Earlier this year, Matt Zoller Seitz named The Girlfriend Experience one of the best shows of 2016. As we reach the end of the limited series’ weekly run on Starz (the full season is also available on demand), Seitz spoke to the show’s creators, Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, for the Vulture TV Podcast. In a wide-ranging conversation, they discuss the show’s experimental style, the cuckold fantasy, and how they feel about criticism of the show. Listen to the full interview here or on iTunes, and read an edited version below.
I’d like to start off by talking about the episode where the sex tape starts circulating throughout the office. One by one all of her co-workers are seeing it, and I thought that she was going to flee or break down. But instead, it’s almost like a scene in a science-fiction movie where they fire a nuclear weapon at Godzilla to destroy it and it only makes it stronger. Suddenly, it’s almost like she’s lost any fear that she has or any shame that she has. She’s scaring the shit out of everybody.
LK: Amy and I were really interested in writing a character that has qualities that traditionally a male character would have. Instead of writing somebody that is identifiable or even likable or somebody who talks about their feelings a lot, we wanted to write somebody who had certain qualities that aren’t necessarily traditionally attractive. Obviously she’s intelligent, but she’s also extremely selfish and manipulative and complicated and contradictory. We were just trying to write somebody who’s really strong and intelligent and goes after what they want and is unapologetic about it.
At the same time though, there’s an opaque quality to her character. By that I mean I often find myself reading reactions or emotions into her that turn out not to be the ones that she’s feeling. I feel like sometimes there’s some intentional misdirection of the audience.
AS: Maybe not misdirection, but I hate exposition, and to make something really mysterious and interesting, at least in my opinion, is just to follow a character. We’re learning about her just by her actions as opposed to having her have these monologues about how she’s feeling and if she’s worried about this. I find that much more fascinating, and it adds to this sort of mystique that we build around women that are sex workers.
LK: One of the most exciting elements of directing is when an actor gives a performance you don’t quite expect. In the same way in life people reveal themselves in many different ways and you have to decipher from the various cues they’re giving whether it’s behavioral or whether they’re lying. That gives a certain magnetism hopefully to the show, but also for a viewer. To watch it, they have to decipher for themselves, and so we ask them to become more active in the process with the hope that it becomes less predictable and less schematic, that it becomes more alive. Amy and I both think really interesting work has those qualities.
How accurate of a depiction of sex workers is this? I’m sure you know that there’s been some criticism of it for not being accurate. That she’s not accurate, this is not the way that somebody like her would behave. She would be warmer. She would be more attentive to her clients’ emotional temperature and so forth. There are times when there’s a distant quality to the character. I wonder how high on your list of concerns is making an accurate depiction of this job that she does? Is that something that’s right on the front of your radar or is this a show about a sex worker in the way that Vertigo is a movie about being a private detective?
LK: I read somewhere that somebody wondered if meth dealers were defined in Breaking Bad in the same way that sex workers were defined in Girlfriend Experience, which made me kind of laugh. Certainly it’s not our intention to represent the sex trade by any means. We’re focused just on one character. At the same time, we spoke to a number of providers, a number of clients. We had two consultants on the show who were both, at points in their lives, sex workers. One thing we gathered is that different sex workers have a multitude of experiences. To try to reduce it to this is really the true, real experience of what a sex worker is, and things like you’d have to be warm and gregarious and funny and laughing. That may be the norm, but I’m sure there are exceptions too.
AS: In the hands of different filmmakers they’d be fascinated by other aspects. We weren’t trying to make a documentary. It wasn’t supposed to be a statement about all escorts in general.
LK: I want to add one other thing that is very interesting for me, [which is] the motivation [of] people who are sex workers criticizing the show. Not that I have a problem with them criticizing. I don’t at all. I’ve been involved in film long enough that I have a thicker skin, but I notice whenever you discuss something like sex and money, it’s a hot-button issue. It’s going to get a lot of different reactions from a lot of people. Whenever you go into an area that is a subculture that people are invested in, and invested as being the authority, the minute you have an outsider come in and make a work about it, let me just say it’s not surprising that their reaction is one [where] they want to continue ownership over that subculture.
To tie that into the idea of experimental filmmaking, the idea of the viewer having an experience, having an emotional experience, having a visceral experience and not necessarily knowing exactly what to make of it. Can you talk about that a little bit more? Your philosophy as writers, as filmmakers. What kind of movies do you like and what kind do you like to make? In what way does this show represent those values?
AS: It’s hard for me to say what specific movies I like, but getting back to the expositional thing, I’m a big proponent of “show don’t tell.” Whatever movie I’m going to see, I’d rather just watch through action or visuals as opposed to somebody telling me what they’re about to do or what the plot line is. I like plot and I like narrative, but I want to feel something through this medium as opposed to being told how I’m supposed to feel.
LK: I completely agree. Instead of talking about something, it’s far more interesting to show it. It’s far more interesting to show people’s behavior and try to decipher what their behavior will be and why they’re doing something and not necessarily always be right. From a writing point of view, that requires much more of an audience, but if an audience engages with it, I find then as an audience member you don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the most thrilling part of it.
