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Emmy FYC: The Crafts of ‘Transparent’

Joey Moser talks to some Emmy®-nominated creative minds from the third season of Amazon’s Emmy-winning Transparent.

Transparent somehow gets better and better with every season. That’s a testament to the people who are behind the camera. While the Amazon sensation does get high-profile Emmy wins and nominations for its tapestry of characters in front of the screen, there is a specific, intelligent, and thoughtful collection of people tirelessly working behind-the-scenes to create the Pfefferman’s world.

To a certain degree, it feels like the crafts of contemporary television don’t get the credit they deserve. With a period or genre piece, you can usually see the design of the costumes or the sets because they look so much different than the world we live in. Huge, flowing capes from Game of Thrones or the cold production design of Westworld may pop more instantly to a casual viewer. Creating an atmosphere in the here and now feels like a more challenging and exciting task.

As I spoke with each member of the Transparent team, I could truly sense a collaborative nature on set. Interestingly, I spoke about a particular period episode with each artist, and their passion for their work came through as we chatted.

Transparent, which sometimes flows back towards the past, has a lived-in weight to it. You feel the history of the Pfefferman family in their house. One might wonder if the actors just hang out and sleep on the set. Every piece of art, every knickknack, and every framed picture feels like it was purchased from a member of this family. Production designer Cat Smith, who won an Emmy for her work on the first season, has created one of the most striking homes on television, and she was thrilled to dive into some period work with one of the series’ most celebrated episodes, “If I Were a Bell.”

I’m in love with the Pfefferman house. What’s your favorite room in their home?

Wow, that’s really hard. I really do love the kitchen, but one of my favorite spaced is Josh’s bedroom. We converted it from a basement, and I really love what we’ve done with that space.

(Photo: cat-smith.squarespace.com)
What’s so curious about that house is that it feels like it’s going through an evolution almost every season. The surroundings change as the characters discover more about themselves.

Well, what’s great with working with Jill is that there’s always a flashback, and we get to revisit those spaces again. We only had a brief moment to really enjoy it before Maura moved out.

I love the history from when the Pfeffermans lived there, and by the next episode, it was mostly moved out. Then Tammy changed it, and then it all got destroyed when Josh and Maura took a hammer to it. Which was a blast in a way! It broke my heart to remove that pony wall. Every single season the space changes. It’s hard, but it’s a lot of fun to see everyone change it in his or her own way.

I read that the most complex set you designed for the second season was for “Man on the Land.” What was the toughest challenge you had with the third season?

The third season we got to hit some great landmarks like the Beverly Center and the cruise ship from the finale. It adds another extra level of interest. I love to incidentally find little through threads. With the show I’m doing now, we kept finding all this dark grout everywhere, and that was interesting that it kept popping up everywhere we went.

With this past season, you got to do some period work with “If I Were a Bell.” How was that experience?

That was a dream. I grew up in LA—not as far back as 1958. I got to pick my mother’s brain about a lot of stuff. It was a huge location challenge. Huge. I live for those challenges that come along. I like doing all kinds of research about the era and time period and try to pull it all together. We take for granted things now. With the period stuff, I get to step back in time. I love it.

What can we expect from this upcoming season? 

The family is going to Israel. I don’t want to give too much away, but that was an amazing challenge. We got to visit Israel for some inspiration, so I personally love it.

Costume designer Marie Schley has the task of designing and dressing the eclectic and colorful Pfefferman family. Since each family member is constantly evolving in his or her personal life, Schley must balance their ever-changing style. Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura does not dress the same way she did in the first season, and we spoke briefly about the character’s style identity. She won an Emmy for Transparent’s first season, and this is her third consecutive nomination.

You and Jill Soloway work very closely at the beginning of the season, and you create a collage that details the colors and textures you are looking to incorporate into the episodes. Can you describe that?

Every season the Pfeffermans are evolving. In Season 3, Maura is healthy, and she’s on more of a transformative makeover. She wants to have surgery, but she is wondering why it’s not fulfilling and she’s not happy. We put together an idea of less bohemian, urbane look. We took out the long necklaces and took away prints and muted colors, and we added in more Armani and Donna Karan. It’s sometimes not easy to find clothes for older women that aren’t frumpy. You have to look and we made a lot of stuff too.

(Photo: Amazon)
Do you have a favorite look from the third season?

There are a lot of looks that I really like from this last season. Maura’s purple look from her birthday party is up there. At the end, she really goes through another transition. On the cruise ship, she realizes that she’s not comfortable with the undergarments, and she throws the Spanx off the side of the ship. I love to dress up Ali in vintage clothes and gender neutral clothes. Actually, I really love dressing everyone!

I have to admit that I wanted some of Josh’s comfy sweaters from this year.

His character goes through so much in this third season. The band he represents is very successful, and he has a lot of money. With those scenes after Rita dies and he’s really depressed, we wanted to retain his style but embody how he’s lost his direction. It’s the same style, but he wears a lot of more comfortable clothes and sweaters.

