As we enter Emmy season — nomination voting runs through June 27 — Yahoo TV will be spotlighting performances, writing, and other contributions that we feel deserve recognition.
From the very first episode of The Girlfriend Experience — Starz’s provocative adaptation of the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name — it’s clear that the exposure of the central character’s double life as an escort is a “when, not if” scenario. Not that Christine (Riley Keough) is ill-equipped to keep her job as a law firm intern separate from her out of office activities as a well-compensated “companion” for wealthy men. On the contrary, she’s ruthlessly efficient at compartmentalizing the demands of her twin careers, routinely presenting a poised, placid face to the world that radiates confidence, even when her life is on the precipice of spiraling out of control.
And that spiral begins in the opening seconds of the show’s ninth episode, “Blindsided,” when a single email sets her two worlds on a direct collision course. Sitting at her desk in the luxuriously sterile offices of Kirkland & Allen, she watches and listens as video footage of her sexual encounter with a client — which has been attached to a mass email by an aggrieved party — plays over and over again on her co-workers’ computers. While most of us would run out of that office at that point and never look back, Christine refuses to let that email serve as her termination notice. Over the next 20 minutes, she navigates the office hallways seeking to regain the upper hand, even as her co-workers regard her with a mixture of shock and Schadenfreude. Meanwhile, her suspicious supervisor/lover David (Paul Sparks) tries to ensure that she’s forced out the door that afternoon.
Although “Blindsided” isn’t the show’s season finale, it does feel like the natural culmination of The Girlfriend Experience’s narrative and aesthetic interests. Throughout the series, independent filmmakers turned TV creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz — who co-wrote all but one of the 13 episodes and alternated directing chores — pay close attention to the spatial geography of Kirkland & Allen, thus illustrating Christine’s specific place in this ecosystem. It’s an environment where overt displays of emotion are saved for behind closed doors, where male-dominated bro culture still thrives and where genuine privacy can only really be found in a bathroom stall.
Having swum in those waters for the previous eight episodes, though, Christine knows how to use Kirkland & Allen’s office culture, as well as its general layout, to her advantage. Her upending of the status quo is what gives “Blindsided” its electric charge, making it play like a thriller-in-miniature, unfolding almost entirely in real time in a single location. “The whole series is about control and compartmentalization,” says Seimetz, who directed the episode. “This is the episode where everything comes unhinged. It’s about these even people losing control and doing everything they can to regain the control that they once thought they had.” We spoke with Seimetz about creating tension in a confined setting, the horrors of public shaming, and how Monica Lewinsky inspired the character of Christine.
Yahoo TV: Even though you and Lodge Kerrigan took turns directing individual episodes, The Girlfriend Experience has a very consistent visual style. What was the process of developing its specific aesthetic?
Amy Seimetz: In traditional television you have the writers’ room, and then there’s a revolving door of directors and each of them has to have tone meetings in order to direct their episode. Since the writers’ room was just Lodge and myself, we discussed the aesthetics that we were going to explore as we were writing. Part of my general process in writing is thinking about how to shoot something, and even though there are some differences in the way that he and I direct, we were on the same page about how it was going to look. The show is really about what you’re allowed to do in different spaces and how those spaces take on a different character. When Christine goes into private hotel rooms, she’s performing a character that she wouldn’t be performing in her own day-to-day life. It’s the same with the men in the law firm; they act out in ways they otherwise can’t when they’re behind closed doors.
The office becomes a major character in “Blindsided.” She’s dealing with this explosive situation in the most contained of environments.
The tension that we’ve been playing with all season is, “Can she juggle these two worlds? Is somebody going to find out?” So having [the revelation] play out in this office is great. The wildfire that happens when a scandal unfolds in an enclosed space is a microcosm for what she’s about to face outside of the office in later episodes. She thinks, “If I can keep control in this contained environment, maybe I can control the rest of my life.” She almost doesn’t want to leave that space because to leave that space is to have to face the rest of her life that’s crumbling around her. So she makes the decision to stay and try to control this one space.
And the way she asserts control often involves directly acknowledging the email, which is something her co-workers, particularly the male ones, aren’t prepared to do.
The show deals with how you talk about something like sex in different environments. And talking about sex in an environment like a law firm is so touchy. The way [Christine’s co-workers] speak about the email is, “I want to gossip about this, but at the same time I realize this is highly inappropriate behavior, and I can’t talk about it within these walls.” And she’s confronting them because she knows that what’s being done to her is wrong. It’s really disgusting the way that we treat women whenever their sexual side is outed in an atmosphere like this. [Think of] the Monica Lewinsky scandal and how atrocious and disgusting people became. It opened all these doors for people to say these very disgusting things about women. So that festering anger toward the Monica Lewinsky situation made me want to create a woman who just wants to fight back.
It puts me in mind of Jon Ronson’s recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which also tackles the subject of public humiliation.
