Razor-sharp writing, taut direction, and a stellar central performance by Jenny Slate anchor Gillian Robespierre’s debut directorial feature “Obvious Child.” With its treatment of abortion dominating conversation and even the film’s promotional material, Robespierre notes she wanted to buck convention with her narrative aims, though she recognizes why the safer romantic comedy choices exist. “I watched those kind of films recently, and they’re still entertaining. We just wanted to tell the other side,” she says about the film, which follows New York stand-up comic Donna (Slate) as she discovers she’s pregnant after a drunken one-night-stand.
“We wanted to tell the story through the lens of an actual woman who is strong and funny and empowered and complex — just normal,” she explains when we sat down with both her and Slate separately in Los Angeles. “Ultimately we didn’t make a movie about legislation, we just made a movie about emotions and going through a slew of them, whether it’s being dumped or being afraid to talk to your overbearing mom. That’s where people could connect emotionally.”
Robespierre continues, “[The film] is also just a rebuttal to our culture. Everyone has a right to tell an interesting story, but it was more like, ‘What is wrong with our culture that keeps on silencing this voice where 1 in 3 women will have had an abortion in their lifetime and yet the stigma surrounding it is full of shame and judgment and fear and anxiety?’ ”
Based on a successful 2009 short of the same name written by Robespierre, Karen Maine, and Anna Bean, “Obvious Child” used its time wisely in considering that question on its the trip toward feature-length (our Sundance review here). Robespierre found valuable input and crew from a number of places: Film Fatales, a group of NYC female filmmakers that Robespierre calls “a really safe, funny, and fucking awesome place to go”; the San Francisco Film Society, who granted an essential day of workshopping, hikes, and table reads; and finally Kickstarter, where the team gathered an extra push to complete post-production.
Robespierre again partnered with Maine for the script alongside writer/producer Elisabeth Holm; together, they fleshed out the supporting cast, including Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, and Slate’s real-life best friend Gabe Liedman, a dynamic that is mirrored in the film.
Armed with Slate’s voice and mannerisms firmly in mind, the character of Donna hits a variety of shades and stages thanks to the smart script and Slate’s dramatic talents. Already proven a varied and deeply funny presence in everything from “Parks and Recreation” to her “Twin Peaks”-esque web series “Catherine” (“What a story would be like if everything was completely neutral”), Slate keeps the film’s balance of naturalism and broader moments in check. Despite both sharing surface similarities though, Slate considers Donna as a world away from herself as a person.
“I’m kind of glad that people think we’re one and the same, because it means I did a believable job,” Slate says. “But I’m older than Donna and it’s just important for me to have my shit together. I’m much more of a driven person. Donna’s not trying to be a movie actress. She’s just a comedian. Maybe she’ll get a book deal or have a podcast, but that’s what she wants. She’s satisfied living a rather small and contained life. She needs a kick in the ass and I don’t. I’m just different than that. I’m more aware of boundaries, too.”
“Boundaries” may seem a ill-fitting word if you’ve heard a word of Slate’s stand-up material, portions of which are faithfully transferred over to the film—the opening scene alone features Donna describing her panties at day’s end in vivid detail. However, she remains acutely aware of the line where performance blurs over into too-personal territory.
“On-stage I have no problem talking about being horny or my body, but I would never make the mistake of embarrassing my husband onstage,” she says, referring to an early scene in the film where Donna lays her emotional baggage out for all to see. “It would never, ever happen. I won’t do standup stoned; I’d also never get onstage totally wasted and fuck up. I might get onstage totally wasted and perform, but only if it’ll be okay. I’m really aware of those nuanced limits.”
Slate’s natural comedy routine was challenged anyway during filming, simply due to the schedule’s slot for her to perform at 6 or 7 in the morning, but she says, “You’d be surprised how quickly I can pop into it if there’s a microphone in front of me.” As for how much of the material was hers, Slate charts “around three jokes, and the rest were creations of Gillian’s and improvisations in the middle of the stand-up.”
Robespierre elaborated on the logistics of the stand-up scenes, the only instances where the director used two cameras on the shoot. “It was difficult to shoot the standup stuff. That was three days in this one location that smelled a little bit like human piss. I don’t know if that was good or bad, because the crew was like, ‘We have to go back there?’ But it was a bar that just looked so beautiful onscreen.”
She continues, “What we ultimately decided on the day was not to have Jenny memorize the script, because it would be more natural if she used that stage in the movie like a stage that she was really on. The whole crew was encouraged to laugh because we didn’t want to do canned laughter; we wanted that real Altman, authentic vibe. So it was really sort of this collaborative collage that occurred: I let her go onstage and weave together this poetry of the comedy act, but we would always go back to the script when it strayed too far. ‘Remember to talk to about your vaginal discharge. Okay we got that, now talk about your mom.’ “
Aside from the bulk of workshopped material, Robespierre credits editor Casey Brooks as a central reason why the comedy feels so natural and improvised. “Jenny definitely lent her sensibility and her confessional storytelling to the character, but Casey set the tone in the editing room that was there from his rough cut assembly. During those stand-up scenes we didn’t want to exhaust the performance and we wanted room to cut in the editing room. We wanted to have that flexibility, so Jenny got it up there and Casey got it later.”
Production lasted a mere 18 days over the winter of 2013, and Robespierre also found a key collaborator in DP Chris Teague, with whom she crafted “a more traditional look, more Woody Allen static rather than handheld.” As a result, the film feels incredibly grounded in its NYC location, with Robespierre taking advantage of the city in sparse but essential ways.
“I always get nervous that people grow claustrophobic while watching this movie, because it shows a very interior winter life,” Robespierre explains. “In the wintertime, at least with my New York experience where I’m more of a nesting homebody, you don’t leave your house, and when you do dip out you run to the train, or to a cab if you have money. But Donna’s life is very small – she goes to the same comedy club every night, or she’s at her parents’ house, or she hangs out in her house and occasionally steps outside into the cold. She’s always cold.”
Up next, Slate will appear on the new FX show “Married” opposite Judy Greer and Paul Reiser; meanwhile, Robespierre—now split from her former day job working at the East Coast DGA—is already prepping her follow-up film with Holm, described as a family drama about divorce. Robert Altman remains one of her main influences, because his work “feels realistic, authentic, chaotic and honest, and it’s always these very dramatic serious things happening but with a comedic side.” However similar the approach though, Robespierre is looking forward to perhaps a few more luxuries in future projects.
“I think a low-budget is limiting and scary and constricting, but also I really like rules and parameters,” she says. “The fact that we couldn’t go too big [on ‘Obvious Child’] meant that the story had to be big and the emotion had to be big. It forced us to go other places. Obviously I would love a little more money on the next one though, because it’s always nice to have a few more gadgets. An actual Steadicam would be nice.”
“Obvious Child” is playing in select theatres now from A24, and expands wide on Friday, June 27th. Check the film’s official site for more info.