“Where’s the female Woody Allen?”

"Afternoon Delight" director Jill Soloway talks on Lena Dunham, unlikeable characters, and women behind the camera

Topics: Jill Soloway, Afternoon Delight, Movies, women in hollywood, Editor's Picks, Lena Dunham, Girls,

"Where's the female Woody Allen?"Jill Soloway (Credit: AP/Victoria Will)

If you’re interested in movies about ordinary women struggling with ordinary challenges, these days you’re pretty much out of luck. Instead, at the local Cineplex, you’ll be forced to choose between shallow, celebrity-obsessed girls on a crime spree, shy monster-robot operators who defer to their overbearing patriarchs, and neurotic Upper East Side socialites who gave up their lives for their scoundrel husbands.

In writer/director Jill Soloway’s film “Afternoon Delight,” though, we find Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a wife and mother with a comfortable life who nonetheless seems uncomfortable with almost everything – her husband, her aimless days, her lost youth, the other mothers at her kid’s school. To make matters worse, she feels terribly guilty for wanting more from her life.

But as easy as it might be to lump Rachel in with every other wealthy white woman lamenting her way through her charmed life, “Afternoon Delight’s” portrayal of Rachel’s alienation from herself, her sex life and even her own right to examine what’s gone wrong feels fresh, intelligent and nuanced. Even as Rachel loses her grip and invites a stripper to live with her and her entire world goes haywire, we discover something rare in film today: a woman with relatable desires and flaws, trying desperately to get back some feeling she lost along the way.

Soloway, whose credits include “Six Feet Under,” “The United States of Tara” and the memoir “Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants,” won the directing award at Sundance for this, her debut film. Salon visited Soloway in the offices where she served as consulting producer on HBO’s untitled Michael Lannon dramedy project to talk with her about her portrait of a wife and mother who refuses to fade into some asexual, child-focused background. Along the way, the discussion ranged from mom culture to Lena Dunham’s influence to the complications of creating complex female characters.

What inspired you to make a film about a mother casting about for her lost sexual self?



I felt like there was a hole in the popular culture for this audience I call Moms Who Don’t Want To Be Mommed To. I feel that if you’re interested in the Internet at all and you’re a mom, you’re very quickly into your mommy blogs. A-List Mom. Or you’re on blogs where you’re talking about immunization or a great stroller. If not, you’re in the beauty space where you’re looking at fashion or shoes. I’ve long felt there was a lack of great content that I would call Esquire for women. Esquire is for grown-up men. It’s about ideas, and it’s sexy and smart. So I’ve always felt that there’s this missing piece for women.

There’s this unquenched need for the women I know to be approached as women with minds. Where’s the female Woody Allen voice? Where’s the female Albert Brooks voice? Where’s the fucked-up female protagonist who shambles into fucked-up situations involving sex, comedy, life? Woody Allen says he doesn’t like antagonists because he says that life is the antagonist. So I’ve always wanted to do that for women.

Is it frightening to try to write a female character that’s dysfunctional in the same ways that comical male characters are?

Yeah, it is. I absolutely feel like Lena Dunham shifted things, so that when I was talking about what I wanted to do [with this film], I didn’t have to start from scratch, I could just say, “Like ‘Girls,’ but grown-up. Like ‘Girls’ but with better sex, about life and family, relationship, intimacy.” I think at one point I did have to ask myself, “If I don’t want to murder Lena Dunham in her sleep, I have to ask myself what I know that she doesn’t.” I know about marriage. I know about sex. I know about motherhood. And what would it mean for me to confront my fear of really writing and directing honestly for women in the way I feel that she does, which is what makes me jealous of her? So that was a little bit of it. When I look at people I feel jealousy toward, I have to ask myself why.

I’m wondering if you also feel envious of people who are creating wildly popular things that you don’t admire? 

No. I get more jealous of people who are doing the thing I want to do. I don’t get mad at Kim Kardashian.

