Steven Soderbergh is a producer, director and writer best known for movies including Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ocean’s 11 and Magic Mike. In recent years he has moved into TV, with Cinemax series The Knick, and now a major film-to-TV project, The Girlfriend Experience, which Starz launches on Sunday (April 10), with Riley Keough playing the lead. He tells Stewart Clarke why TV is the place to be.
You are known for your movie work, but with The Knick on HBO and now The Girlfriend Experience for Starz, you have two big TV series. How is the TV world evolving?
We are in the midst of a shifting paradigm in terms of television that was probably started by David Chase, with a little bit of help from another David, David Lynch, which is this idea of auteur-driven television. I think the idea of a director-driven show, in a medium that has been traditionally controlled by writer-producers, is going to become increasingly prevalent and is a really exciting thing for viewers. The Girlfriend Experience, in particular, will highlight the benefits of that approach.
Is TV now the place for writers, producers and directors with really ambitious ideas?
It is for me. I just want to work in a place where I can follow what I’m engaged by, and be allowed to execute in a way I think is interesting. That place for me, right now, is long-form television.
How will you balance your TV and feature work?
My plan right now is TV. That just seems to be what I want to do, and how I want to do it, and it syncs up with the people who are paying for it. Instead of being in a situation where the way I like to do things makes people feel anxious, I want to be working in a medium in which my way of doing things is exciting to the people who are paying for it.
What’s the backstory with The Girlfriend Experience?
Philip Fleischman, one of the exec producers, was somebody I worked with 30 years ago on a Yes concert [film]. We were just talking, and he asked if I had ever thought about turning GFE into a TV show. I said I hadn’t but that it would be an interesting subject for television. We started talking about how it might be done, and I decided let’s go out with it. I approached Starz because I’d worked with [Starz CEO and former HBO boss] Chris Albrecht on K Street for HBO way back when. He and I stayed in touch and had been trying to figure out something to do together.
What was the approach?
The big idea in the context of this show was finding two independent writer-directors, pairing them together and having the show be an auteur-driven piece.
We got Lodge [Kerrigan] and Amy [Seimetz] to agree to do it and then went to Chris and said this is what we wanted do, to write all the episodes and then split the directing, to have two smart filmmakers and turn them loose. Chris really liked it.
That only works, presumably, if the channel gives you free rein creatively?
Yes, I said we’re banking on two talented people, but we have got to let them, within very specific financial parameters, do what they do. The thing has got to feel like it was handmade by two independent filmmakers.
What is the connection between the GFE movie and GFE series?
We wanted the vibe to be similar, but also wanted them to go narrow and deep with the main character and, unlike the film, go into how she finds her way into this business [high-end escorting].
My other significant contribution was to recommend [lead actor] Riley Keough (pictured) to Lodge and Amy. I’d worked with her on Magic Mike, and she was someone I thought that, given the opportunity, could really deliver, and she does.
One connection to the film was Steven Meizler, who I have worked with on 14 or 15 movies, including The Girlfriend Experience. He was director of photography, so there is a connection between the look of the feature and the TV show. There is that strong visual connection, which is the thing that unites what Amy and Lodge are doing. So even though there are two different directors, Steven’s work connects the two things.
In the movie you cast an adult star, Sasha Grey. Did you always want a professional actor for the series?
I felt that given the demands of the series, 13 half-hours, and talking to Lodge and Amy about where they wanted to go with character, there was never any question that we were going to need a professionally-trained performer.
And for the show to be good she has to be good?
Riley is the whole show, and she really crushes it. We’re talking about a six-and-a-half-hour film, shot in 58 days, so it is really, really intense, and she jumped off the cliff every day. She gave such a fearless performance, and I haven’t seen a young actress do something like this in a long time.
What themes does the series explore?
It’s about identity, ultimately. [Keough’s character Christine Reade] is interning as a paralegal at law firm, and so the piece becomes about fronting. She’s got the face she presents as she works, and another as she begins to dive into the world of being an extremely well-paid escort.
To what extent those faces are real and to what extent she is creating herself as she goes is an open question.
Because of the style of filmmaking and the performances, there is a sense we are spying on her as she is sorting these questions out for herself. What I like is there is no editorialising at all about what she is doing. You’re just watching someone navigate two different terrains.
It’s set in the US and made for an American cable channel. Will it appeal around the world?
There’s a universality in specificity. If you create something detailed and accurate it will play anywhere.
I’ve always believed that instead of consciously trying to make something that will have a broad appeal, the idea is to make it as accurate as possible and dive as deep as you can, and people will take that journey.
When you see [The Girlfriend Experience], you will feel that ‘this is not like anything else I’m seeing on television right now’.
Do you see The Girlfriend Experience as a returning series?
There are lots of possibilities. I know Starz is really happy with it – Chris called me at home on the weekend after binge-watching it and said, ‘Holy shit, this is amazing’ – and so we are in midst of having a discussion about what is the best version of it going forward.
We haven’t followed the typical paradigm in terms of how the first season was made, so the question is how do we stay true to that independent spirit, because we don’t want to do same thing we just did. I think we’d all like to do it again, but part of the appeal is that it is not doing what other shows do.
What other TV projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m putting the finishing touches to season two of [Cinemax series] The Knick and am also in discussions about how that might continue.
There are other things I have been developing in the background. One is an adaptation of a John Barth novel I control the rights to, The Sot-Weed Factor.
When I started getting into television I thought that if there was a problem trying to turn this 700-page book into a two-hour film, we could do it as a 10- or 12-hour piece so I’m not having these problems of compression. Hopefully something can get up and running soon.
Has working in TV changed the way you would now approach a feature?
Two seasons of shooting has been a great process for me as a filmmaker, I really learned a lot.
There is no substitute for being on set and solving problems all day every day, and you get better as a result. The intensity and the amount of material you have to generate in TV makes it almost like a sport, and it means getting a really, really good workout.
Is working with Starz and HBO a similar process?
I have the same relationship with [HBO president, programming] Michael Lombardo and [Cinemax, president, original programming] Kary Antholis as with Chris Albrecht. With them the bottom line is ‘We believe in you and count on you to deliver something distinctive. This is the deal, this is how much money you have, and as long as you stay within that, we encourage you to give us something crazy that people will remember’.
Could you do a network show?
Based on the stories I have heard from friends who have worked in the network world, no, only because they can’t let go. I don’t think I could operate under those circumstances, where my creative impulses are being second-guessed by the executives at the network.
It would be interesting to know if I made a show with total creative freedom for one of the major networks whether it would rate. It would be interesting to find out; I just don’t know if the process would be very pleasant.