Steven Soderbergh's latest film, The Girlfriend Experience, tells the story of a high-class New York escort (porn starlet Sasha Grey) struggling to build her personal brand. While she offers the illusion of intimate romance to clients who pay $1500 an hour for her company, she's also in a serious relationship with Chris—a personal gym trainer who earns a considerably smaller hourly rate to help his clients build their abs. The film itself takes place in the days before the 2008 election, in the anxious spasms of an American economy on the decline.
We met with Soderbergh to discuss whether we're all whores, why it's dumb to fuck for steak, and how Sasha Grey differs from Mickey Rourke.
The impression I got was that the movie considers any relationship where money's changing hands to be some form of prostitution.
It depends on how we define the term “prostitution.” In the entertainment business being a prostitute would be doing something you wouldn't normally do for money. Now, if you extrapolate that out beyond the world of an artist, most people are doing that. Most people are doing things they don't want to do for money. Most people don't jump out of bed to go to work, excited. It's complicated by the fact that there's sex involved, which is a very volatile, polarizing issue for almost everyone on a personal level and on a cultural level.
But, you know, you've seen the studio where I work. I'm just really fascinated by how money works. I'm fascinated by the fact that it exists. Because, you know, the first time that somebody asked somebody else to do something for them—the first time somebody said, “can you build me a structure out of wood for my family to live in, because I don't know how to do it.” I'm assuming that it began as a barter thing: “Yeah, I'll do it, but I want your wife.” Some sort of exchange went on.
How value is attributed to work that someone does is very interesting to me. So, you have Chris, who is making $125 an hour [as a personal trainer], basically keeping the kind of people that can spend that kind of money in shape, and making them feel good about themselves, or trying to. And you have Chelsea, doing something similar, but making a hell of a lot more money.
What are the numbers?
The really, really high end GFEs can command between $1500 and $2000 and hour. Ten grand for an overnight thing, or twenty grand for the weekend.
Are most of these girls working for themselves?
Yeah. At this level, they're totally on their own. It's all internet-based. They have their own methods for screening and determining whether this is a legit client. Their preference is to have a stable of regular clients, like five or six regular people that they see, and they kind of keep it at that; the ones we talked to anyway.
Then you add this interesting kind of wrinkle, which is this surcharge that people are willing to pay for an extra level of intimacy—for someone who really will do everything in their power to create the illusion of a relationship. From reading everything that you've read, to making out with you.
Assuming that there's something demeaning about having sex for money, do you think people that do this kind of 'girlfriend experience,' is it less demeaning than something that's purely sex, no intimacy, no kissing?
I don't know. Yea, it does depend on how you define “demeaning.” Because there certainly are jobs in the entertainment business that are demeaning. It also depends on how sacred you feel sex is. And I think it's a very human idea that sex is sacred, because all evidence suggests that it's really not.
Now with the escort…The non-sex time is in theory the relationship time. It's almost like a piece of theater. It's a full-on, engaged performance, where you're pretending to be the significant other of this person. And I would imagine that this is both more fascinating and more difficult.
One of the things we would ask [the escorts we spoke to was]: what about your relationships? Are you in a relationship? What is your worldview on being in relationships? Only one of them that we talked to was in a long-term, committed relationship, which was kind of used as a model for the movie. Their relationship really isn't anything like Chris and Christine's in the movie, but the idea that it existed, and that the man knew about it and was accepting, was the thing that we borrowed.
Most of them said first of all, getting into a relationship with a client never works.
And they've tried?
Yes. And most of them say if I really want to get serious with somebody, then I'll stop for six months, or nine months, to see where it's going. You have to remember that at this high end level, some of them or most of them have legit, high-end jobs that they go to every day, or a couple of times a week. They're almost invariably well educated; almost all the ones we talked to had college degrees, and a couple of them more than that. It's a real niche, this sort of, super high end GFEs.
It doesn't seem that much different than if you were dating for money to begin with: go after the rich guy. Your not an escort, you’re a gold digger.
I remember talking to one woman who was in this for a while and then got out and is doing something else. She said, “I remember tending bar in lower Manhattan, and I'd see these girls come in and talk to guys. I’d look at them and think: You’re gonna fuck that guy for a steak? You’re stupid. He’s gonna take you out to dinner, buy a couple drinks, and you’re gonna fuck him? You’re an idiot.”