AS: [We’re] not trying to be like, they’re right or wrong. It’s more trying to be objective in a morality sense. I remember Steven [Soderbergh] popped in for a little bit and he was watching one of the sex scenes and he was like, “Why do we do this? It’s so weird. It’s so alien.” It’s really interesting, what is it that, as human beings, we cannot accept what it is to be human. We’re in denial or we’re scared by it, we’re terrified by it, and we have to shut down some experiences. We can’t look at those, we can’t experience this. Obviously there are extreme edges where there’s extreme violence, and I’m not suggesting that we embrace that, but there’s so many areas of human behavior society just rejects. It’s just a question of looking at human beings for who they are and how they behave.
LK: I mean, you look at it now. Look at bathrooms, and the issue that all of a sudden we’re sexless. As a nation, who can use what bathroom and what gender people really are and how we have to predetermine that and control it. From the very beginning, individuals are told that they’re not good enough, that you really shouldn’t be yourself. You should be somebody else. Be like Mike or be a sports figure or if you’re religious, you’re not good enough. You’re sinful. You’ll be rejected. This is constant pressure that you cannot be a human being from the societal level. I just think that’s absurd.
That sounds like a description of what happens in episode nine, at least from my perspective. You mentioned this earlier, this idea of Christine as somebody who is fighting against what she actually wants to be. I feel like at the end she’s gotten closer to being her true self. This is not necessarily the kind of uplifting narrative we associate with a story like that, but I feel like what’s happening in that episode is she’s burning it down. She never actually wanted to be there. She never actually wanted to be in that office. Clearly she never really wanted to be there, and this is in a way, it’s like a blessing.
AS: Yeah, I don’t think it’s ever really clear for people in the moment they do burn something down. Even in relationships, the way you destroy them without really meaning to. No one sets out to be like, “I’m gonna burn this relationship to the ground.” They do it subconsciously. In this way, that office — because she’s so controlling, because she’s so compartmentalized — it’s also this leap of, if she can control and win and own this office. If she can do that, and stay in there as long as she possibly can and control the environment, she doesn’t have to go out. At least subconsciously she’s thinking she doesn’t have to go out and face the chaos that’s outside of those walls. She’s grasping for the last bits of control she can have, which obviously turns her mad, but she’s sort of grasping to control this situation because she’s compartmentalizing. If I can control this, then maybe I can control everything else. She also just hates losing. She’s a character that will not lose.
LK: I think it’s also telling of the internal revolution. She’s in a state of conflict because she has to choose which direction really to go. When she makes that choice, then the conflict is really over. She has to come to terms with having made that choice. In part, it’s a commentary on work. When you’re young and you imagine what a job will be or you imagine what a career will be, in a lot of ways you have no real understanding of what it is. You’re filled with this ambition and drive and you want to be the best at something, and then when you finally arrive at it, it’s a job. You may get satisfaction from it. I’m not saying you don’t, but not quite on the same level as when you’re doing it for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And at the very end of the show, you see Christine completely in control. She’s totally dominating the situation in terms of the character directing the other players as a character. But also, the conflict is passed, and so it may be replaced by new conflict.
AS: Also in that vein of her decision at the end, she is somebody who doesn’t like uncomfortable feelings. It is very traumatic what happens to her. It did have an effect on her, but she felt those feelings, she put them in a box, shoved them away, and she didn’t want to look at it again. Her decision to go full force into high-end escorting, for at least this particular part of her story, is a compartmentalization of like, You know what, that didn’t work out, now fuck that, I’m gonna go and dive headfirst into this other thing because I can control that, and I don’t want to face this other part of my life because I don’t like those feelings it’s making me feel. And I think human beings do that when they’re faced with something traumatic.
That’s the Don Draper story on Mad Men.
Every six to nine months, he blows it all up.
LK: It’s really interesting too when your goal is to achieve something, and it’s very, very hard to achieve it for whatever reason — it takes an incredible amount of skill, intelligence, a lot of politics may be involved, or it may be something like you have to be comfortable with physical or emotional intimacy with a stranger — but when you finally achieve it, then it doesn’t quite have the same amount of power to it.
Well, that seems like a natural segue to pivot into a full-tilt boogie discussion of the finale. I feel like it almost becomes like the final scene in Blow Up, where the hero is watching these mimes play tennis. The actions are actually happening, and yet they also seem to be a commentary on everything we’ve seen before. Is there or is there not something extra-textural or extra-dramatic happening in this finale?
LK: It really is a performance. To this point, professionals drop in, and not only in the escort role but in many other areas of life, and you establish a certain degree of professional intimacy, but how intimate are you really? And how much of it is really a performance, and how knowable or unknowable are people at the very end of the day? Particularly for Christine when she, throughout the course of the show, when she’s providing the girlfriend experience and particularly emotional intimacy, she’s really in control of it; she decides how intimate she’s going to be and how intimate she isn’t. And so she gets to play a role, whereas the clients are also, to some degree, playing a role because she’s a fantasy of what they project onto her. So what is it that Proust said, that it’s the imagination, not the other person, that allows you to fall in love? I think that’s really apt for this. And sort of when we, in staging it, I wanted to make it seem like it was a play, you know? And that the play begins. You see the curtains drawn, and the stage is set, and they do play out their roles.
