Whatever special alchemy was in the air following the premiere of “Obvious Child” at Sundance, the kind of electrifying debut that shakes jaded professionals who think they’ve seen it all with a startlingly fresh and funny perspective, it still might’ve paled slightly in comparison to what was felt between its three primary creative forces – producer Elisabeth Holm, director Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate – while making it.
“We felt like little witches in New York surrounded by a lot of creative people and put together ‘Obvious Child’ in this invisible bubble,” Robespierre recalled recently. “We really all grew up on that set and in the aftermath of it as well – Jenny was in L.A. Liz and I were in New York — but we all knew that we wanted to get back together and reform the covenant.”
Though that might strike some as a curious descriptor, Robespierre, as always, couldn’t choose better words to express exactly what the trio does, capable of true magic often derived from the darkest of circumstances. With “Obvious Child,” Robespierre and Holm took the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy for a comedian (Slate) as the impetus to get her life in order while their second film, “Landline,” jumps into a family imbroglio that brings together sisters Ali (Abby Quinn) and Dana (Slate) as they come to suspect their father (John Turturro) has been carrying on an affair while their mother (Edie Falco) tires of feeling unappreciated by all of them. Having these previously unshakeable pillars now on unstable ground comes at a particularly precarious time for the siblings since the teenage Ali’s discovery of her parents’ hypocrisy only emboldens her to flout any curfews they’ve set for her and Dana, on the verge of marrying a steady longtime boyfriend (Jay Duplass), rekindles a relationship with a friend from college (Finn Wittrock).
Naturally, things get messy for the family, but Robespierre and Holm, who co-wrote the script, see it all so clearly, with the wit every bit as sharp as “Obvious Child” and the insight into the clan’s tempestuous dynamics arguably even more piercing. Set in ‘90s Manhattan where the filmmakers grew up themselves, the film boasts the kind of specificity that makes it feel undeniably intimate even as it encapsulates such a broad array of characters and their indiscretions, acts of infidelity that are often more hurtful because of the lack of consideration for others they reflect than as breaches of trust, with keen observation and empathy. Like watching the family grow closer in crisis, it is truly beautiful to see how Robespierre brings all the pieces of “Landline” together into moving whole and with the film arriving in theaters this week, she and Holm shared how they were drawn to each other as children of divorce, having the New York of their youth disappearing right under their feet as they shot, and recreating New York’s Village Halloween Parade for the film’s climax.
How did this come about?
Gillian Robespierre: We both grew up in New York City. That’s what attracted us to each other in the beginning – we met at a film mixer and found out within the first five minutes, we were the only native New Yorkers in the room. We didn’t come to New York for any big hopes and dreams. We were popped out of that area code. [laughs] And we just were talking about our lives growing up and our families and we discovered we’re both products of divorce. We had this similar experience where our parents became humans and our siblings became real friends. There’s [also] big age gaps in both of our scenarios with our siblings and with each other – Liz is eight years older…[laughs] Sorry, it’s a joke I tell all the time. I’m [actually] older than Liz. But when we were on tour for “Obvious Child,” doing stuff like this – hanging out in hotel rooms, spending time together where it’s not on set, we just decided to tell the story of a family that’s come together through divorce and lying and withholding…
Elisabeth Holm: And ultimately some communication and honesty!
Gillian Robespierre: Yeah, and then finding out how to regain all of those lost qualities that happen whenever you’re within a family unit [where] you’re stuck in your roles. It sometimes takes a catastrophe to shake a family up and awaken them.
Some of my favorite scenes in “Obvious Child” involved the parents, which is I sense you enjoyed as well since it’s something you expand on here. What’s it like getting into their heads?
Elisabeth Holm: Our parents are massive figures in both of our lives and we try and write characters that feel relatable. With “Landline,” I’ve certainly been every character in that movie – including the dad. [laughs] And we try and find things in our characters that everyone can connect with, regardless of age or gender. There’s a universality of experience for each of them. We spend our lives watching these people, growing up with these people and coming of age together as a family, so we’re always in the room next door, listening.
