How Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins Made I Love Dick, the Most Unlikely TV Show in the Era of Unlikely TV
The story behind a TV show about artists in Marfa, based on a cult feminist novel heavy on theory, and adapted by an all-women writer’s room.
There’s nothing like I Love Dick on TV, even the new TV show I Love Dick. The Amazon Original series, which drops Friday and takes the 1997 auto-fiction cult classic of the same name by Chris Kraus and expands it into an eight-series season, multiplying and magnifying the universe of the original. As in the book, Chris Kraus, played by a blithely neurotic Kathryn Hahn, finds an outlet for her pent-up energies in Dick (a clipped Kevin Bacon), who in the show is a macho artist running a prestigious Marfa institute (his pièce de résistance, FYI: a single sculptural brick). Chris, to her husband Sylvère’s fascination, writes experimental, sexually-charged letters to Dick. These then intersect with and complicate the lives of other women she encounters in town, such as Devon, her house caretaker; Toby, a young academic on a fellowship; and Paula, a curator at the institute. Amid all this, clips from seminal work by artists such as Carolee Schneemann as well as contemporary work by artists like Martine Syms are braided into the fabric of the show. The show’s creators, the playwright Sarah Gubbins and Jill Soloway of Transparent, elaborate on art and the female gaze on TV, why they made a strict no-white-men rule for their writer’s room, and how to put Dick into a post-election world.
How did you first come across I Love Dick, and why did you decide you wanted this to be your next project?
Jill Soloway: Sarah Gubbins sent me an article that had been in The New Yorker about the book, and neither of us could believe that there was this really cool feminist book out there called I Love Dick and we didn’t know about it. That was pretty shocking. And I started reading it, and I was immediately struck by the relationship between Chris and Sylvère [played by Griffine Dunne in the show]. Here was a couple where a woman told her husband about a crush she was having, and her husband says, “Tell me more.” It didn’t become your typical story about a secret. It became this love triangle where they both attempted to make their marriage big enough to hold this crush. And I think it’s just really a special idea, not only for women but also for men, to have a heroic man who attempts to stay in love with his wife through all of this.
There are differences between the book and the show—additional characters, the Marfa setting, even Dick, who’s now an artist. How did you come to those choices?
Sarah Gubbins: Let’s start with the setting. There’s something about setting it in Marfa. Marfa, Texas, is a town that is a container of mysteries and complexities. There’s just so many different biospheres existing there. There’s ranchers who beget oil money who have children who get involved in the art world who create galleries and an art scene. There’s New York hipsters who are tired of Brooklyn who move to Marfa to drop out of the world. There’re border patrols. There’re three generations of Mexican-Americans. And then there’s just regular Marfans who have driven through and decided to stay. There’s bikers, there’s cowboys. It’s a hotbed for a soap opera. And it’s an isolated place, so it also kept our characters in one town.
And what about the new characters?
Soloway: We added some characters because we really believe that, at this moment, women want to experience an intersectional feminism and want to be able to see the interplay of class and race and gender and desire. So we have Devon (Roberta Colindrez), who you would call Latinx, a genderqueer resident of Marfa who is on her own journey of discovery and art. We have Paula (Lily Mojekwu), who is African-American and is a curator at the institute, as well as Toby (played by India Menuez), who’s young and queer and undefinable. We wanted to show what happens when one woman connects to her desire how it affects all women.
On that, there’s a scene between Toby and Devon later in the season where Devon is confronting Toby’s performance art for being “subversive for the sake of being subversive,” where you have different feminisms coming up against each other. I was curious about the motives behind that scene, or what the commentary was there.
Soloway: I think so many women have that initial fear when they think of getting involved politically or artistically, that, like, Oh I’m going to upset somebody. There’s a lot of feminist arguments that are at these kinds of standstills, where when you’re talking about something like porn or sex work we’re at these dead ends, where women are in total disagreement about whether or not certain things are feminist. And what we really wanted to do with this show is inspire a love for the argument and a love for being not only sexy but also just being brainy. These two people [Toby and Devon] are lovers but they also have great conversations about ideas where they come up against each other. For me, that scene where Devon is out of nowhere having this great argument with her lover about what privilege means is, to me, a great way to take some of these buzzwords that are in our culture, like “privilege,” and put them into action in a very soap-opera story.
Chris Kraus is a consultant on the show. What was her involvement like, especially with the changes and morphing of the material?
Gubbins: Chris was very supportive of us taking the book and running with it. She met Kathryn, she came to set, she came to table reads of the scripts. She was just very supportive of us living in the truth of what kind of compelled her to write this, and to really see it and imagine it as our own. She was in no way wanting us to revere the book and make a letter-perfect adaptation of it. She wanted to see how the book lived in us and live in a television show that we envisioned.
