the art department.”
The challenge of this approach was how to respect each other’s authority on the set while fulfilling the showrunner function. Here, another collaboration rule came into play. Says Seimetz, “I didn’t intrude on [Lodge’s] set, and he didn’t intrude on mine, but there was a very clear deal that we wouldn’t change stuff. If you wanted to go down these weird wormholes and figure out some weird thing, it just couldn’t affect the overall arc of the show or the next episode. That wouldn’t be fair. So, Lodge and I, we had these rules that we wouldn’t break.”
If shows like The Knick and the first season of True Detective have distinguished themselves by single directorial points-of-view, then the dual-director format of The Girlfriend Experience offers another sort of hook. There’s the obvious gender split as well as the fact that Seimetz and Kerrigan, while sharing certain sensibilities, have very different styles. In each episode the credits arrive at the end, and the sequencing of the episodes is not precisely alternating. If you’re familiar with both their work, it’s hard not to play a kind of guessing game while watching each episode.
Says Soderbergh, “I didn’t want the show to feel checkerboarded or disjointed, but I was also confident that the combination of the cinematographer, Steven Meizler, who’s somebody that I’ve worked with before, and Riley would keep everything sort of unified, which I think it did. But in terms of emphasis, both visually and story wise, I think there are interesting differences between Lodge’s approach and Amy’s approach.”
Of the gender split, Kerrigan says, “I think it’s impossible not to have gender influence certain [directing] choices. Whether you’re really aware of one’s gender or not, I still think it influences. But at the same time, I think it’s tempered by the fact that we co-wrote everything, so there’s not a clear demarcation of female and male point of view.” Beyond that, though, Kerrigan doesn’t want to say much about what differences he perceives between his approach and Seimetz’s: “It’s still the same aesthetic world, the same story, but the differences are in a really interesting way, not in a way that takes you out of the experience.”
About working with the two directors — potentially, a whipsaw effect — Keough says, “It was really helpful to have the same directors the whole season, a man and a woman, to build Christine with as we went along.” Of their differences on set, Keough says, “Amy is really free and experimental — she leaves more room to play around. Lodge is like a machine — he knows exactly the shot and when he’s got it.” Seimetz cites her experience being on independent films where “you have to be ready to change, to adjust in a heartbeat” as influencing her spontaneous style. As an example, she cites in an email a scene at the end of the second episode, where Christine — whose escort name is Chelsea — and Avery have drinks with two older men. “I did a few takes having them deliver [the dialogue] as scripted,” she writes. “But it felt very stagey. And I needed it to feel casual but capture that tension every young woman feels when they get hit on by older men — a generational gap that is being ignored, light conversation that is loaded, and the newness to Christine of role-playing. I let them improv for a take… [I let] Riley and Aidan [one of the two men] flounder for way too long about yoga — the way people keep flirtatiously riffing with a stranger because you’re not sure what to talk about.”
Seimetz continues, “There was something stiff to my shot design I had planned too — I needed the camera to be a little less formal. It needed to feel spontaneous. So I had Meizler (our DP, who also camera operated) and Sean (the other camera operator) throw on long lenses and wander from each character so it felt like the viewer was part of the conversation. From there, I came up with an entirely new shot design to go with the mood. At the end of that sequence, I put the camera outside the bar when Riley makes her decision to play along with this ‘game,’ distancing the audience from her because she is no longer ‘Christine’ but becoming ‘Chelsea’… It was important to make the audience a more objective viewer as opposed to the casual, intimate feeling at the start of that sequence. That is the sort of dance I played throughout the season — dancing between what felt casual or intimate but then jumping back to show the audience a more objective point of view.”
The term “peak TV” crept into the cultural parlance this past fall, coined by FX Network’s president John Landgraf to describe not only the competitive pressures caused by the production of upwards of 400 scripted TV shows in the US but the bewilderment and fatigue in viewers struggling to discover and keep up with the best. Like The Knick, The Girlfriend Experience demonstrates that auteurism is one way to cut through the noise. “The industry is pilot-driven,” Kerrigan says of the current model. “They bring in a director for the pilot, then it has to go through a whole approval process. Then scripts have to be generated. Then they start up a writer’s room, but the director has already moved on. But [networks] are moving away from this and going straight to series. I think going straight to series and also having all of the scripts written beforehand is imperative in trying to keep a director on from the very beginning and then having that kind of vision.”
This past year has also seen pushback from cineastes about what seems to be television’s encroaching cultural hegemony. In a Filmmaker article published last summer, “TV is Not the New Film,” producer Mike Ryan, while lauding the quality of today’s television, cited specific formal aspects of cinema he said television simply could not compete with: unorthodox film grammar, personal points of view and varied modes of narration. Have filmmakers simply thrown in the towel by moving to television?
“I read his article, and I thought it was interesting,” Kerrigan says. “But I think of [directing] as problem-solving, and [television] is problem-solving in a different context. Ultimately, you’re still dealing with the basic building blocks of drama, which is human psychology and action/reaction. And you know, how do you cover that? Why are you covering it that way? Why are you staging it that way? Why are you visualizing it this way? Does the form meet the content? Is there a relationship between the two? That takes place in every medium, so you’re solving different problems.”
Replies Soderbergh, “I think [film vs. television] just may be an irrelevant dichotomy for the filmmaker. All I’m doing is trying to work in an area in which I have freedom and can tell stories that I’m interested in. So I’m just following that. And if it turns out that lately long-form television is much more receptive to the kind of things I want to do or the kinds of things that other young independent filmmakers want to do, that’s just a function of the economic structure of the film business.”
“In terms of media in general, we’re sort of in the Wild West right now,” Seimetz says. “We’re consuming television the same way we consume film, online or through VOD and binge-watching in one sitting. We approached The Girlfriend Experience like a six-and-half-hour movie, breaking it up episodically. But I have to stress what a rare situation I was in! No one said, ‘You have to have a dramatic engine!’ They just said, ‘Do what you want.’ And Steven had final cut, which in essence meant Lodge and I had final cut.”
She continues, “We had the freedom to cast whoever was the most interesting and available to us. I can’t say the same thing for what would be the equivalent budget in film, like a $3 million movie. When you are talking those numbers, you are cast-dependent, and a lot of financiers are fear-based, and a lot of them want final cut and have all these demands. It’s not the ‘90s anymore. Yes, the television system is there to make money, obviously. But at the same time, you’re seeing more and more that television’s willing to take certain risks that some of these bigger investors in independent film aren’t really willing to gamble with. You know?”