‘Transparent’ creator: Streaming shows are ‘inventing a new art form’

On Friday, Amazon released all 10 episodes of “Transparent” season 2. It”s wonderful, and was an easy choice for my 2015 top 10 list. I'm still working on a piece featuring mini-reviews of each episode (look for that in the next day or two), but in the meantime, here's an interview I did with the show's creator, Jill Soloway, discussing this season's flashback structure, how Soloway's increasing knowledge of trans issues – not only does she have a “Moppa” like Jeffrey Tambor's Maura in real life, but she added a trans writer to the staff this season -has shaped the show's coverage of the problems facing Maura, how she views a streaming season as a different artform from making a drama for cable, and a lot more. (There will, of course, be many spoilers in what we discuss.)

I want to start off with the Holocaust ring. When you put that line in the first season, did you have an idea in your head of who Tante Gittel actually was?

Jill Soloway:    No.  No idea at all.  It was just a funny line and a funny name: Gittel.  But it was just a ring that nobody cared about from the Holocaust.  And then when we got together with the writers for season 2, we started thinking about going back in time, like the cross-dressing camp episode from season 1, and asked, “All right, how far do we want to go back in season 2?  Why don”t we figure out who Tante Gittel is?”

When Ali”s talking to Syd, she brings up the idea of inherited trauma, and here we find out that Maura wasn”t the first trans person in her family. Is that something that you have found in research, where it actually does get passed along in families, or did you just like the idea of the history repeating itself?

Jill Soloway:    People have found genetic legacies of trans, but I think we were more going for the idea that it sort of on your DNA, the feeling of being otherized, or targeted or somehow in danger is somehow in Ali”s DNA.  But that there is the more literal question of Maura”s transness actually belonging to her than in some sort of story that she never got.  She was never told that story. Zackary Drucker, one of our trans consultants who”s also a producer, found that she had a trans grandparent or trans aunt, and she”s trans herself. But metaphorically, our writer Lady J, when she found out that there were trans people in Berlin in 1930 and that she never got her own history told to her, she was just so upset that she went through so much pain as a kid and yet here was all this information that some people already understood trans issues as much as 75 years ago.  And somehow the information never made it through.  So it”s about legacy, DNA legacy, emotional legacy.  How do we find our roots and our stories when they”re nowhere to be seen?

I watched the whole season in about two days and as Maura and Ali are getting ready to go see Grandma Rose, the entire time I”m just terrified thinking, “Please let her still be alive.  Please let this go okay.  Maura really needs this.”  But what”s interesting is when you do the scene, Rose is in a condition where she can”t really communicate.  Were you tempted at any point to show more of a conversation between the two than what actually went down?

Jill Soloway:    No. I think it is a metaphor for the fact that the information doesn”t get passed down.  Rose”s inability to speak is a metaphor for our culture”s inability to speak.  We didn”t plan this.  We just had already written the idea that Rose was not necessarily conversational for many, many years as a way to soften the fact that Maura had been out of touch.  But we wanted to do the thing where Maura had let her sister take care of her mother and had sort of been burying any real conflicts.  So first we decided that Rose was going to be non-communicative.  But then at the end of the season when we realized that there”s the ring hanging around Ali”s neck, there”s Rose who knows so much.  There”s Maura who knows nothing.  But the audience now knows everything.  We wanted to give all of that feeling and that knowledge to the audience but nobody in the room had it.  And that was definitely purposeful.

Last year, you would do a moment here and there where adult Ali and teenage Ali would be in a scene together and looking at each other.  There”s a lot more of that this season. At the wedding in the premiere, suddenly we go from the Hora to the club in Berlin in the 30s.  And you do that even before we really get the full explanation.  How did you decide when and how you wanted to transition from past to present, and what, if any, narrative rules you wanted to put in about that?

