EXCLUSIVE: “Look, the shows are designed to be confrontational,” says Steven Soderbergh of the second installment of The Girlfriend Experience, just before the Starz drama’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival today. “The great thing about what’s going on in television right now is that if you make something that’s polarizing, that’s a good thing because people talk about it,” the Oscar and Emmy winner adds of the sexualized limited series from Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, based on his 2009 movie.
With the first Riley Keough-led installment of TGE having premiered at Sundance in 2016, today’s afternoon screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox will feature four episodes of the new Carmen Ejogo, Anna Friel and Louisa Krause starring show. Set to debut on Starz on November 5, this latest 14-episode installment of TGE features not just new actors, but a new format, with Seimetz and Kerrigan writing and directing separate stories that the premium cabler will air back-to-back week-to-week.
Having cast the Billions and Plucking Daises alums, Kerrigan’s storyline uses the 2018-midterm elections to tell a tale of blackmail, dominance and cross lines. Selma vet Ejogo fronts Seimetz’s episodes of an upmarket escort now trying to construct a new life in the Witness Protection program, with frayed results.
Serving as executive producer again on TGE, Soderbergh chatted with me recently about how this very different season came together, a potential backlash, and what he and Starz have planned for more seasons. He also discussed with me the release of Logan Lucky last month and what he learned from the less-than-stellar $23 million box office of the unconventionally distributed and marketed Keough, Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig, Adam Driver and Katie Holmes-starring heist pic. Oh, and Soderbergh hinted at another collaboration with Clive Owen after the duo’s work on The Knick.
DEADLINE: You are previewing the new installment of Girlfriend Experience on the opening weekend of Toronto, a festival that is quickly growing in the amount of television it screens. What does that blending of the big and the small screen say to you?
SODERBERGH: You know, the landscape’s shifting so quickly, and in this case, I don’t know that I ascribe what we’re doing to any sort of larger movement or larger issue that the film business or the television industry are confronting. I mean, this project evolved in a very serendipitous way.
I don’t think any of us were thinking about anything other than trying to generate some interesting content. It’s great that the TV business has changed to an extent, that this kind of approach (works) and that there are no rules anymore. You know what I mean? Fifteen years ago, this doesn’t happen. Maybe even 10 years ago, it doesn’t happen.
DEADLINE: What also rarely happens is the sort of show the new season of Girlfriend Experience is, two separate stories told by two different filmmakers back-to-back. There is also a lot of sex. Are you worried about a backlash?
SODERBERGH: Look, the shows are designed to be confrontational. The great thing about what’s going on in television right now is that if you make something that’s polarizing, that’s a good thing, because people talk about it. They go check it out, which is unlike the movie space right now, I think. If you make a movie that’s polarizing, it gets a terrible Rotten Tomatoes score, and then people go, ‘Oh, there must be something wrong with it.’ You know?
The idea that people would argue about a movie and somebody would say, ‘I think it’s great,’ and somebody would say, ‘I think it’s trash,’ and it’s possible that both of them are right – like, that’s not a plus in the movie space anymore. But it is a plus in the TV space. So, I think, in a weird way, to make a show about this subject and to not have people somewhat polarized by it is kind of an abdication of responsibility as a filmmaker. You know, if you’ve made something about this subject that doesn’t push people around, then you probably didn’t go deep enough.
DEADLINE: And how did you guys come up with this very different approach from the first installment? I know that you wanted new characters and actors. But this is a whole new format and very indie in many ways, isn’t it?
SODERBERGH: (Laughs) This was by request from Amy and Lodge. They were obviously tasked with figuring out how they wanted to approach Season 2. It was always part of the design that every season there would be a new character, a new place, and after a certain amount of consultation, they came back to us and said, ‘Look, we’d like to split this down the middle.’ An approach that would enable each of us to write and direct our own episodes.
DEADLINE: Did you sign on right away?
SODERBERGH: Basically because, coming out of Season 1, they both felt like they had very specific approaches to how they would like to do Season 2. So, instead of kind of handcuffing them together, when they came back and said, ‘We’d like to both go off on our own,’ a frolic of our own, we said, ‘That sounds great.’
DEADLINE: With that in mind and the perspective of production and time, what do you think about how it all turned out?
SODERBERGH: I think it turned out really well, honestly. It’s exactly what you said, which is, ‘Okay, if we’re really going to embrace this sort of indie approach, for lack of a better term, how do we double down on that?’ And there are three ways, I think, in which we were able to push this idea of total independence even further.
One is just the concept itself, of splitting the show in half. The second is that when you see what Lodge and Amy both did individually, you know, there’s no universe in which these episodes survive any kind of normal development process. They’re too fucking weird. And the third is – and this came from STARZ, which I thought was a real master stroke – was the idea of airing them in pairs. Because what that does is to really amplify the wild divergence in approaches that both of them took, while at the same time, sharing a sort of common core theme.
DEADLINE: What is that common core theme to you?
SODERBERGH: It’s a core theme of, ‘Why don’t we focus more on what happens to the people around someone who is a GFE?’ It’s, ‘What’s the collateral effect of getting close to a person who does this for a living?’ That’s what they both did, and again, looking at the difference in how they just explored that single idea is such a clinic in what a filmmaker does, in what an independent filmmaker does. So that and airing the episodes as couplets, I think it’s going to bring things out of both Amy’s and Lodge’s episodes that I think might not be as rich if they were just airing on their own.
