One of the nicest surprises of the Sundance Film Festival 2013 was Jill Soloway’s sleeper Afternoon Delight, about a suburban housewife whose life becomes intertwined with a sex worker she meets one night at a strip club. It’s funny, heartbreaking, heartfelt, and—as you expect by now from Jill Soloway—full of meaty issues on sex, gender, power, and money. You can now stream it or buy it on DVD or Blu-Ray. Soloway joined us by phone for a spirited discussion of the film, its issues, what it has in common with Stacie Passon’s Concussion, and why Josh Radnor just might be the ideal Jewish husband.
Paste Magazine: So, as you already know, I loved Afternoon Delight. I thought it was really very thought-provoking, and I’d love to talk to you first, a little bit, about tone. Because I think in a film like this, tone is maybe your biggest challenge, and it’s one that I think you met really well.
Jill Soloway: I think I found it as I was going. I love Woody Allen. I love Louis C.K. I love Mike Leigh. I had these people who I looked up to, who made things that are so uncomfortably real, odd and awkward, with meaning in between the dialogue. I knew I wanted it to be funny, but not joke-driven. And I knew that I wanted it to feel real, but not be emotionally overwhelming. Real and heavy and deep and dark get old. And just, joke, joke, joke, joke, comedy, comedy, to me, often gets old. The real challenge, in anything I make is to take people on an unexpected ride that veers from sad to funny and back and forth again. In the best of moments, it’s combined. You’re laughing and sad at the same time. Or, you’re crying and you’re happy at the same time.
I didn’t go into it knowing this was the name of my tone, which I call fun-comfortable. When we shot the film, my editor was my biggest help with tone. Left my own devices, my work would probably be much sillier. But my editor took a stand for the deeper acting moments, which made me feel a deeper respect for my own writing. The film we ended up with is the most serious version of what I wrote.
Paste: That’s really a testament to you, too, that you can have open ears enough to sort of hear a slightly alternate version of the film, and then, end up seeing the beauty of that and embracing that. That’s got to be a pretty productive partnership.
Soloway: It truly is, but it’s not just Cate. It’s everybody: my cinematographer, my actors. I’m working on a pilot right now with other writers, and feel like I’m discovering a feminine, open, way of creating where I feel like I’m doing nothing. I feel like more of a conductor.
Paste: I was just going to say that! Like a conductor.
Soloway: Never raise my hands in the air and move the little stick around. I’ve got my hands in my pockets and nobody can tell I’m doing it. Sort of an emotional conductor. I much prefer the feeling of receiving.
Paste: That’s really a beautiful picture. Maybe the analogy is, kind of, like, being the songwriter and drummer for a really great band, where everyone is interpreting the music and doing their own performances, and you just, kind of, gently, gently, bring it all together through the drumming.
Soloway: I love that! If I could, I would be a tribal drummer.
Paste: There you go, there you go, playing the djembe or something. You are, obviously, somewhat of a feminist icon among filmmakers. And, you’re taking on some subject matter that is rife with all kinds of different opinons on how we should be looking at sex workers and, you know — well, I’ll just leave it at that. Tell me about exploring some of those issues through the film as a feminist. What was that journey like, your relationship to that subject matter as it developed through the writing of and making of the movie?
Soloway: I’ve been writing about this subject matter for decades, trying to rescue the despised whore or even the idealized whore. It’s the despised whore who gets murdered and raped, you find her in CSI, and all these TV shows where sex workers are being brutalized, and they’re boxed in, used as objects. And then you find the idealized, Pretty Woman rescue fantasy of the sex worker or the stripper, who is a good person putting her kids through school. There are many different kinds of objectifying — actually, objectifying is such an old word — I’ll just say objecting.
Paste: Iconifying, yeah.
Soloway: Mythologizing, apologizing — this idea that a human sex worker, who’s both good and bad, in some ways, privileging the sex worker by giving her a human storyline. The more I’ve been learning about feminism and privilege, specifically white male privilege, the more I realize the very act of creating a scene of female protagonist privileges the female perspective. This is how it feels to be female, how it feels to see. This is uncomfortable for many people, because male privilege has a way of seeing women that divides them. It says, “She’s the beloved mother. That’s a good girl. That’s the kind of girl you marry. This is the slut you fucked once and never call.” These are the ideas within male privilege used to divide women into clearly defined categories.
Take the camera and say, “This is how it feels to be Rachel, no privilege.” and then you add Rachel doesn’t hate McKenna, that McKenna doesn’t hate Rachel. The first assumption is you are going to privilege Rachel and not to hear the other story. She would be attacking or victimized by McKenna. To take Rachel’s privileging and share it with McKenna and say, “No, they’re both going to be privileged to be human, and they’re both going to take turns being the heroine, they are both going to take turns being the victim.” That creates a feeling of wholeness that cues a new kind of female storytelling that is capable of what I call “healing the beloved feminine in our culture.” The ways in which slut-shaming or other-womaning or all the ways that women divide themselves over access to male privilege, can be slowly upended by women facing the pen or the camera and saying, “No, this is who I am. This is what I see. This is what feel.” By speaking to other women instead of hating other women, this is the political nature of what I’m doing.
Paste: I wasn’t going to ask this question because a lot of people use it as a facile comparison. But because you just said a lot of things that both the movies are concerned with, I’m curious as to what you think of Stacie Passon’s amazing film Concussion,and some of those very issues that both of you are exploring there. Half of what you just said, could easily have been coming out of Stacie’s mouth about her film. In a good way.
