Spring Guide: Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience Tries to Turn a Porn Star Legit

Has the sinking economy driven Steven Soderbergh to direct pornos? Not quite, though his latest non-studio feature, The Girlfriend Experience, traverses Manhattan's high-end escort industry, anchored by a lead performance from sleepy-eyed adult film starlet Sasha Grey. Shot last October with the fancy new RED camera that could replace film altogether, Soderbergh's $1.7 million digital drama is his second film after Bubble to employ non-pros (apart from screen veteran Grey), all engaging in what the director calls "structured improv." I phoned Soderbergh to learn as many XXX-plicit details as I could.

What will audiences find most unexpected about Sasha Grey's performance, and will she break the stigma of porn stars going legit? We've built the whole movie around her and played to her personality, so I think people will be surprised at just how comfortable and normal she seems on-screen—what an unmannered performance she gives. It's hard for me to tell what this will mean for her, because she's not someone you can just plug into a generic role. If you're not taking advantage of who she is, then you're not really using her well.

How did a film about sex work end up with so much chatter about the sociopolitical now? People were cast based on their resemblance to the characters that we created for the outline. They were encouraged to speak for themselves in every circumstance, and so, as a result of when the film was shot, people ended up talking a lot about the election and the economy.

High-tech improv: Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Magnolia Pictures
High-tech improv: Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience

What's the trick to getting great improvised performances out of untrained thespians? What I've learned over the years in casting "non-actors"—which is a weird term—is that if you let them speak in their own words, they're much more comfortable. The problems really come when you try to make them memorize. That locks them up. If you've created the right situation, I can say to them, "Look, you can say anything you want. Just speak as if you were in this situation in real life. You don't have to worry about doing something wrong, because that's not how it works."

The RED camera allowed you to shoot quickly and cheaply. Would this film have been possible without it? It's possible—it just wouldn't be as interesting visually. The camera's improved a lot since we shot Che with it, and that was really helpful because there are only two or three shots where we used any lights. They keep making it more and more sensitive, which is great for me. The entire shoot was 16 days, and we were able to move very quickly. The whole crew could fit in two vans. To me, that's the ideal way to work.

After its sneak preview at Sundance, some critics interpreted the film as being hostile toward the media. Is there any truth to that? That's a little narcissistic, frankly. It's a fact of life that someone who does what [Grey's character] does for a living has to deal with hobbyists and review sites that affect their livelihood. I didn't make that up. It's a part of their lives, so it's kind of hilarious for somebody to look at that and assume I'm making some larger comment about my work—or that the movie's an exploration of what happens to somebody when they get bad reviews. It's not a metaphor for anything.

In this volatile time, are we all going to have to whore ourselves out sooner or later? Oh, I thought we already were [laughs]. I guess it depends on what your definition is. Mine is doing something you would not ordinarily do for money. I don't see any difference between what Sasha's doing in the movie and what I do for Warner Bros. The character in the movie is doing what she wants to for money, and so am I.

• The Girlfriend Experience opens May 22 in limited release (Magnolia Pictures), magpictures.com

SPRING FILM PICKS

'38th New Directors/New Films'  March 25–April 5

The Film Society and MOMA's showcase for rising auteurs kicks off with Cherien Dabis's Palestinian-fam-in-the-Midwest drama Amreeka, and closes with Ondi Timoner's Web-exhibitionist doc We Live in Public—winner of Sundance's Grand Prize. The meaty filling in this newcomer sandwich includes Sophie Barthes's existential comedy Cold Souls (starring Paul Giamatti as an actor named Paul Giamatti), Bob Byington's deadpan slacker flick Harmony and Me, and Alexey German Jr.'s drama-cum-essay on the Soviet space program, Paper Soldier. The Film Society of Lincoln Center/MOMA, filmlinc.com/ndnf

Guest of Cindy Sherman March 27

When art-world luminary and media recluse Cindy Sherman agreed in the '90s to be interviewed by public-access jester Paul H-O, neither would've guessed that they'd end up dating for the next few years. Co-directed by H-O and Tom Donahue, this smart and self-deprecatingly witty doc scrutinizes the New York art scene from a rare insider's viewpoint (the Julian Schnabel footage is priceless!), while simultaneously confessing and investigating the anxieties of playing second fiddle to a famous significant other. Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, cinemavillage.com

'The Cruel Stories of Nagisa Oshima' April 1­–14

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