Gillian Robespierre: Being of the generation that we were born into, most of our friends’ parents were divorced. It was the first era I feel like where it was normal to have divorced parents and sort of abnormal to have parents that were still married. And in high school, when it happened for both of us, our parents were the last who were actually still married, so it was conversations we had growing up with our friends or watching our friends’ families dissolve and regain strength in new ways [that formed “Landline”]. Our [families] definitely took shape in many new ways, so [it was] just being products of families of divorce. But also we always knew from the beginning that we wanted to focus on these three generations of women within one family. That was always going to be the point of view in the movie, and not ever shaming or vilifying men – or women, but we let our women lie, cheat and steal in the same way that men have been doing that forever. We allow them to breathe and be vulnerable and possibly not likeable in every single scene, in every single beat of their arc and life because that’s human, and a more interesting character, I think.
Speaking to that, there’s a great moment early in the film where Jenny Slate’s character Dana is recounting what she did the night before to a co-worker, slightly disappointed that she spent the night in watching “Curly Sue” with her fiancee, played by Jay Duplass, but you see her laugh hysterically after thinking about it since she couldn’t help but realize she thought “Curly Sue” was really funny. It’s something only Slate could’ve pulled off – did you build this around the actresses that you cast?
Gillian Robespierre: For sure. It was written for Jenny. We didn’t want to recreate Dana from “Obvious Child.” We wanted to push Jenny and give her a real meaty character that she could be really playful with, but also her strengths are so much like what you said where one beat she could be like beating herself up and the next making a joke. That’s all a mechanism that we have to use to protect ourselves, but Jenny’s able to emote it onscreen in a way that I’ve never seen anyone else capable of doing.
Elisabeth Holm: And with Abby [Quinn], we knew we needed an actress who was both an old soul, but also a real teenager and who could be both of those things at the same time. When we saw Abby’s audition, we just totally fell in love and yes, we did wind up doing some rewriting to tailor it a little bit more to her strengths. We saw a YouTube video of her at her high school talent show singing an acoustic cover of “Toxic,” the beautiful Britney Spears song, and she was so fucking awesome! We were like “Yes! That’s our girl.” And we have to put her singing in the movie.” It’s not necessarily that [is going to be] that character’s career, but just to see a young woman having a passion, a talent, hanging out and having fun, we were really pumped to have that – Abby’s singing – being part of the film. And [Abby and Jenny’s] chemistry together is so awesome, it really became a movie about sisters because they made that relationship so alive.
You’ve said in past interviews that structurally the film was actually more balanced in terms of the whole family, but leaned towards the sisters in the editing process. How did that evolve?
Gillian Robespierre: It was on the page that these two sisters didn’t get along and they hadn’t lived in the same room since Jenny’s character was a teenager and Abby’s character was super pre-teen, but we wanted to show how these two sisters bond through tragedy – how people bond through tragedy, really. But in the edit, we really saw the brightness and the real love affair that was between these two women, these two sisters, and it was something that you only hope for when you cast people and let them do what they can do.
There’s a needle drop of PJ Harvey’s “Down By the Water” that is wonderful all on its own, but like “Obvious Child,” when you use the Paul Simon song of the same name, it creates a nice break in the action. Can we expect a dance break in all of your movies going forward?
Gillian Robespierre: I know. I know. I love it! I love dancing. I’m a dancer…no, I’m kidding. Music and dance sequences tend to be in all of our movies and it was also in our pilot that will never see the light of day, but there is a dance sequence on a rock. [Holm laughs] Probably…somewhere…music always will be a part of the movies, maybe with a little toe-tap.
There’s a scene with Dana rocking out to world music in Other Music, the famed store in the East Village which closed their doors last spring, around the time you were shooting. If I have my math right, was that the last month they were in business?
Gillian Robespierre: Week.
Elisabeth Holm: They closed right after we shot.
For a film drawn somewhat from your past, was it emotional to actually film at a place you’d never be able to go to again?
Elisabeth Holm: A lot of our crew wound up buying like records because it was an “Everything Must Go” sale, so a lot of us took home a little piece of Other Music, but yes, it was very bittersweet. I’m glad we got it on film, though.
