“This Is My ‘Six Feet Under'”: Jill Soloway on the Amazing ‘Transparent’

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Jill Soloway’s Transparent came bursting out of the gate during its February pilot premiere on Amazon Prime with such an exquisite, melancholy handle on tone and mood that its potential as the next great television series about the nature of families and love was obvious to any viewer.

What’s brilliant about the pilot is the way that Soloway holds back information. We meet, in short succession, the Pfefferman family. The kids are all lost: Ali (Gaby Hoffman) drifts, brother Josh (Jay Duplass), a record producer, is sexually avaricious, sleeping with his younger clients, and married mother Sarah (Amy Landecker), the oldest, reunites with her old college girlfriend, throwing her life askew. But when we meet Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), who had been living as Mort, a retired bachelor professor and the family patriarch, we meet someone on the verge of revealing an extraordinary secret. Maura is ready to tell her children about her transition from male to female, and yet she can’t quite get a handle on when to do it: “I don’t know how it is I raised three people who cannot see beyond themselves,” she muses in her support group meeting.

In the first four episodes, Transparent is wild, fresh, and complicated, delving into the lives this sensitive secular family of L.A. Jews (including the kids’ mother, played by Judith Light), and using one major moment to reflect and to get bone deep into the desires that fire up their own lives, for better and for worse. The result is tricky and delicate, walking a fine line of emotions and introducing a series of people who feel as well formed as our own friends and families.

It’s a wonderful, empathetic show that is quietly radical with its transgender character at the center of the story; and while there has been kickback regarding the fact that Tambor is a cis man taking on this role, the show itself is very concerned with providing a viable and visible voice to transgender actors and transgender issues. A piece on Soloway and Transparent in the New York Times Magazine shared the show’s relevance to Soloway’s own life, as her father had come out as transgender; it also delved carefully into how Soloway mined issues of gender in her writing while also making her set a safe, sensitive place for all gender identities.

For television fans, Soloway should be a familiar name as a longtime writer and producer on such seminal and risky shows like Six Feet Under and The United States of Tara. Her feature debut as a writer/director, last year’s excellent Afternoon Delight, won the directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. I had the chance to interview Soloway about her show when she was briefly in New York for a press junket — she had to take the red-eye back to Los Angeles to continue editing. The show will premiere on her birthday, in fact.

The first season of Transparent will be available on Amazon Prime September 26.

Flavorwire: The New York Times Magazine piece had a quote from you about how you direct with a “more feminine approach.” What is that kind of direction?

Jill Soloway: It means that I show up on the set without an agenda. I’m not trying to film things that I’ve written and make them turn out right. I try to create space of allowing that makes people feel safe and want to take risks. And I inspire the cinematographer to be in his body and feel things, and I inspire the actors to be in their bodies and feel things, and I try to allow the cinematographer to use his camera to record feelings.

That’s why I think the show ends up feeling different from other shows because I’m really interested in feelings — not those that seep through accidentally between the dialogue — but the feelings are the first thing that I want.

I have noticed when it comes to entertainment I love by women, like a Nicole Holofcener movie, there are feelings there in a way there aren’t in other projects. Sometimes I think entertainment can just be about the plot in a way that is exhausting.

People make really incremental movements throughout their days, and it’s interesting watching that.

The Transparent pilot was really beautiful. And sort of the way you captured the light in that part of LA —

Yeah, that’s part of my voice. I call it marine layer melancholy. We’re used to seeing Beverly Hills through the idealized palm trees and sunshine and there’s something about Silver Lake, and certain parts of Los Angeles, where there’s this kind of haze. There’s the smog, and it creates a kind of softness and a sadness that I really like to try to capture.

When I saw the documentary Outrage, former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s wife was talking about how once she found out that McGreevey was gay, it was as if their life together was “erased,” which is a line I haven’t really forgotten. I wonder about what the process is when someone comes out as transgender, is there a period of mourning for who they were? Is there a feeling of mourning and salvation?

One of the things Jenny Boylan talks about in her book [She’s Not There] — and she’s a consultant on my show — is that… she says something to the effect that it’s not going from male to female that’s the big change, it’s going from living in secrecy to living in truth.

And, for this family, the secret was the boundary. The secret kept them from each other, and the secret actually made them feel safe. The secret was this lifesaver that they were holding on to. It was kind of all they had in the ocean. They didn’t really have the sort of wished-for family ethos that everybody wants. Everybody dreams of that dinner table where you feel safe and at home. Everybody dreams of the perfect mom and the perfect dad and dreams of the home where you can come in and say anything and be loved. And in reality everything is messier than that, and in reality members of families are constantly questioning, “Will you still love me if I…”

In this show, when the secret is pulled out and truth starts to flow in, then everybody slowly has to live in their own truth, and we get to enjoy just the sort of soap opera of these people in a family asking themselves and each other, “Who can I become and still be loved? Will I still have a home? Will you still love me?” Which I think is really, really universal. And I think that’s the biggest question of anybody who is coming out to their family is that they’re actually coming out and then the next question is, “Do you still love me?”

It’s been interesting to see that trans visibility seems to be speeding ahead of the language that people use, and what kind of work were you doing on set —

Tons and tons and tons of work. We’ve had multiple trans consultants, and Jenny Boylan – who is a lot of inspiration for Maura – and Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker are both associate producers on the show and they are both are really visible trans artists. All of them were looking at scripts and really weighing in on scenes.

