Jill Soloway's vision of hitting the big time looks like this:
Ratty couches strewn with old blankets. A “stinky rug.” A cat box containing a yellow liquid that, assurances are made, is just dirty water, not any sort of digestive byproduct. A white board markered up into a grid, with the numbers 102 through 107 running across the top and the names Sarah, Ali, Josh and Mort occupying the vertical axis. And, most important, a group of very casually clad writers who lounge on the couches, sip coffee, toss out ideas and jokes, and sound like an extended family. One member of this group, Faith Soloway, actually is Jill's older sister and, along with two of the show's other writers, is temporarily living in the upstairs of this home in the Silver Lake neighborhood that looks like a garage crossed with a halfway house.
"I think we're really trying to re-create the Annoyance," Jill, 48, says on a late February morning, referring to the scrappy Chicago theater where the sisters cut their theatrical teeth in the early 1990s. "This reminds me of the Annoyance house. Remember, like on Broadway (in Lakeview), there were bedrooms upstairs?"
"Yeah," says Faith, who turns 50 this week.
"I think we're always trying to get back to that kind of communal, 'Let's put on a show, let's rent out a house and we can all live there' (feeling)," Jill says.
This "homey sitch," as Jill calls it, won't last. By the end of March, Amazon is expected to announce that it is giving Soloway's new TV series, "Transparent," a full-season run of 10 episodes, and the team will move into more conventional digs on the Paramount lot, where the episodes will be shot. Amazon debuted the "Transparent" pilot online last month as one of five shows vying to be part of the online retailer's effort to become a Netflix-like distributor (a la "House of Cards"), and Soloway's show received the most acclaim. Slate called it "an honest-to-goodness great pilot that feels — and I mean this as a compliment — exactly like one of those HBO shows with a 1-to-1 ratio of viewers to think pieces." Variety has reported that Amazon is picking up "Transparent" as well as three other prospective series.
The continued life of this half-hour family dramatic comedy (or comedic drama) has fostered family togetherness because Jill had asked Faith whether, if the series was picked up, she might come out to Los Angeles from Boston, where Faith and her former partner share custody of their daughter, to write for the show.
"We've definitely been longing to work together again since our old Annoyance 'Brady Bunch'/'Miss Vagina Pageant' days," Jill says. Turning to the others in the room, she asks: "Are you guys aware we had a show called 'The Miss Vagina Pageant?'"
"Before Eve Ensler got there," Faith adds, referring to the "Vagina Monologues" playwright.
Jill and Faith, who grew up in Chicago's South Commons neighborhood, created those shows at the Annoyance, where Faith also wrote the music for "Co-Ed Prison Sluts," which Annoyance still bills as Chicago's longest-running musical. "The Real Live Brady Bunch," onstage re-enactments of "Brady Bunch" episodes that featured Jane Lynch as Carol Brady and Annoyance founder/artistic director Mick Napier (who first improvised with Faith at Indiana University) as Bobby, was so successful that it took the Soloway sisters out of Chicago. Jill wound up out West, Faith out East, each working on separate projects until Lynch asked them to be her head writers when she hosted the Emmy Awards in 2011.
Now Faith and Jill are side by side once again, the younger sister appreciating what the older sister brings to the couch.
"Like, 100 percent absolute unconditional safety," says Jill, whose breakthrough TV-writing gig came on Alan Ball's revered HBO series "Six Feet Under." "The thing that I try to give the writers is, like, 'Whatever you pitch is fine; you're never going to pitch something that makes me say, "You're fired. You don't get it. You're out."' It's just like kids playing on the floor, 4 years old, making (things) up, you know, playing. That was our whole childhood, creating together and just trying to make each other laugh. Having Faith here provides this kind of 'yes, and …' to everything."
"It's a dream come true," says Faith, who created a Boston stage musical called "Jesus Has Two Mommies." "I feel like she's where she should be, where finally the Hollywood types are celebrating her voice. So it's an honor that she says that it makes her feel safe, because just to take part in this, I feel pretty honored."
