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The Girlfriend Experience
Starz's The Girlfriend Experience is based on the 2009 film of the same name, directed by Steven Soderbergh.

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Steven Soderbergh watches TV: “Why do you think you can improve on what’s real?”

The Academy Award-winning director offers his thoughts on where the medium has been — and where it could go next

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

However much TV you watch, however many movies you consume, there's a good chance Steven Soderbergh watches more.

Every year, the Academy Award–winning director (for Traffic) publishes the media diary of what he watched over the course of the year. He screens numerous films and keeps up with dozens of TV shows. And, as if to show off, he also lists all the books he reads. (Here's the list for 2013, for instance.)

Soderbergh famously retired from the film industry a few years ago (though there are constant rumors of his un-retirement), but he's since mostly taken his talents to television instead, where he's found great creative freedom on series like Cinemax's The Knick.

His most recent dabbling in the TV form comes in Starz's miniseries The Girlfriend Experience. Though based on his 2009 film of the same name, this miniseries is hugely different in almost every way. (Soderbergh says the mandate was to keep the name and change everything else.)

Over 13 episodes, a half-hour each, writer-directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz chronicle one young woman's embrace of prostitution. Christine (played by the riveting Riley Keough) is smart, business-savvy, and certain of her plans, even as discovery of her secret second job could destroy her law career before it has a chance to begin.

It's a classic dual lives setup, but in the hands of Seimetz and Kerrigan it's mesmerizing, some of the best TV of the year. Soderbergh, for his part, helped set up the project at Starz, where he and the network hammered out a price for which Seimetz and Kerrigan could make the series without network interference, eschewing TV's traditional writers' room format in favor of a more film-like writer-director model.

So when I caught up with Soderbergh at January's winter Television Critics Association press tour, I was interested in talking to him about his recently published 2015 media diary, particularly on the TV side. I wanted to find out what one of America's best directors thinks when he looks at other shows on TV — starting with the one he was there to promote. From there, we talked about everything from Mr. Robot to Everybody Loves Raymond.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Girlfriend Experience: "From the first shot, you feel that the filmmakers are in control of this material"

Riley Keough in The Girlfriend Experience
Riley Keough stars as Christine in The Girlfriend Experience.

Todd VanDerWerff

You mentioned in your media diary that you were watching episodes of The Girlfriend Experience as they were completed last year. What was that experience like, to see this adaptation of one of your films coming to TV?

Steven Soderbergh

2016 Winter TCA Tour - Day 4
Steven Soderbergh.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

It really turned out to be everything I hoped it would be in terms of its style, in terms of its approach to the character, in terms of its approach to the narrative.

From the first shot, you feel that the filmmakers are in control of this material. This wasn't something that was developed and run through a committee. You can tell the people that made this are the people in control of this. I wanted you to feel like a filmmaker was taking you somewhere.

I've known Lodge 20 years, and I produced a film of his 10 years ago. Amy I met through Shane Carruth, because she was in Upstream Color. I was asking Shane [the director of Upstream Color and the music composer for TV's Girlfriend Experience] — I didn't know he and Amy were boyfriend and girlfriend [the two have since gotten engaged] — "Who's this actress? She's really good." He told me she was a filmmaker, so I went on iTunes and watched her movie, which is really good.

In thinking about how to do this show, I wanted to pair up two independent writer-directors, a male and a female. The three of us met and started talking about it. The mandate was, "Take the title [of the movie] and start over."

I don't feel like it feels like other shows, doesn't look like other shows. Riley is so watchable. She's one of those actors that can be still, and you want to know what's going on with her. She's remarkably centered and secure for such a young actress. When you see where this thing lands, it's pretty impressive what Riley pulls off. The last few episodes are really intense.

Todd VanDerWerff

What made this movie the one to turn into a TV series?

Steven Soderbergh

It was Philip [Fleishman, the miniseries' producer] who brought it up. It never would have occurred to me, and he was the one that said, "Don't you think this would be a good series?"

It never crossed my mind. My default mode is not to go back and dig up the graves of stuff I have made and see if I can bring them back to life. It's just not how I think, although I'm in year 13 of re-editing [his 1991 film] Kafka. Someday that will get done.

Todd VanDerWerff

So much TV is pretty generic, at least on a visual level. But not only is The Girlfriend Experience visually distinctive, you can really feel the differences between Amy and Lodge's episodes.

Steven Soderbergh

I was hoping that would be the case — that they were both bringing something unique and meeting at a place that would allow the whole thing to feel unified.

In this case, that was helped a great deal by Steven Meizler, the director of photography [on all 13 episodes]. His approach to lighting and composition keeps the thing in one space.

