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Amy Seimetz Interview (The Girlfriend Experience)

American filmmaker Amy Seimetz discusses the second season of The Girlfriend Experience (2016), which she co-directs with Lodge Kerrigan. The series, produced by Steven Soderbergh, changes its characters for the second season and sees Amy and Lodge directing separate stories, bifurcating the narrative with each one having its own unique story and aesthetic. Christopher Heron talked to Amy about this auteur approach to television after the first two episodes were premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film FestivalThe Girlfriend Experience returns to Starz on November 5, 2017.

The Seventh Art: Was the story of the second season something you and Lodge [Kerrigan] had from the start or was it something you devised after the second season? The idea of a series changing its focus and/or narrative structure in the second season is more frequent these days.

Amy Seimetz: The conceit of doing something new, new characters in a new city every season, that format was Steven [Soderbergh]’s idea from the beginning when he approached both me and Lodge. I remember the first phone call that Steven had with me, I was acting on The Killing (2011-14) and Lodge had just directed me in one of the episodes. I said to him, “I don’t know how to direct television, I’ve only done my own self-funded movies as a director.” He said, “That’s what I want.” I said, “We’ll see how this goes…” Then he told me it was with Lodge and we had already met, but serendipitous. It was Steven’s idea then to have a new woman every season and that seemed really interesting to me. I’ve acted on Law & Order, which was really fucking fun, to go into soap opera acting for a little bit, which I think is really hard — it’s an interesting skill-set, I didn’t mean for that to be derogatory. I don’t want to do that all the time, though, I’ve wanted to try as many things as possible. So that was part of the discussion I had with Steven, I didn’t want to get locked into directing television where I have to do the same thing over and over. You know Steven, he was like, “That’s not what I want.” You look at his career, of course that’s not what he wants, he’s tried everything: comedy, sci-fi, period pieces… He’s one of the most diverse directors, whether or not you love all of his movies, he’s tried everything: no budget, big budget. The whole construct here was to shake things up.

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do in the second season, but after doing the first season and exercising all the ideas with that, what we were exploring, I had some of these leftover ideas. Sometimes they were a reaction to the first season, sometimes a reaction to the reaction of the first season, sometimes out of a reaction to what was going on politically — real-life shit. There was that for me personally, but Lodge and I definitely wanted to push the series further into the auteur spectrum, which meant that we would not go into the writers’ room together. As much as we both respect each other, you have to back down. I don’t think it makes the first season any less awesome, but you have an idea, you really want to do it, and the other person doesn’t really jive with it and you back down. In true auteur cinema, which is what we are presenting the show as, you don’t do that. So we both agreed it would be really interesting to do these two stories that thematically explore the same topics, but let each other be auteurs in the true sense.

You got to work with [DP] Jay Keitel again-

Yeah, definitely. I love [Steven] Meizler, early on I asked him to come back for the second season because I loved working with him — it wasn’t that I didn’t want to bring him on. Because of The Girlfriend Experience, he got really busy and then it opened up, this great opportunity to bring Jay on, who I adore and is one of my best friends. We have this relationship where I don’t have to say shit, we just know. He knows what lens, he knows where my eye is going, it’s really simpatico. There’s a friendship there. I also got to bring on Adele Romanski, who’s been my best friend forever, to produce. The whole construction from direction to vision to production and how I spend my money — bringing on Sophia Lin, who’s a line producer and the most creative line producer ever — was all very auteur, it had to be. Your movie is made in pre-production. A lot of filmmakers don’t get that, it’s a lot about how you spend your money. It’s a creative decision to choose who your producers are, because you want one that fights for you and not against you.

There are some echoes of the first season’s aesthetic in the second season, despite the personnel change, but like a lot of your work, it has its own unique strong sense of place. How did you achieve that on this season, while still keeping it connected at some level to the first?

I love location and actually it was very cathartic to discuss this with Harmony Korine, who’s a nut-ball, but I love him. Location for me is so fucking important. Even last season, we set it in Chicago verbally, but once we got to Toronto and were location scouting, I didn’t give a shit if it was in Chicago or not — I was just seeing the spaces we were in and decided I would set it in a metropolitan… whatever it is that this looks like. Embrace the character of location-based shooting, which I love. It’s the same with Sun Don’t Shine (2012), which is my hometown, it’s such a character. I never try, even last season with Chicago, I embrace what’s here [in Toronto] and embrace that, where you are, instead of trying to fit it into this other thing. The same with this season with New Mexico. I wrote it for New Mexico, but I went a month early — with Jay on some of the location scouts — before the eight weeks of prep, to do pre-location scouting. I built it into my budget, so I could do re-writes and change anything that I felt was disingenuous to what I projected onto New Mexico and the characters. My story is very absurd, very weird, so it’s not New Mexico, it’s more the texture of the landscape, buildings and what I find interesting — utilising the best parts of a location. I went a month early, Jay came down, we found ideas for shots we would use in the final version.

It wasn’t just that Jay and I worked together for so long, but the very first film that we did together — and part of the reason I brought him on to this particular project… It’s not just a nepotism thing, Jay is fucking brilliant and we have a short-hand — but the first film we worked on together, I was just this actress and he was shooting and directing in the middle of Utah. The film’s called Black Dragon Canyon (2005) and it’s shot on 16mm. He’s so obsessive, he’s going to love that I’m hoarse because he always gets sick since he never sleeps and is obsessive. Before we shot that film, I was like twenty years old, he’s a few years older, and he taught me a lot. I was making films, too, but I was inspired by him. When we made Black Dragon Canyon, he told me, “I’ve been out here for three months, sleeping in my car, watching the way that the sun sets in every location we’re going to shoot in, so I’ve picked the times we’ll shoot these particular scenes.” It’s in a canyon in the middle of nowhere in Utah — Hanksville, gorgeous — and this approach was genius… it’s so… abusive to yourself, but a real love of light: a love of what that does to a scene and a care for what that does to a scene. It’s a real care to the shadows and the actors in the shadows, the dramatic effect. We work together so much because of that, but for this particular project and being out in New Mexico in landscapes, I remembered that moment, loving his commitment and self-abuse [laughs] for the beauty of getting the perfect picture. It’s a fucking no-brainer. ❏

Our interview with Hugh Gibson was conducted in September of 2017 and is part of our TIFF 2017 coverage, along with interviews with Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel, Sean Baker, Valeska Grisebach, Ben Russell, and Neil Beloufa.