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Jill Soloway on Writing, ‘Transparent’, and What She Wishes She Knew Then

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Jill Soloway got her start at a scrappy theater company in her hometown of Chicago, where she and her older sister, Faith, put on shows like “Miss Vagina Pageant” and “The Real Life Brady Bunch.” 

Their Brady Bunch show became a cult hit in the 90s, expanding to NYC and LA, where Jill ended up breaking into TV writing with an episode of the Steve Harvey Show. A few years later, she was writing for another cult hit, Six Feet Under, which earned her three Emmy nominations.

But for many years, the story she’s wanted to tell is that of a family wrestling with the big topics of love, sex, gender and identity. It is the story that became Transparent, which has landed on the top of critics’ list for fall TV shows.

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Back in February, before the release of her pilot for Transparent, Hollywonk asked Soloway a few questions about what she envisioned for the series, how she approached writing and filmmaking, and what she wished she knew back when she first started.  Below are a few highlights of what she shared.    

Hollywonk: What excites you most about Transparent?

Jill Soloway: This cast (Jeffrey Tambor, Judith Light, Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker and Jay Duplass), this family and the way they’re magnetized toward one another as they search for authenticity feels so real and alive to me. It’s definitely a salute to my childhood – that relationship with my sister where we were just so alive and in the moment creatively because all we wanted to do was satisfy one another.

HW:  What inspires you the most about filmmaking?

JS:  It’s a huge privilege for me to have an audience give me their brain space for however long I get. I get excited to provide a female voice, and I love inspiring other people to take their non-traditional ways of seeing and transform that into art.

HW:  Do you approach writing, directing and producing differently?

JS:  Those three jobs have all evolved into one big fat braid of creativity. I’ll write the script first, and then prep would be considered producing. As we prep I get new information about the script.

As a director, 95% of my work is casting. I absolutely have to cast people that I’m a little bit in love with. They have to be so funny that they make me laugh as hard as my sister does. The other 5% is showing up on the day and staying present in my body so I can get that little buzz that says, “Ooooh, this is WORKING. Go in this direction.”

HW:  When it comes to writing, how do you approach the blank page?

JS:  I never sit down and stare at a blank page. I get inspired to write or create a project because the world is revealing itself to me in my head. It happens while I’m driving or falling asleep or waking up. It’s as if the characters are ghosts out there in some vague semi-conscious land, and they’re borrowing me to have an audience with the public!  It’s a lot like playing or indulging in imaginary stories as a kid. So when I sit down at the computer, it’s usually because I’ve imagined a scene or heard some dialogue and I want to get it down.  Once the actors are cast, the voices evolve and I can get even more specific information.

HW: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?

JS:  I was always waiting for people to say they didn’t like something, and I would pay more attention to that than the ten previous people who said it was good. It may be worse for women, who are so acculturated toward being told that they’re good or attractive or likable, but I think all artists deeply suspect that they suck and they really jump on the negative stuff.

A few years ago it really hit me that the only thing that makes a director is having the gumption to say it, to declare it, over and over again, and not really give a darn if people like you. Of course, that’s not to say I don’t crave and use creative feedback. I love test screenings and sharing my work with people so I can tell what’s working. Now I tell young artists, “You have to be open enough to allow other peoples’ creativity to power the machine of your content, but not so open that anyone can slow you down or stop you.”

Breaking Story with Amazon Storybuilder, Part 1

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is a screenwriter, Editor of Script Magazine, and co-founder of #scriptchat, a weekly gathering of writers on Twitter. Amazon Studios asked her to try Amazon Storybuilder, a tool that lets you build movie and series outlines with digital notecards.

Every writer has a different system for breaking story. For those readers who are familiar with me, you know I always keep it real and admit my shortcomings. Well, here goes: My number one writing weakness is starting a new project. I am a rewrite junkie, but when it comes to outlining a new story, I procrastinate.

Since I’m not a girl who accepts weakness, especially my own, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to get an outline down that don’t feel like pure torture. So, when Amazon Studios launched their free Storybuilder tool, I had to give it a shot. Maybe notecarding is the magic trick I’ve been looking for.

My typical outlining process is done in Word, not notecards. However, I do use cards during my rewrite process in order to juggle scenes and rework structure. But I’ve never actually started a project using them.

Since I love stepping outside of my comfort zone, I dove in.

Storybuilder is a cloud-based platform that allows you to work off of your laptop, your phone or your tablet. When I poked around the tool, I found what is called a “drawer.” Its purpose is to store ideas, and even pictures, that you might want to add to your outline. You can open it for easy viewing or close it to focus on the board itself. Think of it as a writer’s hoarding drawer to dump all your ideas.

Already inside the drawer you can find a template based off of the Save the Cat Beat Sheet. You can either import the entire template onto your board, or you can drag individual cards as well as delete them.

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Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

Remembering the remarkable Elmore Leonard (Justified, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight) and his 10 Rules of Writing:

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Find further explanation of these rules here. And read more about Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, here.

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Amazon Studios Options Orbit, a Sci-Fi Thriller

Amazon Studios continues to expand its film slate with an exciting new project – Orbit, the story of a salvage crew that finds itself with the fate of the world in its hands when aliens approach.

“Orbit emerged out my love for the alien invasion genre, a genre which I have adored my entire life. When it comes to what may happen if aliens wander into our neighborhood, the possibilities are infinite,” said Orbit writer Bruce Guido.

Amazon Studios has an open-door development process, for film as well as original series. Learn more about how to submit your script.

Details on the newly optioned project:

Orbit

Writer: Bruce Guido

Genre(s): Science Fiction, Thriller

Logline:  When an immense alien spacecraft threatens life on Earth, a small crew of astronauts aboard a salvage and collection ship must destroy the alien menace to save mankind.

Why we optioned it: While it’s a contained story involving only a handful of characters, the scope and stakes of the movie are enormous. This is a movie about the end of the world, but it’s played out entirely with a cast of six people. 

The writer’s perspective: As I was looking at a photo of Earth, sitting lonely against a sea of black, it just hit me — what if the story was told outside of Earth? …  What if we experienced worldwide destruction from the point of view of characters who are isolated, watching from the outside? What would it be like to see our home, our loved ones, everyone we’ve ever known, annihilated from a distance with us powerless to stop it?

See the full Amazon Studios film slate.