Jill Soloway:    I've been told by people I respect that flashbacks only work if they have their own narrative, but they can”t be part of the present narrative.  They need to add up to their own thing in some way.  And we really liked the idea of these paths converging and not necessarily converging until the very last moment.  And I think this is something that”s (part of) the promise of streaming: if we were going week to week, some people might say, “Oh, people don”t want to be that patient and they”re going to be confused for too long and you really need to make sure there”s a little something in every episode so people will get it.”  But we really thought of it like a five-hour movie and really thought of this climatic end that all comes rushing at you in episodes 8, 9, and 10 and that you”re really yearning for it as if you were getting these bits and pieces in the earlier episodes.  We just tried to structure it so that it would be there as to keep pulling the viewer forward, but not necessarily give the viewer what they”re expecting episode to episode, instead of giving them one flashback per episode or giving more information each time. We really wanted to create that tension between what the viewer wants and when they get it, to pull people into the binge.

It”s funny you mentioned that, because right before you called, I was working on a story about how, especially in streaming, there”s much more of a push towards just a seasonal story as opposed to episodic stories.  You”ve made movies, and you”ve made more traditional TV shows than this in terms of structure.  Are you at a point now where, for this show, you”re not even looking at each individual episode as a unit, even though it has to have its own script and its own director and everything?  Or do you feel like there have to be certain elements within a half-hour to make that experience complete even if people are bingeing three or four in a row?

Jill Soloway:    Yeah I think we”re right in the middle of that conflict and it”s a really fun conflict, because we really feel like we”re inventing an art form.  So we”re asking these questions of the DGA and the Writer”s Guild in terms of how to name and brand and pay people for their work on particular episodes when the truth is, we really do want to see it as a five-hour movie.  And it is too much for me to do by myself?  So I do need other directors.  But we do want the freedom to move scenes from episode to episode to episode.  And we do want the freedom to move writing from episode to episode to episode, because as it starts to come in and as you start to look at it as a five-hour movie just like you would in a two-hour movie, move a scene from the first 30 minutes to maybe 50 minutes in.  In a streaming series, you would now be in a different episode.  It”s so complicated, and we”re so still using the rules that were built for episodic television that we”re really trying to figure it out. And it”s exciting: as we”re going into writing season 3, we”re asking ourselves, “Is there a way to write for each character and then only begin to weave it together when we start to edit?”  We do all of this experimentation aware that many people, particularly foreign markets, will be watching it a half an hour at a time.  And some people will be getting it a week apart.  And the episodes do need to have their own structure.  So I can say the most I”ve learned is that the sort of typical episodic structure that we still find ourselves doing is typical hero”s journey.  There”s a problem five minutes in.  There”s a climax.  And then, what I call the TV roundelay at the end: you put on a great song, you check in with all your characters, the Grey”s Anatomy roundelay.  I”m starting to feel like you can”t do that every episode but that you can do it as act breaks in the season.  You can do this around episode one and again around episode three or four.  But you can”t repeat that structure every episode because the people are binge-watching.  If they are bingeing they don”t want to feel that lack of dynamic, where every episode has the same rhythm.  The climax just can”t happen at 23 minutes in every episode.  It will feel boring when you”re bingeing.  So we”re right in the middle of experimenting and trying to figure out how do we deliver something that feels like an episode to somebody who might be grabbing it on its own yet really respecting variance of the five hour watch.  Especially if people want to watch that five hours on their own terms in their own schedule.  It needs to work if somebody wants to stop after an hour and a half or stop after half an hour.  People talk about it like food.  Like, “I just want to let you know I”m saving it.”  They talk about it like pasta.  “I”m saving it.  I”m only going to have one a week.”  And I love the fact that everybody can have their own experience and I want to make sure that what we put out there works in as many ways as possible.

The premiere in particular feels like a relatively close-ended unit.  It”s got its own specific visual style with those static shots like the opening scene, and it obviously all takes place at a wedding.   And then other episodes all blur together a little bit more than that.

Jill Soloway:    I had seen “Force Majeure” over over the spring, and I just love that movie so much.  And I really wanted to artistically give a little hello to the filmmakers, and that kind of back and forth dialogue between artists that say, “I loved your movie. I was influenced by your movie. If I didn”t have this job, I wouldn”t be thinking of that.  Do my TV show and then one day I”ll make a movie where I can play with some of the visual themes in “Force Majeure.” It all takes place in a resort.  It also started with a photograph.  But instead, I can make the first episode be my little homage to “Force Majeure,” so I made sure that all the department heads watched it and everybody saw it.  And I explained how “Force Majeure” used the relationship between the environment and the people and a resort as this through line.  And we”re going to try that with the first episode.  So it”s really just a freedom that we have with Amazon to push ourselves creatively.  It allowed me to say, you know, okay this is going to be a little half-hour film here to start the season.