The way they approach directing is very different. Lodge has very much got it all planned out before, and Amy is much more, "Let's see where this goes. Let's see what the scene is, and we'll figure it out." This conversation is going on between the two of them. You never take for granted directorially what's going to happen.

Todd VanDerWerff

There's a shot in the first episode where two characters are in the back of a cab, looking at one of their phones, and the scene is lit entirely with the phone screen; I've never seen anything captured quite like that. What made using natural light like that right for this project?

Steven Soderbergh

Whether you're talking cinematography or directing or performing, starting with what's real is always a good idea. The new technology allows us to start with what's real and just stay there.

I think there are literally two shots in the film The Girlfriend Experience in which lights were used, and Meizler worked on that film. He's been working with me since 2004, so he's been watching this approach develop as I got my hands on these digital cameras.

He and I share an attitude about, Why do you think you can improve on what's real? If you're making a certain kind of sterilized film that requires a heightened look or certain shots that need to be amplified in some way, that's totally fine too. But I think starting from reality is always the smart play.

The Girlfriend Experience Starz

Todd VanDerWerff

There's a lot of debate over the best uses of digital versus film. Do you feel like digital is better at capturing realism?

Steven Soderbergh

It depends on what you want out of the process.

I like the speed and ease of shooting digitally. I like the images too. That's why I work with the RED [a digital camera]. It has a very silky look, not digital or video-y at all. My response to seeing it for the first time was, "This sensor sees light the way I like to see light."

The ability for me to iterate quickly is very important. The ability to shoot digitally, edit that night, see how something is going to look in its nearly final form — that's good for me. I wish I had this stuff sooner.

Todd VanDerWerff

You've talked a lot about finding ways to maintain creative integrity within the filmmaking system. Now that you've worked in television for a while, do you have thoughts on what it means to have creative integrity in TV?

Steven Soderbergh

It's all about the creative approach to the project on the part of whoever is generating the project.

Philip and I had this idea that it could be a show, and then we went and talked to [Starz president] Chris Albrecht and explained to him exactly what the method of doing this show was going to be and what kind of result we were hoping to get. The whole design of it was intentionally to let Lodge and Amy go and do whatever they wanted to do.

Chris said, "This is a really interesting model, and we’re going to watch this very closely, because it seems like something we may want to duplicate on other writer-director-driven shows." When they saw the results, they’re like, "We’re going to start thinking on these terms now, instead of the traditional creator-producer/showrunner model. Something a little more fluid and something a little more filmmaker-centric."

Louie: "It's so obvious these things are coming right out of his head onto the screen"

Louie on FX
Louie, on FX, was a pioneer in television largely stemming from the imagination of one person.

Todd VanDerWerff

The deal you set up for The Girlfriend Experience sounds very similar to the one Louis C.K. has at FX with Louie, where he has a certain budget limit and he can do whatever he wants within it. Do you admire that show?

Steven Soderbergh

I’m a big fan of his. What you respond to when you watch that show is the freedom. It’s just so obvious these things are coming right out of his head onto the screen. It isn’t getting developed to death. I feel like people can feel a singular voice.

What I like about his show is the unfiltered quality of it. You feel he’s experiencing all this at the same time you are. He doesn’t have it figured out, and you’re next to him as he tries to navigate his life of being a certain age and having kids and being a dad and single. It's not a traditional, "Oh, we have a writers' room, and we write gags."

Todd VanDerWerff

Historically, television has been a very collaborative medium, with tons of voices contributing to every show. Do you think that works better for some series?

Steven Soderbergh

Absolutely. On Red Oaks [a series Soderbergh produces for Amazon] there’s a writers' room, and they have a half-dozen people sitting with [the creators]. Especially in building the arc at the season stage, you’ve got the big white boards up and you’re mapping it out. For a show like that, that’s absolutely the right way to do that show.

In the case of The Knick, it was smaller. It was [Jack] Amiel and [Michael] Begler who were a writing team and then Steven Katz, and that was it. That was just us in a room breaking it out and then doing a lot of work really fast. That’s what worked for that show.

It depends on how the show was generated and who’s the ultimate authority creatively. That has a lot to do with how the thing gets set up and structured from a writing standpoint.

I have a theory that there’s a finite amount of great art that can exist within a calendar year. Just because you make a lot more, it’s not a linear relationship. If you make 600 movies or 60 movies there’s still going to be, like, five of them that are really good. That’s just the way it goes.

At the end of the day, despite the fact that there’s a lot of television being made, the number of artists working in it that can really execute at a higher level is fixed.

