Interview: Gillian Robespierre

Obvious Child - Gillian Robespierre

I meet Obvious Child filmmaker and writer Gillian Robespierre and her co-writer and collaborator Elisabeth Holm on the back patio of a Summerhill coffee shop in Toronto and I’m immediately in awe of how much energy they have left after promoting their little labour of love film (and one of the biggest indie sleeper hits of the summer) after spending not only the past several months following the film’s premiere in Sundance promoting, but also because they have stuck with the material itself for several years now. The love they have for their creation is something special, especially after their tireless promotional efforts.

The journey of Obvious Child (now playing in select Canadian cities and spreading wider throughout the season actually began back in 2009, when Robsepierre directed and co-wrote a short starring actress and stand up-comic Jenny Slate about a woman dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. Several years later with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the film became fleshed out to a full length production while maintaining a similar story arc and Slate in the lead.

Slate stars as Donna, a struggling stand-up comic on the verge of losing her day job who has just been dumped in the washroom at one of her gigs. Distraught, a string of drunken decisions leads to her hooking up with someone who’s probably a genuinely nice guy. The biggest problem being that she ends up pregnant and she has to figure out not only how to use the experience to take stock of her own life, but how to break it to her one night stand.

Obviously the film has been getting a lot of press over the past several months regarding how frankly and wonderfully the film deals with the subject of abortion and female sexuality in general, so when I sat down with Robespierre and Holm, I tried not to ask the obvious stuff that has come up over the past several months. We chatted while she was in town for a talk at the Canadian Film Centre about how she feels about getting asked the same questions repeatedly, crafting the film’s stand-up routines and family dynamics, and how to deal with people who could potentially have their own agendas.

Dork Shelf: Now, I usually like to not ask questions that I can Google the answers to, and I know that you have been promoting the film for over six months now since it debuted at Sundance. I’ve noticed from interviews that you’ve done that you tend to get asked the same questions over and over again, predominantly questions about the abortion aspect of the film or what it’s like being a woman and creating a film with such a strong leading female character. I was wondering how you react to being asked the same things now for so long and how that makes you feel. It seems like with this film most people you talk to are fixated on the same things.

Gillian Robespierre - F2Gillian Robespierre: You know, I think being repetitive sometimes makes you feel like you’re gonna go to an insane asylum, but I’m always excited to continue to talk openly about a romantic comedy with a strong female lead that also talks about abortion, and that we can say that word without feeling that sort of stigma. Although, right now I kind of feel it since we’re in this [whispers] super quiet coffee shop. (laughs)

I think it’s exciting to have these dialogues with strangers, who often tend to be film critics, and to talk about a story that creates a dialogue for access to a safe and positive abortion through creating a funny character.

I always like revisiting Donna. I’ve lived with this character now for five years, but I think she’s always a part of us as collaborators on this story. She means a lot to all of us, and she’s someone that we put a lot of thought into. I really respect her and I really like her, so I really never mind talking about the same things about her experience. She’s a real person, and I love talking about how we create her parents where everything came from; to talk about the creative ideas and how they were birthed.

I don’t really get sick of being a broken record. There’s a hospital in New York City called Bellvue where the crazy people go, and two weeks ago I thought I was going to end up there. (laughs) Then I took a couple of weeks off from talking about the movie and I missed it. I missed going around and touring with Jenny and Liz and going to Q&As and hearing what the crowd has to say. I missed sneaking in to the movie ten minutes before it ends and listening to people laugh. I’m proud of it and I love talking about her. I really do.

Although I might still be going to Bellvue, soon. (laughs)

DS: You never know, you might be able to use the rest.

GR: (laughs) No! I never want to rest. We’re actually writing our new movie right now, so I have a whole new thing to get excited about.

DS: What are you working on now?

GR: It’s titled Untitled Divorce Comedy. (laughs) We’re in the early stages of getting our divorce on. (laughs)

DS: One of the things that you touched on is what I think is one of the best things about the film, which is that it does create a way that you can have this kind of dialogue in a fun and safe way through a character that has a very deeply confessional kind of profession. Donna doesn’t pull any punches on stage, and when she’s up there she can say anything at any kind of time. What’s it like trying to balance the bracing nature of a stand-up comic while fostering a safe environment where you can have this conversation about abortion?

GR: When we decided to make her a comic, it was a great way to set up a character who had this great amount of confidence. Enough confidence that she could actively go on stage and say these things. She’s somebody who isn’t afraid to expose herself openly to strangers, but when we look at her own life we can explore the softer and gentler side of her, and that tends to be a lot more passive and meek. Part of that is her personality, but part of that is just about being dumped, and I think that vulnerability helps to foster that sense of safety. She might be relishing that pain just a little too much. On stage she gets to relish it, but in a really confessional, radical, and wild way, while off stage she’s a little quiet. She’s not always a performer in her life. It was important to make it known to the audience to let them know where she’s at in all stages of her life. In one place we can have her say all these really wacky things, but we can also let the audience know exactly where she is.

DS: One of the most powerful and awkwardly funny parts of the movie is when Donna comes out on stage to do her set and she lets it be known to the audience that she’s going to get an abortion. That’s the point where she can make an act out of something on stage, but you can also see that vulnerability creep into her act. How much of that particular scene was in the writing and how much of that was in Jenny’s delivery?

GR: It was a great combination of both. Liz and I are not stand-up comedians, and yet we attempted to write a comedy about them. Jenny and Gabe (Liedman) had both been doing it since they were 22. When they read it, they both laughed at what we had come up with, and they were very gracious and they loved it, but they both said, “Well, let’s work with it.”

