Courteney Cox’s Asshole
So, while waiting to speak to you, I took the opportunity to re-read “Courteney Cox’s Asshole.” [A short story written by Soloway early in her career.]
Oh my god, hilarious, I love you.
That’s what really helped you break into the business, isn’t it?
Yeah, that story. My sister and I created a show called “The Real Life Brady Bunch,” which was sort of a theatrical sensation that got us attention in L.A. and New York. And then I came to L.A. and really started working on TV shows as a writer and I was working on sort of… kind of… what would you call them? Basic? Basic bitches. Basic shows. Like I worked on “Nikki” and “The Steve Harvey Show.” And that was my first job, and so I was on the side just kind of fooling around with some friends and we put up a show called “Sit and Spin.”
“Sit and Spin,” it’s people reading monologues or interesting weird fiction and I wrote “Courteney Cox’s Asshole” for that. I took that piece and I submitted it to some literary magazines — ZYZZYVA printed it, Howard Junker… And my agent submitted that to Alan Ball for “Six Feet Under” and it was that that got me the job at “Six Feet Under.”
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Your agent was like, “I promise this girl knows how to use Final Draft”?
I had already written on sitcoms, so it wasn’t just the short story — I had the experience of television. And then after “Nikki” and “Steve Harvey,” I had written on a show called “The Oblongs” which was pretty well respected and had a lot of “Simpsons” writers on it. So I was a TV writer with an interesting voice at that moment.
What’s also interesting is that you were a TV writer with both a sitcom and animation background. And that’s a weird thing to transition from. Was it just that Alan Ball liked your voice?
I think so. It was a pretty exciting day when I got that call, when I got that job.
The Seizmic Impact of “Six Feet Under”
In terms of what you’ve done since then, how large an effect did “Six Feet Under” have on your future writing?
Huge. Everything. Everything. I mean “Six Feet Under,” for me, was college. Alan Ball and Alan Poul ran that show and really taught me what it meant to really run a show in a classic way.
Alan Ball hired a beautiful team of writers: Kate Robin, Bruce Eric Kaplan, who’s on “Girls” now, Scott Buck, who runs “Dexter,” Rick Cleveland, who’s on “House of Cards”… I mean we were just in there learning TV writing, sitting around the writer’s room, table-sharing our truth and then watching these moments of the truth of our life make their way up onto the white board and becomes story for the Fisher family. In many ways, Alan Ball just taught us how to tune into the Fisher family’s needs and wants and listen to the characters talk and take dictation like court stenographers, rather than impose stories onto this family.
So something I’ve really been wanting to do, ever since “Six Feet Under” ended, was create my own version of this idealized writer’s room, as well as the ideal family. So I ran “United States of Tara” and I ran “How to Make It in America,” and in both of those situations I got to honor what Alan Ball taught me, about bringing together a group of people and letting the truth of the show reveal itself. “Transparent” feels like the show I’ve been waiting my whole life to not only write but showrun… which was always a dream, to be a showrunner and to be the showrunner of my own show.
In the Writer’s Room
How many people do you have on staff?
Six people. We have some amazing writers — one of them is my sister Faith Soloway. A poet from San Francisco, a young brand new baby writer, a Yale grad dude, a great writing team and one veteran writer who had written on “Mad Men.” And, yeah, we all just sit around and make each other laugh and let the Pfefferman family speak to us.
Did you deliberately seek out writers who didn’t necessarily have a ton of experience?
Yes I did. I just didn’t want to have any of those moments where people said “this is what you have to do and it must be like this.” I really take to heart the way that Amazon is disrupting the conventional ways of doing business on their end and I want to sort of disrupt it on my end so, yeah, there were moments when they said “you need people with a lot of experience” and I said “no, I need people to understand the family and that’s who I’m going to pull together.”
Keep reading for how “Transparent” was shot, who made the decision to release all episodes at once, and Soloway’s personal history with the subject.
Actually On the Set
Are you shooting everything on this lot?
We do both, about three days on the lot and two days off.
How’s the blend? Is that part of the vision of the series?
Actually, I think when I shot the pilot and sold the pilot, because I came from the indie film world I kind of thought it would be 100% on location. But when we got picked up it was like “No, we’re building the locations that we used in the pilot, on sets, at Paramount and we’re gonna have three stages.” And I was like “Oh! This is the big time!”
