In part one of this diary, The Auteurs' contributor Glenn Kenny described how he came to be cast in Steven Soderbergh's latest film The Girlfriend Experience. Here, he chronicles his participation in the shoot.
The shoot for my first scene is in a large, lofty apartment in the East ‘30s of Manhattan. It’s where Sasha’s character, whose name, I finally learn, is Chelsea, lives with her trainer boyfriend.
Steven Soderbergh—whom I’ve met a couple of times at various functions, but with whom I haven’t had a long conversation in about seven years— is sitting on a couch, dressed in black with requisite director’s baseball cap. He is low-key, droll. “The man,” he says when I enter.
Over a decade ago Soderbergh wrote a very entertaining book called Getting Away With It, which alternated a lengthy interview with one of his filmmaking idols Richard Lester (of A Hard Day’s Night and Superman 2 fame) with a diary of his own year soldiering several filmmaking projects, including his own very idiosyncratic Schizopolis. The tone of the book was self-deprecating to almost a fault (as its title and subtitle, “The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw” indicates). The diary ends as he’s about to take a meeting with Julia Roberts, which will, of course, lead to Erin Brockovich. After that, he’s gone from success to success. Well, not exactly. But he now works so unceasingly that his infrequent non-successes barely register. And in any case he’s never made an uninteresting film.
My point here is, while Soderbergh may still be filled with self-doubt and worse in his very rare off hours, on a film set he rules with quiet confidence. Like Che, this picture is being shot with the newfangled Red cameras, digital gizmos that are remarkably lightweight, have zero problems with natural light, and produce an image with the full resolution of 35mm film. In addition, here, as has been the case with his last 12 features, Soderbergh is his own director of photography (using the pseudonym Peter Andrews, after his dad) and frequently operates the camera himself. The work goes very fast.
In short order I am introduced to Ms. Sasha Grey. She is petite and has a firm, dry handshake. And she is genuinely pretty—kinda Keira Knightley-ish, but less angular—with beguiling green eyes. She’s a little distant, almost, dare I say it, shy. There’s not much time for small talk.
My questions for Steven: “So what’s the deal with this guy? How out there is he? Where does he land on the crass meter?”
“He’s definitely out there,” Steven says. “And the crass meter? In the red.”
Steven explains that the guy, who’s only known in the screenplay as “The Hobbyist,” wants Chelsea to have sex with him for no money. Essentially, he’s requesting a review copy. Well, all right then. That answers a bunch of questions in one fell swoop. Then Steven drops the name of a contemporary movie mogul who is alleged to have wooed many of his leading ladies with a ferocity above and beyond the call of pure professionalism. “ ‘Look what I did for so-and-so, she was nothing before she met me, I made her blow up…You really want to work with me,’ ” Steven riffs. Suddenly I get it.
We do two takes in rapid succession. I’m secreted in a side room, while Sasha paces a terrace. When she calls (She’s supposed to be returning my voice mail message) I ask her—of course—“what the fuck is up?” I then tell her that I’m not trying to browbeat her into meeting me. I then browbeat her.
She’s perfect. An ice queen. After I blow some smoke about hooking her up with guys who’ll pay more for a mere introduction to her than what she currently gets for, say, a BBBJTC, she wearily agrees to meet.
Sasha’s a bit friendlier after we’re done. “You were awesome,” she grins. I consider using that as a blurb for my blog. “You were awesome!” —Porn Star Sasha Grey.
And, she’s gone. No time to talk Godard or Fassbinder.
Greg Jacobs, the film’s producer and a longtime Soderbergh cohort, asks me to write my “review” of Chelsea. It’s going to be a negative one. We call up an actual review from a site for a template. This client bitches that the escort wouldn’t let him touch her “down there” because she “was bleeding.” The rest of the notice has a similarly high ick factor. I ask Steven, “Should I go this hardcore?”
I dash off something very unpleasant, describing a thoroughly unsuccessful sexual encounter, evoking clammy hands, and worse. The kicker is a very self-satisfied “A splendid time is NOT guaranteed for all.” There are a couple of word and clause reps in the copy; I don't fix them, because I think this guy should be a somewhat sloppy writer—undercuts his smugness a bit, I think. I read it through aloud twice for the voiceover, going for maximum awful smugness. And I’m done. It’s before noon, and leave on an adrenaline high that lasts the rest of the day. It occurs to me, though, that what I’ve described in my “review” is what I’m going to have to enact in the next scene.
My second scene calls for my character, “The Hobbyist,” to meet up with Chelsea in “a strange Brooklyn apartment.” Well, the location and production people have clearly done their job. The place is a storefront adjacent to a furniture store in Greenpoint, and it’s a mess. Lot of exposed brick, minimal furnishings (the bed looks like it was shipped in from a mental hospital), a sliding metal door right out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I consult with Chris, the wardrobe guy. We think a blazer would be a good idea—let’s have the character make a little bit of an effort, since the environment alone is spectacularly off-putting. But not too much of an effort, we figure—and to that end, Chris gives me this hideous Exorcist-puke-green v-neck a size too small for me (everything, these days, is a size too small for me) which we pull this way and that, to pit it out.
