Jill Soloway on Transparent and How Lena Dunham’s Success Convinced Her to Stop Pretending

from left-right, Amy Landecker, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jill Soloway. Photo: Beth Dubber/Amazon

Today marks the premiere of Amazon’s first great show. Transparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as a retired professor transitioning to female. The show’s creator, Jill Soloway, spoke with John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio’s new arts and entertainment show, The Frame, about the freedom of Amazon, the influence of Lena Dunham and Louis C.K., and trying to make Transparent into one long movie that just happens to have breaks. (Listen to part of Horn and Soloway’s interview below and subscribe to The Frame at iTunes or Stitcher.)

So much of the conversations about your show are about Jeffrey Tambor’s transgender parent, but I want to talk about the family dynamics and about how family members fight and speak to each other. How much of that was an important organizing principle of the show?
We talk a lot about this thing that we call the “ring of light,” which sounds super serious for a comedy show, but I imagine in my brain that all five Pfeffermans are holding onto this life preserver, this ring-shaped thing, that keeps them connected, [which] they don’t quite understand. It has a lot to do with boundaries and secrets and blood and legacy and connection. And the show is really about understanding who they are in relationship to that ring.

And what does that mean in terms of the way you write the show and the way you think about these characters interacting?
So, I’m constantly thinking about moving around this circle and moving perspective from person to person. In most shows, there’s usually a hero or a protagonist, and even if there are multiple heroes or protagonists, most shows try and make it so you really always know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. And one of the things I’m trying to do with the show is constantly move the needle so that you’re not sure whom you’re rooting for. And even when you might be rooting for one person in the beginning of the show, by the time you get to the middle of the show or the next episode, you’ve turned on them and moved onto somebody else in the family that you’re rooting for.

Is that a consequence of the way that you like to tell stories, or is it almost as if you’re reacting to the way everybody does tell stories?
There are some shows that I grew up watching that did this kind of storytelling unconsciously. I think about shows like Family or Eight Is Enough. Shows like Thirtysomething, where they had that kind of delicious, yummy, soap-y, I-can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next thing along with a feeling of a close tribe, people who really need each other. So it has been done before. I don’t think I’m inventing anything.

The one thing that was a goal for me was in looking at shows like Louie and shows like Girls, where I was just so envious of the kind of unlikability of Louie or Hannah Horvath, and I really had worked so hard in network television to get things made and was constantly getting the likebility note. One of the things I spoke about early on is that this would be about five people who are all sort of equally lovable and also unlikable, that five people would have that kind of horrible, narcissistic, depressive, “I-can’t-stand-myself-but-I-can’t-stop-talking-about-myself” post-millennial malaise. And the idea of it as a circle where it’s constantly moving, it just really made sense here. I also think about this idea of the heroine’s journey as different from the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey follows a very specific Joseph Campbellian arc, and I don’t really know what the heroine’s journey is, and most of the time I’m just kind of making it up to see how it sounds.

But you know what it isn’t?
I know what it isn’t, and it doesn’t move in an arc, and it does move in spirals.

When you talk about watching shows like Louie and Girls, what was so surprising to you as a writer and as an audience member?
Watching Girls, it was really angering for me at first, because I really had spent decades hiding unlikable, unattractive Jewish girls in likable, attractive, non-Jewish actors and characters. Really trying to tamp down the otherness of my experience so that I could sell it and so that I could monetize it. And in watching Tiny Furniture and watching Girls and seeing what Lena Dunham didn’t do — she didn’t apologize, she didn’t stress to create an imaginary persona, she just was. The ease with which she just showed herself, it made me so jealous. It was like, Oh, all you ever had to do was nothing. All I ever had to do was stop pretending.

So, I set about asking myself the question of, what does my world look like? Lena Dunham’s showing the world of twentysomethings. [For me], what does it mean to be a mom in a family in a relationship? Good sex, bad sex, adult relationships, life in Silverlake, and from there came Afternoon Delight, my feature. That was really a response to me asking myself, What would I do if I granted myself the same kind of artistic entitlement that Lena Dunham grants herself? And then, yeah, with Louie, he just goes even further. He seems to be following his own nose, his own heart, his own dick. And making himself laugh instead of trying to create a product, and that was really inspiring, too.

