Steven Soderbergh and Sasha Grey deliver "The Girlfriend Experience"

The indie film legend talks about his latest experiment: Casting a real-life porn star as a high-class call girl

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 22, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Listen to the interview with Stephen Soderbergh

I don't necessarily love all of Steven Soderbergh's movies, but who could? The guy's career seems devoted to Emerson's principle that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I met Soderbergh recently in New York to talk about his new movie "The Girlfriend Experience," a quasi-experimental indie drama about a high-end Manhattan call girl. Last fall, I interviewed him by phone for the release of "Che," his four-hour epic about the career of Latin America's most famous revolutionary. Here are his five films before that, in reverse chronological order: "Ocean's Thirteen," "The Good German," "Bubble," "Ocean's Twelve" and "Solaris."

That makes two star-studded Hollywood romps, a black-and-white murder mystery set in postwar Berlin, a no-budget working-class drama made with non-actors and an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's mystical science-fiction novel (and to some extent a remake of Russian art-film god Andrei Tarkovsky's most famous picture). As Soderbergh says, he's inspired by the examples of such legendary Hollywood directors as Howard Hawks and William Wyler, who cranked out films rapidly and often, in every imaginable genre. But Hawks never tried to make anything like "The Girlfriend Experience," a movie in which a real-life porn star plays a fictional hooker, a movie that bears the unmistakable traces of Godardian postmodern cinema and Marxian social criticism.

To me, Soderbergh always seems betwixt and between; he's not quite a production-line engineer in the Hollywood model nor is he a completely distinctive artist. You can view that eclecticism as a strength or a weakness, but it is what defines and distinguishes his career as a director, as well as his less-noticed but important and generous career as a producer. (Among the films Soderbergh has helped produce, but did not direct, are Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There" and "Far From Heaven," George Clooney's "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" and Christopher Nolan's "Insomnia.")

If you're thinking that Soderbergh cast 21-year-old porn star and model Sasha Grey (see video here) to play Chelsea, the upscale Manhattan hooker at the center of "The Girlfriend Experience," because he wanted a lead actress who'd get down and dirty, I suggest you go see some of Grey's other movies instead of this one. Grey reportedly engages in all sorts of colorful antics in her "adult" work (in all honesty, I've never seen any of it), but there's no on-screen sex in "The Girlfriend Experience," and nothing beyond tasteful, art-film nudity. Grey is a lovely young woman, cool and affectless to the point of inscrutability in designer outfits and oversize shades, and that's a pretty good way of describing the movie too.

Chelsea is a top-of-the-line professional who supplies the eponymous "girlfriend experience," meaning that all the things usually off limits with prostitutes are included in the package: She'll make out with you, go to dinner and a movie, listen to you talk about your crumbling investment portfolio, look at pictures of your kids and sleep over right through the breakfast hour. Essentially she has mini-relationships with many different men, most of them regular clients. The film invites us to ponder how different those relationships are from the one she has with Chris (Chris Santos), her official boyfriend, a freelance personal trainer who hustles his clients far more avidly than she does.

Largely set in a series of sleek, anonymous New York interiors -- hotel rooms, luxury apartments, fancy restaurants, SoHo boutiques -- "The Girlfriend Experience" is decidedly not a movie about sex or prostitution. Instead, I think Soderbergh and his writers (Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who also scripted "Ocean's Thirteen") intend a clinical portrait of a certain stratum of American affluence, one where every aspect of life has been rendered into a commodity. We virtually never see Chelsea or Chris outside their roles as economic agents, and when Chelsea transgresses against the cycle of exchange-value -- by (somewhat implausibly) falling for a client -- the results are predictably disastrous.

Grey is the only actor in the cast who's asked to break free of the overarching atmosphere of commercial diffidence and display emotional vulnerability, and she does so well enough that I was finally convinced her mannered flatness through the rest of the movie qualified as acting. But casting a porn actress you meet through her MySpace page (as Soderbergh did) is a little like the needlessly complicated backward-and-forward chronology of "Girlfriend Experience," in which events occur in seemingly random order, with the aftermath of Chelsea and Chris' breakup coming before the breakup itself. It's a gesture toward a kind of ultra-indie filmmaking that attracts Soderbergh, but no longer comes naturally to him (if in fact it ever did).

All that said, "Girlfriend Experience" is a coolly crafted, ruthless little work from a filmmaker who keeps seeking out new challenges at a career stage when most directors have settled into a groove. I'm also guessing it will get funnier with repeat viewings; film critic Glenn Kenny (my occasional drinking buddy) nearly steals the show with his brief turn as a loathsome blogger who entices sex from Chelsea in exchange for a favorable review. (Unfortunately for both of them, the sex is terrible and the review is worse.)

