THE SODERBERGH EXPERIENCE
An interview with THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE director, Steven Soderbergh
I’ll admit to being nervous. I’m not above that. I had interviewed filmmakers before but I had never interviewed a director whose films were among some of my all time favorites. This was certainly a step up for me. This was the man who directed the technical masterpiece, TRAFFIC, and won an Oscar for it. This was the man who gave me one of my guiltiest pleasures, OUT OF SIGHT. This was the man whose latest film, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, is stimulating on a number of levels and one of the best films I’ve seen all year. This was Steven Soderbergh, people.
The day before my interview was scheduled to take place, I had been invited to see a special press screening of THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. Shot over a period of 16 days in October 2008, GFE, as it was originally titled, is a week in the life of Chelsea (played by 21-year-old adult film star, Sasha Grey). Chelsea is strikingly beautiful, made even more impressive considering she is only seen eating at the finest Manhattan restaurants or leaving the most luxurious Upper West Side hotels or shopping at the priciest Soho designer shops. She keeps a meticulous account of all her appointments, noting the clothing she wore, the meals she ate or the movies she may have discussed. She is also insatiably unsatisfied with the goals she has attained and is always looking for ways to be better at what she does. What she does is charge people over $2000 per hour for not just the pleasure of her company in bed but rather the full experience of what it feels like to be her boyfriend.
For years, Soderbergh has gone back and forth between big studio pictures with big names and independent films that feature real people with real problems and only an outline to get from the start to the finish. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE would fall into the latter of the two categories, if one felt the need to categorize it. Soderbergh doesn’t see the distinction nor this need to define his work quite so rigidly. “People seem compelled to divvy up my career into two parts,” he states. “They’re both like math problems; one has a different set of integers than the other but its still math.” Still, he is not so naïve to suggest that there is the same degree of financial risk between the two. “What is helpful about the small films is you’re closer to the ground if you make a mistake. If I fall off this rope, I’m going to sprain an ankle; I’m not going to die.”
Arguably, Soderbergh has been experimenting with realism on camera since his first feature, the then groundbreaking, SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE. The frankness with which sexuality was discussed would go unnoticed today (“It is like watching a movie that took place in world with gas lamps,” Soderbergh quips about watching it now) but the honesty with which the characters address themselves and each other is a form of realism that seems still difficult to achieve on film today. Realism is what makes THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE such a fascinating interaction. Not only was it shot amidst last year’s financial collapse and just before the elections but it is set then as well. As money exchanges hands between Chelsea and her clients, nearly all of them seem to be questioning whether they can still fit her into their budgets. “Since the design of the film is that people are speaking for and as themselves, that’s just where everybody’s head was.,” he says, knowing the situation added an extra level of intrigue to the film that may have been tricky to get less organically.
While Soderbergh’s indie projects tend to use non-actors, this one is different, mostly. Grey, has been working in pornography since she was 18 years old and THE GIRLDFRIEND EXPERIENCE marks her first foray into mainstream filmmaking. She didn’t get into adult film because of drugs or booze or a broken home; she simply saw a need and filled it. Soderbergh was drawn to her ambition and uncommon backstory, to say nothing of her baby doll beauty. He did not cast her for these reasons though. No, he cast her because she exudes control in situations that are otherwise fantastical to mainstream society. “Even though I knew it wasn’t going to be explicit, I wanted somebody who in sexualized situations feels totally in command and powerful. I feel like that’s a tricky thing to fake.” He’s right. On screen, Grey is always in control of what she allows herself to say and how she allows herself to be seen and treated. Detractors of the film have claimed that Grey’s distant, aloof demeanor leave the film feeling shallow but Soderbergh begs to differ. For him, the film would lose everything it has going if Grey had played it any other way. She is meant to be mystery.
Having done some unavoidable research of Grey’s previous work on film, Soderbergh knew he would have only one serious hurdle to get over. “What I noticed about her extreme stuff was her awareness of the camera. She is always aware of the lens, playing to the lens. I knew it was going to be interesting to put her in a situation where she would absolutely have to forget the camera because it seemed like she was obsessed with it.” And how will all of this play for Grey and her fans? Grey, who couldn’t believe it when she got home to find Soderbergh’s voice on her answering machine, appears naked only once on screen and is never seen having any actual sex. How will this new sensitive side of Sasha Grey affect the way her fans watch her adult work? “Fantasy is about something that you aren’t getting and that you want. We have the inverse here with Sasha. You can, on her site, within seconds, see her do anything imaginable with her clothes off. What you can’t see is what its like to be her boyfriend and hang out with her or be emotionally intimate with her. My whole theory is that this is the fantasy for the guys who have been double-clicking but would rather spend 77 minutes being her boyfriend.”
As for Soderbergh, he is already hard at work on his next feature, MONEYBALL, starring Brad Pitt and Demitri Martin. Having run around all day myself, from a movie to an interview then to this interview before another one immediately afterward that would be followed by industry drinks, I had only one more question. When is Steven Soderbergh going to take a well-deserved break? “What’s going to happen is at a certain point, I will just stop. I don’t have two speeds; I’ll just stop.” His answer was straightforward and succinct. You might even say it was Soderberghian. Well, I might anyway.