You almost sound as if you are in this almost previous incarnation of yourself, holding your creative finger to the wind and figuring out which way it has to blow in order for you to sell something. And that you are having a gradual epiphany about the fact that you’re not that person and that the characters you’re writing are inauthentic and you’re putting them in authentic situations.
That’s absolutely true. I went on meetings as recently as two or three years ago where I was told, “You have to have a rootable, attractive male somewhere near the center of this show for us to be interested.” These are shows at FOX or ABC. I’d be writing shows about women or unlikable women or groups of women or kind of screwed-up women, you know? [And they’d say,] “What woman would do this? This woman can’t be a mom and also make all these kinds of mistakes. I’m wondering when I read your script, where’s her kid?” These questions that people ask are really society’s expectations of the way women are supposed to be, and I’m just super excited to be kind of revolutionizing expectations and doing it just in a way that feels so simple. It really feels like I’m dropping pretense, I’m dropping appearances just to reveal truth.

It’s so simple and yet, in your own experience and within television as a broader medium, it’s revolutionary because that’s not the way it’s done, and that’s not the way characters are written.
Yeah, yeah. Normally, if you think about network television, I like to call it “shaving off the points.” You turn in your first draft and it’s great, and then there’s these really pointy parts, they’re funny or they’re weird or they’re odd, and they make it different, and you turn in your first draft, and the network people say, “We love it. Would you mind just getting rid of these three or four things? They just raised red flags for us.” So, then you shave off all those points that raised red flags, then it goes to the next group of people, and whatever might be left then gets shaved off again. It makes a lot of sense. They’re trying to sell that product to a company that’s trying to sell their product to people. So, they have to play it safe and they have to make these characters appeal to the largest audience. With Amazon, they’re able to deliver this show right to people. It doesn’t need to be mediated through three or four other corporations before it’s approved, and I guess they know that, and they understand that giving artists a lot of creative freedom is the easiest way to create content that will stand out in this really crowded landscape.

What sort of notes and feedback did you get from Amazon when you first started having conversations about where you wanted to go with the show and what you thought its intentions were?
Well, they’re super chill. There’s a guy there named Joe Lewis, and he’s my point person, and that’s pretty much it. It’s just me and this guy named Joe, and we get to really talk and get together on the weekends … ordering food and hash[ing] out questions.

Does the food come from Amazon Prime?
[Laughs.] It comes by drone. We get together and suddenly a drone appears above, a pizza drops, and notes drop. It feels very much like indie filmmaking, very much in the spirit of, Hey, let’s put on a show. And I guess one of the first things that was a source of conflict for me and for Joe was that Joe felt that Mort [Jeffrey Tambor’s character] should not come out to all three kids in the pilot.

That was his idea?
Yeah. And as I had first written the script, Mort came out at the dinner table and told everybody — as opposed to [not being] able to.

I have to say, Joe’s idea is much more interesting.
I think you’re right! It’s true. We really had a great time hashing it out. I figure out my stories by creating this big collage on a bulletin board, and he came over to my office and looked at the collage, and we really had a real discussion about what it meant to have the first episode operate as the first act in a movie, to really trigger the binge, as opposed to on most shows, where that act break would come five minutes in. And you’re really trying to get people to the end of the first episode and then wait another week.

I kept using the example of Six Feet Under — the dad died in the first five minutes, and then the pilot was about the kids deciding how they were going to relate to this inheritance of the funeral home. So, I had that pilot in my head, and I really wanted Mort to come out right away so that the pilot would be that story, but Joe really convinced me that in inventing this binge model, we could look at the end of the first episode [as] the end of the first act of a regular episode of television.

Does that mean you construct Transparent as a long movie that happens to appear in half-hour installments?
That’s absolutely the case, yes. We have like a really big grid on the wall in the writers’ room, [with] all ten episodes laid out across the top and the characters laid out across the vertical axis, and we can see the whole thing. We actually look at the season as having a climax and having act breaks and we really think, It’s gotta be so juicy that people say, “I can’t go to sleep, I have to keep watching.” Not, I think I’ll check it out next week. They have to really want to engage to go further and further and further — so I don’t know how many episodes you saw, but things really start to get nuts around seven and eight.

