Interview: Anja Marquardt on Constructing the Future of “The Girlfriend Experience”

Plus: 5 More Director-Driven Shows to Check Out This Summer

When Amy Seimetz was ready to pass the baton after co-directing and co-producing two seasons of “The Girlfriend Experience” with Lodge Kerrigan, she was asked by the show’s executive producer Steven Soderbergh to supply a list of potential directors to look at for a potential season three. After the “Traffic” director bought his own freedom with a spare budget and a nonprofessional cast for the 2009 film that inspired it, the series has extended the same leeway to the person at the the helm, a playground unlike any other series to reinvent itself from one year to the next with the premise of a sex worker’s encounters with strangers opening the doors to just about anything. Seimetz kept her list short.

Like the “Sun Don’t Shine” director, Anja Marquardt had made one of the most singular feature debuts of this past decade with “She’s Lost Control” and she may have been an obvious choice in many ways when she already explored the disconnect between sex and intimacy in telling the story of sex surrogate (Brooke Bloom) who tends to badly broken men looking to her to have their confidence restored after severe physical or mental duress. However, the filmmaker was a truly inspired choice for a series that was ready to pivot creatively when she herself was too, recognizing a connection in sex work and her growing fascination with AI technology as she could follow a character whose keen ability to read people could be of benefit to a company refining their algorithms. As it turns out, the world’s oldest profession has some lessons for new tech when Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), gifted at anticipating consumer behavior, can transfer her knowledge from bedrooms to the scientific realm as a behavioral psychologist doing research for a British AI company.

But Marquardt blurs the lines further when what was once human instinct can now be gently nudged by what a machine wants and the use of technology to serve intimate human needs, recalibrating the emotional investment involved. There may be less physical touch involved this season, but the writer/director’s fingerprints are all over “The Girlfriend Experience” as a provocation on multiple fronts, elegantly conveying from her enigmatic heroine to the architectural marvels she finds herself in as an escort for high society clients that the greater ability to hide who we are in the modern day from others, the less space there is to hide the parts we don’t like from ourselves. A standout among a number of enticing director-driven limited series this summer — we offer five others you should catch below — Marquardt spoke about putting together this season of “The Girlfriend Experience,” now airing on Starz and available on Amazon and Hulu, in the midst of COVID, letting the city of London come alive in the show and how to rethink dramatic structure from a canvas of a feature to that of an episodic series.

This seems like such a great opportunity, but when it comes your way and on the surface, it would seem to resemble “She’s Lost Control,” was that something you were eager to dive back into?

It was just a total kismet moment in the sense that I was able to come take another swing at a similar world, but from a very different vantage point. I was a big fan of the franchise [since] the film and the first two seasons, so it was a really a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a leap, and because so much time had passed, and because of where I was at the time, working on all of these future-facing, technology driven projects, there was tremendous creative freedom for season three to re-imagine what it would be within the confines of the franchise.

There was a previous iteration for season three that was going to be based on a novel by Allison Leotta, a very interesting writer in the field and I was tasked with adapting it, and I came up with a dual-structure timeline, but there were a number of changes that happened over at Starz, one of them was that Lionsgate became a parent [company to Starz] and some of our executives went to other places, so we started working with a new team. What became clear was that the priority for Starz was to really open it up and make it more international, set it in London, and return to the beautiful simplicity the first season in the sense that there’s one protagonist and one timeline. Once that was set, I was able to unleash all my own obsessions about technology and the stuff that I had been working on. It just became a really intuitive process of merging the two.

One of the great things about the show are these stunning locations that say so much about the characters inside of them. What was it like scouting places in London?

I have so much fun during that process. Our amazing locations managers Gary Pickering and Ian Heard over in London were tremendously collaborative, and had a great vision for what we could get, and how far we could push it visually. I was also very excited by the variety of architectural styles in London. It’s a tremendously inspiring city visually and there are a lot of locations in the season now that were just stunning to be in and luckily we were able to actually get them because they were not fully operational during our shooting schedule — some of that is actually owed to COVID, believe it or not, so they were essentially saying, “Okay, if you can shoot on this particular weekend or in this particular month, then you got it, you have the location to yourself.”

Did COVID complicate filming in other ways?

It did not creatively — there were no changes to the scripts that were COVID-related. We did, however, approach the shooting schedule slightly differently in the sense that we gave ourselves a bit of a buffer up front, starting with simpler scenes that were just between Iris and one other person, rather than bringing in some bigger crowds and more complicated locations. We saved that for later.

Despite conveying a high-tech world, it appears you were able to mostly pull off a future look practically. Was it difficult?

We do have a fair amount of visual effects on this show, however most of them are designed to be subtle, except for one scene where I think we’re fully leaning into some augmented treatment. Even then, we did aim to shoot as much as possible on camera, just because that seems to be in keeping with the style of the show, and also keep the grounded feel of the performances in the world because while it is future facing, there’s an immediacy to Iris’s experience. We didn’t want to trade that in for too much bells and whistles. Zachary Galler, the director of photography, and I had worked together on “She’s Lost Control,” and we made a pact up front that we would create something visually very different and really challenge ourselves, just because we didn’t want to rinse, repeat, and come back to subject matter that on the surface might seem like it’s very similar. So the tone and the pace, it’s really set in such a different world, and a different approach to reality that I think we’re giving Iris the space to push boundaries in her own way.