There was an all-female writers room, and lots of great female directors like Kimberly Peirce and Andrea Arnold working on this as well. Did you have to fight to get that environment?
Soloway: A little bit. Amazon let us make the final decisions but occasionally they’d say like, “Ok, just, like, one guy in the writer’s room? Just one guy?” And we kept making a stand for having all women. It wasn’t because we have anything against men or that it may or may not have been helpful to have a male voice. The reason we wanted an all-female writers room is because something happens in a room when there aren’t any cis men, when women are sitting in a circle and there isn’t that white male voice saying, “Well, hold on a second, let me tell you how I see things.” And you know, men can’t help it. They’ve been told their whole lives that the way they see things is the same as reality. But women are starting to just grab hold of protagonism and say, “Wait a second, wait a second—my reality is reality, and I want to be the subject.”
The thing that was the most exciting thing for me was that each day, as we all gave birth to new ideas and just had jam sessions of possibility, we became smarter. We became more alive. Our brains caught on fire from the feeling of having a bunch of women around going, “Yeah, tell me more.” And not having that one voice in the room which would be the guy who would say something like, “Ehhh, hold on a second, you know, she’s not really likeable, lemme turn the car this way a little bit.” Not having that voice in the room did create this almost whirlpool feeling of aliveness among all these female and gender nonconforming writers. It’s just an amazing space to be in because we get to rethink what the default setting of being alive means.
There’s scenes about wanting to have sex with Jesus, some nude performance art … did you get any kind of pushback on what the boundaries were with the content of the show?
Gubbins: We did get a note from Amazon that they would be interested in us exploring the gaping a little bit further.
Soloway: “Keep going with what she’s doing in her porn studies! Keep going with this exploration of female desire!” They weren’t afraid at all.
Gubbins: They were so excited about the feminist films that were sprinkled in throughout the episodes. They found it really exciting. … They wanted it to be the show we wanted to make, not the show that they had seen before.
I wanted to ask about those films dropped in…
Soloway: There’s a woman named Logan Kibbins, who was our film curator. I was thinking about making a website where people could refer to them. I would love it if I Love Dick was used as a class or a curriculum where you could talk about the history of the female gaze. There are so many amazing films that we used by people like Naomi Uman and Cauleen Smith and Petra Cortright and lots of clips from other filmmakers…
Gubbins: Chantal Ackerman…
Soloway: Sally Potter, Maya Deren…
Gubbins: It’s so fun!
Soloway: Carolee Schneemann…
Gubbins: We think of it like hip-hop, where we’re sampling for the language of our show.
It’s very true that there’s really nothing like this on TV or streaming. Obviously you have art-historical reference points that are actually in the body of the show. What were some of the things you were thinking about in the writer’s room or in production as references?
Soloway: Well, Andrea Arnold was huge for us and she’s somebody who I see as one of the inventors of the female gaze in filmmaking. She totally inspired me. So knowing that she was coming and that she was going to be directing half the season just put so much fuel in our rocket. Is that too masculine to say?
Gubbins: No, I don’t think so.
Soloway: It lined our uteruses.
Gubbins: The other one is you’re writing for Kathryn Hahn. You’re writing for Kathryn Hahn every episode, who will, whatever you hand her, stay hungry for more. That really put our brains and our guts on fire. It was really just the blue sky of Marfa, knowing that Giant, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, these movies were made there, these testaments to masculinity and salutes to maleness. And here we are going into Marfa with our camera, with Andrea Arnold and Kathyrn Hahn. It feels like so seditious, like we’re starting our own feminist revolution…
You just reminded me of my last question. You made this during a very different time in America, with a different climate in mind for when the show would come out. How’s that changed your posturing about putting this out there?
Soloway: It’s huge. Before the election maybe someone could have accused Chris of, like, “What are you whining about?” After the election it is just so obvious the violent toll the patriarchy takes on our psyches. I remember the morning after the election going to set and being like, “Louder! Uglier! Crazier! Let’s just keep exploding. Go further.” And I think a lot of women are so angry after the election that I think it’d be nice for them to have this feeling where they watch this show and they feel sisterhood, they feel corroborated, and they feel like they’re not alone. Recognized.
Gubbins: Also, we’ve been so depressed. We need something to basically stroke our libido again.
Soloway: I know some women who haven’t had sex since the election. Watching the show made them wanna do it again.
Why India Salvor Menuez has always been comfortable being naked: