Jill Soloway Conjures The Goddess
The creator of Transparent speaks on how personal truth in filmmaking can topple the patriarchy
A week after premiering the third season of her critically acclaimed Amazon series Transparent at TIFF, Jill Soloway was onstage at the Emmys winning her second award for “Best Directing in a Comedy Series.” After delivering an impassioned speech where she thanked the trans community for their “lived lives,” she closed by repeating: “topple the patriarchy!”
If anyone can do it, it’s Jill Soloway. Just observe her TIFF Industry Conference keynote speech on the female gaze, which has already received 20,000 views on YouTube. Here, riffing off Laura Mulvey’s critical paper “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which defined the male gaze as taking pleasure in the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of female subjects, Soloway breaks down a patriarchal definition of filmmaking and posits her own feminine, subjective mode to illustrate how women become what men see. One such distinction is returning the gaze back to the viewer, so it becomes “I see you seeing me.”
The third season of Transparent is also about what happens between the reflection you see in the mirror and the face you put on to meet the world. As the “unlikeable Jewish” heroes and heroines also known as the Pfefferman family fumble towards self-acceptance, they continue along a compelling, confused journey of sex, spirituality and everything in between. (An elderly tortoise is the best new character.) Soloway was in the digital studio to discuss her process of working with her incredible cast, how the films Fish Tank and Tiny Furniture helped her to cultivate her voice as a filmmaker and why intersectionality is the way forward for her series. (Her even newer TV project, I Love Dick, an adaptation of the cult feminist novel by Chris Kraus has received a greenlight by Amazon and stars Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon.) Now, let’s get toppling.
So, you're kind of my hero.
Wow! That's so awesome.
I'm really inspired by everything you do, and especially the way you talk about directing actors. I remember reading an interview with Jeffrey Tambor where he spoke about how directors will say: "Now, here's one take for you. You can just do whatever you want." But when you direct, that one take for the actor is where you begin. So I’m just so curious — how do you work with actors and what's your approach to performance?
Well, I approach my entire professional life bringing with me some really feminist principles that are collaborative, cooperative. Feminine ways of being a leader. I think a lot of filmmakers will spend a lot of time planning how something's going to go, whether they do a shot list or a storyboard, or they hear the scene over and over again in their head. But I try to show up on the set completely without any expectations. I often don't even look at the sides, the small version of the script that everyone has. I just start to be in contact with the performance, I wouldn't even say I watch it. I'm trying to feel something when I'm encountering it, to feel where the beats are. I'm almost looking at a heat-seeking map, you know, like one of those weather maps where you're measuring the temperature of something? I'm using my body as a way to try and feel the way the actors are feeling, it’s almost dancerly... How are we moving in this room, based on what we're feeling? It's a very feminine and very open, receptive, alive process where I experience something like a standup comic would feel during a performance. I don't know what's going to happen, I feel like I’m surfing, and we're just in this really flowy state of play. It is called filmmaking because we have a camera there, but it feels a lot more like street theatre, improv, theatre games... It's just so much fun for me. It's my favourite thing.
How do you communicate all of that with an actor or a crew for the first time?
Yeah, I'm not into "right" at all. A lot of crews are coming to the set with the feeling, "I want to get it right for the director." We do exercises to be in our bodies, like stretching, to feel things. We run through different emotions that I call "actions.” So we almost do a little gymnasium of feelings. I would be more likely to do that with an actor than to run lines.
And I know you don't like to say "cut" or "action."
Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I don't. But again, taking some of the things that were invented by a patriarchal culture, that for the most part, imitates military attitudes, you know? "Shooting" and "cutting" and "pointing" and "action" and squads of people. Instead, we just try and prioritize the actor’s feelings. And we recognize that is what we've come to film. Feelings, which are displayed on really, really great actors using the instrument of their bodies, which means water, muscle, fat underneath skin. Life. My job is just to create the conditions where emotions can play on the tool of the actor's body. So many things that happen in filmmaking are these ways of cutting them off.
