Director Steven Soderbergh won an Academy Award for Best Director for his 2000 ensemble drama Traffic, while also being nominated in the same category that year for Erin Brockovich. Since then, he has juggled box office successes, like Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen, with more experimental films, such as Bubble and his latest, The Girlfriend Experience, which are part of his six-picture deal at 2929 Entertainment.
Hiring non-actors and having their dialogue largely improvised, Soderbergh chose to cast popular, award-winning adult film star Sasha Grey in the lead role of Chelsea, a young woman who makes a living as a high-end prostitute, selling a “girlfriend experience” to her clientele. Throughout the low-budget indie, which explores the value we place on money and how we define pleasure, the filmmaker makes intriguing, unusual choices in his camera angles, lighting and scenery.
At the film’s press day, Soderbergh spoke about what compelled him to make The Girlfriend Experience, as well as yet another unusual filmmaking choice to animate a character in his next project, Moneyball (the story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget, by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players), which he starts filming in June.
Here’s what he had to say:
Question: What compelled you to make The Girlfriend Experience?
Steven: I should learn how to answer this better, in general, because it’s a question that everybody wants to know, about every film. It really is akin to asking, “Why do you like this person?” Mostly because I don’t have any rules about what I’ll make or what I won’t make, and I try to be open to anything that will engage me. There must be some through-line to these things, but fortunately I don’t have to figure out what it is. In this case, I think it was just an opportunity to explore some ideas about how we define pleasure. That’s always interesting.
And, the idea of money is really interesting to me, when you begin to think about how that started. Who was the first person to figure out that you could ascribe a value to something like a piece of zinc or gold or a diamond? Who was the first person to look at something and decide, “That has a value, and the way I’m going to ascribe value to it is to get somebody to do something for me, and then I’m going to give them that thing, and then they can use that thing to get somebody else to do something for them, or to purchase something”? That is a very weird idea to me, and I’m fascinated that somebody came up with it. The whole thing is very odd to me.
This was an opportunity to play with those ideas about value. How do we ascribe value to certain things? And, in this case, why does kissing require an incredible surcharge, in the sex industry? What is that about? That’s the thing that GFE’s do that prostitutes don’t. You’re not allowed to kiss. That’s a whole different thing. Here, you’re paying top-dollar to be able to make-out, and I think that’s interesting.
Why did you choose to cast Sasha Grey in this film?
Steven: I saw the article in Los Angeles Magazine about her, which was published in the summer of ’06. And, the way she talked about herself, her reasons for getting into the adult industry, and the way that she planned to navigate the adult industry didn’t seem typical to me. I’d never really heard anybody like her talk about the business that way. She said, “Here are my reasons for going into it, and this is how I want to work within it.” She had a plan, and I’d never heard anybody in that business talk about having a plan.
There are similarities to escorts who work at this level. The ones that we interviewed are similar, in the sense that they all had plans. They all either had another business that they were working in, at the same time, or they had real good jobs that they were working, at the same time. They all talked about how much money they’d put away and what they planned to do with that money and how much longer they planned to do this. Again, it’s not typical in the sex work industry for somebody to take a macro view of the business and use it very deliberately as a means to get somewhere else. I guess, in my mind, those two things connected.
And, obviously, I also wanted someone who, in sexual situations, was going to feel in control and in command and comfortable. I think that’s hard to fake. Honestly, that just comes from being in a lot of situations in which you feel you’re in control. She’s obviously fearless. I didn’t ask her to do anything that was very extreme, but at least I knew, in the back of my mind, that there probably wasn’t anything I could think of where she would go, “No, I’m not doing that.”
When did you first meet Sasha?
Steven: I read about Sasha, and then contacted her and asked if she would come in to talk. I wanted to talk to her to see if she would be up for this. The good news is that she watches a lot of movies. In the first meeting, I said, “I really want you to watch this Goddard film, My Life to Live,” and she said, “Oh, I love that movie. It’s one of my favorite movies.” So, I thought, “Okay, that saves me a couple of hours.” She has a lot of different interests and she’s ambitious, and she’s had a lot of unusual experiences, so it’s going to be interesting to see what she ends up making with all of these influences and experiences. It could be something unlike anything you’ve seen. She’s only 21. She’ll be making features before I was making features.
Because of the nudity involved in this movie, was it easier to have an adult performer in this role, instead of a mainstream actress?
Steven: Oh, yeah, no question.
Did you deliberately decide not to include a sex scene in the film?
Steven: I didn’t care which way it went. If you want to compare the lives of a high-end escort in the GFE strata and the person who’s working the street, the first thing you have to do is eliminate what’s common to them. Then, what is left are the things that are not common. My attitude was that the sex act itself was irrelevant to me because that’s something that’s common to the GFE, the mid-level person who works through an agency, and the person that’s working the street. The actual sex act, however long that takes, is identical in all those situations. What’s not identical is everything else. So, I decided to pull out the thing that’s common to all of them and just focus on what’s left, and what’s left is this fantasy that you are in an actual relationship for those two hours, or for that night. What’s interesting about that is that it pushes you back on yourself and makes you analyze, “What does that mean, exactly?”
Did you have any technical advisors for this?
Steven: We interviewed a lot of escorts. When we first wrote the outline, in the Spring of 2006, we interviewed eight escorts. And then, just before we started shooting, we did one more round of interviews, and the character of the hobbyist is something that came up in that last round of interviews. That wasn’t in the original outline. Even in the two and a half years since we’d worked on the story, that issue had become bigger for them. They felt like these people that run these sites and run these reviews were becoming a problem. They were being blackmailed, in a way, because if they didn’t cooperate, then these guys would figure out a way to get their reviews to skew in a certain direction. So, that turned out to be an interesting thing to use, to puncture her armor a little bit. And, the johns in the film work in the industries that they work in, within the world of the film. Most of the men that use these kinds of escorts are in the financial business because they have that kind of money to spare.
