Anja Marquardt on Blending Sex and Science

For the new season of The Girlfriend Experience, new director Anja Marquardt has come on to explore the world of transactional sex as established by the unique lens of Steven Soderbergh, who followed up his own 2009 feature of the same name by executive producing a series featuring a number of different characters in, somehow, a very similar position.

What does it mean, to pay for “a girlfriend experience”? While the first two seasons relied on filmmakers Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz to bring their vision as writer/directors to the topic, Season 3 features a new story told by the writer/director behind She’s Lost Control, who focuses on the story of Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), an American artificial intelligence specialist living in London for a new opportunity to explore how her scientific specialty — and her new sideline of working as a well-paid escort — might lead to a deeper understanding of humanity’s primal urges.

Below, Marquardt explains who was key to her involvement with the series, what it was like to work with Soderbergh to create her new take on the property, and how she approached the season’s very unique take on sex, science, and the intersection between.

Collider: To start off, how did you get involved with this project?

ANJA MARQUARDT: It was a really fun opportunity that just came to me. I was working on a bunch of science fiction projects and was researching artificial intelligence and all these fun things that scare me to death in my real life. And I got the phone call and I can’t describe the feeling. I mean, it’s really special when… Beyond special. I mean, I got the phone call and essentially the question was, “Hey, do you have any interest in having a chat about season three?” And there was only one answer for me at that point.

I could see a beautiful window opening and it had been a while since my own film, She’s Lost Control, had come out and I felt ready to sort of return to the table of somewhat familiar subject matter, but with a new point of view and with a new palette of tone and colors and ideas in my backpack.

And it was at a time where I was, I had seen the first two seasons of The Girlfriend Experience, and was a massive admirer of the franchise and how the filmmaking is so unique and bold. Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan really broke a new mold for television with that show, I think. And then how unique it is that it’s based on an independent film by Steven Soderbergh, who’s the captain of the franchise. I mean, all of that was just tremendously fun and no pressure.

Image via Starz

It’s interesting to hear that you’d already seen the first two seasons — was it as just a general fan of independent film and the previous filmmakers?

MARQUARDT: Absolutely. I mean, I do check out a lot, as much as I can get my eyes on, at least the pilot, but I had actually seen the entire seasons and I was familiar with Amy and Lodge’s work and independently really think they’re so, so interesting and their styles are so unique.

And then Steven Soderbergh has been a major inspiration for me becoming a filmmaker, 20 years ago when I started on my path. So there’s nothing like it out there in television to have this sort of filmmaker-driven show, re-imagining the anthology series. Every season is so different and specific and unique in its approach. So that was really just like, wow, this is stealth filmmaking in a television costume.

When you got this call, did you have any sense that it would be coming? Did you have any sense that you were even on their radar?

MARQUARDT: Oh, not at all. Not one bit, but I put the pieces together pretty quickly because in my mind, I mean, there would not have been any other reason for that call to happen. And I was like, I got to find out how he found my film.

Was the answer? What did you piece together?

MARQUARDT: Well, when we first sat down, it was just a couple of months later and the pitch had happened and there was a development process that’s ongoing and that we sit down and I’m like, “So now you got to tell me how, how did you find my little film?” And it turns out that Amy Seimetz had put together a little list and I was on that list.

So then the next thing I did, I called up Amy and thanked her profusely for remembering me from, I mean we’d had coffee in New York and our paths had crossed a couple of times, but I was really just tremendously grateful to have this opportunity. And it seemed like a really fun time to come back to the table with a new installment, because some time had lapsed. So there was this tremendous freedom to stretch it and go again.

Just to clarify what you just said, Amy Seimetz essentially put you on a list of recommendations to take over Season 3?

MARQUARDT: Yeah. That’s what I understand happened.

That’s great. I mean, and I feel like that’s such a nice aspect of the independent film world, is that a lot of people just genuinely know and like each other.

MARQUARDT: Yeah. That is, it’s really great. I mean, I feel like for instance, the class of people that I graduated with film school were all very supportive of one another and it feels like there’s something special about the indie world in New York, where I spent a good part of my life and made my film. And that that level of support is really beautiful and special. But also Amy was very kind and generous to put my name on the list. So it’s definitely, yeah. I credit her.

