Jill Soloway is no stranger to television. The producer/writer was also the showrunner of HBO’s How to Make it in America and Showtime’s United States of Tara in addition to her extensive work on Six Feet Under. Prestige television is the name of her game, but breaking into the creator game was a bit more of a challenge. It wasn’t until her acclaimed 2013 film and long-form directorial debut, Afternoon Delight, broke at Sundance that Soloway found the magical mix that ultimately made her Amazon Prime series, Transparent, possible.
We had the opportunity to chat with Soloway about the series, the sort of lightning-in-a-bottle it has managed to achieve, and also the personal ties to the subject matter — as Soloway’s own parent came out as transgender a few years ago.
Nerdist: Something I sort of love about your work is that it seems to me that you frequently push the boundaries of what we’re used to seeing, emotionally, on television. Is that on purpose?
Jill Soloway: I think it’s a little bit of an accident, maybe, over the past four years. I had been watching shows like Girls and Louie and really feeling, frankly, jealous because I love them so much and was thinking “how do I do something like that?”
Going to Sundance and trying to make a movie was a detour from trying to get my show on the air. I’d been trying for 10 years and writing pilots thinking “Oh, this one will finally get picked up, oh this one will finally get picked up” and nothing. There was a barrier I couldn’t break through. … And I started watching some films from the mumblecore genre, and in their filmmaking I just felt like people were making movies that seemed to be shot on a Nikon D3 in somebody’s living room and felt uncomfortably real. And I consciously went into Afternoon Delight and used mumblecore technology with my decade-and-a-half-long knowledge of television, which insists that there’s a story point in everything.
So I think the combination of those two things — for me with Transparent — really worked out. I’m not just somebody who had a film premiere at Sundance and then had the opportunity to do this show. I was somebody who worked my way up in the TV world for all these years. I knew all the rules.
So to be able to combine these things — these techniques of really closing down the set, whether or not it’s a sex scene or an important scene, getting all the crew to leave, getting privacy — [was me] trying to rejigger the emotional flavor of the workplace so that we all felt like we’re free. And then adding that to the structure of real TV worship. For me, I loved shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 8 is Enough, Felicity [laughs] — so I think I took an indie film sensibility and stuck it into a very strict TV-ruled universe.
[Laughs] Was that too long of an answer?
Nerdist: Oh no, please! As a TV obsessive, I’m eating up every word of it. But it’s funny because I was talking to Jeffrey [Tambor] about this yesterday and he’d echoed that sentiment about your sets. And all that work clearly comes across in the performances. Which is helpful considering how equal parts terrifying and exciting it must be to put what you’re putting out there into television.
JS: Yes! It’s totally thrilling. It feels like going to work and always knowing you’ve got new discoveries to make. You know, even working on Six Feet Under, I would be going to work to try and get the scene that I had written. Whenever I showed up on the set it was the same — my job would be to make sure they got the scene right. And once I became a director and really recognized what it is I had to offer, I realized I think it’s kind of the opposite of that. I come in and I think, “OK, what’s on the page is the starting place,” — what kind of crazy places can we go in terms of authenticity, realness. Actors surprising each other, improvising…me trying to make Jeffrey laugh by saying a line into another actor’s ear to say to him during the scene. I feel almost in love with the five actors who played the five Pfeffermans, if not the characters. And so work is just kind of incredibly silly, sort of “How far can we push ourselves in terms of realness and comedy and really see what happens?” It’s about maintaining an “anything can happen” mentality at all times. And it is 100% thrilling.
Nerdist: That’s so cool to hear. I obviously, as a writer, have very limited knowledge as to what happens on a set but that seems very different. But speaking of the characters! I love this family.
JS: I do, too. And the show was written, in particular, for Gaby and Jeffrey. When I first saw Gaby I thought, “I am going to work with her! Who is this?” I had missed her child acting career because I wasn’t a kid when Gaby was in movies. So I didn’t have that association with her. I never saw her as a child star. To me she was just the ultimate Jewish, feminist protagonist — I think she’s not even Jewish, which is funny.
Even before the pilot got picked up we were going to the park and workshopping the scenes with the trainer. Just sort of practicing directing.
And Jeffrey has always been Maura to me. That’s just always been an absolute from the beginning. It was a no-brainer.
And Amy is just one of the most surprising, amazing, honest, funny people, ever. I’m just crazy about her. And she was again, a no-brainer.
We didn’t have anybody for Josh. I had a real image of what Josh was like in my mind and I couldn’t find the right actor, couldn’t find the right actor. I was at a small party at [director] Ruben Fleischer’s. They’re like these director dinners at his house. I’ve been to a few of them now and it’s always awkward because it’s like, me and 20 guys. … I’m always by myself in a room with 20 men which is a very weird feeling.
Anyway, I walk into the room and I saw Jay Duplass there and I said “[Gasp!] that is Josh!” So I went up to him and said “You’re not an actor, are you?” and he said “No, I only direct.” But fifteen minutes later I’d convinced him to come in and read for it.
Nerdist: That family vibe they have feels so real: was that something you guys had to work on to create or did it just happen naturally?
JS: No at all, really. Honestly, I’ve been thinking a little about the speeches I’m going to be giving about the work … and every single aspect of this felt so easy and receptive. And honestly everything came towards me, so I didn’t have to stress, I could just feel it immediately. There was an instant chemistry and an instant rightness. Sometimes there’s like, this invisible magic propelling it forward when all the pieces are in the right place. And I realize now, almost in retrospect, that if a project doesn’t have that…
So many people are used to being told “fight for your project no matter what and you have to keep knocking on doors and pushing the car uphill!” But it shouldn’t be like pushing a boulder uphill. If it does, you have to have the feeling that there’s a huge wind behind you. But with this show it was like, that was it. And that speaks to the chemistry and the process — 100% effortless. There was never anything other than complete emotional connection when these people get together.
Nerdist: Because as much as it is about Maura’s transition, they’re all sort of going through transitions in their own way. It creates an amoebic nature to the family’s dynamic that feels very real and exciting.
JS: Well it’s an exciting time to be in television! Ten years ago this would’ve been an independent film. And 20 or 30 years ago this would’ve been the kind of independent film that would’ve even had a theatrical release but these days these kind of movies barely get made.
But it’s really cool that it’s TV! It can be watched like a movie but for people who grew up worshipping TV, there are benchmarks in it that deliver on some of the most delicious things about TV. Like soap operas and All My Children and Six Feet Under. Feeling like “Oh my god I need to see what happens next with these people,” which is more of a TV thing than a movie thing.
Nerdist: So I know this story is very personal — you have a parent who’s transitioned — what’s their response been to Maura, and to Jeff, and to this story even being told?
JS: I think it’s a lot, you know? To come out and then have your family member create a show like this — based on the news. I try to be really sensitive to that. I try to be really careful with my parent and take them along slowly but surely to a place where they feel comfortable. They love the show. They were at the premiere the other night; they love Jeffrey and Jeffrey loves them.
But it’s delicate and I think it’s going really well right now in terms of them feeling honored and respected by the show.
Will you be tuning into Transparent when it premieres on September 26th on Amazon Prime? Let us know in the comments.