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Fast on the heels of Che, Steven Soderbergh returns with The Girlfriend Experience, a low budget tale of a high priced escort, played by adult film star Sasha Grey, who makes her living during the brink of the global economic collapse.

BY SCOTT MACAULAY

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES.

Cinema and prostitution have long been intertwined, mostly by writers and directors who have, in moments of pique, reflective analysis or despair, yoked the two together to describe their craft. Hollywood screenwriters joke about “whoring themselves out;” the director and writer David Mamet has compared studying the job of television writing to learning to become a prostitute; the director Béla Tarr, referring to his state-supported Hungarian colleagues, once declared that “filmmakers act like prostitutes;” and Federico Fellini has even expanded the metaphor to include the entire art form itself. “Cinema is an old whore, like circus and variety, who knows how to give many kinds of pleasure,” he once said. But the conversation becomes more interesting (or certainly less obvious) when it shifts to prostitution as subject matter. In films as different as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Klute, Belle de Jour, Mamma Roma and Anna Christie, prostitute characters enable stories that are not just tales of individual human relationships but are also philosophical, social and economic critiques of their eras.

It’s hard to separate the character-based foreground from the almost documentary background in Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Girlfriend Experience. Ostensibly a portrait of a new kind of high-class escort, a woman who is paid not only for sex but for her ability to simulate for her clients a real relationship, the film is set within a New York City moneyed class reeling from the stock market collapse and nervous about the election, the TARP program, and, possibly, the end of global capitalism. But as the stock quotes and electoral polling data form soundtrack white noise, Soderbergh keeps his Red camera trained on Sasha Grey, the adult film actress who is cooly fascinating in her mainstream feature debut. In describing Grey’s work here, it is worth quoting her MySpace page. Discussing her ambitions towards working in adult film, she might just as well have been writing about The Girlfriend Experience: “Despite the controversy that surrounds this industry, I felt I could ultimately bring an enigmatic quality to it.”

That same MySpace page, which I scanned before interviewing her, also reveals the actress to be a real indie and art film fan. Harmony Korine, David Gordon Green, Antonioni, Agnes Varda, William Klein and, yes, Steven Soderbergh are all listed as interests, but it was most likely her professed love of Jean-Luc Godard (according to the Los Angeles Times, she once considered the porn name “Anna Karina”) that led to her casting in this film. (Below, Soderbergh references Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie when discussing the influences on The Girlfriend Experience.)

Like Grey’s character in the film, The Girlfriend Experience, which is the second of six low-budget HD films Soderbergh will make as part of a deal he made with HDNet, is a movie of beguiling yet resistant surfaces — reflections and faces that mirror the anxieties and aspirational dreams we project onto them. It’s both one of Soderbergh’s puzzle-like abstractions as well as his of-the-moment blends of documentary and fiction. And, to some film critics, the movie, which was actually written in 2006, is also some kind of inside joke. “There’s been a reaction or two that suggests that this whole thing is my way of expressing my feelings about the critical response to Che or something,” Soderbergh told me. “I mean it seems frankly a little bit like: ‘What, you’re accusing me of being narcissistic by making a movie that’s really about you?’”

There’s a great history of movies in which prostitution is a metaphor for human relationships in capitalist society. It strikes me you’ve made The Girlfriend Experience at a time when prostitution and capitalism are both changing. What was your thinking about prostitution as a metaphor when making this movie? Well [laughs], let’s put it this way: As we were making the film, I didn’t consider [prostitution] as a metaphor for anything. [The film] is about exactly what it’s about. One of the things that I felt was interesting about that world now is the effect on it of technology, and the fact that somebody in the position of our protagonist can take more control over how they organize their business. That’s something that 15 years ago didn’t really exist. [The Web] has sort of eliminated the agency and the pimp. In terms of a business model, I would think that’s a much more efficient way to make money.

SASHA GREY. PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES.

But at the same time, the backdrop of the film — the New York finance industry, the recession, the government stimulus program — is so prominent. It’s hard not to think of these two subjects as intertwined. Well that was kind of a happy accident. We finished the outline for the film in the spring of 2006, and I’ve been holding on to it until I could find a window to make the movie. By design, the people that are cast in the film are encouraged to speak for themselves and to say whatever’s on their minds. It just happened to be a weird circumstance that we shot the movie in October of last year and all anybody was thinking about was money and, secondarily, the election. It ended up being lucky because it sort of plays to the core of the film in a weird sort of way.

