One of the most surprising comedies of the past five years has been Amazon’s “Transparent,” a series that follows a family as its patriarch transitions. It’s a show that is undeniably one of the funniest shows on TV when it wishes to be while packing emotional punches regularly. The series was created by Jill Soloway, who has won two Emmys for directing the series. One of the consistents across the show has been its incredible cinematography from director of photography Jim Frohna. The aesthetic for the dramedy is set by its incredible cinematography, and Frohna is a big reason for the show’s success. I had a chance to sit down with Jim last week, and we discussed “Transparent,” “I Love Dick” and working with Jill Soloway.
AF: You and Jill work together often, both on “Transparent” and “I Love Dick” this year. What are some of the things she does to allow you to become an artist in your own right?
JF: It’s been an amazing 5 years working with Jill, ever since Sundance in 2013. Besides her incredible creativity and intelligence, she creates an environment where everyone, the writers, the actors, the cinematographers, or everybody who comes into contact with her, can open creatively. This brings out the best in her, but it also brings out the best in the people she works with.
AF: How is working on a Jill Soloway show different from other series or movies?
JF: Now it’s evolved over 4 seasons of “Transparent” and one of “I Love Dick,” which we finished last year. Jill says we should treat each other like human beings and she created a sense of community where the people matter as much of the process. We actually start every day on set with this thing called box. What we gather everybody, we gather into a circle and anyone who feels compelled to get up on the box and speak can.
So some mornings someone from the props department will get up and say, “yesterday’s shoot was really hard. My team really worked hard and I’m proud of how my team handled it.” Other people will get up and talk about how five years ago today my best friend passed away. It can get emotional. It’s about 20 minutes and gives us an ability to see each other as human beings. For Jill, it’s about community and building community. We get to know each other and know their names, it connects everybody and I believe we work faster because of it.
Jill also tries to create a sense of authenticity on the show so that it feels like we’re watching this scene unfold before our very eyes. She actually works to get me to connect with the material through my lighting and framing. She recognized a sensitivity in me through “Afternoon Delight” and through these shows, and she’ll speak to me as an artist and as a person so that I connect to what’s going on in the scene. I’ve found that my energy and what I bring matters. We want the show to be intimate, and I think it comes through in the way I operate the camera.
AF: Yeah absolutely. One of the things I think you do so well is the way that the camera moves through the scenes. It does feel like you’re part of the scene. Almos like you’re someone who is walking beside Maura or Shelley or the other characters. I can feel that coming through. Speaking of movement, do you block out those scenes in advance through rehearsal? Or is it more improvisational?
JF: It’s kind of a combination. I would say that we give the actors the space. The way that I’ve always liked to light, even though 70% of the show is shot on stages, I want the light to come through the windows so that it looks like natural light. We very rarely set down marks. The actors are literally able to use the full space.
A lot of time, we don’t really rehearse. Part of it is because of the “Community of possibility” that we are basically rehearsing on camera. I take the basic shape of the thing and then figure out the coverage. What’s so great is that most of the team has been with us for all 4 seasons, so we all speak the language. It’s another layer that helps the show feel like it does.
AF: What is your favorite episode you’ve shot so far?
JF: I want to say the episode with the wedding to Tammy. The first episode of season 2. It also introduces the flashbacks and ties to 1930s Berlin. Telling that story was pretty profound. I will say definitely in my top 3 favorites was the one that I got the Emmy nomination. It’s called “If I Were a Bell” and it’s from season 3. Unlike other episodes where we sprinkle through the flashbacks, the whole episode was a flashback. It was really really really moving to tell this story. I was just marveling at our writers, Jill and the writers, and it is an amazing example of more connective tissue.
It takes place in the mid-1950s when Maura is a child when the Cold War was raging. What I loved was that Maura uses the bomb shelter to hide when she puts on her dresses. I don’t want to spoil it, so can I presume you saw the episode?
AF: Oh yeah, it was one of my favorite episodes of season 3.
JF: Okay great! So the bigger question that gets answered in terms of legacy within the show, is that we now know that Maura comes from a family that explored their gender. Yet meanwhile, we have Maura who only comes out close to age 70. So the episode answers what happened to Maura to force her to shut down and not live their truth until almost 70.
There’s this very intense and very upsetting scene, where young Maura’s grandfather is screaming. Maura gets caught in the dress because the family is coming down into the bomb shelter and see her in the dress, and the grandfather says “do you know that your Aunt died in the concentration camps for wearing a dress?” Basically saying to this child, if you want to be this way or live this way, to be in this truth equal death. Telling these stories that haven’t been told and weaving together this history is so rewarding.
AF: One of the things that struck me with “If I Were a Bell” was the way in which you utilized negative space when filming it. There’s so much visual language that comes through. Especially in the moments of silence. Whether it’s Maura going into the house and getting the box without speaking, or when Shelley leaves the office of her teacher and we presume she was molested, the way in which you have the close-ups, the silence is more profound than any words could be in those moments. “If I Were a Bell” was beautifully shot.
AF: So I’m going to get into “I Love Dick” real quick. How would you describe the aesthetic difference between the two shows?
JF: Well we try to hold onto that intimacy between the two shows. That said, “I Love Dick” is definitely inspired by the landscape of West Texas. There are establishing shots of the vistas, but we were more focused on the color palette of Marfa. The light feels different, the sunlight feels different, there are clouds that change it.
In addition to embracing the color palette for set design and costuming, I went for different camera lenses. We were using the same camera, but there was something sort of cool and bold and detached about the light. It’s bold and in your face in a unique kind of way. So I used Baltar lenses, which are these Russian lenses that keep the colors rich but lends a coolness to the image. While one can say that they’re similar, the color palette and approach feels more like an outgrowth of the place.
AF: I can see that, it feels very much like a western, but a Jill Soloway western. Last question, what’s next for you personally, and when can we expect to see the next season of “Transparent” or “I Love Dick?”
JF: Well “Transparent” comes out in September, so that’s about a month away. For me, this summer has been a bit of a break. I went from “Transparent” to “I’m Dying Up Here” to “I Love Dick” back-to-back-to-back. For now, I’m taking it easy, shooting some commercials and pursuing scripts. If something really awesome crosses my path, I’ll jump for it, but we’re starting season 5 of “Transparent” in January. In the meantime, I’m covering my bills and spending time with the family.
AF: Well that’s great. Again congratulations and I hope to speak to you again.
JF: Thank you so much!