BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Journalists gathered at the Four Seasons hotel Thursday morning to attend a press junket for The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh's new indie feature starring Sasha Grey.
The Magnolia Pictures release stars Grey as a high-priced Manhattan escort in what the studio describes as “a drama about the fraught relationship between our professional lives and our personal lives in the age of post-crisis capitalism.” The movie is available for download, streaming and on-demand cable viewing in advance of its limited theatrical play.
Soderbergh shot The Girlfriend Experience as part of a six-picture deal with producer Mark Cuban's 2929 Films. He first became aware of Grey when co-writer Brian Koppelman called his attention to a summer 2006 article on the porn actress in Los Angeles magazine.
“The way she talked about herself and her reasons for getting into the adult industry, the way that she planned to navigate the adult industry, didn't seem typical to me,” Soderbergh said. “She had a plan, and I had never heard anybody in that business talk about having a plan. There were similarities to escorts who work at this [high-end] level, and I guess in my mind those two things connected. The escorts that we interviewed are similar [to Sasha] in the sense that they all had plans; they all had another business that they were working in at the same time, they all talked about how much money they'd put away, what they planned to do with that money, and how much longer they planned to do this. Again, that's not typical in the sex work industry, somebody that's taking a macro-view of the business and using it very deliberately as a means to get somewhere else.”
Soderbergh met with Grey for 45 minutes at his Warner Brothers office and was immediately impressed by her self-confidence. He quickly cast her in the lead role of Chelsea.
“I wanted someone who was going to feel in control, in command and comfortable in sexual situations; I think that's hard to fake,” he said. “The best example that I can give is the last scene in the film, with the jeweler; her affect as she's waiting for him to get undressed. She seems totally at peace, she's not in a hurry, she's right where she wants to be. There was something about he look on her face that i found really interesting when we were doing that. It comes from being in a lot of situations where you're in control. She's obviously fearless; I didn't ask her to do anything extreme, but at least I knew in the back of my mind that there probably wasn't anything I could think of that she would go, 'No, I'm not doing that.'”
While the original outline of the script called for three sex scenes featuring Chelsea, Soderbergh decided to leave the physical act out of the equation as the movie took shape.
“I didn't care which way it went, but it became apparent early to me that the sex act itself is irrelevant,” Soderbergh said. “If you want to compare different lives, the first thing you have to do is eliminate what's common to all of them. The sex act is something that's common to the GFE, the mid-level person who works through an agency, and the person that's working the street. Sex is identical in all those situations - what's not identical is everything else. So what's left is this the fantasy that you are in an actual relationship, that this is 'real'...and what does that mean, exactly?”
Aside from some brief nudity, The Girlfriend Experience is cold and sexless. When asked why he was compelled to make the film, Soderbergh said, “That's a question that I should learn how to answer better. 'Why did you want to make this film?' really is akin to asking, 'Why do you like this person?' I don't have any rules about what I'll make, or what I won't make, and I try to be open to anything that will engage me. I'm sure there must be some through-line to these things, but fortunately, I don't have to figure out what it is. In this case, I think it was just an opportunity to explore some ideas about how we define pleasure, about transactions. The idea of money is really interesting to me; who was the first person to figure out that you can ascribe value to something like a piece of zinc, or gold, or a diamond? The whole thing is very odd to me, and I'm fascinated that somebody came up with it. So this was an opportunity to play with ideas about value. How do we ascribe value to certain things? And, in this case, why does kissing require an incredible surcharge in the sex industry? That's the thing that the GFE offers - you're paying top dollar to be able to make out.”
In keeping with that theme, much of the movie's 77-minute running time is spent on a series of negotiations and transactions. In between trysts with her upscale clientele, Chelsea haggles for a pre-paid cell phone at an overpriced electronics store, bargains with a Web developer, and trades sex for a favorable review from a sleazy online escort “hobbyist”. Played by former Premiere editor Glenn Kenny in a memorably creepy performance, the character resembles real-life criminal David Elms of TheEroticReview.com.