It's also fitting that Faith is involved in "Transparent" because Jill says this is by far her most personal work, drawing on the dynamics of her own family and others close to her. "Transparent" focuses on a father (Jeffrey Tambor) and his adult children (Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass and Chicago's Amy Landecker) as they grapple with issues of sexual and gender identity, secrecy, inheritance and other complications. The title is a pun that cuts more than one way.
"I always wanted to do a show about a family, and I had been really feeling like there wasn't really a great show that privileged the queer voice as the protagonist," says Jill, who is married to music supervisor Bruce Gilbert and has two kids. "I feel like women and queer people are always other in most things that you see on television, whether there's a white male protagonist or whether the protagonist is a white male-approved female. I'd always been driven by the notion of just sort of removing that privilege from protagonism, making the other the subject instead of the object. So for me that's women, and that's queer people."
Says Faith: "She's a friggin' hero."
Real-life parallels are at work: Landecker's Sarah is revealing herself to be gay, as Faith did years ago. Jill is well acquainted with people who have grappled with the type of transgender issues addressed on the show. And the siblings' mother, played by Judith Light, cares for a husband with a degenerative brain disease, just as Elaine Soloway, Jill and Faith's mother, who still lives in Chicago, did until her husband died in 2012.
"It's a little hard to watch, but I'm glad that it's going to series because I'm anxious to see how the character develops," says Elaine Soloway, who recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help her turn her blogs "The Rookie Caregiver" and "The Rookie Widow" into a book. "I'm hoping people will be wondering about the aphasia, and of course I'm delighted that Judith Light is playing not me but a woman handling the challenge of her husband."
She's also delighted to see Jill and Faith thriving together.
"Both of my daughters have always surprised me with their audacity," she says. "As someone who follows entertainment, I've always said that makes the difference between people who succeed and people who don't. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, to be very honest, to accept the slings and arrows that you're invariably going to get."
Jill's path to creative freedom was a long, lively one. After serving as a writer and producer on "Six Feet Under," she worked on the network shows "Grey's Anatomy" and "Dirty Sexy Money" before returning to cable as writer/executive producer on Showtime's "United States of Tara" and HBO's "How to Make It in America." But it took making a feature film for her to get what she really wanted: her own series.
"It was really like a little bit of Lena Dunham jealousy and going, 'How did "Girls" happen? Oh, "Tiny Furniture,"'" she says, referring to Dunham's 2010 indie film that led to her thriving HBO series. "If I'm going to get my own show on the air, it's going to be because a network is going to be able to understand my vision; they're going to be able to see what I see, and that was when I went towards making 'Afternoon Delight.'"
That film, her feature writing-directing debut, explored marriage and sexuality in the funny-serious tale of a mom in Soloway's hip, upscale Silver Lake neighborhood who hires a stripper as her children's nanny. "Afternoon Delight" was modestly budgeted and generated modest box-office returns last year, but it also received strong reviews and garnered Soloway the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival and a best first screenplay nomination at this month's Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Soloway spoke with HBO about creating "Transparent," but many heavy hitters are vying to work with the cable network (Judd Apatow, after all, produces "Girls"), and the development process can be extensive. At Amazon, Soloway says, those layers of bureaucracy didn't exist.
"Two people have ever said one word to me, and much of it has been 'Just do what you want to do,' she says. "They gave us basically the money and a line producer and said, 'Go.' They green-lit it without the cast."
"Amazon was the only one that said, 'We like it; we want to do it right away,'" Faith Soloway says. "And I still was like, 'But it's HBO!' (Jill said,) 'No, I want this made; they're going to let me make it the way I want.' She's been listening to that voice for a really long time."
"Afternoon Delight" also proved helpful as Jill Soloway recruited Landecker. Although she didn't know the actress in Chicago, Soloway had admired her work on shows such as "Louie" and also grew up listening to Landecker's father, disc jockey John "Records" Landecker, on WLS-AM. Amy Landecker says that when her agent called her about this Amazon show that would require sexual nudity, she turned it down, saying she'd gotten her fill of such activity on a recent "House of Lies" episode.
