STARZ’s “The Girlfriend Experience” continues to evolve and push boundaries in its long-awaited third season, the first episode of which aired last night on the cable channel. Based on Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 indie of the same name that introduced a more involved, more high-end level of escort (who offers the more emotionally-involved “girlfriend experience”), “The Girlfriend Experience” series is an anthology show conceived of letting other filmmakers play within this sandbox and putting the ideas of transactional relationships into a new context.
Seasons 1 and 2 were created and directed by filmmakers Amy Seimetz (“She Dies Tomorrow“) and Lodge Kerrigan (“Clean, Shaven“), and their stories took the ‘GFE’ through the world of dark money politics, law firms, and witness protection programs. Season 3 flips the script again, and this time, the series was handed off to German filmmaker Anja Marquardt, known for her debut feature “She’s Lost Control” (2014), about a sexual surrogate whose professional intimacy with her male clients has begun to take over her personal life.
Created, directed, and written by Marquardt, Season 3 is a more international affair, is set in London, and sees the world of transactional relationships through the lens of big tech start-ups, artificial intelligence, and the ethical boundaries that get pushed and broken when Silicon Valley-like companies try and invade intimate spaces while trying to use predictive algorithms and A.I. technology to foresee what we desire. The series stars Julia Goldani Telles (known from “The Affair”) as Iris, an ambitious, hyper-intelligent, elusive, slightly arrogant neuroscience major, who drops out of a prestigious Ivy League school to join a tech start-up that is studying human behavior in the UK moonlighting as a GFE escort at night, while playing in her advanced research lab/ tech company by days, she quickly learns that her client sessions provide her with a compelling edge in the tech world and vice versa. But when lines start to blur, a dangerous edge starts to reveal itself.
We spoke to Marquardt shortly before the premiere aired and spoke to her about her bold show (read our review here), her intrepid choice of casting a relatively unknown star as the lead character, working with ship captain Steven Soderbergh and creating her captivating and enigmatic show.
How did you get involved?
It was a fascinating shift. When I got the call, I was working on screenplays and projects set in a very different world from the world of my feature film, “She Lost Control.” So, my head was in a very different space. I was getting my comprehensive full-on tech nerd research on, and then the call arrived. I suddenly had this wonderful opportunity to think about a potential season three for a franchise that I had been following and was a big fan of.
Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who are the creators, brought seasons one and two to the world. They’ve done such interesting, unique, and bold work on the show. And then the show itself is just so unique because it’s an anthology series. Still, it’s based on a Steven Soderbergh independent feature, and every season is entirely unique and character-driven.
All of that was just an amazing opportunity to play on a much bigger canvas than I had previously played on and to come back to the world of transactional relationships that I had loosely touched upon in my feature as well, and to come back to it, but come back to it with a different mindset. Time had passed. The world has changed dramatically, and I wanted to make sure I had something new to add to the palette, different colors and flavors to make it a worthy continuation of the franchise.
Was it the feature, “She Lost Control,” that got you the gig, essentially?
I ultimately found out that, yeah, it was the feature brought to Steven Soderbergh’s attention. I asked him, “How on earth did you find my tiny feature”? And he then just shrugged and explained that he asked Amy Seimetz for a list. “It was a pretty small list, and your name was on it.” It was 2017. I was very innocent. I have no idea that any of this would happen. And it was an interesting time of transition. Like I said, I was working on all this other stuff. So it took me a moment to be like, “Wait, hold on. What, what is that going to mean for my life?” But then obviously, upon second thought, there was only one answer for me that I could have possibly given, and it was a resounding yes. I was a massive admirer of [Soderbergh’s] work. I’ve seen “The Limey” a dozen times, at least. So, it was, it was off to the races from there on out, and it took a while for it to find its footing.
I was going to ask. Starz announced in 2017 that ‘GFE’ was getting renewed, but here we are in 2021, and it’s just airing now. What took so long?
The network went through some changes, STARZ got bought by Lionsgate, and it took a while for it to land where it did. STARZ came to the table at some point saying, “we think that should take place in London; let’s make this more international.” Let’s think about it from a global perspective, and personally, I was thrilled to embrace that because I was born in Berlin. I like to think of stories as having a global impact. Steven basically gave me one direction with it, and that was, “be bold; take it as far as you can.”
So, I felt like I was given a long leash in the sense that there was a possibility to make it more future-facing. I really imagine the evolution of going down this rabbit hole, allowing tech into our most intimate interactions. Then if we think that through, it’ll go down a very interesting, complicated, and insidious path. And so why not? Why not push it to the very extreme. Still, everything you will find in the show, in one way or another, is kind of in RND research and development; it’s, nothing is entirely unimaginably far off.
So, what’s Steven Soderbergh’s involvement with it then?
He’s the first pair of eyes on the scripts and the cuts. He’s the franchise captain and has a particular take on the bigger bird’s eye questions, like how to shape the tone of it all. I was given a tremendous amount of creative freedom to go with my gut and make it happen, and I’m incredibly grateful to have found myself in this luxurious world where I get to flex my muscles on a bigger canvas. At the same time, this, ultra, specific feedback—like get editing feedback from Steven Soderbergh is a pretty rad position to find oneself in.