How Five Transformative Years with Creator Jill Soloway Taught This Man to Shoot with his 'Mussy'
The double entendre implicit in new Amazon series I Love Dick is itself a kind of mirror. Look quickly and you’ll see a very funny and frank soap opera about a woman’s failing marriage and unrequited infatuation with an arrogant and macho art colony impresario. Look closer and you’ll get a complex, and still very funny, manifesto on gender roles, sexuality, creativity and what it means to be human. (Don’t look at all and you’ll just get a vulgar stereotype.)
The Dick in question, played by a swaggering Kevin Bacon (think Footloose, in slow motion) is an amalgam of Dick Hebdige, the real media and social theorist that inspired Chris Kraus’ obsession and 1997 novel-memoir-critique, I Love Dick, and Donald Judd, the magnetic founder of the Marfa art community in Texas. Co-created by playwright Sarah Gubbins and Transparent’s Jill Soloway, the series stars Kathryn Hahn as the filmmaker-turned-writer Chris Kraus, and widens the book’s original universe with a memorable set of characters and relationships.
The debut season’s eight episodes, now available for streaming, were shot in 4K on the Canon C300 Mk II by cinematographer Jim Frohna, a longtime Soloway collaborator. Frohna first worked with Soloway on her 2013 Sundance breakout Afternoon Delight — also starring Hahn as a riotously funny and frank woman in midlife — and followed her back to television when the first season of Transparent went into production. He’s shot every season of the award-winning show since and also directed several episodes, including one in the latest season that wrapped production in early May. We discussed how his creative relationship with Soloway has informed his style, the vintage lenses in his kit on I Love Dick, and how the light on location in Texas helped him render the show’s signature look.
StudioDaily: This show, and the book that inspired it, explores what the female gaze means as it upends the male gaze (hat tip to film theorist Laura Mulvey). What was it like for you, as a male cinematographer, to be part of that process?
Jim Frohna: Because of what has been an incredible, fruitful and amazing collaboration with Jill these last five years, I feel like one of the luckiest humans in this business and on the planet, given the success of and types of content we’ve been able to make.
From the very beginning, Jill said to me, “Jimmy, shoot from your ‘mussy.’” It may sound crude, but she recognized in me something that I knew from when I was a young kid: I’m a sensitive guy. When I watched movies with my brothers, anything emotional would make me weepy or teary eyed. Of course, my brothers would mock me for having feelings. Cut to my life in the film business — first in lighting as a gaffer and then I started shooting — and I couldn’t really bring the fullness of who I am, which includes my sensitivity and my desire to deeply connect to the stories and characters through the lens. So it was a revelation when I met Jill and she said, “Not only do I see all that in you but I want that to be part of how we shoot. This is a key part of creating a space for emotion: having the DP, and not just the director or actors, be connected to those feelings.”
I was also at a point in my life as a human and artist where I was ready to celebrate and embrace that and knew that it would add to what I bring to my craft. I can frame a shot and I know how to light, but this is the special part of me that brings something else to the equation. I love the fact that this part of me is why Jill trusts me to be her eyes through all these seasons of Transparent and on a show that very explicitly says upfront, “This is solely about the female gaze.” I love that Jill has nurtured that in me and values me, as a man, to be those eyes, especially the feeling eyes and not just the seeing eyes. In that way, I was already primed and in such a great groove, that the emotional language we use to shoot Transparent was definitely the doorway into shooting I Love Dick.
This show looks, and acts, very different from Transparent.
Yea, Dick is very much its own story with its own look. Given that much of the creative team from Transparent were going to be working on this new show, one of our challenges was to figure out how it was going to have its own identity. In addition to Jill and myself and some of the producers, both the production designer and costume designer came over as well.
Marfa, in and of itself, was hugely important and gave us a completely different landscape and color palette. When we first scouted Marfa, what really stuck me was how startlingly vivid everything was there: the huge clouds, the vivid blue skies, the variety of colors falling across these wide-open plains and buttes at different times of the day that were totally different from what you’d find in LA, for example. Then the town is just so weird, wonderful and vivid, a mix of hipsters and cafés straight out of Silver Lake or Brooklyn serving $9 lattes next door to regular folks eating at old-school dive taquerias. There are border patrol police driving around, migrant workers, and rich oil families that have been there for generations. And it all boldly announces itself when you arrive.
One of my first conversations with Jill after scouting there was, “My wish for our show would be to have that same kind of vividness to it.” So the color palette is informed and defined by the place, but we carried that over into lighting and production design and costumes. And what I really love about that is it kind of had to be that way, you know? Marfa, and the colors are bold and in your face because the whole story of I Love Dick is that way! The character of Chris has to be that way because she is finding her voice and announcing herself without shame. Sometimes everything rises up in a cohesive way on a production, and this was definitely one of those times.
Did you shoot it all on location in Marfa?
We did the pilot in Marfa and then were lucky enough to be able to recreate a couple of the interior spaces, like the cottage that Chris and her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), stay in, on sound stages here in L.A. We also shot in a couple of other locations, such as Palmdale, north of L.A., because it has a convincing West Texas feel to it. At the end of the season we went back to Marfa again and shot scenes from various episodes that required us to be outside or at Dick’s ranch, for example. It was nice, visually, to bookend the season with two shoots in Marfa.
How did Marfa inform your lighting choices?
