Director Silas Howard Talks Transparent and the Great Shift in Trans Visibility

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Director Silas Howard Talks <i>Transparent</i> and the Great Shift in Trans Visibility

From the start of production on her groundbreaking and award-winning series Transparent, creator Jill Soloway instituted what was dubbed “transfirmative” hiring practices. This meant that, when possible, they would hire transgendered men and women for jobs in the cast and crew of the show. It helped not only support the work that Soloway was doing on Transparent in telling the story of Maura Pfefferman and her transition to becoming a woman, but also opened up amazing opportunities for people like Silas Howard.

Howard has been a fixture of the LGBTQ art scene in the Bay Area for decades, starting with his years as a guitarist in the confrontational queercore punk band Tribe 8. His love of storytelling began to take precedence in the early ‘00s and he moved towards making films, starting with the transgender-themed crime drama By Hook or by Crook. From there, Howard pursued projects big and small from microbudget films to music videos for Peaches and Julian Vivian Bond to the Lorne Michaels-produced web series Hudson City Ballers.

The big leap forward in Howard’s career came about two years ago when he was brought on board as the first trans director to work on Transparent. Though that only added up to one episode in Season Two, Howard has helmed two episodes of Season Three, and is on board as a Consulting Producer for the early part of the season.

In talking with Howard about his experience on the show, it sounds like it has helped kick open some doors as he has since directed an episode of the Freeform show The Fosters and will be working on a network series (which he declined to name) very soon. We spoke with Howard about this, his experiences on the set of Transparent, and the rapid shift that has helped make trans issues and culture more visible than ever.

Paste Magazine: There’s one thing I wanted to get clear from the press notes. Were you a consulting producer in the early days of Transparent?
Silas Howard: No, but this season I was. I talked to Jill before they even shot Season One. We had friends in common, and we both directed a chapter of a memoir that Michelle Tea wrote called Valencia. She had 20 different directors, and we cast the Michelle character in whatever form we wanted to. So I knew Jill from our friends in common, namely in the writers’ community, but I didn’t get hired on Season One. Season Two I did, and then she asked me to come back to Season Three and do two episodes but kind of be on for the first four sort of consulting/producing/helping because she was also getting the new pilot I Love Dick up and running. So I got to be involved in the first two months of production for Season Three, which was great, because Ii got to be in the writers’ room and directing and being involved in the first four.

Paste: When you talked to Jill early on, before you started working on Transparent, what were your feelings hearing about a show like this?
Howard: Oh I was excited right away! Jill is such a badass, obviously, and from her early work with Six Feet Under, which was such a groundbreaking show. So when I heard she was doing this show, I was excited just because I knew she had a strong point of view and that this was a personal story for her. And she was bringing in people like Ali Liebegott in the writers’ room who is someone I know from the whole San Francisco queer ‘90s writers’ scene. We’ve toured together back in the ‘90s and when I went on Sister Spit, which was a writers’ tour. Ali’s just a brilliant writer, and not a TV writer by any means. A poet and a novelist and is just funny. She would get up and before reading poems or excerpts from a story, she’d do this expert, comedic mix of dark and twisted humor. I thought, “Oh, Jill will be doing something different. She’s already breaking conventions by who she’s bringing in the room. She’s curating a group of people who have a connection, in a specific way.” And it was just really fucking queer. I’ve been told queer doesn’t work on TV, and I was, like, “This is fucking queer and it seems to be working.”

Paste: Being in the writers’ room and being around for the first four episodes of this new season, what did that mean for you? Were you just taking a backseat and offering advice? Were you trying to help the storyline?
Howard: It was always this sort of open invitation to put forth pitches so even in the second season as a director, I could offer suggestions to the script writer that they could take or leave. But there was an invitation to do that. We were all location scouting together and talking about it and we would just pitch ideas. What’s incredible is that Jill has confidence enough in her vision to let all the ideas in. They write these insanely beautiful episodes and then go, “How can we make it better?” and then dismantle it and keep it really alive. It can also be maddening when you’re, like, “Wait, this beautiful scene that I’ve totally wrapped my head around and have a vision for… now there’s this thing.” It’s the ultimate in letting go. You have to be very present and aware of how things are changing, not like traditional TV.

