Interview: Lodge Kerrigan (THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE)
Lodge Kerrigan is best known for his darkly mesmerizing independent feature films REBECCA H. (RETURN TO THE DOGS), KEANE, CLAIRE DOLAN and CLEAN, SHAVEN.
He is the co-creator of the Starz original series THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE. While the series is executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and premised on his film of the same name, Lodge, along with Amy Seimetz, created a uniquely provocative and immersive character study of a women who works in the sex trade industry.
We spoke with Lodge about his writing process, how he believes the television industry should operate and on being fearless.
How were you and Amy Seimetz approached to co-create Starz’ THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE?
I’ve known Steven Soderbergh for about 20 years. He has produced / executive produced a couple of films of mine. He called me and said he wanted one male filmmaker and one female filmmaker to write and direct the entire season and if I would be interested. He felt it was really important to have both perspectives. I had worked with Amy before, directing her in an episode of THE KILLING, but I didn’t know her particularly well at that point.
What parameters did he set for you for the series?
To take the title and start over. The TV show is an original series, suggested by the film of the same title written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman. The only other requirement was that we didn’t set it in New York because the film is set in New York and Steven wanted to make sure the audience didn’t confuse the two. We approached the season as a six and a half hour film that also works as thirteen 30-minute episodes.
The show centers on the character Christine Reade. Can you tell me about how you constructed her identity, or identities, and how you built her narrative arc?
Amy and I were interested in examining someone entering the world of high-end escorting who compartmentalizes the different aspects of her life and the choices that she makes when those aspects start to cross over and collide. Someone who reveals different aspects of herself, not only to different clients, but also to all of the different people in her life. When Christine engages with her clients, she’s the one in control. She determines how intimate she is with them and how much she really reveals of herself.
Amy and I wanted to write a character that is complex, rather than likeable or identifiable. Christine is very intelligent, very ambitious, very driven, manipulative, selfish, contradictory, unapologetic and self-serving. Qualities that you usually find in a male character.
What kind of research did you do about girlfriend experiences?
We met with a number of providers and spoke to some clients. We also had two consultants on the show, who were very open with us about their experiences.
Were you trying to keep it true to a sex workers’ experience or did you look to create an experience unique to the character Christine?
It wasn’t our idea to represent the sex trade, but rather to examine this one character. Christine is not meant to be representative of everyone in the sex industry – different providers have different experiences — and we certainly weren’t focused on trying to make any judgments about sex work. We were very clear that we didn’t want to editorialize. We wanted to remain neutral and have the audience make up their own minds about the decisions that Christine makes.
What was the writing process for you and Amy? How did you go about drafting the six and a half hours and breaking it down into episodes?
We wrote a 15 page treatment that wasn’t, by any means, a traditional series bible. It was more of a sketch of the main characters and an overall arc of Christine’s journey. Steven went out and shopped it and Starz was very interested. But instead of going straight to series, they asked if we would write a couple of episodes. We wrote them very quickly and they green lit the show.
Amy and I then broke down all the episodes on a large board with cards, with each scene in each episode clearly defined. We discussed them with Steven and then started writing the individual episodes, splitting each up into two halves. Then Amy and I would meet and rewrite together, line by line.
We did a total of three passes and gave them to Steven for comments. Working with Steven is incredibly supportive. It’s really a discussion between three filmmakers. He would never impose changes on us, just offer his suggestions. When we finished, we submitted the scripts to Starz and had a very encouraging conversation with Chris Albrecht.
There was never a point in the process that we were forced to take notes that we didn’t agree with. It was a very respectful conversation throughout the course of the show. Steven had final cut, which in essence meant that Amy, Steven and I had it, because that’s the way Steven works.
Then we submitted the episodes to Starz. They had no notes at all. They were very happy.
Looking at those scripts, are there any scenes that you feel really translated from the script to the screen that really speak to the characters and the storyline that you created?
All of them.
The more experience I have as a writer, and the more experience I have as a director, helps both parts of the process. As a director, if I can understand the screenplay, if I can understand the dramatic elements of the scene, the emotional and psychological lives of the characters and what’s really at play, the subtext of the scene, then I don’t need ownership over it. I don’t have to be the one that generated the idea in order to direct it. I think my experience as a director has also made me more flexible as a writer, in a similar way. And because all of the scripts were written up front, Amy and I had a clear sense of what Christine’s world should look like, what it should feel like emotionally, what the tone would be.
Visually, everything is very clean looking, which is so different than most other shows that have dealt with sex workers.
That’s the world that Christine operates in. She operates in a very high-end, wealthy sector of the economy. Those worlds usually are represented by… the idea of luxury in our society is often defined by that kind of metal, glass architecture and a clinical feel. Everything is very quiet, still and distanced.
