FilmInterview

Director Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate Talk “Obvious Child”

Griffin Conlogue ’15 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24 Films.
Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24 Films.

First time director Gillian Robespierre has hit the scene and turned some heads with her recently released film, Obvious Child.

The film is about a young stand up comedian whose life begins to fall apart when her boyfriend dumps her and the bookstore she works at closes down. When she gets pregnant after a one-night stand she decides to get an abortion. The film is a hilarious and honest look at a young woman whose life is falling apart. Emertainment Monthly recently got the chance to sit down with a group of critics to talk to Robespierre and the star of the film, Jenny Slate.

The roundtable went as follows (questions from Emertainment Monthly are marked with an asterisk).

Can you describe a little bit how you went from adapting a short to a feature length film?

Gillian Robespierre: I got Final Draft 7. It’s true though; I had to get Final Draft. I wrote the short on WordPerfect.  We started as this little story in 2009. We shot in four days in Brooklyn with no money, and no real wardrobe, all of the crew was friends from the School of Visual Arts where I went on 23rd street in Manhattan, and we were all in our mid-twenties, so no one had a full time job. So we were able to just shoot this movie and what was exciting was that in the editing room I noticed there was something special in Jenny’s performance, that it was incredible and with this 16 page short I had a 30 minute rough cut, and I thought if I just had a couple more thousand dollars, and, you know, 50 more pages, this story could be told in a feature length. But we didn’t have any of those, so I finished editing it down to 20 minutes, which is not super short for a short.

We got into some festivals, we got talked about on my favorite blogs like Feministing and Bust and Jezebel, they would write about it and write really interesting things about the performances and the topics we were talking about and they linked the short to the articles which was amazing because shorts don’t usually get that kinda coverage, and it did really well for a short and it was just really inspiring and exciting for me to turn it into a feature. I saw it in the editing room, I just didn’t have the story yet or the footage. And I’m glad, because we all had to mature as storytellers and creators.

Was there any chatter from your least favorite blogs?

Robespierre: Not really? I don’t think twitter really existed yet, or I didn’t have a twitter account.

Jenny Slate: I don’t think anyone really did.

I’m just surprised more conservative publications didn’t have something to say.

Robespierre: Some did!

Yeah, that was kind of my question. How do you sell this movie to small-town middle America? Or do you?

Robespierre: I wrote it for everybody. And the goal was, hopefully, because of the internet, that people everywhere can see it. You don’t make something for one person, or small-town middle America, you hope that all young men and women will see it.

Slate: And it’s a comedy. You know? It’s something that is hard to learn being a comedian. Especially if you like people and you want everybody to be pleased. And you’re trying to make the most amount of people happy. It’s a hard thing to understand when you’re trying your hardest and you have fans that really love your work, that sometimes people don’t think some stuff is funny. It took awhile, just in terms of comedy, I would just sit down and think “well I guess I don’t like that person’s comedy at all, I can’t stand it” but they fill arenas. It is subjective, but for us we were coming at it like it’s a comedy, so we were gonna make the best of this type of comedy that we can make. And that’s the difference between it being a comedic film and an agenda film.

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24.
Jenny Slate in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24.

I found that when creators try to make a movie for everybody it becomes so weirdly watered down and so bland because they are trying to make this person happy and that person, and they are trying not to offend anyone. And then you just get this kinda movie that you’re like “well, what the hell is it then.”

Slate: And people that like it are psychos. Like, [miming like a robot] “Grown Ups is my favorite movie” or whatever and you’re like, “you’re… really, really plain.”

Robespierre: But we love Grown Ups.

SlateGrown Ups? Yeah… [laughs] I just meant like a big, big studio comedy.

What I loved about the film is that it tackles abortion in such an intimate manner, and it is a comedy about abortion, which I think is so ambitious, and I was wondering if it was hard to get the project launched because of that? I think the way that you handled it is so wonderful but it is subject matter that might be a hard sell. So I was wondering if you faced any difficulty getting the project launched.

