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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

No longer overshadowed as the sidebar to last fall's New York Film Festival, this touring North American retrospective of the rebellious Japanese New Waver circles back to Gotham, whittled down to 14 uncompromised gems that rally to youth culture, fierce eroticism, and left-wing politics. Boy and Cruel Story of Youth are required viewing, but wild experiences like Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Violence at Noon, and my madcap fave, Three Resurrected Drunkards, all warm the soul like sake. BAM, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, bam.org

Sugar  April 3

A baseball film for people who don't care for baseball films, this compassionate and sharply observed drama from Half Nelson writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck follows 19-year-old Dominican pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos (newcomer Algenis Perez Soto) as he's brought to the U.S. on the minor-league strength of his killer curveball. Introspective and socially conscious, the film tells an immigrant's tale without cheap sentimentality and deftly avoids underdog clichés while maintaining an exhilarating suspense on the field. Sony Pictures Classics, in limited release

In a Dream April 10

If you've ever visited Philadelphia and seen its omnipresent, far-out mosaic murals, then you know the obsessive architectural art of Isaiah Zagar. Winner of an Audience Award at last year's SXSW Film Festival, Jeremiah Zagar's eccentric and vivaciously fascinating portrait of his father is hardly a hagiography. In his clear-eyed pursuit to see what fuels Dad's creative process (including point-blank questions about his suicidal thoughts and mood swings), Zagar the younger exposes new chapters of unexpected familial drama. Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, cinemavillage.com

Satyajit Ray April 15–30

If there's one justification for a glossy crowd-pleaser like Slumdog Millionaire winning the Best Picture Oscar, it's the possibility that curious newbies might discover the rich, humanist legacy of India's greatest filmmaker. More than 20 of the Calcutta-born auteur's films are on hand—from the beloved Apu Trilogy to '60s and '70s rarities like Devi, The Big City, Two Daughters, and Chiriyakhana (The Zoo)—plus shorts, and a doc about the late virtuoso. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, West 65th Street and Broadway, filmlinc.com

Léon Morin, Priest

 April 17–23

Film Forum unveils a new 35mm print of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1961 witty, evocative, and, for him, unusually austere adaptation of Béatrix Beck's autobiographical novel, set in a Nazi-occupied French village. Sexual tension develops in the intense intellectual conversations between young Communist widow Barny (Hiroshima mon amour's Emmanuelle Riva) and the titular preacher (the breathlessly cool Jean-Paul Belmondo), whom she comes to respect for his radical questioning of authority, love, and even his own spiritual faith. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, filmforum.org

'The Films of Shirley Clarke' April 22­–28

An undervalued pioneer of cinema verité and avant-garde video who co-founded the Film-Makers' Cooperative (along with greats like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage), Shirley Clarke created an iconoclastic body of work and "choreography of images" that are ripe for rediscovery. There's plenty to take in, from her dance-influenced early shorts and Cannes Award–winning first feature, 1962's The Connection, to her acclaimed docs on Robert Frost, Ornette Coleman, and the bespectacled African-American hustler who sings from Funny Face at the heart of 1967's unforgettably stark Portrait of Jason. Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, anthologyfilmarchives.org

Treeless mountain

April 22

Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim follows up her hauntingly beautiful 2006 debut In Between Days with this poignant, impeccably shot, semi-autobiographical tale of two resilient Seoul sisters, six-year-old Jin (Hee-Yeon Kim) and even younger Bin (Song-Hee Kim). Indefinitely abandoned by their mother at their alcoholic aunt-in-law's home, Jin and Bin find gently upbeat pleasures in what little they've been given. Deceptively simple, and more uplifting than heartbreaking, the film is brilliantly adept at capturing the world from a child's perspective. Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, filmforum.org

Tyson April 24

Will Mike Tyson be remembered as the youngest heavyweight boxing champ in the world, or will that feat forever be weighted down by personal baggage—the publicly imploding marriage, the prison sentence for rape, the freaky face tattoo, and the animalistic threats of eating children? In this sobering, sympathetic doc, American cine-maverick James Toback (Fingers, When Will I Be Loved), a longtime friend of Tyson's, intercuts the requisite number of archive clips with new, candidly self-loathing interviews of this deeply bruised pugilist. Sony Pictures Classics, in limited release

Julien Duvivier May 1–29

Perhaps best known for 1937's Pépé le Moko (here in a restored print), the late French screenwriter and director employed a dark poetic realism spanning melodramas and comedies, documentaries and thrillers, all represented in this 22-film retrospective. Expect four premieres (including a restored La Bandera and La Belle équipe with the auteur's preferred tragic ending) and rarities (such as both versions of Poil de carotte, 1925 and 1932). On May 14, composer Stephen Sondheim will introduce Un Carnet de bal, a sketch film he had intended to adapt for Broadway. MOMA, 11 West 53rd Street, moma.org

Big Man Japan May 15

Director-star Hitoshi Matsumoto's dementedly cool mockumentary takes a deadpan half-hour to introduce why Japan hates our sad-sack hero—a government employee who electrocutes his nipples to transform himself into a diapered giant that accidentally destroys property while protecting against increasingly outlandish monsters. It's fanboy-approved, sure, but unlike our typical superhero noisemakers of summer, there's clever artistry and narrative purpose behind the film's CGI effects, helping the film build to a hilariously convoluted climax and an ending to blow your (hopefully half-stoned) mind. Magnet, in limited release

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