Is $2,000 an hour an accurate figure?
And, is that the top?
Steven: Yeah. It was last October. I don’t know what it is now.
Has that been affected by the recession?
Steven: My understanding is that the very, very high-end people, in this area, haven’t been hurt, but the middle is getting slammed, so it has moved down. The mid-level agency girls are getting hit because the guys are moving down and going back to the street.
Why did you choose to work with non-actors, and what were some of the challenges of that?
Steven: I’m really interested in it. I’ve been playing around with it for awhile. All of the six films that I’m supposed to do for 2929 Entertainment, under this deal, are planned to be done in this way, where you write a story and detail the outline, and then cast real people and use these controlled improvisations. It’s interesting because they don’t act like actors. And, that’s not a slam on actors, but they’re not trying to do anything. They don’t have goals, the way actors have goals. You need to give them a goal. You need to tell them what the scene is about.
How much of this film was actually structured? And, was the non-linear narrative something that was preconceived?
Steven: The structure is very, very detailed. You not only had the scenes, but also what the scenes were about. It was bullet points to give the performers. I’d say to them, “At some point, you’ve got to cover these three subjects. I don’t care how you do it, but you’ve gotta do it.” It’s best, in this situation, to shoot chronologically because it’s helpful for the actors, but I knew, when we were shooting it, that I was going to play it out in a non-linear way. I was very conscious, every time I was doing a scene, to cull abstract footage that I could use as markers and keystones, that would be cycled and then pay off later. I would just make sure I’d gathered enough material to build a mosaic, even though I didn’t tell anybody that.
What are you hoping that audiences will take from this type of film?
Steven: This is not new. This is something that Robert Bresson did, his entire career. It’s very similar. He set up these stories and he cast non-professionals, to great effect. I’m trying to take that idea and push it even further, and use even more complex stories and ask more of them, and push them and have them have do things that are even more demanding. A lot of the performances in the Bresson films are very passive, and they’re not very big. You don’t see people monologue-ing the way we have people doing it, in this film. And so, I guess I’m just trying to get at something that’s entertaining, but that feels a little more lifelike. But, that really depends on the movie.
We’re trying to get this Liberace movie off the ground, and we’ve got Michael Douglas playing Liberace and Matt Damon playing this young man that he gets involved with. And, Richard LaGravenese wrote the script. That’s not a situation where I’m going to be sitting around improvising. It’s already there. But, the goal of that movie is very different because of what it’s about and the period that it’s set in. It’s set in the entertainment business and it needs to have a different vibe. And so, a more obvious construct is fine, in that world, but in the world of Bubble or GFE, I felt like it has to feel more organic.
Is there something fundamentally different about the whoring that Sasha’s character does versus the whoring that everybody else in the film does, or does capitalism make whores of everyone?
Steven: It depends on how you define whore and how you define capitalism. Do I personally see any difference between what she does and what I do for Warner Bros.? No, I don’t. But, that gets to this issue of money, and the fact that the world cannot function unless something like the idea of money exists. We cannot all live on a farm and generate enough food to feed everyone we know. It’s not physically possible. So, this idea has to exist, and what we’re continually arguing about is how it should work. What it ultimately comes down to is, what is fair? And, a lot of that fairness has to do with what we attribute value to.
What’s fascinating about economics is how clean it is and how clear an expression it is of any culture’s values. What’s great about economics is that it isn’t an expression of the way we want things to be or the way we wish things to be or the way we would choose for them to be. It is an expression of the way things are, period.
Personally, I’m not someone who thinks that how somebody pleasures themself should be legislated by me. That’s just the way I feel. I don’t want somebody telling me that, and I don’t want to tell somebody else that. That’s why nobody is encouraging me to run for office. I think there’s such a thing as theft, and I think there’s such a thing as assault. And then, after that, it’s wide open, to me. What you want to do is what you want to do. I think the typical definition of whore is doing something that you would not ordinarily do for money. The problem is that 95% of the people in this world are not doing something that they want to do to make money. That’s just a fact.
Is there anything that you would change about the film, or are you 100% happy with the final product?
Steven: It doesn’t matter to me, in the sense that, if you look at the way that I’ve worked and the number of films that I’ve made, my rule is to work quickly and not to agonize over things. I have a certain amount of money and a certain amount of time. I’ve never gone over budget and I’ve never gone over schedule. And so, when the films are done, they’re done. I’ll do anything that I can to improve them until I’m supposed to deliver them, and then I deliver them and I don’t look at them again. So, my judgement of it really doesn’t have a lot to do with the piece itself. It has to do with the experience of making it ’cause that was months or years out of my life. I look back on this fondly because I had a lot of fun making it. Ten or 15 years from now, maybe I’ll look at it and determine if I did the best job possible of making it. You can contrast that with something like Che, which was not fun to make. It will take me a long time to be able to look at that objectively ’cause it was just not fun. I like to have fun, if I can.
Is your film King of the Hill ever going to come out on DVD?
Steven: They’ve been waiting on me to do a commentary, and my rule is that I won’t do them alone, and I haven’t been able to find anybody to do it with me. To be fair, I haven’t tried. But, it will come out, eventually. Everything does.
What are you going to be working on next?
Steven: Moneyball. We start filming that on June 9th, which is soon. And, The Informant is coming out in September.
What’s behind your decision to use an animated character in Moneyball?
Steven: Well, I may be. There’s one character that I’m gonna try to animate. That’s either a really good idea or a really bad idea, but I’m gonna try.