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Interview: Anja Marquardt Breaks Down the A.I. Focused Third Season of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’

There was a time where it seemed as though The Girlfriend Experience wouldn’t be back for a third season. It had been an interesting road for a project that started off as a 2009 Steven Soderbergh film starring Sasha Grey, a film that quickly came and went and has become quite criminally overlooked in his filmography. It found surprising new life in a 2016 series on Starz with a 13-episode first season starring a then mostly unknown Riley Keough in a breakout role as a sex worker who gives her clients the full “girlfriend experience”. 

The series, executive produced by Soderbergh, was run by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who wrote and directed every episode. The second season took on its own unique path as Seimetz and Kerrigan not only went the anthology route of abandoning Keough’s character to focus on new leading women, but they also split the season in half and told two entirely separate stories in alternating episodes. Seimetz was in charge of the episodes focusing on a character played by Carmen Ejogo, while Kerrigan’s half centered on the relationship between Anna Friel and Louisa Krause

As this was a series that never followed any traditional path, it seemed like perhaps the end of the second season was the end of it all, as time went by without much news on a third season emerging. Then, all of a sudden, we were back in business. Not only was the third season happening, but it would be one of the first series to start up production during the COVID pandemic, and Seimetz and Kerrigan wouldn’t be writing or directing any of the episodes. 

Instead, the third season was created, written, directed, and showrun by Anja Marquardt, the German director of the Independent Spirit Award nominated film She’s Lost Control. Marquardt took the series into the world of AI, and out of the United States to London, telling the story of Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), a neuroscience major who drops out of school to join a tech start-up while also working as a sex worker. Marquardt uses these two unique worlds to examine the bridge between artificial intelligence and human social interaction of the casual, familial, and transactional varieties. 

It’s another fascinating season of one of the most unique and engaging shows on television, and I spoke with Marquardt to break down how she came on board the project and what motivated her to push the series into these new avenues that she goes down with the third season. Read on below for my interview with Anja Marquardt: 

Mitchell Beaupre: I’ve been a huge fan of The Girlfriend Experience since the very beginning, from Soderbergh’s film to the work that Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan did on the first two seasons to now. How did you get involved with the project for this third season? 

Anja Marquardt: I also was a big fan of the film and the first two seasons. I was so impressed by what Amy and Lodge created. It’s such a unique situation to come into an anthology series where the pillars of the universe have been established, but then there is tremendous freedom still given to me. Steven had one marching order for me, and that was to be bold and go for it. Starz was very open to letting me bring the tech angle to the table and to reimagine the transactional relationships that the lead character has through the lens of tech and through the world of AI. 

MB: Even for an anthology series it’s pretty rare for somebody completely new to come in and be the writer, the director, the creator, the showrunner, everything for their own individual season. How much agency did you have over the creative control of the season? 

AM: It was really like bringing the independent filmmaking model to TV, in the sense that you have 10 episodes to sculpt tonally and aesthetically, with one director, one DP, one editor. That is really unique. That extended as well to having this structure that’s more contained in terms of crew size and how we’re operating. Some scenes there are more extras but a lot of it is really the lead character interacting with one other person for several pages in one location. We really get to deep dive into those exchanges and what constitutes their emotional arc across the season. I took a leap of faith in the writing to make it my own, and I was very much encouraged to do so. I think it helped that some time had lapsed between the second season and this, and it allowed me to create my own worthy continuation of this franchise that I’m a big fan of. It was the best of both worlds. 

MB: What did you want to keep from those first two seasons of the series and what did you set out to alter and put your own stamp on that was different from what had come before? 

AM: Overall the ideas that are in this elevated drama thriller space were really appealing to me tonally and on a thematic level I loved this idea of free-will versus determinism. In all three seasons we’re really looking at a character making choices and watching them justify these choices, and it’s never through a lens of judgement that we’re following them through the season. It was important to uphold that ethical distinction. I think the expectation when I came in was that I would take it away and re-imagine it aesthetically and in terms of the storyline and who the protagonist is. The network came to me and brought up the idea of setting this season in London because they wanted to target something more international. That was tremendously exciting for me as I was born in Berlin so I gravitate towards having an international component in my storytelling. Ultimately we’re all connected and we have to solve the big questions collectively. It gives a more global sense to this season. 

MB: Was shifting things into the world of tech and AI integral to your vision for the season? I read that you were already working on your own script for another feature within that world when they first approached you for Girlfriend Experience

AM: Absolutely. I had been filtering all of these thoughts and points of entry in various scripts and projects that I was working on. Interestingly, they were all in the feature world, but it was pretty easy to shift and reroute all of that and find a good place for it here. It’s interesting because sometimes we work on something so passionately and then the project doesn’t go for one reason or another, but I find that one has to trust the process – that all the intensity and passion that goes into it, all the research and the writing, that will all find a different place in another project somewhere. That was The Girlfriend Experience for me. It’s five years of research channeled into ten episodes, which ultimately is much more interesting than just having one 90-minute feature. 

MB: How was that process for you? Did you find it invigorating to be able to map out an entire story on your own like this from start to finish over such an extensive space of time? 

AM: Yes, along with being able to embrace that half-hour format for every episode. That ten-episode paradigm was set in place by the network and then I was given tremendous freedom to infuse every episode with something specific. I think if you look at them they all have quite different flavors and there’s some far out episodes that are sort of the opposite of what the show is in general – episode six in particular. 

MB: Episode six truly is jaw-dropping, and I think it speaks to one of the key elements that’s been with this series from the start which is the way that we see the main characters build genuine relationships. You’ve got that juxtaposition in that episode between Iris being at the sex club wit her one client, but then out in the fresh air and the open world with her other client, and they’re both so specific but she’s fully involved in both. 

AM: That juxtaposition, as you put it, is very much intentional, and highlights how there’s a wide spectrum of experience in the girlfriend world. We see her having this very real, totally invested connection of two people sharing the space in this beautiful naturalistic location that feels so connected to the world. Then on the other hand we have an augmented reality experience that is pure simulation. Yet within that she is still able to find a way to have her own unique experience that is quite unexpected. That party scene was such a fun collaboration for all of the different departments. It was a marvelous location in London, the Tate Modern, which was such a grand architectural space to fill. Then we had these beautiful extras, some of them dancers, and it was all this real collaborative choreography between everyone. 

MB: Something interesting that comes up often in the season is this idea of “mirroring”, and you use that concept to link that bridge between where we’re going with AI to sex work, but also in the way that we all socialize and mirror each other almost naturally. Could you speak about that idea and how it provides those links to the tech world and AI? 

AM: It’s getting more and more intricate. There’s this notion of generative adversarial networks where an AI is pitted against another one and they learn from each other and they’re effectively set up where one AI is simulating the data and using a given data set to extrapolate simulated sets, then the other AI is mirroring back the accuracy of it and says “actually you made a mistake here and here and here, let’s try again”. It’s this endless ping pong, or a feedback loop, of mirroring between neural nets. I think there is this interesting overlap between how we teach each other and how AI apparently is now teaching. AI is learning from us, and Iris is certainly a master at mirroring back to her clients exactly what it is that they want. 

MB: The development of Iris is fascinating because she is somebody that we invest in and always need to be leaning in to figure out what is going on with her. You had to find the right balance where we feel like we know her to a degree, yet we’re always at a little bit of a distance so that she remains this enigma where we’re never one hundred percent sure what’s driving her. 

AM: That’s really the intricate balancing act of the entire season, to introduce this single-minded agent and then to peel away the layers of what’s really underneath her, what her weaknesses are. The family-related subplot definitely comes in and becomes more and more significant as the season progresses to tie us into her abilities and her future as a person, and we understand how that is directly driving her decisions. 

MB: Could you talk a little about that subplot with her father and how that links to Iris’ fixation on AI and on how the mind works? 

AM: I think Iris sees what’s happening with her father, and she has this sort of immediate emotional understanding of what puts a smile on her dad’s face, even in his diminished state. That’s a lot of fodder for her to think about AI and to understand the binary nature of desire and emotional need, in a way that has nothing to do with sexuality. For Iris, it’s about human connection and that idea of having yourself mirrored back by a loved one due to that connection is broken for her because her dad isn’t quite the same person that he used to be. I think it’s something that we all deal with at some point, whether it’s because of a cognitive disorder in someone we love, or just because life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to and people slip in and out of our lives. 

MB: One of the most interesting things about this season is the way in which you build this bridge between sex work, social interaction, and AI. While watching the season I also began to think about how that bridge extends to you as a filmmaker, as a writer and director, because your job is to analyze human behavior and replicate it on screen for the audience to understand and recognize it. 

AM: Right, that’s such an interesting question because it’s really the reverse engineering of anything, the authenticity and naturalism of human behavior and emotions. I don’t like rehearsals very much unless it’s for something technical that needs to get worked out. My preferred way of prepping the actors is usually to talk about what the scene is about emotionally and what the motivation for each character is. For myself and Julia, those conversations were focused on tracking Iris’s arc between scenes. It’s really interesting as a director because you’ll be seeing a scene come together in camera while on set and then later you put all of the layers on top of it – the editing, the music, everything. It’s almost like an in-process image that’s being generated. There’s so many different elements on set of this neural net that the crew is, with everyone contributing to it. Maybe there is a deeper analogy there that’s worthy of exploration. 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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