We created something called the transfirmitive action program where we try to get as many trans people on as many departments on the crew as possible. We had maybe fifteen speaking roles for trans people and 60-70 more trans roles for extras and actors. We had gender-neutral bathrooms on set so that people could go into whatever bathrooms they were comfortable in. We really wanted the set to be a place where trans people didn’t feel otherized. And where they felt included and inclusive and where there was no expectation that someone be cis. And that the language felt comfortable.

There’s this book called Whipping Girl by Julia Serrano that really awakened me to the intersection of misogyny and transphobia, to the feminist struggle and the trans struggle, and I bought a couple hundred copies of that book and I gave it to everybody on the show to read.

We had Rhys and Zackary giving Trans 101 and 102 talks with crew over and over and over again about how to talk to somebody who is trans about their trans-ness, if at all. Particularly because Hollywood is Boys Club-y, at best.

It sounds like you really created almost a commune.

Yeah, a little commune, that’s what we were trying to do for sure. Our own space.

I was surprised by Jay Duplass, who’s probably better known as a director [along with his brother, Mark Duplass] than an actor, and, well, I didn’t realize that he was really attractive.

Super attractive. Like a super secret stealth sexy Duplass.

I was curious about the process of finding the actors for this show, the kids in particular. Jay hasn’t acted a ton.

Josh was the last role that we cast. Everybody else was in their place, and we still had to cast Josh and I walked into a party and Jay was there, and that’s what I want Josh to be like. “That’s a Josh, that’s my Josh.” We started talking and I realized he was a director and I asked him if he’d ever acted and he said occasionally, and so I asked him to come audition tomorrow and he did.

And Gaby, I mean, I’ve grown up with her.

She was Ali before I even wrote the pilot.

As an actress she seems to really be present and not at all concerned with the self preservation that I think other actors have to do.

I know, she’s amazing. It’s just emotionally authentic. She seems effortless.

How, as a writer and director, do you deal with actors acting?

I don’t do much. I tell them they can say whatever they want, or they don’t have to say the words I wrote. Which, oddly enough makes them want to say the words even more than any other show I’ve been on where we always tried to get them to say the words. I say, “Say whatever you want,” and they say, “No, I want to say this!”

We’re always just going for real moments. I’ll get rid of real lines if they don’t feel natural to some people. I don’t really think about the dialogue, the writing, the way that I used to. I used to think that you write a scene, which is about a place, and then the dialogue tells the actors what to say. Now, I look at the dialogue as icing, that, in the best of all scenes, the dialogue is helping the characters distract themselves from the truth. They really aren’t saying anything that is the plot, the plot is happening, and the things they are saying are kind of occluding the plot and making the plot fun to look for.

I’m always doing something, working something called playable action in every beat. A woman named Joan Scheckel has a directing workshop in LA and she teaches this technique about playable action, what people are doing to get what they want, and that’s what I’m usually what I’m working on. What do they want, what are they doing to get what they want in this moment.

What surprised you about making this show?

It all felt really natural. I had a strong belief that the show had its own trajectory and I was just kind of on the ride, and when Joe [Lewis from Amazon] said “Yes,” I said, “OK, this show is on Amazon.”

Amazon was pretty much unproven. I mean Alpha House was just coming out right around that week. Whenever it was, I went to look at what they had done and it was nothing. I could not find the pilots, and so I got very frightened. What Larry [Soloway’s agent] and I talked about was there is no track record or path for Amazon, but if you could become that show – if you could become House of Cards for Netflix or Mad Men for AMC – that’s a huge opportunity. So, yeah, we just jumped into the big great void.

That’s really exciting. And terrifying.

Well, it’s not really terrifying at all, it’s like, “Ok, this is the show I was meant to write, but, Amazon? Fuck, who knew.”

I know from my time at HBO, having worked there a lot, that it takes years and years and years and all kinds of like alliances with all kinds of different executive departments to make something rise. Certainly like decisions about casting or plotlines for the season that are absolutely mediated by multiple people.

Jeffrey [Tambor] talks about the convergence of a show that’s never been done before delivered in a way that’s never been done before, and we do feel like we’re in this really cool zeitgeist-y moment. Everything feels like it’s in the right place at the right time. There’s kind of no fear associated with it. It’s really weird.

Are there other things that we should talk about regarding your show?

The one thing about the show is that I feel like it seems like a niche show because it has the word “trans” in the title, but it’s a really relatable family show. It has the potential to be like All in the Family or The Cosby Show in terms of speaking to everybody. I run into a lot of people who say “I’ve watched it with my parents,” or “I’ve watched it over and over again,” I don’t know, I don’t think you have to be trans or queer or Jewish or a feminist. In fact, I think the show works just as well for you if you’re not. It’s really relatable and I’m just excited for people to watch it.

Transparent feels like it shares some thematic similarities with Six Feet Under, especially how it’s about adult children and figuring your shit out and your family’s shit out.

Six Feet Under is my inspiration. Alan Poul and Alan Ball were my bosses at Six Feet Under and I would say they definitely pioneered this kind of feminine approach to TV making. There’s also something on Six Feet Under that I try to honor, which is, when you watch Six Feet Under you’re never really quite sure who you’re supposed to root for. It’s not really simple who’s a good guy and who is a bad guy, the show doesn’t really tell you how to feel or when to feel it. It just lets you live with these people and have your own feelings. It kind of respects your emotional intelligence. It feels like a safe space to enter. You feel like you know the people.

So, yeah, ever since I worked on Six Feet Under I’ve always wanted to do my own Six Feet Under.

Do you feel like this is your [Six Feet Under]?

[Emphatically] Yes.