There were 409 scripted shows last year, which is a new record. But it’s hard to say whether there’s more great television now than there was 10 or 15 years ago. What I see, though, is because of the proliferation of options for storytellers in terms of where to go to get things made, you’re just seeing a wider variety of stories than you were 10 or 15 years ago, because you’ve got more buyers. If you have something odd or challenging or ambitious it’s not just, "Well, HBO said no."

Twin Peaks: "Things were left unexplained. There was a lot for the viewer to do."

Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks is a classic breakthrough for cinematic television.

Todd VanDerWerff

With The Knick, you're breaking some of the cardinal assumptions we have about TV programming, especially if you get to do a third season the way you envision, with a completely new setup for the series. What shows have you seen that sort of blew up what TV could be?

Steven Soderbergh

There was some very some good pipe laid by the two Davids — David Lynch and David Chase — in terms of what a series can do, should do, might do.

Twin Peaks is a really singular moment in television, and obviously The Sopranos. One of the things that David Chase did that I’m happy about is that he destroyed this whole idea of the show has to come on every year, in this month, on this date, and have this many episodes. He just ignored all that and was like, "We’ll be ready when we’re ready." That sort of dogmatic attitude about what a series is has gone away.

We always envisioned The Knick in two-year increments and with the idea of annihilating what came before every two years. The network was excited about that and said that sounds cool. I just met with [Amiel and Begler] yesterday. We’re building our idea of what three and four might look like, to get ready to present [to the network]. It’s pretty extreme, but I think it should be.

Todd VanDerWerff

That would be with completely different directors, right?

Steven Soderbergh

If we can achieve what I’m hoping, story-wise, then I’d like to keep going. What I hope will happen is that we will figure something out that I’ll feel like I have to do this.

Todd VanDerWerff

You mentioned Twin Peaks, and that's certainly a milestone in terms of filmmakers moving into television. What sticks with you about that show?

Steven Soderbergh

Two things. One was a visual grammar that was more filmic than it was like television. The second was the approach to narrative. It didn’t constrain itself to typical tropes of episodic television, and it went off on weird tangents. Things were left unexplained. There was a lot for the viewer to do.

I always looked at that as a benchmark and one that was worth paying attention to. As successful as that show was, if you could somehow time-travel and drop it in the age of social media, everything about that show really is an accelerant to the kind of chatter that everybody is looking for.

Todd VanDerWerff

Twin Peaks is still most famous for those dreamlike images, but it's also a show where not everything makes sense or has an answer, which is anathema to how TV usually works. Do you remember if you found that exciting at the time it debuted?

Steven Soderbergh

The bottom line is it didn’t feel like a network show. It felt like a David Lynch show, and that was new. That’s a very different animal from a Steven Bochco [co-creator of Hill Street Blues and LA Law, among others] show.

What’s compelling to me was the idea that, "If I’ve got this notion that I think is best served in long-form, episodic television, as opposed to a movie..." at a time when Lynch's movie career was doing very well. That stuck with me.

The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones: "You've got to make something you like and hope other people like it"

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones has instilled TV with a blockbuster model of its own.

Todd VanDerWerff

How do you know if an idea works best as a TV show, as opposed to a movie?

Steven Soderbergh

I don’t know, other than when somebody describes an idea to me I immediately have a reaction as to whether that’s a movie idea, or that’s a series, or that’s a limited series.

I’m working on a project with a friend of mine that was a big movie in the sense that it had a 160-page script. But we’ve decided, "Ooh, this should be a six-hour thing." It's a one-off, but instead of trying to jam it into a two-hour bag, why don’t we expand it and go someplace where somebody will make it into a six-hour thing?

There are certain circumstances when somebody tells you stories that are best told with a resolution. More often than not, though, my default mode when somebody tells me something is, "Why shouldn’t this be a series?"

Todd VanDerWerff

The boundaries between film and TV are really collapsing rapidly. Like if Netflix picks up a movie, and that's how people see it, is it film or a made-for-TV movie? Do you worry about those distinctions at all?

Steven Soderbergh

It’s all stories to me. I’ve really given up making those distinctions. It’s just stories.

You can see something that somebody made for a streaming platform that has more cinema in it than the most successful movie in release right now. It’s about a point of view. It’s about an approach. What is this person’s take on this?

I want specificity. I want them to make choices. If it turns out in my case that television is more receptive to the way I like to do things, then that’s where I will go. I want to go where when I propose doing something a certain way, people smile instead of rolling their eyes.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you worry about blockbuster mentality taking over TV? Shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones certainly fit that model.