I remember hearing that you had been working on The Girlfriend Experience for a while, but, nonetheless, it did strike me as a kind of “zeitgeist film.” I thought of your K Street HBO series. Both that project and this one seemed to have a certain kind of elasticity in terms of being able to quickly absorb things going on in the broader culture. How do you create something that has that kind of space within it, or that is able to absorb things from the outside during shooting and postproduction? It’s kind of a continuation of an idea that I started being enamored of around the time of Traffic actually, which was this fusion of real people and real stories with a fictional story. K Street was another attempt to smash these two ideas together, Bubble was a continuation of it and The Girlfriend Experience is another attempt. And Moneyball, the movie that I’m about to shoot this summer, is, I think, actually going to be the most extreme attempt at what I’ve been playing around with for almost a decade now. I guess it’s something that grows out of my frustration with the norms of cinema narrative storytelling and the fact that I’m convinced that the gains that can be achieved through presenting something that seems like it really is happening in front of you are more significant than the gains you get from something that doesn’t seem as real but is better constructed. That may just be a reflection of my personal taste, but I’m pushing harder and harder to try and get some of these projects into this area where they are almost like designed documentaries. Bubble, GFE and K Street — [on all of these] we literally worked from outlines that just described who’s in the scene and gave a very, very loose description of what the scene is about. They’re all controlled improvisations.

I noticed Brian [Koppelman] and David [Levien] are credited with the screenplay, and they also wrote the last Ocean’s movie. How did the process of working with them differ on this film? This one sort of came up by accident. We were having a drink in an upscale bar in Midtown Manhattan and I identified a woman who was sittingacrossthe room.There was something about her affect that separated her from everyone else. I pointed her out to Brian and David, and they both said,“Oh, she’s a GFE.” And I said, “What’s a GFE?” And they said, “Well, GFE stands for ‘girlfriend experience,’ these sort of superhigh-end escorts that you don’t merely pay for sex, you pay them in essence to have a relationship with you. It’s a totally different scenario. They know what you know, they read what you read. If you read a transcript of their interactions with their clients they would appear to be a couple.” I hadn’t heard about this, and I thought it could be a perfect HDNet movie. So in the space of a few days we hammered out a little bit of an outline and then we set it aside. When we came back to it the only thing we added was the hobbyist [the operator of the escort review site]. I was looking for one more sort of complicating element that would put her in this sort of vulnerable emotional space [in order to] create a situation in which she would be open to letting someone in who normally she might not. She comes out of interacting with this hobbyist, is in a very, very off-kilter state of mind, and she meets this guy who seems to be really nice and makes a sort of snap decision to turn her life upside down. The [screenplay] document was probably six or seven pages long.

Was the fractured, nonlinear structure that you employ here and in so many of your films present in the script or did that come in post? We shot basically in chronological order, but as we were shooting I knew that I was going to restructure the film in editing, and so I was making sure as I shot each scene that I was picking up visual materials that would allow me to layer in these sort of clues that you would eventually understand. But the exact structure of it I didn’t know until I got into the editing room. I’d have bins that had different subjects, and then I would do sub-clips within those bins so that I could kind of look at the movie on the desktop and connect things by subject from different scenes and then start to attach them to each other and see where that would take me. So there was some sort of organizing principle.

Why was it important to cast Sasha Grey in the movie? Well, I needed someone who felt comfortable in overtly sexual situations. Even though I knew beforehand that I was never going to shoot anything really explicit, I still needed someone who just presented an air of being relaxed in these situations and who was unselfconscious. The first meeting I had with her, I said, “Look, this is how we work, and do you think this sounds like something you can do? There are these sort of controlled improvisations and — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this Godard film, Vivre Sa Vie?” She said, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen it and I like it a lot.” I said, “Well, that’s the kind of vibe that we’re trying to get.” She just seemed very game and she also struck me as someone who could remain herself, that I wasn’t in danger of her showing up and trying to act, which is the opposite of what I needed. And also, you know, the camera likes her. She’s kind of a new breed, I think. She doesn’t really fit the typical mold of someone who goes into the adult film business. I found out about her because of this article in Los Angeles magazine that ran a couple years ago. I’d never heard anybody talk about the business the way that she talked about it. That’s what made me think of her when we started working on the movie, and I was really happy with what she did.

Aside from Sasha Grey, and film critic Glenn Kenny, who were some of the actors that you cast? They were all non-actors who usually had some connection to the characters they played in the film. For instance, both of the gym owners — those are both the guys who own those gyms. When she goes to talk to the guy about redesigning her Web page, that guy is a real Web designer. Our goal usually is to just find somebody who doesn’t have to act, who really is what they appear to be.

