They may be two of this season’s “It” showrunners, but Jill Soloway and Jennie Snyder Urman aren’t exactly overnight successes. They’ve both paid their dues with staff jobs (Soloway on “Six Feet Under,” Urman on “Gilmore Girls”) and showrunner gigs (Soloway on HBO’s “How to Make It in America,” Urman on the CW’s “Emily Owens, M.D.”). Soloway’s “Transparent” has put Amazon originals on the map, winning Golden Globes for best comedy and lead Jeffrey Tambor, while Urman’s “Jane the Virgin” earned CW its first Globe noms, and scored a win for breakout star Gina Rodriguez. In a wide-ranging conversation with Variety they discuss the challenges of binge-viewing vs. 22-episode seasons, blending comedy with drama, and Caitlyn Jenner.
When did you realize your show might work?
Urman: Right before the TCAs when all the critics watched it, before it started airing. I read those pre-reviews — “Oh my gosh, people are actually liking it.” How about you?
Soloway: Well (Amazon) put the pilot up before they picked it up.
That’s right, you had the very public “testing” process. Was that nerve-racking?
Soloway: It was less nerve-racking than you would think. (A test screening) is more anxiety-provoking for me. I felt safe, actually. Not just that viewers can see it, and I can read responses on Amazon, but that critics, who are important, felt it was important.
Did you read every single user comment?
Soloway: You have to. We found ourselves reading the bad ones, and then looking to see what else they had reviewed negatively. Like, a blender, a piece of cooking equipment, also got an intensely negative review from this person. We’d find that people enjoy writing negative reviews. “Why is everybody so Jewish?” they would ask. “Why am I supposed to watch a show about so many Jewish people?” And I’m like, “Oh, and they also really hated this belt.”
Do you read reactions to your work online?
Urman: I like reading what people are and aren’t responding to and why. If there’s a critical mass of people wondering the same thing, then I think we have to take that back to the room. It’s sort of a real-time gauge. I was told we had to sign up for Twitter (when the show started), and I was like, “Yech.” But I love reading the comments now. I do save a few things that are positive for the really late, lonely nights. Because it’s such a difficult job. And you’re just up a lot at night by yourself, white-knuckling it. It’s nice to read positive reinforcements.
Soloway: Well, I like to see what people say about belts. More recently (I think) I need to stay off all social media, especially Twitter. More because the (show’s) subject matter is so political. And the trans community is so in the middle of this movement. It can be this weird self-esteem Bermuda triangle where you do an interview, you feel like you’re saying something great, and you find out you’ve got something wrong. Now you’re suddenly looking (online) to figure out who else knows you’re an idiot..
Do you both feel that fear of being misinterpreted on social media?
Soloway: Has that happened to you — having a show about a Latina — that you might get it wrong?
Urman: After every interview, I have that feeling that I had in high school like, “Did I say everything right? Is there anything I said that has the space …”
Soloway: “Were it pulled out to become the headline, how stupid would I look?”
Urman: Yes. I definitely get that feeling. I have that fear when shows air. “Is this the one that everyone’s going to hate?” It’s a lot of, I think, general neuroses.
Soloway: Negativity attracts clicks. It’s like clickbait and bullying, and call-out culture. “This is what you got wrong.” That pulls energy and it’s always looming now in a way that it certainly wasn’t 10 years ago. You never…
Soloway: Yeah. And we never would know what people would think. I mean, we would maybe check out a Television Without Pity recap months later when it aired, you know?
Urman: But it was always…
Soloway: It was like ‘oh, C +.’ That’s all you had… A C + from Television Without Pity. That’s it. You know?
In the era of “Six Feet Under”?
Soloway: Yes, “Oh, I guess they like this episode.” I remember, I think it was the IMDb recaps. You’d be like “I wonder if this recap is positive?” You couldn’t get the feeling. It’s everywhere (now). It’s like, “What if something was invented where you could know what every single person in the entire planet is thinking about everything you do at every moment?” You’d be like, “I wouldn’t want that to be invented. If it was, I would never look at it.” No, you look at it constantly. Can’t stop yourself.
What did you learn from your earlier experiences that you brought to these jobs?
Soloway: I totally emulate Alan Ball’s style of running a room. He had a very gentle style — kindness, conviviality, discussion of what you watched on television, obsession with reality shows; 50% is that. Then another 40% of the time is really juicy details about our personal lives. And then 10%, “Let’s get this show written.” It all adds in, particularly talking about your personal lives. Those really become the storylines.
