Interview: 'Transparent' creator Jill Soloway discusses her Amazon pilot
'Six Feet Under' vet talks gender identity, Jewishness and the Amazon process
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[Warning: Read this interview after you've watched Jill Soloway's Amazon pilot "Transparent." It discusses the "surprise" of the pilot. Really, you can watch and enjoy the half-hour family comedy knowing the surprise, but if you like being 100 percent unspoiled, just check out the pilot and then come back.]
Usually there's a finite number of things to discuss when it comes to a half-hour comedy, but I probably had enough questions for "Transparent" writer-director Jill Soloway to fill an hour.
"Transparent" has been generally hailed as the cream of Amazon's most recent crop of pilots, which dropped last week. As with the first round of pilots, which yielded series orders for "Alpha House" and "Betas," Amazon is letting viewers watch all of the pilots and then weigh in with their feelings. That public sentiment will then factor into the decision-making process for the website.
So far so good, then, for "Transparent," the story of a dysfunctional group of siblings (played by Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass) who are about to learn that their father Mort (Jeffrey Tambor) is actually Moira, a trans woman.
Soloway, a "Six Feet Under" and "United States of Tara" veteran, has layered the pilot with sometimes sensitive, sometimes trenchant (sometimes both at once) observations about gender identity, sexuality, family ties, religion and Los Angeles. It's a pilot with a lot on its mind and a pilot that finds itself in the middle of a much bigger societal conversation.
I only got to the tip of those conversations, so you'll have to watch "Transparent" and rank it highly so that I can broach some more topics with Soloway after Amazon picks up a full season. Future topics will have to include the punny title, Gaby Hoffman's comeback, LA's East Side and more. But we covered some good ground.
Click through for the full Q&A...
HitFix: "Transparent" has been out for a little over a week now. You've done the network pilot process in the past. How are you enjoying the Amazon version of things?
Jill Soloway: I'm kinda loving it, I've gotta admit. I was seriously kinda tripping the other day on the fact that somebody called it the "House of Cards" for Amazon and we haven't even made a series yet. I'm being compared to one of the most successful series of all-time and I've made a full 29 minutes of content. So it's really exciting. It was kinda unexpected. I thought, "OK. We'll have to find people and then get those people to find other people to watch it," but it sorta exploded over the course of a couple days and not only did it seem like every single person I knew was watching it, but it clearly felt like Amazon had such a giant audience across the country that was watching it and then to have the press and really cool, smart, influential bloggers love it kinda felt like a dream come true.
HitFix: Normally when you do a pilot, it's gonna only be watched by a few people in a dark room somewhere and here it's got the potential of being watched by many thousands or even more. Now me, I'm OCD and from the moment the pilot went up, I'd have been on that page hitting reload to find out what people were saying and how many were saying it. [She laughs.] How much have you been doing that?
Jill Soloway: I definitely did that in the beginning and it was really, really great to read all the reviews. And then, of course, I'm not sure if anybody's really done this experiment on rats, but on people, the good stuff doesn't work anymore and you need a hit of the bad stuff, so you go to the one-star reviews to see what people hate about you.
HitFix: And what are those people saying?
Jill Soloway: You know, the best thing to do is to find the people who say, like, "Oh, I hated this show. There's too much nudity. These people are ugly." And then you go and see what else they reviewed and then you see that they really tore apart some AA batteries or something, that they're just really getting on a new cereal's back. That's what we were doing in the writers' room, is we were finding people who hated us and then we were reading their reviews of a new camera bag or a strap to replace something on their luggage. It's really weird to be able to see the shopping habits of the people who are also your viewers. That's kinda cool.
HitFix: Given how distinctive your voice is and the idea that maybe some of the other shows in this pilot batch might be more quote-unquote "broad," did that concern you at all?
Jill Soloway: I'm like a bit of a feminist, I have these kinds of highly political dreams. I'm a dreamer about taking on the patriarchy and all that kinda stuff. So I actually have this secret belief that there are enough people who would consider themselves quote-unquote "other" to support my particular taste. So for me to actually have access to women, to feminist women, to gay people, to trans people, to intellectuals, iconoclasts, weirdos, academics, just the people who don't normally get marketed to, in some way I kinda hoped that if I could collect all of them, I could say, "Hey! Look over here! There are enough people who like my stuff." And it sorta has seemed to be true.
When you talk about the dark room, there are actually these two groups: There are the guys upstairs who are probably too busy playing golf and aren't actually watching it, the people on the board of whatever network who are making the huge decisions. And then you also get threatened with like, "We're taking it to a mall in Pacoima and we're gonna show it to regular people and watch them through glass while they watch your pilot." And that's also really terrifying, because you know that's just people who had nothing else better to do, who happen to be at the mall and who really want to express their opinions and opinions are more easily actualized when they're negative, in that context anyways. So I think when people are being asked to test a pilot in that sorta dark room in the mall, they're actually going to be negative, but when you're being asked to vote for your favorite out of five, I think people are going to be naturally positive because they're going to want their horse to win. So however the math turned around for this particular process worked in my favorite I feel like.
HitFix: You mentioned that you've got a writers' room already and so there's obviously the part of this that's more traditional, where you've pitched Amazon on the full season and all of that. Like for all the democratization, there's still the traditional side, right?
Jill Soloway: Yes. It's a little bit of everything. It's not just how many views or how many stars. I think it probably has a little bit to do with what those demographics are on Amazon Prime, what kind of people are watching. It probably has something to do with their spending habits? And also the creative. The people at Amazon said that as far as they could tell with their previous round, the way that the American public felt about their stuff was pretty close to the way that they felt about it as well. So I think that they have, at Amazon, their own ways of judging the content. The horserace definitely helps, because it's data.
