Jill Soloway Aims to Topple the Showbiz Patriarchy With ‘I Love Dick,’ ‘Transparent’

Debra Birnbaum

There’s a handwritten list of rules on the whiteboard in Jill Soloway’s production office on the Paramount lot.

That there are rules at all in her workspace seems antithetical to her famously subversive nature — but on closer inspection, they convey her creative spirit ever so delightfully: “Be chill.” “Demand inclusion.” “Shift the gaze.” That last directive refers to what’s become her mantra: embracing the female gaze — telling, creating, celebrating stories from a woman’s perspective.

“I think so much of what women first realize when they start to make work is how much of their life they have spent being gazed at, and being used by male protagonists for male storylines,” says Soloway, showrunner and executive producer of Amazon’s “Transparent.” “It’s never on purpose; nobody’s trying to hurt anybody.” But, as she explains, women are often used to drive the narrative. “You become the good girl or the bad girl or the mother or the hooker. Women are sliced up into these objects so that men can be subjects.”

Soloway believes that as women are increasingly stepping behind the camera, we’re finally seeing a cultural shift. Her mission, with her new Amazon pilot “I Love Dick” — as well as with the third season of “Transparent” (premiering Sept. 23) and a medley of projects in development at Topple Prods. (read: “topple the patriarchy”), the company she runs with Andrea Sperling — is to continue challenging that status quo. “It’s a ginormous, gigantic, unthinkable, huge task,” she says.

But it’s a task that she’s embracing nonetheless.

“The female gaze is simply women starting to write, direct, produce, to be able to name and claim what they think is interesting, funny, sexy — and not have to have it go through the filter of a male producer, or a male network executive, a male distributor, who’s going to go, ‘Hold on a second, I don’t really like her,’ ” says Soloway, 50. “To me, the female gaze is just the ability to express who we are without interference.”

There might not be a better example of that than “I Love Dick,” which Soloway and playwright Sarah Gubbins adapted from the cult novel by Chris Kraus. It’s about a struggling married couple (Kathryn Hahn and Griffin Dunne) who become obsessed with an oddly charismatic professor named Dick (Kevin Bacon) while at an academic retreat in Marfa, Texas. Soloway was drawn not only to Kraus’ “unbelievably funny, feminist, brave” voice, but by the idea that the author had been sued by the subject of the book to prevent her from writing it.

Winning Ways: “I always caution myself with this feeling of we’ve been very lucky to get the amount of love and support in such a crowded field,” she says.
Annabel Mehran for Variety

“That felt like so much a true meta-expression of exactly how hard it is as a woman to have her voice heard,” says Soloway. “I wanted to rescue [Kraus] and share her with the world, and introduce her to a new generation of women.”

“I Love Dick” debuted on Amazon on Aug. 19 to rapturous reviews, with Variety’s Sonia Saraiya calling it “one of the most fascinating and unconventional television projects ever.” Says Soloway, “I really appreciate that a lot of writers really understand what we’re trying to do with it.” And while a series hasn’t been officially greenlit, she says scripts have been ordered and the writers’ room is up and running.

“It’s the perfect nexus of storytelling and art,” says Joe Lewis, Amazon’s head of half-hour series. “It truly challenges the medium of television.” That said, he admits the show has a few hurdles: It’s non-traditionally structured, for one. “Can I guarantee it’s going to work? No. But I believe in Jill immensely.”

There’s a litany of reasons the novel might never have been adapted, including the fact that it’s written in epistolary form, and that none of the characters are particularly likable. But Soloway was undaunted. In fact, that’s what drew her to the project.

“To me, it’s just the basic triangle of a woman and her husband [whose] sex life is kind of dead, and they seduce another man for imaginary reasons,” she explains. “That triangle to me feels like a really amazing, abundant story generator.”

The cast fell into place quickly. Bacon nabbed the role of the titular Dick over the course of a single phone call.

“As I really thought about it,” says Soloway, “and I experienced so many people doing that ‘Six Degrees’ thing with me, I realized how he is very much also used as an object by people in the same way Dick was.”

For Chris, she always knew she wanted to cast Hahn, with whom she first worked in her 2013 feature, “Afternoon Delight,” and who now stars in “Transparent” as Rabbi Raquel. Soloway calls the actress “one of my most beloved muses.”

Hahn says she trusts the filmmaker implicitly. “There is something about knowing that her eyeballs are behind the lens,” she says. “I never feel more beautiful — I never feel more myself than when I’m working with her.”

Soloway promises abundant creative risks, too, on the upcoming season of “Transparent,” which is up for 10 statues at this weekend’s Primetime Emmy Awards (including best director for Soloway, which she won last year). While last season journeyed back to Nazi-era Germany, this season flashes back to Boyle Heights in the 1950s, when Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) was 12 and struggling with her gender identity. There’s also a hallucination episode in which Ali (Gaby Hoffman) takes nitrous oxide during a visit to the dentist. It’s during those dream sequences — animated by artist Cauleen Smith — that Caitlyn Jenner appears. “We have to keep surprising ourselves,” Soloway says.

Notes Tambor, “Jill doesn’t play it safe. She zigs when you think she’s going to zag.”

The theme of this season, Soloway says, is for Maura to feel “I got everything I want. Now what?” In fact, the character asks that very question out loud.

“That’s really true of everybody in the family,” Soloway says. “Now you have to figure out what kind of person you want to be, what kind of life you want to lead, what life’s about, how to matter for yourself.”

It’s clear that Soloway is asking herself those same questions.