Gillian Robespierre: Yeah, I’m happy it’s on film and it’s just sad that music stores are no longer a place where people can go and listen and feel safe and also be around other people. Having every album ever made at your fingertips is cool and amazing – I know I love it because I never leave my house anymore, but I loved the experience of going to HMV, Tower Records and…
Elisabeth Holm: …Bumping into cool jazz guys. [laughs]
Gillian Robespierre: [laughs] …and Other Music, all of those places where you were forced to be out in the world and browsed next to people and see what they were picking up. It’s something that’s going to be lost, but other things will be gained.
You don’t go overboard in recreating the era, but it looks like you had some fun figuring out how to place the period, particularly what was going to go up on the sisters’ walls.
Gillian Robespierre: It was the best! Designing Ally and Dana’s room was the highlight of our production design of this movie. There are so many fun production design elements, but the room was…
Elisabeth Holm: Our shrine. [laughs]
Gillian Robespierre: We started from scratch and it was fully created from white walls. Liz and I grew up with wall-to-wall carpeting and Formica and it was that grey carpeting too because you could drop apple juice…
Elisabeth Holm: Kool-Aid, Jell-O…
Gillian Robespierre: You could dump anything on the carpet and rub it in! [both laugh] From the TV playing Robin Byrd and public access, [which] played such a role in our lives, to the tchochkes all around, which were taken from Liz’s apartment because her mom saved all this stuff. The posters were all our favorite Rolling Stone covers with Hole, Winona Ryder and the Beastie Boys up there. Flyers from real raves that were recreated because Ally’s a raver on the side. Kind of more of a poser, but… [laughs]
Elisabeth Holm: She’s been. [laughs] My mom would not let me tape anything on my walls, so this was my chance to just do it up.
Gillian Robespierre: My brother definitely graffiti’d on the walls and I dated boys – or was friends with boys who tagged their walls.
The Halloween parade had a real authenticity to it as well. Did you actually throw your cast into the actual goings on?
Gillian Robespierre: Yes and no.
Elisabeth Holm: Part of the magic was doing it in two parts. We both grew up going downtown to the Halloween parade every year and we wanted to get the real flavor, so almost a year before we shot the movie, Gillian and I went out with our DP Chris Teague and shot the real parade, which was awesome. A lot of the puppets and the passerbys are from the real parade and then we worked with our production designer and costume designers to recreate a block in the West Village and shot our own version of the parade, which was the walk and talk you see. Which was the most fun night ever. With the best extras…
Gillian Robespierre: And it was hot.
Elisabeth Holm: Yeah, it was a hot summer night. We thought we were going to get trash thrown on us from all of the people in the very fancy West Village townhouses.
Gillian Robespierre: But we were quiet and it was really all the department heads coming together in this magical way. The [assistant directors] were blocking all of the extras. We didn’t have that many, but I think we did a good job recycling them. The costume designers were putting together little groups of people so there was a policeman and a hooker who had a whole bit in one corner. You can’t really see it unless you pause it and go through it in slow motion, but it was one of the best nights.
That scale seems to be one of the ways you were more ambitious with this, though it’s true thematically as well. Did you feel any pressure to go bigger, given the success of “Obvious Child”?
Elisabeth Holm: Nooooo…what? [laughs]
Gillian Robespierre: I mean, when I wake up there’s pressure…to go to the bathroom. [laughs] Of course, there was a ton of pressure, but a lot of that was put on ourselves and I think Liz and I do a really good job of getting it out and trying to create our own world and run a set in our own cave in New York where that pressure no longer exists. It creeps in, of course. We’re not perfect robots, but to toggle between it – if I’m feeling crazy one day, [Liz] will calm me down and vice versa. We just try to push each other to make something new and fresh and different. We didn’t want to make “Obvious Child 2”. We wanted to make something that felt like the next evolution of our art, and try to maybe not be so reliant on the jokes. We really go a little bit deeper and test the waters of what a drama would feel like – a funny drama, but pushing ourselves and pushing those voices as far away as possible. That’s what you have to do in life, no matter what kind of job you’re doing.
“Landline” opens on July 21st in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and in New York at the Lincoln Square 13 and the Union Square 14. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.