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The Girlfriend Experience, Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s provocative look at the world of high-end escorting — a milieu loosely suggested by the 2009 film of the same name by Steven Soderbergh, an executive-producer on the series — is one of the most compelling shows to emerge from the recent trend of auteur-driven TV. The second season, which premiered on Sunday on Starz, sees Seimetz and Kerrigan each directing their own distinct storyline, with different casts and locations, but dealing with similar underlying themes regarding the messy intersections of sex and power. Seimetz’s thread follows Bria (Carmen Ejogo), a former escort who enters the Witness Protection Program to escape her abusive ex. In the sprawling environs of New Mexico, Bria finds herself turning back to sex work; her old and new lives inevitably blur together. It’s a totally different atmosphere from the icy, corporate aesthetic of the first season — but no less interesting to watch. The Voice spoke to filmmaker/actress-turned-showrunner Seimetz over the phone about The Girlfriend Experience’s unconventional approach and how the show captures a potent mood of alienation. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What were some of your influences for The Girlfriend Experience? Were there any particular cultural depictions of sex work that you looked at?
For season one, we looked at a lot of Seventies films: things like Klute and a lot of non-escorting movies, like All the President’s Men and The Conversation. For season two, I wanted to do something radically different, so the stuff I was pulling from was a lot of sci-fi and westerns. One of the major influences was The Man Who Fell to Earth. And Walkabout — Nicolas Roeg again. I also wanted to invoke some sort of fantastical elements — like [those] Belle de Jour brings up — and make the sexual side much more psychological and sensual as opposed to the bluntness that I [explored] last season. So it was pulling from this hodgepodge of different genres and blending it in a way. I wouldn’t call the new season sci-fi, and I wouldn’t call it a western, but I wanted to pull from some of the tropes — I often do that in my work. I enjoy using the tropes of other genres to make something new.
What kind of role has the current depressing political moment played in the show?
It’s interesting. Of course there’s politics involved in the undercurrent of what I’m writing, but mostly I didn’t know how to write about [the current moment], because it just seems so surreal. The surrealness of what’s going on in the show, it’s because I’m so confused and it doesn’t feel like reality. That was my approach. That’s why I went to The Man Who Fell to Earth: I was feeling like I didn’t understand the world I was suddenly thrust into after the election. And it’s not just pointing a finger at Trump, but what’s happening with the people of the United States. This mentality we’ve found ourselves in is so divisive, it’s so surreal and scary. Even before he was elected, the emboldened language [people were using] to talk about women and ethnicity — [I was] so fucking shocked that this was OK. It’s like we’ve pushed pause or rewinded thirty or forty years. I was trying to invoke that alien sensation in the experience of the main character, Bria, the way she’s not understanding the world she’s been thrust into and trying to figure out how to make a life in this new climate she finds herself in.
How do you feel your experience as an actress influences your directing here?
I started filmmaking and acting at the same time, so they’ve always fed into each other. I also understand the anxieties of performing and wanting to get it right, so the atmosphere I try to bring to the actors is one of being there to play and mine the material. It’s a team effort, and I try to really respect their approach and concerns with what’s on the page or how it’s being performed. I’m intuitively trying to inspire them to make choices and just be real in the moment. I don’t know which came first, me being a director or me being an actor, but I’ve always just approached it as trying to tell the best story, whether it’s through performance or writing or directing.
Do you feel it’s been a big change, going from film to TV? Or do you see more of a connection between the two mediums?
I approached both season one and season two — and season two even more so — like a cohesive film. I’m sort of in love with these thirty-minute act breaks. That’s how I approach it, as opposed to something episodic. I think what’s interesting is I went so quickly from directing film to TV, and half the reason that Soderbergh asked me to do it was that he didn’t want it to look like TV. He wanted it to look like film and break open what TV could be. For me, I haven’t had the experience where I really felt like I was directing TV. It was a smooth transition. Starz and Steven just let us do whatever we wanted, which felt very much like the independent films that I’ve made. What’s interesting about TV is how there are so many avenues of content. It’s a new realm and the way people are consuming media and thinking about it has bred a lot of creativity and openness to interesting work. In mainstream film it’s all about the box office and creating some magical formula that’s going to make a lot of money. I think that films with any sort of budget [are still operating in] a fear-based medium. But in TV, they’re willing to take more risks with the choices that are being made in storytelling and casting.
You mentioned the half-hour episodes, and I have to say I love how concise the show is, when so many TV-drama episodes are an hour long.
It’s really fun. I’m currently editing two episodes I directed of Atlanta, and that show is so incredible. It’s a comedy, but I’m not necessarily laughing when I watch it. It’s sort of genre-bending within that thirty-minute format, being a comedy told in this weird way. And I have to give Steven credit for the thirty-minute-drama idea. He did it before with K Street on HBO. He tuned into something about the way TV was moving and how binge-watchable a thirty-minute drama really is. People watch it when it airs, but most people come to it when it’s online and they can watch multiple episodes at a time. It’s easy with a thirty-minute drama.
What is your approach to shooting all the sex scenes? It seems like filming those well could be a challenge.
For me it’s all about creating comfort for the actors. I’m always trying to find something genuine and have a very clear conversation with the actors. You have to be upfront. At the end of the day, whether it’s simulated sex or whatever, you have to respect your actors and know their boundaries. It’s not just about getting a good scene but respecting a human being. I’m not afraid of portraying sex and talking about it, and I’m also not afraid of an actor telling me they’re uncomfortable with this or that. Even though it’s a sex scene, I’m most interested in a certain emotion — having the heartbeat of what the sex scene is actually about and having it not just be about sex is always important.
How does fashion play into the show? In your first episode of this season, Bria wears this fabulous tailored white dress — it reminded me of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.
Caroline Eselin, our costume designer, is a rock star. I stole her — I was on Christopher Guest’s show Family Tree and she was the costume designer on that, and she just has a way of making all the clothes interesting without it being distracting. In the mood boards, she incorporated the things we were discussing — it’s another place where we pulled from The Man Who Fell to Earth. There’s a shot of Bria in the beginning with her wearing a jumpsuit, and I knew I wanted the high collar that David Bowie had. We were interested in the harsh lines of her wardrobe in the high-end world and bringing it back to the real world, and that dichotomy of the different things clothing brings out of her personality. Caroline designed that white dress and a beautiful red coat, and we pulled from Blade Runner with some of those lines. It was a very collaborative process of finding and using these bold colors and severe asymmetrical lines. That white dress was definitely based on a Melania Trump–esque fashion, but mixed with some of that Nineties psychosexual-thriller aesthetic.
What was the change in collaboration with Lodge Kerrigan like from the first season to this one?
Both seasons were experiments. Soderbergh paired Lodge and I; we didn’t really know each other. I only met him briefly when he directed an episode of The Killing. Steven paired us together in what he called an arranged marriage. We decided to write together on the first season, which neither Lodge nor I had done before. I’d never written with somebody. It was an interesting learning process, at times rewarding, at times extremely frustrating. We’re both writer-directors who want to control everything and think our ideas are the best. I think we did something interesting in that you can feel the tug and pull of our exchange in writing and that conversation. In the second season, we wanted to make it fresh and break the mold of a limited series. In order to do that, we decided to write separately and push it more into that auteur direction. We had a lot of discussions about thematic elements, but at the end of the day what we really wanted to do was keep pushing further and make it his pure vision and my pure vision. But both are a meditation on the same themes. It’s still a collaborative process, but it’s different. We’re creating an atmosphere for each other where we can do our own auteur-driven pieces while still having a conversation with each other.