DEADLINE: As an executive producer, under this new approach, how much were you hands-on this time around with Girlfriend Experience with Amy and Lodge?
SODERBERGH: I’m trying to take my cues off of them and off of the situation in general. Obviously, whatever they have written, I read to give them my thoughts. When they’re shooting, they’ve adopted the same approach I do when I shoot, which is, they don’t post dailies. They post cut scenes, and I watch those, and then when the episodes come in and they’re all put together, then I watch those again.
If there’s a business issue, something that’s more of a pure production issue that I need to get into or call somebody to help solve, I’ll do that. But I’m trying to, sort of, only be present when my presence is required. They know what they’re doing. They don’t need me looking over their shoulder
DEADLINE: This sort of relationship with fellow filmmakers is nothing new for you, is it? Besides this kind of work with Amy and Lodge, you’ve had similar relationships with Channing Tatum, and you were a big supporter of the Russo Brothers at the beginning of their career, when no one would touch their flick, Pieces. Where did that come from?
SODERBERGH: I think that’s learned from the way I was parented. I think it was learned from the people early in my life, when I started making films, who mentored me, like Michael McCallum at LSU. I was fortunate that I was given both a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility. I wasn’t punished for my mistakes, as long as I didn’t make the same mistake over and over again.
DEADLINE: It’s a too-rare trait in a competitive business, to be looking out for others…
SODERBERGH: I don’t know. I mean, it’s hard for me to speak for the industry as a whole. But I think, in my case, it’s purely my response to seeing talent. When I see someone who I think is talented, my initial impulse is to want to talk to them. And in talking to them, obviously, the future comes up, and more often than not, I find myself offering to help or asking them what they want to do, and it sort of evolves from there. It’s a very organic thing that I don’t really analyze, you know?
I really liked Pieces, the Russo brothers movie, when I saw it. I thought it was really smart. I thought they were talented and I just wanted to talk to them and find out who they were, what they were like, and what they wanted to do, and it just kind of went from there.
DEADLINE: Went from there to a movie with you and Clooney, and now Anthony and Joe, now two of the biggest deals around, and shepherding the Marvel movie universe to its next blockbuster phase. Which leads me to ask, what will a third installment of The Girlfriend Experience be like, having evolved it as you guys have?
SODERBERGH: Well, the idea’s that every two years, we find another duo of filmmakers. That was the sort of set-up from the beginning.
DEADLINE: So, if you do come back for another installment, Amy and Lodge will not be helming it?
SODERBERGH: It was always designed to be two and out.
DEADLINE: Will your involvement stay the same?
DEADLINE: Have you looked at anyone you think you might want to work with for a Season 3 and 4?
SODERBERGH: It’s funny. Now that the show’s done, I’ve just started thinking about that. Obviously, STARZ, because they think ahead more than I do, has started to ask, ‘So, what’s the plan?’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess I got to go find some more filmmakers.’ And so, that’s my homework.
DEADLINE: Do have some names?
SODERBERGH: I mean, there are a couple people that I’m aware of that I’ve kind of had my eye on. The good news for them is that they’re busy. You know, what was great about Amy and Lodge in this instance, because I wasn’t sure how they were going to respond when I pitched it to them, they leaped at it. They realized, wow, the ability to have complete creative freedom and just go out and do what we want to do and have this kind of platform. They looked at it as a gigantic movie, and they didn’t hesitate at all.
So, especially now that we’ve had the result that we’ve had, I’m hoping that I can identify some young filmmakers that will be similarly excited about the opportunity.
DEADLINE: Speaking of results and opportunity, you took a very public and very hands-on stance on the release of Logan Lucky earlier this summer. It came out from your Fingerprint Releasing and Bleecker Street. There were upsides and downsides, but what are the lessons learned for you going forward?
SODERBERGH: We actually have a meeting scheduled soon to see if we can unpack the whole thing and answer the primary question, which is why did the audience that we specifically and repeatedly targeted not show up?
Now, there are, I think, potentially a lot of answers to that question. But the thing you have to be careful about in all of these situations is not to assume too much. In this case, the sample size is one movie, and so we have to be careful not to make, sort of, secular changes in the approach that might’ve been just specific to this movie.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you’re going to take a brutally honest approach about the box office and the whole deal, no?
SODERBERGH: Look, I love this stuff. I love getting into the weeds on it. I want to go, ‘Okay, well, going forward, when Unsane comes out next year, what part of this do we want to replicate? What part of this do we want to rethink?’ It’s a very different kind of film. It’s going for a very different kind of audience. You know, ‘What do we keep, and what do we discard?’
DEADLINE: So you want to keep trying this anti-corporate POV, as my colleague Peter Bart called it?
SODERBERGH: Yeah. I want to keep exploring this paradigm, like I said. Get a larger sample size to dig a little deeper and see if it’s a long-term prospect.
DEADLINE: I have to ask, because it is one of my favorite shows of the past few years, is there a long-term prospect for The Knick or is that Cinemax experiment between you and Clive Owen really cancelled and over?
SODERBERGH: It’s over.
SODERBERGH: We had a big, big, big plan, maybe it was too big, for how to do it. But what I was just thinking the other day was, ‘I sure would like to find something else to do with Clive.’ Whatever it is, just because I had such a great experience with him. So he’s in New York right now rehearsing M. Butterfly. So he and I are going to sit down and catch up. So who knows what could come of that.