Urman: After “Emily Owens,” my dad said, “That was a good show, but why don’t you do something more original next time?”
Urman: He was like, “Like, ’24.'” And I was like, “Well, there is a show called ’24.'” Your knee-jerk reaction is, “They don’t understand.” But it sits in the back of your head. What I took out of that was, do something different. I was trying to write a medical show because I was trying to get a show on the air. That was the goal. With “Jane,” I feel like I kind of found my voice again. I wasn’t doing it to get it on the air. When I wrote “Jane,” I felt more like an artist and more in touch with what I originally loved about writing.
How do you hold on to that sense of individuality in your work?
Soloway: Before I made “Afternoon Delight” I ran “How to Make It in America,” so for me it was a similar feeling like “Okay, I’m the person who gets called in to help the young wunderkind.” It’s like I was the character Connie Britton plays on “Nashville” — you wrote the song and the pretty young thing is going to sing it. And it’s like, “But I’ve worked hard.” And they’re like, “Nope, she’s going to sing it.” I wanted to be a showrunner so it felt like a success. First you dream of being a showrunner, and then you dream of creating a show and to feel like you’re actually responsible for all of it.
And what’s it like when you feel that responsibility?
Soloway: It sort of forces you to punch above your weight artistically and creatively because now you have to answer for everything. In doing so I think you actually feel like that much more of an artist because you’re really being pushed to bring it all. You can’t go, “I didn’t write that episode” or “I didn’t supervise that edit” or “I didn’t pick that song.” Whatever you would do in situations before were part of a group of people who are running something. I’ve been on shows where I thought I was the showrunner, and somebody else would say, “I heard you were the head writer.” And it was like, “Who has last pencils?,” and nobody knows. So even though you can be called the showrunner, the feeling when you haven’t created the show is that you’re in the midst of the people fighting for control and you can’t say: “This scene is perfect. This moment is perfect. This joke is perfect.” I feel like I get to say that now, which to me makes work feel that much more fun.
Urman: It also forces you to rely on your gut a lot more, which is where your artistic spirit comes from, because there is no time to deliberate on TV. It’s really just trusting yourself and trusting your instinct in a really powerful way, showrunning. “I like the way that sounds. I like that. I don’t like that. I’m watching that and it is not working for me.” I’ve got to articulate “why” very quickly, and I’ve gotta make sure that everyone understands why it’s not working so that you can improve it as you go.
Soloway: It’s kind of a dream job. Especially for a control freak. Once it’s all starting to roll and you’re like “Oh everybody is going to do everything I say.” You know? They’re going to say the words I wrote, they’re going to light it the way I say to. I can change their shoes if I want to.
Does that make you feel more vulnerable to criticism because you’re the one ultimately in charge?
Soloway: Right now I don’t feel that vulnerability. I also feel like, and this is something I learned, I don’t take as much power as I act like I do. I do a lot of, “Well, whatever the production designer wants, whatever my cinematographer says.” I let people do their thing and then I just kind of watch. And then I’ll adjust. But it’s much more collaborative and playful, much more group spirit — more like a kind of guiding a hot air balloon rather than sitting in the driver’s seat of a race car.
Urman: You don’t have time to feel vulnerable in the moment because you have to act quickly and make quick decisions. But I do feel vulnerable every time something airs. I feel like, “Will people like it?” I feel vulnerable on Monday nights at nine because that’s when the show airs. But until then, I don’t have time to. I think that also the journey of (the show) being well-received reinforces your own confidence and your gut in the direction that you’re taking it. The more people that are liking it, the more you steel up and feel like your decisions have been validated.
Soloway: I felt that when I turned in episode 201. I gave it to my co-writers, like, “Mom needs compliments too. Did you like it? Are people going to say I lost my touch? Tell me I still got it. Why won’t you tell me? You have to tell me it’s good.”
Urman: You’re always looking for problems too.
Soloway: You’re always suspicious that you’ve totally lost your touch.
Urman: And also that people are saying “yea it’s good” because they want to go home, which could be a reasonable response to a lot of work.
Jill, is there any difference to creating something that can be binged all at once?
