It’s as much fun as you’re going to have in a movie theater this year.
We’ve come full circle watching movies turn into TV shows and vice versa. What used to be a one-way path of episodic directors taking on feature-length projects has become a cycle of filmmakers vying for TV gigs. Perhaps one of the most famous cases is that of Steven Soderbergh, who quit Hollywood for the small screen with “Behind the Candelabra” and “The Knick.” Now he’s recruiting younger indie film talent to follow in his footsteps with the TV remake of his 2009 movie, “The Girlfriend Experience.”
Enter Amy Seimetz, a former Floridian who burst onto the scene with a South by Southwest debut of her film “Sun Don’t Shine.” After working with Joe Swanberg, Shane Carruth and Adam Wingard, Seimetz can now add Soderbergh and her “The Girlfriend Experience” co-producer Lodge Kerrigan to her growing list of credits. After working on both sides of the camera to learn her craft, the 28-year-old filmmaker is taking her first stab at prestige TV on Showtime.
I spoke with Amy Seimetz at the Sundance Film Festival to discuss her foray into the TV landscape and how the newest “Girlfriend Experience” differs from the original.
Let me ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind, “How did you get involved with the project?”
Amy Seimetz: Soderbergh called me. He saw my film, “Sun Don’t Shine,” liked it and called to ask me if I wanted to direct a TV show. He thought “The Girlfriend Experience” would make a good television show. Since Soderbergh’s overtaking TV, he took two auteurs, one male and one female, to figure out what the television series would look like. He’s known Lodge [Kerrigan] for years. I had just met him because I was acting on “The Killing.”
At first, I was like, “I don’t know how to direct television.” He said, “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” Okay, if you want to take that gamble! In reality, I’m glad I didn’t get scared because I just didn’t know. I never thought I would want to do television. It’s a really fun format. We shot it like an independent film, so it didn’t feel any different.
Was there any difference between the two formats?
The only thing was when you’re writing. You’re writing for a specific arc within 30 pages. So that was the biggest challenge. Lodge and I come from an independent film world where we both write and direct our own stuff. In the writing, you know exactly how much writing you’re going to take with each thing. You’ve done the work writing it knowing you’re going to direct it. You’ve figured out how to spend your time. This page may take a second or it can take two minutes. In independent film, you kind of do the same thing anyway.
They [Showtime] were so hands off with us. No interference at all. Soderbergh had final cut, which meant we had final cut. The whole deal of the show was that they would give us an amount of money they felt comfortable with, which was very low, and let us do our thing. You’ll have a really cool product by these auteur filmmakers. If it doesn’t work out, you’re okay since you didn’t spend that much. So that’s what Soderbergh pitched them: we’re going to do this show, you’re going to let them do their thing and if it doesn’t work out, it’s pennies to you. They were thrilled with the product.
Can you talk about collaborating with Lodge Kerrigan on the show? You two seemed to share credits on every part of the production. You take turns directing too.
Yeah, we wrote everything together. It’s what Soderbergh likes to call “an arranged marriage.” There’s a great deal of mutual respect for each other, but we don’t agree on everything. I think that kept everything in check. It’s very hard to do, and I think since we had such respect for each other, we accommodated each other. You realize that this was a shared experience, and they were having the same exact emotion trying to get you to see it their way. We couldn’t stop ourselves from being like that. Going through that, learning each other’s behaviors, and learning what we would not budge on helped us to go into producing together pretty easy. Producing with him was much easier than writing.
We had the same vision in mind for the show and our goal was to make it as interesting and cheaply as possible. We were a unified front as directors and producers, which made that whole process much easier. It was easier to get ideas through.
You’ve collaborated quite a bit before “The Girlfriend Experience.” For the show, you brought back your “Sun Don’t Shine” star Kate Lyn Sheil, and I kept running into your name around Park City. You’re a part of this supportive film community that appears in each other’s projects. How was that established and how do you keep up participating in so many different works?
My fiancé and I don’t have a proper home. We just go wherever work is. It’s cheaper and I don’t own a lot of stuff, so it’s easy for me to just go wherever film is. Once I gave up my place, I could just essentially go and work with whomever for a period of time. I would just go and live wherever the film was. I ended collaborating with so many different people because I could work and get paid next to nothing but still exist because I was living cent to cent.
