When it comes to “books that are natural fits for television,” Chris Kraus’s touchstone feminist novel I Love Dick — which follows a character named Chris Kraus as she experiences an artistic awakening after finding herself strangely drawn to a man named Dick — wouldn’t seem to fit. The plot is slim; it feels like it could possibly serve as the basis for a film, not an ongoing series.
But in adapting the book for TV, creators Jill Soloway (of Transparent fame) and Sarah Gubbins have smartly isolated its central idea of a woman discovering herself by plunging headlong (with her husband’s consent) into a love triangle. They’ve turned it into a show about how any of us tries to square our personal desires (sexual or otherwise) with our politics. If you’re drawn to a guy who stands for everything you hate about the patriarchy, does that somehow invalidate your beliefs?
It’s fascinating, murky territory to play in. And Soloway (who directed the pilot) and Gubbins (who served as the show’s lead writer) come equipped with a terrific cast — featuring Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon as Chris and Dick, respectively — and a gorgeous Marfa, Texas, setting that casts Chris’s journey against the primal desert landscapes. (The series debuts Friday, April 12, on Amazon.)
I recently met with Soloway and Gubbins separately to talk about turning the novel into a TV show, whether there’s anything Kathryn Hahn can’t do, and what it means to objectify Kevin Bacon.
The following interviews have been combined and edited for length and clarity. Some mild spoilers for season one of I Love Dick are contained.
Marfa, Texas, is this beautiful open space, and I Love Dick contains a lot of wide shots. Did that landscape suggest to you how to shoot it?
After Transparent, it was exciting to be able to look at the way that humans interacted with the landscape. That's a big part of Marfa history.
That's Donald Judd, who's the patriarch of Marfa in some ways, who Dick is based on. He wanted to bring his sculptures to a landscape to see what this art looked like in contrast to the land. The Soloway version is I wanted to put my people to the landscape and see what they looked like in contrast. It was amazing. I'm running around at sundown, at sun up with the camera. It's raining out. We were able to just live in the environment and shoot it.
That's one of the great things about Amazon, as well. We're almost in this beautiful hybrid place of creativity where it's called TV, and we're in this half-hour category, but some of the shows we are in similar worlds with are shot on stages. Here, we are almost daring ourselves to be like Terrence Malick and to be like, "It's raining. Let's go run outside." I'm mostly in a place of total awe that I get to combine this feeling of artistic freedom and commercial viability.
So much of your work is about how we can have these little personal injuries or pains or slights, and treat those as vastly important, while still understanding that we’re all boxed in by these massive systemic issues and inequalities. I Love Dick really, to me, seems to be about how do you balance the idea of sexual desire or artistic passion against the idea that so much of sex or art has been filtered for so long through this white male—
Dare we say patriarchy?
Yeah, patriarchy. But how do you balance those personal stories against these massively political ones that all your characters have to reckon with?
I had a great conversation with [Amazon head] Jeff Bezos at the Golden Globes the second year, when we didn’t win [Transparent lost to fellow Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, after winning the year before]. I'm sitting next to Bezos, and I'm like, "I'm going to use this opportunity to ask Bezos what would Jeff say." He's such a sweet guy anyway.
I basically said, "I need your advice. I don't know what to do. Part of me always feels like I have to help make a political revolution for women, for queer people, for trans people. An intersectional political revolution. And part of me loves directing and writing. I'm a little bit nervous about taking time away from directing and writing to just work in politics and work in feminism, and yet it's constantly calling to me and saying, 'You're not doing enough. You're not doing enough. You're not doing enough.'"
And he said, "Storytelling actually works faster than law and policy.” A great story, well told, works faster than a petition. Laws change. We saw that happen with Transparent.
So what I'm trying to do is I look for stories that engage me in the gut. In this case, the story is, "I'm married. I have a crush on this other guy. My husband's okay with it." That story just engages me in the gut. What show have you ever seen about a woman whose husband says, "Tell me more"? "Yes, of course you're attracted to Dick. So am I. Let's talk about it.”
That engages me in a soap opera way. But then I look at what that means politically, and when you watch the season, you're literally watching the push between the female gaze and the male gaze turned into juicy hot All My Children, General Hospital action.
For example, that moment when she's about to be with Dick, and he says, "He says it's cool. I spoke to your husband." And she leaves. That's somebody really going. “I had my hands on the gaze. I was writing the story, and these two men got together to corroborate and talk about me. To call me something behind my back.”
That's really about what it feels like to be a female filmmaker and to have a male critic and a male editor publish an article about why your thing doesn't work for them. That's what it feels like to constantly be trying to grab the gaze and yet, because you're female, your expression of female-ness can at times insult male protagonism.
You're simply turning the camera back on men and going, "Okay I see you." That will often get the response of, "I don't like this. I didn't buy it. I didn't get an award. I'm not going to distribute it. I'll give you shitty reviews." That's that feeling put into story.
You’re also not afraid, whether it’s with the Pfeffermans in Transparent or Chris here, to find what’s funny about the search for meaning or purpose or however you want to define that definition of the self.
