Anja Marquardt’s third season of The Girlfriend Experience continues Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s reimagining of Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name, starring Sasha Grey. Created and written by Marquardt, the third instalment of the anthology series is set amidst the London tech scene, and centres on Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), a neuroscience major who enters the transactional world of The Girlfriend Experience.
She discovers that her transactional interactions provide her with an advantage in the tech world, where she’s working on an artificial intelligence and simulation project. The experience soon leads her to question whether her own actions are driven by free will, which leads her down a path of self-discovery.
Marquardt’s previous work includes the shorts Nine Lives (2008), Thanksgiving (2008), Harrow Island (2010), and the feature film She’s Lost Control (2014), that witnesses the breakdown of Ronah (Brook Bloom), a grad student working as a sexual surrogate.
In conversation with PopMatters, Marquardt talks about the liberating feeling of the filmmaking process, the magical nature of creating something with its own voice, and being driven to confront her own fears.
Why filmmaking and television as means of creative expressions? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
It’s such a journey to become a filmmaker, and for someone like me, I wasn’t born into a filmmaking family or even a family of artists. I had to forge my own path and figure out how to attempt to do it. I had to believe that I could because there is no itinerary. You don’t have to go to film school; in fact, if you graduate with a Masters degree, it means nothing. It means you can maybe go and teach, but that’s it.
It goes back to having this tremendous love for the medium, of being exposed to and wrapped up in cinema and stories, images and sounds, and feeling there’s nothing that rivals that. You enter into this experience and back in the day watching a film in the theatre for two hours, immersed and undistracted, you leave the theatre feeling you’re a changed person, that your essence, your DNA was infused or exposed to something that made it much richer.
I remember we had a great maths teacher in high school, back in Berlin. He took our entire class for an outing and we saw La Haine (1995) by Mathieu Kassovitz. It was the mid-90s, a black and white film: “Here. Take it like a gut punch.” I remember our entire class leaving the theatre after dark, walking towards the train station and no one speaking a word. Everyone was silent, huddling up in the elliptical shape. Even those who had something to say about anything and everything were silent.
What I love is encountering characters or stories that you can’t shake or let go. They become these spectres haunting your mind, and those experiences are like a drug that keeps you seeking out stories.
There’s a kind of self-enlightenment that can happen when you’re on other forms of drugs. There’s something beautifully collective about it, too, because you’re tapping into something that’s greater than yourself. It’s almost like time travel, or travel because you can enter into these worlds and your mind expands.
It’s a hunger for life that’s amplified and nourished by stories, and it goes back to the campfire experience. There’s a collective component to it. But I also enjoy watching films by myself on the iPad. It can take different shapes and forms, but the seed of what’s so special about it is planted in a theatre.
Picking up on your point about the campfire experience, Iris relies on her instincts and the moment to guide her. She’s creating her identity impulsively and instinctively. Would it be a stretch to connect this humankind’s storytelling around the campfire?
It’s a beautiful stretch in the sense that what attracted me to Julia Goldani Telles initially was she had that moment to moment improvisational dexterity. I’d seen it in her previous work and I thought it was going to be foundational to the role of Iris. We would have to believe that she can immerse herself in a situation and be very malleable, applying herself like gum.
What compelled you to tell this story now?
It was an interesting deal I ultimately struck with myself, that went something like this: If I can find a way to go back into this universe of high-end escorting and put it on its head, then I’m going to do it. This would give me the drive to reimagine all of it with a new vantage point, new flavours, and a new character with completely different proportions. It was tremendously exciting once I had figured that out because it’s very hard to take something that you’ve already done, as I had in my feature film, She’s Lost Control, and then go back and do it again.
There’s the idea amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of a film, the one that’s written, the one that’s shot, and the one that’s edited. Filmmaker Babak Anvari said to me, “…when you block a scene with an actor, and when it comes to the shoot, even a slight facial expression or looking in a certain direction could change everything.” There’s an uncertainty throughout the process of making a film or series that requires you to be open-minded and flexible.
It’s interesting to trace the steps of these three versions, and I think it was [Robert] Bresson who said you have to let go of it between the page and the set, then the set and the editing room. It’s a stimulating process, and when you write, you believe that this is it, this is the lava that’s drying on the page. But then you have to shred it and see what the actors do with it on set.
The most liberating experience is to follow that flow. As a director, I try to avoid rehearsals whenever possible. I try to, of course, rehearse when it’s technically necessary, or for blocking and if there’s a movement that needs practice. In terms of the emotional content, though, I prefer to have conversations with my actors about what their characters are going through in any given moment — what came before and what came after, in terms of the scene sequence and how it’s being shot.
Julia and I had those conversations, frequent check-ins about where Iris was at, at any given moment, because we were treating the shooting schedule like a feature schedule, essentially cross-boarding it. We would have interactions with different characters. For instance, Iris’ relationship with one of her clients goes through a tremendous arch across the season. Shooting it in three days back-to-back, we had to be mindful of where Iris is at and what’s infusing her scene with that person down the line.
I like to lean back a little and that usually happens early on in the shooting process. I come to the table knowing the script very well, and ultimately where we want to head together. The actors and my vision are aligned, everyone’s bringing their creative component to the table, but then usually after a few days or a week, it tells you what it wants to be.
My role is then a conduit, making sure it all flows in the way that it’s supposed to because it knows what it wants to be, and that’s usually very separate from what’s on the page. At that point, some of the dialogue has become obsolete, or a glance from one character to another could say it all, and so you don’t need any dialogue.
“Fun” isn’t the right word. It’s magical to create something outside of yourselves that has its own voice — it’s sorcery.
Sexuality is often linked to feelings of guilt and shame because of repressive social attitudes. Opening up the discussion to ideas that touch upon philosophy and ideas of desire versus the moment, you’re pressing a conversation with a subject that we’re still nervous about confronting in an intellectual way. It strikes me as an interesting juxtaposition.
What makes it so fascinating is that there’s the technological approach of analysing, scanning human behaviour, quantifying it, and letting the algorithm find a way to simulate all of that because they’ve figured out the math behind it. On the other hand, human interaction is traditionally messy and hard to quantify.
My approach to telling this story was to give myself the freedom to leave any guilt, shame, or moral judgement out of it completely, and just look at the pristine algorithm, and the mess that happens between humans as distinct entities. In that sense, I’m honouring the franchise; the two seasons and the independent film that came before this one.
What they all have in common, even though it’s an anthology approach, is that there’s no judgement in terms of the career choices that have been made. Instead what’s of interest is a dissection of transactional relationships, and how the broader world we all live in has a lot of transactionality to it.
Is there something about this story and the other seasons that it’s all about empowering ourselves to be who we are, to be honest with ourselves? Is it an example of storytelling being able to do what we often find difficult to do, and so we live vicariously through the experiences of characters in these stories?
It’s like dreams, it’s like rehearsals for the real thing. The question that echoes across all the episodes of this season for Iris is, “Who am I? Where does this simulation of me begin?” Ultimately for us viewers, the question also becomes one of, “Do we want this simulation of us to be in this world or not?”
Is there a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?
I’m sure it does, but I’m not sure how long it might take me to get the birds eye view, and know what it all means. In my work I want to confront the things that scare me, and I certainly ran towards that in this season. I remain optimistic with all things simulation and artificial intelligence, but it was definitely a way for me to rattle the cage, to try to shed some light into darker corners that seemed unclear to me. Not that I have any answers, but asking the question is liberating, at least to me as a storyteller.
Work cited: Risker, Paul. “Babak Anvari | Under the Shadow”. “Babak Anvari | Under the Shadow”. FrightFest. January 2017.