How TV’s provocative new call-girl drama ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ breaks all the rules

The Girlfriend Experience Transactional Pictures of NY LP
‘The Girlfriend Experience.’ Transactional Pictures of NY LP

Since his self-imposed retirement from directing movies in 2013, Steven Soderbergh has not eased back on his workload.

He was an executive producer on an Oscar-winning documentary, “Citizenfour,” and was executive producer/cinematographer on the “Magic Mike” sequel, “Magic Mike XXL.” But the terrain he’s been most interested in exploring is television.

Along with directing HBO’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, since 2014 he’s also directed every episode of the acclaimed Cinemax series “The Knick,” starring Clive Owen as an unorthodox surgeon at a New York City hospital in the early 20th century.

Now for his latest TV project, the Oscar-winning director is staying behind the scenes and introducing the mainstream to the talents of some of independent film’s best and brightest.

“The Girlfriend Experience” (premiering on Starz on Sunday), is an adaptation of Soderbergh’s 2009  film of the same name that looks at the life of a high-end Manhattan call girl as she interacts with her wealthy clients. But what sets this call girl apart from others is her willingness to have an emotional connection with her clients, not just sex — known in the industry as a “girlfriend experience.

Soderbergh was pitched the TV idea by producer friend Philip Fleishman. The director saw potential to tell the story on the cheap, as he did with the movie version, which was made for just over $1 million.

But Soderbergh didn’t want to direct the TV version (he is an executive producer on the show). Instead, he wanted the entire series to be made by two filmmakers, one male and one female.

Amy Seimetz Jason Kempin Getty final
Amy Seimetz. Jason Kempin/Getty

He called on indie film veteran Lodge Kerrigan and actress/director Amy Seimetz, whose work has been a mainstay in the low-budget film world for over a decade.

“Soderbergh called me to do it and I was like, ‘I’ve never directed television,’ and he was like, ‘That’s the best way to start,'” Seimetz told Business Insider at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The plan was not to take on the series in a traditional sense, but to use Kerrigan and Seimetz’s experience as independent filmmakers who know how to stretch a dollar to basically create a low-budget TV show.

“That’s the reason why Lodge and I got executive producer credit on the show, too,” Seimetz said. “In TV, the power is where the money goes and when you’re working at this budget and you want it to appear on screen, the director and the EP have to agree where the resources are being allocated properly.”

Seimetz wouldn’t divulge the show’s budget, only saying that by TV standards it’s low, but in the world of indie films it’s a good amount of money.

“For the cost of one episode, I could go out and make numerous movies,” she said. “But at this level, you can’t ask people to take $100 a day. They are getting decent union pay on this.”

Like the movie, Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience” is shot with natural lighting on inexpensive cameras and has a cast of character actors. And the show’s lead is a relative newcomer, Riley Keough (porn star Sasha Grey was the lead in the movie version), who plays a twentysomething who spends her days as a law student and nights as a call girl.

But creatively, the show extends further than the movie did, something Soderbergh encouraged Seimetz and Kerrigan to do.

“It was always supposed to be taking this topic and making something new,” Seimetz said.

And to do that, Seimetz and Kerrigan spent a lot of time interviewing call girls, learning that portraying the girlfriend experience for a client isn’t just about gaining money and power.

“They make a lot of money, yes,” Seimetz said. “Some of these women don’t take a client for less than $10,000. But I think that’s not a motivating factor for all women. I think it’s a rush of being in a secret world. And I don’t know if they seek power. They like getting into the intimate space with men.”

Though Seimetz has never asked Soderbergh, she believes his motivation behind having a male and female perspective in the director chair was giving the show a different feel than most TV.

“It’s very common, the idea of the male gaze and how that is portrayed in cinema and TV,” she said. “I think it’s interesting that he wants to see the storytelling told by both a male and female, if there’s a difference. Is there a difference between a female gaze and a male gaze?”

“The Girlfriend Experience” premieres on Sunday on Starz.

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