I was extremely confused at first when he says, “Where were you?” and she says, “I was at lunch with Cynthia,” and he says, “You didn’t tell me that, where did you go?” And then we go into this scene where it almost sounds like they’ve had this conversation before, where they’re running lines from a play that’s been performed on this stage in the past almost.
LK: Yeah. But it is all rehearsed, because their play had a fantasy. It’s this fantasy, the cuckold fantasy, to be humiliated.
AS: He’s probably told her, in the writing of it, that the cuckold fantasy is like what they call the intellectual fantasy. It’s a fantasy where men, who are usually married, want their wives to have sex with other men, and part of the attraction to it is the humiliation. They say it drives them wild. A lot of intellectuals that like it, and they don’t know why, it’s just part of their sexual drive or it’s linked with jealousy. So that’s something that’s been asked of escorts to perform. We talk about intimacy and being close to somebody — that means the man has to describe to the escort exactly what his fantasy is. There is a loose script that they probably came up with before the scene starts, which is kind of comical but also very intimate.
LK: Obviously it was all scripted, but the roles they’re playing are very much, I would imagine, an improvisation. He starts attacking her out of jealousy right out of the gate, and she has to keep feeding that, and in ways that really aren’t expected from any audience point of view. You wouldn’t expect her to add fuel to the fire, but ultimately it is a fantasy.
I wanted to ask you both about two particular lines that really stuck in my head. One of them is the moment where Gordon reaches out to touch her when the guy is mounting her on the couch, and she says, “Don’t touch at me.”
LK: Right, because she’s being physically intimate with the other man. Basically the subtext is, his fantasy is to be humiliated, and the fuel is an immense degree of pain — the emotional and psychological pain. But at the same time, in order to do that, the contract between the three is that she is in love with the other man. So if she is in love with the other man, she is rejecting Gordon and rejecting him both emotionally, and as an extension, physically also.
And also, in the context of this as a scene, he’s not there. And so if he’s there and he touches her, that ruins the emotional reality of the scene?
LK: Well no, I disagree a little bit. They’re playing … well, both. On one level they’re playing that he’s not there, for instance when they lie down after post-coital, and she says, “I’m in love with you,” and the other lover goes, “What do you want to do?” and she says, “I wanna marry, get a house, I wanna leave him.” That’s all meant to be very intimate and private between the two of them, but at the same time they also know he’s there, and they’re playing it to him. They include him very much in their reactions.
AS: It is a fantasy, so it’s dreamlike in a way, where he’s there but he’s not there. Like any sort of weird fantasy, you know? And reading and researching that, we found that there was both this engagement and disengagement in these fantasies that would replicate a dream, in a way.
The other line I wanted to ask you about is her saying, “Do you need a moment?”
LK: I think the experience is too intense for the male escort. He’s gotten into a situation where he has to decipher very quickly really what’s going on, what the subtext is. I’m sure he’s been made aware of it before he arrives through a phone call or discussion, but it’s one thing to be informed of it and it’s another thing to really experience somebody’s energy.
And she says, “Can you give us a second? We just need to get on the same page.”
LK: Yeah, because the male escort is kind of rattled by the intensity of Gordon. He starts to lose confidence. And ultimately that translates not only in needing a moment, but also that he doesn’t get an erection immediately. That’s when she, in order to give him time, pushes him to give her oral sex so he can have some time to recover and get an erection so they can have sex. There’s a line later that refers to it, which I always love, when she asks him, “Can you last?”
One last question I had for both of you: We’ve established here, among other things, that we have a show that is more about action than exposition. One in which you can as a viewer make up your mind as to what the show means, what it’s saying to you, what the heroine is feeling, what she wants. One of the things I feel like it’s also not handing you is the question of who sent that video. And I’ve gotten question after question from people who follow me on Twitter. Did you tell us that, and I just missed it?
AS: No, it’s intentionally for people to play around with. We need to know when we’re writing it so that we know where we’re going, but it is really fun for people to not be sure if she sent it, if Jack sent it, if Erin or David got ahold of it somehow and they sent it. That’s sort of a fun thing for people to talk around.
LK: It’s a reflection too that the different characters all have their own motivations and reasons for potentially sending it out. When you don’t tie everything up, hopefully it gets a higher level of engagement or involvement. Amy and I aren’t doing it to purposefully withhold answers because we’re trying to be subversive. We just find it, as writers, more interesting when you don’t answer all the questions, when you set it up and let the audience engage and determine it for themselves.
AS: We set it up in this way where it feels like you’re spying on her, and in order to maintain that, you can’t really answer that question, because she doesn’t really know. If she doesn’t know, other people wouldn’t know, and if you feel like you’re spying on her, you can’t really answer that question, because it’s this unknown.
Well, don’t ever tell people who sent the tape, because otherwise you’ll be in a David Chase situation where you’ll have to explain it like every six months.
AS: [Laughs.] That’s also the reason we’re not telling anyone.
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