Any Color You Like: Writer/Director Jill Soloway on her Golden Globe-Winning Transparent
Speaking about the transgender movement and his leading role on the new Amazon Original series Transparent, actor Jeffrey Tambor exuberantly told Entertainment Weekly, “This is a brave new world.” From Emmy-nominated Laverne Cox’s Time Magazine cover to landmark federal policy laws, 2014 was an explosive year for transgender visibility and politics. Alongside these milestones, Jill Soloway’s groundbreaking new show mines the emotional landscape of trans-ness with a feeling-driven, multi-dimensional story of a family’s reckoning with a retired professor (Tambor, in a brilliantly nuanced performance) coming out as transgender. Funny, poignant and provocative, it’s been hailed as one of the best new shows by critics and audiences alike and nominated for Golden Globes for best actor and best comedy.
Featuring incredible work by co-stars Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass as Tambor’s dysfunctional adult kids, the series breaks new ground on so many levels. Extending ideas of trans to encompass, well, everyone’s reckoning with gender and identity, Transparent also embraces trans as a formal strategy, blending genres, visual styles and a unique production environment. Inspired by seasoned showrunner Soloway’s personal experience with her father coming out as transgender in 2011, the series builds on her previous work as an Emmy-nominated television writer (Six Feet Under, United States of Tara, How o Make It in America), award-winning feature director (for Afternoon Delight, which earned her Best Director at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival) and outspoken feminist comedian and co-founder of wifey.tv. In Transparent, now filming its second season, this diverse body of work brilliantly fuses into a profound and unique exploration of gender, identity, family, religion, Judaism and generationality.
When I think of the concept of trans-ness, I think of qualities such as hybridity, fluidity, openness and specificity, and Transparent seems to embody all of those qualities. Can you talk about how you approach creating such richly detailed and complicated characters while still allowing them the space to be fluid and shifting? I love that you are talking about the feeling of the show as trans because trans just means “between,” you know? It means intersectionality. It means “both.” It means “and.” It holds a duality.
Three years ago, I would’ve talked a lot about the “feminine” as a director, as a writer, as a producer. About how allowing some feminine principles into my work were at the heart of how my first feature, Afternoon Delight, happened. But as I developed Transparent and got to know a lot of trans people, I saw how many ways the masculine/feminine binary was dangerous. I’ve had to give up saying, “I work from the feminine. I’m creating from a female point of view.” A lot of what I do does come from the feminine, but there are a lot of masculine principles as well. And so what you’re seeing, really, is an intersection of, for lack of two better words, the masculine and the feminine.
When you talk about all of the details [of the show], I wish I could say that I was responsible for all of them, but I’m really not. As a filmmaker, what I really do more is act as a camp counselor, as a psychologist, as a director and a writer. With Transparent, I brought the story forward. I offered the grid of the season — four characters on the vertical axis, 10 episodes on the horizontal axis — to six writers and lit the flame of joy, art-making possibility, soul and the unspoken group process underneath them. I hired writers, like Micah [Fitzerman-Blue], Noah [Harpster] and my sister Faith [Soloway], who make me laugh and who think about the same things I think about. The scripts they wrote, even before I did my pass at them, entertained me. And then, similarly, when I was shooting, I offered a grid of certain boundaries around how we were to behave to one another at work — some pretty strict rules about how we act. And that really allowed for the actors, the cinematographer and people on the crew — but especially the actors and the cinematographer — to be in their bodies and allow feeling to move through them so that we could record it. My whole directing style was basically creating these boundaries around process, meaning we gather from a spirit of gratitude. We understand that we’re really lucky to be paid to have this job. We don’t run around acting like we’re out of money or out of time. We try to make each other laugh. There’s no such thing as wrong.
All of your characters ricochet between deeply conflicting emotions. They feel trapped and in conflict with their inherited identities. The whole series is about their desires to be seen as they really are while they all have this intense uncertainty about who they really are. This seems like the opposite of most shows, where character consistency drives the plot. If a character does something surprising, it’s a dramatic plot point, but usually, in episodic series, they return to their established identities. In Transparent, however, the plot is their emotions. Can you talk about that? I learned TV writing from Alan Ball and Six Feet Under. You have your grid for the season, and then you put up your grid for each episode and then you have each character and you go from scene to scene to scene. What are you doing to get what you want? You don’t get it, you leave the scene, you go to the next scene, you try something new. And you’re usually trying harder. And so, that’s the story.
A lot of TV shows confuse story with plot. When I went to work on How to Make it in America on their second season, and I watched their first season, I said to them, “You guys are confusing story with plot. You have plots about the denim business, starting your own fashion company, whether or not you guys are dating the same girl, but none of this is story.” Story is revealed by plot. Story is about humans and human needs — it follows the heart of the character — and plot is about things that happen. Sometimes it’s as simple as like, “Drop it down from the heart and call it your uterus, call it your womb, call it your dick, call it your pussy — what are you driving towards? Where does your desire take you?” [On Transparent] Ali wants the feeling of oblivion she thinks will come from sleeping with two guys at once. And then, once she gets that, she wants more. She wants to be high on her own ability to live in her own ideas. She wants to get higher. The high isn’t enough. She wants to now be high on her own ideas. She can’t have that. She gets kicked out. The consequences that are happening to these people are emotional consequences.
