Before Transparent, says Zackary Drucker, the transgender community was reflected in cinema through stereotypes—victims or villains on cop procedurals, disturbed serial killers in the likes of Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. From the outset, Transparent creator Jill Soloway sought a different approach. Notes Drucker: “Transparent has been built with trans people participating in the storytelling.”
Drucker and her partner, Rhys Ernst, have been advocating for the trans community as artists and filmmakers for years, producing work that examines both sides of transgender experience—Drucker has transitioned from male to female and Ernst from female to male. It was Ernst who first met Soloway at the Sundance Film Festival, when they both presented shorts in the same program.
“I think it was around the time her parent had actually come out as trans,” recalls Ernst. “When she met me and realized I was a trans filmmaker, she kept a little note in her mind to keep me on deck for the future.”
When Soloway picked up the phone years later, she asked the couple if they would work with her on a show that would explore transgender issues in the kind of detail mainstream TV had never seen. “I remember her using the word ‘collaboration,’ ” notes Drucker. “I thought that was so indicative of her approach to filmmaking in a democratic way.”
In fact, Drucker and Ernst were some of the first to board the project, at which point Soloway already had developed a pilot script and was shopping it around. “It was still early enough in development for us to shape the direction of the show,” Drucker says.
This is reflected in their credits—both are associate producers, while Drucker has starred in four episodes and Ernst has directed second unit. They’ve also been responsible for hiring transgender crew, meaning Transparent can boast many more trans collaborators than is usual on mainstream film and TV.
The public reaction to the show has been “beyond belief” says Ernst. “We all felt it was a close project, and there weren’t any expectations from Amazon to hit beyond a small demographic. But it’s been thrilling and I think it’s vindicating that the larger public is ready for these sorts of stories.”
The show, he feels, demonstrates that audiences don’t want watered down stories that necessarily have to relate. “I don’t think any compromises were made in terms of the production chain or the content of the show,” he says. “Lo and behold, you can try a new model and the public can have a fabulous response to it even if it’s not what’s been in place for years and years.”
As the first show on TV to situate a trans person in a family unit, Transparent also has helped families understand their trans relations. Says Drucker: “Even within my own family, I’ve noticed people who’ve known of my trans-ness for nearly a decade but who still haven’t really gotten it—watching Transparent has helped them.”
They’re tight-lipped on how the show will develop in the second season, but, says Drucker, it will have a different feel now that Jeffrey Tambor’s character, Maura Pfefferman, has come out. “We’ve addressed Maura’s transition and pushing that into the future is going to be really incredible,” she says. “Culturally, we’ve been stuck on the transition narrative. Transparent has the potential to take a trans story to a place that hasn’t been explored yet.”
The couple also is working to bring on more trans cast and crew. Says Ernst: “We continue to work on the active, social justice side of working in the film industry. It’s a two-part job, in a way.”