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HomeCraftsDirectionTransparent Showrunner Jill Soloway Delivers Keynote at Film Independent Film Forum

Transparent Showrunner Jill Soloway Delivers Keynote at Film Independent Film Forum

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Jill Soloway on the set of Transparent
Jill Soloway on the set of Transparent (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios).

The filmmaker keynote speaker for the 10th Annual Film Independent Forum was writer/director Jill Soloway (Transparent, Afternoon Delight) who shared “horrible, ugly truths” about her experiences as a television writer and independent film director.

Her current streaming series, Transparent, which premiered in full on Sept. 26, is one of Amazon Studios earliest forays into television production. The story revolves around a Los Angeles family and their lives following the discovery that father Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) is transgender. In addition to writing the series, Soloway, is the series showrunner and director of a number of episodes.

New to the television production space, Amazon is reinventing content without being locked into standard network and cable processes. Amazon gave the production a lot of creative freedom, even to the point of permitting on-set script revisions that would not be allowed on a network show, or that would be a “political minefield” on a cable show.  Soloway credited Amazon, “They wanted me to have creative freedom because they knew that the product would be better.”

Soloway first worked with the majority of the Transparent crew on her feature directing debut, Afternoon Delight. Prepping the film, her producers gave her reels from cinematographers. When she sat down to meet Jim Frohna, the first thing he asked was whether she knew Joan Schekle. As it turned out, they both had taken Schekle’s filmmaking lab and approached their work based upon the methods they learned. “We were instantly connected and instantly ready to work together over the shared feeling of creating a risk space where every artist, not just the actors, could go to their edges,” revealed Soloway. Giving Frohna ultimate creative freedom became a large part of Soloway finding her tone.

LR-TransparentComing from a background as a gaffer, Frohna lit the whole house with very natural light so it felt like a real place. The actors could say the lines in any part of the room. Certainly, they needed to repeat some actions for continuity, but its only after Soloway has seen what was working that she would match action.

Soloway also found her editor Cate Haight on the film and then brought her onto the series along with several other editors. “Letting Jimmy be free and letting Cate cut it,” said Soloway, “There was my voice! I give them all the credit in the world. I throw the party. Jim hits record. Cate edits it. It works. It’s funny. People like it.” Eventually she had to extrapolate that voice into working with additional shooters and editors, but she learned how to work with her crews by giving those original collaborators ultimate trust.

The process for the streaming series was halfway between a film and a television process, with several episodes in various stages of production and post. In the post period they had an editor’s cut, then a director’s cut if the episode was directed by Nisha Ganatra, then producer Rick Rosenthal would take a pass at getting the cut in shape, followed by Soloway. They were open to notes, approaching the whole process with an open mind. “The best idea wins,” shared Soloway. “I’m very collaborative.”

Soloway tries to hire a lot of women on her crews. Makeup department head Emma Johnston Burton, started with Soloway on Afternoon Delight. They worked hard to create a look, which included the look of no makeup. Costume designer Marie Schley was another veteran of Afternoon Delight and a Silverlake mom who “totally gets it.” Production designer Catherine Smith was the art director on True Blood and was referred by the show’s production designer Suzuki Ingerslev, who Soloway knew from Six Feet Under.

Soloway gave a shout out to line producer Victor Hsu, who worked in TV a long time, and her producing partner, co-executive producer Andrea Sperling.

Soloway’s favorite part of the process is the time between action and cut. She writes while she is directing. “It’s really like improvising, and I’m playing too, because then I can think of something stupid or funny and go tell the actor to say it before the next take.” It’s all about evoking emotion, feeling, whether it be crying or laughing. Feeling allows her to know if what they are doing is working. Soloway added, “To me, it’s a pure feeling of play.”

With a second season renewal of her series, Soloway feels on top of the world, but her journey to this point followed a twisted road. According to Soloway, “Three short years ago, I was a mess. I was at rock bottom. I was hatching plans to leave Hollywood.” She told a friend, “I am going to move to northern California. I’m going to hang around and wear kaftans without underwear. I’m going to sip coffee in the morning after my kid’s gone to school. I’m going to self-publish feminist poetry. I think there’s a life in that.”

She was ready to go because right before her birthday party, she learned from her agent that HBO had passed on a pilot script of hers. She continued, “There is nothing worse than looking in the mirror, trying to feel pretty when you’ve just found out your dreams are dead.”

Her agent assured her the material was good. It was a financial decision by the studio. They were not picking anything up. Except Soloway had read the trades, “What about that thing I just read in the trades. I just read that thing about that girl who got that pilot. They’re shooting it. I think her name is Lena Dunham. What about that?” Her agent responded something to the effect, “Don’t worry about that. It’s nothing.”

