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Transparent creator Jill Soloway discusses her brilliant show’s first season

Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, a trans woman transitioning late in life, in the Amazon series Transparent.
Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, a trans woman transitioning late in life, in the Amazon series Transparent.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

TransparentAmazon's remarkable new series about a trans woman beginning her gender transition late in life and the family that (sometimes) loves her, has been hailed as the best new show of the year — if not the best show period. Now that you've likely had time to binge the entire season, I sat down with creator Jill Soloway (who also directed the majority of the season's episodes) to discuss the characters' journeys over the first 10 episodes, why the idea of this family splitting apart is so-called "Schmuck Bait," and the filmmaking inspiration behind the show's remarkable eighth episode. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff: When you went into this season, what did you have in mind of the structure of the overall story?

Jill Soloway: Not much. I wanted the house to be a kind of physical metaphor for the legacy. Something that people could touch and fight over, as opposed to the more emotional, spiritual, gender-queer legacy that was coming down the pike. That was all I knew, that they would fight over the house to distract themselves from their true legacy, true inheritance.

Todd VanDerWerff: It really seems like the three kids each have their own questions of identity. What was the process of finding that like?

Jill Soloway: Again, I don't really think too much when I'm creating it. I'm very receptive, intuitive. I feel like a court stenographer, and the Pfeffermans are these souls who are out in the world, inhabiting my body to get their stories told. I'm never really thinking about doing anything when I'm writing, I'm just sort of listening. And then when I look back, I can see how Ali, Sarah, and Josh each sort of represent three different points on a triangle when it comes to the way that they're dealing with this legacy.

In particular, when I watch episode nine and I think about how angry Ali is at Josh for hooking up with Rabbi Raquel and for being in love and being promiscuous and referring to him as a sex addict. I think like, "How can she do that when she's sort of done something similar over the course of the season?" But I realize Ali really just straight up objectifies people sexually. Whereas Josh straight up objectifies people around love. Like they both don't see other people, but Josh uses the lens of love. It's like, "Okay, I love this person. I'm falling in love with this person. I want this person to fall in love with me." That's Josh's way, and Ali's is the other side of the coin from Josh. But hers is through sex. So I don't really notice those things beforehand. I just kind of look back and realize that they have like a twinning thing.

Sarah, I think is just truly reflecting Maura, she's really appropriating Maura's coming-outness, and really just tacking it right on to her wish to come out, her wish to have the idea of a new identity as a kind of passport to what she dreams will be a new life.

Todd VanDerWerff: From reading some other interviews with you, it sounds like you have a very collaborative process. What was your process like in feeling out the character arcs with the actors?

Jill Soloway: There's a woman named Joan Scheckel, she has a thing called the Filmmaking Labs. She had this big beautiful loft space in Hollywood. And we did multiple workshops with Joan that were very feeling-based, and they were sort of like dance rehearsals. My husband [Bruce Gilbert] is the music supervisor, so he made a playlist, and we all went over to Joan's, and we had like maybe 20 or 25 actors from the whole season.

We put on music, and we just did these big crazy dances that lasted for hours, where we would just kind of understood the relationships. Bradley Whitford was crawling around the outside, sort of skulking around the outside of the whole big dance, lonely and kind of trying to get attention from Jeffrey. These things that revealed themselves to me. I basically sat and watched, and sometimes, I would throw myself in and do some dancing just because, but I took notes and watched. I go through my whole process in that very intuitive receptive way, where I just am asking people to do their thing and then kind of receiving it.

Todd VanDerWerff: We think of writing as such a cerebral thing but this sounds like it was really imbued with physicality. What do you think being in that physical space adds to your work as a writer and director?

Jill Soloway: When I'm writing, it's never coming from my head through my hand. It's coming from some other place into, in the best of all possible worlds, my heart and then my hand. I'm always waiting to hear the characters start talking.

I remember in specific after that workshop, I could start to see the dynamics of the scene at the end of episode five where the rabbi came over, and then the three of them came home for lunch, and there's this kind of bouncing around energy where Ally is looking for Ed, and she's asking mom if Ed has any distinguishing marks. And at the same time, Josh is trying to sort of out dad to mom. And after these kinds of like pinging, bouncing dance movements that I was watching, I just started to hear the conversation like a pinball shooting around, and just sort of ran over to my computer and closed my eyes and started typing.

If everything I write could be that simple — to just sit in a room with artists, watch them lose their minds and play and then tune in to the radio station that is the dialogue — it would be amazing. I'm never sitting at a computer looking at a blank page, forcing words into people's mouths. I'm always waiting for that moment, whether I'm driving or falling asleep or waking up or in the bath or in the shower, and waiting to be able to hear the voices, so that I can go and transcribe them.