"Jill actually asked me to lunch, which never happens," Landecker says, adding that Soloway asked about her discomfort, said they'd work out any issues together and requested that she watch "Afternoon Delight." "After that, I knew immediately that I could trust her, that I could feel comfortable. That movie I can honestly say is one of my favorite movies I've seen in my whole life. It was so me and my sensibilities and the issues I deal with as a woman. The tables turned where I was begging to be a part of this project once I knew the kind of artist she was."
Landecker became so comfortable that she's the one who suggested that Sarah expose her butt in a bathroom scene with her husband to convey "unsexy marital nudity."
"What she does is so amazing," Landecker says of Jill. "It's political, it's smart, it's social, it's thought-provoking, but she does it in such a sexy way that anybody would want to sit through it. It's all so yummy."
"I've always felt like I have a responsibility to portray sex from a woman's point of view, because nobody does it," Soloway says. "It's just so rare. So I've always felt that was part of my vision. I also wanted to write and direct sexy sex for women, which I think is sexy sex for people, but I always want it to resonate with women, because they're so used to seeing themselves as objects in male visions of how sex is supposed to look and feel."
Soloway acknowledges the "gigantic" impact of Dunham's HBO show. "Seeing 'Girls' and recognizing the quote-unquote unlikable protagonist who is being granted privilege — we're going to spend half an hour looking through your eyes, and you're not perfect, you're not thin, you're not blond, you're not skinny, you're not goyishe, whatever it is that allows a woman to be a protagonist — she said '(Expletive) you' to all of that."
Soloway plans to direct most of the "Transparent" episodes, but she has divvied up the script-writing duties among those assembled in the Silver Lake living room. She says she essentially is subcontracting her voice to her writers and prefers that give-and-take to writing alone, as she did on "Afternoon Delight."
"All of the scripts will feel like we all wrote them, and in that way they'll feel like my voice — like I felt on 'Six Feet Under': We were all parts of Alan Ball's brain."
The white board grid tracks what will happen with each main character in each numbered episode, these progressions organized more around emotional developments than strict plot points. Soloway calls this approach a "very classic TV writing way of doing things learned from Alan Ball," crossed with the Napier/Annoyance credo of putting the truth-seeking process ahead of the product.
"The way the stories get broken is from a place of emotion," says "Transparent" writer Bridget Bedard, who previously wrote on "Men of a Certain Age" and "Mad Men." In most writers rooms, she says, "there's not a lot of discussion about what would really happen in this moment and kind of getting to the truth of that. This is the most emotionally honest show I've ever been on."
Soloway tells her writers she wants them to inhabit their characters physically. Don't just stare at a blank screen; take a bath or lie down or go for a walk.
"Write from your desire," she says. "Put your desire into your character's desire. That's where the words are coming from. Be with their panic, with their anxiety, with their lust, with their fear. Does that make sense?"
Ball, who says he hired Soloway for "Six Feet Under" after reading a funny, sharp short story of hers, praises her "unique" voice and sense of humor.
"Comedy with heart" may be "a horrible Hollywood term that gets overused," he says, "but I do think that's what Jill does. Her voice is funny yet really aware of the characters, their vulnerabilities, their pain, why life is hard for them."
Says Napier, now directing Second City's soon-to-open mainstage show: "Jill's always very strong with what she wants and strong with her point of view. I hate people who waffle, and she's very direct. But she's also a very laid-back person. She allows a lot of freedom."
Soloway describes her style this way: "As opposed to a feminist style of leadership, it's like a feminine style of leadership, and it's kind of like a mothering thing, you know? Where the hominess and the safety of a home provide people with the feeling of being able to take artistic risks."
By the time the "Transparent" episodes are filmed in June and July and debut in August, the team will have relocated from this funky house to the Paramount lot, "and it will feel like a regular TV show," Jill says. But she doesn't intend to leave behind the hominess and artistic empowerment. And that's not all.
"We'll take the blankets," Faith says.
Twitter @MarkCaroCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun