TORONTO — Starz’s upcoming original series The Girlfriend Experience is a 13-episode anthology that focuses on the lure of high-end escorting. Second-year law student Christine Reade (played by Riley Keough) secures an internship at the prestigious firm of Kirkland & Allen in Chicago. Working hard to establish herself at the firm, her focus shifts when a classmate introduces her to the world of “transactional relationships,” known as GFEs. The experience causes her to juggle two very different lives.
Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz (pictured, below right) are the show’s co-creators and co-directors. They share executive producing credits with Steven Soderbergh and Philip Fleishman. According to Kerrigan, the first season, which will air some time in 2016, is presented as a complete work.
“We approached it and wrote everything up front, so it had a certain unity and vision from the beginning, as opposed to something that was evolving in a more traditional sense, where you complete a pilot and do Episode 2, and then figure out Episode 3 and 4,” he notes. “We figured it all out right from the get-go.”
The show is presented in 30-minute episodes and was shot from March through mid-June of 2015. “We shot in Toronto for the majority of the shoot,” says Kerrigan, noting the team also spent four days in Chicago and one in Florida. “It was financial incentives and the currency exchange,” he says of the decision to shoot in Canada.
Kerrigan and Seimetz split up the directing duties, tossing a coin to determine who would work on which episodes. “We alternated them in a way that made it as equitable as possible, so that we both have as much influence on creating the world as possible,” he recalls.
Most of the series was shot indoors, but on-location. No stage sets were used. “It’s a reflection of the content of the show,” says Kerrigan, “which is about a high-end escort and a law student who enters the world of a high-end escort. By its very nature, it’s an interior world — a lot of hotels, high-end restaurants, the law firm, stuff like that. The story tends toward interiors and it is largely interiors, at least in the episodes I directed.”
The show was shot using one, and occasionally two, Red Epic Dragon cameras, and relied almost entirely on natural lighting.
“The show is very much lit in a nontraditional way,” says Kerrigan. “We did supplement it with some, but not a lot of, lights. We chose our locations very, very carefully, and scheduled and used a lot of natural light. We still back lit a lot of stuff and tried to follow the sun.”
Seimetz adds that relying on natural light while in Canada during winter and its ever-changing weather, sometimes affected the series’ shooting schedule. Five days were allocated for shooting each episode.
“Because we were dealing with that threat,” she says of the weather, “I only had a few days — especially in that law firm, which was a raw space that we did designed. Our production designer went in and knocked out some walls so we had more window space so more light could pour in. I had a few days that we had to cut short because it was wintertime and it would start to snow. The weather was inconsistent. We didn’t have any lights, so we were shooting very fast. Essentially, we were fighting clouds, but scene-to-scene. As long as it wasn’t within a scene, we were OK shooting with the weather.”
Kerrigan adds that the series takes place roughly over one year’s time, so scheduling also had to maintain consistency among the changing seasons.
Steven Meizler served as DP, and viewers will note in the very first episode, the strong use of focus shifts within the frame. “For that episode, it’s very purposeful,” says Seimetz of the changes in focus. “It’s more to give it an air of mystery. It’s unexpected when you go out of focus and direct the viewer to something that comes into focus. It’s a lot more mysterious and a little creepy in a way. I used it quite a lot in my episodes.”
Seimetz adds that she and Kerrigan had a common set of rules that they would follow to maintain consistency between episodes, but also left each other room to add their own creative stamp.
“In a vague sense, we really wanted to get across the feeling that you are a fly on the wall,” she explains. “You are in the room with them watching something that you don’t feel that you should be watching. It’s incredibly intimate and secret scenes that you don’t get a chance to see. Stylistically… it’s like you are spying on her essentially.”
Both Seimetz and Kerrigan brought in their own dedicated editor. Greg O’Bryant is an editor that Seimetz has known for years, dating back to her college days. His independent film sensibilities closely match that of both directors.
“Since we were editing while we were shooting, we needed people who were fast and used to working in scrappy, DIY conditions,” Seimetz explains.
In Kerrigan’s case, he called on Kristina Boden, who he’s worked with since 1998, when she cut Clare Dolan, an independent film about a high-priced call girl. “I did some episodes for the Sundance show The Red Road, that she cut too,” he adds, “so we have a long history of working together.”
O’Bryant and Boden worked out of the production offices in Toronto while shooting was taking place, and then moved to New York City, where they set up a Harbor Picture Company (www.harborpicturecompany.com).
Editorially, Seimetz says the show “is not ‘cutty.’ It’s a very patient show, but there’s a lot of information jammed in there. Each episode is pretty ambitious in terms of locations, but most scenes are just two people talking. You want to stay with them and observe them, and you don’t want to be flashy. Just be patient, like you were in the room, watching them.”
All of the editing, color timing and sound mixing took place at Harbor. “They are really fantastic,” says Kerrigan. “The fact that it’s one-stop shopping is fantastic. It makes everything so incredibly efficient. If we have to bounce from the editing room to VFX, it’s right down the hall. The ADR stages and mixing stages are literally right next door to the editorial suite. It made everything convenient and really excellent. We went there for the talent, but the convenience? It was just a bonus.”
Seimetz credits associate producer David Kirchner with making the transition from Toronto to New York very fluid and for working within their budget. “It’s not an easy task,” she states. “It’s very hard, and he was integral.”
At press time, all 13 episodes had been delivered and were undergoing the QC process. Should Starz move ahead with a Season 2, Kerrigan says it would feature an all-new cast and storyline.