Todd VanDerWerff: Did you have a traditional story-breaking process?

Jill Soloway: Yeah. We took, I think, about maybe eight weeks or 12 weeks before we started shooting in a little house in Silver Lake that we rented before we moved over to Paramount. We called it the Honeycomb Hideout. It was kind of a gross little place that felt like a garage.

We had the big huge long board that I've had on every TV show that I've worked on, where you take the characters' names and you put them down the vertical axis on the left. And then you take the episode numbers and they go across the horizontal axis across the top, and you draw a checker board, and you start to talk about the characters. We only did it for four characters. We don't have a story for Shelley for this season. She appears only in other people's stories. There aren't any scenes where Shelley's alone. Well, there's one scene where Shelley is without the family and she is with Raquel.

So then we just start to talk about the characters, and start to really get a feeling for each person as if they're in a movie. And the movie takes 10 episodes, but we break it like a movie. The end of episode three was the end of the first act. And then we knew that the climax would be around eight and nine. We just slowly start to fill it in like a puzzle; it's really fun.

Todd VanDerWerff: What do you think breaking the season as a full story affords that breaking individual episodes, one by one does not?

Jill Soloway: Well, then you'd go back in and you start to break the episodes.

It's so mathematical, which is great. For me, when I'm so intuitive and I'm always listening for some sort of inspiration from some other worldly place, I have an incredibly specific, very very specific, rubric that I'm applying all of that openness to. So when you think about the checker board of the season and you know that there really needs to be a moment of somebody's story in every episode, where if you think of it as sort of like a chewy center of that person's story for that episode, you can say it in a sentence. "Sarah leaves Len." You could say, "Ali deserts Maura at the talent show."

And then you do the same thing when you get into the episode and you get into each scene, then you have to know what the chewy center is of each scene. It's not an either or. It's like a which order do you do things. You paint things with the biggest brush first, and the biggest brush is the season, and then you go in with the smaller brush and do the episodes, and then a smaller brush and do the scenes.

Todd VanDerWerff: How did you and Jeffrey Tambor work together to find the points on that line of Maura's transition and blend them with the rest of the show?

Jill Soloway: We didn't really do a lot of planning; we just did a lot of listening. Joan Scheckel, the woman I mentioned before, she's actually a co-producer on the show. She ended up really helping a lot and really being able to talk about what the season was about, and really, she really named it as this question of "Would you still love me if ... ?". It's about these people in this family who want to know if they're still going to be loved. And so, she helped us really break the season down into five movements, and really understand and name each movement.

I knew that I wanted to get the character of Maura out of a wig. This is going to be slightly confusing, because Jeffrey wears a wig. Jeffrey has no hair. But I knew that I wanted Maura to have her thinning, whitish-greyish hair as her hair at some point in the season so we had to have the wig — multiple wigs — but like a wig that would conceivably be underneath the wig that you see Maura wearing when we first meet her in the support group. Knowing trans women and knowing what it feels like to have your own hair or to have a wig on, I knew there needed to be a moment where we let Maura have that freedom of like, "Oh I've got this fucking wig off of my head." So I knew that when we were creating Mort's hair for that first scene, it would have to be something that you could potentially make a side part and make it seem like Maura had finally started wearing her own hair.

I knew that was going to be a big turning point, when she went from having a wig on to using her own hair. And I feel that now when I look at her and see like she starts wearing the caftans, and she's wearing these extensions. The wig is supposed to be her own hair with extensions, and I just feel like she's able to kind of just be herself a little bit more.

Todd VanDerWerff: In episode two, one character says in five years, Maura's children won't be speaking to her anymore. So much of the season is driven by that fear and that idea, but the gravity of a television keeps drawing people back together. How do you handle that push and pull?

Jill Soloway: There's a woman named Van Barnes, and she's trans. She's actually also acted in the show. She plays the sex worker that Josh has the computer sex interaction with. She came to the writers' room to talk to us, and that was one of the things she said that somebody told her, "You're going to lose everybody in five years." We love that as a dramatic tension for the show: Will everybody still be there?

I think somebody once told me that a TV show is about a tribe of people, it's always about a tribe of people who are trying to get through life, being there for each other. So I think it's what might be called in the writer's room, "Schmuck Bait." If a pilot is about like, "So and so is going to get a job in the newsroom, will they be able to tough it out?" It's like, yeah, of course they will. This is a TV show about a newsroom. No, they're not going to move back to Cleveland; it's a TV show about a newsroom.