Growing up in Chicago, Soloway always wanted to be a writer. “From a really young age, I was entertaining my friends with made-up stories,” she recalls. “We were obsessed with Matt Dillon and Christopher Atkins.” She’d write fan fiction about going to the mall and meeting the actors.

When she grew up, she made her way to Hollywood, landing on the staff of “Six Feet Under,” where she learned showrunning from Alan Ball, and later made the gender-bending “Afternoon Delight,” which won the director award at Sundance. In between, she had settled into what she calls an “amazing” TV career as the person networks called on to help others break their shows, writing for “Dirty Sexy Money,” “United States of Tara,” “Tell Me You Love Me,” and “How to Make It in America.”

“I was pedaling so fast that it kept me pretty happy and pretty busy and plate-spinning and tail-wagging and jazz-hands-ing.”

And then a revelation in her personal life changed her worldview — and her career: Five years ago, her father came out as transgender.

“Right before my dad came out, I was at a place where I was thinking about leaving the business, because I just felt topped out.” She says she figured, “‘I’ve done everything I can, and people know what my voice is. It’s not really needed in the world right now.’”

But she was inspired to write “Transparent,” which she sold to Amazon in what she says was an instance of perfect timing. “It felt like a lot of things lined up where there was a cultural moment about the trans movement. Amazon was ready to give somebody a whole bunch of creative freedom, and I had just made my movie and so I actually knew what to do [and] how to do it,” she says.

Indeed she did: “Transparent” become a critical success, cementing her partnership with Amazon. While ABC has Shonda Rhimes and FX has Ryan Murphy, Soloway has become what Lewis calls a “model showrunner” in the streamer’s stable. As networks struggle to compete in Peak TV, betting on talent is the surest way to establish dominance.

Lewis says he hopes Soloway’s work inspires creatives like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze to come calling. “I hope they see what Jill has done, how we work with real filmmakers, how we extract a singular point of view from an artist,” he says.

Yes, Lewis and Soloway have exchanged notes: The exec points to the pilot of “Transparent,” and says that he suggested that Maura’s reveal, which was originally on page 8 of the script, be pushed back to later in the episode. “We wanted to embrace the five-hour movie form,” he explains.

“I love my relationship with them,” says Soloway of Amazon. “It’s collaborative, it’s destructive.” She says she applies their leadership principles to her writing. Those principles, too, are on a whiteboard in her hallway: “Insist on the highest standards.” (Jokes Lewis, “She could work at any part of Amazon and pass the interviews very well.”)

“There’s a very ‘what if’ feeling with everybody at Amazon: ‘What if we could do it differently? Take risks, moon shots,’” she says. “When I was trying to write television shows for networks — and even HBO or Showtime — there was certainly the feeling of, ‘Make sure you represent the brand well.’ Whereas at Amazon, I feel a sense of respect for being a leader, and that I’m inspired to take huge risks and try things on my own terms and in my own voice.”

She brings that unconventional approach to the way she runs “Transparent.” Soloway starts every day on the set with “the box” — inviting anyone from the cast or the crew to climb up on an apple box and share their story, whatever it might be.

“It’s sometimes hilarious, but usually everyone ends up bawling,” says Hahn. “As touchy-feely as it sounds, what it does is make the playground that much [more] of a democracy.”

Soloway calls the practice “crowd surfing.”

And to capture the powerful emotions of “I Love Dick,” she directed the cast through silent rehearsals — running through the script time after time without dialogue.

“I don’t want to be yelling and telling people what to do,” she says. “I think the traditional may be more masculine, patriarchal ways, where there’s a director and he shows up to the set to make sure that everybody’s going to get it right, as he sees it.”

While she wants to get to the emotional truth of any given scene, there’s no “perfect” path to get there. “We’re all tuning in together to these characters’ desires and wants and trying to retain a sense of play and joyfulness as we turn it into art,” she says.

And there are no mistakes. “We love accidents,” says Soloway. “We love just being alive to what might be going wrong at any given time. If it’s going wrong, we try to make it go wronger.”

Lewis equates Soloway’s style to watching a chess player go “off-book.”   “Someone will make a move that hasn’t been done before,” he says, “and suddenly everything gets that much more exciting. That’s where we are with Jill right now. She’s ahead of everyone stylistically, narratively, and aesthetically. And there’s no safety net.”

Tambor calls his experience on “Transparent” one of the best of his career. “Jill is amazing and runs the safest, most playful set I’ve ever been on,” he says. “I’ve said numerous times to production assistants, ‘Pay attention, because you’re never going to be on a set like this again.’ This is not the way it’s normally done. It’s a beautiful, co-creative atmosphere. Everywhere I look, there’s just genius holding down the fort.”

for soloway, Embracing the female gaze isn’t just about her own storytelling: It’s about helping other women tell theirs.

For season three of “Transparent,” she hired only female or non-cis male directors. “I think every single directing slot is a golden ticket into the industry,” she says. “We just want to use those opportunities wisely, to shuttle more people into the industry.”

While she has found a platform for her voice, others are still struggling to find theirs — and turning to her to use hers to call for change. An upcoming speaking engagement about the female gaze has her nervous, she admits.

“Why do I have so much shame around being inspirational and being proud? I’m still constantly afraid all the time. I still wake up with the feeling of, ‘Stop, you’re too much. Leave everybody alone. You’ve done enough,’” she says. “I think I need to get more comfortable and be OK with the inspirational aspects of my personality and the person who wants to be part of a movement, and not be so embarrassed about that.”

There’s also the matter of an ever-increasing workload, which shows no sign of abating. “I look up to Norman Lear. I look up to all of the greats,” she says. “I look up to the people who want to change the world, and want to do it with television.”

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