Winter 2015

Not Your Father's Sitcom

Jill Soloway took the genre into new territory with her groundbreaking transgender series, Transparent. The content might be different, but the emotions are real.


DGA Quarterly Magazine Independent Voice Dee Rees
TAKING A STAND: Soloway, who wanted to brand and claim her own voice with Transparent, says there are “things that women know intuitively” about directing. (Photo: Byron Gamarro)

Nothing about the set of Transparent, Jill Soloway’s hit series on Amazon Prime that revolves around the late-in-life decision of Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) to come out as transgender and its effect on Pfefferman’s children and ex-wife, is old school. Community bathrooms are gender neutral. Cast and crew are expected to attend hourlong “Trans 101” seminars. And the creativity-first atmosphere is so closely fostered by Soloway that a crew member in an actor’s sightline is expected to be mindful of how he or she should stand.

“If someone watching the scene is like this,” says Soloway, who jumps up from her chair to affect a pose of rocking back on her heels and crossing her arms over her chest, “the energy is, ‘I’m judging you. Perform for me.’” Soloway drops her arms loosely to her side to demonstrate a preferred posture. “What I want is [for everyone] to have an open heart, to feel. If you’re in a room and can be seen by actors, you need to understand that you can be felt by them.”

How did she manage to reprogram a veteran cable-toting electrician or a beleaguered production assistant to think reflexively about body language? “We constantly had these meetings where I was always talking about love, possibility, and creativity,” says Soloway. “We gathered everybody together in big circles and sharing. I think people know that I’m a bit of a zealot and I am trying to reinvent something.”

More often than not, she succeeded at maintaining a special atmosphere, so she could live with the occasional slip-up. “It’s not perfect. There are plenty of times when I’d look over and there’s somebody [swiping away] at their iPhone. But it’s about attempting the feeling of art-making, of taking a risk to be the most important thing instead of, ‘We’re running out of money!  We’re running out of time! We’re running out of light!’”

Soloway’s leadership makes for a Transparent set that runs to a different rhythm. As director, she’s always happy to toss away her shot lists, and instead of hollering “Action!” or “Cut!” she prefers to be secretive about when the camera is on or off. Actors rarely have marks to hit, but when they do, Soloway’s direction is less “Say this line when you get there” and more about what the actor is supposed to be feeling. “I talk about the beats. I’d say, ‘When you get here, you think, ‘Oh, no. I’m going to have to break up with him. …’”

For Soloway, a good take is one in which emphasis is placed on human beings rather than external pressures. “Most people privilege the technology, almost as if actors are in service to the machine,” she says. “On some sets, if a helicopter goes by, what would normally happen is that somebody would go, ‘There’s a helicopter. Stop.’ I’d never stop for a helicopter. I am always trying to make sure that the machine is in service to the actors.”

DGA Quarterly Magazine Independent Voice Dee Rees
TRUE BELIEVER: Soloway, with Jeffrey Tambor (center) and Amy Landecker, encourages cast and crew on Transparent to think about making art, not about money or running out of time. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

Soloway didn’t start directing until four years ago. She spent years as a writer-producer on sitcoms (Nikki) and brooding, critically acclaimed cable fare (Six Feet Under), then as the executive producer-showrunner on United States of Tara and How to Make It in America. In the meantime, she kept trying and failing to get her own television series going. The solution came to her after seeing Lena Dunham’s directorial debut, Tiny Furniture, a funny, prickly independent feature made for less than six figures. “For me to be able to punch above my weight creatively, to actually take a stand for what I was doing, I had to take on everything. I had to be the person who says, ‘I wrote it. I directed it,’” says Soloway. “It made me feel like I couldn’t get my show on the air unless I was really able to brand and claim my particular voice.”

During her Six Feet Under years, she’d regularly collaborate with directors on bringing each of her scripts to life, and knew she was already overflowing with opinions on camera placement, line readings, and casting. “I’d basically be holding myself back from trying to direct,” says Soloway, noting that it was a Six Feet Under policy that staff writers weren’t allowed to direct. “By the last season [2005], I was literally physically frustrated that I wasn’t doing the work. Because I knew I could.”

After her Tiny Furniture epiphany, she took a six-week filmmaking workshop led by Joan Scheckel (now a consulting producer on Transparent), whom Soloway refers to as a “director’s guru.” What Soloway found just as invaluable as the practical tools she picked up was realizing that she already had years of experience being at the center of a group of people and calling the shots. “Being a mom, being a Jewish woman control freak, means we’re all just directing all the time anyway. You walk into a party at somebody else’s house and you’re like, ‘Turn down that light. Turn up the music. Now it’s time for the birthday cake,’” says Soloway. “We’ve been taught that directing is something that somebody has to teach you how to do. But these are things that women know intuitively.”

In 2011, she made her first short, Una Hora Por Favora. But it was five days into production on her first feature film, Afternoon Delight (2013), that Soloway began to think, “Oh, this is what directing is. … The secret is letting yourself be in there with these actors and allowing the power of blooming possibilities.”

In the end, Afternoon Delight won Soloway the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Riding the wave of her Sundance triumph, she came home and within a month completed the pilot script for Transparent. The idea had been percolating since Soloway’s own dad had called her a couple of years earlier with a Mort Pfefferman-style “I’m trans” revelation.

Because it was Amazon that bought Soloway’s cutting-edge family drama, it meant not just entering the digital platform universe but being introduced to a birthing process different from what she was used to from her cable and network days. Instead of an endless procession of executives weighing in at each stage of the process, she dealt with just one person, Amazon’s head of original programming, Joe Lewis. She had free rein on casting and was given almost no notes. When it came to hiring, she concentrated on open-armed diversity that went beyond women and people of color. “We wanted to get as many trans people on the show as we could, acting, directing, producing, extras, grips, everywhere,” says Soloway, who directed seven episodes for season one; Nisha Ganatra directed the three others. Production will start shortly on a second season.

One of Amazon’s rare fiats was to shoot the series in 4K, so Soloway and her Afternoon Delight cinematographer, Jim Frohna, decided to use a Canon C500, which was small enough to allow him to be unobtrusive. Soloway thinks of Frohna as not just a cinematographer but as an emotional divining rod. “I don’t want it to be like [in a gruff drill sergeant voice], ‘Shoot the master. Now get the two-shot. Now get the singles.’ I want him to be open, to feel his way into the scene,” she says.

By way of example, she describes how the importance of a small unscripted gesture between two characters—the spiritually adrift Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and her best friend, Syd (Carrie Brownstein)—ended up enriching a scene. “Carrie [tugged on Hoffmann’s earlobe] and Jim moved in to catch it,” says Soloway. “Suddenly I realized, she’s in love with Ali.’ Once we saw that, then we could go, ‘The scene is here,’ and I could add lines or remove lines and focus on the emotions.”

Were there ever times when she reviewed the day’s footage on the editing bay and realized that her intuition-driven, be-in-the-moment, throw-away-the-shot-list approach let her down? “Sure,” says Soloway. “But they were minimal compared to the amount of days where we were like, ‘Oh, my god, we got all this stuff that we never imagined.’”

Independent Voice

Profiles of independent directors sharing their visions and methods of making movies.

More from this issue