Don’t watch the show “The Girlfriend Experience” expecting a Sasha Grey cameo or other crossover moments with the 2009 film directed by Steven Soderbergh. The upcoming Starz series will be very much its own thing according to the creative team, who spoke to press at the TCAs this morning about the tale of a young law student who enters the surprisingly sexy world of “transactional relationships.”
According to co-showrunner Lodge Kerrigan, it is a completely original show “inspired by the film.” Or, in Soderbergh’s words: “The mandate was, ‘Take the title and start over.'” Here’s what else we learned about the upcoming series, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as a Special Events selection in January.
What Auteur-Led TV Looks Like
Co-showrunner Amy Seimetz and Kerrigan came to “GFE,” following established work in the independent film world, because Soderbergh (who serves as executive producer on the series) wanted to take “a sort of independent, auteur, director-driven approach to this show.” (When Seimetz joked that no one had seen her films, Soderbergh quickly jumped in to correct her on that score — “I did!”)
Kerrigan laid out their visual approach to the show as one of naturalism, though different from Soderbergh’s approach with the original film because “we’re different people — when I’m on set I tend to trust my own instincts.”
Those instincts included shooting everything on location with a lot of natural lighting: “We followed the sun.” It all created “a sense of naturalism and realism. The photography really helped that.”
“The important part of it was that the filmmaking reflected the content,” he added.
It’s an approach that will likely play well at Sundance later this month, where “GFE” will be making its world premiere. “It certainly seems, given the pedigree of [Kerrigan and Seimetz], why [Sundance] is a good spot for this show to be screened,” Soderbergh said. “The people who are going to appreciate the filmmaking approach are all going to be there.”
On Finding Christine
The first question asked of Soderbergh was how Riley Keough came to be cast as the central character, Christine, which he revealed came about after working with her — just a little bit. “I worked with her on ‘Magic Mike’ for a few days, and I had this sense that I was kind of scratching the surface of her capabilities,” he said. “She went onto a list in my mind of people to return to.”
However, he left the actual casting decision to Kerrigan and Seimetz, just suggesting that they sit down with her because “she’s got a lot in the tank.”
Keough used words like “controlling,” “manipulative” and “selfish” to describe the role, things that “are not really seen in a lead character on a TV show. She’s not extremely likable or morally correct… more of a character you’d see as a man, which is what drew me to this.”
“What this show portrays is a woman who likes sex without guilt and without shame,” Kerrigan said. “I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of.”
“The one thing I was having a hard time understanding was having sex with no emotional connection,” Keough mentioned; a problem that she had less difficulty with the more sex scenes that they filmed.
“I don’t think this is a job that every woman can do,” Seimetz said. “You have to have a certain personality to meet strangers in hotel rooms.”
That being said, don’t expect “GFE” to make a case for or against the concept of having sex for money. “This show isn’t interested in the question of should this activity be permissible,” Soderbergh said. “None of us had any interest in editorializing whether or not this is appropriate behavior. We’re just saying this is what’s happening.”
“This is Really Fun.”
Kerrigan, in discussing the emergence of auteur-led television, mentioned “The Girlfriend Experience” in the same breath as the Soderbergh-directed “The Knick” and “True Detective” (presumably Season 1), with the connecting factor being a “united vision” for each series.
Soderbergh, meanwhile, was a little less formal about his enthusiasm for television. “I like the long form… In the case of this, Riley playing a character over the course of six-and-a-half hours, it’s fun to play on a canvas with that kind of shape. We’re able to let things breathe and develop. There’s no urgency to jam the narrative into a two-hour slot.”
The medium, he added, is “one of real excitement and enthusiasm and fearlessness. Right now, if you’re just interested in telling stories it’s a really good space to be working in. I’m just following the fun. Because this is really fun.”
“The Girlfriend Experience” premieres Sunday, April 10 on Starz, with all 13 half-hour episodes available for viewing via VOD or Starz Play.