Directing from the Unconscious: Jill Soloway on Transitioning from TV to Features with Afternoon Delight

I came up in this business as a TV writer.

My first big job was on Six Feet Under, and for a show about death, it was pure heaven. The writers spent all day in the writers’ room trying to surprise each other. Anything that gave the room a fit of laughter, sent chills up everyone’s spine, or brought tears to people’s eyes, would end up on the episode board. It was like group therapy, but funnier. And we were getting paid.

The part of working in TV that felt like the best overnight camp cabin in the world was probably what kept me from pushing myself beyond writing. We had guest directors every week, and I sat near them, wishing I knew whatever secrets they possessed that got them that DGA card and the respect that comes with the title “director.”

Yet these yearnings never troubled me too much, because I loved writing my episodes. I still do. And the fact that it all generated a good income made the whole enterprise addictive. I was mostly content not to push myself further, because I had finally figured out my process—and it was working.

Writing for me is gathering conscious information in the form of an outline or notes, then processing that data with my unconscious. I use my driving time, liminal time, wake-up and fall-asleep time, to give life to little seeds which eventually bloom into dialogue. During this “collection” of ideas, it’s important that I trust myself and never judge my inclination toward certain concepts and themes. Over-thinking things kills creativity, so I work to maintain only a loose attention to my thoughts, and let my subconscious propel me toward the most moving ideas. The best analogy to my writing process is that I’m like a court stenographer getting down the objective transcript emanating from the intersection of my conscious and unconscious mind. But I’m not thinking about what I write.

Back in the TV world, once I’d finished taking dictation from my brain, I’d turn in my draft. Of course, the first iteration of the script would begin to shift in accordance with the tastes of the room, then the studio, then the network, then the vibe of the table read, then the opinions of the actors. Bringing my writing to life meant meeting the characters in my mind, transferring them to paper, then letting them go. Eventually I would see their story on the screen, but as close as I was to them, we never interacted in three dimensions.

Even when I finally became a showrunner, I still ceded ultimate control of casting, music, editing, and a million other things to both guest directors and studio and network executives. I never had a “created by” credit; I was always brought on to run shows conceived by other people. Maybe I was protecting myself because I knew that whoever created a show would be the one waving the Emmy if we won. Or maybe I simply never wanted to run for the finish lines with an idea that didn’t originate in my own soul.

I now realize this resulted in a sort of self-imposed artistic glass ceiling. If I wasn’t responsible for every single detail of the final product, I essentially had an excuse if I disapproved of the quality of the work. “Not my show,” I could say.

When I finally decided to write my first feature film—Afternoon Delight—I knew I had to direct. I was driven by a truth that was bugging me: If I had someone to blame when things weren’t right, I wasn’t punching above my weight or truly growing as an artist. I had to be able to put my name on every aspect of a creative endeavor to challenge myself to get to the next level.

Once the script was written and we began pre-production, oddly enough, I still rewrote it nearly every day—just for myself. Even without a studio or a network asking for changes, the happy marriage between my conscious and unconscious was still hard at work. I would tweak or erase scenes, cutting parts of them, adding others as I fell asleep the night before each day of work.

And now, rather than being the totality of my duting, this writing process was just the beginning of my day. I didn’t get to hand the script to the coordinator and move on to the next episode. Now I had to show up at work as someone other than a writer. Within an hour of handing in my freshly rewritten pages each morning, it was time to switch gears entirely and receive the story as a completely new person: the director.

The director is much more like an actor than a writer. As a director, I’m not projecting work but receiving it, reacting instinctively to the actors’, production artists, and technicians’ interpretations of the pages. When the cameras are rolling, the script could’ve been written by anyone. Hell, I could even throw it out.

As director, when I run a scene—on the set, in an adjacent room, or nearby in the street—I’m not thinking about the lines. In fact, I’m not thinking at all. I’m dropping into my body so I can feel. Moviemaking is about using the camera to record feelings as they move across the faces and bodies of actors. If I’m thinking about what I wrote, I’m not feeling. Instead, I try to be a white-hot receptor for what works, what is alive between the actors and the technicians at the intersection of their art and the words.

My directing technique comes from a woman named Joan Scheckel, who I absolutely credit with making me more than just a writer. Working with her was like being in the presence of Stanislavsky or Uta Hagen. She inspired me to have the confidence to direct from the feminine perspective: Receiving, allowing, and letting things happen, rather than making things happen. My cinematographer studied with her, as well, and he learned to be in feeling, where the camera was an extension of his body.

As a director, I’ve moved my focus away from “getting what I want,” and instead toward conjuring energy and constructing a crucible for magic. I used that phrase “crucible of magic” at our first crew meeting, and more than one person on my team looked at me like I was nuts. But ultimately—and I think my crew on Afternoon Delight would agree—creating that magical space allowed the most incredibly raw and risqué things to happen during production.

Before directing Afternoon Delight, I had a fear that because I hadn’t run around with a Super 8 camera as a child (like Spielberg), hadn’t edited movies, and couldn’t list my favorite focal lengths, that I wasn’t a director. Hollywood loves boxes. Actually, we all do. I was safe in my writer box—until the box became too small.

My biggest revelation has been that directing is simply about taking the tools I already had (a creative “safe space,­” and the trust that there is profound material at the intersection of my conscious and unconscious) and giving them to my actors. It was a joy to be able to collaborate at every stage. Storytelling is about surprising your audience. If you allow it to, the moviemaking process will surprise you, too, as you travel with your cast and crew to that otherworldly place of abandon, truth, and art. MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker’s 2014 Complete Guide to Making Movies. Featured image courtesy of The Film Arcade.

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