Gillian Robespierre took the independent film world by storm in 2014 with her breakout hit Obvious Child. A story about millennial maturity told through an abortion comedy, Obvious Child‘s blatant irreverancy was all the rage, making her an overnight name in many in-the-know film appreciation circles. Robespierre’s follow-up, a 90s set comedy about a family dealing with two separate instances of infidelity, may not have accrued the same cult following, nor is it likely to pock as many end of year favorites lists, but the dramedy has tonal and directorial elements similar of a budding Noah Baumbach, who has since gone on to great acclaim.
I spoke with director Gillian, writer and producer Elisabeth Holm and co-star Abby Quinn about how Landline is a fitting followup to hit Obvious Child, Jenny Slate as muse, the collaboration nature of filmmaking, infidelities role in romance, why studio comedies so often seem to suck and how not much has changed about human nature from the 90s to today.
Can you talk about how Landline felt like the right movie to follow Obvious Child? How this is the sophomore film that you felt best kind of fit your voice?
Gillian Robespierre: I think what we discovered while making Obvious Child was that we love working together, we love writing for Jenny, and that we really love the mother/daughter dynamic that we touched on briefly in Obvious Child, but we didn’t get to fully explore it; we weren’t really done with that theme. While on tour with Obvious Child, we started talking about other themes we wanted to explore, and other weird places we wanted to put Jenny. One of them was building this family, the Jacobs family, around a sort of prissy uptight person who didn’t necessarily know what she wanted in life, and who was struggling in her stale monogamous relationship, and didn’t feel like a free person; then her inner feelings were being mirrored by her parents, and she didn’t necessarily know that she was mirroring her father, and her parents’ slow demise of their relationship. So we wanted to build this family, and it sort of took off from there.
A lot of the stuff is a little autobiographical because Liz and I both grew up in New York City in the 90’s and our parents are divorced, and they divorced when we were teenagers, and cool things and bad things happened, but one of the cool things was that we became closer with our siblings who are older than us—they’re boys, both of us have brothers—and our moms and dads became human beings and not just these people who grounded us, and they became vulnerable, and the roles and moments were reversing where we’re listening to our parents for the very first time. It changed in a nice way, an optimistic hopeful way, where families don’t necessarily need to be under one roof to be a family. So we wanted to tell that story, and try not to think about it as a sophomore follow up to Obvious Child, which changed our lives and seemed like it touched a lot of people. It’s just that you don’t want to think too much about the past—I mean we set our movie in the past but I men our career past—and just move forward, and grow.
Moving from Obvious Child to Landline, can you talk about some things that you had the benefit of hindsight: looking back and seeing Obvious Child and thinking “Oh I could have done this there or I would have like to tried this for the next film.” How does that speak to the evolution process of you as a director?
Gillian Robespierre: Yeah. I’m always trying to grow and figure out ways to be better, and master the craft a little bit better: how to speak with actors, how to move the camera around…it’s a tough job because you don’t get to exercise that muscle every day. In order to get a movie made you need a hundred people and buckets of money. But what was so great about re-teaming with Jenny on this was that we had this shorthand with each other since Obvious Child is short. We’d go off and make projects independently and we would come together and bring the new things that we’d learned. Working with John Turturro, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn and Jay Duplass, Finn Wittrock, I mean it’s a dream and I love working with actors; I love collaborating. It’s why I got into filmmaking; I think collaborating with smart talented funny people every day is a dream job and they are a dream team. I’m constantly learning, and I don’t feel “done” at all. I’m really grateful that I get to exercise the muscle a little more, because I’m dipping my toe into tv and working on things that aren’t self-generated, and putting other people’s dreams on the screen is fun! It’s really been a blast.
Elisabeth you worked as both a co-write and producer. How did this partnership come about?