There were certain visual ideas that Amy and I tried to incorporate. At times, there is a certain distance or element of spying on Christine, almost being a fly on the wall, trying to observe her in her private moments, with the hope that you feel, as an audience member, that you are really in the room with her. At other times, we tried to get much closer to Christine to really understand her psychology and emotional life. Amy and I both wanted, very strongly, to convey Christine’s character through her actions, her behavior, and not through traditional exposition or dialogue.
As a filmmaker, I’m much more interested in what people do than how they explain themselves. I think it’s much more fascinating to watch somebody actually do something in real life. They don’t necessarily provide all the answers. You have to watch them carefully to see what cues they’re giving, in order to try to understand their behavior and underlying motivations. I always approach characters from understanding their emotional and psychological lives through their behavior first. I think that this show is really antithetical to traditional television in that specific approach.
You said that THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE was not following a standard TV model.
The standard TV model, as you know, is one that’s pilot-driven and writer-driven. I think that a straight-to-series and director-driven model of television, such as THE KNICK or the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE, is actually preferable.
Can you go more into that?
I think if networks and studios go straight-to-series, it allows an opportunity where you can generate all the scripts up front. I think that’s crucial, because then you can bring on one, or in the case of THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, two directors to direct the entire show. That gives a real specific unity of vision that you don’t get from the standard pilot-driven model, where the scripts are being generated as the show is being shot and, as a result, they bring in different directors.
If all of the scripts are written up front, as a director, I can explain all of the characters clearly to the actors and answer all of their questions. It’s not an ongoing process of evolution in the script where you don’t know where the character is headed. We all know the exact journey of each character and, as a result, the performances become more specific. In addition, the shooting process is much more efficient.
Because Amy & I directed the entire season, we knew from a stylistic and from an editorial design standpoint, how it was all going to fit, so we weren’t forced to over cover. We were also able to block shoot locations from different episodes at the same time and not have to return. As a result, we were able to move faster and our shooting days were shorter, which is less taxing, both on the cast and the crew, and results in better performances. I think it’s a far superior model, actually, in pretty much every way.
Do you feel that having written those six and a half hours of script in advance allowed you to think about the psychology of Christine and the supporting characters in a way that created more depth to each of the characters?
In a more consistent way. If you understand the entire story from beginning to end, and by story I also mean the characters’ psychologies and their emotional lives, you can map that and articulate it. To go on set and know exactly how an entire season plays out can only be an advantage. I can’t imagine any scenario where it would be a disadvantage.
I also believe that if directors play a significant role in the creative process from the very beginning, it can only be a benefit. But, in order to achieve this, it’s necessary for the networks to go straight-to -series, to bring on a director at the very beginning and have them direct the entire show, and that’s all contingent on generating the scripts all up front.
You’ve directed for television, but this is your first project writing for television, correct?
Did you go about writing in terms of dialogue or scene structures differently for television?
No, not really, to be perfectly honest. Perhaps the only difference was that we wanted it to work as a six and a half hour film as well as thirteen 30-minute episodes. On that level, it’s more complicated than just writing a six and a half hour feature film. It has to work on two different levels time-wise. But my approach to the material is the same whatever the screen is. I try to understand the characters’ psychologies and their emotional lives. I try to track them and place them in a context that makes sense thematically. As a director, I do the same thing. It’s all action, reaction.
John Waters called you the master of filming mental illness in reference to your film CLEAN, SHAVEN. Are there elements that you feel you’ve kept consistent in how you write characters?
CLEAN, SHAVEN examined a character that was dealing with schizophrenia. Christine is not dealing with a mental illness, certainly not a psychosis.
Christine works in a world of transactional sex. She’s an escort. She’s a provider of the girlfriend experience. That necessitates that she’s going to compartmentalize her life. If she compartmentalizes her life, that’s going to cause, at some point, some degree of conflict between the different aspects of her life. Whenever you compartmentalize something, you can’t compartmentalize it completely. There is always going to be some spillover. To what degree that spillover affects you emotionally and psychologically is different for everyone.
That’s really what I’m focused on. It’s very logical but it comes from a place of trying to understand a person’s emotional life, their reactions to the situations that they’re in. It comes from something very organic and I follow it in a logical way. That approach doesn’t change with different stories. I still take that fundamental approach.
Were you part of the casting of Riley Keough for the part of Christine?
Yes. Steven had worked with her on MAGIC MIKE and suggested that we meet with her. He thought she’d be perfect for the role. When we met, Amy and I were really taken by her. She’s magnetic and fearless.
Do you need to be fearless for this kind of role?
Not necessarily in the obvious way. I think Riley was really courageous doing the sex scenes, which aren’t easy and can be uncomfortable for an actor, but also because she carries the entire series. She’s in 95 percent – if not more – of the scenes. The show rests on her shoulders. In addition, she has to transform throughout, emotionally and psychologically. I look at her at the beginning of episode 1 and at the end of episode 13 and she also comes across so differently, physically. She has this chameleon-like quality. Riley obviously is extremely talented, but she is also fearless. She exposes herself fully as an actor when the cameras are rolling. She’s not holding anything back. I think that takes a lot of courage.
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