You’ve used the word juicy, you’ve used the word climax. Let’s talk about straight sex, gay sex, group sex, pot smoking, ecstasy. Was there anything you felt you could not include?
Um, well, there’s a bit of Holocaust humor, and at one point, we did have a scene that took place during the Holocaust as a flashback, and we had to get rid of that. Season two.

What do you mean, you had to get rid of it? You’ve talked about how you’re busting all convention. Did it not test well? What do you mean, you had to get rid of it?
[Laughs.] It was kind of a dream sequence and, you know, at this point, when we were creating the show and writing the season, we were treading lightly. We were so thrilled to have so much creative freedom from Amazon that, the few things that people were like, Uhhhh, maybe you don’t wanna do a scene at Buchenwald. We were like, Yeah, maybe we shouldn’t.

You can always put in Treblinka, I guess.
Yeah, there’s a Treblinka reference in episode two. We decided that we wanted to try and keep as many viewers as possible in season one.

Just last night, I ordered my son a protractor on Amazon because it had free shipping rather than drive two blocks to Target and buy one. A lot of people have a picture of Amazon in their mind of being that kind of place. You buy socks, you get your free shipping, whatever. What sort of pressure or obligation do you feel to kind of change the way in which Amazon is seen by people like me and by people who watch television?
I don’t feel too much pressure. There was a moment when I was shopping the script around and Amazon didn’t really have a profile yet as a streaming distributor. So we kind of imagined — my agent had the conversation with me where he said, “You know, if you could be the Mad Men to their AMC, if you could be the House of Cards to their Netflix, it would mean everything.”

That’s no pressure!
Yeah. [Laughs.] You know, I’ve actually never felt any pressure with this show. It’s interesting because we’re getting these great reviews and I’m not even having the anxiety of, Oh, it’s hard for me to take in this positive regard. It’s not overwhelming to me because I really see this show as part of something so much bigger. It’s always felt like a ride to me because I think there is such a moment happening now, with the trans-liberation movement. It’s unbelievably Zeitgeist-y. I had so many people over the past year forwarding me articles and saying, “Did you know that this was going to be in the Zeitgeist when it came time for your show to come out?”

And you said, “Of course I did. I can see the future.”
Of course, this is all planned. Yeah. The show feels like it’s got this air underneath it, and it’s driving out to the American audience and the global audience in a way, actually, that people are really hungry for something that treats this subject with love and with heart and with humor.

Your dad, we know, came out as transgendered, but you also have transgender consultants on this show, and I’m curious if there’s anything you’ve learned from your consultants that maybe you couldn’t have learned or couldn’t have asked your father.
Yes, well, the first thing is I have to correct you on a couple things. The word is transgender instead of transgendered.

And, I’m sorry to correct you. I get corrected all the time.

No, it’s fine. I want to get it right.
Transgendered has fall out of favor, and the word is transgender.

Let me ask it again: Your dad came out as transgender.
Oh, hold on. I’m going to correct you on that, too. That was my second thing. So we call that person “my parent” and not “my dad.”

Good point. I appreciate this.

No! I do. I totally do.
On the other NPR interview, he made similar mistakes and he kept the mistakes in and kept me correcting him in.

Right, that’s what we’re gonna do.
So, you can just say, “Your parent came out as trans.” That would be very politically correct.

Okay. Your parent came out as trans, and you also have trans consultants on the show, and I’m curious if you learned something from your consultants that you didn’t learn from your parent or you couldn’t ask your parent.
So many things. There’s a huge trans world out there, and there are so many different ways to be trans. And I really wanted Moira to be her own person, so I looked to Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker — who were our trans consultants and now, actually, are associate producers on the show — to really think hard about who would be that great person to help us give Moira a soul and put the skin and the flesh and the heart into this character of Moira. And we came up with a woman named Jennifer Finney Boylan who’s a really fantastic writer and one of the most outspoken trans advocates. She’s on the board of GLAAD, she’s a professor at Barnard.

