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Shooting ‘Transparent’: From Rehearsal to Lenses to Intimate Family Drama

Shooting 'Transparent': From Rehearsal to Lenses to Intimate Family Drama

It may be obvious to say so, but transparency runs through the entire
production in Amazon’s smash hit debut of Jill Soloway’s
Transparent.” In fact, it’s with that utmost devotion to
authenticity that Soloway seems to be winning over the hearts and heads of
possibly previously skeptical viewers of LGBTQ-focused television content.

Since it is through a cinematographers’ eyes that we’re privy
to what happens on a set, Indiewire thought it’d be worth getting intimate with
Soloway’s DP, Jim Frohna.

“Jim is probably the most intuitive DP I’ve ever
worked with,” gushed Jeffrey Tambor. “He knows before you know where
the action is going to go. During this one scene with an argument, he was lying
in the floor just covered in sweat afterward. He’s not just photographing it,
he’s experiencing it. He was all but
a cast member.”

READ MORE: Review: ‘Transparent’ Showcases Jeffrey Tambor’s Tremendous Talent (But Don’t Binge-Watch It)

The filmmaking duo – who affectionately refer to each
other as “Jimmie” and “Jillie” – first paired up on
Soloway’s Sundance indie from 2012, “Afternoon Delight.” It was there
that symbiosis was born. “She would allow me to use my intuition and had
total belief in my process,” Frohna said when at Sundance two years ago.
“Isn’t that what we all want from a director?”

Frohna’s wishes have come true, and we got the inside
track of what it’s like to work within such an organic state of art-making.

The paradigm is shifting. “Amazon Studios
is essentially three people, which already tells you that things are different.
From the start, it became clear to us that Joe Lewis and Amazon were very
supportive and quite passionate about what we were doing. There were many
days where it felt like we were working during the early ’70s, when
studios were making more independent-minded, free-spirited, risk-taking passion
projects. With Joe and the team at Amazon, we were in the embrace of new
possibilities.”

It begins with rolling around on the floor. “Jill
asked me to join her and the cast at rehearsals with indie filmmaking guru and
consulting producer Joan Scheckel. The time spent was not about running scenes,
but about exploring character, relationship and emotion – all with music and
through movement. Jill or Joan would call out specific actions: ‘Go to the
person who you feel most connected to, or least connected to,’ for example. And
while I had my still camera there to document moments for possible reference, I
was participating as fully as the actors were. That’s a treasure for a DP. And
it was fantastic.” 

And continues on stage at Paramount. “The work
we did in rehearsal not only built the foundation of the Pfefferman clan, but
it also gave me an intimacy with the actors and the material. This whole
approach to filmmaking is intuitive and allows that same sense
of exploration and ‘play’ that we used in rehearsal to be carried
over to the set. For ‘Transparent’
(and similarly for ‘Afternoon
Delight’) Jill and I don’t feel the need for a storyboard or often even
a shot list. Here, the actors don’t have marks and they are not
restricted by a lighting set up because we generally light for the whole
scene. As well, I like to operate the main camera and work, as Jill
would put it, like the ‘unseen player.'”

No need to call
“Action.”
“Many times Jill just let the cameras start
rolling without calling action. She would signal to me and give a quiet
look to the actors, and things would start unfolding. Jill is still very
much in charge and her directorial vision clear, but it comes from a very
soulful place of creating space for the actors and for all of us on the crew to
feel safe, take risks and be our best creative selves. In any given scene, our
mission with the camera is to be completely open, to stay connected to the
characters and to document emotions. Jay Duplass coined a phrase that Jill
would often repeat as encouragement to take risks: ‘Disobligate yourself from
trying.'”

When shooting is like dancing. [SPOILER ALERT.] “Late in the season, Maura, Jeffery Tambor’s
character, goes to cross-dressing camp. At this new place representing freedom,
Maura meets another cross-dressing friend’s wife (played by Michaela Watkins).
Jill sent me into the room with one simple direction: ‘Just be in the moment.’
I was handheld, and it became this amazing improvised, playful dance between
the three of us, with cabaret music playing and their dresses swirling and
their bodies overlapping. They even started talking in these mock Italian
accents. This went on for almost a half hour, and we were rolling continuously.
Our editors, Cate Haight and Hilda Rasula, and Jill shaped it into one of my
favorite scenes of the whole season.”

READ MORE: How Authentic is ‘Transparent?’ A Transgender Activist on Jeffrey Tambor and Other Portrayals

Sometimes “Cut” doesn’t mean “Cut.”
“Because of the size of the Canon C500 it was so easy to cradle it at my chest and keep a low
profile, and to get away with just grabbing extra stuff on the fly. One time
that really paid off was when Tambor’s character is in a hotel room,
introducing herself to Bradley Whitford’s ‘Marcy.’ There was some
music playing on set and Jeffrey just started improvising as Maura, doing this
strange dance, sipping on a Martini. The entire cast is made up of exceptional
actors but also remarkable people who open themselves up to endless
possibilities. When these moments show up in the final edit, it’s a real treat,
especially when Bruce Gilbert, our music supervisor, adds just the right song
or composition to complete the story.”

Digital is your friend. “I did blind camera tests with Red Epic, Sony
F55 and the Canon C500 and we picked the Canon. I paired it with
70-year-old Leica Leitz lenses and even when I pushed it all the way to 3200 or
4000 ISO it was amazing. It gets this texture to it — not blotchy, digital
noise — but looks more grainy and film-like. I miss film, but these are
amazing tools that we now have that open up a whole new realm of possibilities.
Thirty-minute takes of me moving around the room or shooting into the darkest
shadows of night could only be possible with this new technology.”

Let the machine fall away. “We took Jill’s goal of having everything feel as authentic
as possible even into the way we lit the show. I love natural light and use it
as much as possible. About 60 percent of the show was shot on a stage, yet I
always wanted it to feel naturally lit, which was a challenge the lighting and
grip crew met admirably.

“A lot of television stages or film sets have walls
and ceilings that can fly away to accommodate the camera, but I knew right from
the beginning I didn’t want to be able to do that. I wanted to light like it
was a real space, which means big sources from outside the set. I tried where
possible to keep as much gear out of the room and give the space over to the
actors, who could then move about freely. There have been many times,
particularly on intimate sex scenes or emotionally intense scenes when, even
though I’m a foot away from a face, the cast would often forget the machine of
filmmaking was there. This lean, quiet movement without focus marks says a lot
for my focus puller, Shelly Gurzi. Because I’m constantly running around and
doing this dance with the actors, she has an extremely hard job. I call Shelly
my silent dance partner.”

Hooked on a
feeling.
“I’m proud of how the show feels. If
there’s a formal language to filmmaking (your standard wide-shot, medium,
close-up, close-up) then I think what Jill is creating, or asking from the
writers, the actors and her crew is that we collectively build a new language
alongside the visuals. It starts from a director who guides all of us, from
pre- to post-production, to do their best art. Jill would often remind us: ‘Everyone’s
always worrying about running out of time, and running out of money, and
running out of light. We have enough time, enough money and we are the
light.'”

READ MORE: ‘Transparent’ Creator Jill Soloway on How Her Life Lead to Jeffrey Tambor in a Dress

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