The thing about comedy and laughter is it's undeniable. You can watch a serious show and be moved, and you can watch a funny show and laugh. If you can be moved and be laughing at the same time and that laughter isn't something you fake, it's a human response. I think it opens people up more.
It's vulnerable to allow yourself to be laughed at. Kathryn Hahn as Chris, she's sort of like Charlie Chaplin, what she does with her body. She's the perfect clown. It's a delicate line to walk to be a feminist who's obsessed with sex who wants you to laugh at her. It could so easily go wrong.
That's why the title, I Love Dick, is so transgressive. If anybody didn't know about the show, they'd be like, "Who is making a show about a woman who loves dick? That's so mean."
In one episode, she's having an orgasm, and you put "I Love Dick" atop it, and sometimes I look at that and I go, “That picture in the wrong hands could be incredibly confusing.” But I think what it does is bring this incredible alchemy of humor to this very real feeling that a lot of women feel, which is "I love my husband. I love sex. I hate the patriarchy. Now what?"
I have a few friends who simply stopped having sex after the election. They were so upset. They were like, "I don't even understand what sex is anymore. The power dynamics of sex gross me out all of a sudden." But a few people started having sex again when they watched the series.
Andrea Arnold directs several episodes of I Love Dick’s first season. She's one of my favorite working directors.
Yeah, me too. My hero.
You have a relationship with her from Transparent, too. What do you love about her work? How does it intersect well with yours?
She's one of the reasons I'm a director. I saw [Arnold’s 2009 film] Fish Tank. I watched it and was crying at the end of it for this feeling of, "I'm ready. I want to do it."
Something about the way she directs and uses the camera speaks to female-ness and hunger and desire and vulnerability in a way that I hadn't put together for myself. I talk this kind of hogwash to some people about the female gaze and the male gaze. There's something about simply framing something perfectly that can feel like the male gaze — a great director who makes a great shot and everything is choreographed and here comes the crane move and now we land on the hand [gestures to her hand].
But what she does is put herself in a vulnerable situation like in Fish Tank, or [casts] real people like in [2016’s] American Honey. She, Andrea Arnold herself, throws herself into [the situation] and then uses the camera to record the feeling of being on this shaky emotional ground.
I'd never seen that before. Even people like Lena Dunham and Sofia Coppola who were these people that I was looking up to were still using a certain kind of composition that had a feeling of control. With Sofia Coppola and Miranda July, beauty, control. I was looking up these people and going, "How do I fit in?" Then Lena Dunham, [her debut film] Tiny Furniture, I was like, "Okay. This feels like something I can do." She had the control but she had the really messy character, that really messy life.
Then Andrea Arnold was next for me. This was my little trajectory of how to find your voice. She had such a messy camera. It moved with the yearning of her female protagonists. That made me want to be a director, and that made me feel ready to do it, to know what I wanted to do with the camera. The fact that we now treat each other as collaborators is a dream come true.
On the one hand, I Love Dick is a really small show about a love triangle, with some small-town comedy elements included. On the other hand, it’s wrestling with these really big, massive cultural and political ideas and finding the ways they dovetail with that love triangle. How did you balance those two tones against each other?
The personal becomes political, so if you're aiming to do a political show, focus on the personal. Finding the ways in which the universality of the human condition can explode out of this one triangle of Chris, Sylvere [Chris’s husband], and Dick was what we went for.
There’s also the idea that everyone, I think, has a Dick. They love somebody who's unobtainable. They love something that's unobtainable. And loving your Dick is part of the reason why you get up every morning. It's what drives you. That's really what the show is doing, is exploding that obsession and that desire.
You also drop into the series these questions of sexual desire, which is subconscious and can’t really be controlled, so the old, “How can I be so attracted to someone who’s everything I hate?” gets filtered through the idea that Dick also represents all of these things about the way the world works that Chris despises. What sort of conversations did you have about that in the writers’ room?
When you try to restrict what gets you off, you're censoring yourself. In everyday life, we have to censor so much that there should be a place where we can just fantasize about anything.
We had talks in the writers' room about doing an entire episode where we just explode into a masturbatory fantasy of Chris's, and part of that exercise was us going, "Okay. We'll have an anonymous box, and we're all going to write down what gets us off, like the weirdest stuff."
When you talk about the dramatic imagination and the ways in which your brain fuses with that desire, I think being able to have a place where that can run free is important for sexual health. We forgive Chris for obsessing, and wanting, and desiring the most cliché cowboy, American Marlboro man that she could find, and we're going to see that he's going to be a lot more than that. But what gets her going at that particular moment — she gets to want that.
Endemic to that idea is that you’re going to hugely objectify Kevin Bacon. What conversations did you have, like, “We’re going to portray you like the most gorgeous human being who has ever lived”?
He was down for it. He said, "You know, it's not a bad thing to be objectified at this stage of my acting life." He doesn't mind it. Griffin [Dunne, who plays Sylvere] was really up for doing a lot of sex scenes. He didn't mind it either. They said, "Look at me. That's fine. We do it to women."
