One may think a writer’s journey to Hollywood is over as soon as they get their first paid writing gig, but that’s not the case. In a speech given to kick off the 2014 Film Independent Forum, Jill Soloway chronicled her journey after she’d already written for “Six Feet Under” and served as showrunner for “United States of Tara” and “How to Make It In America.”
There was still a mountain for her to climb, and even now, she doesn’t feel like she’s made it — but she has some advice for anyone trying to live in the world of independent film and television.
To kick off her speech, Soloway talked about how just three years earlier she was ready to give up her dreams of being a professional writer and “get the hell out of Hollywood.” “Fuck being a writer,” she said to a friend at the time. Her pilot pitch to HBO had fallen through. She couldn’t get hired at another show (because someone had labeled her as “difficult”). Soloway and her family were eating “out of the cabinets” and “hand-washing clothes.”
Thanks to a loan from her agents, she was able to make a short film in time for the Sundance Film Festival. When she got the call she’d been accepted, she told the voice on the other end that she loved her.
While at Sundance 2013, Soloway wrote another script — this one a feature — and made it the next year. “I learned a lot in the process, some of which I’ll share with you now,” Soloway said. Here’s what she had to share:
“Every project is a race between your enthusiasm and your ability to get it done,” Soloway said. “Go fast. Don’t slow down. A year from now new things will interest you.”
“Don’t show up to shoot the script. Show up with your body as your tool, not your mind. [Soloway calls this “being in the flow.”] Feel things as the artists around you work, use those feelings to know what’s working. From the moment you say action, this is the fun part – things should happen that surprise you, excite you, scare you, turn you on, make you laugh. If things aren’t surprising you, when you say cut, whisper things to the actors that will make them do things that do surprise you.”
“Have fun. Your first job, I tell people I mentor, is managing your affect. Be nice and say nice things. Make it so that the people walk away from interacting with you and say ‘that was fun.’ That will make them want to come back and do it again.”
“Reverse the polarity of the experience. In a world where the rallying cry is, ‘we’re running out of time, we’re running out of money, we’re running out of light,’ it’s really fun as a director to show up and slow things down. I operate with the feeling that there is plenty of time and plenty of money and light is everywhere, bouncing off of every surface. I surprise people by starting the day with an invitation to connect over the feeling of gratitude about the fact that are about to spend our day playing; making art.”
“And most importantly, as filmmakers, we must be willing to lead. While I was making ‘Afternoon Delight,’ I would read Cassavetes in the morning like scripture.”
“You don’t get to say, ‘I’m an artist I need to be free!’ You must speak the vision of your project in a way that convinces people to pay for it. If they won’t pay for it, that is the artist’s fault. It is my fault. It is your fault. It is not the executive’s fault or the world’s.”
“Freedom of creative expression does not mean you don’t take notes. Take notes from anyone and everyone. Take them all with a, ‘yes sir, may I have another’ attitude. But only do the notes that make your work stronger. You must be open enough to allow other peoples’ opinions in, but not so open that anything negative slows you down. All of your final decisions about casting, writing, shooting, cutting, must come from a place of what makes the truest art, not what some people think will make money.”
Read Soloway’s speech in its entirety on the next page:
Thanks so much to Film Independent for having me today. This is going to be inspire-y and motivate-y. Around three short years ago, I was a mess. At rock bottom. Hatching plans to get the hell out of Hollywood. Fuck being a writer, I said to my best friend Michaela as we did our morning walk. I’m going to move to Northern California, wear a caftan with no underwear, sit with a cup of coffee in the morning after my kid gets on the school bus and self-publish feminist poetry.
I was a mess. The day before, I was at the salon getting a blowout for my birthday party when my agent called to tell me that my pilot script at HBO – it was about Laurel Canyon in the ’60s – was “Not gonna happen.” There is nothing worse than staring at yourself in the mirror trying to look pretty when you’ve just gotten the news that your dreams are dead.
“Why???” I probably whined.
“They’re not picking anything up this cycle,” he said. “It’s financial, they’re cutting costs, it has nothing to do with the material. Everyone loves it.”
“But-but-but – what about that other thing I just read about in the trades that is getting shot? Someone named Lena Dunham?”
“Oh, that,” he said. “That’s part of this low budget initiative. I wouldn’t worry, nothing’s going to come of that.”
In the past, I’d worked as a writer and producer on “Six Feet Under,” dare I say showrunner on “United States of Tara” and “How to Make It In America” – but with two kids in private school and a backlog of taxes from those fabulous writers strike/recession years, our savings were gone. There were options in flux and interests and attachments; lunches on the books with either Dylan McDermott or Dermot Mulroney, not sure which. I had a lotta balls in the air but none were money balls.