So, it's called Schmuck Bait when you pose the question, Will they or won't they stay on this show, that we know is real as a show? So I think it's a little bit of Schmuck Bait to really ask the question of "Will this family stay together?" because that's why we're watching it. Of course they will!

We were even going to end the season with Ali actually leaving the shiva, and we had shot a scene where she happens to run into Tigran the Uber driver and just drives away with him into the night, headed toward the hills of Glendale. We felt like that was Schmuck Bait. What we really wanted everybody to know, all the time, was that, yes, in some way, this family is always going to be there for each other.

Todd VanDerWerff: So a lot of the season takes place in 1994, and there's a rich history to the show. What prompted the decision to dig into the past of these characters?

Jill Soloway: There's a lot of confusion amongst the American public about the difference between trans women, cross dressers, and drag queens. There's some conflict within the trans community about whether or not there's such thing as the trans-brella. And if there is a trans-brella, who's allowed to get underneath it. Clearly trans women are, but are cross dressers allowed under the trans-brella? Are drag queens allowed under the trans-brella?

The major difference between cross-dressers, and drag queens, and trans women is the notion of part-time versus full-time. Drag queens are part-time doing femininity for  a performance. Cross dressers are part-time doing femininity for various reasons, whether it's pleasure, hobby, sexual expression, anxiety relief. And trans women are actually transitioning to the other gender and making a life where they wish to be recognized as the other gender permanently.

And nobody effing gets this, like we didn't even get it. Nobody gets it, and nobody really understands the relationship between cross dressers and trans women, including a lot of people who are trans themselves. And so, in talking to people who are late transitioners, it really became clear that you can't really tell the story of a late transitioner without addressing a history of secret cross dressing. You just can't.

And it's just so misunderstood and fascinating — just that particular math that nobody gets — that we felt like we were actually starting the season planning to avoid that. We started the season going, "It's just too confusing. We can't help people understand this. It's just too much. We're not even going to get into cross dressing." As I said, when people want to ask, the question they ask me about my own parent: "When did you know? Did you know? When did you know?" And we really felt like the family asking themselves that question through this lens of the audience asking the show that question. "When did you know? When did you think you know, and you didn't know? Did you have a weird feeling that you might know? And what was really going on?" would be such a great way to go back in time.

Todd VanDerWerff: My favorite episode is the eighth one, which is set all in the past. How did you decide to do that episode?

Jill Soloway: That to me is like my homage to Andrea Arnold and the movie, Fish Tank. When I first saw the movie Fish Tank, I think I got up after watching it [and said], "Okay, I'm ready to direct."  I just felt something when I saw what she did with the camera that I really wanted to try and honor. It's a way that she has of using the camera to express how it feels to be, instead of to be seen, which is so different, especially for young girls, and particularly for young girls who are on a sexual adventure.

It would be so easy to look at that episode and go like, "Uh oh, Ali's going to get raped by somebody, because she's in danger." I really just wanted to subvert that entirely, and say like, "That's not what we're watching." We're watching a young girl find the moment in her life when she's being seen by others, and we're allowing the audience to feel how it feels to be her, instead of look at her, objectify her, and put her in danger, rather, align with her as a subject and feel the thrill of being free, and being on the edge of your adult femininity.

I just really wanted to be out there with the camera, be Andrea Arnold, shoot the stuff in the truck with the farm workers on the beach and in the cave. If I could just shoot that as a film my whole life, I would love to just be making movies like that. And then at some point, soon after, the episode used to have a whole beauty pageant thing where Maura entered a beauty pageant and that's why it was called "Best New Girl" but we started to really feel like, this was the moment where they were shaking hands across time and saying, "One of us is going to get to be a woman, but not both."

As written, Ali wrestled with Patrick in his truck for some keys. But then we went out to shoot the cinematographer, Jim [Frohna] and I were just walking around the beach when we found that cave, and I was like, "Oh yeah." This cave had the most amazing energy. We went and grabbed the actors, and we started shooting without any sound and everybody got really mad. They were like, "Wait, sound isn't ready?" We're like, "We don't care." So it was really just me and Jim and the two actors, just sort of like fucking around in the cave, knowing that the second the rest of the crew showed up, things would get weighted down.

And then when I got to [the camp] to shoot the scene with Maura and Connie, I started to feel like, "Oh yeah. It would be great to inter-cut these two — this dance and the thing in the cave." They weren't written to be inter-cut, but it was one of those things that I could just feel I was shooting that would start to work.

