Jill Soloway: How a Detour Into Indie Filmmaking Led to Amazon's 'Transparent'

Emily Shur
Jill Soloway

Directing the 2013 feature 'Afternoon Delight' allowed her to show off her voice

While Jill Soloway had built up an impressive résumé as a writer/producer of TV series such as Six Feet Under and Unites States of Tara, when it came to selling her new series Transparent to Amazon, she used the fact that she'd directed an independent film to clinch the deal.

Delivering the Filmmaker Keynote today at Film Independent's annual Forum, held at the Directors Guild of America, Soloway offered up a very personal account of how she bounced back from a low point in her career, when she was desperate to get a job in TV, by temporarily turning away from television to write and direct the 2013 indie feature Afternoon Delight, for which she won the directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival

In the course of her remarks, she confessed that she came to a major realization after watching Lena Dunham sell Girls to HBO in the wake of the 2010 low-budget feature Tiny Furniture, which Dunham wrote and directed.

"The reason HBO picked up that show instead of mine was because they can see her voice," Soloway recalled telling her husband, music supervisor Bruce Gilbert. "No one can see my voice. All I am is that girl who used to write on Six Feet Under." So she decided to make Afternoon Delight to give her own voice expression.

The film in turn helped her sell herself to Joe Lewis, Amazon Studios head of original programming, when she was pitching Transparent, her new series starring Jeffrey Tambor as a transgender women.

"If you liked the movie," Soloway told Lewis, "I can make a pilot that feels very similar. I have the cinematographer and editor and the hair and makeup person and the wardrobe chick to make it look the way that movie looked. I have a technique that I can use with actors that allows me to get the kinds of performances you saw in that film. Most of the people who come in to see you with a script can't guarantee much by the time a director and a producer gets involved. The tone can evaporate right before your eyes. As writer, director and producer, I am now able to tell you I can guarantee the tone."

Soloway also discussed her directing style, saying, "When I was making Afternoon Delight, I called my style 'directing from the feminine,' but now that I've been involved in trans politics for the past year, I find the binary suspect. I'll call it 'being in the flow.' It means don't show up to shoot the script. Show up with your body as your tool, not your mind. Feel things as the artists around you work. Use those feelings to know what's working. From the moment you say 'action,' this is the fun part. Things should happen that surprise you, excite you, scare you, turn you on, make you laugh. If things aren't surprising you when you say 'cut,' whisper things to the actors that will make them do things that do surprise you."

She now thinks of filmmaking as "throwing a party. It's choosing a time and a place, and telling people to show up. Those people should be professional actors and someone with a camera, but they don't need to be. They can be your friends and your iPhone, if you're still learning. All you have to do is be willing to create a vibe that allows people to feel free and try things they've never tried before."