My audience is women who are aspirational about ideas instead of things. Women who want to get smarter, have more fun, have better sex, have better marriages, but who don’t want to receive their content through ads for fashion or ads for mommy things. They do not see themselves as consumers of the Jimmy Choo shoe.  

In “Afternoon Delight,” your portrayal of the sometimes alienating experience of socializing with the mothers from your kid’s school is pretty vivid. 

When I first wrote the movie, it took place in Chicago and the moms were gonna be Evanston moms. And then we thought about shooting in San Francisco and the moms were going to be Marin moms. And then we were running out of time and a huge bag of money didn’t drop out of the sky, so we said, “We’re shooting in Silver Lake.” So the first impulse was a practical one: “I’m probably going to have to cast my friends and use my kid’s school.” So there are different types. Jenny is the mom at every school who’s on every committee and she doesn’t work and she gets loved and powerful.

There’s a sense that, due to Rachel’s alienation from the other moms, she has to make a big mess in order to be seen for who she is. What is it about mom culture today that makes women feel like they’re on the outside? 

A lot of the women who see the movie, especially the uber mom or the perfect mom or the Jewish mom, they all actually see themselves as Rachel. All the moms feel like they’re the one who stands out, they’re the one who’s not getting something. So many people have said to me, “I know those moms,” not “I am that mom.” That was surprising. The movie is about this question of labels, this idea that “mom” is on one side and “hooker” is on the other side. “Stay at home mom” vs. “stripper.” “Slut” vs. “sexless.” “Slut” goes with other women, dangerous women, my past. My promiscuity, my interest in objectifying myself. The movie is about a woman who is split, who allows herself to be lost in the canyon of this split. And [after visiting a strip club with her husband] she goes back and asks, “Who was that woman who gave me the lap dance? I’m going back to rescue her.” But she’s actually going back to find this lost part of herself.

It’s almost purposefully vague whether Rachel is in love with the girl or not. 

In the script, when she’s getting the lap dance, I wrote, “She can’t tell how she’s feeling. Is it motherly-ness, is it sisterly-ness, is it sexual attraction?” I wanted all three to be mixed up together. I have a producer who’s a guy who said, “I think you really need to choose whether she wants to mother her or have sex with her.” But I said, “Not only do I not need to choose, but not choosing is what this movie is all about.” Allowing her to be both, sometimes at the same time, is something I’ve never seen before. If I don’t achieve both, the movie won’t have achieved what I meant to achieve. It’s about repairing those two roles.

Repairing?

I have an awesome theater guru who said, “What you’re doing, Jill, is you’re repairing the divided feminine in our culture.” There’s this broken feminine, and I’m always telling stories that try to stitch them back together.

Can you describe that divide more specifically?

The age-old Madonna-whore, mother-whore, and the notion you can’t be both at the same time. And you really can’t. It’s a lot of work. The world is right. But if you don’t at least have some willingness to be both inside of you, within your psyche, I think you’re kind of half a person.

This is going to sound really sad and anti-woman, but I remember early on feeling like I needed to become a writer so people would talk to me at parties when I wasn’t attractive anymore. I said, “I want to be like Fran Lebowitz. It doesn’t matter how old she gets, wherever she’s sitting at the party, people want to be near her, and hear what she’s saying.” So I looked at women like her or Susan Sontag or Joan Didion or Gloria Steinem who you’d move towards if you saw them anywhere. Their magnetism has nothing to do with whether or not you want to fuck them. Their magnetism lies in the fact that you want to be seen by them.

But in your movie you seem to imply that even if you had that kind of personal power, you might still …

You’re still craving the sexual part of yourself, or the part that does like to be looked at. I do think it’s about trying to cobble together an identity through all of these needs. The need to be known as a person who thinks and has ideas and makes art and to be seen through your ability to contribute to the culture, but then also to recognize that being in your body and feeling sexy and wanting to have sex is physical, it’s not about your brain and you’ve got to find a way to get there.

Why do you think you have to get there? What are the stakes? 