I was going to have to get a job. A real job. Okay, fine – not like, at the airport curb-checking luggage – a job on somebody else’s TV show. Those of you who are TV writers out there know about staffing season. It’s like sorority rush but instead of getting rejected for your leggings it’s because of your talent, your ability, your voice, your personality.
From the moment pick-ups are announced and the swine gates open, it’s nuts. Suddenly everyone is all atwitter, which is a word that actually now has a real meaning, meaning people are on Twitter humble bragging. “Guys! Wish me luck on my meeting” – FUCK YOU WHERE IS SHE MEETING THAT I’M NOT MEETING?!
I put on my outfits and dashed from Warner Brothers to Sony to Radford to Universal, back to Sony, they call it the Couch-and-Room-Temp-Water-Tour. Because these are new shows, they don’t like to send out the pilots beforehand (in case word gets around that they, ya know, suck), so you sit in a room and watch the show by yourself first.
Then you go in for the meeting. I ended up sitting across from a lot of my contemporaries. Old friends. People I’d come up with.
“You really want to work as a consultant on my show? You know it’s a sitcom, right? You sure you want this?”
“Of course I do. You know, I know people think of me as a drama writer but honestly, I come from comedy. I mean, ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ these shows made me.”
“Really? Okay… so what did you think of my pilot?”
“Oh my god, it was so good. Really funny. I was in there totally laughing. You must have heard me laughing.”
“Really? Because I had to make so many compromises and I didn’t get to cast the amazing funny actress I wanted, but – ”
“Oh, no it was really good. She was great! She wasn’t your first choice? I never would have guessed! The blonde one? What was her character’s name? Tess?”
Oh fuck that must have been Tess on the last meeting.
“I mean Jess? Was her name Jess?”
“Jill, are you sure you want to work on this show?”
“Okay. Well, we’d be lucky to have you.”
I get in my car and call my agent. I finally get a couple of reports back: “Yeah, it’s not gonna happen on that one, or that one. I’m sorry, it’s staffing season. I’m crazed. I’ll try to figure out what happened soon. I’ll call you when all this dies down.” Staffing season does, in fact, die down. It’s all over. No job for me. We really are out of money. It’s like, Progresso soup out of the cabinets, no more restaurants, stop dry cleaning, stop spending money. Stop.
I laze about, miserable, looking on line for land near Shasta. I watch that movie by that Lena Dunham girl who got her pilot made at HBO. Apparently she made it for $20,000 in her parents’ house. Fuck, my parents’ house was nowhere near that cool. I was jealous and miserable and eating out of the cabinets and hand washing clothes that really wanted to go to the dry cleaners.
And then, suddenly, the word: there’s one. more. job. On a show that’s been on for years but they decided they want to add someone. They heard you’re available. Like Charlie when he found out the 5th golden ticket was counterfeit, I run to the candy store to buy one last Wonka Bar! Aka, I quickly dialed my longtime friend who was a regular on the show and say, “there’s a job on your show and my agent says they’re interested in me!” And she says, “I’ll call up the showrunner and tell him how much we love each other!” And I say “yay!”
To prep for the meeting I dive deep. I watch 20 episodes of the show and read every last recap. I start dreaming up storylines that I go into my meeting and blast it out of the water. I wag my tail and drop references from season three and six, pitch my ideas for the next season…
They love me in this meeting. There is hugging, there is almost making out – one of the people in the meeting actually says, “I know it seems weird to end this so quickly but you know that feeling on a date when you just know you’ve met the one? This is like that.”
I run to my car and click my heels as I go. By the time I call my agent he’s already calling me. “They loved you.” He’s so relieved. “They just need you to meet the show creator.” And then, a few hours later, another call. “They checked in with him and he loves you too! The job is yours! Pop the champagne!” Not exaggerating, this is not hyperbole, the words actually spoken by my actual agent were ‘pop’ and ‘the’ and ‘champagne.’
I called my husband and screamed into the phone, “We did it! I did it! It’s happening! We’re going to be fine.” I get home and run into his arms. My mom and sister happen to be in town for something and that night we were all in my kitchen, dancing. Jill’s gonna make it in Hollywood, just like we all always dreamed! That night, we go out to dinner. In a restaurant. Instead of eating stone soup aka Progreso out of the cabinet with extra pasta like we planned.
