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Steven Soderbergh talks 'The Girlfriend Experience,' VR and being a snob

Though only a producer on the show based on one of his movies, the Oscar-winning filmmaker still has plenty to say.
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    Riley Keough plays a law student who moonlights as a high-end escort in "The Girlf|Starz

Steven Soderbergh didn’t write or direct “The Girlfriend Experience,” despite it being a TV show spin-off (of sorts) of his 2009 film of the same name. He’s just a producer. He ceded most of the control to Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan — two filmmakers who’d never met each other but found themselves given the freedom to write and direct 13 half-hour episodes. The show has very little to do with the film, except for the title and the concept of a high-end escort, in this case a young law student played in a breakthrough turn by Riley Keough — seen in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Soderbergh’s own “Magic Mike,” and also the granddaughter of Elvis Presley. Soderbergh talks about the show, his grim view of the current film business and being a TV snob.

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On his roll as producer: “I’m just there to facilitate stuff. I don’t’ really like producing, actually. I’m always hopeful they won’t need me a lot,” Soderbergh says. “For season two I’m really putting into play a framework to have Lodge and Amy have even more control. I don’t want to be the parent. I want them to be their own parent. Other than getting it basically going, I said, ‘You should meet Riley.’ I didn’t say, ‘You should cast her.’ Those were my big contributions.”

Why he was all about Riley Keough: “I worked with her for three days on ‘Magic Mike.’ I just had a very strong sense that I was barely scratching the surface of what she had. I really felt she was a thoroughbred and I did the equivalent of putting a kid on her back and walking her around in a circle, instead of really letting her go,” Soderbergh explains. “It’s rare — it shouldn’t be rare, but it kind of is — that you have a performer who, when you’re rolling, isn’t protecting their idea of who they are personally and what people will think of them. It’s what you want as a director. For somebody that young, and especially someone who’s grown up around the business, to be that un-self-conscious and fearless is unusual.”

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The appeal of a drama that’s a half-hour, not an hour: “I don’t know why there aren’t more half-hour dramas,” he says. “It’s kind of perfect, in a way. It’s like, ‘Do we do a dense half-hour rather than a padded 45-minute show?’ It certainly lends itself to ‘Oh, I just watch one more.’”

It’s not about sex: “I never thought of it as a show about a sex worker. I always thought of it as a show about control,” Soderbergh say. “This was an interesting context to explore a young woman’s discovery of a power that she didn’t know she had, and discovering she has control issues. She’s trying to figure it out while she’s going through it. She makes mistakes and reacts in weird ways to things. And you don’t know what she’s thinking because she doesn’t talk to anyone. That’s something we talked about: I didn’t want her to have an outlet. I want to know what she’s thinking by what she does.” He was also drawn to the idea that there’s not big twist that gives a Psych 101 explanation for why she’s working as an escort. “There’s nothing wrong with her. There’s no skeleton in the closet where you go, ‘Oh, that’s why she’s doing this.’ It’s more provocative and unsettling if there’s nothing wrong with her.”

Making a show about a young person: “We’re dealing with somebody who’s 23, 24 years old. That’s a different generation,” explains Soderbergh. “I have a daughter who’s 25. They think about this stuff differently. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I think it’s too early to say. She’s the first generation that’s grown up with this technology available. You have all these articles written by people — my age — about how horrible hook-up culture is. I’m like, ‘We don’t know that yet.’ Maybe she hooks up a lot and doesn’t get married till she’s in her late 30s, and then she only gets married once instead of three times.” Besides, this stuff doesn’t alarm him. “I get alarmed by other stuff. A poll came out that said a lot more people think torture’s OK than I thought. That scared me.”

Can he find that kind of freedom in movies anymore?: “No. It depends. Sure. In isolated circumstances,” he says. Movies are getting away from the kind of specificity he wants, he explains. “In fact they’re scared of that, and will only agree to that under duress or if you’re a filmmaker and you do something very specific and unusual, and you’ve got Leo [DiCaprio] or whoever to make everybody feel it has a chance. There’s at least one studio in town who’s known within the industry to not hire auteurs. They’re not in that business.”

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A semi-digression about “Jaws”: Hollywood, Soderbergh charges, is about making sure every film works for everybody, including worldwide audiences. Sometimes, he says, a film not meant for everybody connects by accident. One example is “Jaws.” “That movie worked everywhere in the world, but you could ask Steven Spielberg while he was making it if it was going to work at all, and he would have said, ‘I’m not sure.’ The studio was going to shut it down. It had gotten that bad in terms of the fish not working. It was a nightmare but it ended up having worldwide appeal,” he says. “When you watch it, it’s not a movie that’s trying to be all things to all people. Where it’s set and the mentality of the small town, it has this timeless quality. Even the stuff people wear. There’s nothing fashionable about it. It wasn’t trying to be of the moment or trendy. As a result it has this weird timeless quality. People who work on boats still dress like that. There are towns like that near Martha’s Vineyard. It hasn’t changed that much. You have to be aware of that kind of stuff when you’re making something, to think about how tethered you want to be to a trend.”

Playing with new technology, notably VR: “I’ve been sort of exploring it and playing around with it and trying to figure out what it’s for. It doesn’t have some things that are very, very important pieces of your toolkit, like editing. That happens to be my favorite part of filmmaking. When you’re talking about a format where any traditional form of editing and creating emphasis and rhythm is gone, that’s weird. So you’ve got to start thinking about it in a very different way in terms of staging and narrative. I’m ceding control in a lot of ways to the viewer,” Soderbergh explains. Besides, he’s not sure if he likes headgear. “I can’t have that thing on my head for two hours. It’s not pleasant. I’m trying to figure out if it’s 15 minutes? 30? It’s very early and it’s interesting, but I can’t say I’ve had that lightbulb moment when you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m OK with this.’”

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Being a snob: “There can only exist a finite amount of great art during any calendar year. Whether you’ve got 450 shows or 50 shows, there’s still only going to be less than a handful that are really great. It’s the same thing with movies. You can have 600 movies a year or 150 — there are still only going to be five at the end of the day. It’s not a linear relationship,” Soderbergh says, then cites “Better Call Saul” and “Mr. Robot” as current shows he really loves. “Ultimately in this world, in every field, there is a very small amount of people who can really execute. Those people only have so many hours in the day. I’m all about economic activity and jobs, and I think they should be making as many shows as they feel they can make. But there’s still only a handful of people who can make great shows, and they’re busy. Look, I’m a f—ing snob. If I’m watching a show and I don’t like the font, I stop. I don’t have enough to time to watch. If you do anything wrong I’m out. When I see something really good it just proves my point, which is there aren’t that many people who can do that.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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