Artificial intelligence and science-fiction have gone hand-in-hand for a long time onscreen, from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and the “Terminator” films to “The Matrix” (1999), “Minority Report” (2002) and “Ex Machina” (2014). Since AI has infiltrated more and more of our present reality, taking a closer look can be frightening as seen in last year’s doc “Coded Bias”, directed by Shalini Kantayya.
I had the pleasure speaking with Anja Marquardt, the creator of the third installment of “The Girlfriend Experience,” an acclaimed series based off Steven Soderbergh’s film of the same name. Anja and I spoke about what brought her to the series, the sci-fi tech additions to this season and what she hopes people will see in her work. We also touched on the amazing editing skills of Nick Carew that took me on an unforgettable cerebral trip.
My favorite thing that she said to me was: “I would hope that if the show might inspire a more inclusive type of conversation about how to steer those beasts” following with: “we have to put a pause button on things and just re-examine how and why so we do it correctly moving forward.”
The third instalment of the anthology series is set amidst the London tech scene and focuses on Iris, a neuroscience major (Julia Goldani Telles, “The Affair”). She begins to explore the transactional world of “The Girlfriend Experience,” only to find herself deep inside the uncanny valley with the relationships she creates. Iris quickly learns that her client sessions provide her with a compelling edge in the tech world and vice versa. She then begins to question whether her actions are driven by free will, or something else altogether, and heads down a deep path of exploration. (press notes)
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to “The Girlfriend Experience”?
ANJA MARQUARDT: I was a big fan of the film by Steven Soderbergh and also season 1 and 2 by Amy Seimetz and and Logan Kerrigan. I was impressed by how there can be an independent film type anthology series based on a Steven Soderbergh film. It’s a unique show in the television landscape. I got a call in 2018 that came completely out of the blue and blew me away because the question was, “do you have any interest in chatting about season 3?” I had to take a deep breath, and a resounding yes was my answer.
I was in the middle of a rewrite at the time, doing a lot of work on various screenplay projects. I had been writing up a storm since my film “She’s Lost Control” came out. For one reason or another none of these projects went into production. It felt like I was in a holding pattern for a while, but then in a way it enabled me to jump when the call came. All of my development work at the time had been around subjects related to technology and artificial intelligence, and just future facing SciFi stuff and all of that I was able to reroute and bring to Season 3 of “The Girlfriend Experience”.
MARTIN: How did you go about casting your star, Julia Goldani Telles?
MARQUARDT: That happened pretty early on in the process. We found her and we brought her in to read a scene. She had done really tremendous work on “The Affair”, and she stood out to me as being kind of fearless, nuanced, and in the moment. And I thought that she would be able to embrace the complexity of Iris, who goes in as a “girlfriend” putting on these different roles for different clients, but then also her end game as a scientist, and as a researcher, is to use the behavioral data she extracts from those interactions and use them in a very different way in her day job, which is at this elusive AI start-up in London. You needed to believe that she had a brainy side to her. I think Julia is a very vibrant person, and I was very excited about the prospect of working with her.
MARTIN: My brain was literally doing gymnastics with the editing style of the series, the way that different scenes were pieced together and how the dialogue is overlaid. Can you talk about that process?
MARQUARDT: I’ll have to tell Nick Carew, the editor, immediately that you used the “gymnastics” metaphor. I think you’re totally right. I wish he could be here right now and talk with us about it, because he’s such a great artist in that sense. The big challenge of the editorial process I think was to find the tone right between the grounded naturalistic performances with this elusive hard-to-pin-down future-facing vibe that goes from everything between memories and augmented reality and Iris’ daydreaming or rehashing of what’s going on in her life. And even in some of her interactions with her clients, I think there is an editorial approach that allows breathing room for the stuff that’s not said, but what happens between the lines.
MARTIN: What’s something new you’re trying to represent or bring to the screen with “The Girlfriend Experience” that has not been represented before?
