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Tribeca Talks: The Girlfriend Experience

At last night's panel discussion following The Girlfriend Experience, director Steven Soderbergh and star Sasha Grey told us how to capture a collapsing economy on film.

Steven Soderbergh

Wednesday night's screening of Steven Soderbergh's latest, The Girlfriend Experience, was one of the most packed events at TFF '09 thus far. Theater 2 of the SVA Theater was overflowing as the screening got underway, with extra chairs having been added to every space imaginable. The excitement over Soderbergh's latest is hardly shocking: going from enormous Hollywood pictures (Ocean's Eleven) to micro-indie productions (Bubble), as well as canvassing the territory in-between (Che), Soderbergh has proven himself to be one of the most singular filmmakers working today.

The Girlfriend Experience
is Soderbergh's latest foray into said micro-indie world, having been made with a cast mainly comprised of amateurs, including 21 year-old star Sasha Grey (an adult-film actress), and shot on digital for cheap. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the director's penchant for experimentation, but there's no question that The Girlfriend Experience actually does stand out as one of Soderbergh's best films thus far. The fragmented tale, set in October 2008, deals alternately and equally with a high-class call girl, her trainer boyfriend, and the economic woes plaguing Wall Street at the time. By raising questions involving desire, fantasy vs. reality, and transactional expectations, Soderbergh has been able to make an extremely intelligent film. On hand after the screening were the director, stars Grey and Chris Santos, and discussion moderator Caryn James, film critic for Marie-Claire.

James' opening question was one that was surely on everyone's minds. "Why," James asked, "in a film about a prostitute, would you decide to not show any sex scenes? Were you deliberately trying to undermine the audience's expectations?" "I didn't go into it thinking about their expectations," Soderbergh explained. "If you look at this world of sex work, you see that there are different strata. On one level, you have prostitutes on the street. On Chelsea's [the protagonist] level, there is an attempt to have the feelings of a real relationship. You need to remove the common act so that you can show how this level is different from the other strata, so you can focus on what makes this different, not how it's the same." It was a response that made perfect sense, and James quipped, "I knew you'd have a good answer."

Grey and Santos both explained that they were initially contacted via Soderbergh's frequent collaborators, screenwriters Brian Koppleman and David Levien, and then met with the director. Grey said, "I got a MySpace message from one of the writers, but I didn't think it was for real, so Steven left me a voice mail. At the time, I had only been working in adult films for eight months. I wasn't looking for roles in mainstream films."

According to Santos, "I had been working as [writer] Dave Levien's trainer for ten years, and he told me to expect to meet with Steven about this role. But I didn't get a call for a year. Eventually, Steven and I had dinner, and he told me I was the guy."

"When working with non-actors," the director said, "you're looking for people who are game, who fit the shape of the character. I need the actors to not be inhibited."

"Steven would wait until the last possible second to tell us what to talk about in the scene," Santos added. "Some scenes were easy, and others were like, oh God, help me."

His leading lady chimed in: "The only thing that really transferred over for me was being comfortable in front of the camera. That was it."

And when it came to the casting coup of the film, why Soderbergh wanted Grey for the role, he said, "I wanted Sasha for the role because I wanted someone who feels in command in sexual situations. She looks so Zen during those scenes, she's in complete control. It's great, because when you use actors who are not professionals, you get people who are very present, who aren't thinking about results."

Soderbergh and his actors may not have been thinking about results, but they certainly got them. The film is definitely a must-see.

The Girlfriend Experience
screens on Saturday. Rush Tickets are available, and additional tickets may be released.

Fun fact: in an interview to come on the site, Grey cited director Catherine Breillat as the "woman whose career she'd want to have."


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