Jill Soloway, a well known producer for hit HBO shows like "Six Feet Under" and "United States of Tara," made a splash at Sundance this year where her feature directorial debut, the racy and provocative dramedy "Afternoon Delight," won her the Dramatic Directing Award over some tough competition (Lake Bell, David Lowery, James Ponsoldt and Ryan Coogler were among those up for the same award). The film opened this past Friday in select theaters and posted the best opening average ever for year-old new distributor Film Arcade.
For her debut, Soloway made the wise choice to cast celebrated character actress Kathryn Hahn ("Step Brothers") in her first lead role as a bored L.A. housewife, who tries to "rescue" a stripper (a typically feisty Juno Temple) by hiring her as a live-in nanny. Complications ensue when her husband (Josh Radnor) and close friends start to question her surprising decision. Soloway's good friend Jane Lynch gives a hilarious supporting turn as Hahn's cocky therapist.
Was feature film directing always in the cards for you?
I never was really going for it in that big way you usually hear -- like Steven Spielberg making Super 8 films when he was eight years old. I came to this through TV, by loving TV as a kid and working in TV. To me it wasn’t “Star Wars” that shaped me, it was more “Mary Tyler Moore” and nowadays “Louie” and “Girls.” Those are the touchpoints where I aim my focus, when I’m thinking "Where am I going? What is my dream?" That to me is more of a beacon of inspiration to me than any movie I can really think of right now.
I think for me a way to get to the place where I could really find my voice, an independent film was something within my reach. I had been going on the path of getting a show on the air, and only so many shows can get on the air. The network shows have this very commercial voice that you have to adhere to, and the cable shows, it’s kind of like winning the lottery. The independent film world is a world you can actually get to. You can get the under-a-million-dollar film by finding a good cast and financing. It’s something you can actually aspire to.
The film builds to this refreshingly messy climax where your actors run wild with the material in way seldom seen on screen. I felt a real sense of abandon watching it unfold. Can you speak to how you captured that?
I went to this directing lab that kind’s of similar to the Sundance one. I was taught this method of being present. I think of myself as a producer. As a producer and as a showrunner I already understand what it meant to gather people into a room and step back, to create the boundaries of "everything’s okay" to allow TV writers to go to their craziest places. I sort of took the science behind the writer’s room and brought that to set and thought of it as a place where the actors could do anything and take risks.
Before we did any important things I’d gather my actors in a circle and we’d hold hands. We all knew it was completely cheesy, like in that Madonna movie with her dancers. We’d all be connected around this idea of gratitude that we’re here to make art. Normally what would happen on a film set is everybody is connected over the idea that we’re running out of time, or running out of light, or running out of money. That’s the usual feeling on a set. I’d settle people down and say, “There’s all the time in the world, out there on the set. Let’s all get on the same page about what we’re doing here. Let’s get excited that we’re here to do this today. You can’t make a wrong choice. Appreciate that we play for a living.”
The film is not afraid to go to some pretty dark places, yet it remains upbeat and engaging throughout. How did you negotiate the tone of the film?
I think the tonal dance was one of the hardest things of the movie. Some people would read the script and say, “I don’t really understand the tone.” And honestly, I couldn’t really answer. I hadn’t defined my only tone as a filmmaker. I had written scripts before and handed them over to directors, wondering if the network really got the scene right. I was discovering my voice and my tone as we were going every day. The script as written was much broader initially.
The movie that you watched is probably the least funny version we could have cut out of all the footage. I got rid of everything that was a pure joke, that didn’t have any kind of resonance. There’s still some silly stuff in there, but I really wanted to movie to contain Kathryn’s performance. Doing that it needed to be human.
Wrapping up a character arc over the course of two hours is new to you. Did you find that challenging?
I don’t see that big of a difference right now in TV versus film. I just feel like content is content, people want to see it resonate. I feel like that can work in a 10-minute short, in Werner Herzog’s 30-minute "Don’t Text and Drive" thing. It can work over two hours in a film or over a whole season in “Orange is the New Black.” People want to experience stuff that holds their attention in this world of constantly divided attention. I think the way you can hold attention is through comedy, meaning, sex -- in the best of all worlds, all three at once. And that’s what I aspire to.