Jill Soloway on Feminism, Hollywood, and Her New Amazon Series 'I Love Dick'

Kathryn Hahn, right, becomes obsessed with Kevin Bacon in Soloway’s new series, I Love Dick. Amazon Prime

Jill Soloway laughs at the bravado she displayed during her early-career pitch meetings with Hollywood television executives. "I used to walk in and tell them, 'I want to do something no one has ever done before, and I want to change the world,'" she says. She soon learned that the writers who actually get their shows produced do so by promising to earn studios lots of money, so she toned down her revolutionary spiel. But now, after the runaway, Emmy-winning success of Transparent—an on-demand Amazon series that launched in 2014 and is loosely based on Soloway's own parent coming out as a transgender woman—Soloway is back to rabble-rousing. With Topple, the production company she founded in 2016, this writer-director-producer aspires to achieve nothing less than to "topple the patriarchy."

While walking around the Silver Lake reservoir, Soloway concedes that her goal to disrupt white male hegemony may be a bit hubristic. Most showrunners would be happy enough with the acclaim she received for Transparent and Six Feet Under—and some Porsche money. But don't underestimate her ambition to inject feminism into the male-dominated world of entertainment. With Transparent, Soloway made a point of hiring as many queer and transgender people as possible, which demonstrated the critical and commercial value of including marginalized voices in a creative process and helped launch quite a few careers. Now, with I Love Dick, her latest series for Amazon, she eschews conventional expectations for how women should appear on screen (read: likable, sexy) to tell a story in which a woman is, in her words, "the subject, not the object."

I Love Dick is based on a 1997 cult-classic novel by Chris Kraus. It is a mongrel of a book—part memoir, part cultural criticism, largely epistolary—about Chris Kraus, a married female filmmaker who becomes obsessed with a rangy, aloof academic named Dick. Much of the story is told through letters from Chris to Dick, her infatuation spurring her to probe nearly every part of her life and marriage. Chris's voice has a unique charisma: She is knowing and self-aware, intellectual and vulnerable. The book is unabashedly about art, life, relationships and female desire.

With such hit series as Transparent and now I Love Dick, Jill Soloway injects feminism into the male-dominated world of entertainment. Emily Shur/August

This unique perspective is what inspired Soloway to adapt the novel. Her series mainly follows Chris (Kathryn Hahn) as she explores the contours of her lust for Dick (a lean, steely-eyed Kevin Bacon) and wrests control over her own narrative. It also considers the lives of several other, mainly female, characters in the artsy town of Marfa, Texas. "A lot of people are going to come to this show because they want to see Kevin Bacon,"

Soloway says. "But really it is about the female voice and the female gaze and creating protagonism for women."

To figure out what this gaze and voice looks and sounds like, Soloway and the show's co-creator, Sarah Gubbins, enlisted a group of exclusively female writers, including acclaimed playwrights Annie Baker and Heidi Schrenk. Soloway noticed the effects of this gender homogeneity immediately. "There is no one there who will say, 'Well, that's gross, don't tell that story' or 'She's awful, she's a slut, what woman would do that?'" During her 15 years of writing scripts before she got her own show, Soloway says she regularly received notes from men complaining about the likability of her female characters. She was eager to make the I Love Dick writers' room "a protected space for women to just ask themselves, 'Who am I when there are no men watching?'"

Many of the writers involved in the show have described the atmosphere as uniquely democratic, empathetic and noncompetitive—a place of "radical honesty and radical vulnerability," according to Gubbins. This is typical of Soloway. People who work closely with her regularly praise the way she forgoes the hierarchical feel of a Hollywood set for a more open and collaborative environment in which everyone is encouraged to discuss their feelings and ideas. "Jill has this remarkable ability to lead from behind, to support people around her to contribute to the best of their ability," says Zackary Drucker, a producer on Transparent.

Soloway suggests this sensibility is a "matrilineal" departure from the conventional approach of male-led studios. (She prefers the term matrilineal to matriarchal because she argues that gender has more to do with cultural inheritance than with politics, and the latter "sounds like we're going to create an all-female dynasty and everyone will worship women.") To help create an environment that feels more open, egalitarian and emotionally primed, Soloway has introduced a practice she calls "Box." Every morning, everyone on set, from actors to background artists, claps their hands, says "box, box, box" and gathers around an empty apple box. "It's sort of like the call to prayer," Soloway says with a little laugh. One or a couple of people climb on top of the box and share something about themselves or about how their experience on the show has changed them. This ritual may sound a bit woo-woo, but participants say it builds trust and inspires better work. "People work really hard, and they care about each other," says Gubbins. "I can honestly tell you that in our three months I never witnessed anyone yelling at a crew member."

All of this is part of Soloway's effort to deconstruct what she calls "a patriarchal idea of filmmaking." She marvels at how something as simple as shouting "action" or "cut" seemed inapt—and rather male—for work that is ultimately about recording authentic emotions: "You realize that even turning the camera on somebody could be considered an extension of the male gaze," she says. "'I have the whole crew here, and we're all looking at you, now act. Action!'" She prefers the more delicate style of someone like Andrea Arnold, a British director who starts the cameras with a gentle, "Off you go," and cuts a scene with, "All right then." Soloway often has the cameras start rolling during rehearsal, which gives the actors a little more time and space to find their way into a scene. This approach can strip away a lot of the get-it-right anxiety of a shoot, and creates an ease in actors that shows up on camera.

Soloway's analysis of the relationship between filmmaking and gender is especially fascinating given the way it coincides with her interrogation of her own gender. When Soloway first began Transparent, she wore her hair in auburn ringlets and was married to a man (Bruce Gilbert, with whom she had a son). She is now divorced, identifies as queer, has cropped gray hair, and prefers the genderless pronoun they (which we were unfortunately unable to accommodate in this piece). "I'm sort of on my own journey as well," she explains. Soloway's transformation began when she discovered how annoyed she would get spending time in makeup before big events. She realized she didn't like feeling as if she had to get dolled up in order to be taken seriously. With time, she found she felt more present, more entitled to power on set, when she inhabited her body as if she was a successful man.

"When you look at people like J.J. Abrams or Judd Apatow, you're looking at guys coming to work in sloppy jeans and old T-shirts, with their tummies kind of relaxed and just being a hundred percent in their power," Soloway says. "That's the kind of thing I was jealous of. Not to be more powerful in my femininity, but to be more relaxed in my me-ness."

On the face of it, it can seem a little odd that a filmmaker who is seeking to topple the patriarchy has also become, in her words, "less of a woman." But Soloway's changes are all of a piece with her mission to challenge cultural stereotypes for what power looks like and how women and men ought to behave. With Topple, and with shows like I Love Dick, Soloway is keen to tell the stories of those who tend to be overlooked and underestimated and to empower as many of these people as possible in the process. "I used to think of myself as a writer and a comedian, so it's crazy for me sometimes to see myself as a leader of a movement," she says. "It's shocking, but it's also more or less the only thing that gets me up in the morning."