Then I have to duck into a back room to change into the garish boxers my wife secured from Old Navy for me. For a moment I am butt naked, standing about four feet from the female wardrobe assistant who’s steaming out a shirt, while Chris guards the door-less doorway. “The glamour of this business never ceases to startle me,” he observes.
I try to "use" my setting, as bleak as it is. There's an out-of-tune piano in the place I can make a joke out of. Better still, Steven's decided to shoot Sasha's approach to my lair through the furniture store, and has miked up the little old man who runs it—who looks exactly like a guy who would own a furniture store in Greenpoint—and has him lead Sasha to me. I think it would be funny, and creepy, to say "Thanks, Dad!" as cheerfully as possible as he presents her at the door.
We shoot Sasha’s entry through the Texas Chainsaw door, and now we’re ready for the big face-off. More she resists, Steven tells me, the harder I’m to push. As before, Sasha is to be the immoveable object. Until she's not.
Before we do our first take of Chelsea and The Hobbyist on his ratty couch, which will be a long shot from the back of the room, I consult with Steven and Sasha about the bit of business I’ve concocted with the Everyday Hygiene Item. They’re into it.
Neither Sasha or I know if the scene’s gonna end up with us rolling around in our skivvies or me getting slapped in the face. Well, I suppose Sasha knows. There hasn't been much time to consider just how I feel about what it's gonna be like to grapple with the not-unattractive Ms. Grey in the altogether, or at the very least the semi-altogether. Should the scene come to that, I know that we'll both be pretty chilly, given the temperature of the storefront. Of course in my case any prurient interest has been suitably tempered by my uxoriousness. And that said, there's the ever present "but still..." factor. And that said, allow me to quote from Provision Six of the Standard Terms of the Non-Union Daily Performer Agreement I signed: "Performer agrees to simulate such sexually explicit conduct only, it being agreed and understood by Performer that (s)he is not being hired to engage in actual sexually explicit conduct, that Producer does not give its consent for Performer to engage in actual sexually explicit conduct in connection with the Picture." Rolling that over in one's mind produces roughly the equivalent effect of the bucket of ice water Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta pours down his boxer shorts in Raging Bull.
We shoot the scene in three different camera setups, and because of the miracle that is the Red camera, the setup time between takes is minimal—allowing Sasha and me to stay “in the moment” if you will. Still, there is time for some small talk, and I regale her with a tale of my own porn past: working as a production assistant in 1980 on a New-York-shot porno A Girl’s Best Friend, one of the first star vehicles for one Ron Jeremy, a then-slim, hirsute auto-fellator who has since puffed up and transmogrified into a grotesque porn legend known to one and all as “The Hedgehog.” Sasha smiles wryly. “I’ve met him, like, twenty times, and he never remembers who I am.”
“Well, he strikes me as the kind of guy who’s not really interested in anything aside from what you might be able to do for him,” I observe, trying to sound sage-like. As we talk further, I’m oddly heartened; Sasha seems not just levelheaded in general, but more than reasonably aware of the scuzziness of the porn business. (I understand that there are few things more thoroughly banal than feeling protective towards a porn star, particularly a porn star who owns her own super-freakiness as wholly as Ms. Grey does. So call me banal.)
Good news for the American movie going public: it will not be subjected to the sight of my half-naked carcass. The resistance of Sasha’s Chelsea is pretty much intractable, despite The Hobbyist’s near-lunatic descriptions of what he’ll be able to do for her if she plays ball. After which he gets really weird. The scene will cut away from the Strange Brooklyn Apartment at the point when he reverts, as it were, to adolescence.
Still. With each take, I’ve been able to get physically closer to Sasha. Close enough to try to steal a kiss, or even, speaking of adolescence, cop a feel. From what I know of her work in adult, she scarcely seems like an easily fazed individual. But it just doesn’t seem cricket. Despite, it has to be said, the extremely tempting lace of her black bra peeking out of the low V of her partially unbuttoned blouse. Do I bite my lower lip as my gaze wanders over the creamy skin of her decolletage? If I don't, it's a tribute to my understatedness as a performer. I do, finally, take her hand, and in a deliberately lame stab at the Continental approach, kiss it.
Steven is incredibly pleased: “You’re gonna be famous, man!” Sasha is giggling, and telling me that it was really hard not to crack up during the last take.
And they’re outta there, to shoot in Manhattan. For me, it’s a wrap.
And as I walk back to the subway, clothing bag in hand, I reflect. Relieved as I am not to have had to remove any clothing, I had been handed a potential opportunity few married men ever get—to share space with a naked woman who is not my wife, with an absolutely legitimate out for it. And, in the interest of dramatic verisimilitude, I fudged it.
But that’s okay. As we professional actors like to say, it's all about the work.