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.
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.”
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.”