Women of Sundance: Obvious Child
Gillian Robespierre, Elisabeth Holm and Jenny Slate are highly skilled comedians who are prone to self-deprecation and the bawdiest of humor that will make even the most sexually liberated feel prude.
When I went to Robespierre’s apartment to take their photo, however, it was not a time for gag humor with kitschy props (condoms were, for example, off limits). Their film, Obvious Child, written and directed by Robespierre, produced by Holm and starring Slate, is both bold in its humor and also its intent: to make a comedy that talks about real issues that women face – something usually saved for hard-hitting dramas.
I asked them to think of shots that would be representative of their film, and this lead us to taking photos of the three of them hanging out in Gillian’s living room, chatting in the bathroom, and drinking wine in the kitchen.
Obvious Child is as funny as it is provocative. It will make you laugh, cry, and open your eyes. And it will make you wonder why there aren’t more romantic comedies out there that go deeper – because it’s so satisfying when they do.
Below Robespierre, Holm and Slate answered my questions.
Filmmaker: For everyone: Why this movie? Why did you each decide to do it?
Robespierre: I made Obvious Child the short in the winter of 2009 with my friends Anna Bean and Karen Maine. After watching many films that end in childbirth, we were disenchanted with the representation of young women’s experience with becoming pregnant. We’ve been waiting to see a film in which a woman makes a different choice – and it doesn’t define her life. But we weren’t sure how long that wait was going to be. So we decided to make the film ourselves. It starred Jenny Slate and had a nice festival screening run. When we shared it on the Internet, it was really exciting to see that people were actually watching it (over 40,000 hits on Vimeo). But what was even cooler were the conversations it ignited. That truly inspired us to expand the story. Anyway, the short was just the starting point. A lot of the seeds of the feature developed after we started re-working the main character, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate). And it has really blossomed into its own piece.
Slate: Gillian and I have very similar tastes, and I admire her wit, her combination of bawdiness and true gentleness. I liked the idea of Gil, Liz and I walking into this together. The script is funny in just the way I like things to be funny, and I knew that I’d get to add bits of inanity and heart to what was already there. I’ve always been obsessed with movies that revolve around “New York ladies.” My favorite movie ever is Crossing Delancey. I saw it as a little girl, and from that moment on, I dreamed of being a certain kind of actress. I’ve done a lot of over the top comedy work, and I really enjoy that, but this movie offered me the chance to finally do what I’ve always wanted to do, and it felt just as good as I thought that it would.
Holm: In general I am interested in films about humans doing human things, and by that I guess mean, films that have a certain empathy for the inexhaustible reality of being a person who feels and does real things in the real world. I am equally enamored with Gillian, the 2009 Obvious Child short film she made with her friends Anna Bean and Karen Maine, and the incomparable Jenny Slate. I knew the feature was exactly the kind of honest, empathetic, hilarious, and deeply human story I wanted to dig into over the next few years, and especially in collaboration with these other incredible women. I just thought romantic comedy was the smartest, most intriguing, and most enjoyable means to tell this one woman’s story, and I hadn’t seen it told in this way before (other than the short of course!). A genre so typically for and about women seemed to be lacking this very honest narrative that I think a lot of people, regardless of gender, would be relieved to connect with, and it’s exciting to me as a filmmaker to be both celebrating and subverting those genre conventions — let alone making people laugh.
Filmmaker: How much of your crew was female? Was hiring women a consideration for you?
Robespierre: We had a pretty small crew but there were definitely a lot of women on set and running the show from behind the scenes. Karen Maine and Elisabeth Holm developed the feature script with with me. [A lot of women worked on the project:] Susan Leber/Sup Producer, Luisa Conlon/Associate Producer, Laura Klein/1 AD, Niki Janowski/ 2 AD, Lucy Munger/Script Sup, Evren Catlin/Costume design, Christine Hooghuis/ Hair and make-up, Mia Thompson/Locations…Because so many people responded to the script, Liz and I had the opportunity to interview a ton of talented people, but we never made a decision based on gender. It was always about skill, personality and who we connected most to. I’m proud of the team we assembled. It was an aggressive shooting schedule and I don’t think we had one day where we had anything but people coming together and sharing their skills and making lots of jokes .