In season 1, Sarah and Tammy try to set up in the house in the Pacific Palisades, and they try to create a family there and it falls apart.  This season, Josh and Raquel take over the house, and it falls apart. Is this going to be a common thing where next season Ali and someone else wind up there? Or is that just how it played out this year?

Jill Soloway:    I think the original idea was that each person was going to give it a try for a season.  But we”re already working on season 3, and Ali definitely has a leadership role in the house, but it”s not as simple as it being just her.  She sort spent some time living there with Josh, so it hasn”t turned out as like formally perfect as I imagined when we first started which was going to be each person has the house for a season.

You talked before about the things you”re learning about the format and making the show for the binge.  You”re also learning both in your own life and in the process of making the show more and more about the trans community.  As time has gone on, how did that inform the stories of season two as opposed to season one?

Jill Soloway:    Yeah, it”s about really taking Maura”s journey and bringing it into the center, allowing Maura to be a protagonist as opposed to her just being really seen by her kids.  And I think in my seeing of Maura in season 1, I really wanted to protect her in much the same way as I probably wanted to protect my Moppa by making it.  I think having this experience in real life of a parent coming out, for me the show is this message of, “It”s all going to be okay.”  I”m in the Hilton in Washington D.C.  We just went to the White House yesterday.  I just put my mom in a taxi to go back to Chicago.  Everybody on the show, and particularly a lot of the trans women on the show, we all just spent the day in the White House and were told by members of the administration how the work we”re doing has changed the world for trans people.  It”s evolved, you know.  It was like this little thing which was, “I want to make the world safe for my Moppa, and now the world is really changing.”  And now Moppa can just be a person – or, you know not Moppa, but Maura can just be a person.  She can have her own stories.  And the nuanced stories of trying to figure out how to transition at that age when you may not want surgery, you may not want to begin hormones when you”re in your seventies.  So it”s not so simple as this kind of before and after narrative that a lot of trans stories have.  We have an amazing writer.  Her name is Lady J, and she”s trans and she”s in the writer”s room for season 2.  And it changes the chemistry of the room to have a trans woman in the room.  I”m not just saying what stories are important to her but even if there was a little bit of otherizing left for me as daughter of a trans woman, that gets erased with when we are now sympathizing stories that come from Lady J”s life.

I mean you delve into this a lot more.  There”s been a lot more Davina and Shea this season than there was last season.  Sal is a kind of character I don”t think I”ve ever seen on television or just in fiction in general before.  And then Maura”s going on with her own struggle about how much to transition, whether she likes women or men, what gives her pleasure sexually.  It goes to a lot of places that even the first season didn”t.

Jill Soloway:    Yeah, it gets more complex because we”re inside of her, we”re not looking at her as much.

One of the things that gave me a slight amount of pause at the end of the first season was when Syd confessed that she had feelings for Ali. At least to that point, Syd had been presented in the context of her ongoing thing with Josh.  The show deals a lot with fluidity of gender and sexuality, and we”re seeing some of that reflected in Ali, but if everyone in this world is queer then what exactly is queer? How did you try to approach that, both in that relationship and with the world at large, over the course of this season?

Jill Soloway:    That was probably a little bit of a sort of communicative misstep because we always conceived of Syd as bi.  Like early on in the writers room we wanted Syd to be a bi character and we wanted to say, “Wow, there”s the LGBT, and everybody knows the LG and now everybody knows the T.  Where are the bi people on TV?  Where are the people who are openly outwardly bi and proud?”  And we created Syd to be that person and then kind of forgot about the fact that she was bi and maybe never even said it.  But in the writer”s room we knew it.  So for us, it wasn”t a surprise when she sort of moved toward Ali because for us, the relationship with Josh, we all understood that she was in love with Ali and that she was with Josh because in some ways she couldn”t have Ali.  So we as writers knew that.  We probably didn”t communicate that well enough to the story and we did hear that from a couple of people like hold on everybody loves everybody here and like why these two now.  So I think for us, it was just very natural to see them to be able to have Ali and Syd together.  And then, you know, when a parent transitions everybody in the family transitions.  And I think Ali”s relationship to objectifying herself during sex as sort of portrayed by her thing with Derek and Mike early on and her thing with Dale later where her experiences around sex involved this kind of, I guess you could call it an otherizing of herself, or some sort of disassociating, where she really didn”t feel like she was in her body when she was having sex.  I think this is what we wanted to explore with the idea of, “Okay, my Moppa has transitioned.  Now who am I?” And Ali really started to relate to the possibility that is she gay?  Is she genderqueer?  Is it Syd?  Is it love?  Who is she?  Her identity?  How does she want to dress?  You know that everybody in the family often transitions when somebody transitions.  Not necessarily their gender but the optimal transition, their identity to sort of keep a system intact.