Soloway was a veteran television comedy writer. She had worked as a writer and producer on Six Feet Under. She was a showrunner on the United States of Tara and How to Make It in America. But at that time she had two kids in private school, and a backlog of financial obligations from “chunk of time when there was a recession and a writers’ strike.” Although she had “a lot of balls in the air,” there were “no money balls.” She needed a job, which meant working on someone else’s TV show, which she had not done in a while.

“Staffing season is the worst thing in the world,” Soloway explained. “It’s sort of like sorority rush. Instead of being judged on your leggings, you are judged on your personality, who you are, your talent, your voice, that stuff. Everybody’s on Twitter talking about what meetings they’re going on. It’s horrible. I put on my outfits and I raced around from Warner Brothers to Sony to Universal.” Despite her efforts, no one wanted to hire her. She was miserable.

She watched a film Dunham had made for $20,000 in her parent’s house and thought, “Shit, my parent’s house is not cool. I don’t have $20,000.” She got the word that there was “one more job.” An actress friend was on the show, so Soloway asked for her help. The actress promised to talk to the showrunner. Soloway started watching old episodes and dreaming up story lines.

“I went on a meeting and I just blasted it. I’m out of the water. I was so adorable. I was like wagging my tail,” quipped Soloway. “I was dropping references from season three and season six. They loved me. There was hugging. There was almost making out.” Her agent was already calling her by the time she got to her car after the meeting. They loved her so much, she didn’t even have to meet the showrunner. “Time to pop the champagne,” shared Soloway. “Those words were spoken.”

The next week Soloway was planning her outfits and calling her agent to find out the particulars of the offer. And then she waited. And waited. By mid-week she had a definite sense that something was not quite right. By Thursday her agent called to confirm the offer was not coming. Apparently the show had asked around and the word came back that she was difficult. “Who the f@*k called me difficult? I’m nice. I’m wonderful,” Soloway related. Her agent offered to messenger over an advance. Soloway thought to ask for a million dollars, but settled for enough to cover several months of expenses.

Talking to her husband that night, she told him she never wanted to be in that position again. She had decided to make a film. HBO had picked up Dunham’s project instead of Soloway’s because they could see her voice. Soloway wanted to use the money from her agent to double down on herself.  With limited time, she decided to make a short, and a month or so later she was completing post and submitting to Sundance. By Thanksgiving weekend, she was accepted into the 2013 festival.

At the festival, after seeing some films that she didn’t think were that great, Soloway decided to finish an incomplete feature screenplay and return to the festival the next year with a feature film. To prepare herself, she took a filmmaking workshop with Schekle. The particular technique Soloway adapted boiled down to the question, “What are you doing to get what you want?” She asks the question of every character in the movie, in every sequence, in every scene, beat or moment. It can also be asked of the cinematographer. What does the camera want? It can be asked of all the crew and all the elements of the film.

“It became a rallying cry for myself to be pushing myself to really look at what I was doing to really get what I want,” revealed Soloway. “Although I had been writing TV for many years and went to film school, I actually didn’t have a directing technique. I had a shot list and a hope for the best, but I didn’t have something to do once I got to the set.”

By late spring, Soloway had hooked up with a couple of indie producers who wanted to make the film right away. “All three of us were driven by the notion that we were going to be back at Sundance that following year,” said Soloway. They had to be shooting by August. If their first choice of actors were not available they would cast someone else. They set a goal and stuck to it. Before she knew it, they were shooting.

“Don’t show up to shoot your script. That’s the biggest thing I learned,” shared Soloway. “The script is a tool that you make with your mind that gets people onboard, that raises money, that tells the producer how to tell the people where to park the trucks. When you get to the set, what you need is your body, so that you can feel. For me, the magic happens when you call action and you feel the take. It’s more about an alchemy. Creating an atmosphere on the set while the cameras are there to photograph it than it is about getting the words I wrote, which was a huge journey from writer to director.”

They finished shooting Afternoon Delight and the following year she was back at Sundance in that same theater premiering her first feature. A bad review “cast a chill on any kind of bidding war that was going on,” revealed Soloway. Better reviews followed, and Soloway won the Sundance directing award.

“In some ways my movie felt both like a success, and in some ways not enough of a success, but a few months later when I sent out the script for Transparent and I sat across the table from Joe at Amazon, my movie was that thing I needed. It was a way for people to see my voice,” explained Soloway. “‘If you like the movie,’ I said, I can make a pilot that feels very much like it. I know how to make a pilot look the way that movie looked. I have the technique and I know how to get those performances. I can tell you as the writer, as the producer and now as the director, the tone is something I can guarantee. I, sir, am offering you a warranty on your tone.’ As I said that I could feel that they were going to make it. They gave me the greenlight to make the Transparent pilot.”

Although Soloway claims to still have the rural dream and would probably wear a kaftan without underwear, she is not sure if she will be publishing feminist poetry. For now she plans to keep challenging herself.

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