Elisabeth Holm: Yeah, actually I was co-writer on Obvious Child as well, and we wrote a pilot together. Obvious Child started out as a short that Gillian made with Jenny in 2009, and I came to the feature version of that project primarily as a producer, and the writing grew organically in the feature adaptation. I think we’ve both grown as writers through our collaboration, with every project. And I’m happy about it! I don’t know, that was more like a question for you than for me…
Gillian Robespierre: Just what Liz said, we collaborated on Obvious Child, we collaborated on the pilot for FX, and on this. Filmmaking in general is collaboration, there’s so many steps in telling stories. It starts on the page and then you bring in actors to expand on the words and their characters, and then you sit in the edit and you sort of collaborate with the editors and figure out how to build the strongest story there, and you go into sound design…like each step of film making is another chance to get it right, and get it as close to what you want and you set out to make. Sometimes it changes. You know, for Landline it changed quite a bit in the editing, in terms of watching Abby and Jenny’s storyline be so much bigger and more exciting than we had ever dreamed of. We always wanted to write a story about two sisters who grew closer through this experience, but the love story that we didn’t necessarily know existed on the page just really blew us away in the edit: that the chemistry between Jenny and Abby is magical and beautiful, and changed the shape of our film.
Earlier you were talking about your relationship with Jenny Slate. You guys clearly have developed some kind of magic between the two of you. Would you say she’s your muse when you’re writing things? Are you thinking of things in terms of “We can fit Jenny in here” or does it just happen organically that you had the perfect part for her in Landline?
Gillian Robespierre: We finished Obvious Child and always knew we wanted to work with Jenny again; we wrote the role of Dana for Jenny (who is called Donna in Obvious Child). We brought her on so early that she was reading drafts and able to really get to know this character long before we lensed up. It was a real joy to be able to work with her again, but also to work with any actor at that stage: it’s really nice to be able to close your eyes and write dialogue and know who’s going to be saying those words. But it’s also really nice to write dialogue not necessarily knowing…just knowing the essence of the character, and be blown away by somebody when they walk into a room to audition for you and…I’m talking about Abby Quinn.
So Abby, can you talk about being onboard in this project and coming in as a relative unknown and then working with this great cast and crew?
Abby Quinn: Yeah! I had seen Obvious Child kind of randomly (it was on Amazon, I think it just popped up) or I had had a conversation with my brother about it too when he first saw it; so I was already pretty familiar with Gillian, Liz, Jenny. And I just loved everything that they were doing and the way that they shot Obvious Child, the writing, kind of everything about it; so I was really excited just to audition or even have that on my radar and be able to read the script before the movie’s made. Going into it, it just felt really comfortable. I was really nervous the whole time, but I think it could’ve been a lot more nerve-wracking had it been an uncomfortable environment. Everyone was just very open. They’re all pretty seasoned at what they do. It could’ve been another way, where they just keep to themselves and aren’t really interested in talking or collaborating with me but it was the total opposite. It was just a really good experience.
I think in a movie where a lot of the characters really struggle with their identity and they ask themselves a lot of questions of who they are and is what they’re doing really themselves, I think no one struggles with that more than Abby and yet in being lost she is also one of the most centered – aside from buying heroin and stuff. But can you talk about discovering that character and working within those emotional complexities?
Abby Quinn: Yeah. I think you’re right. I don’t know if she’s the most lost. I think that everyone in the movie is struggling with something different, but everyone’s wandering in their own way. I think the character Allie is being pulled in many different directions by many people. You know when she buys the heroin it’s because her friend tells her to and she doesn’t have enough strength or certainty in who she is as a person yet to confidently turn that down if she actually feels uncomfortable doing it. I think she feels like she is making a lot of choices that are true to her self because of how opinionated and strong she is as a person, but I think that her angst and the way she talks to her parents and her sister at the beginning of the film, it comes away pretty easily as soon as she figures out that her parents are going through something as serious as cheating and that their relationship might be over or on the path to being over. After she finds that out she slowly starts to open up and care about the people around her, her family. I think she is kind of confused but at the heart of her she does want to connect with people. She has a hard time doing that. Her version of surviving is keeping to herself and doing her own thang.
When you guys are working with someone like Jenny Slate, who is known for being a maestro of improvisational comedy, is there much of that that will make it into the film, or are you guys pretty tight on shooting to script?
Elisabeth Holm: I think we mostly stuck to the script. Gillian is a director who loves working with actors and loves inviting inspiration on the day and encourages people to be playful and not rush us with our words and to behave in whatever way feels the most authentic. So there was always room to breathe within our script. Certainly in some of the more physical comedy moments there’s more room for improv, like the moment where Ali is dragging Dana across the floor into the bathroom or some of the opening sex scene stuff or the swimming scene, those are places where we had ideas of things we wanted to see happen and emotional beats to hit, but it really was a space for people to play and I think when I’m dealing with this many strengths as a director how really encouraging that is to find a space where there is real trust and ability to do that.
