“A few months ago, my wife said, ‘Look at this Twitter from Sasha,’” said the director Steven Soderbergh recently while discussing his new film, The Girlfriend Experience, starring adult film star Sasha Grey. “It said, ‘I’m on my way to fuck so-and-so porn-star woman.’ I told her I think porn stars should be the only people that Twitter. Now that’s a good use of technology.”
The 46-year-old director, responsible for such seminal films as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, the Oceans franchise and the recent sprawling epic Che, laughed. “We continually have these fantasies that technology will solve whatever societal problem we have that every generation buys into. I just wish it was being used to solve the really big problems. You wonder if the ability of all the people in the Sudan to Twitter would finally tip the world into taking some significant action to stop genocide, then you’d think it was a good use of technology. If the ability to be in constant communication and the ability to connect to anybody anywhere in the world hasn’t resulted in the solving of a problem like that, than what is it for?”
The Girlfriend Experience reflects some of these anxieties, as well as others that come with living in the modern world. It follows Chelsea, a high-class call girl (Ms. Grey, in her mainstream film debut) for five days in the fall of 2008, during that tumultuous period before the presidential election, and before our economy really started to crumble. Chelsea lives with her devoted personal-trainer boyfriend (Chris Santos), and she makes enough money that she can breeze into any Soho shop and buy at will. (Take that, Pretty Woman!) But she’s ambitious; she wants to expand. Enter the Internet and all of its accessibility and sleaziness (look for an awesome cameo by former Premiere critic Glenn Kenny). “It’s changed the business a lot,” Mr. Soderbergh said of porn and the Web. “It enables them to work entirely on their own. There isn’t a fetish that exists that doesn’t have a site for people to surf.” But The Girlfriend Experience is also about money—where to get it, how to keep it and mostly how to spend it.
Mr. Soderbergh, who has been living in Chelsea (the neighborhood) since 2002 with his wife, Jules Asner, spent 16 days with a skeletal crew, a lightly written script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien and a cast of mainly unknowns (with the exception of Ms. Grey), who were given instructions to improvise. “It’s really fun, because you don’t know what you’re going to get with this kind of controlled improvisation. It’s like hands-free directing,” Mr. Soderbergh said. “You give them a goal and you give them some bullet points, other than that there are no real answers. You’ve hired them because they are close to the character they are portraying.” (Indeed, in one pivotal scene, Chelsea is interviewed by real life journalist Mark Jacobson.)
The Girlfriend Experience features a glamorous yet still kind of spookily sleek New York City, with lots of posh restaurants and pristine penthouses that all seem to hum and run on money and loneliness. “People have asked why I showed so many exteriors,” he said, getting up to pour himself a glass of orange juice and to gesture out the window at the streets below the office of Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing the film. “As a filmmaker there’s such an incredibly rich tradition of New York filmmaking so when you’re starting out, you feel a little anxious. Like, what are you going to do after Sidney Lumet or Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee? Like, what is your New York going to be?”
He clearly relished how fast the shoot was, and the ease of being able to dash anywhere with his crew and shoot so quickly and unobtrusively he could film hundreds of people crossing the sidewalk unaware (not so easy when you’ve got Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon on set, we’re guessing). “It’s tapping into the enthusiasm of the amateur,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen student films with more lights than what we used.”
Ms. Grey is a fascinating presence onscreen; where one would expect to see an actress emote, she’s mesmerizingly opaque. “People are interested in this movie because of her, not me,” said Mr. Soderbergh. “Believe me, we’re in awe of her status of porn diva. If I’d cast someone who had never been in front of a camera or a traditional actress, there wouldn’t be this kind of discussion.” He said he first became aware of her when he read about her in LA Magazine a few years ago. “She seemed like a new breed. I hadn’t heard anybody in that industry talk the way she talked. She was a mold-breaker and she’s only 21. She’s very ambitious and very, very, savvy. It will be interesting to watch people try and wrap their minds about what she does. Because she does very extreme stuff! It’s like … seriously extremely stuff.” (Go on, Google it if you don’t already know.)
The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and Mr. Soderbergh said that Grey Goose Vodka, which was set to sponsor the after-party, pulled out when they found it was Sasha who starred in the film. “Stolichnaya stepped in which is great but I was thinking, come on! Vodka and porn, that’s an American combination! I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “Our whole country is still confused about sex. It’s everywhere but people are still upset about it.” He pointed out the discrepancy between prostitution being illegal while women in the adult film business have sex for money, too – just in front of a camera. “It’s a larger question…are we ever going to have laws that are rooted in the way the world actually is and has been forever and will continue to be? It’s time to have laws for the way people act – not the way we want them to act.”
And, speaking of legislation, last month Mr. Soderbergh testified at a congressional hearing to discuss piracy and the movie industry. Che, he said, was “killed” in Latin and South America because it had opened earlier in Spain, which he said is the hub for piracy. “It’s a real problem,” he said. “It’s shocking. They don’t realize the amount of theft going on. When I testified I said, you have to understand that it’s the equivalent of an automaker saying that between the assembly line and car lot 25% of the cars were disappearing.” He sighed. “That’s what’s happening. Also, remember, that this is a good business. It generates like $13.5 billion a year, and it’s one of the things that America is still understood to be the best at.” He grinned “I’ve long since given up being embarrassed about working in the entertainment industry.”
The Girlfriend Experience is technically Mr. Soderbergh’s 20th film, though it’s the 19th film to be released; The Informant, starring Matt Damon will be in theaters this fall. Where does he find the time? “I work a lot because I like to work a lot,” he said. “It’s probably harder on my wife than anyone else. But she knows that’s sort of my metabolism. I won’t slow down—one day I’ll just stop. I’ll go out and do something else.” Like what? He grinned. “Maybe instead of whining I’ll get involved with some cause or activity that’s trying to improve somebody’s situation somewhere,” he said. “Instead of just looking at the paper and going, ‘Oh, God, that’s so sad.’”
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