Starz Orders ‘Girlfriend Experience’ Series From Steven Soderbergh, Philip Fleishman

Starz has given a 13-episode order to an anthology series from Steven Soderbergh and producer Philip Fleishman that is inspired by the helmer’s 2009 feature “The Girlfriend Experience.”

The Girlfriend Experience” will delve into the world of high-end escorts who provide not only sex but also companionship experiences for their clients. The half-hour series will revolve around a woman working as a “GFE,” as these services as known, as she encounters different clients and experiences.

Indie filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz will write all 13 installments and divide up the directing work on the segs. Soderbergh has known Kerrigan for years while Seimetz impressed him with her work as an actress and helmer in recent pics including 2013’s “Upstream Color.”

Soderbergh and Fleishman (right with Sodebergh) will exec produce. Deal with Starz marks a reunion for Starz chief Chris Albrecht and Soderbergh, who worked together more than a decade ago on the HBO series “K Street,” set in the world of Washington lobbyists.

“The Girlfriend Experience” also promises to be an ambitious departure from the more commercial fare that Albrecht has greenlighted during his tenure to date at Starz. Although Soderbergh is not planning to write or direct, the deal still marks another big commitment to TV production at a time when the Oscar-winning helmer is on a self-imposed break from directing features.

“Steven and Philip’s approach to the format is unique and not something seen on the entertainment landscape today,” Albrecht said. “Working with Steven is always a thrill, and we are excited to break the mold with this project yet again.”

Soderbergh and Fleishman go back decades, since Fleishman produced one of the helmer’s very first projects, a 1985 Yes concert pic. Fleishman met with Soderbergh a little more than a year ago to give him a safety copy of the long-lost Yes pic when the producer pitched the helmer on the idea of revisiting “Girlfriend Experience.”

Fleishman was intrigued by the world after meeting a woman who worked as a GFE to finance her education as she pursued her doctorage. The series aims to probe the larger question of the nature of relationships and how far removed the world of GFEs (some of whom command as much as $2,000 an hour) are from more traditional romantic relationships.

“This is show is about looking at the nature of transactions and relationships and how we define the boundaries in our relationships,” Fleishman told Variety.

When Fleishman pitched Soderbergh the idea, “I saw the potential for expansion of the world immediately,” Soderbergh told Variety. “We didn’t want to just remake the film. We were intrigued with the idea of going to a new location with a new character on a new trajectory.”

He emphasized that the show aims to counter the myth that all women who work as escorts, even when sex is part are the deal, are coerced into it or have suffered emotional damage.

“We’re hoping to up-end the traditional assumptions about these kind of relationships and the women who work as GFEs,” Soderbergh said. In researching the possibility of doing the TV series, “we realized how varied (the women’s) experiences really were,” Fleishman added. “There’s no stereotypical experience here.” Nor is it a job that is exclusively done by women, which is something the show may wind up tackling, Fleishman noted.

Soderbergh and Fleishman decided the series needed to incorporate male and female points of view in the writing and directing. The combo of Kerrigan and Seimetz was high on their wish list, and when Soderbergh reached out to Kerrigan, his friend happened to be busy directing Seimetz in an episode of AMC’s “The Killing.”

“I thought, ‘Well, this was meant to be,’ ” Soderbergh said.

Sasha Grey starred in the 2009 Magnolia Pictures release, but at present there are no plans to include her or the character she played in the series. Casting for the lead role will begin once Kerrigan and Seimetz have a few more scripts written. The plan is to begin filming around next March — in a location to be determined once Kerrigan and Seimetz decide where to set the series.

Soderbergh said he is finding his growing work in TV incredibly fulfilling. Last year he earned an Emmy for directing the HBO telepic “Behind the Candelabra.” And last fall he directed all 10 episodes of “The Knick,” a period drama that bows on Cinemax in August.

The helmer said he sees “Girlfriend Experience” as part and parcel of the new wave of auteur-driven television, a la HBO’s “True Detective.” The traditional control exerted by showrunners is enhanced as one or two writers and directors are responsible for delivering all episodes. The anthology form for “Girlfriend Experience” is a perfect fit, he said.

Although the single-vision series has gained steam in the past two years or so, Soderbergh credits David Chase with setting the template on “The Sopranos.”

“Any of us who are taking this approach to shows are building on what David Chase established 15 years ago,” he said. “It’s making sure that there is a consistent filmmaking grammar that is as much a part of the show as the authorial voice. It’s an exciting time to be working in television. There seem to be so many opportunities and outlets for telling stories, and the criteria for success is so much broader than the film business.”

Directing 10 hours of “The Knick” — set in a Gotham hospital in the early 1900s — was a workout that Soderbergh relished. “It was budgeted and boarded like a movie — 570 pages in 73 days is challenging but I fell very quickly into that rhythm. I think I’d find it difficult to go back to any other pace. Nine pages a day is the new normal.”

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