As the siblings note at the end of the season, it”s the first time in forever that they”ve all been single at the same time and they all at different stages of the season wind up sabotaging whatever relationship they”re in.  Was that by design, or were you working on each story individually, and it kept making sense for each of them to screw things up?

Jill Soloway:    Yeah it just happened.  They literally feel like they”re alive, and sometimes we get these ideas, where we realize what”s happening, and one of them we realized this year was that these are people who have no words for love or loss.  This is a legacy they inherited from their parents.  They have no words for love or loss.  And we realize that when Josh is standing at the motor home and then not able to say anything to Colton.  And we realize that when Sarah realizes she doesn”t want to be married but it comes too late at the altar and she's paralyzed in her paranoid fantasy.  And it”s really even true of Ali when she has that moment where Syd is asking Ali to go one way or the other and Ali really can”t relate.  So yeah, we get to the end of the season we”re like, “Ohmigod, all three of them get to this place where they aren”t able to talk about their feelings.  They aren”t able to process.” Which I hope they”re going to start to do now in season 3.  We”re like all right, let”s push them to have the hard conversations.  Let”s push them beyond walking away when they”re out of words.  But when you get to this moment in the very end and you realize that Maura didn”t know anything about Gittel and Maura didn”t know anything about Rose leaving Gittel.  So Maura didn”t give any of that to Ali and this is a legacy.  It”s not trans-ness, it”s not Jewishness, it”s the lack of words, the inability to talk through the feelings of love and talk through the feelings of loss.  And feel through them together with their family.  So I think it makes sense, as we watch these three encounter, these moments when he really could move.  They just couldn”t yet, but  I think the three of them having each other and knowing and being there for each other is almost a little bit of a first step when it comes to unconditional love: recognizing that they need each other. For me the Hora, the image of the five of them dancing together, and then Tammy comes and tries to pull Sarah out, is a visual way of talking about this ring, this circle, this legacy without words.  This group that's starting to figure out what they mean to each other and then maybe one day soon we”ll be able to figure out how it works with other people.

Had you planned all along to reuse some of the actors from the flashback episode last year in the Berlin context?

Jill Soloway:    Yeah it kind of happened naturally. Michaela (Watkins) is one of my best friends.  I”m a huge fan of hers.  She can make anything make sense to me.  So when I”m trying to figure out, “How is Yetta funny?  How am I going to relate to these people in 1930?,” for me to be able to put Michaela in there or put Hari Nef in there and have them resonate as real humans instead of the black and white postcards that we have in our mind.  It just makes perfect sense for me to fit Michaela in there and Yetta, and once we thought about how to get people that we love into 1930, we had that enlightening moment,  “Ohmigod, Bradley Whitford is Magnus Hirschfeld! Of course!” We call them the wayback players now, and we want to try to find ways to use our wayback players every year, but it”s as different people.

So that is something that you”re talking about right now for season 3?

Jill Soloway:    Yes.

So in another repeated device from the first season, Maura and her daughters go to the festival together, which was reminiscent of when she went to the cross-dressing retreat.  Was that also by design and is there some other form of that that you”re working on for the third season?