Steven Soderbergh

I don’t look at it any differently than the movie business. You can’t conjure that stuff. You can try, but more often than not, [big hits] are surprises of some kind, unless it’s Star Wars.

My sense in the TV world is that nobody on either of those shows before they aired had any sense of what they were going to turn out to be in terms of viewers. They were ambitious shows, and I’m sure everybody hoped they would work. You just don’t know. You've got to make something you like and hope other people like it.

The Americans: "I'm surprised that hasn't gotten more Emmy love"

The Americans
FX's The Americans is a critically beloved show with a tiny viewership.

Todd VanDerWerff

You do watch a lot of shows that are more traditionally produced. One of those that turns up in your diary a lot is The Americans. What draws you to that show?

Steven Soderbergh

They found a nice way to fuse time and a cultural period that was interesting to me. It’s not just the idea of going back to the Reagan presidency and making the story about these two people who are married and have kids. There's also this, "Ooh, they're also spies." That was a really interesting grouping of notions, and then I love the cast. I think the two of them [Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, who play the two lead roles] are fantastic.

My wife started watching it, and said, "I think you’ll really like this." Like anything, you spend time with them and then you're in. It's continuing to find ways to excavate the core of the show. You've got to keep peeling these layers back and keep finding new layers, and they seem to keep doing that.

I’m surprised that that hasn't gotten more Emmy love. Everybody likes this show.

Todd VanDerWerff

One of the things about The Americans that reminds me of your work is the way it has this big, high-concept premise you can describe in one sentence, but it's also got a very human center to it. When you're developing an idea like that, do you start from the big idea or the more human notion?

Steven Soderbergh

On The Knick, we had a situation where Jack and Michael wrote a pilot script. They sketched out the universe pretty clearly in this first episode that they had written. The spine of it was all there. All the characters, the vibe, the language came pretty well-realized right out of the gate.

I don’t think any of us were worried about the premise being simple. It's a 1900s hospital in New York. As soon as you say those things to people, they go, "That’s interesting."

From there, it's finding the balance of respecting the pillars of that genre. There is a reason the doctor show is indestructible in terms of TV series. It’s a very durable genre. How do we pay respect to that but have some special sauce of our own? I wanted it to be up in your face but not pushing you around the room. Trying to find that balance of bluntness and beauty at the same time was really something I thought about.

Everybody Loves Raymond: "That's all I want. I just want the good version."

Everybody Loves Raymond
Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton starred in Everybody Loves Raymond.

Todd VanDerWerff

Are there other perennial TV genres you find interesting?

Steven Soderbergh

No, not really. I’ll watch anything if it seems intriguing to me. It just has to be good.

I remember one day being on a plane, and I’d never seen Everybody Loves Raymond. I ended up watching, like, three or four on the plane and was like, "That was really fun." If you're going to make one of those, this is the good version of that. That show was funny. Those actors were great, and the characters were really well-drawn. If you’re going to do a three-camera live show, that is the good version. That’s all I want. I just want the good version.

Todd VanDerWerff

Are you interested in that sort of production? It's been used a lot in live TV too.

Steven Soderbergh

That’s a very proscribed sort of format.

The fact that it’s been around for so long makes the degree of difficulty higher and higher every year that goes by. You have a show that manages to keep people happy over six, seven years. That’s an accomplishment. That’s a lot of material to generate.

Todd VanDerWerff

We talk about auteur TV like it's this new thing that just materialized in the past few years, but multi-camera comedies have had consistent directors for ages. James Burrows directed all but a handful of Cheers episodes. Is there some part of you that would enjoy the challenge of that?

Steven Soderbergh

Visually, in terms of what you can do with the camera, you’re really tethered to the fact that there’s three walls and the fourth one is the audience. You can’t do a ton.

There’s that really disturbing section of Natural Born Killers where they had that fake sitcom with the laugh track and Rodney Dangerfield. That was really scary. It’d be interesting to take that format and use it in that way. Use it for something that’s really not appropriate for that format. That would be kind of weird.

Todd VanDerWerff

Have you watched a lot of British television? British TV has a lot of the commonality of creative voices we're talking about.

Steven Soderbergh

Some. I was huge fan of The Thick of It, which was [Armando] Iannucci's version of what he brought over here [Veep]. There is this show W1A that airs in the UK that I love. That’s all been directed by one guy, but he only does, like, six half-hours a year, but it’s really funny.

There’s more in terms of authorship in the UK traditionally. There’s a little more of the completionist vibe.

Transparent: "What we're talking about is cutting patterns"

The opening shot of season two of Transparent lasts several minutes.

Todd VanDerWerff

Transparent is the show that a lot of people think of when they think about TV being influenced by independent films. Are you a fan of that show?

Steven Soderbergh

Exactly what I’m talking about. It’s so clearly Jill's [creator Jill Soloway]. This thing is spilling out of Jill's head right onto the screen.

I really liked Afternoon Delight [Soloway's previous film], so I wasn’t surprised when I saw the show. I continue to be impressed at how they keep finding layers to peel back and to deal with the subject in such a deft way.

Todd VanDerWerff

I think back to that three-and-a-half-minute shot that opens season two...

Steven Soderbergh

Amazing shot. You can only do that if you’re in control of the show. Otherwise someone’s going to go, "What are you doing?" But that was masterful. That was fantastic. It just kept going.

Todd VanDerWerff

People often conflate cinematic TV with any project where lots of money has been spent and the sets and costumes are opulent. But Transparent shows that it's often just about a unique visual aesthetic. What shows do you think are really cinematic on a smaller budget?

Steven Soderbergh

Breaking Bad was very good at that, and Mad Men. In terms of their approach to staging and coverage, they were much more in the film mode.

What we’re talking about is cutting patterns. The cutting patterns of TV need to evolve. There are some shows where the approach to cutting is much more cinematic than it is television — cutting on every line, three sizes of everything, and using all the shots as quickly as possible and rotating them. As opposed to taking a more sequential approach to the coverage and using the cutting patterns and the shots to create emphasis apart from the text. That’s really what we’re talking about. I’m hoping we’ll see more of an evolution in the way shows are cut.

Todd VanDerWerff

What shows do you think have good cutting?

Steven Soderbergh

Transparent is a good example. There’s not the typical editing patterns for a show. They do a good job of not only editing internally within scenes but structuring the rhythm of their episodes. It’s not all about which lines you’re cutting on or which lines you’re not cutting on. You’ve also got to look at the whole thing as a macro sequence and go, "We need to look at the transitions and how long this thing should be." If you only understand transitions, you can fake your way through a career.

On one of the Transparent episodes — the big dinner where everybody came over — they got out of it at just at the right point. At a certain point, the whole thing starts going sideways, and they do a hard time cut to everybody gone. That was really smart. It’s so much better when she cuts to everybody gone except for the two girls left.

Todd VanDerWerff

Some of this happens in The Girlfriend Experience, too, where time passes very strangely, especially between episodes. Why did you opt for that approach?

Steven Soderbergh

We shared an idea of laying out a narrative in such a way that people are chasing it a little bit. They’re having to back-fill stuff so you have to be like, "Oh, shit! Wait a minute. I’ve got now to restart how I feel about the couple of scenes I just saw."

As long as you can do that in a way that doesn’t become too frustrating and seems to be a legitimate part of design as opposed to incompetence, then I think people appreciate that. It’s very oblique in a way that’s approachable. Amy’s feature is full of that. That’s what really appealed to me about it.

Nobody’s telling you what’s going on. You figure it out by the way people are behaving or throwing away a line. I felt she’d be comfortable in that space of, "We don’t have to tell people everything just as long as it’s interesting." We don’t have to babysit people.

Mr. Robot: "They're creating a very feverish, disorienting experience by design"

Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot broke through as a much-buzzed-about hit in 2015.


Todd VanDerWerff

One show lots of people have noticed in terms of its visuals and filmmaking is Mr. Robot, which I know you're also a fan of. What do you like about that series?

Steven Soderbergh

That’s got a very cinematic approach to the shooting and the cutting. They have rules — we use these lenses; these are the rules of movement, or, in their case, non-movement. They’re creating a very feverish, disorienting experience by design. They’re doing a great job of putting you in [the main character's] head, and he’s [star Rami Malek] very good in it.

Todd VanDerWerff

Lots of people looked at Mr. Robot and knew something about it was different, but they couldn't quite articulate it. What's a good way to start thinking about these sorts of filmmaking questions beyond just how they make you feel?

Steven Soderbergh

It really comes down to how deeply people look into things and what they see. I’ll see somebody write about a film or a TV show in which it’s clear they really don’t know what they’re looking at in a literal sense, because they make no mention of something that to me is central to what I just looked at. They didn’t even see it.

It’s hard to gauge from a regular viewership standpoint how much people notice this. It affects them. They may not be able to articulate why something is creating a feeling in them. They don't say, "Oh, it’s because of the cutting patterns and the compositions." They can feel it.

The Girlfriend Experience airs Sundays at 8 pm Eastern on Starz. You can watch the entire 13-episode season on Starz Play.

Editor: Jen Trolio
Copy editor: Tanya Pai


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