I came across that book after we had created the series, but it’s really interesting. And Lewinsky has talked about how she was Patient Zero for Internet gossip and Internet rage. We’re in a space now where something hits the Internet and it spreads like wildfire, but then very quickly no one cares anymore. It’s like there’s this rage that comes out for 15 minutes, and then suddenly we’ve moved on to the next person. And if you can wait out those 15 minutes, then you’re okay. Unfortunately, it really drives a lot of people into some dark places.
Internet humiliation is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon. I did find myself wondering how the revelation of a sexual indiscretion might have played out in an office from, say, the Mad Men era. Would they almost have been more open or direct in addressing it compared to how we deal with it now?
I didn’t grow up in the ’60s, but I’ve thought about this a lot. We’re not really in a state anymore where sexism or even racism is overt; it’s almost like whatever is overt is laughable and nobody takes it seriously! Instead, we’re in this state of no one really knowing how to handle themselves in these environments anymore. Women are trying to figure out how to behave in order to get more respect. Men are trying to figure out how to behave so that they are treating women as equals. It’s a very confusing time in my opinion. And when you throw sex in there, men or women are given permission to degrade another human being.
The Kirkland & Allen offices are filled with windows that offer these beautiful city panoramas. Some episodes emphasize that, but “Blindsided” is very claustrophobic. You keep the camera focused on the characters, almost cutting them off from the outside world.
We really wanted the office to feel like its own little snow globe in a way. Inside, it gives the mood of it being private, but we’re in some way giving [the audience] permission to spy on the characters, which you can’t do in real life without the cops getting involved! [Laughs] Lodge and I searched for locations where we could explore the privateness of everything. If you were just in a room and it was shot in a traditional way, you wouldn’t have this feeling of “We’re not supposed to be seeing this,” which is what we wanted to invoke.
The only moment of genuine privacy that Christine has is when she’s in the toilet stall.
Yeah, exactly. In any office atmosphere, the one place I can be alone is in a bathroom stall. If I worked in an office like this one, I would take tons of bathroom breaks, whether I had to go to the bathroom or not! Just to be able to sit by yourself and be human for just a second, and then come back and do your job. And what’s so fun about that moment is that we’ve been so concentrated on Christine and the effect of this world on her, that it felt like a great scene to suddenly cut away and see what David’s doing. Because it’s not just her chaos, it’s his chaos as well. This is a battlefield and you’re watching their strategies [play out].
Visually, there’s an emphasis on isolating Christine and David in the frame. The one moment where that’s broken is when she reaches out and touches him as they’re walking down the hall.
It was important to have them in isolated frames at first to see these two ticking time bombs meet and wait for something to happen. There’s an anxiety that’s rising in them that the audience obviously feels. So when they’re in the same frame, there’s this explosive moment [of contact]. Part of her experience in this episode is walking through the office knowing that everyone’s staring at her and hearing people talk about her, but them not saying it directly to her. It just sounds so terrifying, and would be for any human being.
What conversations did you have with Riley in preparation for this particular episode?
Riley’s incredible and is such a sponge for direction. We talked about how Christine compartmentalizes to the point where she doesn’t want to feel, and part of her reactive nature in this episode is wanting to control the fact that she’s very unexpectedly experiencing these emotions. It makes her very angry, and I guess she wants revenge for that in a way. It’s like, “You can’t make me feel this way! I’ll show you.” I really love Riley’s panic attack at the end, because it makes people feel either “Oh my God, she’s crazy!” or “Oh my God, this is so traumatic for her!” It’s this very complicated relationship to her character where you’re not quite sure what her motivation is or whether you feel sorry for her. It’s this mix of emotions that becomes like a metaphor for what actors do in a performance. When you’re an actor, you throw your body into a state of panic in order to sell a performance, and you can’t really tell if you actually are feeling these emotions or if you’re just performing. There’s this blurring of the lines.
“Blindsided” is a very tightly edited episode. Are there any scenes that were left on the cutting room floor?
No, it’s pretty much everything we shot, and that goes for the whole series. Part of what we were doing was being extremely economical; when you come from the world of independent film, you can’t cover the scenes from every single angle. You have to go into it knowing exactly how you’re going to shoot it, exactly how it’s going to be edited, exactly how each beat is going to move. There’s room to explore, but when you explore, you still know exactly where it’s going to fit into the episode as opposed to, “We’ll just shoot as much as we can and find it in the edit.” The spirit of independent film is to know exactly what you’re going to do and how to execute it so that it feels authored in some way.
Have you given any thought to what a second season would look like?
By design it was always set up as an anthology, so the next season would be another woman in a different city. We are talking about Season 2 right now, and stylistically it would be wildly different. Then, we’d pass the torch to other filmmakers and give them the chance to put their spin on it. That way, they don’t have to feel like they’d have to direct whatever we laid out for them; they’ll have the same freedom that Lodge and I had. So Season 2 will have a different feel, but hopefully be as addictive and interesting as Season 1.
The Girlfriend Experience is currently airing on Starz. The entire season is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Starz Play.
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