You Have To Laugh
The first words of Obvious Child are heard over black. Effervescent stand-up comedian Donna Stern (the pitch-perfect Jenny Slate) appears in flashes, lording over her audience as she addresses the myth of clean underwear in graphic detail. If it wasn’t already apparent from the mere premise of her Sundance breakout, director Gillian Robespierre knows how to make a first impression.
A romantic comedy that upends all that the genre holds dear, Obvious Child, based on Robespierre’s 2009 short, is an irreverent, hilarious and touching examination of a woman’s brash misstep and her hesitant navigation through its domino-like ramifications. Impregnated during a drunken, condom-less one-night-stand, Donna struggles to tell Max (Jake Lacy) she’s carrying his soon-to-be-terminated child, not because she has no idea where he is, but because this eager suitor is somehow inescapable. Where some directors would modulate the storyline into candy-coated bliss — she confesses and they agree to keep the child and live happily ever after — Robespierre navigates Donna’s frenetic headspace with a steady hand, keeping the character’s curiosities intact so that the film’s final big revelations feel entirely earned. After all, a movie whose protagonist likens asking for an abortion to ordering at a drive-thru window is not one for moralistic preaching.
Upon interviewing Robespierre at South by Southwest, where Obvious Child played in the Festival Favorites section, it was readily apparent that the director and her debut film share more than just their candor and sense of humor. Emanating an immediate and inviting familiarity that belies her — and the film’s — uniqueness, Robespierre wondered if I was hungover when I asked if she would pardon my emotionally drained post-Boyhood appearance. As New Yorkers, we swapped the locations of adolescent milestones and boarded several tangents while Slate boomed to reporters nearby. Running over our publicist-enforced time limit, a remaining portion of the interview was conducted via email.
Obvious Child opens from A24 on June 6.
So the short’s not online anymore. No, we took it off. Just for the time being. For now it’s just off because we want people to judge the feature on its own. The short was made a long time ago, and cameras are a lot better now, and we didn’t have any money. I think it did well for a short; people really responded to it. In fact, the response encouraged me to continue the fight to make the movie. It’s not easy to turn something that already has a beginning, middle and end into an hour and a half. And it was definitely a struggle because it was already there.
You made the short five years ago? Well, we shot in the winter of 2009, started editing, I think, in early 2010, and had it ready by spring 2010. Then it did the festival circuit and did pretty well on the Internet. That’s sort of where it found its life. BUST, Jezebel, Feministing, Slate, they all wrote about it.
Did you know to contact people at those sites back then? Yes.
So you were a little ahead of your time. That’s something people are latching onto now — how to get a short out to its appropriate audience. Yeah, I mean [those viewers] don’t just find shorts on Vimeo. They don’t troll through Vimeo looking for shorts, no. Jenny had just auditioned for SNL, I think, [before coming to] our wrap party. So when she did get on SNL, and when we emailed all these places, they just said, “Yes, we are so happy to talk about it.”
So how did you and Jenny first meet? In Brooklyn, at Big Terrific, which is a free comedy show every Wednesday night. It was behind a record store that moved. It was at North 11th, the Sound Fix.
I used to go there all the time in high school. Anna [Bean], Karen [Maine] and I had written the short before I met Jenny, and we were looking to cast the role of Donna. She was always called Donna because of Twin Peaks. We were having a hard time finding someone who was funny, who had comic timing and heart, and who could do something dramatic. And there was something that happened on the stage once Jenny went up. She started talking about humping furniture — masturbating — when she was little. And Anna and I just looked at each other. There was something about her performance that was funny but also warm. I felt that she could be my best friend. She was just so relatable and so beautiful too. I thought she had all the qualities that a leading lady should have, but most mainstream movies put the funny girl with the big nose as the best friend. They have the best lines, the best life — I want to see more movies about that person, and so we made it. We gave her the script through a friend, and she said yes, and then we shot it in four days.
How was the process of moving from the short to the feature? Were you working on anything else in between? Yeah, I mean, the short is compact. I wouldn’t say it was perfect, but it was a story that I had already told in 20 minutes. Expanding it to feature length was extremely difficult.
Did you know before you made the short that you wanted to make a feature? No, it wasn’t that calculating. We wanted to make this story and get it out there as fast as possible because it was a moment in time when movies were just really letting us down. We shot it in four days, and in the edit room, I was watching my assembly and it was 30 minutes long. Jenny was so good in it, and I was like, “We have something bigger here.” No one watches short films — I don’t — unless they’re super short, unless they’re 30 seconds. So I knew we were sitting on something great with a great performance, but we just didn’t have the money or the time to make the feature. And the story wasn’t there yet. So we got it out.
In the short, is she a comedian? No, in the short she’s a freelancer because we couldn’t think of a job. That’s what was so lovely about [developing] the feature. We could really create her world and expand on all the characters we touched on in the short. We could give her a real life, give her a job; she’s not a freelancer, because we had the [screen] time. There were many different versions of the script, and she had a lot of different jobs. Finally, it just was like, of course, Jenny is amazing at stand-up, and it would be such a great idea to have her tell an audience this sort of thoughtful comedy about her life. She’s going to share everything with them, and for her to have the epiphany on stage, and to share it with people in a live audience, it just felt perfect. But I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. Was she going to look like a douchebag for sharing such personal moments with the crowd? And then Tig Notaro, the stand-up comedian, did that. She talked about having breast cancer, and it killed. It didn’t kill her, it killed the audience. [Laughs.] She’s fine. So when Tig did that thing, it seemed like it really does work — people do connect to honest comedy.
So how did the feature start coming together? Rooftop Films really encouraged me. We screened [the short] at Rooftop before a Spike Jonze movie. It was a movie about robot love [I’m Here] — he got paid like a million dollars by Absolut Vodka or something. It’s weird, it’s not anything like Her, but I feel like it was maybe a starting point idea for him. The whole night was about love — the programmer and founder of Rooftop, Mark Elijah Rosenberg, proposed to his girlfriend, who only has two names. There were 4,000 people, and it was just a magical night. And then Mark Elijah said, ‘There’s a grant in affiliation with IFP, and you should apply to it with your project.” I did not have a project. I wrote the first draft of Obvious Child, the feature, in four days. On [Microsoft] Word. It was a lot of cutting and pasting.
So you’re like a heavy-duty screenwriter. It was like tab, tab, tab. I should’ve purchased Final Draft.
Or Celtx. Celtx is free. It was 2010. Did Celtx exist then? I was just really comfortable in Word, and I want to get this done fast, which was ridiculous; it took me 10 times longer. I submitted a very early version of the feature, and I won a Rooftop equipment grant. And then they said, “Well, [the IFP] also does something else called Emerging Visions.” And so I submitted another draft to that, and I didn’t have a producer. I just kept on lying, saying my producer was in the bathroom. [Laughs.] I went on the [producer] speed-dating circuit and it was fun; it was a new experience, putting a pitch package together. Nothing came out of it until I met my producer, Elisabeth Holm. We met at a mixer at this bowling alley, the Brooklyn Bowl. She was there with another project, Welcome to Pine Hill, which is an amazing movie. We were getting a little drunk on some brown liquids and talking about our lives and how we hadn’t seen our boyfriends in a while because we are very busy ladies, very important ladies. And she said, “Do you want to have dinner?” I said, “Yes, I do, because you’re awesome.” She’s also a New Yorker. And we had dinner, and it was going to be just a regular girls’ dinner, and then I found out all these amazing things about her. She’d watched the short and loved the short so I did it — I asked her, “Will you be my producer?” And she said, “Yes.” And it really took off from there.
When was this? This was in 2011. So, in 2011, we worked really hard on making the script as good as it could be before we took it out into the world. And by the world, I mean private equity. In the meantime, we were submitting to grants, and we won a couple grants, and we were shopping it around to companies. We got, with the help of our other executive producer, David Kaplan, a lot of people to read the script and got excited about it. Elisabeth’s a force; she’s amazing. We can’t wait to make another movie together. And I can’t wait to work with Jenny again.
Elisabeth is also Film Program Director at Kickstarter. Yeah. And I had a day job at DGA, so together our schedules were perfect. We could go and interview crew at night at a bar by Kickstarter when it was downtown. Now it’s in Greenpoint. You gotta check it out. It’s like a Carnival cruise ship.
Do they have beer on tap? [Laughs.] No. And no ping-pong table.
It’s not like Google. They don’t work that hard, thank god. So it was Holm and our amazing crew. We both took three months off from our jobs, pretty much went on maternity leave and made our baby.
I assume that when you translated the script to the feature, you knew Jenny would still play Donna. Was there anything else of Jenny’s that informed the character? When I sat down to turn the short into a feature, I 100% wrote the role of Donna Stern for Jenny. Jenny and I have very similar tastes, especially when it comes to bodily functions in our humor. She has a warm and gentle side, and I really enjoyed writing scenes for her that allowed those sides to interact. She has an ability to articulate the truth in an honest and hilarious way on and off the stage, which is something I was very drawn to. I definitely wrote the dialogue with her voice in my head and knew once we started shooting she would build on it. So the stand-up scenes are a great example of Jenny taking what was on the page and really improvising while making sure she hit all the beats that were written. I love giving actors the freedom to inject themselves into their characters. Even though movies are manufacturing human experience, I believe wonderful and authentic moments occur on screen when an actor is given space to play with the words on the page.