As always, Soderbergh was approachable and friendly, eager to speak theoretically and pragmatically about movies and life. As he said during our conversation in the offices of Magnolia Pictures, he's already on to the next thing, and the next one or two after that. He's finished "The Informant," a price-fixing docudrama with Matt Damon, for Warner Bros., and is now making "Moneyball," an adaptation of Michael Lewis' baseball best-seller starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. After that, a biopic of Liberace lies ahead. 

I've been thinking about the weirdness of your career. Two films ago, you made "Ocean's Thirteen." And then the logical follow-up to that, clearly, was to make a four-hour film about Che Guevara.

Predictable move.

Yeah, and now you've made a low-budget film about an expensive Manhattan prostitute. Also the predictable next move.

After "Che," we actually shot "The Informant," which will come out after "GFE." That's a true story based on a price-fixing scandal in the mid-'90s. That was for Warner Bros., but we made it "for a price," as they say, and I'm really happy with it. Sort of like athletes, you go through streaks, and I feel like I'm in the middle of a good streak. Despite the fact that reactions to "Che" were all over the map, for me the fact that it got made at all and is even remotely coherent is miraculous. And I felt like, given the resources and what we were able to do, that's not a bad film. The filmmaking's not bad.

So I got out of that and went right into "The Informant." Then we went right into "GFE," both of which were a lot of fun. We're going to do "Moneyball" this summer, which I'm really excited about. Liberace is gonna follow that. So I feel like I'm in one of those periods where I'm seeing the ball well, and so I'm amped.

A friend of mine describes you as the DIY, 2000-something version of Howard Hawks, who made all those films in every genre you can imagine.

I'm always trying to be Howard Hawks, sure. I envy the opportunities that the studio directors got in the '30s and '40s. It was assumed that you would make more than one movie a year, and that that movie could be a western or a musical or a comedy or a drama. Very early on, before I made "sex, lies, and videotape," I fantasized that I could have a career in which I could move around like that. It's not easy.

When you look at my first films -- "sex, lies," "Kafka," "King of the Hill," "Gray's Anatomy" -- all of that is sort of a long-winded announcement that I'm not going to do the same thing over and over again. Some of those films work, some of them don't. But for me it was kind of a necessarily laborious way of refusing to be boxed. Coming out of that I hit "Out of Sight" and then I was off. People still don't get it, 20 films in, but that was a very conscious play on my part, to mess around and then settle in a bit, figure out what my strengths are and what my weaknesses are and try and play to my strengths and minimize my weaknesses, not define myself in terms of deals.

This is a discussion that I have with people that I'm working with, with peers -- this issue of, you know, "my quote." [That is, what a director gets paid to make a film.] I've never paid attention to that at all, I've designed every deal to fit what I felt was appropriate for the movie. What I tell youngsters when I meet them is never to walk away from something because the deal isn't what you want,  because you feel like "I should be paid more." If you want to do it, you should just do it. There's no better currency than a good movie and nobody cares what you got paid.

You've made this decision that you were going to wrestle with the great Mammon of the film industry, to whatever degree you could, and see what kind of freedom you could get out of it. Just a few days ago I interviewed Jim Jarmusch about his new film, and he talked about making exactly the opposite decision. After "Down by Law" and "Stranger Than Paradise" he had offers to make big-budget movies, and he concluded that he would just make crappy movies if they gave him a lot of money. His attitude seems to be, "I'm a marginal cult director. That's what I do."

Jim's unique that way, and I'm sure he's right. The difference between he and I is that I grew up in a suburban subdivision, so I liked a lot of those movies that were being made by the studios when I was growing up, especially the ones made by the young wave of directors. I never wanted to just be an art-house guy.  I grew up in Baton Rouge. I didn't know anyone. Trying to get a low-budget movie made was my only avenue in, really.

There was a reason that the first studio movie I said yes to was "Out of Sight," because I honestly felt like, "What I bring to this will help it, not hurt it," and that's what Jim's talking about. You've got to be smart about the business. It is a business, and if you can't navigate your way through it, if you just kind of divorce yourself from it and pretend that it's somehow uninteresting or beneath you, you're going to have trouble, especially now.

Let's get back to "The Girlfriend Experience." If you tell people it's a movie about a high-class Manhattan call girl and that it stars a woman who is best known for acting in porn films, people may expect a certain kind of thing. This really isn't that certain kind of thing, is it?

Expectations, this is a problem.  Yeah, I'm sure that the fact that Sasha comes from the porn world suggests a certain kind of thing, but that's OK. I think it's about enough other things that most people will find something to hang onto. At the end of the day, the movie to me is more about control than it is sex. Sex is a great sort of way in to talk about control. But the movie really is about control, about transactions.

So when I found out that there was such a thing as a GFE, a specific type of escort that specializes in re-creating the emotional intimacy of a relationship, in addition to the sex, I was really intrigued by that because I'd never heard of it before. And the fact that there's a surcharge, that they were getting the most money of anyone in this business, really intrigued me.