“We interviewed eight escorts in the spring of 2008, and we did another round of interviews right before shooting,” Soderbergh said. “The character of the hobbyist is something that came up in this last round of interviews. Even in the two-and-a-half years since we had worked on the story, that issue had become bigger for [escorts]. They felt like these people that run these sites and write these reviews were becoming a problem for them. They were being blackmailed in a way; if they didn't cooperate, these guys would figure out a way to get their reviews to skew in a certain direction. It turned out to be an interesting thing to use to puncture [Chelsea's] armor a little bit.”
Since the movie was shot as the economy crashed in the weeks leading up to the Presidential election, Soderbergh encouraged his cast to improvise around current events.
“Most of the men that use these kinds of escorts are in the financial business, because they have this kind of money to spare," the director said. “The johns in the film, almost to a person, work in the industries that [their characters] work in within the world of the film. I would just turn them loose. So far, all of the six films that I'm supposed to do under this deal are planned to be done in this way, where you write a story and detail the outline, then cast real people and use these controlled improvisations. I'm trying to get at something that's entertaining, but that feels a little more lifelike.”
After Soderbergh spoke, Grey answered questions about the movie alongside first-time actor Chris Santos, who plays Chelsea's boyfriend.
“For me, it was a struggle of trying to create a character with a limited amount of information,” Grey said. “Steven is like a mad genius; he's so methodical about what he does. You can see the wheels spinning inside of his head on set. I'd try to prepare, but it was a surprise every day on set.”
“They would give us as little information as possible,” Santos said. “There was a skeleton [of a script], but they knew a lot more than we knew. I was playing CIA agent on the set all day. It was very stressful.”
Like all of the characters in the movie, Chris grapples with financial anxieties. The relationship between Chris and Chelsea has its own economy of favors; one of the heaviest scenes in the movie is a fight between the couple in which those emotional negotiations collapse.
“My character was driven by one thing: to save this girl,” Santos said. “Not because she's making more money than me and I'm insecure; the idea is that I'm going to make so much money that she's not going to have to do this [escorting] any more. But you don't go into a relationship to save people; you go into a relationship to be in love. I knew Steven was going to continually put me into this Death of a Salesman [scenario] where everyone's going to say no to me.”
Grey was asked repeatedly about the “mainstream crossover” hype surrounding her role in the movie. The 2008 AVN Female Performer of the Year told reporters that she does not intend to leave the X-rated business any time soon.
"Right now, I'm going to do both [mainstream and porn]," Grey said. "I think it's unprecedented that a woman from the adult industry has been able to really juggle both acts at the same time, and play a non-eponymous character in more than one film. I think the climate's right, and I think that if people enjoy what I do outside of adult films, there is room for growth and there is room for opportunity. I'm locked to shoot a film in August; I have the lead role - and I don't play a sex worker. I have two other scripts that I was just offered; they're in the very beginning stages. Again, they're both very challenging, different roles which I'm very excited about, because that's the next obvious evolutionary step. I enjoy the challenges of people saying no to me and me proving people wrong. That's just my natural personality."
Grey handled herself well, even when the "crossover" questions grew redundant.
"I don't think I'll be cast as Zac Efron's girlfriend in his next movie," she laughed. "You know, I'm not going to be in a teen movie, and I'm okay with that. I go back to the fact that there's very few women to do both [porn and mainstream film] at the same time. They usually quit and say, 'I'm a redeemed sinner, it's okay that I hate porn now, you can all accept me!'...and I think that's bullshit."
Next week, Grey begins directing her first porn film. Titled The F@%k Junkie, the movie will be released through her new Grey Art label. She also hopes to write and direct indie films... and Soderbergh sees great potential there.
"Sasha has a lot of different interests and she's ambitious, and she's had a lot of obviously unusual experiences," Soderbergh said. "I know she wants to make films, and it's going to be interesting to see what she ends up making with all of these influences and all of these experiences. It could be something unlike anything you've seen. I don't know; she's only 21!"
AVN asked the Academy Award-winnig director if he sees a fundamental difference between escorting and any other line of work; does capitalism make whores of us all?
“It depends how you define whore, and how you define capitalism,” Soderbergh said. “Do I see a difference between what I do at Warner Brothers and what Chelsea does? No.”