I’ve always been drawn to naturalistic lighting or at least have tried to create lighting that has a very natural feel to it, and Jill responded to this when we first worked together on Afternoon Delight. I’m really proud when my DP friends can’t tell if I shot something on a set or in the real world. The reason to shoot this way is you feel like the scene is grounded in a real place. Again, this is similar to what we do on Transparent and gives both shows their authenticity, so you know real life is unfolding before us. When we’re on sets, we actually have have production designers build ceilings, which is not very typical in the TV world. Sometimes we do this because we know we want low wide angles and the ceiling will be visible, but mostly we do this to give the actors a sense that they are in a real place. We want to make it as real as we can for everyone so that everything we do collectively feeds into that authentic place.
Did you shoot entirely handheld for this reason?
We shot both ways, actually. But whether the C300 was handheld or entirely locked up, even on a small rig, the low profile of the setups and reliance on outdoor, available light mean the actors are still free to move around the room and aren’t encumbered by a lot of extra film machinery. It just makes it so much more fluid.
How much of the show is scripted and how much is improvisation?
The way Jill likes to work with actors is she will tell them, “This is the script but I want you to think of it only as a blueprint. If these words don’t ring true for you, say them in your own way.” I’ve really admired and respected this about her. It may influence how we shoot and the shape of the scene or it may just mean an actor is finessing word choice. Even if a bunch of extra lines get thrown in, though, it’s still following the scripted emotional core of the scene. Again, this was very similar to the way Jill works on Transparent.
You now shoot Transparent exclusively with the C300, after switching from the C500. Did Marfa’s light, and this story, send you searching for different lenses to use on this show?
Definitely. I ended up using vintage Baltar lenses, and I really, really liked them. I had only used them briefly for a commercial I shot a long time ago. I remembered that they had what I would describe as a cool, detached feeling to them but the colors are still very bold. It’s not super-saturated or anything but very crisp and defined. Those lenses epitomize the two main characters for me, too: the aloof energy that Kevin Bacon brings to the Dick side of things and the boldness that Kathryn Hahn brings to Chris. And the lenses just add that extra layer of texture to the scene, which I think is important to do when shooting narrative drama or comedy digitally. Life is not perfect and glossy, and I always look for ways to shoot that help support the idea that life is messy and has flaws.
It is such an amazing period in cinematography. All these old vintage lenses are being rehoused, rediscovered and brought back to life. It’s such as fantastic set of paintbrushes for a DP. I have a great relationship with Panavision Hollywood and the lens guru there, Guy [McVicker, manager of optics], let me look at a whole range of vintage lenses he’s reviving. Some of the older lenses have too much of a distinct look that takes over, whereas these Baltars were just the right combo of having a distinct look but not being too much.
And they worked seamlessly with the C300?
Completely. For this style of shooting and for these types of shows, I’m definitely sticking with the Canon. I get 4K and an easily adaptable camera that can get in close or go really big. That was key for this show in particular.
When did you pick up production on the series after it was greenlighted by Amazon?
It was a really fast turnaround. We shot the pilot last spring, then started shooting the second episode at the end of September and were in production for about 10 weeks. Then, three weeks after we finished I Love Dick, what felt like three weeks later we were starting Season 4 of Transparent. That was kind of crazy. But I’m just so grateful to a) be working and b) be able to do most of my work in town here in L.A.
The series weaves in clips from many experimental and more mainstream films by women directors. How were they chosen?
I went to film school and was aware of some of the work we referenced or inserted as actual clips but I think it was an education for many of us on set. What happened was Sarah and Jill brought in the initial ideas and then they found someone to be our expert on experimental feminist films and to dig deep into the history and legacy and archives. They very smartly found some clips that really connect either visually or directly to the content of an episode. In some cases, you’d think it was made expressly for the scene, but of course, these were their own films made years before. They all serve as the other voices that populate this show.
What most surprised you about this show?
Before we began shooting I Love Dick, I would have already considered myself progressive and open-minded. I’m a feminist and am in full support of what Jill and her production entity, Topple, wants to do to change patterns in Hollywood. I have two daughters, one in college and the other one almost 16. When we started shooting Transparent, it felt immediately groundbreaking. You could just feel it in the room that something was happening, and shifting. But we’re in a more uncertain time right now, and for that reason, working on this show made me realize that these stories have to be told. All these voices need to be heard.
As a father, husband and creative person, I can honestly say I have never seen a show like this before. It’s let me see that, oh yeah, I do get to walk around with a certain comfort level and privilege through my career and in life. And there are many groups, and in this case women, who do not have that. I applaud the fact that a place like Amazon is supporting this kind of filmmaking, a form of storytelling and TV that is speaking to something deep and complex and important: a woman claiming subjecthood as opposed to objecthood. There are plenty of shows I could work on and laugh and have a blast and high-five people at the end of the day. But I feel very lucky that with this, though it is still storytelling, it’s still comedy and it’s still entertainment, it’s also giving voice to stories and people who have not yet been heard. That’s the stuff that really matters.
Did you direct any episodes of I Love Dick, and what’s your favorite episode or scene?
Yes, I directed one episode. Of course I like a lot of the parts of that one. But there are moments when Kathryn Hahn really gets to shine, whether she is coming unhinged or there is some comic setup or when she gets to express a very deep emotion. Just watching her is so incredible. Her range is mind-blowing and she also happens to be an amazingly dear, kind person. I can think of several big eruptions her character experiences, but my favorite is probably in the last episode. Kevin is fantastic, too. He is just so comfortable in his own skin that he actually gets his head around the idea of being an icon of masculinity. Griffin Dunne also had a very tough role to play but is so good in it. I was a huge fan of After Hours and An American Werewolf in London, so it was a real treat to finally be working with him, too.
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