Jill Soloway:    Yeah, season 3 has a big thing and it”s actually going to be more people than just those three. We have a big climactic group thing at the end of the season and I think everybody is going to be there.  We didn”t specifically want it to be just like cross-dressing camp, but I do think in the three-act structure that you have in any piece of work, this five-hour thing invites some big huge climactic set piece party at the climax.  And we knew we wanted to do the women”s music festival, as we went on a retreat and we talked about what we thought was the interesting politically in the world, what we wanted to take on and somebody mentioned the Michigan Women”s Music Festival.  And we also understood that we wanted to do the book burning.  We knew that the book burning would be climactic for us and we knew that the women”s music festival would be climactic.  So at a writer”s retreat as we were trying to figure out the season we kind of had that notion of you didn”t know if Moppa got kicked out of there, if she didn”t get in.  We just knew that Ali would be running through the woods looking for Moppa and would encounter the book burning. Early on, we knew that Ali is prone to this dreaminess or these visions, so we could set that up in season 1. And we knew that we could find a way to get Germany into the women”s music festival. We knew that that would be like a dangerous crazy challenge, but that we wanted to try to go there.

Where did the idea for Sarah”s fascination with spanking come from?

Jill Soloway:    We just kind listened to what the characters want and we tune into the stories.  The writers room, we almost feel like we”re channeling these characters.  So I guess it came from Sarah.

You talked before about how different the world is now versus when the show started.  And a big part of that is Caitlyn Jenner.  You”ve said that the Kardashians reached out to you and said that they watched the first season of your show to help them prepare and deal with what they”re going through.  Now that Caitlyn is out there and a season of her show has aired, how much do you think that has changed the conversation and may feed more people back to you?

Jill Soloway:    I think it makes us not the show of record.  There are multiple shows of record about a late-transitioning patriarch and how the kids are affected, and there are multiple narratives. That narrative on “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” the answer is, they”re pretty much fine.  It”s the same sort of story we were telling which is, you know what?  Everybody”s okay.  It”s not easy.  There are questions.  Where do you go for dinner after the ESPYs?  You go to your parents after-party and go out for dinner.  I love the Kardashians and that was the way they handled the question, like a big night for Moppa.  It”s sort of like the talent show episode, where Josh and Ali and Sarah are smoking pot and hiding. So their episode of the talent show – there Moppa is on the EPSYss.  And do they watch?  Do they go?  What do they wear?  Does mom go?  They”re dealing with some of the same storylines, which is so hilarious.  And they”re telling a positive story which is, we”re all okay.  It”s not a tragedy.  Nobody”s getting murdered, which I think would have been a narrative for this kind of a story before either of these shows.  It would have been like somebody”s going to die or one of the daughters runs away and somebody gets disowned.  Like this narrative pre-“Transparent” would have been, “This is a catastrophe.”  And now the narrative is, you know what?  It”s fine.  And so that really allows us to remove that narrative from our show and just go ahead and have fun making great television and not worry about having to prove anything to anybody, that this isn”t the end of the world.  

And your shows are also linked by Jenny (Boylan) being involved in both.  Have you been in communication with Caitlyn Jenner at all?

Jill Soloway:    Oh sure.  Multiple people, not just Jenny, being involved in both. Zackary Drucker who is a producer on our show is on camera on “I Am Cait.”  There are other people like Jen Richards, Van Barnes.  People who definitely go back and forth between the two communities.  And many of the trans women who are in our world are also in Caitlyn”s world.  And yes I”ve definitely spoken to her multiple times, talked to her, socialized with her.  It”s a small community when all is said and done, the trans community in Los Angeles.  So everybody really knows each other and everybody”s in contact.

You were working on the season and the writing of it in the spring, before that show debuted but after Caitlyn had come out. Was there ever any thought for this season – or maybe for the next one – where the Pfeffermans discuss that there is this incredibly famous trans woman?

Jill Soloway:    We tried it. We had a moment in the wedding actually where a cousin, talked about Caitlyn and talked about Maura.  And it was cute.  It was funny.  It was a great joke.  The cousin was asking Ali if Maura and Caitlyn knew each other. It really worked actually as a joke, as a moment.  But on further reflection, we stay away from pop culture almost all the time, you know.  That”s sort of a rule.  You won”t really hear people on our show talking about Beyoncé or Adele.  We try to make it a little bit more timeless.  That was something that I learned from Alan Ball from “Six Feet Under.”  He didn”t really like to have too many pop culture references because they don”t really hold up after a few years.  So we killed the bit.  It was cute.  It worked comedically, but on the whole we felt that it added something to the show that didn”t quite feel like our show, so we ended up cutting it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com