Soloway: That was another thing I learned from Alan Ball — whether they’re watching it once a week or it’s streaming — I’m used to putting the grid on the board and looking at it as one long journey. That was already my mode whether or not people would (binge) it. I was a little bit nervous (about the binge idea). Watching Jenji Kohan go from “Weeds” to “Orange,” when it first happened, when everyone was finished with (“Orange”) in a day, I remember feeling like, “Oh my God, can you imagine working on something for a year and people finish it in a day?” But then I started to notice how much audiences love the personalization of the binge. It felt like something new. Ultimately, I got with it.
And Jennie, you’re constantly catching the audience up on what’s happened. You don’t know who’ll be watching week to week.
Urman: Because it is such a serialized show, if you miss one episode there are 17 new threads that get started. So we use our (on-screen) texting and the narrator and the shorthands to catch people up. Because it’s not binge, you have different kinds of pressure. You have to make the ends exciting enough so that people will want to come back a week later. A small moment at the end has to be followed up with something else that is in the DNA of the show. I write all of our (previously on) recaps too, so they feel like they’re part of the show instead of just a series of scenes that are cut together. Our narrator takes us through it, we put jokes in them, and that’s part of the watch. You know it’s challenging, 22 (episodes).
Soloway: I don’t know how you do it.
Urman: It’s really, really hard and exhausting. The tone is so crazy, I’m usually in edit 60 to 80 hours on every episode after I get the director’s cut …
Soloway: Sixty hours after the director’s cut? Girl, what are you doing? Can I get you some help?
Urman: I know, it’s crazy. I have a great team, but it’s such an unusual show.
Soloway: Wait a minute, what? Every episode? You, Jennie Urman, 60 hours?
Urman: I know. I’m doing a really long pre-production this year (ahead of season two). Instead of eight weeks, I’m doing 14 weeks. And I’m in the (writers’) room for that. But once we start, I have to take the room’s notes at the end of the day and go through them and respond in caps and guide the room every night from my house, because I’m sitting in editing. Then writing from 11 p.m. to 3 or 4 (a.m.).
Soloway: When are you sleeping?
Urman: Not that much. I’ve got two kids.
Both of your shows blur the line between comedy and drama. Do those classifications even enter your head when you’re working?
Urman: Each episode has its own tone. It feels like a piece of music, where different things crescendo at different times. I try to make sure there’s a big comic set piece (in each episode) just because I like that spirit in our show, but I’ll never tell a joke if it’s going to sell out a character in a serious moment, no matter how funny that joke is. I feel a real devotion to the characters. The kinds of comedies and dramas that I like have comedy in the serious moments and drama in the comic moments, so it’s about trying to find that. The overall tone of our show is light and whimsical and quirky, but we have a lot of drama underneath it, too. To me that just makes the fabric more interesting.
Soloway: I grew up watching Woody Allen and Albert Brooks and just really wanting to make that kind of work. Even Christopher Guest — he has a lot of funny and there’s a lot of sadness. I’ve always really liked the combination of funny and sad, or this thing I call “funcomfortable,” which is different than just jokes. It’s got this kind of character-as-protagonist, life-as-villain, way of looking at the world. I think it’s not comedy and drama, it’s drama and not drama. And, you know, drama is “Homeland.” We’re not “Homeland.” I don’t think comedy needs to mean the laugh track. I love shows like “Louie” and “Girls,” because they have so much feeling, emotion and sadness. You might even laugh and cry at the same time.
What’s on your mind going into season two?
Urman: I want season two to be as good or better than (one). I feel that as a goal and a pressure. A lot of people have said, “What happens when Jane has the baby?” It’s a crazy question to me, it implies once you have a baby you’re a mom and no longer passionate and sexual and striving for goals. I’m interested in what happens once she becomes a mom and how she balances it. She wasn’t ready to become a mom, and there’s so much to mine from that experience of trying to maintain a sense of self and also be a good parent. I’m also excited for the juicier telenovela swings. With our show we put all these things in there and the characters react just as you or I would. I’m excited to put all these complications in there, and let Jane swim in this water.
Soloway: For us, the Jenner (interview) was pretty big. We’re not carrying the mantle of “We have to explain this to America.” We’re freed up to have more fun, because another famous family (is) carrying this storyline. Now we can challenge ourselves and go, “What are the wildest things we can do?”
Urman: Are the Pfeffermans aware of her?
Soloway: We were asking that question today. I think it would be funny if Maura had a relative who shows up at a wedding, and she’s like, “You said you didn’t want to see me,” and the relative says, “Well, I watched Bruce Jenner.”
Urman: “I understand now.”
Soloway: They live in Los Angeles. I think they’ll know. If they don’t, I’ll tell them.