We have to remember the unspoken part of this whole arrangement. If you're that guy [the client], you may be married—50% of them are married—or you’re a rich, busy guy who has no interest in having the commitments of a long term relationship. You just want it when you want it, but you want it to feel real.
Is that sad? To me it’s kind of sad.
Again it's sad because you feel like he [the client] believes they have a relationship. Again, who isn’t in that situation at some point? Who hasn’t been dating and felt like ‘there’s really something there,’ and the other person if you ask them is like ‘no, there’s really not, I’m trying to figure out how to get out of this but I’m scared to tell him.”
It's got to be difficult being a wealthy, wealthy guy who’s single and dating. You’d have to image: why is this person hanging around me?
At that point, my whole thing—this is my criteria for everything—is everybody getting what they want? I don’t judge what they want. What I judge is parity.
The girl wants money and the guy wants…
The girl. Okay, fine. Everybody’s getting what they want. That’s the way I look at it. If you get into the feelings than you’re making a moral judgment, and I reserve those for things that I think are significant—like sex with children. That’s a serious moral issue. But once we’re sort of adults and we’re out in the world, then it’s about parity. Are you getting what you want? Are you getting what you want?
Are you talking about the escort relationship?
I’m talking about anything. You were talking about the single guy with money who’s maybe older, and the young gir. Maybe she wants a certain lifestyle, he wants a young girl. What’s the problem? You, Scott, find that sad, so they should break up?
I'm just envious.
You may be that guy. You may be Mr. Anthem.
With luck I’ll be the sad, rich old man. It’ll be good.
Sasha’s role in G.F.E. is really interesting to me. I feel like she’s one of a number of porn performers who treat it as a feminist empowerment thing. I would imagine escorts working for themselves also feel the same way—they’re taking control , they’re in the driver's seat.
You can feel it when you talk to them—there’s absolutely a sense of control that they are into. They like the fact that they feel in control of this, completely. If I ask them—do you feel, do you get any pleasure out of the fact that you’re controlling all this? And they say of course I do, of course I do. I feel, in this situation, safe. I’m keying off of the guy, but I feel absolutely in control in a way that I would never feel in a normal relationship. So again, everybody seems to be getting what they want. They [the escort] for whatever may not want to be in a situation where they’re not in control. And the guy wants to be able to go, “okay…bye.”
It does seem a lot different once you take that pimp out of the equation.
Or as they’re known in my business, agents. That’s really the thing that bugs me—the illegality, the theoretical illegality of it creates the pimp. That’s the fucking lame part. If you go to Amsterdam you don’t have pimps in Amsterdam. It’s just the sex workers and their union.
Although I was reading something that says that’s not as utopian as it’s supposed to be.
I don’t doubt it. In any business—I…It’s a fact of the universe that drives me nuts. There’s always some asshole that’s going to ruin something. You throw a party with 40 people there’s gonna be some asshole who ruins it, who gets too drunk and picks a fight. Its just annoying that there’s always somebody who fucks things up. So I don’t doubt it. But at least in that situation there’s as much transparency as your ever going to get. It’s not underground. I can only use that as sort of a goal for anything—transparency.
The point is: if you criminalize behavior that gives people pleasure, you're going to end up with the shit we’re seeing in Mexico; sex slaves; whatever. As soon as you turn an activity that gives people pleasure into something illegal, you’re creating a criminal class. You just are. It’s this larger philosophical question: at what point are we going to stop making laws based on what we think the world ought to be, and make some laws based on the way people actually act? I don’t know how long it’s going to take. It’s frustrating to watch.
At a certain point, you’ve really got to sit down and go: if it’s not theft and it’s not assault, what are we doing? Why do I care? Because I have some idea that people, some lofty idea of how people should behave? Look at how they behave! I'm walking here there’s a fuckin' bus shelter for a show called The Cougar. ‘One older woman, twenty younger men.’ Now what am I supposed to call the people on this show, what term of art should I use to describe the people on this television show, and why is that okay?
I feel like they stole that from 30 Rock. The first season they had a fake show called—
MILF Island! It is! It’s MILF Island! I don’t get it. I don’t understand it.