Sarah wants to be seen. She wants to be free. She wants to have great sex. She wants to fall in love. And so she follows all those things, and she follows them to Tammy. And once she gets there, she realizes that those weren’t the things she thought she wanted. And when you get to a place, like in episode 10, where she’s thinking about having sex with Len, you realize the things she wanted were just the boundaries, the oasis of secrecy. It wasn’t Tammy. It wasn’t sex. It wasn’t new sex; it was just the safe space of secrecy. And somewhere in there she can live within a darkness that calls to her, that she wants to swim around in. And so, I don’t think she changes what she wants. I think she changes what she thinks she wants. But I think what they all want is to understand the depths of who they are in relationship to their familial legacy.
[Transparent] is less about me wanting to subvert traditional television than me really having the opportunity to tune things to my taste, and my taste is stories about people, stories about love, about sex, about gender. I’m just telling the kinds of stories that are exciting to me and would make me want to keep the TV on. But there are a lot of people out there who get excited about stories about zombies or the apocalypse. And those shows actually do really well. I’m just tuning it to my taste, and my taste is an emotional one.
In terms of tone, you strike such a balance between comedy and drama, between subjectivity and objectivity. You create these very funny scenarios that are also biting commentary on these characters — their selfishness, their egos, their hypocrisies — while you’re simultaneously tracking their emotional lives so deeply and are empathetically inside them. The story and filmmaking keeps moving inside and outside of your characters. It feels like Louis C.K. meets Andrea Arnold. I love that. That’s the highest compliment you could ever give me.
I don’t get credit for the Louis C.K./Andrea Arnold fusion because I’ve been reading your interviews. But you do successfully intersect these genres of cinema and television in complicated ways. How do you move between those two types of energies and visions? It’s the same thing: not really consciously trying to do anything other than to satisfy myself in the same way that it looks like what Louis [C.K.] is doing or Lena Dunham is doing. And then what Andrea Arnold did in Fish Tank. It was, for me, as if the camera got inside the protagonist and was looking through her eyes, looking out at the world as her instead of looking at her. That’s my goal with my characters. I think when you look at Lena’s directing style on Tiny Furniture, she created these staged pictures. And then, since she’s got her TV show, she’s started to go into some more traditional coverage. With Louis, he’s just following around his dick and his neuroses and his comedy. I wanted to move the point of origination, not in the camera, as I feel like Lena probably has it, and not in the sort of guts, which is where Louis probably has it, and more inside the characters, like inside their bodies looking out at us. It was really important to me that there were five [characters] instead of one. When I watch Girls, I’m kind of waiting for the other three characters to get off the screen so I can see more Hannah. I really just want it to be the “inside-Hannah’s-body” show. For me, that would be an antidote to Louis. He gets to do it, but there’s so much male privilege, so much looking at and fantasizing about women that as a woman watching it, you have to sort of put aside your gender to love Louis. In my imagination, after Maura comes out as trans, the other characters are free floating in some giant outer space. And then, they all grab onto this lifesaver, this ring of light. They’re all holding it at once, and what’s inside that light is their question and their quest to understand. There’s no singular protagonist, and the fact that it’s not anybody’s story makes the show feel different than most shows, where you know who the hero is. On Transparent, it’s always moving. You’re always moving who you root for.
The tonal thing is the same as with Afternoon Delight. Take a story that seems incredibly absurd — mom brings home a hooker, dad decides he’s not dad anymore — and play it as straight as possible. And in heading for the truth of it, I only cast funny people. And so when you get somebody like Kathryn Hahn [in Afternoon Delight] or Amy Landecker or Jeffrey Tambor [in Transparent], who are comedic geniuses, they’re not trying to land the jokes that I’ve written. They’re just trying to be real and be “in feeling,” as [instructor and consultant] Joan [Scheckel] would say. And then, using the same cinematographer, who also trained with Joan, he’s also feeling in his body. He was probably crying more than anybody. He’d pass out, lie on the floor and sob after scenes. We were all just being feeling junkies with funny people.
When I visited and watched you on set, I remember sometimes you’d talk directly to the actors during a take and suggest they try different things. Or you’d throw in a new line. How have you developed your instincts so strongly? I think that’s a challenge for me. The ideas come up to the right or left of me, like these little butterflies. And at first I’m trying to scoot them away so that I can focus on what I’m doing. And then, my second thought is, “Oh, this is my instinct. This is an idea for this scene. Look at it. Listen to it. Let it in.” And then I take it in and then go and tell it to the actor. So I would say a huge part of my journey are those four beats: hear it, look at it, listen to it, communicate it. Most of my journey is about taking those four things and making them happen quickly instead of taking a week. And now I’m trying to make them happen in real time, like instantly.
And believing in them. And believing in them. I know my first instinct is always that they’re just these annoying thoughts, but they’re actually the truth. And they’re so hard to pay attention to — especially for women, but [for] anybody, really. It’s about being in your body, and I actually think men have a really hard time with it.