I’d love to hear about your first interactions with Soderbergh, just because if only based on his headshots and his personal listening and watching and reading lists, I find him to be a fascinating character.

MARQUARDT: Absolutely. I think his work speaks for itself in the sense that there is a degree of innovation and boundary-pushing and just never-ending inventiveness that is just incredibly entertaining and fun. And yeah, I’m a big fan.

Image via Starz

Yeah, he seems like he genuinely has fun with what he’s working on.

MARQUARDT: Oh yeah. I mean, I think it’s impossible to survive in this business for very long, unless you find a way to make it insanely fun for yourself. And I mean, personally, my approach to it is just to be mindful of who to have fun with and choose collaborators that really want to be there for the right reasons and for there to be a chance for our visions to align, because then it becomes just bliss and the opposite is yeah, the opposite of bliss, if the vision is not aligned is torture.

RELATED: ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Season 3 Trailer Teases an Alluring New Story Set in London

Absolutely. So talking about the show, first off, did you anticipate that you would follow up your film with a TV show of this scale?

MARQUARDT: I did not. In fact, I was purposefully turning my attention to projects that are taking place in very different worlds. And I was working on a turn-of-the-century, 20th century, project, set in the early incarnation of the wellness world, with the crazy theories about how to better oneself. I was also writing on a project that had to do with a future version of border enforcement and a rogue virus that had befallen humanity. That was before the 45th president got elected and before corona hit.

But, I was intensely working on that until it became utterly unmakeable. So there were a bunch of things I had in development. One was very close to actually getting made and then fell apart at the 11th hour. And so it was just in this sort of protracted development process. And my passion was at the time really sort of future-facing technologies, artificial intelligence.

So, when the call happened and then the development of Season 3 did a couple of sort of spins and then landed on this version of, okay, let’s go to London, let’s set this in the tech world. And then the pieces just clicked. And I was able to bring my personal future interests and nerdy research endeavors to the table and took it from there.

Where did the London element come from?

MARQUARDT: That was really an idea that Starz thought was very important. And It has to do with how this was meant to be a global launch. An international setting for this third installment of The Girlfriend Experience, I thought, was really smart and fun. And London obviously is such a beautiful place to explore in the architecture, the old and the new, it was tremendously inspiring.

So I went there after not having been in London for a while, just to soak it all in and then to tailor some of my ideas to the city specifically. It was an indie way of reverse-engineering the process, because I’m not from London. I mean, I grew up in Europe, but I didn’t know London that intimately. And it was really inspiring to be able to say, “Okay, let’s target this insane location for this specific scene that will be equally insane. And then just hopefully we can lock it in.” And that process actually ended up working really well and allowed me to be more specific in my imaginings of what Iris would go through.

In terms of?

MARQUARDT: Just as a fish out of the water and discovering the city in her own way. And there’s all these interesting people that she meets that come from different worlds, different pockets of reality within London. It’s very international. They’re all kind of passing through. It’s, not necessarily British, British, it’s more international. There’s clients from other parts of Europe, there’s some middle Eastern component. I try to open it up as much as possible.

Was there at any point a version of the story that did feature a British lead? Or were you always kind of like, it has to be an American in London?

MARQUARDT: I think that was my preferred way of thinking about the story, that in a way it is a fish out of the water story. Iris goes in for a radical reboot, leaving behind her life and the constraints of her previous existence. And we will learn about that in the second half of the show, how that came to be and how it’s her Achilles heel on what she’s bumping up against. And that would have been harder to narrate had she been a native Brit in a way.

As we went through the casting process, I think there were different incarnations of how we could go. And then pretty early on, we settled on Julia Goldani Telles, who caught my eye in The Affair, and I just thought she would be such a beautiful choice for a lead because she brings that fierce intelligence to the table. I believe that she’s a neuroscience researcher by day and can go meet a client by night and within 30 seconds read the room and know exactly what it is that she needs to deliver. So once we settled on Julia, I had the freedom to still tailor the scripts to her a bit. That was fun. And yeah, I think it was pretty, pretty clear at that point that she had to be American.

Image via Starz

What elements were you looking for in a lead for this project?