One of the dueling centerpieces of the film is the idea of infidelity, which two characters are struggling with. Jenny as Dana and then her father played by John Turturro’s character [Alan], they’re both dissatisfied with their love life, pretty jaded, and yet I feel like it’s set up so that we sympathize a lot more with Dana than we do with Alan; and even from Dana’s perspective, even though she knows that she’s involved in something of similar caliber, she has trouble sympathizing with her father. So can you talk about creating that dynamic between them, and what you were trying to say about infidelity and how it works in “mature” adult romance?
Gillian Robespierre: I think that being a child of divorce, seeing infidelity in my own family but also being on both sides of it myself the older I’ve gotten, that we are deeply flawed, deeply imperfect humans, and that monogamy is a psycho construct that we must choose to subscribe to. But it’s hard, and marriage is hard, and long term relationships are hard. I think that with both Alan and Dana, the hope is that you have sympathy for both of them. Part of the movie was exploring the ways we kind of do or don’t become our parents, and the moment that our parents become people to us and when we actually connect with them and can relate to them. Sometimes you relate to them because you share similar weaknesses and flaws and difficulties. I don’t necessarily think you’re supposed to be more sympathetic to one than the other.
I do think that Dana saw something that happened to her parents and decided to deal with it differently, to speak up about it, to communicate with her partner; whereas Alan for a really long time sat on this thing and didn’t know what to do with it, and by the time, you know Pat is the one who has to raise it, and it’s a bit too late, it’s twenty years into their marriage, and they’re kind of in a different phases of their life and the stakes are different or maybe the communication is different. And then, as Ben says to Dana, “you told me because you did that for yourself.” Sometimes with cheating there’s no winning; whether or not to tell someone the truth, who is that really for? It always has a different outcome depending on the person, the partnership. There’s no right answer. I think that a lot of the types of stories we like to tell are about just humans doing human things, and fucking up and trying, and there’s no clear black and white, right or wrong. It’s about people trying to figure out how to be, how to love each other. That’s true for both Alan and Dana, and we hope that you can find a way into both of those relationships.
Studio comedy films get a pretty fair bad rap, in that a lot of times they’re either kind of bad to pretty awful. Can you talk about your approach to comedy, and finding real characters and emotional authenticity while still making a piece designed to make people laugh?
Gillian Robespierre: Sometimes it’s not even necessarily thinking about a scene that is most comedic, but thinking about a moment where it’s just been a devastating true life moment and yet comedy in real life seems to creep into it. At least, I’ve noticed, in my life that comedy and tragedy often go hand in hand. It’s starting with those real life moments and then injecting the comedy into them. I often think of the teenage sex scene, where ok, it’s awkward sex. How can we make it even more awkward and more uncomfortable and comedic? But not do it in an over the top way where I don’t know, something falls off the bed and hits them in the head? Where it’s more subtle, true to real life. Hence, the CD skipping, and no one’s courageous enough to show their bare butt and go turn off the machine, and so they have to throw their shoes at it. It’s starting there and building the comedy around something that feels grounded in reality…and not like an Airplane movie!
Although the film is set in the 90’s and a lot of the key thematic elements resonate a lot today, can you talk about finding the connections between where we were then with where we are now outside of just not having cell phones and Google at the touch of a fingertip?
Gillian Robespierre: We as humans have a hard time communicating and sharing our “truths.” I put that in quotes, I feel like a jerk saying that. But I think it’s hard to be honest with each other. I think it’s hard to do it face to face. In 1995 it was a little bit easier because our faces weren’t buried in computers or iPhones, but it was still difficult. We haven’t evolved or changed that much due to technology. We’ve always been emotional cowards. I think that the iPhone just enhances that. I think the 90’s was just a fun way to explore what amazing actors would do in a room without those little devices in their hands, and we didn’t have to do little bubbles popping on the screen, which some films do a really good job doing that, I’m not dissing those movies, they’re necessary. But we wanted to just have people interact with each other and talk a lot and smoke cigarettes and have sex. And curse. We’re R-rated.