By Alison Willmore | Indiewire February 7, 2014 at 5:43PM
Before she made her directorial debut with "Afternoon Delight," which starred Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple and Josh Radnor and premiered at Sundance last year, Jill Soloway worked in television as a writer and producer on series like "United States of Tara" (for which she was showrunner) and "Six Feet Under" (which netted her three Emmy nominations). Now she's back working on the small screen, albeit in a new form -- she's the creator of "Transparent," one of 10 new original series pilots Amazon premiered on February 6th.
A half-hour comedy, "Transparent" is the story of a Los Angeles family -- the divorced parents played by Jeffrey Tambor and Judith Light, with Jay Duplass, Gaby Hoffmann and Amy Landecker as their grown children. Warm but sharp-edged in its dialogue, "Transparent" is easily the best of the new pilots -- you can watch it online here. Indiewire caught up with Soloway by phone to talk about making her dream project and what it's like to work with Amazon, a new entrant in the world of original programming. [Note: The interview that follows contains discussion of a major plot detail revealed late in the episode.]
How'd you end up putting together this project?
I always had a dream project in mind post-"Six Feet Under," this idea for about a family who inherited a secret about sexuality as opposed to a funeral home. Post-Sundance, post-"Afternoon Delight" and all the anxiety that goes along with "who's going to buy my film, and who's going to distribute it," it was really exciting to have a conversation with Amazon where I realized, oh, I already have a distributor.
And those people are also, because of Amazon's structure, my network, producer and studio, all rolled into one. The notion of 10 episodes, it was like, "Wow, this is sort of a five-hour movie with distribution." So I took all my TV experience and what I learned about by writing and directing and bringing a movie to Sundance about the realities of the independent film market -- "Transparent" is the marriage of those two situations.
I really liked that indie film sensibility in the pilot. What was your approach to bringing that while also having to do the thing that pilots demand, in terms of introducing characters and planting storylines?
I really thought I discovered my voice on "Afternoon Delight," so I just replicated it -- took my same DP, same editor, used my same sensibility about casting and material, which was find the right stuff that's emotionally real and cast really funny people. And I've been writing pilots for years -- sometimes three a year -- so I was ready. This is a moment I've been waiting for to be able to lay it all out.
It's very mathematical, having a season. The pilot almost has to be the first 15 minutes of a movie, a first act. I was sitting down with Joe Lewis from Amazon this one Saturday, and drew out and talked about what it meant for the pilot to be the beginning of a 10-episode, five-hour piece of work -- the trigger of the binge watch. We want people to watch the next one, and the next one, and the next one.
It felt different from the usual pilot process, because I didn't have the people at the studio saying, "Gosh, I hope the people at the network like it," and the people at the network saying "Gosh, I hope the people upfront like it." It was just me and Joe looking at this heartfelt material for me, and the question of how to craft it in a way that's enticing and exciting to make them want to go to the next episode immediately.
With these new platforms like Amazon and Netflix, we're seeing a deliberate shift away from the typical pilot process. Netflix has been skipping pilots, and Amazon has its process of putting its pilots on line and getting feedback. What's that experience been like, given that so much of the traditional pilot season is closed off from the public, to be able to check and see what people think of it on Twitter or elsewhere online?
It came out yesterday, and it was a whirlwind and so incredibly exciting to be reading reviews in real time. I had a couple of realizations -- one being that in some ways, this is similar to Kickstarter, in that people throw in 10 or 20 bucks and really care about the project. All these people who voted on the pilot and said, "I want this one to happen," I think they'll come back for a series. All these people think it's their show because they're rooting for it, which doesn’t really happen in the pilot process.
The other thought was that in some ways, Amazon is like Uber. You need a ride to the airport, and there's a car in your airport -- "Oh, I made it." And now here it is, and everybody's seeing it -- women are seeing it, feminists are seeing it, gay people are seeing it, trans people are seeing it. Normally if somebody's writing a pilot, I'm having to hope that straight white golf course male at the top of the chain will allow me to get it to my people. But, oh, my people were watching it yesterday. It honestly feels slightly revolutionary.
