March 30, 2016
Academy News

Transparent: Anatomy of an Event

Creators of Amazon's Transparent discuss how an episode is made.

Libby Slate

When picture editor Sunny Hodge sat down to edit the ninth and penultimate episode of season two of Transparent, she had 32 hours of footage to work with – for a 24-minute show.

And with part of the episode a flashback to 1930’s Nazi Germany, that didn’t even include a Nazi musical number that had been considered but ultimately deemed too time-consuming.

“We over-do a lot,” explained Transparent creator-executive producer-writer-director Jill Soloway, with a laugh.

The episode, “Man on the Land,” was the focus of the Television Academy members’ event “Transparent: Anatomy of an Episode,” exploring the various elements involved in bringing to life the Amazon Studios streamed series about a man who transitions to a woman and the adjustments he and his family must make.

Soloway won an Emmy last year for comedy directing and Jeffrey Tambor brought home the statuette for his star turn as Maura Pfefferman, née Mort.

Held March 17 at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, the panel drew Soloway, Tambor and Hodge along with episode writer Ali Liebegott, director of photography Jim Frohna, production designer Cat Smith and co-producer-consultant Zackary Drucker. Producer-director-writer J.J. Abrams moderated.

The episode title refers to the warning shouted to attendees at the annual Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival, a fictional event inspired by the true-life Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, whose policy permitting only “womyn born womyn” to attend evoked a protest movement by transgender women and radical feminists; the real festival disbanded last year. Maura is disturbed to learn of the same policy at Idyllwild when she attends with her two daughters.

Clips shown included a passionate campfire discussion about male entitlement and privilege – “I was in way too much pain to enjoy what you’re calling ‘privilege,’” Maura protests – and in a parallel storyline, a scene in which the Pfefferman family’s “Tante Gittel” (Yiddish for Aunt Gittel), a transgender woman born Gershon, is among those caught up in an attack and book burning by Nazis in pre-World War II Berlin, at the real-life Institute for Sexual Science.

Liebegott, who had attended the Michigan festival years earlier, said of the campfire scene, “The thing that’s so important to me, having been in the queer community for a long time, is that question of how oppressed people can also oppress. They’re not all bad or all good. It’s just the pain of life.”

Abrams noted Maura’s anger at the festival policy. “She’s already estranged, marginalized, other-ized, even when she thinks she’s safe,” Tambor said of his character. “She’s angry because she’s scared. She can’t quite connect. Who can’t identify with that?”

Maura may not feel safe, but Tambor certainly does. “It’s the safest set I’ve been on. It’s so nurturing,” he enthused. “There’s no wrong [way to play a scene]. There’s just another, and another, and another. You feel that support.”

That environment starts with Soloway, who encourages cast and crew in taking moments of gratitude, and said her role is to observe and marvel at what the actors, production and post-production people are doing and to see “where the [emotional] beats are, where the beat changes. We’re not there for the dialogue. We’re there for the beat changes.”

The show is shot in somewhat of a documentary style. “I feel like I’m bearing witness to the experience of these people,” said Frohna. While doing a feature together, he recalled, Soloway whispered in his ear, “Open your heart and point the camera at them, and it will come.”

His skill, he said, is “My sensitivity. Jill has given me permission to go full bore. I cry all the time when I’m operating the camera. I’m watching these people trying to figure out who they are, groping through the world, figuring out how to love, who to love.”

He also captures the surroundings. “I try to leave a piece of nostalgia everywhere on the set, that [Frohna] picks up,” Smith said. “It’s meant to be an honest life.”

In cutting the footage, Hodge, who is one of three editors, said, “I look at the footage, at where the emotional beats are. I find the moments that make me cry and laugh, make note of them and try to figure out where to use them. It’s really about mining out these moments, finding the scene. It’s not always on the page.”

As Transparent was inspired by her own father’s transition to a woman, Soloway said that having such personally emotional moments and story points on public view can be surreal.

Having grown up worshipping television and aware of the civil rights and women’s movements, it’s fitting to have a show where “when we go to work every day, we’re helping to change the world,” she added. “… Mostly, I feel incredibly lucky.”

The Transparent evening was conceived by Picture Editors peer group members Michael Ruscio and Jason Rosenfield, along with peer group governors Stu Bass and Scott Boyd. The event was produced by Television Academy event production staff Barrie Nedler and Ben Carter.

Special thanks to former Activities committee chairs Tony Carey and Michael Levine and current Activities committee chair Dan Birman and vice chair Jill Daniels.

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