Holm: Regardless of gender, we were most concerned with getting the best crew possible, not only their experience and skills, but equally their attitude and commitment to and passion for giving us their all. We were honored so much of our crew connected strongly to the work we were making, and that was really across the board for men and women. In the end, about a third of our crew was female include keys like our Supervising Producer, Associate Producer, Assistant Director, Production Designer, Costume Designer, and Locations Manager. It felt great to be surrounded by so many strong and thoughtful women, but we really were just so lucky with an incredible crew overall.
Filmmaker: This is your first feature as a leading lady. What sort of pressure or responsibilities did you feel being as such?
Slate: I felt the normal pressures that any human would feel when their face is going to be on a big screen for 90 or so minutes. But I love performing, and I’ve never gotten to do it with such focus, for such a sustained amount of time. I primarily felt very dreamy and fortunate to be back in New York, making a New York movie.
Filmmaker: How did you go about raising funding for it? (I ask this because most female filmmakers says that being female makes it harder to raise funds, so thought your story could be inspiring — I know this topic can be touchy feely, so answer it in the way that you are most comfortable with.)
Holm: Like most independent features these days, our financing came from a mix of equity, grants, and Kickstarter. We were supported by Rooftop Films and Tribeca Film Institute, and the San Francisco Film Society awarded a workshop that served as a in-kind development grant, affording the chance to workshop the script with our lead actors long before production. Executive Producer David Kaplan — a man! gasp! — was the first to join the project, believing that we really did have something special. From there we built an enviable team of EPs from Rooks Nest Entertainment, Sundial Pictures, and Votiv Films. We’re launching a Kickstarter project in early December to help finish the film this December and get everything together to premiere in Park City in January. Everyone was more than a financier, they were really encouraging collaborators who believed in our story and vision to bring it to life.
Robespierre: Liz did a really good job answering this question. BUT she forgot to mention another very important variable, which is Liz! Finding a teammate to do all this with is not an easy task. She believed in the story, in me and was instrumental not only in raising funds but also in the development of the entire project. Making a movie is so ridiculously awesome, strange, and hard, but in the end it’s all about who you partner up with.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the emotions of making this film.
Robespierre: Fucking crazy. I had a lot of anxiety about an 18-day shoot with not a lot of rehearsal time. And I love to rehearse! On top of that there were so many ups and downs that occurred during pre-production that nearly stopped my heart. At times I felt like a human percolator and I might literally explode. BUT all that went away when I stepped on set and we started to shoot. It felt like I could finally breathe. The very first take I ruined because I was laughing. Some scenes were so moving to watch that I would look around the monitor and would see crew welling up. My greatest achievement so far was that I’ve gotten these amazing actors to be in the movie and that they made a grip tear up.
Slate: Just so much affection. So much easygoing affection for what we were doing. I used to space out a bit in school as a kid, and I was made to feel by a couple of rotten, humorless teachers, that my inability to pay attention meant that I would maybe never get my shit together in general. Really, I bet I was just bored. During our shoot, I was actively proud of myself for being on the ball, for preparing well, for connecting and being both wild and in control. I felt strong, thrilled and grateful to be linked to Gil and Liz, like we were three wine drinking witches. I felt mysterious and crafty. That’s a good thing.
Holm: The emotions involved in creating anything you care deeply about are always intense! Making a movie is such a marathon of hurry-up-and-waits, of amazing highs, of both expected and unexpected lows, I can’t imagine why you’d bother to make this stuff if you didn’t in some way enjoy the emotionality of all that. With this film in particular I am just really humbled to be a part of sharing a story I believe is worth telling and proud and excited about the way we’re telling it. It feels good to be true to yourself in and through your work, and I definitely feel that here.
Filmmaker: There is a lot of male humor in this film (yes, I’m referring to the fart jokes) — do you think that is just your sensibility or was there some thinking toward a more gender neutral audience? Who do you hope is your audience? Men or women?
Slate: I 100% disagree with calling fart jokes “male humor.” That’s very old-fashioned. We didn’t have any sort of grand plan to lure different audience members into seeing our film. Gillian and I have very similar sensibilities when it comes to body related humor, and that’s why it’s there in the film, because it makes us laugh. And I hope that our audience is all humans, whether or not there is penis or vagina in their pants. It’s funny because it’s funny.
