‘The Girlfriend Experience’: Steven Soderbergh and Riley Keough on Turning the Film into a TV Series

Riley Keough Steven Soderbergh
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

Beyond the title, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which debuts on Starz on April 10, bears little in common with the 2009 indie movie of the same name. But that’s by design, says executive producer Steven Soderbergh. His intention in turning the film into a TV series was to give writer-directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz the creative freedom to explore their own stories.

Riley Keough stars as Christine Reade, a young law student who gets drawn into the world of “transactional relationships” — essentially getting paid for sex. “In the film, you’re parachuted into this girl’s life — this is her job, this is what she’s doing,” says Soderbergh, who calls the TV show more of an origin story. “Here was an opportunity to watch somebody fall into this.”

“What’s interesting is when you see where it ends up,” says Soderbergh. “I think the show is very successful in what we were all hoping to accomplish.”

Here, Soderbergh — along with Keough — tells Variety about the challenges of adapting the series, their inhibitions (or lack thereof) in filming, and why he’s found creative freedom in television.

Tell me about the decision to make this project. Why did you decide to adapt it from the film?

Soderbergh: Philip Fleishman, who I knew because I made this concert film with him 30 years ago, was coming through New York. We were just talking and he said, “I think ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is a really great format for a TV show.” I said, “God, yeah. You’re right. Why don’t we work on that?” That’s how it started. I never would have thought of it.

What changes did you bring to it?

Soderbergh: Immediately, we discussed a new character, new place. We’re essentially going to take the title and the world and change everything else up. Then I proposed, “Why don’t we pair up two writer-directors and let them do an indie TV show?” I knew Lodge, because I produced one of his movies. I knew Amy because I was friends with Shane Carruth (who collaborated with Seimetz on “Upstream Color” and “We’ll Find Something”). I called them and they both said yes. Then we took it to (Starz CEO) Chris (Albrecht) and he said, “Let’s do it.” It all happened really fast.

Why did you bring it to Starz?

Soderbergh: I think because of my relationship with Chris. I knew we’d have the freedom to turn this over to the filmmakers and literally let them do what they wanted to do. I think when you see the show, you can feel that it’s a director-controlled show. It didn’t go through any sort of committee process. It’s a very specific thing that Lodge and Amy are doing. I needed somebody who was basically going to have faith in me and in Lodge and Amy to do this in a way that was going to be distinctive and not be afraid of that.

Why did you choose Riley as the star?

Soderbergh: We just had an amazing experience on “Magic Mike.” It’s one of those things, in my case, if you work with someone and if you had a good experience, they go on this mental list that you have like, “That was fun, I like that person.” They become part of this repertoire in your mind, and so when this came up I said to Lodge and Amy, “Sit down with her.” We’d only worked together three days or something.

Keough: I was hanging out a lot.

Soderbergh: I had a very strong sensation of there’s a lot more here than the construct of this movie allows for. That was just my sense. It’s very clear to me like, “Oh, she could carry the whole movie.” I don’t even know how many scenes you’re not in in ‘GFE.”

Keough: I think there’s two or three.

Soderbergh: I knew what the demands of that were going to be in terms of just performance and I really felt like “she can do that. She can carry that.” So I just proposed her to Lodge and then I said, “You should sit down with her.”

Riley, how was that first meeting?

Keough: It was good. They’re both really quiet. We all got along really well and all have the same ideas about everything which was important with this kind of subject matter. Then we all kind of left like, “Cool, let’s do it.”

What were some of those ideas?

Keough: Telling the story and having a nonjudgmental point of view and not having an opinion on the job (of being the girlfriend). We had our style, and the things we like were the same in filmmaking or aesthetics. We’re similar in things we like and don’t like.

Did you have any inhibitions about the role?

Keough: I didn’t want it to be just a sex show, but I’d talked to Steven about that early on and I don’t think that was anyone’s intention really, because they’re not stupid.

Soderbergh: That was the thing. I think what Lodge and Amy really nailed was you feel like you’re kind of spying on her. The approach of the show was you feel you’re sort of eavesdropping because there isn’t any sort of editorializing in the filmmaking. You just feel like you’re spying on this girl for 13 episodes. I find it really compelling, the style of it and the fact that it’s not grabbing you by the neck and saying, “You should be thinking this. You should be feeling this.” It leaves you a lot of room to think about, “Wow, am I okay with this? What do I think of her? What’s going on with her?” You find out what she’s thinking by how she behaves, not by what she says. That’s an interesting way to present something. A lot of times, you can find yourself in a situation which the people paying for whatever you’re making are saying, “We need to know what she’s feeling here.” We never had those conversations. What we are hoping for is that she never is explained. It never becomes reductive, “If she’s doing this, it’s because she was raised like that.” We didn’t want to get into that.

What feedback did you get from Starz?

Soderbergh: I can tell you this. We turned all the episodes over to Chris and he called me at home on a Sunday afternoon. He said, “I just binged all 13 episodes. It’s great. We don’t have any notes. Finish it.” That was gratifying, because I felt the same way and was hoping he would see what I was seeing.

Riley, how involved were you in the creative process? Were you exchanging notes as well?

Keough: I wasn’t involved in the writing, but I definitely started talking to Amy a lot about the character a few months prior. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted, which is cool. They just let me do my own version of it. I told them going into it, “I’m not going to play like a lawyer sex girl.”

Soderbergh: Yeah, you don’t want it to come off like one of those fake teaser trailers they do on “SNL” for a show that doesn’t exist.

Keough: Yeah, “Sexy Lawyer.”