MARQUARDT: This season is keeping with the belief that has been set before in the film, but also in the previous seasons in “The Girlfriend Experience”, which is a nonjudgmental approach to the work and the character. We are more interested in learning how they will justify their choices than to question the choices.
I think in that sense it follows squarely in the footsteps of previous seasons. I think my personal approach and how season 3 is different could perhaps boil down to two things. One is obviously the tech angle, bringing the idea into the mix that there is an aspect of simulation that happens for any of these “girlfriend” situations. And then there is a question of how well AI or technology might be able to simulate desire or attraction or cater to whatever any given person might need or want in their counterparts. There’s the idea of simulation, augmentation, and just tech becoming an enabler of human connection. And then the other component is that it was really important to me to figure out a way to give Iris the reigns in every single episode, so she would really be the one steering these scenes. I wanted her to have an end game in the sense that there is an active pursuit that she can have as a protagonist, and it’s not just some passive experience of whatever situations befall her. She has an endgame, even if we may have different theories in different parts of the season as to what that endgame might be.
We enter with her even into her first encounter in the restaurant at the end of the pilot. We understand that this lady has some serious stuff up her sleeve. Because it’s not just there’s something, and we’ll find out what it is, but there is an end game, and she’s kind of creating a whole science experiment here.
MARTIN: It is so refreshing to see sci-fi in this medium directed by a woman. I’m excited to follow your career and I’m excited to hear about what’s next. Is there anything you can share?
MARQUARDT: Thank you for talking about science fiction. My own approach to the genre is that I’ve always felt very drawn to grounded sci-fi because in a way it enables us to have conversations about reality in a way that is much more complex than in a drama set up, or even a documentary set up even. I think science-fiction just opens up this interesting door into another vantage point.
I would say half of my projects that I’m currently shepherding forward have an orientation in that direction as well to their different degrees, because I think it’s going to be something that is fascinating to me until the end of time. As for other projects I’m working on, there’s one television show that I’ve been developing with a co-creator over the last couple years. It has been a passion project for the both of us while we were working on other things. And that’s set at the height of the Cold War. It’s looking at the life of two athletes who are competing, and it’s really about the framing of good and evil using athletes for propaganda in some sort.
MARTIN: What do you hope people see in your work?
MARQUARDT: I hope above all they just enjoy the work, and it gives them an opportunity for escapism, and a deep dive into something that might be of interest to them. If they feel drawn in and want to binge, that would be all I could hope for.
I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a teacher, but I would hope that film, television, and story in general are like having a campfire and allowing conversation to unfold. AI is certainly nascent, but also the train has left the station. The future of it is enormous, and is unbeknown to all of us. So if the show inspires a more inclusive type of conversation about how to steer those beasts, that would be great. Much has been said about human bias and AI and how for instance racial profiling has found its way into AI applications, completely unintendedly but still we have to put a pause button on things and just re-examine how and why so we do it correctly moving forward.
MARTIN: Advice for emerging female-identifying and non-binary filmmakers who are interested in creating a series?
MARQUARDT: I think this is a very exciting time to be telling stories and there is such a demand for new and diverse voices, more so than ever before. I think we all need to pay things forward to some degree. And I’m tremendously grateful to the people who’ve given me a hand and given me the trust and opportunity to spread my wings, like Steven Soderbergh has done with season 3 of “The Girlfriend Experience”. I’m excited to see how filmmakers are helping each other and how all boats can rise in telling more unique stories from places we haven’t heard before. I’m very excited by it with how it’s all rolling.
One thing that I found really helpful was that if you’re able to write your own material or re-write material for you to direct, it feels like something that is increasing the odds dramatically. So I would say while you’re waiting for other things to happen, the days spent writing are not lost days.
The first two episodes of “The Girlfriend Experience” are now available to watch on Starz.
Some female directed sci-fi film shout-outs, that are not necessarily linked with AI, but worth noting: Kathryn Bigelow‘s “Strange Days,” and recent films “The Old Guard” directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “High Life” directed by Claire Denis, and Jennifer Phang’s “Advantageous”.