Robespierre: This is a really boring answer, but no. It’s really cool too; it’s refreshing for critics to hear that. Making independent films, finding financing is super hard. It’s almost impossible to be a part of that percentage of people who do it, and get the chance to do it. But we worked really in developing the story and the script and I think when we finally felt like we could get it into the hands of people who would finance a low budget independent feature they were really excited to see Jenny Slate being in a movie like this and they were really excited by the story. And not too many doors were closed on us. I think that people were just ready for an authentic tone and an honest tone.

Slate: I think, for me, you treat the material thoughtfully, whatever your comedy is, you’re thoughtful about it. And I think we tried hard to be thoughtful. There’s nothing in the movie where Donna is ever like flipped or like it’s a throwaway for her to make the decision, it was really important for us to say that even though the decision was clear it doesn’t mean it wasn’t complicated.

Robespierre: That’s why I get annoyed with journalists who write “Abortion comedy.” We feel like it’s a little bigger than that. We weren’t as glib with Donna’s character.

Slate: You know we weren’t rough with it. We’re not giving noogies to the abortion.

So it’s not the abortion-y Sleepwalk With Me?

Slate: [Laughing] No, not at all. I wonder how Mr. Birbiglia would feel about that. He likes the movies; he’s a friend of mine and a lovely person. It’s nice to meet other people who have connected with him.

Now your character tells a room full of strangers that she’s pregnant and having an abortion, what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve said on stage?

Slate: What’s embarrassing to other people or embarrassing to me?

Either or!

Slate: The only time I’ve ever come off stage embarrassed was when I, for a little while, had stage fright. In those times it was really hard for me to be open and I got stage fright. It’s really weird; it’s like getting laryngitis. They weren’t really anxiety attacks but it would be much like the way we prepared for stand up in the film, so before I go on stage I’ll have a notebook and I’ll write like, “growing up, Milton, Dad, Dad’s bike, BBQ grill, fire in the woods,” and all of these different stories I want to tell and it creates a flow for me, a pattern, and I know where I will start and end. And I go and I go and I go and I don’t need to write anything down nor would I ever. A lot of times when restrictions are put on me my first reaction is to go like [making strange noises] You know? I don’t like that. So I would go up on stage and there would just be those bullet points, but because I was doubtful of myself and the people I was speaking to I was unable to create the webbing in between that is so important. And those were the times I was most embarrassed. I never really talk about my husband because I don’t, I’ll talk about something stupid I did in front of him or annoying or like, it’s totally in bounds for me to be like “my husband recently told me to stop telling him what every one of my shits was like.” And a lot of times when I come out of the bathroom he’s like “no no no!” So that can be the way I mention him, it’s not like it’s cause he’s so holy. I like the stuff you don’t wanna touch with your hands. I like talking about that stuff. And the more human it is and the more it comes from curiosity and self love and also like a little bit of being grossed out, the more I am proud of it.

Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24.
Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24.

So I thought a big reason the movie worked so well was your chemistry with Jake Lacy in the film, if you could just comment on how easy that was or how it came up that you were just so comfortable with each other on screen?

Slate: Chemistry is like a really weird thing because it’s not the same as meeting someone in real life that you are gonna partner with in a romantic way because you are there for work. And usually you don’t know that person at all or know about there life and often times it’s like you don’t wanna know. You only wanna know about the moment that you are in. So it comes down to what can you do together that is easy. For us we just laughed really well together. We both thought each other were really funny, he’s very kind and I think it’s just there. For me it’s about laughing.

Robespierre: They are both really focused, fantastic actors. I think that helps with the chemistry to have that comic timing and focus that both Jake and Jenny both really have both together and separate.

Slate: Jake was perfect. And I remember Gillian being like “it’s this guy!” And I remember IMBD-ing him and being like whoa, his birthday is on Valentine’s Day. And I was just like, that is such a sweet sign.

Robespierre: And he was Max, he just was.

Slate: The first day he showed up on set he was reading something in New York magazine that was a thing about all of the different sizes of trucks there are, and I was like “you couldn’t have picked a more boy, boy.”

Robespierre: But he’s not like that at all.

Slate: No, no he’s not like that at all. He actually is a trained actor, unlike me who’s like just a street dog.