And so we reached out to Jenny Boylan, and she came and hung out with the writers for a week and stayed upstairs in this little apartment that was above the writers’ room, it was super convenient. And we got to ask Jenny all kinds of questions. Jenny’s a late transitioner like my parent. And late transitioners, people who come out in their 40s or 50s, are really very different from the younger trans generation right now. A lot of them lived in shame and secrecy when they were young. There are a lot of questions in the general public about the difference between cross-dressers and trans women. Let alone putting drag queens into the mix. There’s this concept called the transbrella, and some trans people like the idea of the transbrella, and some don’t. But in particular, Jenny Boylan helped us by really being detailed about her history of secret cross-dressing, what it meant to live in secrecy. And one of the things she says is so resonant for me, which is that the most interesting part about her journey was not going from male to female, but instead it was going from living a life of secrecy to living a life of truth.

There’s a scene early in the series where Jeffrey Tambor’s character opens what looks to be a beautiful dress, admires it, and puts it in the trash. He can’t be who he wants to be, and the identity is in a piece of clothing that he loves but can’t wear.
Yeah, yeah. And that came directly from Jenny Boylan.

Do you think audiences on the one hand who are kind of comfortable and familiar with the trans world, and then audiences that have very little knowledge of and maybe a little bit of fear of that community, are going to watch the show in fundamentally different ways?
Absolutely. We’re super excited that the trans community is behind the show right now. It’s really a big, big deal that we’ve managed to get enough things right that trans people feel that the show represents them. But I like to talk about something that I learned from [GLAAD’s] Nick Adams. And he talked about what he calls the Moveable Middle. He feels like his job at GLAAD is not to make all of the queer activists happy, because that’s really quite difficult, and it’s not really to change the minds of super-right-wing Republicans. It’s really to address this moveable middle. The largest group of people who are in between those two poles, who really just need information.

And what I love about the show is it really is just a great family drama. It’s really funny. There are nods to shows like The Cosby Show and All in the Family. It’s soapy like All My Children and One Life to Live. Moira’s trans-ness is just one fifth, one small part of this family’s story. So I’m really hoping that audiences that just love great television and love that feeling of bingeing will jump in for those reasons. To laugh, to love it, to be part of it. And then the sort of by-product will be that they’ve gotten kind of an amazing trans education.

I want to ask you a little bit about the way in which you shoot sex in the series. It’s very matter-of-fact. People clearly haven’t been spending all of their waking hours in the gym. Was that you writing the show in reaction to the way you’ve seen sex and nudity depicted in the media before?
There is this concept when you’re writing television for a network or even places like HBO, they use these words: wish fulfillment. We have to make sure we’re delivering on the audience’s wish fulfillment. So I guess a show like Entourage would be wish fulfillment, right? But Entourage is wish fulfillment for men. It’s that you can be kind of schlumpy looking and have access to someone famous and find yourself at a pool party surrounded by girls in bikinis.

But it’s not really wish fulfillment for women. I think wish fulfillment for women is having access to whatever you want, including great sex when you look like yourself. That’s one of the things that I love just throwing into everything I do. The work that I’m doing unconsciously — I like to call it “privileging the other.” So, people who would normally be “other-ized,” — you know, women, trans people, queer people — get to be the center of things. So, there are scenes that normally you would see. For example, I’m not sure if you saw episode three. There’s a moment where Allie has a three-way, or she almost has a three-way—

She tries!
She almost has a three-way.

Some inappropriate, unwelcome direction.
She says the thing you’re never supposed to say during a three-way.

And you know this how?
[Laughs.] Just my guess. I took great pains to make sure that Allie wasn’t the object in that scene. That what it felt like to watch that scene, was what it felt like to be Allie instead of look at Allie. And, you know, that’s really just the sort of on-the-ground work of inventing the female gaze. I look at filmmakers like Andrea Arnold, like Eliza Hitman, there are these women filmmakers who I’m crazy about who are just frame-by-frame trying to help people understand what it feels like to be a woman instead of look at women.

Amazon is doing the Netflix model and dropping all ten episodes at once, and that means you’re going to know, one way or another, if people are bingeing this. How are you going to spend those days after it’s live and there’s this huge referendum immediately on your entire creative output?
That’s my birthday, actually, the day the show’s coming out. Yeah, September 26. It’s really exciting! We’ve already gotten some amazing reviews. But, that said, I’ll probably go into an underground bunker and turn off my Wi-Fi and rock myself quietly.

Jill Soloway on How Lena Dunham Freed Her Mind