A lot of artists on the show speak about working on “If I Were a Bell.” How do you like playing with another time period in your work?

That was exciting. It’s not as difficult as you would think because you are dressing the characters but just in the confines of the time period. One of the more interesting challenges was dressing Maura as a boy and as in the fantasy when she was dressing in the basement. We wanted to make it not be her putting herself in dress up clothes.

You wanted the audience to see how she saw herself?

Exactly. We wanted to see her as that. Also, there are the scenes where we see Mort in the 90’s. His clothes represents how repressed he was. It’s a very Ivy League look.

I sometimes feel like contemporary costume design doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Do you think some audiences might brush off the process of costuming for a show that takes place now?

Costuming is sort of the same—even if it’s period or fantasy or contemporary. You are trying to convey the emotions of the characters to the audience. With contemporary costuming, you are trying to do it more subtly to not distract from the main storyline. You don’t want it to be obvious. People assume that we just shop for the clothes and we’re done. I mean, we do shop a lot, but we do have to make a lot of things. In the episode with Maura’s birthday party, we made the leather jacket for Shelly. Something that showed she was in love and showed her transformation too. Those leather pants weren’t available, and they are kind of sassy.

Whose style on the show do you see yourself the most in?

I’m very eclectic. Sometimes I’m Ali. Sometimes I’m Sarah. I’m all of them—even Jay! That’s what’s so fun about costume design. When I get dressed in the morning, I change my clothes to how my personality feels that day. I’ve worn a piece of each one of these characters.

Cinematographer Jim Frohna has worked with Jill Soloway going back to her first feature film, Afternoon Delight. He revels in the ability to work on such a progressive show, and he details moments from this season that he loved to shoot. Frohna is able to make it feel like you are looking through an old photo album when you watch these characters. You know them, and you feel a warm affection for them. I was even surprised to discover that Frohna took part in the workshop with Joan Scheckel. It feels like Frohna really became a part of the Transparent family. 

You’ve been having a crazy busy year.  

I was just reflecting on five years. Tomorrow marks five years of when we started shooting Afternoon Delight together. The last year has been particularly fruitful. I went from Season 3 of Transparent to I’m Dying Up Here over at Showtime, but then I Love Dick came together a lot faster than we thought. Then came the upcoming fourth season of Transparent. It’s finally slowing down a bit, but it’s been damn good.

(Photo: Amazon)
I’ve always thought Transparent has had a dreamy or a hazy look. How would you describe the aesthetic of the third season?

I wouldn’t distinguish the third season aesthetically from the previous two. That’s interesting that you make that observation. I do remember the third season where some characters really are rising up—Shelly especially. In her condo, I would have this haze and melancholy feeling. There’s never any direct sunlight.

Everything about Shelly in Season 3 feels so different. The audience even looks at her in a different way.

I was operating the camera during that scene. In a way, she’s always nervous or kind of twitchy and she doesn’t know how to be seen. In the third season, the lighting feels a lot different. She’s in a much different place emotionally, and she literally gets to step into the spotlight. Obviously, I knew there’d be a spotlight because it’s a show, but it takes a new meaning. There’s a lot of happy actions that are discovered in a scene.

Do you rehearse a lot or plan out a lot of the shots ahead of time?

It depends on the show, movie, or director. David Fincher maps with exact precision, and that’s one end of the spectrum. Sometimes we even film a rehearsal. It’s the same how we played with the style on Afternoon Delight. It’s essential to Jill to feel like it was unfolding before our eyes. There’s a lifeblood to it. It’s more about being interested in honoring the performance and minimizing the filmmaking machine. A lot of times, there’s no lighting gear lying around. We film with a lot of natural light. What I’ve always done with Jill is lighting the space so actions can move and it’s alive. The focus pullers have to keep up, but I’m lucky to have a core crew that’s used to that. It’s challenging, but I love the vitality of it. Mistakes are all a part of the language of who these characters are.

One of my favorite shots is from “To Sardines and Back” when the Pfefferman kids are all hiding in the closet together while they play the game with the flashlights. I think they are sitting in order of age too. Do you have a favorite moment that you captured?

I like that moment too. It feels very childlike—hiding in your parent’s closet. I personally remember when my mom and I would go to a department store, and I would try to sneak away. I’d hide in the racks of clothes in these racks of fabric. One of the most emotional experiences I had was way back in Season 1 when I was operating the camera and Maura was singing. The kids are confronted with the truth of their parents, and she’s in full regalia in that scene. And it was emotional to see how shitty they were to her by getting up and ditching her one by one.

In terms of this season “If I Were a Bell” was very moving. I am continually blown away by how Jill and the entire writing team has crafted and threaded everything from the Berlin storyline to this one. The question becomes, “What took Maura to live in her own truth?” With the bomb shelter stuff, there’s that devastating scene when Maura’s father refers to Gittel and says, “This is what happens to people like you.” Andrea Arnold is a great director, and she did that episode. There are a lot of moments from that I love.