What’s your next project?

Robespierre: I’m gonna be traveling with the movie a little bit. Jenny and I have a couple of more cities to hit, we have a real fancy premiere in LA.

Slate: [Whispers] Los Angeles… I’m going to Hollywood! [laughs] I’m completely degenerate. I’m sorry, I know this is a serious thing.

Did you find the longer you worked together the more you began to resemble each other?

Robespierre: I don’t think you can change your face.

Slate: No, you can. But we don’t change our faces. We stick with these faces.

Robespierre: [Pointing at her nose] Can this be bigger? This being my nose.

Slate: I think when we met we didn’t, I’m trying to remember what my personal style was, but we definitely liked a lot of the same stores. The more time we spent together I feel like, I dunno. Sometimes when Gabe and I go on stage we’ll realizes that our outfits are coordinated. And I do think it happens, I do like how Gilly dresses.

*How did you two meet?

Robespierre: At the Big Terrific.

Slate: That was my stand up show.

Robespierre: A stand up show that Gabe and Jenny would have every Wednesday night in the back of a record store.

Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24.
Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in Obvious Child. Photo Credit: A24.

*Were you looking for actors at this point or were you just enjoying the show?

Robespierre: It was a combination of both. I liked going to comedy, it was a part of my activities. I would just go to free comedy nights because I was a fan. But for going to Big Terrific it was a combination of wanting to go to this show but we were also in pre-production for the short. So it’s like those two just exploded.

Jenny, compared to the other roles that you’ve played, was Obvious Child easier for you to sympathize with because you’ve lived in Brooklyn and done stand up in Brooklyn?

Slate: Uh, I mean sometimes when something is so similar to you you really notice the differences between you and that thing. I was able to connect to it without any doubt because it was so textured. And there was so much information on the page because of how Gillian wrote it that all I really had to do was get there and be aware and focused. The things that made it easier for me was just the craft in the script.

How does it feel that people are saying this will be your breakout role?

Slate: I don’t know, when I think about the actresses I really admire and the performances that stick in my head are from when they are a lot older than I am now. And if this movie helps me to get more parts that are good, interesting parts then I really welcome that. It’s all I really wanted, to be a real movie actress. But when we made this movie I walked away feeling really complete, and saying to myself well, I just made a really close friend and just did a lot of things that I have only ever fantasized about in terms of performance and I learned a lot. And it is a complete thing for me. So I think it’s important for me to just stick to that, to just really stick to my own shit and keep my blinders on. But that said it’s important for me to have a good seat in my community. I hope that I can have a really long career like Ruth Gordon, who’s from Quincy, MA. Where my dad is from.

This is going to sound extremely random for those who haven’t heard but I listen to the episode of Call Chelsea Paretti that you were on, do you still wish your name was Susan?

Slate: I do! I do. I feel like my name should be Susan. I love that name. Nobody agrees with me, but sometimes I just look at myself and I feel heartbroken that my name isn’t Susan. Look at my turtleneck. I should be named Susan. Look at me right now.

Not to mention Susan Slate has a nice ring to it.

Slate: Susan Slate is the name of one of my cousins. I think Susan is a lovely name. Maybe in Gillian’s next movie my name will be Susan.

Robespierre: I can do that.

I think you used Susan once in the film and it made me really happy.

Slate: I do!

Robespierre: It’s not like Donna is a hip young name.

Slate: Donna is a great name too. I love Susan. And Susan Cohen is another one of my cousins. And when I was younger she was like the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She’s a beautiful woman. And I loved how she dressed and she always had beautiful blouses and stuff. And my image of a Susan is just a really together, stylish woman who’s just like, talking on the phone.

Robespierre: Maybe got a perm.

Slate: Yes, she had shoulder pads and beautiful glowing skin. Yes, that joke of “Hi Susan.” that thing, there’s a couple jokes in the movie that I’ve done before that I leant to the film. And that is one of them. I’ve been saying that Susan shit for years. That was an old one that cycled back through. It was hard to try to keep up those rhythms on stage and just make it natural so sometimes we would add some shit.

Obvious Child is in select theaters now.

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