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Series Mania: Amy Seimetz on Co-Directing Starz’s ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ with Lodge Kerrigan

Seimetz: ‘It was an experiment in a lot of different ways…’

Amy Seimetz, co-directing The Girlfriend Experience
Courtesy of Amy Seimetz

PARIS — Until recently, Amy Seimetz was one of the indie world’s best-kept secrets, an actor, writer and director who is rarely recognized even by fans of her eclectic screen appearances, which include the 2010 survival horror “A Horrible Way To Die” and a key role in Shane Carruth’s 2013 trippy cult Sundance hit “Upstream Color.” Significantly, Seimetz was unable to attend the Paris premiere of her first major U.S. TV series “The Girlfriend Experience” as she is currently in Sydney, shooting a role in Ridley Scott’s highly-anticipated “Prometheus” sequel “Alien: Covenant.”

Seimetz also has a supporting role on the show, which is currently airing on U.S. television and stars Riley Keough as a law student intern who leads a double life as a high-end escort. But the Steven Soderbergh-produced series, a spin-off from his 2009 film of the same name, is primarily a showcase for Seimetz’s directing talents, as evidenced by her acclaimed 2012 feature “Sun Don’t Shine,” about a couple on a mysterious road trip. As she explains here, it was this film that inspired Soderbergh to pair her up with indie movie luminary Lodge Kerrigan for Starz’s 13-part series.

Variety: How did you get involved with “The Girlfriend Experience”?

Steven Soderbergh had met Shane Carruth, then he saw his film “Upstream Color.” Shane suggested he also watch my film, “Sun Don’t Shine,” and he did – that night. Within a week, he’d asked Shane for my number, then he called me and asked if I wanted to participate in creating the show with Lodge Kerrigan, whom I’d only recently met. I was acting in [AMC series] “The Killing,” and Lodge had directed a few episodes. Which was a complete coincidence. I’d never directed television before, and I told him that, just so he knew. As a precursor, before I jumped on. And he said, “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.”

So you didn’t know either Soderbergh or Kerrigan? Seimetz: Aside from knowing their work, no. It was an experiment in a lot of different ways – pairing two filmmakers who are independently minded and saying to them: “Make this show together.”

How did you feel about that?  

Seimetz: As an actress I really enjoy the collaborative entire of filmmaking, but as a writer-director that was always my world to control. So it was a learning curve. I’ve never wanted to be part of a writers’ room, just because, for me personally, I think that when you’re writing something you have to fall in love with whatever you’re writing in order to get something on the page. That whole process, individually, is just so hard. And part of the individuality of filmmaking comes from those moments that people will tell you are either wrong, or too weird, or seem off, or seem like tangents – that’s what makes for an individualized vision, in a way. Luckily, Lodge and agreed on that, and Steven encouraged it, so we wrote the series together. Which was not just a process of mining the material but also a matter of getting to know each other, how we direct and what we think is interesting. All scripts are essentially blueprints, so when we were directing we both allowed each other to have our own creative freedom in each episode we directed. So when Lodge was directing, I didn’t go on set and say: “It has to be the way we discussed!” – and he did the same for me. We found a way to be individual, within this construct.

How important was Soderbergh’s original film?

Semetz: I’d seen the movie and I watched it again, but he basically said, “Here, take the title, run with it and do what you want.” It was more that he wanted it to be in the spirit of that movie, because the original was made with a very small crew. It was a very nimble production, so they could jump around. It was all location-based and very naturalistic. I guess the spirit of it was very independent, in a production sense. A lot of TV productions are very bloated, in terms of what they think they need to make a show, but Steven really wanted us to keep things nimble and cost-efficient. You get a lot of freedom with that – with a smaller crew you can move faster and get into certain locations that are smaller and much more realistic. And in addition to that, we also didn’t use any lights. Certain things we had to light, but not much, and that was part of it too – having a small camera package. Steven basically wanted Lodge and me to do what we already know how to do, which is treat it like an independent film.

How much research did you do?

Seimetz: We definitely met with a lot of ‘providers,’ or talked with a lot of women who would call themselves ‘GFE’ – The Girlfriend Experience. It’s a service, essentially. It’s kind of like a menu item. It doesn’t mean that women are ‘only’ GFE, but they can provide it if you want that. We just wanted to hear their stories and understand why they do it. There’s a mystery to women that do this. Societally, we either condemn them or are fascinated by them. And what we found is that, like any profession, each woman was completely different, to feed the various needs and wants of the men that hire them. It was more to get us grounded in that world. We didn’t want to base it on one specific woman, we wanted to create a character that embodies a world.

What was the writing process like?

Seimetz: All writing is essentially making you sit your ass down – the bottom line is: It’s work. Sometimes you can sit down and write in a flurry, but most of the time it’s just making sure you sit down and dedicate yourself to writing words and thinking about the topic. But Lodge and I outlined the whole thing, beat by beat. We knew exactly what was going to happen over the entire season, and then we got into it and broke down what was going to happen in each episode. So we knew everything. We didn’t write individual scripts until we knew what the whole story arc was going to be.

Are you at all similar in your writing methods?

Seimetz: It was interesting, because I’m a huge re-writer. Otherwise, if I intimidated myself into trying to make everything perfect when I first write it down, I would go insane. So I’ll write, like, seven pages – and maybe two will be good. I just edit, edit, edit. Whereas Lodge is the other way – it has to be perfect. So there was a really interesting dynamic there – two different writing styles. I would go away and write some pages on my own, and Lodge would write some pages on his own, then we’d get together and talk about what we liked about each other’s pages, then we’d take passes at each other’s pages. That way, I wasn’t forcing him to write the way I write – and vice versa.

How did you decide who would direct which episodes?

Seimetz: We laid down some rules early on, so that the directors would alternate and break up the rhythm. We did it knowing that if someone were to direct six in a row they would have so much control over setting the tone, and it would lock the other filmmaker into following that tone – it wouldn’t give them enough freedom. We tried to balance out before we even knew who was going to do what, so both of us had a say in the way that the show evolved, aesthetically. And then we flipped a coin to see who got what!

So it was random decision?

Amy Seimetz: Filmmaking in general is a process of eliminating things that get in your own way, and I feel like that was the first step. We said, “OK, we both know what our favorite episodes are, and unfortunately we’re never going to be able to decide between us because we both know there are certain episodes with stronger writing.” So it was just fair to do it that way. We approached every situation like that. It was a way to solve arguments – because there are lots of them! Not because it’s anyone’s fault, we’re just very opinionated in our own ways, and very persuasive in our own ways, we knew that we had to come up with a system to solve matters in a diplomatic, fair way. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had a show.

The show comprises 13 half-hour episodes – that’s nearly seven hours of material. We were you ever daunted?

Seimetz: What was amazing was, no one was telling me to direct it like television – I was just doing whatever I wanted. There was no point when anyone stepped in and said, “You can’t do it that way.” It still seems very surreal that it even occurred, let alone that I’m done with it. And then on top of that, to be so removed from it as it’s being released is a very surreal experience, having worked so hard on it and been so intimate with it. So now it feels really dreamlike and I’m wondering if it actually happened. But I guess I fell in love with the format. Because each episode can be its own thing. It can be its own world, but it’s all feeding into this bigger narrative. That I found really fun and fascinating. You can’t really get away with that in independent film, because you have to stick to this hour and a half format, whereas in TV you have so much space to explore all these different tangents in somebody’s life. I fell in love with that format, in a craft sense.