For example, yelling "last looks,” yelling "action." It takes people out of their bodies. If we're shooting in a kitchen, I like to clear the set. I'll bring the actors in and start to talk them through very gently. Like, "You've lived in this house for 20 years. Go figure out where the spoons are. How do you open the cabinet every morning? Lay on the couch like you've just had a really bad day." And they'll start to do it like a movement exercise in the room. I don't do this for all scenes, but if it's a big scene. And once they're starting to move in there, like it's really their house… I'll go tap the cinematographer and he'll come over with the camera and start rolling. And they'll already be in the scene.
So you know, questioning everything. Not just going, "This is the way it's been done, so we’ll do it this way." Like, why has it been done that way? You know, question it, reinvent it and make it resonant in your body.
Why do you think that it’s always been done this way?
I'll see directors at the monitor watching performances like it's baseball. I've seen a director watch his scene and he'll just be like, "Yeah!” Like he's watching hits happen. And I think it's very masculine to just be like, "I got it! For me! I did this!"
There are so many things that I think serve the patriarchy and by that, I just mean men doing things the way they do things. So having to work late, stay late, act like it's really hard. It's actually really easy — filmmaking. But I think a lot of men have acted like it's really hard so they don't have to go home and see their families. So they don't have to do the hard work of loving people, being loved and caring for people. It's really easy to go to work and make up a fake world and then hire people you're attracted to and tell them what to do. You're living in an imaginary universe and you're controlling reality. So I don't know why men do the things they do, including the way they direct. Again, it's not all men. It’s more about masculinity and more about people — and less about men and women.
I remember listening to the actress Michaela Watkins on an episode of the podcast WTF. She told this really beautiful story about a speech you made on set about how you always watch the background performers in movies and the power they have to bring a scene to life. Can you talk about the value of extras?
So we don't call them extras, we call them background artists. There's a feeling on set of hierarchy; a lot of people feeling very nervous all the time about who's gonna get in trouble and who's the most important actor. You automatically change the vibe when you prioritize and honour the background artists — the people who are getting paid the least and getting treated the least well, usually. I do that by making an announcement at the beginning of the day to all of the artists, especially the background artists, reminding them of this idea. Which is something like, "We are gathered here today around the priviledge that we get to make art. That we get to spend our day playing. And so, nobody's ever gonna tell you that you did it wrong, or that we're running out of time, or that we're running out of light, or that we're running out of money. Feel free to take risks and take chances. You're not going to get in trouble here. This is a living painting. Artists made your costume, more artists did your hair today. You are an artist, your body is the tool. Feel free and play. What a beautiful joy it is that we get to spend our day doing this. We could be at war. We could be homeless. We could have a job that we hate to go to, but instead we're here, making live art.”
Just get kind of like, spiritual and grateful. And then people just start to relax, as soon as someone says nobody's going to get in trouble. And that we're here to have fun and that we're here to take risks. I think that's when the amazing, beautiful performances happen. I could never plan them. I could never order them into being. All I can do is show up with an open heart and welcome the muse.
Where is Transparent Season 3 going?
You know, more insanity, more bad sex, more confusion. We have a Passover theme this season, there's a different Jewish holiday every season. Rabbi Raquel is trying to write her liberation Haggadah sermon. And Sarah's trying to be free of her guilt of not being a good enough mom. And Josh is just searching... I think he thinks he screwed up his life, and he's lost. Ali is back at school and she's in love and she's trying to make sense of everything she's learning. She's obsessed with the idea of intersectionality and trying to figure out if there's any sort of spiritual connection that knits together all the other intersectional, Otherized people. She becomes obsessed with this idea that women, people of colour and queer people belongs to a special group; that the idea of them being Otherized is God. So, she's on a trip, which I love. She goes to the dentist's office and gets some nitrous and that helps propel her dream sequences, one of which has Caitlyn Jenner is it. And Maura is getting everything she wants and realizing it's not enough. And Shelly brands herself, she has a one-woman show. Judith Light. One-woman show. She's on social media. Enough said.
That feels very unexpected, but also inevitable. Like, of course she would. I can see the Fringe Festival poster in my head!
I can't remember what her one-woman show is called... "Journey to the Self."
Are there musical numbers in it?
There is one big musical number. I don't want to give anything away, but at the end of the season, the family does go on a cruise. And many cruise ships do have beautiful performance spaces. And Shelly may find her way into one.