It was one of the things I was curious about. Coming on to a set, how has it affected things? Does it make it easier for you?
It actually does make it easier. When I look at the production design the show brings, and the fact that we’re sitting here in the bathroom and that there’s hyrogen perxoide and antacid and prescription medicine… the production design is so exquisite and so specific that I actually look at these stages… they’re a place where we can very comfortably play and experiment. And run back down and get a scene if we see in post that it’s not working. It’s kind of like having our own jungle gym.
Do you prefer it?
Yeah, I prefer it. I love having stages.
Get Ready to Binge-View
Amazon has announced that it’s going to up all at once, using the Netflix model. Was that a decision you had involvement with?
No. We talked about all three versions. We talked about it coming out weekly, we talked about the binge and we talked about like three episodes this week, then three episodes next week and another three the next week. Maybe that would be like snacking?
Ultimately, the decision was theirs, and I was thrilled when I heard they wanted to release it all at once. Because, from the very beginning, we saw this as a five hour movie. And so I’m thrilled people can experience it in the course of one evening for five hours, if that’s how they want to start with it.
So much of the coverage has been around, you know, “Jeffrey Tambor is transgender!” Which is a very easy way to sell the show, but it’s such an ensemble piece. How are you going about making sure it stays an an ensemble, even though you have this really interesting story as one of the main plotlines?
Again, kind of doing the “Six Feet Under” model. Alan Ball was a huge fan of the ABC [soap opera] lineup — “All My Children,” “One Life To Live” and “General Hospital,” just like I was. So he taught us their method, where you put the characters up on there on the board and take turns.
That’s what we did on “Six Feet Under” — take Claire’s turn.. And that’s what we do on this show. It’s like boom, boom, boom, boom. We go through each character and they each get more or less get the same number of scenes and Maura and her trans-ness is just part of the tapestry that is this family.
Death of An Old Parent, Birth of a New
One of the things I was also curious about was what it’s like to mourn a parent while a new parent is being born. I was hoping you could talk about that a little more. Is that just the mentality you have of this character and his/her transition? The mourning of the old parent was what kind of got to me.
I think a lot of people who experience loving their family through transitions — and I don’t just mean gender transitions, I mean any transitions — kind of have to first mourn the loss of the expected idea. So if people have a kid who’s born with special needs, or have a child who decides to join the army, or somebody marries somebody and it’s not the person you wanted them to marry — I think the first thing a lot of people have to go through is mourning the idealized version of that family member that they had alive in their head.
So it’s kind of coming to grips with expectations, in a way?
They might have an expectation for someone and that changes?
Yeah, and then they grieve. You have to grieve. First you have to grieve the loss of that idea. And then begin to love and get to know the new person. And see them as they wish to be seen. And I think because we’re related — what is family? — family insists you have to get to love and new this new person.
With that idea of adjusting the expectations, do you think it’s harder, since these characters in your show are pretty grown up — does that makes it harder to adjust, since they’ve gotten so used to somebody as a person? I know with my parents it’s like “I know who they are.” If something like this happened it would be a much more drastic transition than if they’d moved to Florida or something.
It’s a slow process. When someone’s transitioning, they don’t just get to say “here is the new me.” They’re in a process of becoming, every day. So their family members are in a process of becoming, as the person is trying on new versions of themselves. If your father is transitioning from male to female, sometimes the female part might be really razzily-dazzily super-feminine, and sometimes they might want to try out a more down-to-Earth relaxed version of themselves.
I mean, Maura is trying to find herself. It’s not just “my dad was a man and now my dad is a woman,” it’s more that there is a new person who feels connected to all of us, and she is becoming in front of all of us. And so, we, by loving her, we have to allow for that continued becoming, which is a perfect metaphor for the way everybody should treat everybody — everybody is in a state of becoming at all times.
What sort of inspirations did you have for the story? How did you come up with it and what made you feel this was the one you needed to tell?
You know, I felt like I had no choice. It just was. In terms of “where did it come from,” there were events in my life that were similar to what’s happening in the show, and as they started happening, I just was like — “I think this is my show.”
[Note: Soloway recently told the New York Times Magazine that the show was inspired by her own father’s transition.]
So did you talk to your family about it before?
Yeah. My parents have been out here to visit and they love it.
Did they approve of Jeffrey Tambor and everybody?
Absolutely, yeah. There’s so much love in my family for the show.