With a prostitute who's providing GFE, the john is allowed to kiss her, right? Which doesn't typically happen between a john and a prostitute.

When people go, "Well, there's no sex in the film," I go, "Yeah but what's interesting is that most prostitutes, that's the thing that they won't do." They'll let you be inside of them in this way but they won't let you be inside of them in this other way. That disproves the theory that intercourse is the most profound and dangerous act that you can come up with.

Did you talk to women who do this? How did that inform the movie?

The women that do this don't seem typical. They're usually very well educated. They usually have other things going on. They usually have some sort of long-term plan, a five-year plan of how they're going to parlay the money into something else. There's a lifespan to the job and they're aware of it. They're like athletes. And these women were preparing for life after sports.

You were saying that the movie is really about transactions, not about prostitution per se.

Yeah. I was talking to this friend of mine and he said, "Well, I just get sad if I see a 45- or 50-year-old guy and he's out with a 22-year-old girl." I said, "Why? He's getting what he wants. She may like him, but she may also be drawn to a certain lifestyle and he's providing that. They're both getting what they want. Are we supposed to break them up?" Because I don't think I have that right or responsibility, frankly. So the movie puts you in this space of analyzing: What is this relationship, and what is parity within a relationship? Are there hidden kinds of parity?

You can see relationships that seem to be really unbalanced, where one person in them holds all the cards and the other person has no cards. And when I've made the mistake of trying to help, I come to find out that this is not what it appears to be at all. That there are absolutely buttons being pressed in both directions here and I'm dealing with two people who want those buttons pressed, and I was told by them basically to leave them alone. And I learned a lesson there. I only ask why when it comes to things that I do. I've stopped asking why when it comes to things that other people do, because I've realized I just don't know.

Well, the title has a double meaning, doesn't it? In this movie you've got Sasha's character having these relationships with clients where she provides the "girlfriend experience." And then she has a boyfriend, and that relationship is also represented. But do those relationships have a different status? Is one more real than the other?

Yeah, it's a good question. At a certain point in the movie she determines that the interaction she's had with a client that she just met has more value than the relationship that she has with her boyfriend, and she acts accordingly. And it's happened because she's been punctured a little bit. She's vulnerable, and so perhaps is open to seeing this man that she's never met before in a way that she might not look at him normally. It happens, and then it plays out the way it plays out. It's an open question whether, at the end of the film, she has returned to her default mode or not.

All of that was a way of noodling with these questions. What is her relationship? What is love? If you're Chelsea and this is one of your clients, and you've known him longer than you've known your boyfriend, and you're as close to him as I am to you now, and you're telling him something true about yourself and he's telling you something true about himself, and then you go home and you have dinner with your boyfriend, how are you supposed to parse which one of those has more meaning or is more real? You might say, "Well, the boyfriend one is real," and I'd say, "Why? How are you defining it?"

Well, the obvious answer is that she's not being paid to have a relationship with her boyfriend.

I would say that there's another system. There's another level of transaction going on that has nothing to do with money but is absolutely as valuable or more valuable than money to each of them. It may seem sort of cold, but I think there's a transaction going on all the time. That's just what I see.

Just to play raving Marxist for a moment, what I see in this film is different sets of transactions going on the whole time. There are her transactions with her clients, there's her relationship with her boyfriend. When we see them separately, we see her shopping. When we see him, he's hustling his clients or he's trying to hustle gym owners. The movie clearly suggests that what he's doing and what she's doing are not very different.

Yeah, absolutely. He's in the service industry, she's in the service industry. He's got his clothing line he's trying to get somebody to put in their store, or he's sniffing around other gyms and taking that information back to his gym to see if he can parlay it into a better situation. It's capitalism in its various iterations, within a very specific slice of Manhattan culture. The movie's not meant to be representative of New York, it's just these people in a very small universe.

I certainly look at it and can relate to the desire to have more. When you talk about Marxism, I guess what they would say is there's this fallacy at the core of capitalism, which is by collecting material wealth I will be more free. That there's some connection between being successful and being free. That's arguable. When I was 23 years old and living on State Street in Baton Rouge, La., making about $1,000 a month, I was really happy. I was free. I had a job that didn't pay much but also gave me a lot of free time and I could kind of do whatever I wanted. That's not the case today.

As the people reading this or listening to this prove, my obligations and my responsibilities and my desires are now given free rein. I'm in a position where something that I want to do I can usually make happen. I can tell you right now I feel I have less real freedom, but I've made those choices. I can tell you right now, I'm not a slave to money. But I'm artistically ambitious. I want to leave behind a body of work, for what it's worth. I don't know that art's worth anything ultimately, but it's the only skill that I have.

"The Girlfriend Experience" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and is available on-demand from HDNet Ultra on many cable systems. Wider theatrical release will follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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