UW-Madison alumna Jill Soloway says her Sundance Award-winning debut film is a tribute to sisterhood

Gregg Shapiro, Contributing writer

“Afternoon Delight,” UW-Madison alumna Jill Soloway’s feature film debut, is a delight any time of day. The film, which earned her the best director award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, follows a successful career as a theatrical producer and writer/producer for such television hits as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Six Feet Under” and “The United States of Tara.”

“Afternoon Delight” is the story of complacent-but-bored domestic goddess and mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, effortlessly stepping into a leading role). The primary features of Rachel’s life are a shaky marriage to Jeff (Josh Radnor), unfulfilling therapy appointments with Lenore (Jane Lynch) and dull female friendships.

But she’s transformed by a visit to a strip club. There, Rachel meets McKenna (Juno Temple in the best performance of her career). Rachel decides to make saving
McKenna her mission – a decision that forever changes both women’s lives.

The film “treads in some dangerous territory,” Soloway says, in that the “idea of the sex worker in need of rescue is only a few steps away from the idea of a queer person in need of rehabilitation.”

In the course of the film, “Rachel revolves through the poles of wanting to rescue McKenna, wanting to be McKenna and wanting to have sex with McKenna,” Soloway says.

I spoke with Soloway about the film shortly before it opened in theaters this summer.

What does it mean to you to have won the directing award at Sundance for your first full-length feature?

Jill Soloway: For me, the victory feels like a victory for feminism in comedy. Simply to make a movie about real women and what it means to be a woman today. It also has some deep dark stuff and some great sexy stuff and it achieves its goals as a comedy. To pull all that off – to me it feels like the meaning of the award for me.

I think it’s fair to say that with “Afternoon Delight,” you take your rightful place alongside female filmmakers such as Nicole Holofcener and Lisa Cholodenko.

Aside from the three of us all having “olo” in our names, we’re all women, we’re all Jewish women. I admire and love both of them. They are both amazing women. I met Lisa Cholodenko when she was a guest director on “Six Feet Under,” and she’s been incredibly supportive. They’ve both been incredibly supportive to me. There’s a real network of women directors out here in Los Angeles (and) we’re always reaching a hand out to each other.

How does working on a feature film compare with the cable series work you’ve done?

I honestly, at this point, am starting to feel like all content is content. I’m getting into the business of original content. I’m writing a pilot for Amazon. (The pilot, titled “Transparent,” is for a proposed series starring Jeffrey Tambor of “Arrested Development” as a transgender parent). I look at something like “Top of the Lake,” where at Sundance a lot of the filmmakers were going, “How does Jane Campion have a six-hour movie?” Then we get home and (find out) it’s her new TV series. Then you combine that with how a lot of filmmakers are trying to figure out how to get to their audiences. The way independent film is making it to audiences is through iTunes, through Netflix. So if a large percentage of the content is ultimately being received through your home television or home computer, and independent film is alive and well for those who like to go see independent films, to me there really isn’t that big of a difference. 

How much of Jill is in Rachel?

There’s a lot of me in her. I never have brought a stripper home. But I definitely have gotten confused during lap dances where I thought that the stripper wanted me to get her out of there (laughs). I’ve gotten a couple of lap dances in my life and have often had that feeling where, “Wow, we have a special connection. I see her unlike any of these other people in here see her.”

Sisterhood is powerful.

Sisterhood is powerful, exactly. Sisterhood is sexual – that should be the tagline (laughs).

Out actress Jane Lynch plays lesbian therapist Lenore in the film. You have consistently included queer characters in your work.

I feel like I come from a queer family. I feel like I am a queer artist, like I’ve always been sort of queer-adjacent. This movie was workshopped at a queer artists’ retreat called Radar LAB run by Michelle Tea from San Francisco, who is an inspiration to me. McKenna was inspired by a woman named Lorelei Lee that I met at that artists’ retreat. Antonia Crane is a sex worker that I met while I was performing in Michelle Tea’s Sister Spit (troupe). So sex workers, feminism, queer art are all alive in the same space for me. In some ways, I feel like it’s my work to be a translator between the queer world and the straight world.

“Afternoon Delight” also has a strong Jewish quotient. How were you raised?

We were raised culturally Jewish, but not in any way specifically religious or spiritual. (Now) I’m not really an observant Jew. I’m kind of interested in reinventing Jewish culture a little bit and doing some sort of community organizing with some sort of Jewy reinventy groups. But, no, I had bacon this morning (laughs).

As a graduate of UW-Madison, do you have fond memories of your time there?

Oh, yeah! There’s a whole (University of) Wisconsin thing in the movie. We’re going to be at UW-Madison in November. My cinematographer (Jim Frohna), went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Milwaukee. There’s a whole Wisconsin backstory.