Robespierre: Maybe it’s because I grew up in a household obsessed with the digestive tract and we were allowed to talk about our “movements” at the dinner table. Maybe it’s because our dinner table was the bathroom. Maybe it’s because I’m not that highbrow. But farts are really funny. I never say or write things for a specific gender. And it was really exciting to work with Jenny who is someone who can articulate the truth in an honest and hilarious way. Sometimes it’s about a fart and sometimes it’s about humping every piece of furniture that has a corner. She just confirms what we’re all thinking (men and women).
Holm: Fart jokes and potty talk are definitely Jenny and Gillian’s sense of humor. While the film balances these jokes with other kinds of humor and story, Gillian and Jenny are women who actively think, write, and say this stuff all the time in their own lady lives (whether men like it or not)! That humor provides and strong and honest sense of Donna’s character, and in 2014 I really don’t see it as male humor just as a kind of humor. While the storyline may at first glance be most readily accessible to women, it’s definitely got broad appeal. In all our rough cut screenings, men laughed the loudest at certain things — *cough* discharge joke *cough* — we didn’t know would play to them as much as they do to women.
Filmmaker: In what ways do you think being a female filmmaker/actress has helped or impeded your trajectory in the film industry?
Slate: We’re not in a place where the industry is devoid of sexism, but I certainly don’t feel dragged down by the aspects that I find unfair or unsavory. It’s important to be aware of the parts that I’d like to change, and I feel a responsibility contribute in a way that pushes forward, makes a mark, and makes it harder to turn back. I adore being an actress and a woman and a comedian, and I wouldn’t want to be anything else. I go out into the world from that perspective and I feel that it’s very enjoyable to do so!
Holm: I feel fortunate to say I don’t think it has yet, but maybe I am being some combination of naive and relentless.
Robespierre: Ask me in a year from now when I can talk about being in the film industry!
Filmmaker: What is your dream role?
Slate: Lead in a rom-com that takes place in a Jewish community in Brooklyn right before WWII. Not a joke. Or, of course, a sexual witch. Really want to play a sexual, easy-to-anger witch.
Filmmaker: Of the big blockbuster movies out there, which do you wish you had directed?
Robespierre: Is A Room with a View considered a blockbuster?
Filmmaker: What’s next?
Slate: This winter, I’ll be back on Kroll Show on Comedy Central, and on House of Lies on Showtime, and our new Marcel The Shell Book is on it’s way as well. I also need to get my car serviced and call my dad.
Holm: I’m in early days of development on two feature scripts and an animated web series. Excited to keep learning. I would love to work with Gillian and Jenny again on anything they dream up in the future.
Robespierre: I’m currently writing a new script. It’s an ensemble Altmanesque comedy about a family.
Filmmaker: Considering this will be released at Sundance: A) What do you hope to gain from being at the festival? and B) Who would be your dream person to meet while there?
Slate: Well, I hope that people see the film and like it, and that somebody buys it and distributes it so that more people can see it. And I basically spend every day of my life hoping to see Dianne Wiest.
Robespierre: I’m totally ecstatic to premiere at Sundance. This is my first feature and my first time attending the festival. All I can hope for is that the audiences respond to the movie and it stays with them. And I on a personal level I hope I can chill the fuck out and enjoy the experience with the cast and crew. I would like to meet Parker Posey.
Holm: We are deeply honored and thrilled to be premiering there. We hope what I think any filmmaker hopes — that audiences and critics alike connect with and enjoy film on multiple levels, that we sort out next steps of meaningful distribution that gives the film the kind of commercial life we believe it deserves, that we get to keep making movies we love as much as this one, that we have the opportunity to see other work that challenges and inspires us to think and feel and keep getting better at what we do. I would like to meet someone who makes mittens look like a cool thing to wear as an adult.
Filmmaker: What is a question I should have asked but didn’t that you think is relevant to this film?
Holm: Since this is coming out at Sundance? Perhaps when and where are your Sundance screening times ;) #producerbrain