On Monday I start planning my outfits and check in with my agent (he’s suddenly easy to reach again) to see what the offer is. “What level? Weekly or episodic? How many guaranteed scripts?” He tells me that the offer hasn’t come in yet but he’ll call me as soon as it does.
Tuesday, no call. I ask if he’s worried. “Don’t you think you should call them?” I ask. His reply: “I don’t chase offers.”
Wednesday, I write him a concerned but calmly worded email about whether or not I should trust my spidey sense that is telling me something is not quite right. Are you worried? I email him. No answer.
Thursday at noon, I’m at the end of my sweaty, sweaty rope. I email him one desperate sentence: IF YOU KNOW SOMETHING PLEASE PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY.
The phone rings. It’s him plus another agent. Uh oh. “So, you were right. The offer’s not coming.” The offer’s not coming? What happened? “Um, so, yeah, apparently they asked around about you and word came back that you’re difficult.”
“Difficult? What? Do you have any idea how broke I am? We’re out of money? I can’t – I don’t – who the fuck called me difficult? I’m not difficult I’m so nice and wonderful!!!!!”
One of my agents said in a calm voice, “I’m going to messenger a check over to your house today. How much do you need?”
A million dollars.
No, I didn’t say that. I said an amount that would get us through for the next few months. The check came that afternoon and I brought it straight to the bank.
That night, I was in the bath while my husband brushed his teeth, and we talked about what was next. “I don’t ever want to be in this position again,” I said. “I need to make a film. The reason HBO picked up that show instead of mine was because they can see her voice. No one can see my voice. All I am is that girl who used to write on SIX FEET UNDER. I want to use that loan to make a movie. I wanna double down on me.”
“Sure,” he said. “Yes, honey,“ he said. “I’m in.”
I make it sound really easy. Our relationship is a bit more complex, but it didn’t get ugly. I didn’t need to, you know, get out of the bath and parade around naked like Julianne Moore in SHORTCUTS, with my red bush out. I’ll just say it was actually a good discussion that ended with us deciding to go for it.
I had a feature script that had been kicking around but it had that old gym shoe smell. I had the first act of a movie about a suburban mom who befriends a hooker, but it stalled out around the 2nd half of the 2nd act. Oh, that 2nd half of the 2nd act. I didn’t think I could finish anything feature-length in time; I would have to use the money to make a short. Michaela had a funny idea about picking up a day laborer at the Home Depot to hang out and lie around with and hug instead of fix shit. With her permission I stole the idea and wrote a script and found a producer and a month or so later I was shooting, mixing, color correcting and submitting the short film to Sundance.
As Thanksgiving week rolled in, I questioned Sundance’s timing. “Why would they do this to people, crush so many dreams at a time when people are supposed to be gathering over gratefulness? What jerks.” A friend suggested maybe it was good because at least people could be like, well, I didn’t get my film into Sundance but at least I have family. Yeah, right.
I think it was Thanksgiving morning when I still hadn’t heard. I was concocting plans for alternative distribution models for my film – “I know, I’ll make a website where people will pay five cents to view my short” – when the phone rang.
“Hi! This is Kelsey calling from the Sundance Film Festival! May I speak to Jill?” The instantaneous math: Only a psychopath would call someone up in a happy voice to give them bad news. This must be good news.
“This is Jill.”
“I’m calling to tell you we loved your film and we’d like to welcome you to The 2013 Sundance Film Festival!”
“My god, Kelsey! I love you, I love you, I don’t know who you are, but I love you!”
In the weeks that followed, I was high on life. Still no job, but I was gonna make it. When I got to Sundance and checked in and they gave me that director credential and put it around my neck, I almost cried.
Robert Redford had invited me over to his house – okay, actually they had a director’s brunch at the Sundance Resort, but when I heard about it I imagined Bob and I in our socks cozying up under a Ralph Lauren blanket in front of his fire. Then someone explained that no, it’s at the lodge, the one where they hold the workshops. It’s more like a brunch at a conference, a few hundred people with coffee urns and eggs in chafing dishes but Robert does come and speak. Oh. Okay, that would be fine.
And we did go up there, on a beautiful snowy day and all of us directors packed into three tour buses. I looked out the window as the snow fell, and looked around on the bus, afraid to talk to anyone, they were all directors and I was just a fraud with a director laminate, but still, I was there.
I was the last one off the bus and I slippy slided on the sidewalk in the flurries as I made my way up to the lodge, tasting the snowflakes. I had never seen anything so beautiful.
