Steven Soderbergh refuses to play it safe

by Joe Williams

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

28 May 2009


For his 20th feature film, “The Girlfriend Experience,” director Steven Soderbergh has returned to a theme he explored in his breakthrough “sex, lies and videotape”: infidelity.

Yet the Oscar-winning director of “Traffic” and blockbusters such as “Ocean’s Eleven” refuses to play it safe. Like his recent projects “Bubble” and “Che,” “The Girlfriend Experience” is available for PC download and pay-per-view simultaneous with the theatrical release. And Soderbergh crossed an invisible line when he cast adult-film star Sasha Grey in the lead role.

We spoke by phone with Soderbergh last week.

Q. Did the original idea for this movie come from you or from the screenwriters (Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who wrote “Ocean’s Thirteen”)?

A. It landed on us at the same time. We were together at a bar in midtown Manhattan when I saw a woman who seemed disconnected from everything else that was going on there. I asked them if they could figure out how she fit in, and they both said, “Oh, that’s a G.F.E.” And they started explaining that there is a whole tier of high-end escorts who provide what’s called the girlfriend experience. Customers pay for an extra level of intimacy where they make out with you and they learn about your life and become like your girlfriend for the hours that you have them. And I immediately thought that would be a good idea for an HD movie.

Q. In your subsequent research, talking to escorts, did you find that this is particular to New York or is it a global phenomenon?

A. If you’ve stayed at a nice hotel anywhere in the world for more than 20 minutes, you’ve seen hookers. But because of the cost per hour, the G.F.E happens where there’s an extra amount of money flowing around — New York, LA, London, Sydney, Madrid, Tokyo, Hong Kong. We set the story in New York because I wanted to shoot a movie where I live.

Q. In the movie, both Chelsea and her boyfriend, Chris, are always on the make, looking for opportunities to close a deal. Is that your sense of the wider America, circa November 2008, or is this movie about a particular class?

A. To me, it doesn’t represent America or even the whole of New York. It’s about a very specific strata of this city at this time. I wanted it to be myopic. But I do think you can extrapolate and ask yourself, to what extent are we all weighing our lives in terms of transactions, whether emotional or material?

Q. How many of the people in the movie were nonactors who were simply speaking and behaving like they normally would?

A. All of them! Sasha is the only person who had ever been in front of a camera before.

Q. Were many of the scenes improvised?

A. The script was a general outline that said what the goal of each scene was: who’s trying to get what. But we cast people who were very similar to what they play in the movie, so you’re just winding them up and letting them go. In the case of Chris, he really is a personal trainer, and for the scene where he’s trying to sell the customer some extra sessions, I just pulled Chris aside and told him not to take no for an answer. And for his customer, who really is a Wall Street guy who works with a trainer, I told him not to say yes under any circumstances.

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