I think it’s central to her character that she is a comedian. Even Gaby Hoffmann’s character, Nellie, at some point says, “People love you because you’re yourself up there.” But it’s almost pathological, like that’s the only time she can be honest is when she has an audience. Exactly!
Also, of course, there’s the whole notion that if you’re in a relationship with an artist, your relationship is fodder for the work, which can toe the ethical line. I think also her first boyfriend [in the film] couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t handle her, not only sharing her life, but in the backstory [I wrote], he couldn’t handle her in the spotlight. He wanted somebody who was home all the time. He wanted a girlfriend who wasn’t very boisterous and outgoing. I think he wanted somebody who was more interested in staying in and a bit of a wallflower. What’s nice about Jake Lacy’s character is that he’s really in awe of her. He’s really excited to be around somebody who’s so funny and so honest. It’s a new kind of person that he’s probably never been attracted to because he’s such a cookie-cutter, boat shoe-wearing square. But once you get to know him, he’s not that character. He’s three-dimensional as well.
Well it’s interesting, though, because I feel like Max operates in exact contrast to Donna. He seems to have it all together; he’s freakishly nice and relentlessly interested in her. There are nice guys out there, and I think that that was part of the story. We wanted the male lead to keep up with Jenny and how funny she is, and I think he does a good job. But we also wanted to depict a guy who’s not going to be like, “Whoa, let’s have a family. I don’t know your last name babe, but let’s get married and have a house.” I wanted to show a supportive guy who’s never going to say, “Let’s have this baby,” but also a charming guy who you’re rooting for. You’re rooting for them to figure it out. Not necessarily to get together and have the “happily ever after,” but you’re just rooting for them to do something. You’re rooting for her to tell this guy, because, I think, hopefully the audience is expecting him to do one thing, because that’s what movies have been saying over years and years. That there’s always going to be an obstacle. I didn’t want that obstacle. That’s a movie I’ve seen already, and I thought it would be nice to show a cool, supportive dude.
When we first meet Donna, she’s basically been stripped of everything she holds dear: her boyfriend and her job, for starters. I find that a lot of writer-directors are intent on starting from rock bottom. I wanted to stay rock bottom for a long time. I think that that’s a fun area to explore because that’s where the real meat of life is, you know? I don’t want to watch somebody happy. My friends, when they call me, they really want to talk. It’s never to call and say like, “Gil, I’m so happy today, my boyfriend got me flowers, and then he gave me a massage, and then he fingered me for a while,” because I would hang up the phone. And also, we didn’t want the unplanned pregnancy to be the only plot twist. I mean, there are other things in life that can surround the story like that, which is everyday life, like losing your job and getting dumped in a very brutal way. Stepping in dog shit. [Laughs.]
Scheduling an abortion on Valentine’s Day, which was kind of your chance to flip the bird at the whole Hallmark institution of that holiday. I’m not into Valentine’s Day. It’s only because I don’t like crowds. I don’t want to sit in a restaurant with couples all lined up.
It’s scary. It’s not romantic.
No, it’s funny to just look around and see how many people actually want to be there, which is pretty much no one. This year I watched House of Cards because it came out on Valentine’s Day.
Obvious Child inverts the traditional romantic comedy arc with a more subversive plot point. Did you have any touchstones in crafting the structure of the script? I’m a fan of romantic comedies. But in the last decade or so I became weary of how female protagonists were written to sound and made to look. As I mentioned, I always thought that the best friend role was way more interesting. When their scenes were over, I wanted to follow them around instead of the yellow-haired main character. In developing Donna’s story and her words and appearance, I wrote with the idea that the camera secretly peeled off from the lead, and we finally got to be with the actually funny person in the movie.
It was inevitable that your film would be packaged in the media as “the abortion comedy.” But was that always the centerpiece of the story to you, or did Donna exist outside of this major event in her life? What was your starting point? Did you decide, “I want to explore this woman in these circumstances?” Or was it, “I want to make a movie about this woman?” Chicken or the egg? The starting point was the unplanned pregnancy. You know, focusing on this one point in this woman’s life where she makes a smart, responsible decision, and it’s a safe and guilt-free procedure. Guilt-free, meaning obviously, it’s a decisive moment. It’s not that anyone wants to be in that position, but I think it was lacking in films, the character actually having a safe procedure.
I think the audience knows this woman is not ready to have a child. Well, she could.
She could, but maybe it wouldn’t be the best time. But that’s a movie I’ve seen already too, you know.
An early 2000s Maggie Gyllenhaal film. Yes.
And Where the Heart Is. I haven’t seen that.