On “She’s Lost Control,” you told me that having your lead Brooke Bloom onboard changed your ideas about the character. What was figuring this out with Julia like?

She’s in every scene and she’s a very methodical prepper, so that was just a really ongoing conversation between Julia and myself. It was really a lot of fun to go through the undulations of her character – how her alter ego as a girlfriend goes in with a certain persona and a certain end game of exploration, then for the scientist to kick in and take that information to her day job in the AI world, and for those two versions of her to register for the audience. It was really important to us that we would allow the audience a glimpse behind the curtain of what’s driving Iris and as we go through the season, we learn more and more of what’s actually happening for, and how her family’s situation factors in with all the rest, and how that’s creating a real pitfall for where she goes down the line.

The costumes are also quite striking — what was your collaboration like with the costume designer Tina Kalivas?

She is the best, and we had the best time collaborating. She used to have her own fashion line and she designed bespoke pieces for Iris’s character, so you’ll see, across all episodes, she really went above and beyond to create a real rhythm for Iris in terms for color and shape and materials. We had several people actually reach out and ask if they could buy some of the dresses. [laughs]

Was structuring this any different than a feature? Each episode builds to a crescendo, and like “She’s Lost Control,” you completely flip the script midway through.

We did do a minor amount of reshuffling in the edit, but most of it was really on the page and in production. While we did treat the entire experience in production like one giant independent feature in terms of how to break down the schedule, and how to actually shoot it with one DP, one editor, and one director doing all 10 episodes, so it really gave us this cohesive arc.

But in the writing of it and how it would be presented to the audience, we didn’t know yet whether this is going to be aired in one piece or whether there’s going to be a weekly release, so my goalpost was to try to make this bingeable so that if anyone chooses to just keep watching once all 10 are available, they feel inspired to do so. But thinking about transitions, and episode endings, and how the cliffhanger creates a good question mark, and then how the next one kicks off, that was just tremendously fun for me as a storyteller to structure that and make it a nice flow.

5 More Shows You Might Want to Keep an Eye On This Summer

The Underground Railroad

If the mere prospect of Barry Jenkins adapting Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel isn’t enough to put this on your watchlist, we don’t know what will, but the director of “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk” has offered plenty of tantalizing appetizers from a preamble to a beautiful 51-minute assembly of visual portraits from the set titled “The Gaze” to ready audiences for the 10-part series, imagining that the nickname for the collection of safe houses that helped enslaved African Americans to freedom before the Civil War was a real covert transportation system with a pair (Thuso Mbedu and Aaron Pierre) who flee a plantation in Georgia and a slave catcher (Joel Edgerton) stopping at nothing to apprehend them. (Now on Amazon Prime)

Lisey’s Story

Already shaping up to be the year of Pablo Larrain with the release of “Ema” and “Spencer,” the Lady Di biopic, on the way, the Chilean filmmaker somehow found the time to fit in this rare Stephen King adaptation penned by the author himself — he last wrote scripts for 2002’s “Rose Red.” King’s second team-up with producer J.J. Abrams after the anthology series “Castle Rock” brings the first novel he wrote after he was gravely injured in 1999, imagining life going on for his wife after his death as a widow (Julianne Moore) carries on after her famous husband (Clive Owen) dies, coming to realize he may not have been who she thought. Joan Allen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Dane DeHaan fill out the impressive cast. (Apple TV+, June 4)

The White Lotus

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Naomi Osaka

After making one of last year’s finest films “Time,” Garrett Bradley has crater the perfect lead-in to get audiences hyped up for the Summer Olympics with this three-part series about the tennis sensation, exploring her roots in both Haiti and Japan, for whom she’ll be representing at the Tokyo Games. Bradley has been filming from 2019 when Osaka became the first woman to capture back-to-back Grand Slam titles since Serena Williams to this past year, in which she lost mentor Kobe Bryant and used the attention paid to every match she plays to champion the Black Lives Matter movement. (Netflix, July 13)

Nine Perfect Strangers

Nicole Kidman puts on a Russian accent and gets the creative team back together from “Big Little Lies” with David E. Kelley, along with John Henry Butterworth and Samantha Strauss, adapting Liane Moriarty’s 2018 novel set at a wellness retreat where 10 days intended to encourage mindfulness instead results in suspicion when the effectiveness of the spa treatment and its idiosyncratic creator (Kidman) raise questions. “50/50” director Jonathan Levine navigates this seriocomic miniseries with an all-star cast that includes Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Luke Evans, Bobby Cannavale, Regina Hall, Samara Weaving, Melvin Gregg, Asher Keddie, Grace Van Patten, Tiffany Boone and Manny Jacinto. (Hulu, August 16th)