When Gillian Robespierre was raising the finishing funds for her debut feature “Obvious Child” on Kickstarter,” she and her producing partner Elisabeth Holm came up with a rather novel reward for a generous donation – a tour of the locations in New York of classic romantic comedies. Stops were planned to take in the view of the 59th Street Bridge Woody Allen had in “Manhattan,” grab a bite at Katz’s Deli where Meg Ryan had faked an orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally,” and perhaps have a nightcap at the Apthorp where Meryl Streep retreated after discovering her husband’s philandering ways in “Heartburn.”
Indeed, two backers took Robespierre up on the offer, but once “Obvious Child” got into Sundance, plans had to be put on hold after the film received rapturous reviews, was picked up by A24 and its writer/director has been busy fielding offers for her projects, among them a TV show and a film about divorce. Thankfully, the donors have been understanding…to a point.
“The people who bought that reward were my fiance’s parents, and they’re joking around that they’re going to make us do it and we’re like ‘No!’” laughs Robspierre. “Luckily, we haven’t had to do it yet. But we will. 2020.”
Should that tour ever happen, it will need to include any number of Brooklyn haunts where Robespierre filmed “Obvious Child,” a film that will no doubt take its place alongside the films mentioned above as its discovered by future generations. A distinctive and bracingly funny comedy, it stars Jenny Slate as a comedienne who finds herself in the unfortunate position of getting pregnant during what she believes to be a one-night stand, only to start having feelings for the persistent gent (Jake Lacy) after deciding to terminate the pregnancy. While it defies convention in casting a nonjudgmental eye on Slate’s Donna, who emerges from being her own worst enemy into someone who gains strength from making difficult decisions about where her life will go, “Obvious Child” also is bold enough to suggest that happy endings can exist in the real world, hard won as they may be.
It’s a tricky story to get just right, yet Robespierre and Slate have, clearly building upon a relationship that began when the two met at the Big Terrific Comedy Showcase in Williamsburg and birthed “Obvious Child” in short form in 2009. While in Los Angeles, Robespierre did have the time to speak about how the response to the initial short helped shape the feature, the magic of Slate’s expressions and how she pulled off the film’s transfixing, climactic scene in which Donna performs a standup routine.
You’ve said you were inspired by the discussion that ensued after releasing the short, so did that have any impact on the story you wanted to tell when you adapted it for a feature?
Even in the editing room working on the short, I felt like we had something pretty fabulous. Jenny’s performance blew me away. Our rough cut for the short was 30 minutes long and I felt like, “Wow, if we only had a couple more hundred dollars and fifty more pages to the script, we would have a feature.” There were more things I wanted to say that didn’t because of time restrictions. But I’m glad, because we all needed to mature as storytellers. So Karen Maine, Anna Bean and I said “Uncle” and made the short, put it together, let it out, and the conversations that did occur in threads put a stamp on what I already thought, which was we have to tell this in a bigger way. It solidified this idea that this was a story a lot of people were waiting for and that Jenny’s performance was relatable. It is similar to her comedy where you are watching her, but you also feel like you’re watching a part of yourself.
It seems like Jenny must’ve contributed a lot to it, but in writing it, how did you find Donna’s voice as a comedian?
We always wanted to tell Donna’s story through the eyes of somebody who is naturally funny. In the script and in the short, Donna was always a funny person and Jenny is a comedic actress who can go from super hilarity to super dramatic in zero seconds flat. Her eyes and her body shift, but she can do it seamlessly. I can’t even recall the day when it was like, “She’s a standup,” but I know when we sent Jenny the script and [Donna] was a standup comedian, she was so psyched. She did not know this was where it was going, but she just dived in and was really pumped. It was a good barometer for the audience to see where Donna’s state of mind was, and it was a fun place to explore inane jokes that were going through this person’s head without any filter. She didn’t need to use a filter because she’s onstage and she’s working it out herself, and you can see that. She’s new to comedy, she’s not a seasoned comedian.
You mention the way Jenny’s eyes and body shift – since making the short, did knowing what she could do as an actress broaden the possibilities for the feature? There’s this great moment when David Cross’ character, a fellow comedian, tells her at the bar that he got a pilot in LA and you can tell there’s a pang of envy and anger in her eyes, though that’s not necessarily something she’d want for herself.
I’m glad you picked up on it, because she’s just like … “Congrats.” She’s not excited that he’s going to LA, there’s competition there and there’s jealousy, and this guy is a fucking asshole. [She’s thinking] why not me, but she knows that it’s not her because she’s not trying to go to LA at that moment. I definitely trust Jenny and her performance 110%, but I also trust silence, and I trust that Jenny can convey it without a joke just as well as she can with a joke. She’s good at both, so we wanted to give her the opportunity to do something that’s going to make you snarf and spit out your soda, but also to act without using words.
Something else I really admired was the support system you created around Donna, which may actually be making her feel worse about herself since they have a stronger belief that everything will work out than she does. Was that difficult to convey in a non-obvious way? [Minor spoilers ahead]
She’s definitely at a low point in her life, and I always envision that if this movie was about Nellie [Donna’s best friend played by Gaby Hoffman), then Jenny’s character would be very supportive during hard times. It’s this very natural ebb and flow that friendships have where there’s one friend who’s going through something really bad, and you want to make them empathetic and likable but also not needy. It does hurt her a lot harder when her friends are like, “You’re fine. They’re assholes. They’re sociopaths, you be you” — she’s beating herself up constantly. She feels like a victim. She is somebody who does need a strong support system, and needs to be told that she’s doing OK, but at the same time, through the movie, we’re changing that narrative and she’s changing it for herself.
At the end, I don’t think she needs that much support anymore. She’s become more active in her own life. When she’s sitting in that recovery room with all of the women post-abortions, she’s trying to make connections. She’s making the first eye contact move instead of her [keeping her] head down and people looking at her. I think that’s the moment in the film where she’s going to start being less of a passive person in her own life. It’s really subtle, and hopefully people pick up on it, and if they don’t, it’s just a feeling. Some people might think it’s the last standup routine, where she’s onstage talking about herself, not making the best jokes, but telling a story in a way that she’s confident.
What was it like to get that climactic set Donna performs at the comedy club just right? It’s a transfixing moment and the editing in that scene, in particular, is pretty extraordinary as you mostly stay on Donna with a few choice cuts to Max (Jake Lacy).
I have to give our editor Casey Brooks a shout-out because he is a great comedy editor, but also a really good dramatic editor, and he really found the best moments to cut to Jake Lacy’s character [Max]. That was something where we were toeing a line. We wanted to make sure that comedy bit was not looked at as Donna being a douchebag. She had to be up there for herself, and we wanted to make sure that the audience knew that and she was going to tell that story no matter whether or not Max rolled in or not.
The comedy performances were great. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor that’s super hilarious, but this isn’t a movie, ultimately, about a standup comedian. It’s about a woman going through her late 20s and trying to figure it out and grow. It was easy and hard to cut. Everything’s easy and hard. We made sure to use two cameras only for the standup. Everything else was only one camera. It’s weird to use two cameras on a feature, but I didn’t want to exhaust Jenny, and since we were going to combine a lot of improv with what was on the page, I knew that in the editing room to save our butts we needed those two cameras. Also it was 7 a.m. [when we shot that scene]. She was trying to be really funny at 7 a.m. and she did it. She was focused. She’s a beautiful performer.