Why go to a film journalist to play the hobbyist character? We all knew Glenn [Kenny], and I needed somebody who has that kind of verbal dexterity, who can just sort of pontificate on the spot. And he was fantastic. I mean all that stuff — that’s just Glenn being Glenn. His review of her he knocked off in like 30 seconds. I told Glenn, “Write your review and you need to articulate not only what’s in your mind but what might be in the mind of the audience.” What’s really fun about working this way — and I’m sure Brian and David would tell you the same thing — is there’s a specificity to what you get that’s very, very difficult to write on your own because everybody’s mind works differently. Everybody expresses themselves in a way that’s unique to them. [On set] there’s really no “wrong answer” [from the actors] because I key off of what I’m getting from them. I’m not trying to bend them to conform to my idea of the movie; I’m building the movie off of what they’re giving me. Sasha, to her credit, understood that method and was very diligent about keeping a notebook and reminding herself of what was said in all of the scenes. When you’re improvising like that and you’re shooting in sequence you find yourself in a situation down the road where you need to remember what was referenced [earlier].

How was using the RED camera different this time than when you worked with it on Che? It was more sensitive than when we used it on Che. You know, I shot The Informant [with the Red] last spring, but I wasn’t really in a situation where sensitivity was as much of an issue as it was on GFE. So for me that [heightened sensitivity to light] was a big plus because we were shooting anamorphic and I was kind of restricted to shooting stuff at 2.8. Basically I can’t go much wider than that, stop-wise, and so I really needed that extra sensitivity. It meant I could go out on the street or be in a car, still be able to shoot available light and be really pleased with what we were getting. So, [the Red] just keeps getting better.

What about your approach to lighting? There are only two shots in the film where I pulled out a light.

Wow. Literally. And frankly I wish I hadn’t. They’re my two least favorite shots.

Can I ask what they are? There is the one scene in the restaurant where she meets with this manager that her accountant wants her to talk to, and there’s one shot near the end, after she’s come home from the weekend. She goes across the street and there’s a quick shot of her having a drink in a bar across the street. In both situations I added a little sort of red fill light, and I look at the movie now and I hate it. Literally, everything else was available light.

Going into those scenes where there’s natural backlight and the actors in the foreground are completely in shadow or in profile, did you know that that’s what the effect was going to be? What I’ve been trying to do lately — especially on these films because it’s harder to do on the Ocean’s films — is to design the shots based on where the light is and not where I want it to be. It’s been an almost decade-long process since Traffic, and it’s a different way of working and thinking. I find the results are more interesting. And it’s not just [natural light] because sometimes you’re walking into environments that have artificial light. But again, I’ve tried to be really, really rigorous about going after something that feels real, not imposing my will on the frame but adapting. For me it’s just more exciting, more distinctive and less predictable. I’m not controlling the environment; I’m keying off of the environment.

I take it The Informant was more conventionally lit? Yeah, a little bit. It’s still mostly me walking in and sort of saying, “Okay, here’s what the place looks like and as a result I’m going to compose this way.”

In terms of the color correct, did you accentuate in post any of the color palettes that seem to be present in the film? Not a lot. I mean, it’s a raw capture.The [Red camera] raw capture arbitrarily is sort of set at the daylight Kelvin level. What I’ve been doing lately is just keeping everything like that. So basically the whole movie is balanced to daylight, and what I find interesting about that is the way all the artificial light responds and mixes. All the incandescent light goes really, really warm, and fluorescents go in many different directions depending on what kind of tubes you’re dealing with. I just like the fact that the artificial light sort of explodes with color because you’re shooting everything in daylight balance. In a couple cases even shooting [daylight] balance for daylight stuff tended to cool off depending on what time of day we were shooting.

I presume you used a very tiny crew. Right.

But you’re Steven Soderbergh, you’re an established director, you’re working in New York City, and I’m presuming this was a union film. Was there a kind of conflict between your vision of how you wanted the set to be and what you needed to have? No, I was really happy with what we ended up with. You could fit the entire cast and crew into two vans, and then we had one cube truck with all of the gear in it. It was perfect. I mean, I remember [producer] Greg Jacobs and I moving from location to location while we were shooting and saying to each other, “This is the perfect size for a film. We found the right number of people to be mobile and yet to be able to do what we wanted to do.” It was really the best of all possible worlds. I felt really, really happy about it.

So no wardrobe van, no honeywagons? No. We had a costume designer, and [the actors] would go shopping with the costume designer, pick out their stuff, and then we would just carry it in the truck, in the cube truck. It was very, very efficient. And we had normal days. Ten hours.

Anything else you want to say or add into this? No, other than that I’m looking forward to [making more]. I owe four more of these, and they really are a lot of fun to make. They feed everything else. There are so many things that come out of working this way that can be applied to larger films — not only just on a practical level in terms of crew and things, but also in terms of storytelling and presentation of performance. [The process] is really fun to watch. You just never know where something’s going to go, or what’s going to come out of somebody’s mouth.

Q&A With Sasha Gray



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