That emotional attunement seems very strong between you and your cinematographer, Jim Frohna. I was wondering about your process together, because Transparent does look and feel different than Afternoon Delight, even though he was the cinematographer on both. Were there certain things you two were looking at as visual references? We were watching movies together, [but] we always knew that the Transparent house would have an orange, brown, green thing happening. Afternoon Delight was very pink and turquoise to us. So, similar to our earlier conversation, if I talk about Afternoon Delight, I only talk about the feminine. In talking about Transparent, I almost had to round the entire color wheel. I do these collages when I’m figuring the show out. Pink and blue and how they make purple became Sarah’s story only. The house and all those memories were olive green and orange and brown. Josh was really just white. And I could see the color palette for Ali and Maura. Ali was reflecting the orange and the green and the brown from the house in the same way the dad says to her, “You and I share the depressive gene.” They also share that kind of nostalgia and those muted, muddy colors.
Also, I realized that most of Afternoon Delight was conceived before my Dad came out, so I only had access to a certain piece of the pie of my own psyche. And so, if you say Ali is me and Maura is my Dad, it’s taking this huge unspoken part of the puzzle and revealing it. And that’s probably one of the biggest differences between Afternoon Delight and Transparent — besides the fact that I learned how to direct in between.
I think people will look back on Transparent as a game changer, and ask, “How did she do this? How did she create this groundbreaking show that is so on her own terms?” What advice do you have for filmmakers struggling to find an original vision, when so much is pushing against them? I talk about Amazon being this amazing place for me where I was given the ultimate creative freedom, but I really do believe I offered them something that they don’t come across often, which is I had 15 years of TV experience and had been a showrunner and understood what it meant to break a season and have a writer’s room. When I felt like I had hit the ceiling in the world of TV writing, and I couldn’t get my own show on the air, I had to figure out what my voice was by actually making a film and directing. I had to answer the call to punch above my weight to really know if I could make a moment or a scene work, because working in television, even “good television,” is so collaborative that if a scene didn’t work, if a joke didn’t work, I could always say, “Oh, well, I didn’t cast that actor. Oh, well, I didn’t choose that song. Oh, well, I wasn’t in the room when so-and-so decided that this scene had to be cut like that.” So [directing films] was really just me getting sick of my own negativity and blaming.
Una Hora was my first short and then Afternoon Delight was me deciding, “All right, put your fucking money where your mouth is. Get a friend’s house, get a camera, tell the actors to show up, fucking shoot it. Then, look at it and make it better.” Everybody’s afraid to do those things. They’ll develop things for years, or they’ll try to raise money. Nobody will do the simple thing. It’s like, don’t even get a friend’s house. Do it in your own house. Get your 5D. Pick the time. Pick the place. Bring the camera. Bring the people. Write down something to say or not. Shoot it. Cut it. Look at it. Do you like it? Just start there, as opposed to the little external goal posts people put up for themselves. “The deadline for Sundance is blah, blah, blah, so I’ve got to get this finished.” “I need to raise $10,000.” “I need to get into the Sundance Directing Lab.” “I need to get so-and-so actor.” Just get rid of all that stuff, go right into your stomach, right into your place of desire, of need, of attraction, of hope, and answer it.
Do you have a crush on an actor? Get that person. You think somebody’s house is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen, but you’d be scared to ask if you could shoot there? Ask them. Follow your own feelings and then take a stand for the doing of it instead of the dreaming of it. And then, the thing I say to everybody is, film is so collaborative that you have to be open enough that you can let a lot of people in, because you need people — the cinematographer, the actors, everybody — to want to do it for you. If it’s you, they need to say, “I am working on Jill’s film, and I am so excited to be doing it because it’s her.” You have to have these spaces in your process where other people can join in and be seen. But you can’t have so much space that any of their negativity can slow you down or stop you. That’s what it’s about. It’s about that trans-ness; that balance.
Now I would never tell people, “Just charge forward with your own vision.” That’s completely horrible advice. It’s like, “Charge forward with your own vision, get as much feedback as you possibly can, don’t let any of it stop you. If you notice feedback is stopping you, get out of your fucking ego and learn how to take the information without having your feelings hurt. Move forward. Bring people with you all at the same time. Welcome outside voices. Get rid of the ones that don’t work. Allow the ones that do work to bring you to more outside voices. Then, go back and put your head down for a week and don’t let anybody in, then open it up again.” I think this, whatever it is, in betweenness, balance, intersectionality, trans-ness, it applies to everything and everybody.
You are starting to work on the second season this month, in January. Where do you want to take the characters and the show in this next season? At the end of the first season, everything has been more or less smashed to pieces, emotionally speaking. So how do you take those pieces and rebuild? That’s what I’m really looking forward to exploring in the second season. Now that the show has had a season to find its rhythm, I’m excited to push not only the story, but also the style, further. I want to confront the pockets of these characters’ lives that we weren’t fully ready to explore while we were still establishing ourselves — especially that of Maura’s. I’m looking forward to seeing how the perspective of a transfeminine writer will shape the story: What new depths will that perspective bring to our characters and to Maura’s personal journey?