I can't wait! What is it like to collaborate with the female directors that you work with? Like Marielle Heller and Andrea Arnold?
I mean, I just saw Andrea Arnold at TIFF. She's so amazing. She's my hero. Whenever I go to the set and Andrea Arnold is there, I'm like, "What happened to my life?" I can specifically remember sitting my living room watching Fish Tank. And being struck with the feeling that I understood what I needed to do as a director, as a direct inheritance from her. And so, the fact that she's directing episodes of Transparent — it's overwhelming. Besides Silas [Howard], who's a trans man, every director on Season 3 is a woman. And we're also always trying to make an attempt to hire women of colour. So we have Marta Cunningham and So Yong Kim. We’re just trying to use our director slots as an opportunity to help people into the industry.
I was talking to my friend Richard Shepard, who is a director on Girls, and he said that there’s a rule that there’s only one slot for a first-time director on the first season of a show. And how that shuts people out because then there's a precedent...
People will tell you anything, including, "No, I don't approve this director because she hasn't directed anything before." You have to push back and you have to keep doing it everyday. That's the annoying part. You would think, I have all this creative freedom from Amazon. I have Emmys, I have this notion of feeling successful. And every single day, I still have to monologue about the feminist ways of doing things. About honouring the feminine. About trans rights, about queer protagonism. The patriarchy is the way things have been done. And if you take your eye off the ball for a day, they will slide back. Meaning that there will be a cis male director I have talked to who will be reminding us, for the fifth time, that he really deserves this slot.
And at some point, you go, "Oh this would be easy to just give it to him. Because he's so experienced." There’s all kinds of ways in which not making opportunities for queer people, for trans people, for people of colour, is just easier. You get an opening for an intern or for an entry-level job, a PA, and you have five emails from friends of yours who all have kids who are kids of privilege. Kids who go to a really expensive college and who have the summer off. And whose parents are paying for their lives, so they can come and be your interns. You want to hire them because you've met them and they're brilliant. And then you realize, "Oh, trans kids don't actually have parents who are paying for their lives." They're not on their college break, they're dealing with transitioning. Queer kids, people of colour, they didn't grow up in a culture where somebody said, "Do you want to go to film school?" If you're not conscious all the time of using your privilege as ways to invite people who don't have access in... you slide back into your default, so easily. If you're a white, Jewish, upper middle class girl like me... I'm gonna have a much easier time communicating with the people who speak my language. But at the same time, I'll never grow, I'll never learn, I'll never be confronted with my own privilege. And most importantly, I'll never change the face of culture. Which is our opportunity right now, to keep going in that direction and keep powering forward.
How do you stop yourself from giving in?
It's exhausting. But I labour under this delusion that the patriarchy is going to be toppled sometime very soon. And that I'm actually capable of doing it myself. And it's weird because you normally wouldn't believe that you could change the world, but when Transparent happened, it did. I had people come up to me saying, "Obama said the word ‘transgender’ because of you." And "trans rights are changing because of Transparent."
Sometimes I call up my Moppa and say, "This is because of you. You coming out and being yourself and being brave enough at the age of 73 to tell me that you were trans affected me in a way that I wrote this show.” Which affects the world because people start to see themselves, which affected Caitlyn Jenner. So, I did actually create something that made the world safer for my parent, made me feel less shame about my relationship and helped me to understand what it means to be the child of a trans person. Writing the script were these tiny, one-page attempts at a time to feel better.
Now, I'm going beyond just trans people and feminism and thinking more about like an intersectional revolution. and asking the questions, "What do people of colour and queer people all have in common?" And recognizing, activists don't want to erase their own struggles. So it's not so simple to say, "let's all join together! Women! People of colour! Queer people!" A lot of those people are all the same person. A trans woman of colour, for example, is a member of all three communities. But everybody needs their own struggles to be amplified. So how do we link arms and fight the same fight? I'm just obsessed with the idea of using storytelling to do that.
It is so powerful when people can recognize themselves in a movie. Was there a film that did that for you when you were growing up?
Growing up, no. As I start to look back on what damage the male gaze does, I look more at what growing up felt like. Going to see Woody Allen movies and loving those movies and relating to Woody Allen, or to Albert Brooks. And recognizing — "Oh, I can't put myself in the body of the women in these movies because they are objects." I think it’s damaging that women have to put themselves into the male body to enjoy a movie and men don't have to do that with women.
I really was very moved when I saw Tiny Furniture. Because before Lena Dunham existed, I was writing a lot of television where I was couching my characters in people who weren't Jewish, weren't queer, weren't feminist, weren't smart... I would take all that stuff and I would just have to hide it. I’d be told, “Your voice is great! We're gonna go out to Hayden Panettiere! We're gonna go out to Katie Heigl!" And I'd be like, "perfect." Because it didn't occur to me that my essence was deserving of being a hero. When I saw Tiny Furniture, I realized — it's not hard at all, it's easy. It's just relaxing and just documenting your own truth, being yourself. It was so chill, that movie. And Hannah... well her name wasn't Hannah in Tiny Furniture, what was her name?
Aura! She was just herself. At her mom's house, with her sister. That was around the same time that I saw Fish Tank. And I felt that there was something about both of those movies that I could weave together. A real sense of being myself and the yearning in Fish Tank and the dreaminess and the way Andrea used the camera. Because Andrea Arnold and Lena Dunham use the camera very differently. In Tiny Furniture, Lena made these very beautiful, compositional shots. And people didn't really move much.
Yes, it’s mostly on sticks.
Yeah, and they feel very staged and beautiful. The movement is really in Aura's soul. You feel her tension, you feel her yearning. Andrea Arnold takes the camera and she puts it into this sort of three-quarter thing where she's using a square frame and just a little bit of the face of the protagonist? But we're never looking at her straight on and we never are her. I think I took both of those filmmakers and wove them together and started to really believe that I could do it. But it really is, for female filmmakers, a giving birth to an idea of the self as compiled by the image, the camera, the actors, the light. Yo know, how is this gonna feel like it's coming from me? Instead of about "some girl." It continues to be my challenge. And to me, a really exciting one because so many female artists are just blowing me away.
Oh absolutely, at this year at TIFF, especially...
Oh yeah, what have you seen? I know I need to see American Honey.
Toni Erdmann is amazing. It’s by a German female director, Maren Ade, it's her third feature. It's about a father-daughter relationship, there's a really awkward naked party.
I love an awkward naked party! You really know me. (Laughs)
(Laughs) Well one of the scenes in Transparent that I think about all the time is the sex scene between Shelly and Maura in the bathtub last season. It's so beautifully acted, it's so beautifully directed by you.
For that scene in particular, how did you approach it with the actors? Because the power dynamics between them go back-and-forth and back-and-forth.
We didn’t talk about the way that Maura and Shelly were ever going to interact. For me, that scene was really important because if taken out of context it's like: "Shelly has an orgasm in a bathtub. And she's 65 years old and whoa!" I didn't want Judith to think of herself in that sliced-up way. Her body, her name, the character. I wanted to create this really holistic energy of being in the room while we shot it. Giving Judith and Jeffrey the feeling of it being real. I was just really attempting to help them let go of the fact that we were filming.
I was talking about it as a revolutionary scene. And saying that the problem with our country right now is that the mature feminine is degraded, that mom's not allowed to have any pleasure, that mom is despised. This is why Hillary can't be adored and loved. People only want to see young, beautiful, virginal people have sexual pleasure. So Shelly's gonna do the thing that nobody in this family wants because everybody has grown up with this mythology that mom doesn't get to have pleasure. I think Maura felt a lot of shame about her femininity and projected that onto Shelly. And Shelly was part of a whole generation like my mom's generation where everybody was shamed for their femininity. I grew up listening to "Free to Be… You and Me" where the girl who wears the dress gets eaten by the alligator. I just felt like that scene where we are watching mom, a mature woman, have an orgasm felt like this revolutionary portrayal of beauty. And as I said, I believe that all of these things have the potential to topple the patriarchy. So, I just tried to share that vision and help them realize that it's not just a TV show, it's not just a bathtub scene, it's not just an orgasm, it's not just a sex scene — we're doing goddess work here. So let go, let the scene happen and know that it's all for something much bigger.
I bet that's incredibly inspiring.
Ha ha, yeah! They're like, "Okay! I was nervous until I realized that we were conjuring the goddess."