Prior to the release of the sexually charged lo-fi thriller The Girlfriend Experience, Amy Seimetz was best known as an actress, working on shows like the US version of The Killing, and HBO'sFamily Tree. For indie cinema fans, it was her leading role in Shane Carruth's mind-bending Upstream Color that saw Seimetz break out. It's a career that has taken her to high profile projects that included Alien Covenant and Stranger Things 2. For Siemetz, however, acting has been something of a side-gig while pursuing her own filmmaking.
It was the debut of her TV series, The Girlfriend Experience, that really put Seimetz on the map as a major talent to watch, with the series garnering high praise from critics. Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz was particularly rapturous, declaring it as "one of the best shows of the year, and a major work by everyone involved".
Referring to screen culture as "a major work" is a term generally only applied to the most revered film auteurs, rarely applied to creative talent crafting television shows. But The Girlfriend Experience is a transgressive work, pushing the boundaries between the form of prestige TV and independent cinema. The show was one of several series willed into existence by revered filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, with his own HBO series The Knick entering production alongside shows he produced, Red Oaks for Amazon, and The Girlfriend Experience for Starz.
Seimetz is the co-creator of The Girlfriend Experience, alongside writer-director Lodge Kerrigan. Together, the two wrote and directed every episode of the first season of the show. Seimetz also took on a supporting role in the series, appearing as Annabel, the older sister of the shows protagonist Christine (played by Riley Keough).
While on the set of Alien Covenant, Seimetz spoke about the experience of bringing her indie auteur sensibilities to television.
Dan Barrett: You went from production on season 1 of The Girlfriend Experience to working on a Ridley Scott movie. What’s it like working at such different scales of production?
Amy Seimetz: Oh my gosh. I never thought I would be in a movie of this size. Starting from my humble indie roots. It’s sort of incredible. I feel lucky that I’m exposed to this, because I feel like a spy in a way. I direct and produce, so when I get on a set, I absorb how things are run and it’s just really exciting to be exposed to something of this size. For the most part, in the industry, women don’t get the opportunity to work with this size budget. I’m absorbing it and trying to understand how I can do it. It’s really interesting.
Did Ridley treat you as another actor or does he appreciate your role as a filmmaker?
He definitely knows… I’m developing something else with his company. But I’m still just an actor - I know my place. [Laughs]
Are there any learnings that you can take from a production of that size back to the independent film world? Or is it too big and vast?
No. [Laughs]. At the end of the day, it always comes down to the simplicity of designing your shots and working with your actors one on one. It comes down to being in front of the camera and clear communication of telling a story. Even though it’s this huge machine, he’s been brilliant and knows exactly what he wants. No matter what drama is going on on set or how chaotic it seems, the simplicity of remembering the story you’re telling and composing the shots, it’s universal for any film production.
The Girlfriend Experience feels like a new sort of TV in that it has a direct relationship with indie cinema. In thinking about the discussion around the death of the mid-budget films and the changing landscape for low-budget productions, is a show like yours the way forward for filmmakers like yourself to tell your stories.
The landscape has changed so much and the way we’re consuming media is so different to the way it was a decade ago. TV and film are merging in the same way, we’re consuming film and TV in the same way, digitally, on-demand, binge watching. What’s interesting is watching all of these independent filmmakers move into television because TV has to fight for new and interesting and original content in a way that it didn’t have to before. It dominated what people saw and now people have a taste for original content. Now they need more, so TV outlets are looking for people with new and original vision. I don’t think that it will replace independent cinema, but it’s an interesting new frontier for everyone.
Would you consider more TV beyond The Girlfriend Experience?
Definitely. I was spoiled and this is to the credit of Steven Soderbergh and Starz, they gave complete creative control. I don’t think I could go backwards where I’m being told what I should make. I have a taste for freedom and I don’t necessarily want to go backwards. So, as long as it’s under those conditions that I can do whatever I want, I definitely would love to continue working in television.
Did Steven Soderbergh have much involvement once the show was up and running.
Yeah. I consider him a peer. I know that’s maybe presumptuous of me. Starz gave Soderbergh final cut, which in essence meant Lodge and I had final cut because he respects our work. The whole spirit of the show was that he wanted to give complete creative control to filmmakers because that’s when you get original work. Also, it’s much more efficient. The reason independent films can work on such a small budget is because the director is dictating every single decision down to the financial decision.s Usually the director is trying to get as much money on the screen. For the most part, he let us do whatever we wanted. We gave him our scripts and gave him our edit to take a look at. But for the most part, it was more of a conversation between Lodge, myself, and Soderbergh. To give him credit, he really respects the process of the filmmaker and storyteller. He takes more of a stance of “Here are some suggestions that might make you look at your story in a different way”, as opposed to “You have to do it this way”.
In the same way that Soderbergh birthed the indie film movement in the early 90s, it feels like he’s re-shaping TV by hiring people such as yourself. How conscious were you in terms of sticking to or breaking TV conventions as part of that storytelling?
It’s interesting. Yes, he is taking advantage of this new atmosphere as much as all these independent filmmakers are. He is so smart and in tune with movements in cinema and movements in television that he thought, before a lot of people did, that this is a new frontier and let’s move into it and dominate it with original content. Because I was told that I could do whatever I wanted, Lodge and myself treated it like a giant independent film than we did television. I knew eventually it would be binge watched, because that’s the way everyone is consuming content. It’s much more interesting to approach it like a giant film than it was episodically.
While at the end of season one, Christine’s arc is concluded, but there are a number of narrative threads are left hanging? Will any of those threads be followed up on in later seasons?
I think what Lodge and I were interested in is that the story is complete. Her story in this specific period of her life is done at the end of the season. It doesn’t mean that it’s the end of that character in the fictional world, but for us this specific story is done. Coming from the world of independent films, you respect your viewer and you respect that they will be okay being left with questions. It opens it up to more of a conversation than it does telling you how to feel about something. It leaves you with thoughts and questions. It is far more exciting than wrapping it up in the way traditional TV does.
There have been a number of parallels drawn between Christine and Monica Lewinski. I was wondering if that was intentional at all in your storytelling, or if it is maybe just reflective of the power dynamics at play?
There’s definitely an intentional aspect. We talked a lot about Monica Lewinsky and I’m fascinated by how that story unfolded. A huge thing for American culture is the way that we treat women when sexuality comes into play. It is hard to avoid thinking about that when a woman’s sexual life is suddenly on display. It opens up this disgusting part of human nature, calling women names that you would never call a woman that you respect. I can’t imagine what Monica was going through during that time. There’s no one else on earth that experienced what she went through. We definitely had lots of discussions about that and how people perceived her and how people treated her and what they said about her when her sexual life was on display for the entire world.
Now that you have done this show, how interested are you in going back to a movie narrative? Or has serialised storytelling caught your interest?
I’ve definitely caught the bug for serialised television. It’s not something that, when I was younger, I thought I would be doing. But that’s because television has changed so much in the past decade. I definitely don’t think I am done with film because I do like telling concise stories in a smaller format. In an hour and a half. It’s just a different set of tools narratively. It’s much more contained. Writing six and a half hours of content takes a really long time. There are some things alluring about going back and writing something contained and 90 pages.
The Girlfriend Experience is streaming now at SBS On Demand.