MARQUARDT: I think the main element that seemed crucial was a fearlessness and an ability to pivot and embody different versions of Iris, because she is such a chameleon as she goes through these interactions. And I had seen all of those qualities in Julia on the show that she was on previously, and it was just really interesting to sort of study how her character evolved over five seasons, starting out as Dominic West’s daughter, and then having her own plot line in the last season. So, yeah, that was fun.

The show’s origins are based in a frank depiction of sexuality. For you personally, how do you come at tackling this? Because it can be a pretty tough topic to talk about.

MARQUARDT: I think the franchise has a very nonjudgmental approach to the whole subject matter. And it’s not really about sexuality or nudity at all. It’s about what happens between two people in a room, or in life, in the scene. And to me, directorially, I think the scenes that do have a component of physical intimacy to them, the direction of it is not different than directing any other scene. The only thing that’s different is that we now have the addition of the role of intimacy coordinator. And you have to imagine that it’s sort of like a cross between movement choreographer and personal bodyguard for the actors.

And it all becomes about “how do we simulate this movement, so it looks real to camera?” So to me, I would say, yeah, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it does feel like my work remains on sort of the emotional component of the scene. Is this scene between two people who are in agreement or does one person have an angle? Like all the sort of the subtext of the scene is what I will try to bring to life. And then also my job is to remind the actor. So that’s what the scene was really about.

When you first started working with Julia, what were the conversations like? Given that this is clearly a show that’s going to talk about sex and going to feature sex — was there some level of taking her temperature and seeing how comfortable she would be with certain elements?

MARQUARDT: Yeah, absolutely. I think that was part of the first conversation that we ever had, getting together at a cafe in LA and just having a very sort of straightforward approach to it. I mean, the franchise, I think, has laid the tracks for how sexuality is depicted. And there have been different iterations across different seasons, but I think what they all have in common is a nongratuitous and salacious approach and a nonjudgmental approach that is tremendously important because it is about exploration of character. I think is important to just make sure that everyone is on the same page about it from the get go.

It’s a fascinating situation because on the one hand you have sex as an incredibly complex aspect of human life. And then there’s also the potential to shoot a sex scene and have it be genuinely erotic and engaging on that level for the viewer. Do you feel like doing both things are possible in the same scene, or do you feel like it’s kind of a separate situation?

MARQUARDT: I think my approach to it is that it’s all about human connection. And then, when choosing the tone and the camera movement and the way we portray any given moment in the story, it’s really about sculpting of tone and point of view.

And we made this sort of handshake very early on between all the creative collaborators that we wouldn’t be objectifying Iris — or anyone else for that matter. Everyone is a fully-fleshed-out person. So, the camera work would reflect that. And if there was going to be a moment of objectification on any part, like in any sort of way, let’s say there is a conversation between Iris and one of her clients, and he’s asking her to do a certain thing, perform a certain component of intimacy that then Iris is aware that this objectification is happening. So and I would say overall, there is no objectification. We’re taking great care to sort of keep Iris’s point of view the front and center of the season. So we’re seeing it through her eyes, everything that’s happening.

Image via Starz

To wrap up, what is it about bringing like a scientific lens to questions about love and desire that you feel like was important for the show?

MARQUARDT: I would say those were all my own fears about the way we live and might live in the future. I tried to bring all that to the writing and to the show as a theme and sort of undercurrent of how are we dealing with consent and data, and where does the person begin when the algorithm is grabbing all the information in real time and translating it into some other realm? What will happen to it down the line? How do we keep connecting to other people in a truly intimate fashion when there’s always the potential for it to be outsourced and aggregated on some level?

So yeah, I think the research that I did — and we had a lot of conversations with advisors or artificial intelligence consultants, Simon Strayer has his own lab at Oxford. He was a tremendous help. He helped me refine some of the scenes, get some of the dialogue right. How would two people talk amongst themselves? Two neuro researchers who’ve done this work, how would they have a shorthand with each other? All that stuff was really a lot of fun. And I took it very seriously because my goal would be ultimately that someone who is in AI or neuroscience could watch the show and enjoy it and feel that we’ve done our homework.

New episodes of The Girlfriend Experience Season 3 premiere Sundays on Starz.

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