Steven Soderbergh has had what some would call a bipolar career, starting off with his widely acknowledged indie Sex, Lies and Videotape and ending up somewhere around Ocean’s 13 (a three-quel, not a thirteen-quel, thankfully), by way of Erin Brokovich. But even with his mainstream films, Soderbergh has burned the candle at both ends, continuing to make his farcically commercial vehicles while releasing camp, kitsch and craziness like the pastiche film The Good German or the crazy micro-budget Bubble.
The latter film is the result of his partnership with HDNet Films and producer Mark Cuban, shooting on the vaunted RED-One camera, a digital device with the quality of film, and casting mostly non-professional actors as largely versions of themselves for a heady experience that usually involves two-weeks-or-so of shooting and simultaneous video-on-demand releasing. This model, which he used previously for Bubble and his political-epic Che (a selection of the New York Film Festival 2008), is turned towards the smaller, upscale livelihood of a call girl and her personal-trainer boyfriend in his new film, The Girlfriend Experience.
I sat down with Glenn Kenny, a real-life blogger and film critic, who in the film plays a character out of a movie by Todd Solodnz or Todd Field: a smarmy “hobbyist” and rater of escort services who self-identifies as “The Erotic Connoisseur”.
Given that he himself is a blogger and that most of the people in the movie are playing themselves or something similar–Sasha Grey, the lead, is a porn star playing an escort–I asked him if he was worried about people thinking he actually was the part he played.
“Well,” he said, adopting a sardonic tone. “Let’s just say I’m lucky to be married in more ways than one.”
Kenny, a long time film critic and writer who wrote for Premiere magazine for over a decade, now blogs on the web at his site Some Came Running, a place where he talks about movies and his life, but does not in fact rate escorts.
“I was long-time friends with the screenwriters, David Levien and Bryan Koppleman and they had worked with Soderbergh just recently on Ocean’s 13,” Kenny explained. “They were holed up in a hotel room, writing another script entirely, when they saw a couple down outside the hotel which just didn’t seem right; an older man, with a much younger woman in intense clothes, hanging off him, as if for dear life.”
“One of them asked aloud, ‘What’s that?’ and another one of them replied ‘Oh, it’s the Girlfriend Experience, a service where a prostitute doesn’t just dole out sex, but simulated love as well.’ And this got them all thinking and so, David, Bryan and Soderbergh thought there was a script there and wrote it.”
However, even though Levien, Koppleman and Soderbergh collaborated on the script, the script was almost an outline and all the dialogue was improvised with the actors on set immediately, a sort of crystal-meth rush of Mike Leigh method. As a result, a script that was written in March 2007, according to Kenny, ended up heavily referencing September 2008, with the anxiety of the financial crisis and the upcoming election at the forefront.
“They would have newspapers for us on set from the week it was supposed to be and we would just sit around and talk about it,” Kenny recalled.
In the film, Chelsea/Christianne (Sasha Grey) is a practitioner of “The Girlfriend Experience”, while her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer, chases his own dreams of breaking it big in the world managing a gym or marketing a line of sportswear. Their relationship is interesting in the acknowledgment of Chelsea’s profession. “You’re the best at what you do.” Chris tells her, when she seems threatened by another escort’s popularity.
This anxiety drives Chelsea to seek “Glenn,” the character played by Glenn Kenny, who runs a website that rates escort services. One of the most sublime moments of the film occurs when Chelsea shows up at an old furniture store to be confronted with an old man who directs her to Kenny’s character, who lives in the back.
Kenny explains: “Steven really wanted to use that store. And when we got there, this old man, the store owner, was there. And Steven said let’s put him in the movie. So I was faced with this old man, who I had just met for the first time and of course it was improvised, so I thought, what could the relationship be between me and this guy and I thought–landlord–but wait, wouldn’t it just be more awful if it was my dad?”
Two more improvised riffs from Kenny also add up to some of the best moments in the film: a description of a prostitute “junket” in Dubai that “Glenn” offers as bait to Chelsea, and a stinging review of Chelsea’s services to him administered, off-screen, for free.
“We actually shot the sex scene, I had to ask my wife about that, but it was cut from the film,” Kenny told me. “And when I wrote my on-set diaries for GQ, they ended up dropping them and I can’t help but think it was because they didn’t see me naked next to Sasha Gray.”
“As for the ‘junket’, well I’m a film critic and I thought that would be funny. I actually heard some sailors I met overseas talk to me about their experience in Dubai and how the most beautiful women they’d ever seen were the Russian hookers they saw in Dubai. So I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if my character brought a bunch of high-class prostitutes to them to try to convince them to ‘buy American.'”
Those diaries, which ended up here on Martin Scorsese’s Auteur Project, are very humorous and provide more insight into the casting process as well as the improvisation on set.
Overall, I thought the film fairly successful, a Steven Soderbergh take on Two or Three Things I Know About Her, with Sasha Grey standing in for Mariana Vlady and an interesting time-capsule of an anxiety not-too-far-gone.
“I like Soderbergh even when he is working on Ocean’s 13, though like all directors he’s made up-and-down films. He just keeps throwing things at you until he gets what he wants; he’s really hands on,” Kenny said. “You know, when they called me up for the part, they told me they needed someone who could talk, who could go-on, who could expound…”
“Who could bloviate?” I offered, giving the root of the term “blog.”
“Yeah,” Glenn Kenny said with a smile. “That too.”
Nicholas Feitel also writes for his own blog, Feitelogram