Soderbergh: We were all very conscious of wanting to ground her. To make it feel like she’s somebody you would pass in a lobby of a building going to work. We talked about this idea of, she’s not doing this because she’s broken. That’s the typical approach is like, “Well, something had happened to her, that’s why.”

Will we ever find out why she is doing this?

Soderbergh: Not really. I don’t know if everybody else walks around feeling very confident in what other people are thinking, I’m sure not. Other people are a complete mystery to me. I told my daughter when she reached dating age, “If you want to know what’s going on, turn the sound off and just analyze how he’s acting. Like what he does, not what he says if you want to know what’s happening.” She said, “Oh okay, that makes sense.” That’s my only way, is watching how people behave instead of listening to what they say. Nobody knows what’s going on.

Certainly, nobody knows what’s going on in a marriage except the two people in it. There’s all this Bill and Hillary stuff going on now. Donald Trump can be like, “How can she stay with Bill? What kind of woman is she that she stays with her husband after all this happened?” That’s her call, dude. It’s not your problem. It has nothing to do with anything else. But he’s dragging that into the conversation, but we don’t know. We don’t know what their conversation is about this stuff and it’s really not my business. I don’t know what’s going on in his marriage, either. Being comfortable with that idea that other people are kind of a mystery is … I think TV now is a place where people can accept that. If you did it in a movie, people would be angry.

Riley, do you have to answer that question at all for yourself or are you comfortable with the mystery of it all?

Keough: I think for myself, if I’m going to play a character, I have to understand why they would do things, definitely, but I like when you watch the show, it doesn’t sway you to any sort of opinion. I’m not saying if she’s bad or good or right or wrong and you just hopefully go away with it either hating her, understanding her or something. I think that’s up to the viewer, and I think that we accomplished that really well.

How do you think audiences are going to respond to her?

Keough: I think it will be mixed. She’s definitely not your average, likable, sweet female character. She makes a lot of choices that people would consider to be wrong or inappropriate. I like her. I think she’s funny.

Steven, what do you think of her?

Soderbergh: Yeah, she’s everything that she described. She’s inscrutable in a lot of ways, but also extremely direct. She’s this weird combination of directness and opacity. That was really fun to watch. I felt like it’s a sign of a secure actor when they are comfortable doing nothing. Or being in a scene and not worrying about “where’s the end zone here?” This thing like, “Do I win this scene?” You just feel like you’re just watching someone and this is how they behave when they’re not being watched. I think people will find it interesting. Certainly different. A half-hour drama is a really unusual format. We really felt like that was the perfect format for this. We talked about we’d rather have a dense half hour than a languid hour. There’s a lot packed into these 25 minute episodes.

You seem to have been thriving creatively in the world of television.

Soderbergh: I’m enjoying it a lot. It doesn’t feel fear-based. It feels like the people that you’re working with are saying, “Hey, be bold. Make something bold.” In a subscription model, you’re selling buzz, really. Their whole thing is “make something that people are going to talk about.” It’s not “make the character likable.” Or “put it in this box.” It’s just “make something that’s going to cut through the clutter, that people are going to want to talk about.” That’s just not the conversation that you have in the movie business anymore.

Are you creating projects and taking them to networks or are networks coming to you and asking for projects?

Soderbergh: It’s been mostly me going to them so far. But I tend to have a couple of irons in the freezer as I say. There’s always something going out somewhere. I’m doing something for HBO, a super secret thing.

We’ve heard a bit about “Mosaic.” How’s that going?

Soderbergh: We shot in Park City. There’s an on-season, off-season component to the story and there’s this whole idea that the town just empties out during the off season and it’s really true.

Does the audience figure into the storytelling as has been reported?

Soderbergh: In some way, yes. Some way. It’s not a passive viewing experience. Let’s put it that way. You’ll see it a year from now, but I’m excited. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while in the background and it finally all came together. We’ll see. If it works, it’s a nice new tool, but it’s very much an experiment. I’m assuming it’s going to work.

If this works, can you see it going a second season?

Soderbergh (to Keough): What are we supposed to say?

Keough: From my point of view, it would be silly to continue on with Christine’s story, but I know that Chris was talking about potentially if there’s a second season telling different stories every season.

Do you have other projects in the works for Starz?

Soderbergh: We’re trying to figure out what else to do. I’d want to take advantage of their willingness to be adventurous. There’s one thing Chris and I have been talking about for a while. It’s a larger scale thing that I’ve been working on that I’m having rewritten right now. It’s pretty weird. It’s a comedy, but it’s pretty strange, but I’ve described it to him and he’s like, “Let me know when you’re ready.”

Keough: Maybe I’ll be in that show.

Soderbergh: It’s an adaptation of a book that I’ve owned the rights to for a long time. For a while, I was trying to do it with film and failing and finally four, five years ago, I thought, “Why am I not doing this as a 10 hour thing? It’s 700 pages, why am I trying to jam eight pounds of sausage into a two pound bag?” That’s what in the background I’ve been working on.

What’s the book?

Soderbergh: I don’t want to jinx it. It’s called the The Sot-Weed Factor. It’s by John Barth. It was published in late ‘50s. Sort of an epic, comic novel, but weird. It’s a weird one. What I end up saying to Chris is, “Okay, tell me the number at which no matter how strange the show is, you won’t lose money.” That’s sort of where we are. Then he tells me the number. And I say, “Okay, just give me a little bit more than that.” I feel like that’s sort of the real agreement that you’re making which is, if I’m responsible about the business side of this, then you let me do whatever I want to do. I think that’s a very relevant conversation to have. How weird can it be that you still won’t lose money? To be continued.

“The Girlfriend Experience” premieres Sunday, April 10 on Starz.