We got to do a workshop in San Francisco where a lot of jokes were created that day. It was actually paid for by the San Francisco Film Society. They flew Liz, Jenny, myself, Gaby Hoffman, and Gabe out, and we had a table read in the morning. Then we had Gabe do stand-up. Then Jenny did stand-up. Gabe actually created a joke that ended up going into his comedy special that aired on Comedy Central. It was so cool to be a part of that and to just be in the room and watch them work.

Then on the day when we shot all of the comedy scenes, we really took what was on the page and turned it into bullet points to sort of get that natural feel. There’s a ton of stand-up that’s on the cutting room floor, and it should stay there, but it’s important to get that authentic tone by giving someone like Jenny the opportunity to do a set that feels real. It had to feel like it was 10pm in Brooklyn, and not 7am in Brooklyn.

And to get to those quieter moments to have a payoff for both of those story elements, sometimes she had to go big. Sitting down to write the scripts, we found that we went really big in early drafts. We scaled it back over time, and I think the same thing is to be said about that kind of performance, especially when it’s supposed to be a live and off the cuff kind of performance. We still had to make it know that she had thought it through and that she knew what she was going to do that day. She always knew that night she was going to have this bit. She was going to do it no matter what, regardless if the guy was there or not. This was something for her, not for her to tell him. It was never a device to do this confessional style of comedy. And to get to those quieter moments, Jenny would go big with her delivery in the moment.

We found when we got back to the editing room that there was a lot of great beats that we could insert and sort of find the tone of the comedy. It’s in those quieter beats that she takes.

DS: It’s cool that you’re working on a film about divorce next, because one of the thing I think a lot of people tend to miss when talking about this film is the relationship that Donna has to her divorced parents. You can really see how Donna has become the person she is today. You can see that she gets her irrepressible kind of spirit from her dad and her neuroses from her mother. What was it like getting Jenny with Richard Kind and Polly Draper to have them create this family dynamic?

GR: It was really fun! We didn’t have any time to rehearse, so it helped that we got the perfect people. Polly was always going to be the perfect mom. We wanted her to be this sort of cerebral, academic, and closed person who opens up only the more that we get to know her and the dynamic that she has with Donna. And pairing Richard Kind with Jenny was something that was consistently funny take after take. We have a ton of great jokes. The bit about having spaghetti with honey was all his doing. I have never had spaghetti with honey, have you? (laughs)

DS: (laughs) I had never even heard of it before now.

GR: But Richard is just one of the warmest people imaginable. He and Jenny hugged and acted affectionate. They enjoyed making each other laugh. That was one of the best days on set because it felt like everyone just giggled their way through the day.

DS: And that really plays into that kind of divorce theme in the film. Donna’s dad comes across as more of a best friend kind of character, while her mother seems like she was always the kind of “super parent” who thought she had to do everything herself because it seems like he never really had to do too much of the actual parenting. That’s something when it comes to divorce that you really can only see as an adult: you have the one parent who is more friendly and the other that’s more parental.

GR: Interesting. I never really thought or it that way. I always saw him as just being someone who would give his daughter a place to sleep and feed her, and to do all these very paternal things – like putting a blanket over Donna when she falls asleep – but I guess he really is paternal in the only way that he really knows how. What we tried to create was this sense that these were parents who are still very much co-parents. Some of what you said might be true, but we wanted to make it known that they weren’t awful or vindictive to each other. Neither would ever say “You’re definitely your mother’s daughter” or “You’re so much like your father.”

Elisabeth Holm: Yeah, they still speak to each other and share that connection with their daughter, and they’re going to care about the way the other person is caring for their daughter.

GR: It’s very much a new kind of nuclear family.

DS: Before I go, I just wanted to go back to the first question I sort of asked. When people talk to you about the abortion aspect of the film – because it is in issue that so many people feel strongly about – do you ever feel or get the sense that the person asking you the question is trying to get a specific answer to the question and not necessarily taking it at face value as the story of a woman and her journey through life? Do you think to some degree the perception of the film of being expressly about abortion has in some way clouded the film at all?

GR: Interesting, but I don’t know. I can’t really speak for other people who come to me with those questions and say that they’re trying to find something to forward their own agenda. I know that when the issue is brought up that people always want to ask about how hard it was to get a film that talks about abortion in such a way made.

I mean, it’s hard to get ANY movie made. We worked really long and hard to get this story made, but not because of the abortion thing. Honestly, it just takes long to get a script, to hire people, to get funding, to get all these moving parts to a point where you can say action on your first day. Then it’s about getting into something as great as Sundance and finding distribution and all those new challenges.

So when it gets asked about how hard it is to make a film about abortion, my answer always seems to bum people out. (laughs) When I tell them that everyone was really excited and on board to tell this story in this way, that’s really just the way it was. And if anyone who really asks about that has their own agenda, I just tell them the story of how it was made, and I think that usually shuts them up. (laughs)

Elisabeth Holm: I think we made this movie, among other reasons, to start a dialogue and to be a part of a conversation, and we can’t be afraid of having that conversation no matter what side or whatever opinion they have on this kind of a choice or a decision. I think we’re excited about engaging in that. It would be foolish of any of us involved with the film to think that we wanted it to exist in a vacuum where the only people who would ever talk about it would be the like-minded. It’s intentional, and hopefully people come to the film with their own experiences and leave wanting to talk about them. Sometimes that conversation is heated. Sometimes it’s thoughtful. Sometimes it’s both. I think we’re grateful for the opportunity to be a part of that.