Throughout the rest of the festival, in the off-time when my short wasn’t screening, I tromped into other people’s films. One afternoon, I was sitting in the biggest theater there, it’s called Eccles – ten minutes in to a very so-so feature, nothing special, just, aggressively medium – and I was struck with a feeling. I got up and took a shuttle back to Main Street. As I climbed up the hill toward our condo, I ran into a friend. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I’m going back up to the condo to work on my screenplay. You know that idea I had about the suburban mom and the hooker I threw out? I’m gonna work on it and I’m gonna finish it and when I get back home to LA I’m gonna raise the money and make it and I’m going to be back here next year with a feature.”
“Hokay,” he said.
For the next few days, I sat in my condo and manically added pages to my script. I didn’t care if they were good. I just wanted pages. We got back to LA and I kept charging forth. I went to a filmmaking lab run by Joan Scheckel. I learned a technique, which can be very simply boiled down to the question:
“What are you doing to get what you want?”
It’s a question I learned to ask of a character – what are they doing to get what they want – in this movie or sequence or scene or beat or moment. It can also be asked of the cinematographer – what does the camera want? The props, the art direction, the light, all of these elements should be doing something. They should want something. The audience sits in a chair. And they watch. They eat ice cream or popcorn and they watch. They do nothing except maybe eat so they crave seeing someone doing something. That is the thing that makes it watchable, that keeps them in their chair.
Although I had been writing TV for many years and went to film school in college, I had no actual technique. I just had the hope that a shot list and guessing about how to do stuff would work out. Turns out you need a technique, whether you make it up or learn it.
It was around May when I finished the movie script about the housewife and the hooker and emailed it to my agent. A fortuitous meeting with a friend of a friend of a producer at the Silver Lake Farmers Market led me to the actual producers who would ultimately make that film happen. Their names were Jen Chaiken and Sebastian Dungan and they’d read the script and called me the next day. “We want to make something right away,” they said, “and this is exactly the kind of movie we want to make.”
A few days later, the three of us sat across from each other in their office. We all wanted to be back at Sundance, and that meant wrapping by August. We made an agreement: “So, we’re all saying that if Kate Winslet wants to be in this movie, but if she says she’s not available until January, then we’re passing on Kate Winslet.” Yup, we shook on the idea of passing on Kate Winslet.
Luckily, it didn’t matter how Kate Winslet felt as we never got the script to her. But we did get it to the right actors and money people and we found a line producer and wrote a budget and before long we were shooting. I learned a lot in the process, some of which I’ll share with you now.
Every project is a race between your enthusiasm and your ability to get it done. Go fast. Don’t slow down. A year from now new things will interest you.
When I was making “Afternoon Delight” I called my style “directing from the feminine,” but now that I’ve been involved in trans politics for the past year I find the binary suspect. I’ll call it “being in the flow.” It means – don’t show up to shoot the script. Show up with your body as your tool, not your mind. Feel things as the artists around you work, use those feelings to know what’s working. From the moment you say action, this is the fun part – things should happen that surprise you, excite you, scare you, turn you on, make you laugh. If things aren’t surprising you, when you say cut, whisper things to the actors that will make them do things that do surprise you.
For me, being in flow means bringing the feminine to the workplace by thinking about filmmaking as throwing a party. It’s choosing a time and a place and telling people to show up. Those people should be professional actors and someone with a camera, but they don’t need to be. They can be your friends and your iPhone, if you’re still learning. All you have to do is be willing to create a vibe that allows people to feel free and try things they’ve never tried before.
Have fun. Your first job, I tell people I mentor, is managing your affect. Be nice and say nice things. Make it so that the people walk away from interacting with you and say “that was fun.” That will make them want to come back and do it again.
Reverse the polarity of the experience. In a world where the rallying cry is, “we’re running out of time, we’re running out of money, we’re running out of light,” it’s really fun as a director to show up and slow things down. I operate with the feeling that there is plenty of time and plenty of money and light is everywhere, bouncing off of every surface. I surprise people by starting the day with an invitation to connect over the feeling of gratitude about the fact that are about to spend our day playing; making art.
And most importantly, as filmmakers, we must be willing to lead. While I was making “Afternoon Delight” I would read Cassavetes in the morning like scripture. In a manifesto he wrote called, “What’s Wrong With Hollywood” in 1959, he said, and I’m paraphrasing a little:
“The artist is an irreplaceable figure in our society. An artist is a person who can speak their own mind, who can reveal, educate and stimulate and in every sense, communicate with fellow human beings. It is a privilege to communicate worldwide in a world so incapable of understanding. The answers cannot be left in the hands of the money men. The answers must come from the artist herself. She must become aware that art and the respect due this vocation is her responsibility, and that if she cannot garner the respect, the fault is her own. She must therefore make the producer realize by whatever means are at her disposal – that only by allowing the artist full and free creative expression – will the art and business of motion pictures survive.” 1959.