A lot of this show is taking stories traditionally filtered through a male perspective and running them through a female one. What changed about the story, and what remained universal, did you find, as you tried to look at it through the female gaze?
The female gaze is more than flipping the perspective. To say that now we're just going to do exactly what the male gaze does, but we're going to flip it and call it the female gaze, is not quite true.
It's about opening up the lens, opening up the frame, giving some time, allowing more story in, and not directing the viewer so precisely — basically allowing you to be in the room in a much more present way, and seeing both sides
That objectification of Kevin, that scene of him on the couch, with the big zoom in and he's scantily clad — you could say that's the female gaze. But I think the female gaze is also the sex scene between Chris and Sylvere where you really see what it looks like for a couple to be chasing the tail of desire, and reawakening their marriage from both perspectives.
The modern art world is usually the center of satire when it pops up in TV or the movies, and you certainly have fun with that world, but you also take it seriously. How did you see the world of art and artistic expression influencing the story?
Marfa, Texas, is an art town, and there's a lot of art in I Love Dick the book, but I think what's interesting is that there are tastemakers and there are people who decide what is good, and that authority of very few voices deeming people successful was interesting, because that reflected the ways in which Chris was feeling shut out — that there's a panel of patriarchy that decides what woman this year gets to be let into the male club of filmmakers.
The eliteness of the art world was reflecting some of the frustration that our character was feeling, and the impenetrability of it, but also there's another way in which we took down the art world by saying the impulse to make art, the impulse to look at the world differently, is what's going on in their marriage, as well. It was a nice backdrop for the reinvention of one's self.
I'm hoping that we have the satirical element, but we also treat it with real respect as it is such an impactful part of our culture.
Kathryn Hahn is one of my favorite actresses, but I haven’t really seen her do stuff as awkward or cringe-y as she does in this series. What made her someone you could put into more and more embarrassing situations?
I don't think there's anything she couldn't do. When asked, she just does it, so it made us really, really greedy. But, personally, I don't think there's anything funnier than watching Kathryn Hahn unravel.
She hits so many notes it's operatic, you know. Her ability to find comedy in the hardest, most painful moments and find it every single time is relentless. She will take anything and just find the humor in it, and she will be in the moments of pain and that pain will live with humor.
How about the rest of your ensemble? Who were the people you were looking to tell stories about around the edges of the show?
We wanted to include alternate stories, different experiences. You know that that central triangle is your base, but if you're going to really explore desire and sexuality, then we wanted to have more perspectives.
That was definitely the impetus for why I invented Devon [played by Roberta Colindrez] and wanted to include a genderqueer character. I wanted to include that voice, and in the same way that’s what the curator Paula, played by Lily Mojekwu, is dealing with in her desire to bring a new vision into the town that includes all of these women of color, and art, and female artists that have been shut out of gallery spaces.
She really embodies this desire that we had to be as inclusive as possible. Those stories are interesting, and I think people want to see them.
Episode five, which is just all of those monologues from the characters about their sexual desires and histories, was pretty audacious and one of my favorites. What was the process like in writing that one?
I'll give props to the writers [Annie Baker and Heidi Schreck] on that one.
Really it was about exploring that moment where we understood the kind of tamping down of our own sexuality and desire. We sat around and told stories. We told stories about our lives, of our friends' lives, our sisters' lives, our mothers' lives, and from that fabric, Annie and Heidi wove this incredible script.
Of all the episodes, that episode really holds the show's creators in many ways. It holds our experiences and our storytelling, our gathering of stories.
What did the atmosphere of Marfa bring to the show?
Griffin's character, Sylvere, immediately falls in love with Marfa, and then in 24 hours he says, "This place is a hellmouth." It's an expansive, beautiful, open space, and at the same moment it can turn and be dangerous, and isolating, and unnerving. That kind of isolation and loneliness, and desert expanse. You get to feel both things.
It becomes this Rorschach test to where you are, dare I say, spiritually or emotionally at that moment, and it has a profound psychological effect on you. To be in that amount of quiet, you’ve got to sit in some shit. You’ve got to sit with yourself, which is what we wanted the characters to do.
There's no more distractions. You can't run to the CVS. You're just in it. You're in the isolation, and that can turn people crazy, or it can really transform them.
This show keeps coming back to that marriage between Chris and Sylvere, and all the ways it shifts and changes. What makes marriage interesting as a storytelling engine for you?
The foundation was definitely laid in the book. Their marriage is so singular. These people know each other so well. They depend on each other so well. They crack each other up, and yet there's something really missing, and that is damaging their marriage. And they just say, "Fuck it. Let's do something different." That kind of fearlessness you root for.
You see the ways in which they're completely killing each other, but then you say, "Oh my God. I don't want them to be apart." And at the same moment you're kind of hoping that Chris goes and fucks Dick, and then at the same moment you're like, "Well, what is that going to do to Sylvere?"
At the base, it's, like, "They're killing each other. I want them to work it out. I have no idea how that's going to happen, but if they can work it out, maybe my marriage is going to survive."