Working Girls depicts a day in the life of several prostitutes working in an Upper East Side condo apartment. It's told largely through the eyes of Molly (Louise Smith), a lesbian woman with an Ivy League education. In preparation for the film, director Lizzie Borden spent six months interviewing sex workers in various economic situations about their working conditions and how they felt about their occupation.
“The idea for the film Working Girls comes from the montage of women’s work in Born in Flames (1983), the sequence of women doing things with their hands, including the shot of a woman putting a condom on a man’s penis. Several women who I knew during the course of making Born in Flames were sex workers. I was in an environment where sex work was intriguing to me and the idea of demystifying sex work became Working Girls. I thought, nobody really knows what middle class sex work is, and they have preconceptions about it. What I’d seen in the cinema were either women who were on the street who were seen as pathetic, giving blow jobs for five or ten dollars, or high class call girls. Both were romanticized in movies or reality. I’d never seen the humdrum existence of a brothel, to really show what the work was, and show that sex work is really not different from any work. If you decide that you want to spend eight hours renting your body because you don’t want to spend 40 hours renting your mind at Kinko’s or waitressing, that’s your choice.
Working Girls was more a film about work than it was about sex. Some people went into this movie thinking it was about sex. That actually derailed me as a filmmaker because a lot of people thought I was an erotic filmmaker, and those were the scripts I was offered. But this was meant to be the least erotic film you could ever see. You were meant to be a fly on the wall to see what women experienced about the men coming in. As opposed to the typical way you see a brothel shown in film, with the man’s point of view of the array of girls and you go, ‘Which one of the candies in the box do I get to have today?’ It was the other way around. Okay, here’s the guy. And you get to see the way the women respond to the men; the ones who are respectful, the ones who aren’t. And none of the women have perfect bodies and you see that too.”
Lizzie Borden: One of the reasons I felt it was really important to go into the bedroom in Working Girls was to demystify what happens. So often, movies about prostitution stop before you get to see what actually goes on. (...) In the bedroom I wanted to focus on the economics of prostitution, as the economics work out visually in this ritualistic exchange of goods: the condom, the exchange of money, putting the sheets on the bed.
There are some things I doubt men ever see: a woman lying on the floor putting in the diaphragm or washing blood out of it. I’d always been curious about how a prostitute deals with periods. And the issue of hygiene was interesting. A prostitute is constantly washing all these men off, gargling with Listerine and brushing her teeth. Those were the things that fascinated me.
I totally designed the bedroom shots. We [Borden and Director of Photography Judy Irola] collaborated a lot on the downstairs shooting, where there were a lot of dollies. Most of the angles in the bedroom scenes are not subjective camera, but they’re from a woman’s point of view. There’s no shot in the film where you see Molly's body the way a man would frame her body to look at it, except when she’s looking at herself in the mirror, for example. But, even there, I set up the shot so that if we are looking at her body in that scene, we’re also looking at her eyes looking at her body. The first time you see her without any clothes on, she’s alone with herself, and our gaze is involved with her watching herself. [B]y the end of the film, you've seen Molly take her clothes off fifty times. Her body becomes so familiar, it’s like your own body after a while. That’s what I hope happens. Her body is deromanticized.
Scott MacDonald I understand Working Girls is the first film in which you’ve worked with professional actors.
Borden: It was hard to get women to even consider it. Finding Louise [Smith] to play Molly was very lucky. She had never taken her clothes off before for a movie, but as it turned out, she was just great. Louise had to act all the sex scenes, one right after the other, for a week. She felt like a prostitute by the end which was great; that’s how she as supposed to feel, though the sex is simulated.
MacDonald: In Working Girls, the awkwardness in the actors doing what they do seems perfect for the situation.
Lizzie Borden in conversation with Scott MacDonald2