Paste: Was it a big adjustment for you going from working in the indie film environment where budgets and schedules are strained to the breaking point, to something like Transparent where Amazon is footing the bills?
Howard: Certainly being paid to direct is a novel concept. That’s shocking. And having the support. Jill talks about it in an interview she just did. They have a transfirmative hiring policy so there’s trans people hired on the crew, in the writers’ room, and in all different aspects of production. There’s a tradition that started this season—and you couldn’t skip it—where they put an apple box in the middle of the room and people start chanting, “Box! Box! Box!” and clapping. And there are two or three people tagged the day before by the crew—could be an actor or a crew member—and they get up and start the day by sharing something. We got look at each other and feel, like, “You’re a human. I’m a human. And we’re doing this thing together.” You want your set to reflect what you’re making as much as possible. But you have to have trust and the freedom to take risks. Television has traditionally been risk-adverse. To open it up to all of this, I think that carries through. It’s still work, but I think it carries through into what you see on the screen.

Paste: When you watch the show are you seeing reflections of your own life and your own experiences?
Howard: I’m not Jewish and I grew up very working class. Definitely a credible family but not similar to the Pfeffermans. That said, I think that because they’re so willing to go into the messiness of human interactions, I can connect. The stories are going into more nuanced storytelling for characters that you don’t usually see depicted that I do connect to. I can connect because of I’ve felt conflicted. I’ve said the right thing and done the wrong thing. Just because I’m trans doesn’t mean I’m not selfish sometimes and do the wrong thing.

Paste: It feels like there’s been a huge shift in the cultural conversation in recent years to really address issues about transexuality and waking people up culturally to the community with figures like Caitlyn Jenner and Laura Jane Grace and Laverne Cox in the spotlight. As someone who has gone through this experience of transitioning, how has it been to see this and to see the visibility of trans people in the media?
Howard: It happened very fast, right? Even with all this visibility… I’ve lost some close friends to suicide. It doesn’t remedy everything. In a way it can make you feel crazy because it doesn’t trickle down. I work with you at the Ali Forney Center through the TriBeCa Film program, and they are working so hard. They’re so brilliant and creative and they’re battling all these different levels of race and gender and class. I do feel that disconnect while all of that is happening and it highlights how much more work there is to do.

Paste: How does working on a show like Transparent change your perspective and prepare you for working on projects like The Fosters, or this network show you’re about to take on?
Howard: What was interesting about Transparent is that it was a much bigger budget than any of the features or music videos I’ve done. While the support is great, the directing felt the same. I’m always approaching a scene, like, “What is happening here? What is the discovery? What is the tension?” I have all these questions when I’m mapping out how to approach it. I’ve just been so hungry to storytell. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to make it work over the past 15 years without financial support. Being able to bring that set of skills to a new set, I feel very comfortable. I get to bring myself everywhere I go. I get to bring my whole heart to everything and that’s kind of a requirement in life.

When I first transitioned, I was doing some jobs for hire, some were for ad agencies. And I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to direct, but I don’t really connect to this mostly white, straight, male world. It as an eye opener where I was, like, “Oh, I’m being other-ized in the room. Here’s the one queer or one trans person in a room with straight white collar cis guys.” To witness that kind of thing… it wasn’t for me. I’d rather go teach youth and make work I care about. Now, TV has really evolved and these amazing, visionary showrunners are bringing us back in the room. And the truth is, it makes the stories better.

Paste: What else are you working on, beyond your TV projects?
Howard: I’m doing a job for hire that’s really become a big passion project. MAC Makeup has an AIDS foundation that they raise money for. They launch products like the Viva Glam line, with all the proceeds going towards research and initiatives and healthcare. But they have a new one that they have launched that is going to raise funds for gender non-conforming and trans organizations. They brought me on to direct a documentary series for them. It’s following six different people with the goal being: yes, these people are trans but you’re going to be so blown away by their lives and how they are creating change in the world around them. One is a defense attorney, one is a minister, one is a policy analyst. So often trans-ness has been depicted in this bubble of separateness. That’s not what we sit around and talk about and do as trans people. We’re out trying to do the things we’re passionate about. So that’ll be coming out in the next few months. And then I have a film about the first exotic dance union which happened at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, which was a peep show that my co-writer worked at. That’s a feature that I’m hoping to get into production in the next year.

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