Where were you in the late ’90s? I was busy.
Come on, the Walmart baby movie? Oh my god, I have seen that.
With Natalie Portman. Of course I’ve seen that. She names the baby America.
Americus. Americus Nation. Because abortion is a hot button issue, did you ever feel like there were bases you had to cover? No, actually the opposite. I didn’t want to cover any of those. I think the whole “Will I? Won’t I?” discussion has been depicted so many times, I just didn’t want to see it on screen. I think she maybe had that moment, off screen, where she’s like, “Oh, man, you know, this is hard. I don’t want this to be happening right now.” But I didn’t think we needed to show 10 minutes of her crying about it. I think this was a really responsible decision, and the only one she was ever going to make. So why show that moment?
And there’s also the scene when Gaby Hoffmann’s character goes on that rant about whether the man even deserves to know Donna is planning to have an abortion. It’s ultimately your decision, she says. Why are you obligated to tell him? I think that was a place for us to have a little obstacle in the film. I think that Donna’s main struggle is how to tell Max. She can tell the closest people in her life, her best friends. She can say it on stage, but she struggles with telling the baby daddy, and she struggles with telling her mom. I think those were her notions of disappointment that weren’t necessarily real. I think those are feelings that she assumed people would have because of the shame that could surround making a mistake and wanting to please your mom.
Yeah, and then, surprise. Surprise, the mom is a big slut. [Laughs.]
Everybody in this movie has had an abortion. The joke is that even an extra who walked by would’ve had one, too. I mean, one in three women have had an abortion. That is the statistic.
I didn’t know that. Is there also a reason we don’t see her telling her father, as opposed to all the other major characters? Because I feel like we could guess that he would be supportive. Yes, I think, well, that’s also as an entertaining movie we don’t want to tell the same story over and over again. To have the same scene over and over again. I guess I always assume that she would tell her dad because she clearly is very close to both of her parents.
Now that the film is done and sold, are you still working at the DGA? I am, yeah. I am an assistant to the Associate Eastern Executive Director Neil Dudich. I also make sure all the east coast productions are properly staffed. I answer rate questions, I take minutes at council meetings, and I work with below-the-line crew.
So you’ll be a DGA director sometime soon? Hopefully. I’m a union gal. I also think I learned a lot [there]. Not even just on the business side but also the producing side. How to put together a movie, what a budget looks like, and all those things I think a director doesn’t have to know, but I feel more comfortable [knowing that I] am in control of the situation. If a schedule doesn’t make sense because the actor needs to cry in this scene, I know I need to think about the actor and how the day is going to fit together.
I also find that directors sometimes don’t necessarily speak the same technical language as the D.P. Oh, yeah, I’m not technical. My D.P. Chris Teague, he’s like a D.P. darling. We sat down a couple weeks before production started and watched movies together.
What were your reference points in terms of visual style? I have to say the name.
Okay. Woody Allen.
Are we not saying his name now? I don’t know, I don’t know. You know, [Chris and I] watched Annie Hall, and the scene where Diane Keaton’s performing the song, there’s this purple light behind her. I was like, “That’s really beautiful. Jenny would look pretty with that.” And then [later] I got to set and the purple light was there, and he nudged me and said, “Purple light.” He was just so patient. I think I know what I want, and I don’t speak the language, but I think he was a really good collaborator and guide when I was unsure. He’s really good with actors, too. And he’s a beautiful lighter. He really can light things naturally. I didn’t want a lot of precious handheld camera work, and he was like, “Let’s not do that. Let’s do some dolly when we can, but let’s tell this story in a traditional way, and let the actors shine and be the movement of the film.” I collaborated with my fiancée, Chris Bordeaux, who did the score, and again, that was [a similar] relationship [because] I don’t speak music. It was frustrating for him, but he was able to decipher my nonsense and make a beautiful score.
Do you remember when you decided you want to direct? You went to SVA for it, so relatively early I assume. Well, as a little girl, I always thought in terms of movies. Riding in the back seat of the car, listening to music, I would stare out the window, pretending my eyes were two camera lenses. I was not into sports, and most weekends were spent indoors watching movies. I didn’t know I wanted to be a director when my friends and I would spend hours choreographing elaborate Busby Berkeley-esque dance numbers to Top 40 that we filmed with the my parents’ camcorder. I think it happened for me later, when I was high school, and I fell in with an arty, older crowd who liked to make movies — mostly avant-garde absurdist horror — on the weekends. I was relegated to the role of the girl who never had a line and always got killed. I never contributed to the script because I was very shy. But I have a vivid memory of one shoot where I was covered in fake blood observing the mayhem around me, and I thought to myself, “I could do this better.” I think that was when I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker and tell my own stories.