Cassavetes didn’t say, ‘she,’ he said, ‘he,’ but whatever. Point is, I became willing to take the blame if I couldn’t communicate the necessity that as an artist, I needed ultimate creative freedom. And, by the way, you don’t get to say, “I’m an artist I need to be free!” You must speak the vision of your project in a way that convinces people to pay for it. If they won’t pay for it, that is the artist’s fault. It is my fault. It is your fault. It is not the executive’s fault or the world’s.
Don’t get this confused. Freedom of creative expression does not mean you don’t take notes. Take notes from anyone and everyone. Take them all with a, “yes sir, may I have another attitude.” But only do the notes that make your work stronger. You must be open enough to allow other peoples’ opinions in, but not so open that anything negative slows you down. All of your final decisions about casting, writing, shooting, cutting, must come from a place of what makes the truest art, not what some people think will make money.
We finished shooting “Afternoon Delight,” submitted to Sundance, and got in. The following year, I was back at that same theater, Eccles, onstage introducing my feature. That night at our premiere party, I danced my head off, wild and free and full of the feeling that I’d made it. Our sales agent brought me executives who said they were crazy about my movie, people who made me promise not to sell it to anyone but them.
I wish I could describe that moment as a Cinderella moment, as the peak of a mountain, a peak that propelled me here, but I can’t. Two days after that premiere, the meanest review in the world came out. It seemed to cast a chill on any kind of bidding war that had started. I was at bottom, sick with the flu and hiding for hours under my pillow mid-day in my condo. I had one of those 4pm paralyzing daymares that I died. An actual dream that I died; my body in the drawer at the morgue.
A few days after that, I was ready to ditch Park City, blaming forecasted storms instead of my depression. Michaela convinced me to stay for the awards ceremony. When Ed Burns called out my name for the Directing Award, I got a whatthefuck look on my face; I couldn’t even process it. I shook my head. As we walked offstage, I said to Ed Burns, “I got the worst reviews of my life yesterday.” And he said, “Welcome to being a grown up artist. Now you begin.” That night, I danced and danced and celebrated and whoo-hooed – not because I felt like I made it. I danced because you never, ever feel like you made it; so on any night that you can dance, you should.
You don’t go straight up mountains to get to the top. You go around. And around. And around. And as you go around you come to the same place where you were before. It looks familiar, but different; you are higher up.
In some ways, my movie felt like both a success and not enough of a success, but a few months later, when I sat across from Joe Lewis at Amazon, my movie was that thing I needed – a way for people to see my voice.
“If you liked the movie,” I said, “I can make a pilot that feels very similar. I have the cinematographer and editor and the hair and makeup person and the wardrobe chick to make it look the way that movie looked. I have a technique that I can use with actors that allows me to get the kinds of performances you saw in that film. Most of the people who come in to see you with a script can’t guarantee much by the time a director and a producer gets involved, the tone can evaporate right before your eyes. As writer, director, and producer, I am now able to tell you I can guarantee the tone.”
When I uttered that sentence, I knew they were going to make it. Getting the green light to make the “Transparent” pilot and then series has divided my life into before and after. Having the tools I needed to surf the big waves of this experience have honestly made the past year feel like a ride. It’s all felt inevitable, hard work but so easy. I didn’t have to politic or manipulate or harangue. I got to bear witness to an unfolding story of a family.
When people ask me if I like TV or movies better, I say there is no difference. Well, okay, one big difference – I would never be able to independently finance a 5-hour film with no movie stars about a trans person and their Jewy family. If I managed to get the money, no one would know how to release it or market it. The fact that Amazon has distributed it so beautifully makes me feel like I am finally in the perfect place.
I am at a new place on the mountain. I actually do feel like I’ve made it, and I am looking for opportunities to dance. I have spent so much of my life trying. My new trying involves trying to be in my body enough to take in the feeling that I made something good, something that matters.
And, yeah, I still have the rural dream. I do believe I’ll be there one day, but maybe not for another ten years. And maybe I won’t have any feminist poetry in my mind that needs self-publishing. The only part that really matters is the caftans with no underwear. And for now, I just go to the wardrobe trailer and pick out caftans for Maura. And keep challenging myself to walk that center line, be in flow, in balance, kind yet discerning, open yet grounded – and keep showing up, alive and taking responsibility for the privilege that comes with making art.