How familiar where you with Sasha’s porn work before you cast her? For research purposes only I familiarized myself…
It’s extreme. Oh yeah. I read about her in Los Angeles magazine, and was struck by how she talked about herself and how she talked about the industry. She seemed atypical. The stuff’s intense. It’s really intense. And that’s her. It’s kind of a funny juxtaposition…You wouldn’t meet her and talk to her and think, oh wow she’s into crazy extreme sexual shit. She seems [like a] totally centered, coherent, curious 21-year old girl.
I forget she’s that young.
Shes really young. 21—a lot of shit happened to me between 21 and 24 that turned out to very formative. That’s young. And she is a very voracious person in every direction. She’s watched a lot of movies, she’s listened to a lot of music, she reads a lot. She’s a new breed of something. She may fuse all of these influences and experiences into something extraordinary. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
Like her character, Sasha realizes this is a finite property.
It’s like being an athlete. There’s no question she’s thinking: what do I want to do when I’m not playing sports anymore? I look at her and feel like well she’ll find that post-sports career.
Her role here is pretty close to what she is in real life. It reminded me of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. It’s so much him, you wonder—in the next movie, is he going to be able to carry it through being a completely different character?
Sasha does look like somebody who might live next door to you and you would not blink an eye. Whereas Mickey Rourke, if he lived next door to you, you would blink an eye. His physicality sort of limits him—his physicality has to be dealt with when you put him in the movie. Whereas Sasha can slip in and out. She can play a cashier. The question is, will somebody take her and sort of use her properly? And take advantage of what she has, instead of trying to make her something that she isn’t? That I don’t know. That’s a combination of somebody wanting to work with her, and her having a sense of what the best use of her is.
She’s a really interesting combination of impulses and interests. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what she does. She’s a real sponge, and she’s collecting—she’s collecting a lot of experience and influences, and I know it’s going to come out in some way that’s unique to her. I don’t what it is. I don’t know if she knows what it is—yet.
In the movie, it’s never really spoken…is their agreement that Chris is not allowed to fuck around on the side?
It never comes up. I guess their understanding is: that is your work. She can go fuck guys for money, for work, but if she had an affair that’s off the table. That’s the way I was sort of looking at it. To love someone, doesn’t that mean at the end of the day that you say yes to everything about them, that you accept them fully?
Would you? In an alternate universe…
I think I…I don’t define commitment that way. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in trust or whatever. But I don’t…I would never end a relationship over an infidelity.
I don’t mean that…
If that was her job? It depends on the person. If I was absolutely crazy round the bend besotted with someone, and I knew that my choice was: I can be with them and they have this line of work or I can not be with them at all…if I was just crazy cuckoo about them, I’m sure I’d go: yeah, whatever. The thing you want to know is, “am I special?” And at that point you’ve got to take a leap of faith when they say, “of course you are.”
I couldn’t help but feel bad for Chris. The whole movie I just wanted him to grow a pair and end it. When he’s her confidante about her problems on the job—you want to be supportive, but at the same time…
I had no idea you’re such a square. You’re just Squaresville.
I date escorts all the time. And they really love me for me. I also thought that Chris was gay, for at least a little bit. And when the guy tells him to come to Vegas…
They’re gonna turn him? No. That’s your own paranoia. But I like that whole fin de siècle aspect to that—a kind of grasping desperation to that whole ‘wooooohoooooo!’ Forced pleasure. I look at it and I go, how much longer is that going to work? A bunch of guys chartering a plane and going to Vegas.
Especially when you’re setting the film—[November 2008.]
It felt a lot like a bunch of guys getting together to have drinks before they go off to World War I. There’s this real sense of ‘this is ending.’
I know you like working in immediate current events, but were you nervous?
The plot didn’t really turn on it [the economic crisis]. It was all kind of sauce around it. I would’ve been nervous to make a movie that the fulcrum of the narrative is reliant on a topical event. But this just felt like flavor that played to the core of the movie. I felt lucky.
Well, it’s good for the movie that the economy has continued to fail.
I don’t think there’s any danger—I think we could have held it for a year.
You get the impression that half these characters [Chelsea’s clients] are probably going to be on the chopping block in two months.
All of those guys work in that business. I saw them all last night. They’re hanging in there, but they’re like, ‘it’s terrifying. It’s really terrifying.’
The Girlfriend Experience premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. It's out in select theaters on May 22nd.