Soloway: Women, particularly nowadays, have so much anxiety around sex and passion. The aspects of a transaction allow women to feel a letting go that connects them to their sexuality – let themselves feel connected to their sexuality. The transaction is one way that a woman can feel connected. “Oh, I’m a prostitute. I’m getting paid,” is the mental transaction that allows women to physically feel pleasure, whether imaginary or not. “Woman acts as hooker” has been around, but now there is the “housewife as hooker or the housewife as sex worker, explorer,” that builds these little connections and pathways from women to sex, money and transactions. It’s one of the most common ways people do it. If you look at portrayals of strippers, there are still more strippers in movies than most people have in their real lives. They’re everywhere in movies. Honestly, it’s just a job for somebody. Many women I know are fascinated by sex workers’ ability to disconnect the reproduction mechanism and their sexual pleasure to a job, to money.
You have sex with people you don’t like and you have sex for money. Can you earn money with your body? Do you do things as a wife that you wouldn’t do if you weren’t part of some sort of financial agreement with your husband? These are the ways money and the body interface I find are the most fascinating questions for feminists today.
Paste: We can’t end without talking about a couple of really, really amazing performances from Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple. Tell me about the process of finding those two and then tell me about working with them to create those characters that are so fleshed out and fully realized on film.
Soloway: Kathryn was a neighborhood mom I was sort of stalking ever since I saw her playing a pregnant woman having sex. I couldn’t believe how brave she was, and funny, and beautiful, and I always wanted to work with her. I would see her as this wife in the neighborhood. When I started talking to casting people and producers, hers was the name that came up often and I thought this is the perfect role for Kathryn Hahn.
Around the same time, I met with Juno but she wasn’t available to view the teaser. I was able to just fall in love with her in this meeting and go, “I want her badly, but I can’t have her.” She was just like McKenna in the meeting. She had taken a cab or been dropped off and needed somebody to help her figure out how to call a cab. It’s, “Oh God. I just want to drive her home.”
She is just so adorable. She’s tiny and young and you don’t really see her sexuality at first. You just think it’s beautiful. My pretty Polly cupcake girl, you really need to help and nothing more. But if you bring her home, you would instantly feel, “Oh shit, she is way too sexy for my house.” I felt that way about Juno. She told me about her teenage years growing up in Malibu and did this perfect California accent, although she’s British. Afterwards, one serendipitous thing after another happened that allowed her to do the film. Kathryn said yes. Juno wanted to work with Kathryn. The other movies changed dates, and they were both in.
As soon as they both said yes, the three of us went out to dinner. I got the table and they both stood on the sidewalk outside the restaurant and Kathryn bummed a cigarette. Kathryn doesn’t smoke, but she just wanted a cigarette. So they were standing there by the side of the restaurant just smoking together, and it just became a scene. So many things are like that. They had a real affection for each other. Kathryn and I love Juno. We loved being the idealized feminist mommies to her on the set. We were creating something for everyone to completely respect, not only the character, but you, Juno Temple.
We were living in the dynamics of the movie. Josh Radnor said every movie is a documentary or document of the time it was made. It felt like the secret at the middle of our day. We bring our kids to work and then we go to the set. It felt incredibly sensual. We were living — I think, Andrea Arnold called it “method directing” instead of method acting. Instead of the actor becoming the person, the director lived the emotions of the story.
Paste: In the midst of all that girl power, tell me about bringing in Josh, who is I think, an actor who over the next decade or so is just going to completely blow people away who only know him from television and don’t realize what depth he has.He’s one of the most sensitive men that I’ve never met, so I’ve gotta think, he fit in pretty well in that environment.
Soloway: It was a spiritual, emotional experience. Luckily, the people were funny, so it came out funny. The feeling of being there was one of love and connection and making something important. We’re making something that matters, so let’s show up and be the most present versions of ourselves. Josh is for so many women I know the kind of perfect Jewish male love object — the perfect husband on paper when you describe him. He just used as the starting place but then, as you said, his talent as an actor, and his talent as a director. He taught me so much about filmmaking as we were going. I felt like we were in a dream come true.
Paste: Tell me about what you’re working on now. Six Feet Under, by the way, is my second favorite television show of all time. Absolutely love the show and your work on it. Now, I understand that you’re returning to the TV world, is that right?
Soloway: Yes, I wrote and directed a pilot called Transparent, which is available to download for free on Amazon right now. We’re just sitting on pins and needles waiting for Amazon to tell us if they’re going to order it to series. Most of the Afternoon Delight crew, same editor and cinematographer, is working on the series. I prefer to call it a five-hour movie instead of a TV series.
Paste: How can our readers help in that process? Can we watch it and email somebody?
Soloway: If you they can do it before March 5, it will totally help. Watch it, rate it and give it five stars. Tell Amazon that you loved it in the comments and it might get ordered. We’re hoping!
Paste: Perfect. We get three million monthly readers, so I will give it my highest recommendation. Hopefully, we can drive at least a few dozen of those three million to watch it.
Soloway: A few dozen would be awesome. We’ll take them. We’ll take them. That’s all I need.
Paste: Cool. Well, thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Soloway: I really appreciate it. I really appreciate you writing this.