Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, there are a couple of unexpected surprises and to coincide with the 20th Anniversary of Steven Soderbegh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape premiering at the festival, there was a last-minute addition to the program billed merely as “An Evening with Steven Soderbergh.” Word quickly got around that the filmmaker would be using the Eccles Theater’s vast space to sneak preview his new movie The Girlfriend Experience to an audience for the first time.
After being introduced by the festival’s director Geoff Gilmore, Soderbergh tried play the sneak preview cooly as if he hadn’t planned on showing anything, but that ruse was quickly dropped to the delight of the packed theater. Before rolling the film, Soderbergh made it clear that the film was a work-in-progress, and one can expect changes before the movie gets its inevitable release later this year. Even so, the film, shot using the same Red digital camera technology Soderbergh used on his groundbreaking Latin American epic Che, looked absolutely amazing and was clearly a step up from his last film in the HDNet series, Bubble.
Shot for just $1.7 million, the film features 20-year-old Sasha Grey, best known as the star of over a hundred adult films, playing Chelsea (née Christine), a high-priced Manhattan call girl making her way through the lucrative escort business while trying to maintain a relationship with her personal trainer boyfriend Chris. Surprisingly, Chris doesn’t seem to have a problem with her profitable career decision until she decides to go off for a weekend with one of her clients, a married man who offers support when Chelsea needs it most.
Told in a non-linear format, the film spends much of its running time following Chelsea around New York, as she spends time with clients, lunches with friends and potential managers, as well as being interviewed by a journalist for a piece on the Manhattan escort business. Through these interactions, we learn more about what she does, as well as how and why she does it. At the same time, Chris has been invited to travel to Las Vegas by one of his own clients and tries to make his own way through the less lucrative career of physical training, while contending with his girlfriend’s planned infidelity. It was pretty obvious how recently the film was shot, since there are references to the impending election and the country’s economic collapse, things that make the film seem even more relevant and timely.
Some might be surprised that besides a little bit of nudity, there’s absolutely no graphic sex of any kind in the movie, which is something many might have expected when they learned Soderbergh had cast Grey given her chosen profession. In fact, Grey proves to be quite a terrific and talented find at delivering straight dialogue-driven drama, creating a character that’s very believable to the viewer.
“I read about Sasha in an article in ‘Los Angeles Magazine’ a couple years ago, and I’ve never really heard anybody in the porn industry talk about the industry the way she did, and why she wanted to go into it,” Soderbergh said later about casting Grey in the film. “When the idea of this movie came about, I contacted her and we sat down and talked and I described the way we work on these things. I said, ‘It would just be interesting for you’ because I wanted somebody who even on a film that’s not very explicit, there’s a comfort level that she obviously has from making all of those films that I think is difficult to fake. There’s kind of an attitude, and she said, ‘Look, I want to try it and see what happens.’ She’s the only person in the film that’s been in front of the camera before. Everyone else in the film is a real person that was cast based on their similarity to the character description. It’s really fun as a director to watch and I really like the idea of people speaking in their own words, really speaking for themselves.”
One of the film’s standouts in this regard is a funny cameo by former Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny–now sharing his vast film knowledge on his own blog SomeCameRunning–as a creepy adult entertainment reviewer who convinces Chelsea to provide complimentary services as a “review copy” to help further her career. We’ve seen creepy film characters before, but Kenny’s ten-minute appearance and his bitingly cruel review of our heroine (and the effect it has on her) becomes the catalyst for what happens to Chelsea and Chris later in the movie.
During the Q ‘n’ A after the screening, Soderbergh answered questions about the process used for creating these scenes. “We’re sort of using the same method that we used on ‘Bubble’ which is we’re working from a kind of detailed scene-by-scene breakdown that the actors are improvising. This is a more complex attempt to implement that approach, more characters and a city that imports a lot of activities, so a lot of times, since I’m dealing with improvised performances and they’re usually one or two takes, I have to compose in such a way that doesn’t lock them up and that allows them some movement because I’m never telling them where they should go or not go. Almost every time you see a conversation between two people, there are two cameras shooting simultaneously, so that drives a lot of the framing and the visual esthetic. One of the filmmakers that I think is most proficient at placing characters within a landscape and just giving a sense of them being a part of it is Michelangelo Antonioni, especially in a film he made called ‘Red Desert’ which has some really extraordinary visual sequences. He just had this great gift for having an environment embellish the characters. I thought about that a lot and that’s why the frame is loose a lot of the times.”
“It’s the first time we’ve shown it in front of anyone really, so it’s always interesting,” Soderbergh said about experiencing the film for the first time with an audience. “You can feel things. The structure is very tricky, so it’s helpful to get a sense of where people are going in and out, where they sort of lock in to the way the story is being told. There are people who do not like stories told like this. I remember we had a preview of ‘Out of Sight’, and it went horribly. They started the focus group and the first guy raised his hand, before the person even asked a question, and he said, ‘I just want to say something right now. I hate stories that are told like this.’ And then it went downhill. There are some people who as soon as they realize the structure is going to be like this, it’s just not their thing. The couple of times I’ve done this I’ve tried to find that balance of interest and intrigue but also playing fair. There is a line there where if you don’t really play fair and dole out information in the right way. The last time I had a structure this elaborate was ten years ago and ‘The Limey’ so I’d been looking for a way back into it.”
Even so, Soderbergh said that the film was written and shot chronologically. “You’re sort of working without a net but you’re only four feet off the ground, so it’s not too terrifying. What you’re trying to do is through these structure improvisations, after you’ve compiled all the footage, you start finding the connections between what people have talked about in all of the scenes. The film has this loose structure that’s not entirely arbitrary. There’s sort of a business section, then there’s the client section, then there’s the break-up and talking about the break-up. You’re culling all of the footage and making little sub-clips and labeling what they’re about, and then you’re sitting down and starting to pull similar subjects together.”
Soderbergh continued by talking about one of the running through-lines of the movie that helped pull all of the disparate scenes together. “The interview with the journalist–who is a real journalist, Mark Jacobsen, who wrote the definitive piece on this young guy Jason Itzler, who was running an escort service in New York a couple years ago and got busted–so through a friend I contacted Mark and I shot 30 minutes of him interviewing Sasha, and that was sort of like the shrink in ‘Klute,’ it was a great way to organically have her talk in a way that’s sort of guarded and then weave it in and out, which is something we’re still working on. You have a sense of where it’s going to go but day by day, you’re discovering it.”
Soderbergh ended the evening by telling the audience “You weren’t here,” although obviously, with so many journalists and critics in the audience, word quickly got around that Soderbergh’s latest film The Girlfriend Experience was something worth seeking out whenever it gets its theatrical release. While a release date hasn’t been set yet, one can expect it will be released similarly as Bubble.