The elevator pitch for "Transparent" would be one of a father making the transition to female, and how his adult children react. The episode introduces everything the other way around -- that reveal happens later, after we've met all these characters, and it's a part of the universe as opposed to the center of it. Was that your intent going into it? The description of the pilot is also careful about what the secret is.
We wanted for people to have their moment of surprise, whether they felt it for the first time in the 12-step meeting or, "Oh, that's what the title means!" And the show has always been about a family to me. It’s about these five people who are drawn together. They all moved to these disparate parts of L.A., yet they're connected to something that relates to a deeper part of their childhood. I always love the soapy conflicts between somebody's family of origin and their new family -- "Do I have Thanksgiving at my husband's parents' house, or at my parents' house?" So it's always been about family for me, and the father's explorations of gender identity is one part of this big story.
I wanted to ask you about casting, particularly Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass. Gaby's been on this really great run, in addition to being a bold displayer of pubic hair. How did she end up in the role of Ali?
I saw her on "Louie" where she wouldn't let him get a word in. I love the way she talks and makes the dialogue sound so natural. I asked if Gaby would meet me for lunch at Sundance. We had sushi in Park City, and I told her the story for the pilot about a year ago, and I said, "I'm going to go home and write this thing and try to sell it -- maybe we can do it this summer."
I wrote it for her -- nobody else auditioned for that part. I really needed to show Amazon part of the vision, so Gaby and I got together and went to the park with an actor and shot the trainer scene, so we have other versions of the trainer scene we did just for fun. We showed those to Amazon, and there was moment I was trying to get Amazon to sign off, and it was the weekend where that big story about Gaby appeared in the New York Times, and I said, "See, she's about to be famous!" And Amazon was totally on board. It wasn’t hard at all.
And Jay Duplass hasn't done as much acting as his brother Mark. Can you tell me about having him in the role of Josh?
We were having a really hard time finding Josh. Normally, you cast a pilot, and you have to make compromises about being political about who you cast. But I decided I couldn't make a compromise on the casting. I couldn’t find my Josh anywhere, it was terrifying. He was the last person we cast. I went to a dinner party at Ruben Fleischer's house -- since I became a director, I get invited to these directors' dinners with me and like, 10 guys. I walked in, and he was sitting at the table, and I was like, "That's him, that's the guy. I don't think he's an actor, but that's what I want him to look like."
I sat next to him, and he was telling me how much he liked "Afternoon Delight," and 15 minutes in I asked, "Would you consider auditioning for my pilot?" "No, I have a show at HBO, I can't." And we talked another 15 minutes, and he said, "Alright, I'm gonna do it." We put the three kids together in a workshop situation, and it was magic. You could just feel it.
What's very interesting about watching all of the pilots is how different they are. There's a real spread in terms of content and approach. This definitely has a more HBO-ish approach to sex and nudity compared to, say, the first two comedies that got greenlit to series.
I wouldn't necessarily say that "Alpha House" or "Betas" embodied a particular vision of Amazon of the kind of brand or programming they were gonna do. I think those were the first lucky creators who hit it right for them. That is an interesting challenge, and obviously one that I thought about when I was writing a show that felt like an HBO show. Does the audience need the HBO brand to understand my tone? Like, "We're going to watch this show, it's on HBO, it's not really a network comedy, the tone is funny-dirty-sad," which is definitely an HBO/FX tone, like "Louie" or "Girls."
I think the question for Amazon Studios is whether or not their brand seems to coalesce around a few shows, and what that ends up being. My god, if my show ends up being a touch-point for what Amazon is as a network, what their programming voice is, that would be amazing.
How far ahead have you planned, should it go to series? How much do you know about what would happen over a season?
I know a fair bit. I know the father has something to offer, which is an inheritance of gender queerness, and the kids have something they want, which is the house. The house is a metaphor for your parents' legacy, your family legacy, your memories, your dreams about who you are and how much you want to take with you. The two ideas -- gender queerness as a notion, the house as something actual -- weave in and out of each other throughout the course of the first season. I definitely know that's the structure, and I have some pretty good ideas of what happens to each character. It would be a dream come true to actually make these.