HitFix: So did you see that Facebook introduced 56 custom gender options yesterday?
Jill Soloway: Yes! We were all sending that email around to each other. For us, I just think it was more proof that this seems to be so incredibly in the zeitgeist right now. Everywhere we look, people are talking about gender. So that was super-exiting.
HitFix: But it made me wonder: Does this mean that you guys are in the vanguard? Or if Facebook is doing it, are we already right in the middle of the conversation?
Jill Soloway: I think it's the vanguard. We've obviously been talking to a fair number of people to make sure we get all different kinds of representation right, not only of Moira's characters but of the other trans characters that we hope to have in the season if we get ordered. And the amount of misinformation that's out there about just what it means to be trans... There are so many different kinds of people in the -- What do we call it? -- the transiverse? The transverse? It's just so complex and so interesting and there's just so much that so many people don't really understand. Even with the character of Moira, this trans woman -- Medically transitioning? Socially transitioning? Cross-dressing? Drag? I've watched people talking on the Internet about "Jeffrey Tambor in drag." Drag has nothing to do with this and people don't even know. People have so little information about the different ways that gender works, particularly in connection with sexuality. It has nothing to do with whether or not you're gay or straight or who you are attracted to. I think we're at the very, very, very beginning. I think we're gonna look back at this moment 20 years from now and say, "Oh, remember when people had to only be male or female?"
HitFix: I guess I agree with you, because we just saw a couple weeks ago the Janet Mock/Piers Morgan blow-up. In that light, I'm sorta wondering, though: Is there room for any sort of uncertainty in how we communicate on this subject anymore? Or is there a sense that you have to get it exactly right the first time around because otherwise you're doing it wrong?
Jill Soloway: Well, I'm happy to be as careful as need be for the trans community and be 100 percent informed by their perceptions of what is right and what is wrong. I think that's just a starting place. I think sure, people who have gender privilege -- or what's called "Cis privilege" -- that's a privilege to be able to say, "Oh, I'm so confused about my pronouns. I don't know what to call you!" That's privilege and to be confused is annoying to people who are dealing with something real like transitioning their gender. I'm happy to try and be less annoying. That's good. To me, it's not about getting it right or getting it wrong. It's about what is the intention. So for me, when you look at something like Piers Morgan being super-specific and when people only focus on the transition like "Show me what you looked like before?" or "Wow, you really look like a pretty lady now" or, with Katie Couric, "What kind of surgery did you have?" Those things are really objectifying trans people in the same way that women don't want to be objectified for their bodies, trans people don't want to be objectified for the specifics of their transition. They just want to be just like everybody else, so I really feel like when I look at this show and I see that Moira is one person out of five people, that her story isn't really her transition. Her story is that she has changed and now is the family going to be able to catch up? And everything that happens to her is in the context of five people. I think it's more about doing it with a little bit of love than about getting it right or wrong.
HitFix: Speaking specifically about the pilot, this half-hour is built around this secret that Moira has. Obviously you have to reveal that secret in a way that's like, "OK. Here's the secret. Here's the surprise." But how did you want to treat the reveal so that it wasn't sensationalized?
Jill Soloway: Yeah, I thought about it a lot. When we were working on the pilot at Amazon, the shorthand for that was like, "Oh, we just don't want this moment to be Scooby-Doo." So we tried not to make the Moira reveal Scooby-Doo, yet as people who are making television and, in particular, soapy television, it needed to be exciting. So I think in specific what we decided in the pilot was that the moment Moira's quote-unquote "secret" is revealed to America, it's not a Scooby-Doo moment. It's that slow push into the meeting, which is done with a lot of love and a lot of dignity. And then the Scooby-Doo moment comes really at a moment when [Amy Landecker's] Sarah is actually doing something totally surprising as well. It's not like somebody's walking in on Dad in women's clothing. Instead it's a woman, Moira, who we've already seen as a completely whole person herself, walking in on her daughter doing something unexpected. I think at every turn we're gonna be trying to subvert that expectation that the gender is a surprise.
HitFix: So then how long would you say that this is a show about a secret? And at what point does it just settle into being a show about five people living their lives?
Jill Soloway: Almost immediately. The math of this show for me, the emotional math, is these five people are magnetized around a secret and in some ways, the mystery -- of when they look back on their childhood -- the mystery of their childhood is, "What did we do because we didn't know?" In some ways the secret was the boundary and now that that boundary is being lifted, how do these people find their new boundaries with each other? It's really about family boundaries and anxiety around boundaries, how to love one another without becoming one another.
HitFix: And just in closing, I want to talk about the other boundary you're pushing here. TV characters only occasionally have any sort of identifiable relationship with religion. This pilot, however, has a Tu Bishvat joke within five minutes. [She laughs.] How do you want the Jewishness of this family to play into the overall narrative?
Jill Soloway: I want it to be super Jewy! I want it to be really, really Jewy. When I gave you that list of people who don't normally get consulted when pilots get ordered -- Feminsts, gay people, trans people -- and Jews. There's a lot of Jewish writers, but the old adage is "Write Jewish, Cast British." You're supposed to write the Jewish anxieties, but then take out any references to Tu Bishvat and make sure that the actors look WASP-y. So I think I'm gonna subvert that and write Jewish, cast Jewish, act Jewish, fall apart Jewish, make mistakes Jewish, cry Jewish.
HitFix: When do you think you're going to know if you'll be able to move forward on a full season?
Jill Soloway: That's the same question I ask the people at Amazon every other day and they say "The first or second week of March." And I said, "Really? You can't give me a day? And a time?" So hopefully within a month.
If you haven't watched and rated "Transparent," what's keeping you?