During the latest edition of the Sundance Film Festival, the premier showcase for American and international independent films, on January 25, I attended the “Golden Age of Story” panel gathering the talented people behind today’s most highly acclaimed TV series: Jill Soloway, creator and director of Transparent (Amazon), brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, creators and directors of Togetherness (HBO), Cary Fukunaga, who directed the first season of True Detective(HBO), Jenni Konner, co-producer and script writer of Girls (HBO), as well as Jason Katims, producer and script writer of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood (NBC).
As a reminder, Transparent is a dramatic comedy that tells the story of a family turned upside down by the revelation that the father is a transgender. (The comedy received the awards for Best Comedy Series and Best Actor at the Golden Globes 2015.) Togetherness is another dramatic comedy that follows two couples living under the same roof who are going through a personal crisis. Girls is also a dramatic comedy that focuses on a group of 20-something girl friends in New York (awarded in the Best Comedy Series category at the Golden Globes 2013.) True Detective is a police series that takes on the form of an anthology (each season tells a different story and showcases different protagonists). Friday Night Lights tells the story of the daily life of a football team in a Texas high school whereas Parenthood is a drama about three generations of a same family.
Television is a taboo word
Sundance in no way denies the existence of the series phenomenon. The SundanceTV channel—owned by AMC and faithful to the spirit of the festival created by Robert Redford—has developed series the likes of Rectify and The Red Road. The third and fourth episodes of Togetherness were presented on an exclusive basis during the festival. But Sundance seems to get perverse pleasure from never writing the words ‘series’ and ‘television’ black on white in its programming to remind everyone of its cinematographic DNA. That explains why the term ‘story’ is used everywhere (as well as in the panel’s name)—as a reminder that films and series share or should share the same love of storytelling. Launched at the end of September 2014, the workshop designed for TV series script writers and tutored by major names such as Howard Gordon (the showrunner in the Homeland series) is titled “Episodic Storytelling Lab.”
But what gave American independent film its edge (original and non-commercial stories, risky topics, ambiguous characters) has over the past decade moved toward TV series, especially on cable. The career of Lena Dunham, creator of Girls, would certainly not have reached the same dimension and importance in the zeitgeist had she limited herself to making independent films after Tiny Furniture.
Furthermore, the list of personalities invited to participate in the “Golden Age of Story” panel reflected this movement of brain capital: the Duplass brothers saw their films (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus) showcased at Sundance as was the case for Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and Jill Soloway (Afternoon Delight).
But that was not the panel’s focus. Rather, the panel was set up to have the experts explain how they worked and what the “golden age of story” meant to them. Here are a few examples selected on the basis of two notions: freedom and time.
All of the panelists share the keyword ‘freedom’ but describe it in differing terms. The group’s veteran (who began his career in 1994 as the script writer of the My So-Called Life series), Jason Katims recalls the context and what preceded: “At the time, television was defined in terms of what couldn’t be done with it.” In his opinion, the series phenomenon is due to the luxury and freedom of not striving to please all audiences. This would explain the production of an increasing number of niche series.
In Transparent, Jill Soloway took the liberty of building a team in the image of family: she called among the same technicians who worked on her film Afternoon Delight and she describes the atmosphere within her writers’ room as a “group therapy” or more specifically as a “painterly art-therapy group.”
The Duplass brothers make the following comparison between TV series and film: “Television allows for an open universe whereas in the case of a film, you need to clearly indicate in which direction it is headed within the first ten minutes.”
In contrast, Jason Katims recalls that a lack of time and means made it impossible for Friday Night Lights to episodically present a football match contrary to the impression given by the initial idea: “We needed to instead focus on the characters.”
A question of time
Question of time and timing, the panel’s most interesting moment undoubtedly came when the authors were asked to select a scene in their series that best personified their characters (with supporting excerpts). Often, they are episodes aired later in the season because “the characters constantly evolve” (Jay Duplass). Furthermore, in more prosaic terms, because a writer or actor cannot afford to lay down all of a character’s cards as early as the first episode if his goal is to have the audience come back the following week (or continue binge watching).
Of the ten episodes of Transparent, Jill Soloway chose a passage from the eighth when Mort, the main character (transgender father), acts as an “idiot.”
Jenni Konner chose the seventh episode of the first season of Girls (total of ten seasons) as a good example of what the series makes possible: “Two of the series’ main characters meet up only after seven episodes.”
These talented people find the time to develop their intrigues and characters. And it ends up being the most precious of all commodities. Transparent and Togetherness have just been renewed for a second season, but their authors are keen on maintaining artistic control and confess that they need to learn to delegate better when producing their next episodes because of a lack of available time… To release some pressure and focus on their other projects, the Duplass brothers reached an agreement with Netflix to produce four films that will distributed on its site after a short release in theatres. “We consider Togetherness as a film… for our lives. We therefore need to keep tabs on our time and our energy levels.” Coming from filmmaking, an industry that enshrines the idea of the director-as-king, the Duplass brothers and Fukunaga have learned that a TV series (or “episodic storytelling” seeing as we are at Sundance) is a shared art that requires teamwork whether they like it or not. Although it didn’t come up during the panel, Fukunaga learned a hard lesson in the case of True Detective when he negotiated his creative role with Nic Pizzolatto, the series’ creator and showrunner, who had him re-edit some of the episodes.
For those in attendance who were expecting an instruction manual on how to produce series, the final words went to Jill Soloway: “I do not create interesting characters, I don’t even know how to. All I can do is work with love, passion and attention.”