(Photo: Amazon)
In “The Open Road” you had to shoot a really emotional scene in an outdoor water park. Did shooting outside change how you approached anything?

Jill directed that episode, and we were trying to decide whether to film in an abandoned water park or one that was closed down.  At one point, Jill just ordered Jay Duplass and Trace Lysette to run around, and I just followed them. At one point, she wanted Josh to chase Shea down the water bed, and you could feel the hopefulness of a new relationship. It’s all right before Josh is really awful to Shea and says those shitty things to her. There was no pre-planning with that scene. With exteriors like that, I embrace the natural light. It was very freeing to shoot it that way.

I’ve heard from cast members that say that it’s very emotionally satisfying to work on Transparent. Does that translate to behind the camera as well?

I’ve always been a sensitive guy. I have 3 brothers and when we’d go to a movie with a big emotional scene, I would always hide my face so they wouldn’t see me teary-eyed. That’s still a part of me. Before each season, the cast would get together for these workshops with Joan Scheckel. She told me, “It matters who is holding the camera.” I had to look at it not as just a technical job, but I opened my heart to allow my whole self to be a part of it. Sometimes she would even whisper in my ear to encourage my feeling. I bring all of myself and feed it into how I shoot.

Transparent is always lauded for the actors that join its cast, and that process starts with casting director Eyde Belasco. Belasco has worked on both television and film, and she’s been the casting director for the beloved 500 Days of Summer, Half-Nelson, and fellow Jill Soloway Amazon comedy I Love Dick. She is the first person who sees eager actors for Transparent, and her decisions have garnered her 3 consecutive Emmy nominations. This could be the year that nabs her a win. 

I feel like a lot of people don’t know what the casting process is like. Can you detail the process on your end? 

It’s similar to all the projects I work on, but with Transparent-specific, we get the scripts and go over descriptions of the characters with the writers and the directors. I typically put out breakdowns for the characters I am looking for, and then I read a ton of people. I just read and read and read until we have strong enough choices for each roles. With the nature of the show we need a lot of transgender actors. I do have consultants on the show that lead me towards people in the transgender community, and then I track them down—some of whom have never auditioned before. They aren’t actors and I work with them. It was a first time for a lot of people to come in for me and act.

(Photo: Amazon)
I had no idea you sought out and considered people who had no experience.

We see so many people that have no acting experience. There’s a thing called a Taft Hartley with the Screen Actors’ Guild for those people who are not yet in the union. Each year we have so many to fill out. We do a lot for both transgender roles and non-transgender roles. We are always about getting the best actor for the role. If that person has never acted or gotten their SAG card, then who cares? They are the best actor for the role!

Who was the most difficult role to cast from this last season?

Every year we do flashbacks, and I’d say the hardest to cast was younger Maura when she was about 12. It was probably the biggest search because we were open to a lot of different things. It was a tough role to cast. We weren’t sure if we were going to hire a young cis boy or girl, or we were open to gender non-conforming kids. Of course we were open to transgender kids. We saw a little bit of everything. A lot of people self-taped from around the country. In the end, we went with this young girl, Sophia Grace, who, I think, only had a few local theater credits. Her self-tape was so natural and amazing. The team just fell in love with her.

You work in both film and television. Is it intimidating to cast an actor because you have no idea where the character goes from season to season?

That’s interesting. To a certain degree I have an idea of what the arc of the season is going to be. It’s very much like a movie where it does have a storyline and what each character is going to be doing throughout the season. With anything, features or in TV, these are brand new characters, and you are just trying to get a real sense of what the filmmakers and writers are working for. You want to get the best actors for the role.

Is there an actor that you’ve cast in a smaller role that has blown you away since the initial casting? For instance, Trace Lysette has been in scenes here and there in the first two seasons, but she has this huge moment in “The Open Road.”

I mean, Trace obviously. She’s such an amazing actress, and that episode was fantastic. I’d also say Jay, because he wasn’t an actor! He came in and his initial audition for the show was so magical. He’s such a beautiful person. And to see the arc that he’s gone through in all of these season is gratifying. Even in that episode, with Trace, and his episodes when Rita dies when he’s with Rabbi Raquel. You see the heartbreak in him this season. I’d say both of those are beautiful performances.

What do you wish people knew about the casting process? 

I’m on their side! I try to make everyone feel comfortable in the room. If I can put them at ease, they will feel more comfortable in the room, and they give more honest and relaxed performance. We just want a great actor in the role, and if they come in nervous, I think it makes it harder. In my space, I want to be able to allow the actor to explore the character and have a good time and give the best audition possible. I want to be able to cast the role!

The third season of Transparent is nominated for 7 Emmys this year, including:

Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, Jeffrey Tambor
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, Judith Light
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, Kathryn Hahn
Production Design
Casting
Cinematography
Costume Design