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Obvious Child Director Gillian Robespierre: "We Don't Make Abortion Funny. We Make a Character Funny."

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
June 6, 2014 11:18 AM
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Still from "Obvious Child"

Obvious Child is the kind of movie that helped me remember why I love movies. I was laughing my ass off even before the credits, and that's when I knew I was in for a treat. In this tightly written and well directed comedy from excellent, first-time director Gillian Robiespierre, we get a woman Donna (Jenny Slate), whose shit is all over the place and doesn't really know what she wants to be. But when Donna gets pregnant, she knows that she cannot raise a child. This is a story that, while really, really funny, is also really, really touching and easily unpacks all the issues surrounding abortion and choice. This is not a movie where a woman ponders if she should get an abortion; she knows she needs to get an abortion. It's a movie that acknowledges the realities of where women live today, and one of those realities is that women get abortions. She doesn't make her decision flippantly she makes it because it is the best decision for her and her life.

Women and Hollywood spoke to Obvious Child director Gillian Robespierre about her influences, her challenges on set, finally quitting her day job, and why her film doesn't make abortion funny -- it features a funny character who happens to need an abortion. 

Obvious Child opens today.

I know Obvious Child was a short, then you made it into a full-length film. Tell me about what the hardest part of that was.

Not knowing when it's ready to share with others. It took a long time, and sometimes you fall out of love with your characters or your story because it's been so long, but then something triggers you to fall back in love. [For example,] help from an outside source, like winning a grant that you applied to months before and had forgotten about, and then you get the news and it feels really good and encouraging.

I really found a great partner in my producer Elisabeth Holm. We were able to bring each other up when one was down.

Are you a stand-up comedian? You wrote this stand-up comedy act that had me pissing my pants before the credits even started.

Thank you. I am not a stand-up: I'm just a fan. Jenny [Slate] is a professional stand-up. She's been doing it for a very long time. She's now found a really amazing career in acting, so she still does stand-up, but not as much. When I first met her, she was a stand-up.

When I set out to write the feature, I was writing it for Jenny, then had an "aha" moment to make Donna a stand-up. It was definitely something that I wrote, but Jenny really took over in a great, great way, because I don't know much about how to write stand-up timing. She saw what was on the page and we kind of workshopped and rearranged it.

When we got down to shooting, it was a real combination or what was on the page and Jenny improvising, but in Donna's tone and in the story that we had created, in the actual screenplay. Jenny definitely found new jokes that morning, which was very early -- we started shooting at 8 AM. It was a great marriage.

Did anything in your directing change in tone or work from the short to the feature?

Definitely. When I finally called action on the first day, I really knew the character very well. I had a clear vision of how I wanted the story to look because it had been so many years of getting to know them and working really hard on them. I had a confidence I wouldn't have had if I made my first feature two weeks after we finished the short. I needed time to mature the story, and also to mature myself -- to find confidence and steer the film set, to become the captain.

It's really hard for people to understand how you can make a funny movie about abortion when everything about abortion is always so intense.

I don't know if it's a funny movie about abortion. I think it's a funny movie about a woman who is trying to navigate her late twenties and not doing a good job at it. When this character, who is naturally funny and naturally looks at life through a comedic lens, is faced with unplanned pregnancy and decides to get the abortion, she's always going to be herself, and she is funny.

We don't make abortion funny. We make a character funny and put her through tragic things, and we put her through silly things, and we put her through quiet moments too. Even a funny character gets their quiet moment.

Have you dealt with some political stuff on the other side of this issue -- people against having the freedom to choose?

Not yet. I'm excited for a conversation on both sides. It's being written about, and that's really, really cool and all we can hope for.

For you as a first-time feature director, what was the biggest challenge?

Finding my own voice on set, and how I wanted to interact with the cast and crew. Trying to manage all these tasks at once and be open to everyone on set. Balancing out what my own style was.

It's not that I created something new. I went to film school and made two shorts a year because I was a nerd. I already had my own voice and style, but you don't get to flex it that often because making movies takes a really long time and you can't practice in the mirror.

It was just remembering, going back to how I felt on a set in film school and how I'm going to deal with it with thirty people instead of four. But it'll always be the same.

I read you got a deal to write and direct your second film even before your first film came out. Women in general struggle with the sophomore effort. Talk a little bit about this next project that you're going to be working on.

I don't want to overshare yet because I don't want to spoil. I think that was one of the great things about Obvious Child, that we didn't overshare until it came out, and now it's going everywhere and I'm so nervous!

Elisabeth Holm and I are going to write it together. It's about divorce and takes place in New York City. We're writing a role for Jenny.

And you're actually getting paid to do this.

Yes. I was able to quit my day job. I worked at the Directors Guild of America for seven years. They are a wonderful and supportive team. Co-workers are amazing, bosses are amazing, but Obvious Child was written on nights and weekends. Now I get to write like a human.

That's amazing. Congratulations.

Thank you.

In your interview at Sundance with us, you talked about being influenced by Nicole Holofcener, and Walking and Talking in particular. You're not the first woman director to say that. Can you talk a little bit about what is it about that film influenced you?

It just came out at the right time for me. It had a combination of these actors -- I was a lot younger than the people in the movie -- but they felt so authentic, and I had never seen any of them before. Catherine Keener and Anne Heche seemed like best friends.

I loved the little moment when she's in her wedding dress and she's like, "Are you farting?" I think Catherine Keener goes, "I thought so." It was just this moment between two best friends that felt so real. They knew each other's fart face! They knew everything about each other and fought like real friends fight, and they get back together like real friends get back together.

 I loved the romance between Keener and Liev Schreiber, but it wasn't the driving force of the movie. The real romance is between two women, two friends. I loved the music, seeing the West Village in the summertime and the way it was shot, the video store -- everything was so funny and rang true. I was so excited by the movie. I bought the soundtrack. That's how I found out about Billy Bragg.

Maybe Jenny is going to be your Catherine Keener.

Exactly. I would be very lucky to have that.

This movie is opening small, but has real potential to break out. Talk about your hopes and dreams for this film.

I just want people to walk away from watching it and to have it stay with them. I'm excited for a theatrical release. Watching a comedy in a room with other people is important, and the best way to watch it, but you know, it's a small, independent film. If it gets on Video on Demand and iTunes and all that, we'll have people who wouldn't necessarily see this movie but are fans of Jenny Slate or Jake Lacy from The Office because they think he's cute or a relatable male character, and if they get to see it and something rings true to them, then I am excited for that.

What advice would you have for other women directors interested in getting into the field or making their first film?

Tell stories that you want to watch, that you want to see. Be authentic.

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