I lived in New York for a while, so I became friends with Lena Dunham, Alex Ross Perry, and Joe Swanberg. There’s so many people who talk about making stuff and there’s people who do stuff. It weeds everyone else out. You start to realize, “Oh, I know everyone who is making stuff.” You all eventually meet each other. There aren’t very many people who are actually doing stuff. There’s a lot more people who say they’re doing stuff. In independent film, there’s saying you’re working on something and being willing to suffer through. Not just financially, but how hard it is to your ego. “No one is listening, what the fuck am I doing here?” You need such a big ego to actually do it. You’re always self-doubting, but then you feel, “no, I’m right!” It’s a pendulum of emotions, and I’m not sure everyone can deal with that.
The group of people that can get through that, no matter how different their films are, we all have that sense of going to war together. It’s having this common experience. For a period of time, I loved going on to everyone’s set and act like a spy, see how they handle things. I love acting on other people’s sets, because then I see how they work. I learn how they run their set or tell their story, and I found that really fascinating. That’s what I learned with Joe Swanberg. This is so not how they tell you to make a film at all. I offered just to be around. If he comes back to New York, I offered to produce because I just want to see what he’s doing. Before “Sun Don’t Shine,” I was on a number of his sets, and the one thing I remembered is that he never looked stressed. Stress used to get me when I was younger. He said, “I just decided I’m not going to get stressed out.” And I told him that’s not human. He then said, “Well, if something’s making me stress out, I’m the director. I make it so that it doesn’t stress me out or I abandon it altogether.” You can’t do that with everything, but he found a way to make it so he could be so prolific.
Part of filmmaking is not just making choices and putting things in front of the camera. It’s also about removing things from the camera and removing obstacles that are stopping you from doing what you really want to do.
Back on your set, how did you develop the aesthetic of “The Girlfriend Experience?” It doesn’t look like Soderbergh’s film. It feels very much of its time right now not 2009.
We’re in different financial times, and it seems like it feels confusing. Everyone’s trying to grab a buck where they can. Everyone’s got a job but they’re real terrified that they’re going to lose that job because of what happened in 2008. For the look, we looked at a set of films for the way they were shot and for their simplicity of the editing and what’s in the frame. “All the President’s Men,” “The Conversation” and “Klute” were our top three examples of what we’re going for. Obviously, we weren’t trying to do a 1970’s retro, but it’s taking away the simplicity of the scenes and storytelling to be incredibly efficient about what shots you’re going to use. That’s what drove everything instead of this coverage in traditional television. Shot, reverse, wide, shot, reverse, wide. It was finding a unique way to tell the story so it’s not expository.
[Cinematographer] Steven Meizler is amazing. We didn’t shoot with lights, and he is so masterful on the RED Camera, he was able to pull so many beautiful colors and contrasts, and pointed the camera in such a way that we didn’t need lights. It looked so gorgeous the way it was already naturally lit.
We shot in Toronto, which I think add a lot to it. It’s supposed to take place in Chicago, but there’s really lovely anonymous quality to where we are. We know it’s metropolitan, and in the high-end rich world, it’s really anonymous and sterile with clean lines. Architecturally, it’s imposing but clean and blank. Toronto’s filled with that look. We did massive location scouting and had 75% of our locations locked before we went to picture because we had crossboarded the entire season. Lodge and I went on all the location scouts, so in seeing stuff we were able to discuss like “that corner’s no good, but that corner is.” It was a learn by doing process.
And then the performance you get out of your star, Riley Keough, is just astounding. It’s almost like she’s acting in a horror movie just not screaming.
When Lodge and I were shooting it, we realized we’re shooting a horror movie. It’s also pretty funny. It’s not comedy because it’s so deadpan, but I think some of the darkness and the comedy are coming from the same places. In this particular instance where it’s a woman choosing to do this on her own and no one’s forcing her to do it, I have judgement on that. Like any experience, it affects you in positive and negative ways. I know I can’t do this, but I know the most terrifying thing to me would be meeting a stranger when no one else knows I’m meeting them.
But it’s also one of the sexiest ideas ever. Like really fucking terrifying but also superhot, but both of those together give me crazy anxiety. Those two combined also create that kind of rush that a lot of these women are attracted to. It’s not just anonymous sex, here’s this stranger and no one knows I’m here. But what if he kills me? What if he opens the door and he’s the nicest guy, and you’re like “Oh my god, I’m safe.” You actually never know, and for me at least, I’d be paranoid the whole night even after the deed is done and I got the money. I’d be like, “He’s following me.”
When you let somebody in that intimately, whether it’s sexually or just spending time with them, you’re dealing with emotions. Emotions are scary. You don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re still strangers. That’s what it feels that way, like a rush of anxiety, to feel like a horror movie.