I think if you want to be heterosexual and connected to any femininity that involves being seen, being taken in, being adored … You have to hold onto that stuff somehow. I think that’s wholeness. I think men have triumphed culturally because women find this kind of wholeness so hard to come by [in our culture]. If we could embody this wholeness, and be contributors of great ideas as well as feeling connected to our bodies, feeling beautiful, feeling necessary, we could be unbelievable. But people are usually just choosing one or the other, and the lack on one side is kind of defining them. “I’m not hot enough, I’m not smart enough …”

Do you think it’s an oversimplification that we can be objectified and heard at the same time? Under current cultural circumstances, is being whole in the way you describe achievable? 

No, not under current cultural circumstances. I mean, even just thinking about Hanna Rosin’s book (“The End of Men”) … The two Hannahs, let’s say, Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls,” and Hanna Rosin and her book. The thing Lena does the best, with regards to this conversation, is she says, “I don’t give a fuck how I look, I’m gonna be funny, I’m gonna be brilliant, I’m gonna be new.” Her entitlement — not just her artistic entitlement — is difficult for people. What did it mean to grow up the child of two artists? Her artistic entitlement bestowed upon her this physical entitlement. “Fuck anybody who doesn’t think I’m hot. I’m looking, I’m not worried about being looked at.”

But I think what Hanna Rosin’s book says is, “Good luck, ladies. Good luck getting men who want to support you. Good luck getting men to be faithful to you. Good luck keeping men off the Internet jerking off to gang-bang porn where you’re being completely dehumanized. Good luck finding a guy who makes more money than you who wants to make your life easier by supporting you while you’re pregnant.” Women used to say, “How can we have the other half?” And instead of men saying, “We’ll take the other half as well so you can take care of the kids, take care of the home, be schooled in the arts of love and beauty, and you can work your ass off.” Instead of sharing the other half, the male response is, “Do it all. And we’ll be over here feeling like shit about ourselves.” Something huge needs to shift, culturally. I don’t think that’s going to happen for about 20 years. Women are capable of so much, and there is a terror in that for men, and for women. And there’s exhaustion.

What’s your response to people who say, “This is a movie about really wealthy women”? There can be countless movies about rich white men, but when rich white women try to get into the mix, they’re invariably demeaned as …

White People Problems. But I think everybody is loaded right now, compared to those in the second and third worlds. Most of us have more than we could ever need. In terms of our access to comfort, we have plenty. Everybody has plenty. Including people who don’t have a retirement plan or millions of dollars in the bank. Everyone has access to every single thing they would ever need.

Well … everybody? 

Most people. If you’re downloading a movie on iTunes, if you’re going to the movie theater, you are relatively comfortable.

There’s pretty wide range of daily experiences within that category. 

Well, I was watching these Cassavettes movies to figure out “How does it feel to be out of control at a dinner party?” “How does it feel to be out of control at a poker game?” So to be asked to talk about who is and isn’t at the dinner party, or where the dinner party is taking place, it just seems absurd. But I get that people go there. Lena Dunham takes the same criticism.

It’s interesting that it’s somehow pathetic and indulgent for upper-middle-class women to tell their own stories, but when it comes to looks, only the top .001 percent of females are considered attractive enough to show their faces on-screen.

When you meet people at networks, they’re always talking about wish fulfillment for women. Wish fulfillment for women, to them, is being hot. But the truth is, wish fulfillment for women is that Patrick Wilson wants to fuck you no matter how you look. That’s wish fulfillment: I’m the subject, I’m the seer, I’m in the driver’s seat, I’m the protagonist, and I don’t have to be perfect to earn the right to be looked at for two hours. You have Marlon Brando, James Gandolfini, Seth Rogen, John C. Reilly. Ordinary men can be the protagonist in a movie. They wouldn’t give Kathy Bates her own movie.

“The Heat” surprised me. To put Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock in their own comedic vehicle? That feels like a shift in the right direction.

The climate is changing, right now. We are so lucky, because it is changing. And the fact that it feels like a revolution is so stupid. Twenty years ago, you could have a movie like “48 Hours,” but it’s taken this long for us to say, “How about ‘The Heat’?” Why has it taken so long?

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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