Todd VanDerWerff: One of the major, major themes of the season is the role of secrets and the role of honesty and the role of acceptance. How do you see those three things intertwining, both in the show and in your own philosophy?

Jill Soloway: Well, I think the secret was the boundary. They grew up in a house where the secret was the boundary. And so it was a house of all secrets and no boundaries. So, in many ways their boundarylessness — Ali and Josh feeling like lovers, Mom being in their business, everybody knowing everybody's business, in a very shallow kind of hovering, obsessive hyper vigilant way — was a way of like trying to reach across  the chasm of these secrets to find each other.

The secrets become like this giant moat, that keeps people from each other and they kind of necessitate this boundarylessness. So the question becomes, in theory, "Now that the secret is gone, where are our boundaries? How do we find our boundaries? Now that we don't have this secret as this thing that kept us from each other, how do we now know where we end and where others begin?"

And when I'm talking about boundaries I just mean the very simplest, annoying, funny boundaries that anybody gets into when it comes to their family, "I'm coming to town." "Great." "Can I stay with you?" "How many days?" "How about three?" "Sure." "Oh, my girlfriend is going to be with me. We're both going to stay with you. Is that cool?" "Okay, sure." "Her step-kid's going to be here for one day..." Like just those kinds of boundaries. Those are the things that I think the Pfeffermans are learning how to do and find out if they're still loved.

In terms of boundaries and secrets and truth, it's like once you start to set realistic boundaries that tell the people you love how you want to be treated, will they still love you, or were you a part of a transactional relationship where you only got loved for pretending?

Todd VanDerWerff: All five of the main characters and a great number of the recurring characters are people who would be the butt-of-the-joke on other comedies, yet here they're very fully-realized individuals. How did you turn those people into the lead characters?

Jill Soloway: I think I've always been talking about the ways that women are made the object in stories, and not just like, "Oh, she's an object, let's look at her in a bikini," but "Oh, she's an object, like an object in a sentence the way a sentence is diagrammed, the subject views the object." I've always felt like simply by reversing the polarity of that for women by saying, "No, I'm going to be the subject and you will be the object." Just making that simple switch could really change the world for women, because women are so used to seeing themselves being seen. And then, I think over the past few years, I started really thinking about the politics around privilege and what privilege was.

And I remember reading an article where Ava Duvernay who wrote and directed the movie Middle of Nowhere, was talking about privileging someone by making them the protagonist. That by simply placing somebody who would normally be considered "other" in the seat of the protagonist, it privileges them, and really demands that the audience empathize with them in a different way because again, they're not seeing them. They're being them. So privileging the "other" became this kind of rallying cry for me about what it is that I was trying to do with the work.

Todd VanDerWerff: The house that Ali gets confused about in episode seven, what was up with that?

Jill Soloway: Yeah, well what did you think? What was up with it for you?

Todd VanDerWerff: [chuckles] You know, I don't have a strong theory about it. My wife is worried she has some mental illness issue or schizophrenia. I thought it was a little more symbolic on the level of she expects one thing and ends up just getting the very normal life of this person she's with.

Jill Soloway: It's definitely more the second thing. We had our own little test audiences. There were a certain percentage of people who thought that she was crazy. I didn't want people to think that. But I think in the most facile explanation, it's like a way that a guy would say it would be, like, he would like wake up with the girl he slept with the night before and she didn't look so good any more after you get what you want.

I'm reading Lena Dunham's book right now, which I think what she's doing has a lot of similarities. She talks about a lot of experiences that she had sexually early on, where she sort of really refers to a kind of dissociative quality. You're young. You want to have sex. You want to be sexual. The world tells you that it's your right to experience great sex or wild sex. And then you go about it, and it's not as simple as it looks to really do all of the things that society gives us permission to do now. Have sex with somebody you just met. Have power games with the trans man at his house.

Some people, some women go into it using their bodies almost, instead of pen and paper. They're researchers. They're explorers. They're trying to understand themselves by having sex with people, and using their body in that way as a sort if instrument of understanding. Yet to do so, I think, demands a certain amount of disassociation not like in a mental illness way but just in the, "How did I get here?" and "Do I want to be here?" and when it's all over, if I didn't have the orgasm or even if I did, does everything look different?

So that's really what that moment was about for me, of just her sort of walking in and recognizing that everything that she had wanted him to be — the neon Budweiser sign and the old TV — like that she was objectifying him really and turning him into something that she could really use, and I think she has to sort of face herself in that moment.